Select Committee on Home Affairs First Report


The inquiry

This is what Sir Paul Condon, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner told us on December 4, 1997.[1] He went on to describe how such officers by cynical manipulation of the disciplinary process were often able to avoid being held to account. His concern was shared by Mr Edward Crew, the Chief Constable of the West Midlands police, and by others who were witnesses, notably the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Minister of State at the Home Office (Mr Michael), the Police Complaints Authority and by lawyers representing people with complaints against the police who had resorted to civil action.

2. Although most witnesses were at pains to emphasise that only a small minority of officers were guilty of serious misconduct-Sir Paul Condon spoke of perhaps between 100 and 250 such officers in the Met[2]-they also made clear that the inability of existing complaints and disciplinary procedures to deal effectively with wrongdoers tarnished the reputation of the entire police service. It is, therefore, in the interests of the overwhelming majority of honest police officers-and the public as a whole-that this problem is robustly addressed. That is the purpose of this report.

3. Changes to police disciplinary procedures have been under formal reconsideration since the issue of a Consultation Paper by the previous government in 1993.[3] In order to complete our report in time to be able to affect the new government's decisions on the outcome of the consultation, we have conducted the inquiry relatively quickly. Nevertheless, we have been able to take oral evidence not only from the Minister of State at the Home Office (Mr Alun Michael MP) and the three police associations for England and Wales,[4] but also from the Police Complaints Authority, the human rights association Liberty, the Police Action Lawyers Group,[5] the Director of Public Prosecutions, and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. We received valuable written evidence[6] from a number of other bodies (including HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary) and individuals. We are very grateful to all those who contributed to the inquiry. We regret that we have not been able in the time available to cover all the points which have been raised, including some issues on which we specifically invited evidence.[7]

4. We wish straightaway to emphasise our belief in the honesty and integrity of the vast majority of police officers, and our recognition of how difficult and challenging is the job of police officer. Police officers are responsible for decisions affecting the conduct of members of the public in ways that few other job holders ever are. In the exercise of this responsibility they face real and severe dangers-again, dangers which are not faced in almost any other walk of life. These dangers have been all too recently illustrated in the tragic death of PC Nina Mackay in the course of her duties. We pay tribute to the way in which the police carry out their tasks.

Existing disciplinary and complaints procedures

5. Police disciplinary procedures are described in Part I of the Home Office Memorandum and are governed principally by the Police (Discipline) Regulations 1985, except for the procedures relating to senior officers (officers above the rank of chief superintendent).[8] The main elements of the procedures are as follows.[9]

6. A disciplinary offence occurs if an officer commits one of the offences listed in the Discipline Code (Schedule I of the 1985 Regulations), although as the Home Office memorandum says, "minor instances of poor performance and low level discipline breaches are of course dealt with on a day to day basis by supervisors by means of advice, warning or rebuke".[10] Once information about a possible breach is received (from within the force or from a complaint), the allegation is referred to an investigating officer, who informs the subject of the accusation. The accused officer may be suspended on full pay. During the investigation the accused is not obliged to say anything, and may be represented by a 'friend'. The investigating officer's report is considered and, if it suggests that a criminal offence has been committed, the evidence will be sent to the CPS who will decide whether to prosecute in the normal way. If there is no criminal prosecution, the chief officer or (normally) a deputy will decide whether to establish a formal disciplinary hearing. The accused may be legally represented at the hearing if it is thought that the charge, if proved, is so serious that it would justify one of the more serious penalties (dismissal, forced resignation, reduction in rank). The hearing follows a broadly quasi-judicial pattern and takes place before the chief constable or deputy; the standard of proof applicable is 'beyond reasonable doubt'. If the charge is found proved, the officer conducting the hearing will set a punishment; the officer can appeal to the chief constable (if he or she had not chaired the hearing in the first place), and then to the Home Secretary who will usually appoint a Tribunal in cases where the more serious punishments have been imposed. A punishment cannot be increased on appeal.

7. Police complaints procedures are described in Part II of the Home Office Memorandum. They broadly consist of additional stages and features to the disciplinary procedures. On receipt of a complaint from the public the police are required to "record" it.[11] The matter may then be dealt with under the 'informal resolution' procedure laid down by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 s. 85, under which an appointed officer and the complainant may agree that a matter has been satisfactorily resolved without taking the it through the full formal investigation and resolution procedure. If it is not proceeded with in this way, then the police will consider whether to refer it to the Police Complaints Authority (PCA) for a decision as to whether the PCA will 'supervise' the investigation. If the complaint concerns a death or serious injury or a likely offence of assault occasioning actual bodily harm or corruption, then referral to the PCA is mandatory; the PCA may also choose to call in a complaint not otherwise referred to them. The police will then appoint an investigating officer (IO); if the PCA has decided to supervise the case (which they must do if it involves a death/serious injury) their approval of the selection of investigating officer is needed. An investigation then takes place in a similar way to non-complaint disciplinary investigations.

8. On receipt of the investigating officer's report, the chief constable will refer the matter to the CPS if a criminal offence is suggested. If there is no criminal prosecution, the chief officer will decide whether to establish a disciplinary hearing. The PCA reviews all cases at this point (not just those for which it has supervised the investigation). If the Authority disagrees with a decision by the chief officer not to bring disciplinary charges, then it may recommend that changes be brought; if agreement is still not forthcoming, then it may direct that charges be brought. If-by whatever route-disciplinary proceedings are decided upon, then the procedures for the hearing and appeals are the same as for non-complaint cases, except that if it is a case where the Authority has directed that charges be brought two PCA members (who have not hitherto been concerned with the case) sit with the officer hearing the case.

9. Police authorities have a general interest in the operation of the disciplinary and complaints procedures in their force, under their general statutory duty to provide effective policing. They are also, more specifically, charged with keeping themselves informed about the workings of the complaints process laid down in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, under s. 95 of that Act. That section also places a similar duty on HM Inspectorate of Constabulary.

10. Since the launch of a Consultation paper in 1993,[12] a debate has been taking place on reforms to the disciplinary procedures. The principal aims of the proposals were to introduce a system which would be more akin to normal employment law applicable to employees in other fields. This included introducing a system for dealing with poor performance or inefficiency (as opposed to misconduct or an offence against the Discipline Code) . The present Discipline Code would be replaced by a Code of Conduct, so that charges would relate less specifically to whether precisely defined events had taken place and were in breach of a disciplinary rule and instead would relate more generally to whether the officer's behaviour had fallen below required standards. Other significant possible changes to the formal procedures including changes to the 'right of silence' and to the burden of proof, and measures to remove some of the causes for delay which currently exist. Reforms were also proposed to the appeals process, involving measures to speed up the process and to replace appeals to the Home Secretary with a right of appeal to a Police Appeal Tribunal (which would be restricted to cases where the more serous punishments had been imposed). These proposals are set out in the Home Office Memorandum.[13]

Current standards of behaviour in the police

11. Misbehaviour by police officers can range from merely poor performance of their duties to extreme corruption. Although there are current concerns about how poor performance is dealt with, which we discuss later in this Report, it is obvious that some officers will be weaker than others and the performance of the weaker ones may be below required standards. But this is the case in any large organisation and it is not the major source of concern. Much more important is the extent to which there is actual misconduct, in particular serious misconduct or corruption. Clearly the current extent of misconduct is incapable of precise measurement, but we consider it important to come to some form of judgement if the significance of any weaknesses in the disciplinary and complaints procedures is to be assessed.

12. Serious misconduct or corruption in the police has been a major concern on various occasions in the past[14] and it is tempting to argue that examples of problems given now largely date from earlier periods and do not represent the current situation. This was, broadly, the view put forward by the Police Superintendents' Association who stated "Traditionally the service has been free from widespread corruption and where corruption has been found, e.g. in the 1970s, it has been effectively dealt with."[15] But some Chief Constables, as we have already noted above, have expressed more concern. ACPO, in their written and oral evidence, spoke of a "small minority" of corrupt officers.[16] The thrust of ACPO's position was not that misconduct-at least serious misconduct and corruption-was widespread but that they were unable to deal with those officers who were guilty of serious misconduct. This point was taken up by the Police Federation, who suggested that individual ACPO officers were deliberately exaggerating the extent of current misconduct so as to back up their case for stronger disciplinary powers,[17] and the Police Superintendents' Association took a similar view of ACPO officers' claims.[18]

13. We have already quoted the tribute paid by Sir Paul Condon to the vast majority of his officers, in his oral evidence to the Committee, together with his reference to the minority and what he considered to be his inability to deal with them.[19] In terms of the numbers involved he went on to say:

"If I were seeking to quantify it, I would say it is less numerically than in the seventies. I do not believe and I hope it is not as serious as Sir Robert Mark's nearly 500 officers who left the Met under a cloud. If you want a percentage figure on it, I would hope and believe it is contained somewhere between 0.5 per cent and one per cent. There is a spurious precision to that but I would say somewhere between 100 officers and 250 officers would be the range in which we are operating. However tiny that is in percentage terms, the damage they can do to the reputation and the morale of the overwhelming majority of officers is enormous."[20]

14. Some observers from outside the police service suggested that the situation is worse than the picture painted by the police. Much of this evidence concerns not so much widespread serious corruption[21] but, rather, widespread patterns of misconduct in individual areas of police activity. Specific areas[22] drawn to our particular attention were racial discrimination, and excessive use of force in effecting arrests or keeping order (often late at night where the subjects of the police action may be influenced by alcohol or drugs and where there may be few witnesses) leading in some tragic cases to deaths in police custody. There were some suggestions that, whatever the actual level of misconduct, it may be on a slightly rising trend. Sir Paul Condon, in his written submission, stated that there were signs of a re-emerging problem some two and a half years ago; and the Chairman of the Police Complaints Authority suggested that in respect of serious corruption "there is no doubt that we are on an upward cycle",[23] although there is as yet no evidence of this in the number of disciplinary proceedings completed.[24]

15. These views on the level and trends of police misconduct are inevitably somewhat impressionistic. What perhaps has changed, and changed for the better, is that there is a higher level of overall recognition of the continuing importance of dealing with these issues. This pressure comes in part from within the police. For example, Sir Paul Condon in his written evidence stated that "The nature of the problem is such that tackling and preventing serious misconduct need to be a constant part of police strategy. The system must allow for the effective investigation and punishment of wrongdoers".[25] The importance of stamping out corruption in the police as part of the struggle against organised crime has also been noted.[26] But pressure to raise standards comes also from outside the police. A number of different witnesses[27] observed that the public are nowadays more likely than in the past to complain and there is arguably a greater recognition that this applies as much to the police-or even more to the police[28] -than to other areas of society. Overall, although we reiterate that only a small minority of police officers is involved, we conclude that there are current grounds for concern about the behaviour of some police officers. This small minority is damaging to the overwhelming majority who are honest. The importance of dealing with the problem, if the confidence of the public in the police is to be maintained, must be recognised.

1  Q 930. Back

2  Q 945. Back

3  Our predecessor Committees have examined these issues a number of times in the past; 4th Report 1981-82 HC 98; 4th Report 1987-88 HC 583; 5th Report 1988-89 HC 395; 4th Report 1991-92 HC 179; oral evidence session 15 December 1995 HC 112. Back

4  Association of Chief Police Officers; the Police Superintendents' Association; the Police Federation; this report covers England and Wales only, since policing in Scotland and Northern Ireland is not within the responsibilities of the Home Secretary. Back

5  Together with a representative from Birnberg & Co (Solicitors). Back

6  See pp. lxvii and lxviii. Back

7  Among the more important issues we have not covered are appeals procedures (including the issue of whether appeal boards should be able to increase punishments as well as reduce them), the detailed interrelationship between criminal and disciplinary procedures, and treatment of special constables. Back

8  All the consideration of disciplinary report and complaints issues in this report excludes the procedures relating to senior officers. Back

9  Some of the provisions relating to the ranks of the investigating officer or officers conducting the hearing are different in the Metropolitan Police; some elements of the appeals process are also different. Back

10  Appendix 1Part I, para 5; the Discipline Code is printed at Annex A to Part I of Appendix 1. Back

11  Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 s. 85(1); problems which arise over the meaning of "record" in this context are discussed below (see para 47 ff.) Back

12  Review of Police Discipline Procedures Home Office Consultation Paper, 1993. Back

13  Appendix 1, Part I, paras 21-40 and Annex B. Back

14  Sir Paul Condon spoke of significant corruption problems in the sixties and early seventies (Appendix 9). Back

15  Appendix 4, para 1.1. Back

16  Q 2. Back

17  Appendix 5, section 1; editorial in Police, August 1997; see also Appendix 7, section 6. Back

18  Appendix 4 para 1.7. Back

19  Q 930. Back

20  Q 945. Back

21  Though Mr Martin Short, author of a number of books concerning police corruption, was of the opinion that corruption in the Metropolitan Police was not cyclical but was "chronic, endemic, indeed systemic. All that is cyclical is its most virulent outbreaks" (See List of Unprinted Memoranda). Back

22  See Q 293 (Mr Cragg, Liberty), Commission for Racial Equality (Appendix 22). Other areas included sexist or homophobic attitudes in the police, improper use of connections involving freemasonry, and use of informers. Back

23  Q 368. Back

24  Police Discipline and Complaints Home Office Statistical Bulletin 21/97 Table 5. Back

25  Appendix 9. Back

26  Police Review, article pp. 14-15 10 October 1997. Back

27  ACPO, Q 2; PCA, Appendix 10 para 2; Mr Wadham, Q 268. Back

28  The Criminal Law Committee of the Law Society, for example, observed that "The police are unique because they are entitled to use force to uphold the law. In addition severe consequences can result for members of the public if evidence is fabricated. In these circumstances it is essential that the public have confidence that allegations of abuse are properly investigated and that when substantiated appropriate action is taken" (Appendix 24, para 2). Back

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