There is an old adage that hard cases make bad law, which is one reason why I am wary of people concluding as a result of the latest revelations regarding Hillsborough that “something must be done”.
If you had asked me before the Hillsborough Independent Panel published their report what happened 23 years ago, I would have told you fairly confidently that as a result of decisions by senior police officers, 96 fans died. Anyone who has listened to fans who were there would have found it difficult to form any other conclusion. The fact that there has been no prosecution for corporate manslaughter or even disciplinary proceedings for negligence is a valid question – but the picture of what happened seemed pretty clear.
The “news” is not the actions which caused the deaths, but the scale of the cover-up that took place to ensure that no action was taken against those who were culpable.
The important question, particularly for those of us who want to take on the challenge of ensuring that the police are held to account is “could this happen again?”
Andrew Rawnsley was wrong to argue that the police are “the last unreformed public service” and “immune to radical reform” – actually I think some of the developments which he cites have had a profound effect on how the police see themselves. It is not true that all police officers were corrupt in 1989 any more than it would be true to say that they are all angels now. Any large organisation will have a range of individuals with different attitudes. Nor is it sensible to think we can ever eliminate all mistakes. The issue is how we create an environment which promotes learning from mistakes and ensures that those who make mistakes are held to account for them.
The test as to whether we have the right system in place is the answer to the following questions:
- How do we ensure that all those involved in the system – whether police officers, police staff or people working for other agencies – have a deep understanding of their own personal responsibility to draw attention to shortcomings which could put public safety at risk?
- How do we ensure that everyone understands that if someone senior does something wrong – in particular, fails to listen to and act upon serious concerns which are raised – those with concerns know who else to turn to, to ensure that their concerns are acted upon?
Back in 1989, I am not sure that an individual officer with important evidence that was being amended or suppressed by his or her superiors did have someone they could turn to. We know from one officer in this position that his refusal to amend his statement was simply ignored – something he only discovered when the recent report was published. We are all familiar with the saying “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” but it is not enough to be clear about right and wrong – we also need to ensure that those who put their careers on the line by defying their superiors have a reasonable expectation that they will be listened to. If it is likely that their evidence will be suppressed and the only guaranteed impact is that their career prospects are harmed, then we have a problem.
Today all police forces have a dedicated Professional Standards Unit which investigates complaints against serving police officers. All officers are reminded regularly that a failure to mention concerns regarding the behaviour of a colleague could lead to disciplinary charges being brought against them personally. Each Force has a confidential reporting mechanism and if an officer or member of staff has concerns about using this (for example because officers in the Professional Standards Unit are themselves involved in the incident in question), they can alternatively go to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). In certain circumstances, a Force is required to inform the IPCC so that they can undertake an investigation – without requiring a formal complaint or accusation of negligence. Deaths in custody are an example. Police Authorities regularly review the performance of their Professional Standards Unit and maintain close contact. As Commissioner I would expect to do the same.
This is not to say that all wrongdoers will be caught – but it is a much stronger governance framework than existed in 1989 and I hope that potential whistleblowers would now have the confidence to come forward and that this will help to dissuade those contemplating malpractice.
I am much less convinced by Andrew Rawnsley’s argument that this proves the need for the Government’s “reforms”. Change is not an end in itself: it needs to have a clear direction and purpose. I see no evidence that the changes proposed by Winsor would improve ethical standards. Indeed they are geared to moving police officers from being independent office holders answerable under law for their actions towards being treated as employees, with an obligation to their employer. But wasn’t the problem with the Hillsborough cover-up that officers followed orders instead of doing what was right?
I am even less convinced that the introduction of police commissioners offers a solution. Andrew Rawnsley quotes a minister who is an enthusiast for commissioners as saying “What would have happened in South Yorkshire in 1989 had there been an elected person in charge? Their whole purpose in life would have been to find out what the hell happened.”
Maybe – maybe not. Views of policing were awfully polarised at that time – a left wing Commissioner with strong memories of battles with miners may well have started off by assuming wrong-doing and thereby encouraged the Force to close ranks to deny the charge. It seems very likely that the motivation of the South Yorkshire Chief Constable was to prevent the public relations disaster of the Force being found to be negligent – a prospect that was seen as having serious consequences for the whole establishment. A Conservative politician from South Yorkshire was responsible for passing on vile slurs to the Sun: it is entirely possible that a Conservative Commissioner would have led the efforts to cover up the negligence.
The recent reported behaviour of the Government Chief Whip provides an interesting perspective on prevailing attitudes. This is not about whether it is good form to be rude to the servants or ungentlemanly to hurl abuse at a female officer, though there will be many in the Conservative Party who will think that both are bad form. It goes deeper than this: it is about whether public servants are seen as serving the public interest or the personal interests of Ministers and that the personal wishes of an individual Cabinet Minister can over-ride the security arrangements which have been put in place. The fact that the Prime Minister is willing to keep him in post despite evidence of conduct which was not only inappropriate, but would almost certainly have led to his arrest if he wasn’t a Cabinet Minister, says it all about the Prime Minister’s understanding of the need for integrity in public office.
Nor does that mean you can trust “independent” candidates over party candidates. That label can mask a refusal to explain their personal philosophy and influences. It doesn’t prove that they understand and respect the principles of good governance.
The real lesson is surely the need for checks and balances – to ensure that nobody is in a position that if they do wrong, get out of control or fail in their duties in some way that there is nobody who can take action. And this is the greatest failing by government in relation to the posts which will be elected in six weeks’ time: that Ministers refused to contemplate the possibility of a Commissioner failing in their duties and refused to put in place the checks and balances that were promised in the coalition agreement. Chief Executives are supposed to report publicly on the failings of a Commissioner – but must warn the Commissioner if they intend to do so. At which point they can be summarily dismissed by the Commissioner. It is an obvious flaw which I explained personally to the previous policing minister. He promised to address the issue – but nothing happened. The only grounds for removing a Commissioner for office are a criminal conviction. Not turning up for work for months on end wouldn’t do it, nor would a blatant failure to take action on an issue where action was needed. If a Commissioner decides they aren’t going to stand for re-election, the threat of facing the voters in four years’ time is meaningless. If their reputation is already in tatters, they may feel there is no point resigning and they may as well continue to draw the salary.
The only safeguard is the hope that the person elected as Commissioner will have integrity. That is why I resigned as Chief Executive to stand as Commissioner and why I intend to operate with the utmost integrity if elected and to seek consensus on the approach to policing in North Wales.
I am confident that if I am elected I will be able to build stronger relations between the police and the communities they serve and thereby build confidence in the police – that they will do the right thing and that when things go wrong, action will be taken to put things right. It is a challenge I look forward to.