Police: Public Trust — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:48 pm on 28th November 2013.

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Photo of Lord Wasserman Lord Wasserman Conservative 3:48 pm, 28th November 2013

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Paddick on securing this debate. I was going to add, “on this critically important and very timely subject”, but of course this debate is really about two critically important and very timely subjects—namely, public trust in the police and its role in effective policing; and the system for investigating complaints into police conduct. Although these are different subjects, they are closely related. It is because public trust in the police is at such a low ebb today that there is so much public concern about how complaints against individual police officers are investigated. As we all know, however, public opinion is notoriously fickle, and we must guard against making fundamental changes to our institutions simply to keep up with it.

I well remember, as a young official in the Home Office many years ago, that it was generally believed by the public—and reflected in the policies of Ministers of both major parties—that the best way of dealing with complaints against police officers was to allow chief constables to deal with them. This was based on the equally firm belief that those who had got themselves into trouble—that is, those who had complaints filed against them—were a tiny minority of police officers: the rotten apples at or near the bottom of the pile. That is why we thought that their elders and betters—those of ACPO rank—could be relied upon to sort them out in one way or another.

However, this belief that most police officers were fundamentally honest and that chief constables were the best people to deal with their own “rotten apples” was undermined towards the end of the last century by both the Scarman inquiry into the Brixton riots and the Stephen Lawrence inquiry in 1999. As a result of what the public learned from these inquiries, they were no longer prepared to trust ordinary police officers to behave properly or to trust chief officers to investigate complaints against their colleagues honestly and fairly. This in turn led to the demand for an independent element in the police complaints procedure; it was in response to this demand that an Independent Police Complaints Commission was established by the Police Reform Act 2002.

However, as I have already said, public opinion is something of a fashion industry. As recently as two years ago, when your Lordships were debating the then Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, the public’s main concern about policing was not how to improve the integrity of officers but how to improve their value for money. As a result, local chief constables were once again given the main responsibility for handling complaints, including appeals, against their officers. The IPCC would now consider only complaints and appeals which were thought to be, or classified as, “serious”. This change was justified as,

“streamlining and removing unnecessary bureaucracy from the system”,

and ensuring that,

“complaints were handled at the lowest appropriate level”.

In other words, this was justified as a way of improving value for money.

Sadly, however, although perhaps not surprisingly, public opinion has changed again in the last year or two. This is because so many of the police officers who have managed to get themselves into trouble in the last few years—or, more accurately, whose inappropriate behaviour has been exposed in the last two years—were not at the bottom of the barrel, but at the very top. The public once again turned against chief constables and decided that they could not, after all, be trusted to deal with complaints against their own officers.

This led to a fresh demand to remove responsibility for complaints from chief constables and move it to the centre: hence the plans to “beef up” the IPCC by transferring to it staff presently employed in the professional standards departments of local forces. Indeed, as recently as Monday of this week, the commission set up by the Labour Party under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, which we will be discussing in this Chamber next Thursday, recommended the creation of a new national body to handle police complaints. Why? It was because, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Stevens:

“The spate of organisational failures and scandals over recent years has badly damaged public confidence in the integrity of the police”.

As I said a few minutes ago, I am very worried about making changes to institutions as fundamental to our society as our police complaints system simply as a response to public opinion polls. If the problem he is concerned to tackle really is, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, believes, a loss of public confidence in police integrity, the answer must be to take steps to improve police integrity. The response cannot be to accept the present level of police integrity as a given and try to work round it by transferring responsibility for police complaints away from chief constables to a team of civilians in a national body. This will simply reinforce the public’s loss of confidence in the police. It will also damage the confidence of those chief officers—the vast majority of whom, I hasten to add, are public servants of the highest professional standard and men and women of unimpeachable integrity. It cannot be right to tar them all with the same brush. As a PCC said to me in an e-mail the other day:

“The more external checking the Government advocates, the less it is seen to trust the police to do the right thing in the first place”.

I do not accept that nothing can be done about police integrity, or what some people call police culture, or that, for this reason, we must not let chief constables anywhere near the arrangements for handling police complaints. Police integrity is no doubt in a bad place at the moment but something is being done about it. The Government’s College of Policing has already begun to tackle the issue with determination. I am optimistic about what the college will achieve, particularly if its board is expanded to include a larger number of truly independent individuals whose careers to date have not been linked to the police in any way.

In short, making major changes to the way police complaints are handled is not an appropriate or sensible response to the public’s concerns about police integrity. That is not to say that I am entirely satisfied with the present arrangements for handling police complaints: I most certainly am not. These arrangements were described to me recently by one PCC as, “labyrinthine, slow and bureaucratic”. They are seen by the public as unfair and stacked against them, as my noble friend Lord Paddick said. Even the police are unhappy with them. As another PCC wrote to me last week, “in my force, PSD”—the standards department—

“has almost a terror factor over officers and I don’t think this is healthy. Officers need to feel supported to make difficult decisions rather than afraid to do so”.

There are plenty of reasons for changing the present arrangements, but the changes must deliver a system which is much more user friendly, quicker, more transparent and more responsive to local needs. All this points to keeping the complaints system as local as possible. Policing is primarily a local service whose principal aim is to make people safe in their own communities. The best way of achieving that objective is by retaining responsibility for local policing locally. As noble Lords will know, that is why I argued so forcefully for police and crime commissioners, directly elected by the people and accountable to them.

That is also why I believe that complaints against local officers should be dealt with within the local community. If the local community is not prepared to trust its chief constables to deal with complaints, the answer is not to transfer responsibility to the centre. The way forward is to make the complaints procedure part of the overall governance arrangements of the force and hold the PCC accountable for the way complaints are handled in the same way as the PCC is accountable to the local electorate for the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the force.

There is nothing radical in this. Most complaints can be handled by people without police powers or operational experience. In fact, many are not even complaints but expressions of dissatisfaction which should be used to improve the service. They are easily resolved with common sense, tact and a willingness to apologise. However, under the present rules, they are forced into a legalistic, bureaucratic process which puts officers on edge and complainants into deep despair.

There are several ideas for changing the way that the police complaints procedure works. The APCC—the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners—is working on this and will be coming up with proposals. Winston Churchill is reported to have said, among other things, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. There is clearly a crisis in confidence in the police and, more particularly, in police integrity. Let us not waste this opportunity to improve our system of police complaints, a problem which has bedevilled policing in England and Wales for a very long time.