§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)
With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the Government's response to the Home Affairs Committee report into police disciplinary and complaints procedures. I am placing in the Library a copy of the response to each of the Committee's conclusions and recommendations. I thank all members of the Committee for the thoroughness of their work.
I begin by praising the honesty and integrity of the vast majority of police officers in this country. Their job is a difficult and dangerous one. As a society, we make huge demands of them. We have a police service that is one of the finest in the world.
The reputation of the service is put at risk, however, by a very small minority of officers whose behaviour falls below the standards that the public rightly expect. The actions of those officers undermine the work of honest officers, and shake public confidence in the service as a whole.
I am therefore determined to give the police service the powers it needs to deal effectively with that small but corrosive minority of bad officers. The Home Affairs Committee's report made a compelling case for change. I am announcing today the steps that I am taking to implement most of its recommendations.
A debate on reform of these procedures has been going on for five years, since the previous Government launched a consultation paper in 1993. At the heart of that debate has been the issue whether arrangements in the service should be brought more into line with normal employment practice in other fields. The burden of the Home Affairs Committee's report is that they should.
The time has come for the Government to take decisions on the report's recommendations and to act upon them. I have been helped in this by the constructive and professional approach adopted by the Police Federation, the Police Superintendents Association and the Association of Chief Police Officers.
One illustration of this approach is the widespread agreement already achieved with the staff associations that the police need new procedures for tackling poor performance by individual officers, and procedures that are separate and different from those needed to deal with disciplinary matters. I accept the Committee's recommendation that the new procedures should be introduced without delay.
Let me deal first with procedures for discipline. First, I have decided that the standard of proof in disciplinary cases should be changed from the criminal to the civil standard. I am alive to the argument that some officers might be less likely to tackle criminal behaviour through anxiety that this change could leave them vulnerable to unfounded or malicious complaints. However, the civil standard of proof has operated fairly in the police service in Scotland, and there is no evidence that this has undermined officers' effectiveness there.
Moreover, I have every confidence that, with this change, police officers as a group will continue to act in the public interest. Nevertheless, I am discussing with the 22 police associations the possibility of conducting attitudinal research to monitor the effect of the change among police officers.
There are circumstances in which conduct may constitute a breach of discipline although it has not been proved to be a criminal offence. However, at present an officer acquitted of a criminal offence may not be charged with an equivalent disciplinary offence, principally because the standard of proof is the same in criminal and in disciplinary proceedings. In future it will be possible for officers to face both disciplinary and criminal action on the same facts. This will bring the police into line with the position of most others in the public and private sectors.
I am also accepting the Committee's recommendation to end the "right of silence" of officers in disciplinary hearings, and to apply the same modified caution as laid down in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
At the moment, officers who face the loss of their job or rank as a result of a disciplinary proceeding are entitled to legal representation at all stages of formal disciplinary action. The Committee recommended that this right should be maintained only for those officers who are at risk of losing their jobs.
However, I have decided to retain the status quo, so that officers facing reduction in rank also retain their right to legal representation. In addition, I am rejecting the Committee's recommendation that discipline hearings should be held in public—although the public have a right to know the outcome of proceedings, it would in my view be manifestly unfair to officers facing discipline to have their cases dealt with at a public hearing.
For the most serious cases, the Committee recommended that chief officers should have available to them a system of "fast track" dismissal. I have decided to accept this recommendation. This system will need detailed and careful work before it can be ready for implementation. There will be discussions with the police staff associations about the appropriate procedure. The fast-track procedure will be within a framework of a fixed timetable of no more than six weeks from beginning to end. The procedure would include the right to legal representation and the right of appeal. Officers will be able to be suspended from duty immediately, as is the case now.
There is one serious defect in the present practice that causes very great public concern. This is where a police officer's retirement on ill-health grounds is agreed before disciplinary proceedings can be completed, thus ending all prospect of disciplinary action against an officer. As the House knows, the inability to complete disciplinary hearings after the Hillsborough disaster has quite rightly been a cause of great anger and frustration to the families of victims.
The procedures will therefore be strengthened so that where accused officers claim that they are unable, through ill health, to appear at disciplinary hearings, matters can be decided in their absence, but with appropriate safeguards. I shall also be securing a rigorous application of the existing regulations so that any outstanding disciplinary matters have to be completed before any application for early retirement can be considered.
I intend to take firm action against officers convicted of criminal offences connected with their work. At present, police authorities may apply to me for a 23 certificate to forfeit the pension of any such officer, but this is at their discretion. In future, police authorities will be asked to refer all such cases to me automatically. It is abhorrent that public money should be paid out to those very few officers who are convicted of criminal offences and who abuse their position of trust.
It is my aim to introduce all these changes in England and Wales with effect from 1 April 1999. As the Northern Ireland discipline regime mirrors the one for England and Wales, I have consulted my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on my response. My right hon. Friend agrees with my proposals, and will be implementing them in Northern Ireland.
Let me turn now to the Committee's recommendations on complaints, which need to be considered separately. Independence and openness are the key to greater public confidence in the police complaints system. The Committee's proposals point the way forward. However, some of its proposals require legislation, and many have significant resource implications. Against that background, I intend to make progress on those changes that do not require primary legislation.
I accept the Committee's recommendation that the Home Office should conduct a detailed feasibility study of different arrangements for an independent police complaints investigation process. I also accept the Committee's view that, in the absence of a totally new investigative body, fundamental changes to the complaints process would be premature, but that, in the meantime, the Police Complaints Authority should make robust use of its existing powers.
I accept in principle the Committee's recommendation that the PCA be given the powers and the funds to commission independent investigations in cases where there is reason to believe that the existing process is inadequate. However, that would involve significant extra costs, which I am afraid make early change here unlikely.
The Committee recommended that either the PCA or any other independent review body should be able to undertake investigations whether or not the matter has been the subject of a complaint. In the light of this, I am minded to propose that, as Home Secretary, I should be given a power to request or require the PCA to initiate and oversee such investigations where this is in the public interest.
Many people make a complaint about the police, which, for one reason or another, is not then recorded. The Committee proposes a relatively straightforward change to the recording of complaints, which would make the current system more responsive to public concerns. It suggests that all representations that could constitute a complaint should be registered by the police, with a right of appeal to an independent body for the complainant where there is a disagreement; and that it should be possible for a complaint to be registered directly with the PCA in certain circumstances. I accept those recommendations.
I have considerable sympathy with the criticism of the Committee that the existing arrangements are not sufficiently open to public scrutiny. The Committee therefore recommended that investigating officers' reports should be subject to disclosure on the same basis as other documents relating to a complaint. It also recommended 24 that investigation files relating to deaths in custody should generally be made available to the deceased's family before inquests.
Those recommendations raise difficult issues. The reports of investigating officers form a class that the courts have ruled is entitled to public interest immunity, although the police can be directed to disclose a report where a court is satisfied that the public interest of disclosure would outweigh the public interest of preserving confidentiality.
On inquests, the High Court has held that a person is not entitled in advance of the inquest to see copies of statements provided by the police to coroners. At the moment, the release of such documents is at the discretion of the police, but I accept some of the Committee's criticisms, and I am therefore giving further consideration to the scope for changes in this area.
My detailed response to the Committee deals with other confidence-building changes that it has recommended. Some of the recommendations on the complaints system that I have accepted will require primary legislation. The Government will look for suitable opportunities to introduce such changes. Much detailed work and consultation is required with ACPO, the police staff associations, the Association of Police Authorities, and other interested parties. This further work and consultation will begin straight away.
In considering the Committee's recommendations, I have paid full regard to the implications for all police officers who every day fight crime and disorder, and who protect the public. I have no intention of making police officers more vulnerable to malicious complaints about the way in which they do their jobs; but, equally, we must deal robustly with wrongdoing by a very small minority of police officers if public trust is to be preserved. Uppermost in my mind has been protecting the deservedly high reputation and standing of the police service as a whole.
In this country, we police by public consent, and that consent depends on public confidence and trust. The measures that I have announced today will strengthen the people's trust and confidence in their police service, and I commend them to the House.
§ Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for letting me have a copy of his statement in advance. As I think he already knows, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney), the shadow Home Secretary, is unable to be present because he is at a funeral.
Before making a number of detailed points, let me ask the Home Secretary whether he agrees that the overwhelming majority of our policemen and women are honest, decent and brave, and that they are as anxious as anyone for the small minority whose conduct falls below the required standard to be dealt with effectively.
Is the Home Secretary satisfied that the new arrangements following the change from a criminal to a civil standard of proof in disciplinary cases will contain sufficient safeguards to protect honest and decent police officers from unfounded and malicious complaints? In particular, is he satisfied that there will be sufficient safeguards in cases in which serious allegations have been made, and in which serious sanctions could follow? Will 25 the same standard of proof—which is now to be the civil standard—apply in both the less serious and the more serious types of case? What will the position be in cases that could lead to criminal charges?
The Home Secretary has said that he is alive to the risk that some officers might be less likely to tackle criminal behaviour through anxiety as a result of the changes that he has announced today. Will the research into attitudes to which he referred take full account of that, and will that research be wide-ranging and cover each of the 43 police forces? Does the Home Secretary accept that there is a difference between criminal behaviour on the part of an officer and inadequacy on the part of an officer in the face of a particular situation, and does he agree that the disciplinary procedure should reflect that? On the fast-track procedures, will regard be given in future to the need not to prejudice a criminal trial when such procedures are operating? There is also the question of retirement on ill-health grounds before disciplinary proceedings. Will it be possible for disciplinary hearings to be held under existing arrangements when an officer cannot be present as a result of ill health?
If hearings can be held under existing arrangements, will the Home Secretary tell us exactly what changes he is proposing? Will he also say whether any of the measures that he proposes will have an effect on police officers' own pension contributions? Will he tell us what will be the remit of the feasibility study for an independent complaints process, and whether its report will be published? Finally, does the Home Secretary agree that, in seeking to deal with corrupt and bad police officers, we should never lose sight of the need to protect good and honest police officers, who form the vast majority?
§ Mr. Straw
I entirely accept that the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) cannot be present because he is attending a funeral. I also entirely concur—as was suggested by my opening remarks—with the opening and closing observations of the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) about the high levels of probity among the vast majority of police officers. The changes in the disciplinary process are needed to protect not only the public, but through officers.
The hon. Gentleman asks eight specific questions; I shall deal with them as quickly as I can. Will there be sufficient safeguards to insure against unfounded malicious complaints that lead to disciplinary action? Yes, I believe that there will be. One of the matters that the Select Committee considered is whether there should be a new offence of making a malicious complaint, but it decided against that. The associations, which made the suggestion, are not especially enthusiastic about it, although I have already told them privately that if they can make a strong argument in the light of experience, I shall consider it. The vast majority of investigations that lead to serious disciplinary action being taken against police officers are not promoted by complaints from members of the public, but arise through internal investigations by the police.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether the burden of proof would be the same in serious, less serious and more serious cases. Yes, it would be but the application of that burden of proof in practice will be higher the more serious the case, because that is the way in which tribunals operate.
26 The hon. Gentleman also asks whether the research into attitudes, which we are discussing with the police associations, would take full account of the anxieties of police officers—yes, it would. He also asks whether it would examine practice in all 43 forces. I doubt whether that would be possible, because it would inevitably be a sample survey, but we shall cover as much of the country as we can.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether I accept that there is a clear distinction between criminal behaviour by a small minority of officers and officers' inadequate conduct in the heat of circumstances. I accept that. One of the changes that the associations have already embraced is a need to deal with poor performance in a separate way from disciplinary processes.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether the fast-track procedure should be set up in a way that should not prejudice criminal trials. That will be a sine qua non of using that procedure. Disciplinary action that leads to the dismissal of an individual but does not prejudice a subsequent criminal trial can be taken in many other walks of life, such as the Prison Service and the police service in Scotland.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether existing arrangements provide for the hearing of cases of officers who are absent on grounds of ill health. In practice, they do not. I shall write to him about whether the small print provides that they should, but, whatever it says, the truth is that at the moment officers can evade proceedings on disciplinary grounds if they put in a sick note.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether the feasibility study into complaints will be published. I intend to publish as much of it as possible.
§ Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)
I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement: rarely has a Select Committee report been responded to as swiftly and as fully as this one. Will he accept from me that this is a good day not only for those of us who care about upholding public confidence in the police, but for the Select Committee system as a whole?
It is now up to chief officers robustly to use the new disciplinary powers that they have been given and not, as some have in the past, to fail to use the powers at their disposal when they should have done.
I was not sure what my right hon. Friend was saying on complaints, but one of the difficulties presented to us during our investigation was that chief constables occasionally refused to refer a complaint to the Police Complaints Authority: the authority wanted to pursue a complaint, but it was hamstrung. Is my right hon. Friend saying that he will allow the PCA to pursue complaints that it deems should be pursued?
§ Mr. Straw
I thank my hon. Friend, who is the Chairman of the Select Committee, for his remarks. I pay tribute to members of the Select Committee for their work, but I particularly want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend. I entirely share his view that this is a good day for the Select Committee process.
In 1979, the Leader of the House, Mr. St. John-Stevas, as he was then, proposed the establishment of the departmental Select Committee. There was some scepticism about whether the process would advance the work of the House. I am in no doubt that it has, and this 27 report shows that a Select Committee is far better placed than an interdepartmental inquiry to bring out the issues that are central to the problem of police complaints and discipline. It is a good example of Parliament and Government working together.
I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) that I shall urge chief officers to use these powers robustly. The Police Federation has said that chief officers have not used some of their present powers robustly, and that is a fair criticism. They have the power not to allow retirements on ill health until disciplinary processes have been completed. Too often, they have taken the easy way out and have got rid of a bad apple by allowing him to retire early: they must stop doing that.
My hon. Friend asked whether the Police Complaints Authority will be able, of its own volition, to initiate an inquiry if a chief officer fails to pass a case on to the authority. I propose that the Home Secretary of the day should be given the power to direct the PCA to initiate an inquiry in such circumstances.
§ Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)
The Liberal Democrats welcome the Select Committee report, and are pleased that the Home Secretary has responded to it so positively. Will he explain how he plans to widen access to the findings of the complaints procedure?
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) and I expressed concern about the use of public interest immunity to block a recent report into the goings-on at Harrogate police station after allegations of serious sexual harassment. Does the Home Secretary share our view that greater rather than less access is in the public interest? Will he rectify the current situation whereby large amounts of taxpayers' money are spent but no findings are published?
Will the new restrictions on retirement and ill health apply to all ranks, including the most senior? Some of the more controversial cases in recent years have involved senior ranks up to chief constable. Will they be subject to the same rules? Will the Home Secretary consider putting in place a mechanism whereby junior officers can raise issues of concern about the use of the lower burden of proof? We share the Committee's view that the lower standard of proof is appropriate, but junior officers have a legitimate concern about possible abuse by senior officers. Does the Home Secretary plan to offer junior officers a way to raise such concerns?
I hope that the Home Secretary shares our view that the outcome of these changes should be an increase in the morale of the police by sorting out the odd few bad apples, and an increase in public confidence, which should be a good measure of whether the system is effective. People should go through the formal procedure rather than resort to the civil courts, as they have increasingly been doing.
§ Mr. Straw
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for my statement and for the work of the Select Committee.
I am giving further consideration to the complicated problem of providing greater public access to the findings of the complaints procedure. People who are subjected to the disciplinary process have rights, which is why the 28 courts have taken the view that public interest immunity should apply to them as a class, save if a court decides that PII should not apply in the interests of justice.
We are considering whether, under the Freedom of Information Bill, some of the constraints on the publication of reports by the Police Complaints Authority should be lifted. I shall inform the House of my conclusions at a later stage.
The new proposals will apply to ranks up to and including the rank of chief superintendent. Discipline of ACPO ranks—chief officers—are dealt with by police authorities. I accept that there may be some implications for police authorities, and we shall discuss those matters with the Association of Police Authorities, the Association of Chief Police Officers and the new staff association for chief officers, whose new acronym I forget.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether I accept that police officers may have some legitimate concern about the way in which the new process, particularly the lowering of the burden of proof, will work. I accept that there is some concern, and I have discussed that with the Police Federation. I hope that, over time, the concern is allayed. It has not been a problem for the police service in Scotland, or within the Prison Service. Even after a chief officer's disciplinary finding, there is a careful, two-stage appeal process, first to an independent tribunal and then to the Secretary of State himself.
Lastly, the hon. Gentleman asks whether I believe that the changes will raise police morale. Yes, I firmly believe that, because police morale and the dedicated, hard-working majority of officers are severely and disproportionately damaged by the work of a bad minority.
§ Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)
Is the Home Secretary aware that the only occasion on which I received a certain amount of barracking from a small section of the audience at a Police Federation conference was when I announced proposals on police discipline that were exactly the same as those that he has announced? Would he not be deterred by that, because I think that, in the many years that have followed, opinion has moved yet further, and that the vast majority of honest, hard-working police officers in the federation and elsewhere will accept that the proposals will enhance the already high reputation of the police service and not be a threat to it?
Has the Home Secretary firmly decided beyond further consultation that the possibility of disciplinary proceedings following acquittal on a criminal charge will proceed? It must be right to say that the facts that might demonstrate innocence on the criminal charge could still illustrate conduct that falls far below that which is expected of a serving police officer. It must be right for chief constables to consider that.
As many cases can give rise to criminal proceedings against a police officer or against a complainant and to possible disciplinary proceedings against a police officer, following his earlier reply, would the Home Secretary say that, in all ordinary circumstances, it must be right for the question of criminal prosecution and criminal proceedings to be disposed of altogether before any disciplinary proceedings start? It is difficult to conceive how, under the fast-track procedure or in any other way, criminal proceedings might not be prejudiced by findings at a 29 disciplinary proceeding to the disadvantage of either the officer or the cause of justice if the complainant benefits from a rather abrupt disciplinary hearing.
§ Mr. Straw
I pay tribute to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his work on this matter. I am sure that the robust line which I have no doubt he took in dealing with this matter before the Police Federation some five or six years ago has helped to open up the debate. It is a matter for regret that, although his successor as Home Secretary initially endorsed the position that the right hon. and learned Gentleman when he was Home Secretary set out in a speech to the Police Superintendents Association in September 1993, he later backed off from making those changes. Some of them could have been introduced some time ago if it had not been for that.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks whether I accept that the changes may result in officers being dealt with under the disciplinary process although they have been acquitted by a criminal court. The answer is that, by changing the burden of proof, that must be the case. In some instances, officers either will not be proceeded against on a criminal charge because of the Crown Prosecution Service's view of the evidence, or will be proceeded against and acquitted but may still, rightly, be found guilty under a disciplinary process.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks whether I accept that, in all but the most exceptional cases, the criminal trial should be dealt with before any disciplinary processes are disposed of. I do not accept that. It depends on individual circumstances. It is rare for a police officer to face a charge of dishonesty, except in grave circumstances, and I am advised by the chief officers concerned that, in many such cases, it is essential for the officers to be dealt with, disciplined and away from the police service before the inevitably much longer criminal processes take their course.
However, I have made it clear that it is self-evidently critical that disciplinary processes in these circumstances would precede a criminal process only where the Crown Prosecution Service has taken the view that subsequent court proceedings would not be prejudiced.
§ Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)
I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. Does he agree that the big difficulty is that the police are still seen to be investigating complaints themselves? I urge him to drive on as quickly as possible with measures to enable a more independent Police Complaints Authority to handle these matters sensibly, fairly and effectively, to attract the support of both police and public.
§ Mr. Straw
I certainly accept that part of the problem with the perception of the existing system is that the police are seen to be investigating themselves. This is a system that has grown up. It has been the subject of criticism by the Select Committee on Home Affairs, by hon. Members on both sides of the House and, it is fair to say, by the Police Federation, which represents the majority of officers, who also want an independent investigative process.
That said, my experience is that, precisely because the police investigate themselves, they conduct almost all these investigations with great rigour and considerable independence. However, there remains the problem of public perception.
30 It is for that reason that I have undertaken to conduct the feasibility studies to find out ways in which we can inject greater independence into the process of investigation of serious matters. I do not think that there is any case for greater independence in the process of investigating less serious matters, which, in other walks of life, are dealt with by internal management in any case.
My hon. Friend calls for a more independent PCA. The PCA is robustly independent. The issue is not its independence, but the independence of the investigative process itself.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)
I welcome the Home Secretary's statement, and agree with much of it. However, may I direct the right hon. Gentleman to two issues: the balance of burden of proof, and pensions? Does he accept that, in serious cases, there must be great concern if the burden of proof is the civil one rather than the criminal one? Will he please look at that again?
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, although it is right that forfeiting a pension entitlement should be considered when a police officer is convicted, it is also right that the rules of proportionality should be observed, and that pensions should not always be forfeited; that should happen only in serious cases? Will he deal with the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on a police officer's contributions? Those are contributions that the police officer has made. Are they to be forfeit as well? That would seem to be a form of expropriation.
§ Mr. Straw
I do not accept the right hon. and learned Gentleman's view that there will be great concern about the change in the burden of proof. I know that he took a different view when the matter came before the Select Committee. I think that, overwhelmingly, the advantage is in changing the burden of proof. There is no question of that in my mind. The only result of the present very high burden of proof is that police officers who are obviously guilty of the most serious corrupt practices are able to get away with their crimes—and crimes they are.
However, I have already said that I accept that there are anxieties among police officers. We will monitor the case. We will discuss how to do so in a positive way through attitudinal research, the terms of which we will agree with the police associations.
On the issue of forfeiting pensions, the right hon. and learned Gentleman asks whether I accept that the rules of proportionality should apply. Yes, of course I do. The sorts of case that we are thinking of are those in which police officers have been convicted of very serious corruption charges. In those circumstances, I do not believe that it is right for such officers to go on drawing pensions at public expense even while they are still in prison. That is unacceptable and has to end, but what I am talking about—to answer his third question—is that part of the pension that has been provided at public expense, not that part of a pension that is being provided out of the deferred salary of the police officer himself or herself.
§ Helen Jones (Warrington, North)
I welcome my right hon. Friend's reference to the tragedy suffered by the families involved in the Hillsborough disaster. Does he 31 accept that one of the greatest griefs felt by those families is that one of the senior police officers involved was able to avoid disciplinary proceedings by retiring? Can he assure the House that that will not happen in similar cases in future? Will he take this opportunity to deal with the concern of those families that what he is introducing today cannot be made retrospective?
§ Mr. Straw
As I said in my statement, I accept that the families and friends who lost loved ones at Hillsborough are right to be angry about the fact that disciplinary proceedings were avoided by an early retirement. That matter is made even worse because the regulation that exists today, and which I believe existed eight or nine years ago, gives police chiefs a discretion not to allow a retirement in such a case. Therefore, I am not changing the regulation: I am ensuring its rigorous enforcement.
My hon. Friend asked why I could not make the changes retrospective. It is a fundamental principle that new criminal or disciplinary proceedings cannot be imposed retrospectively. It would not stand up in a court here, where it would plainly be seen as an abuse of process; nor would it stand up in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
§ Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)
Further to the exchanges about Hillsborough, and as the right hon. Gentleman made it clear that the start date is to be 1 April, will he clarify whether any new disciplinary cases opened after today, which relate to alleged offences that have either already taken place or that take place before the start date, will be covered under the old procedures for burden of proof?
§ Mr. Straw
I think that the hon. Gentleman may have misheard me. The start date is 1 April 1999, not 1998. There is a great deal of work to be done to ensure that the regulations are properly drafted. I wish that we could begin before that date, but we cannot. I will write to the hon. Gentleman in detail about the point at which the start date will come into operation. My anticipation is that it will operate from the point at which a disciplinary offence is committed.
§ Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harrington)
My right hon. Friend may be aware that I have tabled a number of questions about disciplinary procedures in each police authority, asking for information on the number, the duration, the cost and the outcome, including any early retirements by any officers involved. Is my right hon. Friend aware that there has been some concern about the number, the duration, the cost overall, and the lack of outcome from those inquiries? That is why I welcome the proposals that he has announced today.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the number of police inquires are a direct reflection of a failure in management? What measures will be put in place to strengthen management within the police service to accompany the reforms?
§ Mr. Straw
I share my hon. Friend's concern about the lack of outcome in quite a number of the inquiries. They can be enormously disproportionately expensive, continue for years, tie up huge numbers of officers, and then produce no outcome. No one is satisfied with such a process.
32 The issue of management is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Managers in the police service, from sergeants upwards, know that bad officers can plead a right of silence that is now far more comprehensive than that available to their criminal suspects. They also, rightly, have very good legal advice made available to them. Therefore, they can give the run-around to managers, especially those who may not be at the highest level. In some forces, that has led to a management retreat from taking on officers who are corrupt or who operate below the standards expected of them.
It is my hope and anticipation that these changes will strengthen the management of the police service at every level, and I certainly intend to ensure that that happens.
§ Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)
In joining the Home Secretary in congratulating the Home Affairs Select Committee on its excellent report, may I ask him to draw to the attention of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House this rare occasion on which a Select Committee report has been dealt with so promptly, to the added credibility of the Select Committee system and its importance in holding the Executive to account?
Will the right hon. Gentleman also explain how, given the fact that disciplinary hearings have rightly been held in private, matters will enter the public domain so that those who have made the complaint will know the results of that complaint?
Finally, will the regulations apply to the Ministry of Defence police as well?
§ Mr. Straw
I shall pass on the hon. Gentleman's point about Select Committee reports to my right hon. Friend the President of the Council. Meanwhile, I concur with his congratulations to the Select Committee and—if I may say so—I accept his congratulations to myself.
The hon. Gentleman asks how complainants will know what has happened to the complaint; as happens now, they will be written to. He also asks whether the public will be able to attend disciplinary hearings against police officers. That does not happen in any other employment cases, so I thought that it would be unacceptable to apply it to the police.
It is worth drawing to the attention of the House the fact—if I may repeat it—that the overwhelming majority of disciplinary cases, particularly those involving serious allegations against police officers, have not arisen as a result of a complaint either by a suspect or by members of the public: they have arisen as a result of internal investigations by the police. The hon. Gentleman asks whether the changes will apply to the Ministry of Defence police. No, they will not specifically apply to them, but I shall certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.
§ Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)
I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, but I think that he said that the police force involved in the Hillsborough tragedy could have required the senior officer responsible to undergo the disciplinary proceedings that he was finally spared by retiring on the ground of ill health. If my right hon. Friend encountered such a situation in future and felt that a senior officer had been let off the hook, what steps would he 33 take, or be able to take, to ensure that the senior managers of the force discharged their responsibility in carrying out disciplinary proceedings more fully?
§ Mr. Straw
I hope that, following the changes that I have announced today—they will come into force on 1 April next year—such a circumstance will not be able to arise. We are tightening up the regulations and imposing much clearer guidance, both on police authorities and on chief officers, about the operation of the disciplinary procedures.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
I add my appreciation to that of other hon. Members of the Home Secretary's endorsement of the majority of the Select Committee's recommendations on the enhancements of police discipline and performance in the service.
In the concluding remarks of his statement, the right hon. Gentleman said that consent in policing depends on public confidence. Is he absolutely confident that, when the new police authority for London is established, the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis will receive the full political backing that he will require to take on some of the tough cases of corruption that we know exist in the Metropolitan force? Currently, that backing is provided by the Home Secretary in person, who is answerable to the House of Commons.
§ Mr. Straw
I am quite sure that the police authority for London will give the Commissioner of the day full backing for the investigation of any complaints against individual police officers on disciplinary matters. The hon. Gentleman uses the phrase "full political backing". I make it clear to him that chief police officers have duties that are entirely separate from those of police authorities in disciplinary matters up to and including the rank of chief superintendent.
Chief officers across the country decide to initiate proceedings—or have them initiated—against members of their forces not on political grounds, but on the basis of the evidence that is put before them. I have no doubt whatever that that will continue to be the case in the Metropolitan police district.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
Does my right hon. Friend recall that, in the past year, the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis and the chief constable of the West Midlands both stated that they were unable to deal with dishonest and corrupt police officers under the present circumstances?
I welcome the announcement that my right hon. Friend has accepted a change in the disciplinary system. Does he agree that it will be welcomed not only by chief constables but by the vast majority of honest police officers—the very people he mentioned—who are ashamed of having in their ranks the small number of corrupt and dishonest officers who are rotten to the core, and that the sooner the bad ones go, the better it will be for the police, good order and the community as a whole?
§ Mr. Straw
My hon. Friend is quite right to draw to our attention the remarks of a number of senior chief officers who gave evidence to the Select Committee, including the current Commissioner of Police of the 34 Metropolis, Sir Paul Condon, who complained about the inadequacies of the present system. He saidThe system must allow for the effective investigation and punishment of wrongdoerswithin the police service.
My hon. Friend was also right to say that the changes will be welcomed by police officers of every rank. The issue reminds me of the situation with teachers: the people who suffer most from bad teachers are the overwhelming majority of good teachers. Those who suffer most, alongside the public, from bad police officers are the overwhelming majority of good police officers.
§ Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)
I welcome the Home Secretary's statement. Does he recognise the role of police authorities in assuring, in the public interest, the probity and rigour of the complaints and disciplinary procedures? Will he consider the value as a tool of police management of assessing the pattern and number of complaints, whether substantiated or not, against individual officers or units of command?
§ Mr. Straw
I certainly recognise the importance of police authorities in ensuring that adequate procedures are established for dealing with discipline and complaints within their services. I acknowledge that the pattern and number of complaints may be an indicator of a police force's performance, but such figures should be used with care, because the number of complaints arising in a difficult-to-police inner-city area is always likely to be higher than in quieter, more rural areas, and that is no criticism of the police concerned.
§ Madam Speaker
Seven hon. Members are rising who have been doing so for a long time. If we can proceed without repetition and with a little speed, I should like to call them all.
§ Gillian Merron (Lincoln)
I welcome my right hon. Friend's clear and pragmatic statement, and in particular his commitment to greater openness, which, as he will know, is a big issue in Lincolnshire. I discussed that issue at a recent meeting with him arising from the case of Inspector Dena Fleming, who alleged sex discrimination against her employers and was suspended for two years on disciplinary charges that were subsequently dropped, following a report by Humberside police that remains under wraps, and an industrial tribunal ruling of victimisation.
Will my right hon. Friend give me some assurances about the fast-track dismissal proposals, especially when victimisation is involved, as Inspector Fleming might have had more of a struggle to clear her name had the chief constable had the opportunity to dismiss her earlier?
§ Mr. Straw
I understand my hon. Friend's concerns. As she said, they have already been the subject of a meeting between us. The proposal for fast-track dismissals is not for the kind of case that she has in mind but for a situation in which a police officer has been caught red-handed committing a serious crime of dishonesty or corruption; the evidence against him or her is overwhelming; and it is in the public interest for that 35 officer to be removed from the service as quickly as possible. Even in those circumstances, the officer would have full legal representation, and there would be a proper right of appeal.
§ Mr. David Lock (Wyre Forest)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that nothing saps the morale of police officers more than going through an investigation, giving evidence in court and finding that it is not accepted by the jury because of their lack of confidence in the police? Does he equally agree that, if police officers give evidence in court and it is not only not accepted but shown not to be correct, counsel, the Crown Prosecution Service and other officers ought to have a duty to ensure that disciplinary action is considered promptly and efficiently against the officer in such circumstances?
§ Ms Jenny Jones (Wolverhampton, South-West)
My right hon. Friend says that disciplinary hearings will not be heard in public. Therefore, who will have access to the written record of such proceedings?
§ Mr. Straw
The outcome of the proceedings would be made public to the complainant if there were one, and otherwise to the police authority. As I said, in the overwhelming majority of serious cases there is no public complainant, because the investigation has been prompted by internal police processes and not by a complaint from a member of the public.
§ Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)
Is the Home Secretary aware that deep outrage persists over the Hillsborough tragedy, partly because officers were allowed to escape disciplinary procedures, despite the Police Complaints Authority's claim that they had neglected their duty? Can he offer any hope whatsoever that the officers concerned will have to face justice; and can he offer any other forum to enable parents to pursue their concerns?
§ Mr. Straw
As my hon. Friend knows, and as I have explained in her presence to parents and relatives of those who died at Hillsborough, with great regret, I cannot offer any comfort to those seeking a disciplinary process at this distance against officers alleged to have been responsible through negligence for what happened. It would be wrong of me to hold out that hope, because it cannot be fulfilled.
We want to ensure that such a circumstance does not happen again and that the Police Complaints Authority does not, as happened at Hillsborough, again recommend disciplinary action against officers who then retire through ill health and so escape any disciplinary process. That is wrong, and everyone knows it. I am trying to ensure that it does not happen again.
§ Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)
May I welcome the speed of this response? If the same action had been taken following the speech by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) in 1993, how many officers would not have walked away without being the subject of disciplinary investigations?
36 On his suggestion about examining more independent inquiries, will my right hon. Friend consider whether it would be appropriate to establish an automatic system of independent inquiry into cases of members of the public who are shot dead by an armed policeman? One of the great strengths of this country is that our police are not armed. There are questions about how effective the PCA is in investigating such matters, and there is a case for inquiries to be automatic on such occasions.
§ Mr. Straw
On my hon. Friend's first question, when the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) was Home Secretary, he proceeded with great vigour on the issue. Sadly, he was translated to Great George street as Chancellor of the Exchequer in May 1993, and then, as far as police discipline was concerned, the system went into reverse. I cannot say how many corrupt police officers escaped their just deserts as a result of the failure of my immediate predecessor to implement the recommendations of his predecessor, but some must have done so.
My hon. Friend also asks whether, under the PCA, there could be an automatic independent inquiry if someone was shot by the police. Such matters should not be subject to a system that is wholly separate from the other procedures that we are establishing.
At the moment, if a death appears to have been caused by police action—however justified that action—the PCA automatically launches an inquiry. By definition, at the moment that investigation is undertaken by a police force, but by a different police force. Any changes should wait on general changes to the system and the introduction more generally of an independent element for investigations.
§ Mr. Ross Cranston (Dudley, North)
As a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, may I, too, warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement? Is not the answer to the point about the standard of proof raised by Conservative Members that the civil standard operates in other comparable jurisdictions and for other professional bodies perfectly satisfactorily?
§ Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton)
I thank my right hon. Friend for keeping his promise to the Hillsborough families by making these proposals. I know that he has met them, and has been closely involved.
I am concerned that, while the officer involved, Chief Superintendent Duckenfield, was thought unfit to be able to carry on, the families had to go through independent inquiries, mini-inquests, inquests and further emotional, difficult time—and they are still fighting. That is an ironic comparison.
Given that disciplinary proceedings were at one time contemplated, I am worried about the behaviour of the South Yorkshire force. Disinformation and propaganda were used to try to defend the police officers in charge. That was not helpful in respect of subsequent disciplinary proceedings. In considering the detail of his proposals, will the Home Secretary examine how police forces react to high-profile disciplinary cases?
§ Mr. Straw
I thank my hon. Friend for his first remarks. There is no doubt that the families are right to 37 feel a strong sense of injustice about the failure of the system to secure disciplinary process against those who appear to have been responsible, through their negligence, for the dreadful disaster at Hillsborough so many years ago.
On the more general point about the behaviour of forces, the way in which some in the South Yorkshire police tried, quite wrongly, to minimise what had happened was a very unedifying saga, to say the least. In the words of Lord Justice Stuart-Smith, some, including Chief Superintendent Duckenfield, uttered "disgraceful lies" about who was responsible, in order to evade their own responsibility.
I cannot say that such circumstances will never happen again, but I can say that there has been a profound change in the culture and attitude of the police service since Hillsborough. I believe strongly that my announcement today will reinforce that change, and ensure much higher standards should such a disaster happen again.