Charles Walker leads debate on deaths of black people in custody

Speaking in the House of Commons

Supported by Black Mental Health UK, Charles Walker leads an adjournment debate on the disproportionate number of deaths of black people whilst in custody. He raises his concerns about a growing sense of grievance in the black community and calls on the “establishment” to understand the sense of hurt and face-up to the issue. He also calls for an independent investigation into any death in a mental health setting, as opposed to a police custody environment.

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Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): On 27 June, I was invited by Matilda MacAttram, of Black Mental Health UK, to attend a conference in Wolverhampton. I did not know what to expect, but this was a woman I liked and trusted immensely, so I travelled up to Wolverhampton for a conference on deaths in custody. It was an extraordinary, moving and profound occasion. The conference comprised men and women, most of whom had lost sons, grandsons and nephews in custody, either in a mental health or a police setting. They bore their grief with great dignity and fortitude, but there was huge upset and anger in the room at how they had been treated by the establishment, by the system. I shall come to that in a moment.

Many relatives of the deceased bore witness to their treatment at the hands of the state and of authorities that we should trust. It was gruelling to hear. I am afraid that much of the commentary focused on the treatment meted out by certain police officers and the Independent Police Complaints Commission. I do not want this to be an attack on the police, so I want to say this now: there were many senior police officers at the conference, and the pain was etched on their faces as they listened to the experiences that families had been put through by some of their colleagues in the police force. It was a terribly moving day, but as I said, there were some very good police officers there. The police must be part of the solution, so we need to take them with us.

African-Caribbeans account for about 3% of the population of this country, but approximately 20% of deaths in custody. This has been a running sore and an open wound for 30 years, and it is incumbent on us, the political class, to address it, because if we do not, whatever side of the House we are on, we have no hope of engaging with this community constructively. They have lost trust in us. When I was preparing for this debate, I talked to several journalists, and one of them said, “But Mr Walker, isn’t it just about racism? Isn’t this an issue of racism?”, and I said, “Well, racism is an ugly, ugly word. It is a word I do not want to ascribe to people I do not know or institutions I am not experienced of”. But let me say this: for the past 30 years, since I became an adult, I have been aware of grieving black families on the steps of courts or inquests flashing across my television screen. I have seen the faces of those families and the young men they are mourning flash across my television screen, and up until this point I have chosen to do nothing. Now I am standing up and trying to do something. I may want to ask others this question, but I have to answer it: why, for 25 or 30 years, did I do nothing? Until I answer that question satisfactorily, I will not cast aspersions on others.

Another person said, “But Charles, you are talking about deaths in custody. You are a white male, why are you talking specifically about black people?” Well, I feel there is something very egregious about the treatment of black people in custody and detained environments. Any death in custody is regrettable, sad and tragic, but I am speaking as a parent because I think about what would happen if it were my son or—hopefully—when I am a grandfather, my grandson. It would be too much to bear.

I have been helped to prepare for tonight by some fabulous people—I have mentioned Matilda MacAttram, and Lord Victor Adebowale has done great work with the police on restraint and how we look after people in a mental health crisis in a detained environment. I also pay tribute to Deborah Coles of Inquest who has been extraordinarily generous in the time she has given me when preparing for this debate. I know that I will not do this subject justice this evening, but at least I can start to do my bit.

We must address the whole system of inquests. In June I met families in Wolverhampton who had waited six, seven or eight years for an inquest into the death of their child, their brother. That is wholly unacceptable. I know the Government are committed to holding inquests in good time, but many families are still waiting for two or three years. We must ensure that inquests happen in good time, but an inquest is only as good as the information presented to it, so we must ensure that inquests deal with good information.

We must address the fact that police officers are not required to answer questions put to them by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. That is simply ridiculous; I am aware that many senior police officers in the Association of Chief Police Officers believe it is a nonsense and needs to be addressed. We must also have equality of arms. When there is a death in detention, the various parties of the state have legal representation—the mental health trust, the police, the chief constable may have legal representation, all funded by the taxpayer. The family of the deceased, however, will too often have their finances gone through with a fine toothcomb—not just the parents, but grandparents, aunts, uncles and extended family—to see whether they should pay for some or all of their legal costs. That is a disgraceful way to treat a mourning family, and if we do nothing else, it is incumbent on this House to end that inequality in arms.

When someone dies in a mental health setting, as opposed to a police custody environment, we must ensure an independent investigation that carries the confidence of the family of the deceased and the wider community. Let us be in no doubt about the sense of anger and frustration at the current state of play. I do not know how we do this in law, but we must also end the culture of briefings. When someone dies in custody, the organisation that had responsibility for that individual’s care and safety can go into a sort of institutional meltdown and lockdown. It goes into a default position of getting its side of the story across, and the names and reputations of good young men are trashed in such a way that that becomes the accepted narrative—“Because the inquest is so far away, if we go on and paint a wholly false picture of this young man, that will become the accepted story.”

Can one imagine how it affects a grieving family—the weaker party in all this— to see the reputation of their son, grandson or nephew destroyed, and they have no right of reply? I do not know how we do that in law, but off-the-record, unofficial briefings should be regarded as acts of gross misconduct, and those that participate in and promote them should lose their jobs.

An issue of great importance to Black Mental Health UK is the use of face-down restraint, which is a very aggressive way of controlling someone who is distressed.

Too often it can cause severe physical damage and can kill. We in this House should be in no doubt about the importance of this issue to those in the African-Caribbean community. They feel that it is used disproportionately on their young men, and we need to address that concern in a serious way.

I want to go back to the need for inquests. I am dealing with one family whose son called the police—there was a domestic dispute and he felt that he and his child were being threatened—and ended up being arrested. He was taken to a detained mental health environment. His sister came to see him. He said, “Please get me out of here. If you don’t, they will kill me.” He was dead the next day. It took the family a year and a half to recover the body of their son and brother. When they did recover his body, it was beaten, bruised and covered in Taser marks. That is a tragedy. I can understand why that upsets people so much. It upsets me today and I know that it upsets my colleagues who are here for the debate.

I do not pretend to understand the African-Caribbean community, but from the people who came to see me there is a total loss of trust in the establishment. There is a feeling that for the past 30 years we have allowed the causes of these deaths to go unaddressed. Somehow, we have turned away. The establishment has turned its back; it has chosen to walk on the other side of the road. If we are to bring the community closer to us we need to understand the sense of hurt we in this place, and the institutions of the state, have caused. The healing process needs to start at the very top. We need the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to stand up and say, “I want to hear your stories. I want to listen. I am so sorry that we allowed this to happen for so long. Please tell us your experiences and let us work together to ensure that we do not allow these injustices to continue.”

When I left the conference in Wolverhampton on 27 June I had one overriding emotion as I sat on the train: I felt ashamed that the country I love so much, and which has given me so much, could let a group of good people down so badly. It is quite something to have that emotion at the age of 45. I always knew that we do not live in a perfect place, but I always thought that it was a good place and that, if challenged, this country did the right thing. We have not done the right thing by the African-Caribbean community. All is not lost: we have the opportunity to do the right thing. I know I have not done this subject justice, but I hope that the Government hear the growing number of voices from all communities and lead the nation to a better place.

Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the way in which he has made his remarks on this very important issue. Does he agree that one of the great sores in this debate is not just that no police officers have been prosecuted for the many deaths—hundreds—that have taken place in the past 20 years or so, but that the police continue effectively to investigate themselves because so many IPCC staff are police officers? That issue continues to be raised consistently in relation to deaths in police custody.

Mr Walker: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am aware that since 1991, although there have been nine verdicts of unlawful death passed down by inquest courts, there has not been a single successful prosecution. When I was at the conference at Wolverhampton and heard Dame Anne Owers of the Independent Police Complaints Commission present, I felt that perhaps the organisation was not fit for purpose. I had this terrible vision that this was the Care Quality Commission in front of me—we know that it is trying to address the failings of the past—but I felt that the IPCC was not in a good place. Now it is under new leadership, but I fear that it has so much ground to make up that it will never recover the credibility required to make it the force it should be.

With that, I shall conclude. I know that the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) is going to say a few words.

11.25 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) has hit on one very important issue—the pain that this matter causes among communities. Deaths in custody have been an issue in the east end of London for the 25-plus years I have been a Member of Parliament. A number of names come to mind—Trevor Monerville and Shiji Lapite, for example. A number of aspects of the issue of deaths in custody cause pain in communities, one of which is the disproportionate number of such deaths in the black and the Irish communities. Another is the briefing that has always gone on in the wake of a death in custody—that the dead person had drugs in their system, for example. Then, months later, the facts emerge and we find that the briefing was completely misleading.

There is no sadder thing—I have had to do it more times than I care to remember—than sitting with a woman who said goodbye to her son in the morning and later that night had a call from the police to say that he had died in their care. The hon. Member for Broxbourne is quite right that this is not an issue for any one community; it is an issue for the political class as a whole, which has not been prepared to listen to communities and families that remain in great pain—very often for years after these deaths happen.

11.26 pm

The Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims (Damian Green): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and, indeed, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) for their powerful speeches and remarks. They are powerful because every death in police custody—irrespective of race, ethnicity or nationality—is a tragedy that this Government take very seriously. Every effort should be made by the police to ensure that those they come into contact with are treated proportionately, humanely and lawfully, and that their personal well-being is of paramount importance when they are detained against their will in whatever custody setting.

This debate has focused particularly on the treatment of black people in police custody, and I would like to go through a number of important points that my hon. Friend made, starting with his remark that the number of black people of Afro-Caribbean origin dying in police custody is disproportionately high, when the overall population is taken into account. In that regard, we need to step back. Looking at custody populations as a whole, we see that there is an over-representation of black people. The reasons for this are complex and at this stage we do not fully understood them. Indeed, there appears to be an over-representation of black people across the whole of the criminal justice system. The Ministry of Justice is conducting work to look more closely at the reasons for this, identifying where there is real disproportionality in the system and seeking to develop an appropriate response to it. That is where the disproportionality lies; it is not necessarily, as in the most tragic cases, only the deaths of black people in police custody that are relevant.

There is no statistically significant difference among those who die in custody based on membership of any particular racial or ethnic group. The IPCC statistics for 2012-13 show that there were 15 deaths in or following police custody, of which 14 were white and one was mixed race. Looking further back at the 2011-12 period, there were also 15 deaths, of which one was a black person and one of mixed race. The 2011 IPCC report on long-term deaths in police custody concluded that the ethnic breakdown of deaths in custody appeared to be broadly in line with the make-up of detainees more generally. I entirely accept that there is disproportionality in the criminal justice system, but it does not occur only in the context of deaths in custody.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne rightly raised the issue of mental health and policing. I am aware that black people are one and a half times more likely to be detained under section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983. In response to the fact that such a high proportion of people with mental health problems—and of all or any racial origins—are being dealt with by the police, we have introduced a series of measures to improve the way in which they are handled.

People with mental health problems deserve care, support and treatment, particularly if they have not committed a criminal act. They have a right to expect to be treated by the health service rather than finding themselves in the hands of the police, who will always go to help in an emergency, but who are clearly not trained as mental health professionals. The Home Office has been conferring closely with the Department of Health, and we will shortly publish a concordat agreed by nearly 30 national organisations, agencies and Departments. It will provide national leadership by setting out the standard of response that people suffering mental health crises and requiring urgent care should expect, and key principles on the basis of which local health and criminal justice partners should be organised. It will leave not just the health service but the criminal justice agencies in no doubt about what is expected of them. It is precisely because a disproportionate number of black people are finding themselves sectioned under mental health legislation that the coming improvements in mental health provision will have a particular impact on those people.

One of the standard—and perfectly correct—complaints is that too often the police are relied on to transport people who would be better transported by ambulance. The Association of Ambulance Chief Executives is drawing up a national protocol on the transport of people suffering mental health crises—section 136 detainees —which I hope and expect will act as a catalyst for wider change and improvements.

The underlying point made by my hon. Friend was that any death in custody is one too many. Of course there needs to be continuous scrutiny, and work of that nature is now overseen by the Ministerial Council on Deaths in Custody. The council was established in 2009, and was initially intended to exist for three years. However, we have demonstrated our commitment to this essential work by agreeing to fund it for a further three years.

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): My right hon. Friend has heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) and from the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) about a long-term trend. He talks of changes happening, but, given that the trend has been continuing for a long time, can he give us an assurance that change will indeed come? Change is often promised, but it rarely comes into effect. I think that tonight’s debate is about change actually occurring, rather than being promised.

Damian Green: My hon. Friend has made a valid point. I hope to explain to him in a moment about the changes that are happening and those that have already happened, but let me first say a little more about the Ministerial Council on Deaths in Custody, because it is an extremely important institution. As well as a practitioner and stakeholder group, it has an independent advisory panel on deaths in custody. The panel has just created a two-year research project for the University of Greenwich, which will deal systematically with a number of the current problems. The university will conduct a review of the role of mental illness and deaths in all state custody, and an evaluation of the efficacy of information sharing between youth offending teams and the secure estate in relation to the assessment and management of the risk of self-harm and suicide among children and young people. Tonight’s debate, and other conversations in which I have taken part, suggest to me that I should consider whether the ethnicity of individuals who lose their lives in custody should also be included in that research project.

Let me move on to the changes and the specifics. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne had some harsh words to say about the IPCC, which must be notified of any death that occurs in police custody. Following the investigation into the death of Sean Rigg and the findings of the Home Affairs Committee inquiry into the IPCC, it is carrying out a review into how deaths in, or following, police custody are investigated. A progress report was published in September, and the final report is due to be published next year.

Changes are happening. The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill includes new powers for the IPCC, which it has requested to strengthen its remit and functions. I agree with my hon. Friend that it has not been a perfect institution in the past. It has had failings, so we have strengthened its functions and we have increased its funding. The functions include powers to enable the IPCC to recommend and direct that a police force instigates unsatisfactory performance procedures in cases that involve death or serious injury. It will have extra resources from the police, too.

My hon. Friend mentioned the time it has taken for the deceased to be returned to their families as a result of inquests. Under the Coroners (Investigations) Regulations 2013, which came into force in July as part of a package of reforms, coroners must release the body of the deceased for burial or cremation as soon as possible. If the coroner cannot release the body within 28 days, he or she must notify the known next of kin or personal representative of the reasons for the delay. When there is a criminal investigation into the death, there may be more than one post-mortem examination, but the coroner will make every effort for the body to be released at the earliest opportunity.

I should also draw the House’s attention to the recent appointment of His Honour Judge Peter Thornton QC as the first chief coroner of England and Wales, who is playing a key part in setting new national standards in the coroner system. I hope that will have a direct effect on the important questions we are debating tonight.

My hon. Friend talked about the requirement for police officers to answer questions posed to them by the IPCC. In December last year the Government brought forward emergency legislation to ensure police officers were required to attend interviews when requested by the IPCC. If we went further, as my hon. Friend suggested, and compelled police officers to answer questions in criminal investigations, that would put them in a worse position than members of the public, who have to attend but are not required to answer questions. It would seem perverse to have fewer rights for police officers than for other members of the public.

My hon. Friend also talked about the end of face-down restraint. In health settings, this is obviously a matter for the Department of Health. I understand it plans to end its use in health settings, which I am sure will be extremely welcome to my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington talked about the practice of off-the-record briefings, which can often stain the reputation of someone in a way that persists even when it is unjustified. The Leveson inquiry reset and clarified the boundaries of the relationship between the police and the media and covered recommendations relating precisely to off-the-record briefings. The Government have accepted all the recommendations relating to the police and, together with partners, are continuing to implement them.

My hon. Friend also talked about equality of representation. I would simply say that inquests are not trials. Unlike other proceedings for which legal aid might be available, there are no parties in inquests, only interested persons, and witnesses are not expected to present legal arguments. Legal advice and assistance before the inquest hearing via the legal help scheme is available to interested persons. Legal help can be used, for example, to assist in the preparation of a list of written questions that they wish the coroner to explore with other witnesses.

My hon. Friend also talked about the independent investigation of deaths in NHS mental health settings, as opposed to police settings. NHS England is working to make the investigation of deaths in hospital settings more independent. The work will conclude shortly, and guidance to NHS commissioners will be published early in the new year. I hope that he can therefore see that, across the board in this sensitive and vital area, there is a significant amount of change.

I want to conclude by reassuring the House that the Government are working to ensure that people are treated proportionately and humanely when in police custody. The number of people losing their lives in police custody has fallen. In 1998-99, there were 49 deaths; last year there were 15, and there were the same number this year. However, there is still a lot of work to be done. I can absolutely assure the House that, through the Ministerial Council on Deaths in Custody, and through working with other Government Departments, campaign groups and, indeed, the families of the deceased, I will make sure that this issue remains high on the Government’s list of priorities.

Question put and agreed to.

11.40 pm

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