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Standing Committee A
Thursday 13 June 2002
[Mr. George Stevenson in the Chair]
The independent police complaints commission
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I beg to move amendment No. 119, in page 7, line 21, leave out 'Complaints' and insert 'Conduct'.
The amendment is relatively small, but it focuses on an important matter. We tabled it as a result of our attention being drawn to a letter in The Daily Telegraph on 9 April 2002 by Jan Prebble, the chairman of the South Westminster police/community consultative group, who made the important point that ''complaints'' has a pejorative implication. We agree that that is unhelpful.
The letter stated:
''It really isn't right that the policeman who fired a plastic baton round''—
which had been reported in The Daily Telegraph the day before—
''should have the stigma of having his case referred to something called the Police Complaints Authority. Obviously every gun incident must be looked into but it is inappropriate that every policeman who fires a gun in the face of enormous danger exhibiting, in many cases, amazing bravery should automatically have the matter referred to a 'complaints' body, when the matter—
that caused the police officer to discharge that firearm—
may well have been the subject of praise''.
Will all know the enormous courage exhibited by police officers on so many occasions in the execution of their duty.
Jan Prebble said that, in many cases, investigations have been known to last months—years, in some cases—and throughout that time the police officer has to suffer the indignity of having the matter dealt with by the Police Complaints Authority, even though no complaint has been made against him and when the media coverage has been full of praise for the police officer. She went on to say:
''The Police Reform Bill now going through Parliament seeks to set up a new body to take over from the Police Complaints Authority but its suggested name—the Independent Police Complaints Commission—is no better.''
She said that the police/community consultative group believes that the body should be called the independent police conduct commission. In her letter to an hon. Friend, she said that the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety who is a member of the Committee, although he is not here at the moment, told the police/community consultative group that he has ''some sympathy'' with its view. He said that it was true that the new independent police complaint commission will cover police conduct more generally
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than just complaints, but that it would cause confusion to change the name at this stage.
Jan Prebble said to my hon. Friend that a slight confusion would be worth while if it relieved the police of such a stigma, and that
''the problem of course goes much wider than just the name of the organisation'',
''Getting the name right would seem to us to be a good start''.
I agree with that. After all, our scrutiny is a fundamental part of the work of Standing Committees, when we try to achieve the best possible legislation. It is not good enough for the Under-Secretary to say, ''Well it's going to cause confusion.''
Surely, the whole point is to try to ensure that the Bill that finally emerges from our deliberations will establish bodies with the most appropriate nomenclature. If the Under-Secretary has expressed sympathy for the views of the South Westminster police/community consultative group, perhaps at a later stage—on Report or in another place—he will consider introducing a Government amendment. We will hear in a moment.
Jan Prebble also supplied me and my hon. Friends with a background paper relating to the police use of firearms. I shall not detain the Committee by reading the whole paper, but one passage is especially well expressed. It states:
''The difficulties met by a police officer when he''
''has to decide whether to shoot or not are mammoth. Take the officer who is faced with a gun. It is impossible to tell whether the gun is a real one or a replica.''
On the day that the South Westminster police/community group spent with the police, they were shown
''a large table tennis sized table covered with guns, almost all of them replicas.''
The display amazed them, and, as a group of intelligent citizens involved in that area, they were asked to guess which were real guns, but they were unable to tell.
Apparently, legislation in the United States requires toy guns to be made of brightly coloured plastic. However, criminals merely paint real guns in fluorescent colours to match the replicas, rather than paint the replicas black, as one might have thought. It is difficult to know whether a gun is real or a toy, so the police are understandably not impressed by newspaper headlines that far too often scream criticism when police officers discharge their firearms at people holding toy guns. Although many national newspaper journalists have received training from the police to explain the problems experienced by police officers in this context, it has done nothing to adjust Fleet street's view.
Armed police always try to be one step ahead of the game, so they have tried to learn lessons from America and through travelling abroad. We must recognise the difficulties faced by police officers, especially in the light of the tragic deaths of police officers who are faced with firearms while acting in the execution of
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their duty—whether the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher from the Libyan embassy, which we all remember, or more recent incidents involving police officers who have sadly been shot and killed. It would be helpful for police officers not to face the stigma of automatic referral to something called a complaints body. A new organisation is being established. We have the opportunity to name the commission, and we may regret not taking the opportunity to get the title correct.
I hope that the Government will take this small but significant amendment seriously. Even if they cannot accept it today, I hope that the Under-Secretary will tell us that he will keep thinking about it. He may agree in the end, because of the automatic referral to the commission of any police officer who discharges a firearm. ''Police Conduct Commission'' would be a better title.
Patrick Mercer (Newark): I can shed light on the matter through personal experience. In August 1975, I was commanding a platoon of infantry in County Londonderry. I became involved in what was later referred to as a gun battle with the IRA. As a 19-year-old second lieutenant, that was highly exciting to me. However, on return to the police barracks—I use the phrase that the Royal Ulster Constabulary would have used at the time—I was surprised to be interviewed under caution, first by the Royal Military Police and secondly by the RUC, as if I had committed some crime. I do not believe that I had; I was carrying out my duty to the Queen, and was doing so within the law, quite rightly.
I am talking about considerably more violent times than the present. I understood that RUC officers went through a similar procedure. I bow to the experience of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), which in many ways is much greater than mine, although perhaps not of quite the same level. RUC officers were frequently involved in gun battles, and in the use of plastic and wooden baton rounds. When injury was inflicted, or when there was the intention to inflict injury, it ended up with officers being interviewed by the Police Complaints Authority, as it was then called. Those interviews, all of which went on their records, occurred so frequently that they became almost a matter of pride. They did them no harm; in fact, in some ways, they could have been regarded almost as a slight professional brag that the officer was involved in such difficult policing.
That force was fighting an extremely difficult enemy, and was conducting itself in a very difficult situation. To that force, such interviews were everyday occurrences. Indeed, a degree of ennui spread among the RUC officers about that understandable but, to borrow a phrase from my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), pejorative business that they went through.
My experience with the Nottinghamshire constabulary does not suggest that the circumstances are the same. Luckily, violence such as that which I have just described does not occur often in my neck of the woods of Nottinghamshire. It might be more
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frequent in Nottingham, but it does not happen often in Newark. However, there is definite resentment among officers who serve with that constabulary at the fact that, if they are involved in doing their duty to the best of their ability, often with bravery as has been said, it is put on their record that they have been in front of the Police Complaints Authority.
There is a feeling that if we have the chance to alter the name, it would be much fairer to the officers concerned if we struck the word ''Complaints'' from the title of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, and substituted it with the word ''Conduct''. If we did so, I am sure that the brave and always worthy officers in our police force would be much happier.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): The hon. Member for Surrey Heath—and the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer)—has reported the issue fairly to the Committee and has put the subject on the table in a way that can be well understood. His reporting of the correspondence between one of his hon. Friends and the person he mentions ensures that.
We have sympathy for the point of view being expressed, but the hon. Member for Surrey Heath has told the Committee what my right hon. Friend the Minister of State was reported as saying in that correspondence. We believe that, despite the fact that the name may be an issue, seeking to change the title of the Independent Police Complaints Commission now might create difficulties in itself. The name was widely accepted during the consultation process. We have had no representations for a change to the name—not from the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Police Authorities or from the Police Federation of England and Wales. We consulted on the matter. It has been on the table for a long time, and no one raised the issue of the title. We are worried that changing the name at this point in such a way would lead to difficulties. The matter would have to be considered seriously. A genuine issue is involved: ''Conduct'' will go wider than simply ''Complaints''. I am not detracting from the argument that is being advanced, but to do that would create difficulties.