Obituary: Former police chief who had dealings with Guildford Four

Peter Michael Imbert, Lord Imbert – born April 27th, 1933; died November 13th, 2017

Peter Imbert, Lord Imbert: In 1989 when the Guildford Four were finally cleared, attention turned to his role in interviewing them

Peter Imbert, Lord Imbert: In 1989 when the Guildford Four were finally cleared, attention turned to his role in interviewing them

 

When Peter Imbert, Lord Imbert, who has died aged 84, was appointed commissioner of the Metropolitan police in 1987, he was widely seen as a “copper’s copper”. Affable, down-to-earth, less of a theorist than his predecessor, Sir Kenneth Newman, and with a reputation for being straightforward with his officers, he was regarded as the right man to take charge at a time when London’s police force seemed unsure of its role and its relationship with the public.

Imbert rose through the ranks to become deputy operational chief in the anti-terrorist squad and achieved what was then the highest profile of his career as the chief negotiator during the Balcombe Street siege of four IRA men holed up with two hostages in a flat in central London in 1975. That the six-day siege ended peacefully was regarded as a major personal achievement, but his earlier dealings with the Guildford Four, the three men and a woman wrongly convicted of the IRA’s 1974 Guildford and Woolwich pub bombings, were more controversial.

Believed ‘confessions’

In 1989 when the Guildford Four were finally cleared, attention turned to his role in interviewing them. He had been part of the team of detectives that interrogated the four, who went on to serve 15 years in jail despite the fact that the Balcombe Street siege IRA unit had confessed to the bombing shortly after the four were jailed. Imbert claimed that he had believed the “confessions” made by the four, who had been subjected to violence and threats.

He later gave evidence in defence of three officers charged with and acquitted of perversion of the course of justice in connection with the case. He told the court that his interview notes with Patrick Armstrong , one of the four, were “as accurate as one could humanly make it”, and insisted that there was no use or threat of violence.

The IRA had him in its sights, and when he was due to speak at the Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism conference at the Royal Overseas League in London in 1990, a bomb was found under the speaker’s lectern. He joked at the time that if he had known they were aiming to blow him up he would have worn an old suit. In fact, he nearly died shortly afterwards when he suffered a near-fatal heart attack; ill-health led to his departure from the commissioner post in 1993.

Imbert was the fifth of seven children of William, a Kent farmer, and his wife Frances (nee Hodge). He left Harvey grammar school in Folkestone for national service in the RAF, and then joined the police in 1953. On duty at Bow Street in London, he made his first arrest to be greeted by the offender with the immortal words: “It’s a fair cop, guv.”

Anti-terrorism role

Imbert moved from his anti-terrorism role with the the Met to become chief constable of Thames Valley Police, taking the then revolutionary step in 1982 of allowing television cameras to film his team at work. Roger Graef’s subsequent series, Police, on the BBC, became a classic of the genre, giving a warts-and-all view of the service. In particular its screening of a rape inquiry, in which the victim was subjected to very insensitive questioning, led to changes in the way in which such investigations were conducted. Imbert did not regret his decision to let the cameras in, and always pointed to the beneficial effect it had on rape inquiries in general.

He moved back to Scotland Yard as deputy to Newman and took over the top job in 1987. His proclaimed aim was to change the police from a “force” to a “service” and to make it more responsive to the public and open to the media. He had taken over when confidence in the police was not at its highest: there had been allegations of corruption, a whiff of masonry, complaints over riot control and concern about poor relationships with ethnic minority communities. Shortly after he arrived, he commissioned a £150,000 report from the corporate consultants Wolff Olins that looked at ways in which the normally defensive service could acknowledge its errors and engage more with the public.

The report portrayed an organisation in need of a new direction and Imbert responded with the introduction of the “Plus programme”, which set out to make the force “compassionate, courteous and patient, acting without fear or favour or prejudice to the rights of others.” The Metropolitan police force changed its name to the Metropolitan police service.

Unimpressed

The Plus programme became Imbert’s credo, and when some officers professed themselves unimpressed by it, he suggested the sceptics should find themselves a job elsewhere. He made no secret of the fact that he had a black son-in-law and would not tolerate racism among his officers and he raised violence against women as an issue to be taken seriously, rather than something to be treated as “a spot of domestic”.

He also tackled the freemasons in the Met head on. Never a mason himself, he made it clear that it would be best if senior officers relinquished their membership so that the public need have no suspicions on that score. Some duly resigned from the order, although others ignored his suggestion.

As London’s top police officer he was approachable and socially conscious in a way that some of his predecessors were not, and in his dealings with the media he made himself accessible. As a result he often felt slightly aggrieved when criticism of his officers continued. He would invite journalists into his room in Scotland Yard, with its array of police hats from around the world, and chat about his hopes for the force, talking more freely than either Newman or Newman’s predecessor, Sir David McNee.

After leaving the police in 1993 , Imbert formed a security consultancy, Capital Eye, in 1997 and served as its chairman. Having been knighted in 1988, he was made a life peer in 1999 and sat in the House of Lords as a crossbencher. He liked to play “bad bridge”, and was also a golfer, “because I like the sort of people who play”.

He had met his wife, Iris (nee Dove), whom he married in 1956, when she was a nurse at Great Ormond Street hospital in London and he was a local beat officer. She and their son, Simon, and two daughters, Elaine and Sally, survive him.

– Guardian Service