Operation Ore (Staffordshire)Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do not adjourn.- (Angela Watkinson.)
10.15 pmRobert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): May I begin my thanking Mr Speaker for granting this debate? Those watching and listening will no doubt wonder why I want to raise something that happened such a long time ago. The simple answer is that my constituents have had to wait such a long time for an apology, and indeed are still awaiting an apology from Staffordshire police. I hope that following the debate the current chief constable, who is an honourable man, will move to ensure that that wrong is corrected without further delay.
I want to say something about Operation Ore in general. All aspects of child pornography are horrific, and I pay tribute to all agencies that act to stamp out that appalling crime. The victims of those crimes need so much more than just sympathy. However, Operation Ore was not handled well: thousands of people were falsely accused, leading to 100,000 children being wrongly removed from their homes, people's reputations wrongly being destroyed and, tragically, a number of people committing suicide. It is with that in mind that I turn to the circumstances of a constituent who, quite understandably, wishes to remain anonymous. Staffordshire police are fully aware of the case and know to whom I refer.
I wish to take the opportunity presented by the debate to raise the case of that constituent, who in December 2002 was arrested by Staffordshire police as part of Operation Ore, the British part of the global operation against internet child pornography. When I conclude my remarks, I will seek a number of reassurances from the Minister, whom I am grateful to see here this evening to respond to the debate.
Almost four years before the circumstances of December 2002, in January 1999, my constituent reported that his Barclaycard had been stolen. He reported it to a police station in Stoke-on-Trent, which issued him with a crime number, and to Barclaycard, from which he received a refund of £179.76 for some unlawful transactions made in the period between the theft of the card and his reporting it at the police station.
However, on 12 December 2002, eight officers arrived at my constituent's home early in the morning amid a high police presence. Vans were parked for most of the day outside his home, which he shared with his parents, understandably arousing a great deal of interest in the neighbourhood. During the day a considerable amount of property, including computer equipment, was removed from the home. He was arrested on the grounds that the Barclaycard registered to him had been used in 1999 to access a website containing child pornography. I reiterate that it was in January 1999 that he had reported the theft to the police.
My constituent suffers from ulserative colitis, for which he had been taking prescribed medicine, which he informed the police doctor about early in his detention. His medication was brought to the police station promptly but was withheld from him until he was released at 7 o'clock that evening. As a result of the stress of his arrest and the withholding of his medication, his medical
On 13 December 2002, the following day, my constituent was able to provide Staffordshire police with evidence that he had, indeed, reported the theft of his credit card in January 1999, and of the resulting refund from Barclaycard. As a result, no charges have ever been brought against him, and on 18 December 2002 all the property that had been seized on 12 December was returned. The police had checked the credit card database, but incredibly only back to 2002; the incident to which it related took place in 1999.
After much deliberation, during which the family tried to rebuild their standing in the community and to move on from the awful experience, my constituent and his parents decided in February 2003 to make formal complaints to Staffordshire police for wrongful arrest. These were acknowledged in writing on 25 February 2003 by the then deputy chief constable, David Swift, who informed both parties that their complaints had been passed to the force's professional standards unit, where it would be handled by a Mr Hulse. On 6 March 2003, DCC Swift wrote again to my constituent's parents, asking them to contact an Inspector Humphries within 14 days, which they did.
My constituent and his parents met the inspector in March 2003 and were told that, as my constituent had been the person arrested, any complaint should come from him. Therefore, the parents withdrew their complaint. My constituent was also persuaded not to pursue a formal complaint-he was told that this would be interpreted as a personal attack on the police officers-but to go down the route of an informal complaint.
Later that month, my constituent's parents engaged a firm of local solicitors, and, during a meeting with Mr Hulse, he informed my constituent that, owing to a change in the police computer system, only records dating back to 2002 had been checked prior to his arrest, therefore the 1999 report of the theft of his credit card had not shown up. My constituents were advised by their solicitor that it would thus be difficult to proceed further with any complaint, as negligence would need to be proved, and that that would be an expensive undertaking for which legal aid would not be available.
In June 2003, my constituent's parents wrote to the Metropolitan police, the lead force on Operation Ore, but their letter was merely forwarded to Staffordshire police, who informed them in July 2003 that the matter was now being dealt with by a detective inspector from the local CID.
In September 2003, my constituents engaged new solicitors, and a formal complaint for wrongful arrest was made on 1 October 2003, which Staffordshire police once again referred to the PSU in a letter dated 10 October. On 17 October, my constituent received a further letter informing him that Inspector Humphries was again handling their complaint.
There exists a withdrawal of complaint form, dated 24 October 2003, which apparently has been signed by my constituent. My constituent remains adamant to this day, however, that at no time did he agree to withdraw his complaint, sign any such document or
In February 2004, my constituents' solicitors informed Staffordshire police of their intention to seek damages for wrongful arrest and imprisonment, and that was acknowledged by Staffordshire police on 24 February 2004 and by the force's insurers on 5 March 2004. In June 2004, my constituent was asked to provide some proof of his inability to work, and he was able to provide some evidence.
On 25 October 2004, however, Staffordshire police's legal adviser, a Mr Griffiths, wrote to my constituents rejecting their claim, stating that in his opinion the arrest of my constituent had been lawful for the following reasons. First, my constituent did not inform the arresting officer of the 1999 theft of his credit card until part way through his first interview, not at the time of his arrest. Given the circumstances, it took some time for my constituent to be made aware of what he had been arrested for and all the implications of it. Secondly, the use of a credit card raised a prima facie case of suspicion, and the report of the theft of the card was not in itself proof of theft. Thirdly, officers had reasonable cause to suspect that my constituent was, according to Mr Griffiths's letter,
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have the inclination to withdraw his complaint. Staffordshire police appear to have no record of the original complaint, just the withdrawal of it, and in addition there are factual errors on the withdrawal form. In an effort to try to resolve that particular aspect of the case, I sought to view the original withdrawal form, and was told in no uncertain terms by the solicitors for Staffordshire police, "Who are you to be even considering reviewing such a document?" I am sure that the Minister will agree that so far the whole issue is of great concern.15 Mar 2011 : Column 275
condition worsened, necessitating a medical referral to a consultant in order to rebalance the medication. It is only in recent years that his health has improved following the stress of that incident.
"merely trying to pass the blame onto others."
Unfortunately, in January 2005, my constituents' solicitors advised that they could see no reasonable chance of progressing the complaint further, and closed their file. In August 2005, my constituent made another formal complaint, this time on the ground of failure to provide prescribed medication. On 29 September 2005, Mr Griffiths wrote to my constituent, advising him that if he wanted to pursue the complaints, he should do so through legal representatives. In October 2005, my constituent complained further, to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which informed my constituent by letter on 18 October that the IPCC had arranged for my constituent to be contacted by Staffordshire police to discuss the issue. According to my constituent, however, no such contact was ever made.
The years were now rolling on, and in December 2005, my constituent received a letter from the then Deputy Chief Constable Lee of Staffordshire police upholding the initial rejection of my constituent's complaint, at which time my constituent asked the IPCC to undertake
In August 2006, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), in his then role as Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office, advised me that the Home Office could not become involved in the specifics of the case as it was an operational matter for Staffordshire police, and that he had forwarded my representations to Staffordshire police. He also suggested that any complaints about the IPCC be initially taken up with the IPCC caseworker. My constituent made a further complaint to the IPCC about its refusal to take up the complaint, but that was subsequently rejected. During 2007, again following further representations from me, Staffordshire police refused to reconsider my constituent's early complaints. I was also, somewhat disturbingly, advised by the IPCC that it had no record of my constituent's case file.
Having spent some time setting out the background to the case and the reasons behind the continuing anger and unhappiness of my constituent and his parents at the system of making a complaint against the police, I would like to ask the Minister to give me some reassurance on five specific points. First, will he use his good offices to persuade Staffordshire police to apologise, at long last, to my constituent and his parents, if for no other reason than for withholding the prescribed medication, for which I can see no justification?
Secondly, will the Minister assure me that, in future, all records-not just those from 2002 onwards-will be checked prior to any arrest, so that no other innocent person and their family has to suffer the trauma and indignity experienced by my constituent and his parents? Thirdly, will the Minister clarify whether he believes it correct that any complaint made before the creation of the IPCC cannot be pursued by it, and will he tell me what, if any, recourse is open to any other complainants in a similar situation?
Fourthly, is the Minister happy that, when a complaint is made either against an officer or, as in this instance, against a police force in general, it is handled in a way that is liable to produce an outcome that leaves the complainant feeling less than reassured? Fifthly, will he send the message today to all police forces that, when a mistake is found to have been made, a swift apology must be forthcoming? This is a dreadful case of sloppy practice leading to an injustice, yet, even now, all my constituent really wants is an apology.
Child pornography is an appalling crime, and those who are guilty rightly face public shame as well as the full force of the law. However, those who have committed no crime and who are wrongly accused also face public anger and horror. The police should therefore behave with the greatest level of professionalism. In this case, that professionalism was sadly lacking. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to my five points, and that, despite what the force's solicitors have said, Staffordshire police will make a full apology to my constituent and seek to right this wrong.
10.29 pmThe Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): Let me start by congratulating the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on securing this debate and on bringing this important matter to the attention of the House. I certainly understand his desire to highlight the specific case of his constituent, and he has clearly followed up with great care the various issues that have been raised with him. I hope he will recognise that it is difficult for me to respond specifically on an individual case of this nature. I also hope, however, that he will appreciate that this provides me with an opportunity to comment on Operation Ore and on a number of steps that the Government are taking to tackle the issue of illegal images on line and the wider work of child protection generally. I note the five points that he has highlighted, and I will seek to address some of them in the course of my comments.
It might be helpful if I give the House a brief overview of Operation Ore. As the hon. Gentleman has explained, this was, at the time, an investigation into the activities of individuals on a scale that we had not seen before. In September 1999, the United States Postal Inspection Service searched the premises of an American-based online trading company known as Landslide Inc, which was providing access for payment to adult pornography and child abuse images. Material was seized which included a database containing the list of subscribers.
In September 2001, Landslide Inc transaction information was received by the National Crime Squad, a precursor agency of CEOP-the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. The information was originally received within the National Criminal Intelligence Service, but following an initial assessment it was passed to the National Crime Squad. The NCS took responsibility for national co-ordination in dealing with the dissemination of the subscriber data. This included a co-ordinated approach to the categorisation and prioritisation of individual suspects based on their potential access to children. The transaction data consisted of information submitted by a customer in purchasing access to the websites, which included their name, address, credit card number, e-mail address and a customer-selected password. In April 2004, following the first incitement case, further forensic work revealed the capture of the subscriber IP address and the credit card verification logs.
In the majority of Operation Ore cases, police forces have used the data from Landslide Inc to commence investigations into the suspected possession of indecent images of a child.
There is a common misconception about these cases being linked under an overall programme of investigation. I want to make it clear that the decision whether to proceed in each individual case was a matter for the police force concerned, and that once the individual packages were released to the forces, it was the responsibility of individual chief constables to decide whether to undertake investigations. Following investigation, forces considered whether offences had been committed and warranted judicial proceedings. Each case was independently scrutinised by the local Crown Prosecution Service, and in those cases where suspects elected for trial, the evidence was obviously further tested by the courts. To the best of our knowledge, no cases were brought on the basis of credit card data alone.
We understand that about 2,700 individuals have been convicted of these offences. This figure includes more than 700 admitting their guilt in receiving a formal caution. In almost 2,300 cases, child abuse images were discovered. In 22% of all dissemination cases following an investigation, the police service took no further action. Importantly, more than 154 children were safeguarded.
As I have already indicated, it would not be appropriate for me to discuss individual cases in this debate, but I want to be clear that it is my understanding that the investigation process followed by the police in these cases was the same as for any other type of crime, and that following a thorough investigation, decisions were made on whether to proceed with a prosecution, or other action, taking all relevant factors into account.
I appreciate the points made by the hon. Gentleman and recognise the sensitivities for people who are arrested or accused of such crimes. An additional factor that the police have to consider in such cases is whether there is a direct and continuing threat to children from those who have been accused of a crime. It is a matter for the investigating officers, in conjunction with local children's services, what action they take having considered that question. The hon. Gentleman has highlighted his desire and his constituent's desire to receive an apology from Staffordshire police. That is a matter for Staffordshire police. The hon. Gentleman has put on the record the chronology of the events, the issues he has and his constituent's concerns. I am sure that those points will be heard by Staffordshire police as a consequence of this debate.
The police and CEOP have standard guidelines for dealing with these investigations, which include recommendations for handling interviews and arrests. Although it is right that we consider the effect of the accusation on the person who is accused, that needs to be balanced with the risk posed to children. A member of the public who is dissatisfied with the behaviour of individual officers or a force may complain to the relevant police force or to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The IPCC has a dual purpose to act as an overall guardian to the police complaints system, ensuring its effectiveness and efficiency, and also to take a role in individual cases. It is entirely independent of the police and the Government. The hon. Gentleman raised a specific point about the IPCC's ability to take on individual cases that predate its creation. I hope that it is satisfactory to him if I respond later with further details on that issue.
The broader issue of illegal images is sadly one that persists. I would like to take this opportunity to set out the approach that we will take to that problem. I believe
I recognise the support for the Internet Watch Foundation and the action taken by responsible internet service providers to prevent inadvertent access by the public to such images. That is an example of how industry and others can make a significant contribution to tackling this problem. I valued the opportunity this afternoon to attend the launch of the IWF's three-year strategy and the publication of its annual report on its work to take down such images, working closely with law enforcement and other agencies. The Government strongly support this model for tackling illegal images. We believe that it works and we would like to see other countries take action to achieve the same ends.
The work of the IWF and the industry, allied with that of the police and CEOP, has helped virtually to eradicate the content in question from servers hosted in the UK, although there is clearly still work to be done. We will continue to support the work of CEOP, which does so much to help to protect children. It has been a great success, and it has helped to safeguard a significant number of children and apprehend people who would seek to harm them.
I wish to reassure the House of two things. The first is the seriousness with which the Government take the protection of children. In that context, we will continue to support the work of the police and CEOP to protect children from the threats posed to them. Like the hon. Gentleman, I thank them and congratulate them on their work to ensure that children are safer. Secondly, we will ensure that should an operation on the scale of Operation Ore be required again, the UK has in place a robust structure to deal with it. We will ensure that cases are handled in accordance with the law.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue in general, and equally for raising the case of his individual constituent. He has made his points very clearly, and he has certainly followed the case through for his constituent. I am sure that hon. Members who are in the House this evening, and people outside, will have heard the points he has raised tonight and will take notice of them.
Question put and agreed to .
10.40 pmHouse adjourned.
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that we all have a responsibility to help to make the internet a safer place for the public. I support the self-regulatory model developed in the UK by the internet industry and law enforcement to provide a structure for the reporting of such images, the analysis of them, and action to track down those responsible or prevent access to them.15 Mar 2011 : Column 277
an investigation into why no pre-2002 records search had taken place, as such a search would have shown that the credit card had been reported stolen in January 1999. Unfortunately, the IPCC wrote back to say that, as the original complaint predated the IPCC's formation and fell under the auspices of the Police Complaints Authority, it was unable, under law, to accept the complaint.