Complaints, conduct matters and DSI matters: procedure

Part of Policing and Crime Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:45 pm on 22nd March 2016.

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Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 4:45 pm, 22nd March 2016

The amendment would ensure that, when members of police forces are honest in admitting their mistakes, the Independent Police Complaints Commission gives them credit for that in any subsequent investigations or complaints. The purpose of the amendment is to promote the importance of creating a learning rather than always a blame culture in the police. I will start with a rather unusual parallel.

I remember the first time I ever went to the Ford plant in Dagenham. There were 3,000 inspectors. Eventually, a “right first time” culture evolved, through team working and engaging the workforce. In particular, at the heart of that culture was the encouragement, “If you get it wrong, own up; if you can think of a better way for the job to be done, say so.” I think that that was absolutely right. Indeed, that culture of continuous improvement is at the centre of the success of the automotive industry, and we see it elsewhere in the private sector. As I will say in a moment, the Government are also proposing it for the public sector, so we must move towards a situation where members of police forces feel supported to speak out when mistakes happen. We therefore want to start a conversation with the Government about how they can take a proactive role in developing it.

The police are told in the police code of ethics that

“you must never ignore unethical or unprofessional behaviour by a policing colleague, irrespective of the person’s rank, grade or role… You will be supported if you report any valid concern over the behaviour of someone working in policing which…has fallen below the standards expected.”

However—this point pre-empts new clause 8—members of police forces have very little understanding of what, if any, protection is on offer. According to the Government’s consultation on the subject:

“Police officers feel unable to admit to a mistake without fear of being subject to disciplinary proceedings.”

We therefore want to build on what is already starting to happen in the police service, such as the good work of the College of Policing on learning from mistakes.

On where the police service is now, however, in evidence to the Committee, police leaders contrasted the police complaints system with the systems in the airline and nuclear industries, where a real effort has been made in the interests of public safety to develop a learning-based approach to accidents and mistakes. On the one hand, pilots are encouraged to report if they overshoot the white mark; and, on the other hand, the nuclear industry, with which I am very familiar—I dealt with British Nuclear Fuels and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority for many years—has placed a huge emphasis on, “If you get it wrong or if you make a mistake, own up, because we need to learn from those mistakes if we are to ensure that we maintain the highest standards of safety.”

Indeed, it is interesting that the Secretary of State for Health has just announced his intention to encourage such a learning culture in the national health service to institute:

“An NHS that learns from mistakes.”

His recent statement to the House should inform the nature of our debate:

“In addition to greater and more intelligent transparency, a culture of learning means we need to create an environment in which clinicians feel able to speak up about mistakes. We will therefore bring forward measures for those who speak honestly to investigators from the healthcare safety investigation branch to have the kind of ‘safe space’ that applies to those speaking to the air accident investigation branch.”

That is precisely the parallel with airlines that I drew a moment ago. The statement continues:

“The General Medical Council and the Nursing and Midwifery Council have made it clear through their guidance that where doctors, nurses or midwives admit what has gone wrong and apologise, the professional tribunal should give them credit for that, just as failing to do so is likely to incur a serious sanction.”

The Secretary of State is saying, and rightly so, that medical professionals should be given credit for admitting mistakes, which of course does not defend anyone who has done something unacceptable that deserves disciplinary action, but in terms of the culture that he is trying to create, he rightly argues that credit should be given where people own up. The statement continues:

“The Government remain committed to legal reform that would allow professional regulators more flexibility to resolve cases without stressful tribunals.

NHS Improvement will ask for the commitment to learning to be reflected in all trust disciplinary procedures and ask all trusts to publish a charter for openness and transparency so staff can have clear expectations of how they will be treated if they witness clinical errors.” —[Official Report, 9 March 2016; Vol. 607, c. 17-18WS.]

It is not often that I praise the Secretary of State for Health, but he is absolutely right on the kind of culture that should apply in public services. I have seen it apply in the private sector. Of course it is early days following the announcement by the Secretary of State, and we do not know how successful the project will be at the next stages, but we very much hope that Police Ministers will take serious note of his political will to institute a culture of transparency and openness.

Finally, I draw a strong distinction between on the one hand serious matters that have to be properly pursued through the investigatory arrangements and on the other what happens in the world of work—in the public and private sectors—where mistakes are sometimes made. It is far better that those mistakes are owned up to and lessons are learned, rather than having a culture where people fear that if they own up, they might suffer as a consequence.