Independent Police Complaints Commission

– in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 9th January 2008.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Blizzard.]

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 8:47 pm, 9th January 2008

In this Adjournment debate, I want to explore how complaints against the police are handled. I do not expect the Minister responding to the debate to be able to reply in detail to the matters that I am about to raise, but although I never intended to develop expertise in the process involved in complaints against the police, I should be grateful if we continued the dialogue at a later stage.

No one likes to be the subject of a complaint. The process can be tiresome and a nuisance, but public bodies such as the police must be open to real scrutiny. The question of who polices the police is one of the matters that I want to cover tonight. In other words, to which organisations are the police responsible for their actions? In addition, I want to examine the role of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis and the powers of the Independent Police Complaints Commission. I also want to find out who enforces the judgment when the IPCC finds against the police after a complaint has been made. Finally, what is the purpose of the police authorities, and how are they independent from the police force?

I have been a Member of Parliament for 25 years, and in that time there have been big changes in the way in which the police operate as an organisation. It is not the role of this Adjournment debate to go into too much detail about how things have changed, but they certainly have changed. All Members of Parliament have been flooded with faxes and emails from serving police officers, complaining about their pay and conditions. The Minister will be only too well aware of that. While police officers are complaining about their pay and conditions, the general public, who pay for the service, also raise with MPs their concerns about the way in which police officers do their job today.

I feel very strongly about the poor example of leadership given to the force by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. On 1 January he appeared on the "Today" programme—he seems not to be inhibited in any way in his dealings with the media, unlike those who have held the post before—and he said that there was a growing problem in the relationship between the police and the public whom they are supposed to serve. He is right, and I think that he is part of the problem. He talks and acts like a politician, but he has not been elected and he does not seem to be accountable.

There is a growing sense that the police see themselves as controlling us, rather than serving us. That clearly starts at the top. The present head of the Met has politicised the job since he took over, and I can prove that. In September 2005, the head of the Met made history when he appeared on "Any Questions". That was ridiculous. If I had been Home Secretary, I would have called him in on Monday morning to find out what on earth he was playing at. He was the first serving police commissioner to appear on that programme. Listeners were treated to his opinions on the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, racial segregation and the meaning of being British.

Shortly afterwards, the head of the Met even gave the Richard Dimbleby lecture. In the same month, he openly lobbied Members of Parliament in support of the extension of the detention of terror suspects to 90 days. He cannot have it both ways. Either he is a policeman or he is a politician. He cannot continue to be both. Recently, five former heads of the armed services made speeches in the other place, but they were not in post at the time. We cannot continue with the present head of the Met giving his opinions on anything and everything. Indeed, the problem is much more serious than that.

I turn to the terrible case of the killing—murder—of Mr. de Menezes. No Member of Parliament who has children will be content with matters as they stand at the moment. I shall not bore the House with the precise details of the case, but before the Independent Police Complaints Commission reported, the head of the Met clearly said that if it found evidence of systemic failure, he would resign. Well, the IPCC found that there was significant corporate failing, and that is exactly the same thing. We should not play with semantics. The head of the Met said that he would resign, and he has not done so. Even more appallingly, he decided that the IPCC would not be allowed to investigate the killing of Mr. de Menezes. It emerged, of course, that he had no power to decide that, and the IPCC work was soon under way. I repeat to the Minister that that sort of behaviour is not acceptable. As we all know, the Greater London authority passed a motion of no confidence, and all sorts of people have given a view about the behaviour of the Met, but its head is still there.

The purpose of this debate is to examine the role of the IPCC. Let me tell the Minister at the outset that I have the highest regard for that organisation. It is definitely an improvement on the old Police Complaints Authority. I congratulate the chairman of the IPCC on his appointment; he has splendid hard-working staff behind him. At the end of my remarks, I will tell the Minister that I want the IPCC's powers to be increased. I have been given a splendid briefing by the Library on the powers to investigate complaints about the police. The control of policing is shared between the Home Secretary, chief constables and local police authorities, but I must say that, with the best will in the world, the system just is not working. When there is a tough complaint, we end up being given the runaround.

All Members of Parliament take up complaints on behalf of constituents, particularly relating to the health service. Some of the issues go on for a year, or two or three years. The staff investigating the complaints move on. I think that in certain respects it is rather hoped that the complainant will eventually give up, but I will not give up on any of the issues, because I feel strongly that the system is not working.

As an Essex Member of Parliament, I have dealt with a number of issues concerning the police on behalf of constituents, particularly when David Stevens was the chief constable of Essex, and Michael Thwaites the chief superintendent of Southend. The sort of complaints that I used to hear were that there were not enough police officers; that is hardly a new complaint. A view was taken that many of the complaints, such as those to do with graffiti and noise nuisance, were trivial, and that the police were concentrating on serious crime. All my constituents pay for the police service, and they were just not satisfied with the way in which matters were dealt with. I shall briefly mention three complaints on which I have spent a huge amount of time trying to help my constituents to resolve the issue—but, in a way, to no effect.

On 7 November 2001, there was a terrible car crash on Hamlet Court road in Westcliff-on-Sea. It took place in heavy, congested, slow-moving traffic. The 19-year-old lady driving the car, who had her boyfriend next to her, found a vehicle coming towards her, swerved to avoid it, and crashed into a wall. She died a week later in hospital. Her mother was a magistrate. The person responsible for the accident had one eye, no car insurance and no MOT certificate. I could go on and on about all the issues involved. The Crown Prosecution Service in Essex did not do a good job on that case, to say the least. At the end of it all, the police were blamed for being a week too late in laying the matter before the court, and the person responsible for the incident ended up paying a fine of £60.

I had a debate in Westminster Hall, which was answered by one of the Law Officers—the then Solicitor-General, now the deputy leader of the Labour party. She admitted all those points—the police were at fault, the Crown Prosecution Service was at fault—but no one was held responsible. I say again to the Minister that I hope that when he gets a chance, he will ask his officials to look again at that case.

The second case is that of Mr. Phil Collings. Mr. Collings, who happened to be a twin, died on 3 December 2004, at the age of 19 coming up to 20. He left the Talk nightclub in Southend and became involved in an altercation with a number of youths. Moments later, Mr. Collings was found not to be breathing. An ambulance was called, but Mr. Collings passed away at 3 am.

Mr. Collings had been lying on the floor, and on top of him was the son of a local police officer. I will not go into huge detail about what went on, but the police did not inform the pathologist that Mr. Collings had suffered a blow outside the Talk nightclub. Again, the Crown Prosecution Service and the IPCC were involved. I have raised the matter in the House of Commons many times, but at the end of it all it was claimed that Mr. Collings died as a result of sudden adult death syndrome. There was insufficient evidence of a physical altercation.

As the Minister can see, I have dealt with two cases involving youngsters. The families will never get over those deaths. The third and final case is that of Mr. Faisal Al-Ani, who died in July 2005. He died in police custody, and the case has not been resolved; it is ongoing.

When complaints are made to the police, the police never seem to admit that they are wrong. They never apologise. One gets what I regard as an arrogant, silly, insulting letter that ends, "I am sorry that you felt the need to complain about the actions of Essex Police." I am more than sorry that I continually have to complain about the actions of police. I want some acceptance of the complaints. These are not trivial matters. None of us should ever be above the law.

The Home Affairs Committee fourth report of Session 2004-05 made some excellent recommendations. The then Chairman of the Committee is now in the Cabinet, but there is another splendid Chairman. I understand that the Committee may well examine the way in which the IPCC works, and I hope the Minister will take those representations into account.

There is statutory guidance on how the IPCC should operate. The guidance makes it clear what the responsibilities of police authorities are. The role of police authorities in complaints forms part of their core duties around promoting the efficiency and effectiveness of policing locally. Section 15 of the Police Reform Act 2002 sets out the responsibilities of police authorities to keep themselves informed about complaints, provide the IPCC with the information and documentation that it needs, and so on.

I have found my dealings with the police authority to be somewhat pointless. Many people do not know what police authorities do. I know what they are charged to do, and it costs a lot of money to keep the system going, but in trying to hold them to account I have found them wanting. I should be grateful if the Minister assisted me in this drive to make the Essex police authority more proactive in these matters.

Given the current review of the complaints system, I very much hope that the Government will carefully consider making the system more complainant-centred, which would be a big step forward, and making it quicker and more open, and consider conciliatory payments. The IPCC is doing a splendid job examining complaints—huge money is being spent on this—and a judgment is made, yet the police do nothing. There is no reporting back, no apology and no suggestion of some sort of settlement. There seems to be no process whereby the hard work of the IPCC is delivered.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction) 9:05 pm, 9th January 2008

I am grateful to Mr. Amess for raising this subject. I am also extremely grateful for the measured way in which he made his important points. The debate gives me the opportunity to explain the work of the Independent Police Complaints Commission and of police authorities in relation to the accountability of the police in England and Wales, much of which the hon. Gentleman will be familiar with.

Before I do that, given that I may not cover all the remarks and points that the hon. Gentleman made, it may be particularly helpful to say that, in respect of the cases that he has raised regarding matters of concern to him in his constituency, I will undertake to look into those with my officials and I will write to him about them. That will probably be the most appropriate way forward and I hope that it is of help to him.

In addition, I will be happy, either on my own or with my hon. Friend the Minister of State, to meet the hon. Gentleman to consider some of the issues in more detail with our officials to see whether we can take on board some of the points that he has made, and whether we can use his experience, knowledge and views to inform some of the processes and discussions that are going on at the moment about accountability but also about the stock-take that the IPCC is undertaking, which will bring forward recommendations in due course. I hope that that will help us to take these matters forward.

The relationship between the police service and the communities that it serves is a consensual one, and it is important that the public can have confidence in the police and the safeguards put in place to ensure their accountability. I am aware that the hon. Gentleman has on a number of occasions expressed his interest in ensuring that the police are accountable for their actions and that the police complaints system, as overseen by the IPCC, and the oversight exercised by police authorities and Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary are both effective, albeit that they have different remits. As the hon. Gentleman said, he met the chair of the IPCC, Nick Hardwick, yesterday to discuss its work, and I welcome that contact. I too am impressed with the work that Mr. Hardwick has done and with the general work of the IPCC.

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, the IPCC was established by the Government through the Police Reform Act 2002 and became operational on 1 April 2004. It has statutory guardianship of the police complaints system and has specified functions in relation to the recording and investigation of complaints and conduct matters. It provides an independent oversight of the police complaints system by holding police officers to account for their actions, and as a barometer of public opinion. The hon. Gentleman will also be aware that the IPCC was granted considerably more powers than those enjoyed by the Police Complaints Authority, the predecessor organisation—for example, in being given the powers to undertake independent investigations with its own trained investigators.

In addition, the Police Reform Act 2002 provides that no commissioner, including the chair, may previously have been a police officer in any part of the United Kingdom. That is an important point. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the IPCC does not itself investigate every complaint made by a member of the public or every conduct matter that is identified. In most cases, the matter is handled by the relevant police force. That is only right, and the hon. Gentleman wants that point to have real credibility. Chief officers have responsibility for the conduct of the police officers and police staff in their force, and it was never the intention of the 2002 Act that they would relinquish that role. However, the hon. Gentleman's point is how to make the system credible and give people in the locality the confidence that the police are investigating complaints in their areas as thoroughly as they should. In many cases they do, although no doubt sometimes there are problems.

The IPCC undertakes independent investigations into the most serious matters and may also choose to manage or supervise investigations undertaken by a police force. In those cases, once the investigation has been concluded, the IPCC will also have a role in respect of whether disciplinary proceedings should be taken against any of those involved. In many cases, there will be agreement between the IPCC and the chief officer or police authority about what action should be taken. However, when there is no agreement, the commission can ultimately direct that disciplinary proceedings be taken.

Inevitably, there will be occasions when a complainant or members of the police service concerned do not agree with the action being taken. The IPCC, in common with many other organisations, has an appeals procedure through which its decisions can be challenged and reviewed. It can also make recommendations to chief officers as a result of an investigation. Depending on the nature of the recommendations, it is a matter for the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities, the Home Office, the National Policing Improvement Agency or Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary to consider them. The IPCC also chairs a "learning the lessons" committee, on which key stakeholders are represented. We hope to ensure that that makes a difference.

Importantly, the IPCC is a statutory independent body and is therefore independent of Ministers and Government Departments, which rightly have no role in influencing the commission's decisions. There is, however, a final right of challenge available through judicial review in the administrative court.

I turn now to some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman discussed when he met the chair of the IPCC yesterday. I know of the hon. Gentleman's interest in the complaints statistics for 2006-07 in England and Wales which were published by the IPCC on 14 November 2007, and in the increase in allegations involving neglect of duty, incivility and the quality of service that police officers provide to crime victims or others asking for their assistance.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there was an increase of 10 per cent. in complaints compared with the previous year. Although that is not an insignificant increase, it appears that the rate of increase has been steadying since the IPCC was established in 2004. Taken together, the categories to which I have referred account for about half the allegations made in 2006-07. Although that is clearly a matter of concern, it may also indicate that the public have a greater awareness of, and willingness to use, the police complaints system, which can only be an encouraging sign. Almost half of all complaints were dealt with through local resolution by the police. Just under a third—30 per cent.—of the complaints were investigated and, of them, 11 per cent. of allegations were upheld.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the IPCC is currently undertaking a stocktake of the complaints system to consider how it is operating and to make recommendations for further improvements. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know it is anticipated that the IPCC will conclude its stocktake in March and will submit its views to the Home Office—together with any recommendations, which we will consider. I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman is given a copy of those recommendations; he may well then wish to comment on them so that he can feel involved in the process.

The hon. Gentleman will know that police authorities have a direct role in police complaints and disciplinary matters in respect of the most senior officers within the force for which they have responsibility. Police authorities are independent bodies that hold the local police force to account on behalf of the people who live and work in that area. Their job is to ensure that there is an efficient and effective local police force that gives best value to local people. They set the strategic direction for their force and hold the chief officer to account, on behalf of the local community, for the policing service delivered. However, it is the responsibility of the chief officer to deliver those policing services.

Police authorities have a statutory duty under the Police Reform Act 2002 to ensure that it is kept informed of all matters concerning complaints against the police and a role in deciding whether disciplinary proceedings should be taken against senior officers, including chief officers. They also have the power to refer certain cases to the IPCC where they consider that it would be appropriate to do so by reason of the gravity of the matter or any exceptional circumstances. A police authority cannot, however, act as an avenue of appeal for decisions made by the IPPC.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman's seeking to castigate Sir Ian Blair. I am happy to endorse and repeat the Home Secretary's continuing support for the commissioner and the Metropolitan police, who remain in the forefront of the fight against crime and terrorism. Sir Ian Blair did not decide that the IPPC should not investigate—he asked whether the investigation should go ahead during an ongoing counter-terrorism investigation, and he received advice from the Home Office that the law could not be set aside and that the investigation should go ahead, as it did. Sir Ian Blair and the Metropolitan police have our full confidence and our thanks and support in the difficult job that they do.

We have had an important debate. I believe that the system does allow for independent scrutiny. There is clearly a need for us to consider the recommendations that come from the IPCC, and I would like to involve the hon. Gentleman in that. I will write to him about the individual cases that he mentioned, and if he would like to come and meet us to consider how we take this whole agenda forward, I will be only too happy to arrange that.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes past Nine o'clock.