Select Committee on Home Affairs First Report


16. In assessing the effectiveness of the present disciplinary and complaints sytem it is helpful to keep in mind the distinction referred to above between cases of poor performance of their duties by officers and cases where there may have been actual misconduct or corruption. While there are concerns about the way in which the system deals with both areas, they raise in practice somewhat different issues. It is helpful to deal briefly first with poor performance, before going on to discuss misconduct.

The system for dealing with poor performance

17. Although procedures for tackling poor performance are standard in almost all other walks of life, usually involving a staged process of interviews and warnings leading ultimately to possible dismissal, this is not so with the police. In practice of course minor instances of poor performance (as with minor instances of misconduct) can be addressed on a day to day basis by informal action such as advice or rebuke.[29] But, as the Home Office evidence put it, the absence of formal procedures for dealing with inefficiency "means that the police service has a detailed formal set of procedures for dealing with misconduct, illegality or ethical failure, which is currently being used by default to deal with inefficiency, or failures of competence."[30]

18. This issue was one of those addressed in the 1993 Consultation Paper issued by the previous Government.[31] The ideas in that paper have been discussed between the relevant parties and the resulting proposals were summarised in the Home Office written evidence.[32] Under these proposals occasional lapses would, as in any employment, be dealt with as part of the day to day management process. If this produced insufficient improvement in performance, there would be a formal interview in which the officer "would be told the shortcomings in performance, given a chance to explain, told what is necessary to bring the performance up to standard and given a period of time in which to effect the necessary improvement." If there were insufficient improvement a second interview would take place, at which a written warning would be given and a further period of time for improvement set. If there was still insufficient improvement, there would be a hearing before a board presided over by an Assistant Chief Constable; the powers of the board would include dismissal. We were told that these proposals had been broadly agreed between the Home Office, the police associations, the Metropolitan Police and the Chief Inspector of Constabulary.[33]

19. Two features of the proposals should be noted. First (unlike the position in respect of misconduct, which we discuss later) we understand that it is generally agreed that it should be the civil-not the criminal-standard of proof which would underpin this procedure. The Police Federation accepted this in their oral evidence and their chairman, Mr Broughton, noted "You must understand how dramatic it was for us to embrace and agree that procedure. For the first time officers could be dismissed for poor performance ...".[34]

20. Secondly, it is important to note that the distinction between cases to which this procedure will be applicable and those to which it will not is between efficiency (or performance) and conduct; it is not between 'serious' and 'minor' cases. There may be problems also in applying the full discipline or conduct procedures to minor instances of misconduct, but it was generally agreed that these should not be resolved by treating them as instances of inefficiency. The Police Action Lawyers Group were concerned on this point and stressed that "all cases of misconduct should be dealt with separately".[35] Indeed one of the strengths of the proposals, in the view of HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, is that they should have "the added benefit of reducing the present 'clouding' of the disciplinary procedures for the grey area between performance and behaviour".[36]

21. The proposals have drawn support from outside the police as well. The PCA, for example, called for them to be introduced at the earliest possible opportunity".[37] We welcome the proposed introduction to the disciplinary system of a procedure to deal with inadequate performance by police officers and urge that this is done without further delay.

Does the present system enable misconduct to be identified and dealt with?

22. Two issues overlap:

Almost every participant in the system expressed criticisms to the Committee about some aspects of the effectiveness of the present system. The evidence that there are real problems is of four kinds: individual examples, general statistical evidence, the lessons from civil litigation, and the opinions of those professionally involved.

The evidence from individual cases

23. It is certainly a widely held perception that in many cases individual police officers who have been involved in incidents where it is clear there has been some wrongdoing, or where clear evidence may exist against the officer, appear to go unpunished. Obviously the fact that it may have looked clear to some observers that something has gone wrong or that acquittals in criminal or disciplinary hearings appear implausible is not in itself proof that individual officers have escaped justice for misconduct. There may be a number of reasons why there has been no conviction, and we examine some of these in this section and elsewhere in the report. Nevertheless such cases are at least consistent with the view that the system is not working as well as it might, and justify further inquiry into whether changes are needed.

24. Different kinds of cases were mentioned in the evidence received. Our attention was drawn to the fact that no convictions of police officers had arisen from a number of celebrated miscarriages of justice cases in recent years,[38] despite the strong evidence of fraud and perjury on the part of some of the police officers involved. In addition no officer of the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad was convicted in respect of their conduct during a period when their operations led to over 30 convictions which later had to be quashed.

25. Coroners' juries' findings and other evidence have shown up cases where a decision not to prosecute police officers in a number of cases of deaths in police custody is surprising. The organisation Inquest submitted eleven case studies[39] suggesting various apparent inadequacies in the discipline and complaints systems, ranging from non-prosecution or disciplining of officers against whom there was apparently substantial evidence, to failures to receive satisfaction over complaints about lack of sensitivity in dealing with relatives. Further illustrations of possible failures in the system came from cases where a failure to establish a complaint has gone hand in hand with a successful civil suit of the police over the same incident. The submission from the Police Action Lawyers Group gave details of five such incidents.[40]

26. These examples all have in common the feature that it has been possible to cite objective evidence-namely the judgement of another kind of court-for the proposition that there was at least a case for some kind of criminal or disciplinary action against an officer. In other incidents or examples the evidence may be more subjective, but such incidents may also be more numerous.

The general statistical evidence

27. This Committee is not realistically in a position fully to establish whether these criticisms of the complaints system arising from particular cases are justified. But the critics point also to statistical evidence that the system, in particular the complaints system, is ineffective. Around 100 officers[41] are dismissed or required to resign each year as a result of disciplinary hearings. This is out of over 400 who have a disciplinary charge against them proved, and around three-quarters of these cases arise entirely from internally generated discipline proceedings and not from outside complaints.[42] Table A shows figures for complaints for the last two years:

TABLE A: Complaints against the police (England and Wales)



% of all complaints

(% of formally investigated complaints)


% of all complaints

(% of formally investigated complaints)

Total recorded complaints:
of which:
Withdrawn, or dispensation(1):
Total resolved:
of which:
Informally resolved:
Formally investigated:
of which:
Not substantiated:
of which:
Charges(2) brought:
Other action taken:





























(1) Dispensation given by PCA allowing police not to pursue the complaint, because complainant cannot be contacted or will not assist, or complaint is repetitious
(2) Either criminal or disciplinary charges

28. Not surprisingly, there are a range of different conclusions which can be drawn from these figures:

  • fewer than one half of 1% of all recorded complaints lead to criminal or disciplinary charges

  • around 2% of all recorded complaints are substantiated following a formal investigation

  • around 8% of formally investigated complaints are substantiated

  • around 33% of all complaints in 1996/97 could be said to have resulted in some form of satisfaction for the complainant, either in the form of substantiation of the complaint following formal investigation or by being resolved informally.[43]

The 2% figure, illustrating a very low rate of effectiveness, was the rate most widely quoted by critics of the complaints process.[44] Liberty felt that even if the higher 8% figure was used the system was still shown to be ineffective, since "The notion must be absurd that well over nine out of ten complaints are 'false' or unmeritorious ..".[45] The Minister of State implicitly gave some support to the 33% figure,[46] although other witnesses advised caution against assuming that just because complainants assented to informal resolution of a complaint they were necessarily satisfied.[47] We find the present lack of clarity in this area to be unsatisfactory, and we recommend that in future the totals for 'informal resolution' should be broken down in such a way as to indicate more precisely the outcome in each case.

29. Since one incident can give rise to a number of separate complaints, from one or more complainants, the Police Complaints Authority preferred to talk in terms of the number of such separate incidents, or 'complaints cases'. They also discounted cases which had been withdrawn or informally resolved, since they did not fall to be considered by the Authority. In addition, in assessing outcomes they totalled up the number of officers who had been the subject of any form of disciplinary action, including 'advice'. On this basis the figures were:

TABLE B: Complaint cases considered by the PCA

1995/96 1996/97
Total number of cases considered:
of which:
Dispensations granted: 5656 5238
Formally investigated cases: 4160 5005

Total number of officers disciplined:
of which:


Disciplinary or criminal charges: 269 251
Other action (e.g. admonishment): 860 1018

Source: PCA Annual Reports 1995-96 and 1996-97.

The PCA suggest that the fact that over 1000 officers are subject each year to some form of disciplinary action arising from a complaint shows the system to be more effective than some of its critics claim.

30. In addition to the complications in the interpretation of the statistics arising from such issues as how to treat withdrawn complaints or those subject to dispensation or how to treat 'informally resolved cases', or whether to consider complaints or complaints cases, there are other factors to consider as well. For example, there is some evidence that only a small proportion of those who are aggrieved actually make a complaint.[48] It should also be borne in mind that while a complaint may be 'substantiated' the action taken in respect of the officer as a result may be significantly less than a complainant might be expecting.[49]

29  Home Office memorandum, Appendix 1, para 5. Back

30  Appendix 1, para 24. Back

31  Review of police discipline procedures, Home Office Consultative Paper 1993, paras 22-28. Back

32  Appendix 1, Part I, Annex B. Back

33  Appendix 1, Part I, para 23; Q 683. Back

34  Q 614. Back

35  Appendix 12; see also Liberty Appendix 11. Back

36  Appendix 15, para 5.6. Back

37  Appendix 10 para 63. Back

38  The memorandum from Birnberg & Co. referred to the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, Maguire Seven, Tottenham Three, Cardiff Three, Carl Bridgewater and Judith Ward cases, among others (Appendix 14). The DPP told us that there had been at least six prosecutions, involving 17 defendants, none of which had so far resulted in convictions (one of these cases was still pending) (Appendix 32). Back

39  Annexes to Appendix 25. Back

40  Appendix 12 (Case summaries). Back

41  The average number 1992-1996 was 98, though the number for 1996/97 was only 77 (Home Office Statistical Bulletin 21/97, Table 6). Back

42  The average number of officers against whom one or more charges was proved for 1992-1996 was 430, though the number for 1996/97 was only 377; 102 of the 377 arose from complaint cases (Home Office Statistical Bulletin 21/97, Table 5). Back

43  Informal resolution is a procedure laid down under s. 85 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 allowing less serious complaints to be resolved locally at an early stage following consultations to resolve the matter by a specified officer with the various parties. The Act makes clear that a complaint can only be resolved under this procedure with the assent of the complainant. This method might well resolve the matter to the satisfaction of the complainant, for example where the police indicate a degree of acceptance of improper conduct or handling of a situation and perhaps offer an apology, or where the complainant accepts on further explanation the reason for the conduct (though in such a case the complainant could choose to withdraw the complaint instead). Back

44  For example GALOP (an independent voluntary sector organisation which offers assistance in incidents involving homophobic violence and the police) told us that they informed callers to their helpline that a complaint had only a 2% chance of success. (See List of Unprinted Memoranda.) Back

45  Appendix 11. Back

46  Q 697. Back

47  In some cases where a complainant consents to informal resolution it may be that he or she accepts that there is no realistic way in which anything can be achieved by further attempts to assess what has happened, or may simply not be willing to go through the whole formal investigation process. See PCA (Appendix 29). Back

48  The 1994 British Crime Survey suggested that only around 10% of people who had at some stage been "really annoyed" at a police officer lodged an official complaint (Home Office Research Findings No. 28). Back

49  PALG (Appendix 12). Back

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