POLICE DISCIPLINARY AND COMPLAINTS PROCEDURES
The Home Affairs Committee has agreed to the following Special
We have received the following note by the Home Secretary
and detailed response from the Home Office to our First Report
of Session 1997-98 on Police Disciplinary and Complaints Procedures.
NOTE BY THE HOME SECRETARY
For some years I have been concerned about the public disquiet
and the gradual but harmful erosion of confidence in the police
service. I therefore wish to start by repeating my firm belief,
which the Committee echo, in the honesty and integrity of the
vast majority of police officers. I have no doubt of it. As a
society we make incredible demands of them; their job is often
difficult and sometimes dangerous, and I pay tribute to them.
Public confidence has been shaken by a very small but extremely
damaging minority, and I have made no secret of my desire to reform
the system. The Committee's decision to inquire into the police
disciplinary and complaints procedures was therefore one I welcomed.
I am extremely grateful to them for the speed with which they
have carried out the inquiry and for their thorough and considered
report. As they acknowledge, much work has already been carried
out on the police discipline system over the past few years, and
the Committee's inquiry has been an extremely helpful contribution
to the debate. In this my response to the Committee's recommendations,
I am now ready to announce my plans for reforming the current
arrangements for dealing with police discipline and complaints.
I would like to pay tribute to the enormous contribution
made by the staff associations: the Association of Chief Police
Officers, the Superintendents' Association and the Police Federation
in their readiness to examine and question the existing system.
Their constructive and professional approach has assisted immeasurably
to the work which has already been done.
A procedure to deal with poor performance, rather than misconduct,
has already been formulated by members of the police staff associations
working together with officials. The Committee recommends that
it be introduced without delay, and this will be done. For the
first time, there will be provisions with which other employers
and employees have been familiar for many yearsa formal
system to identify poor performers, provide any remedial measures
necessary and, if there is no improvement, ultimately and by due
process to terminate the officer's employment. There is no question
of a summary processeverything which can be done will be
done to bring an officer's performance up to standard, but if
repeated efforts fail then police managers will have the means
to dispense with an officer's services.
The Committee also refers to the work which has been under
way to reform the disciplinary procedures. This has been considered
simultaneously with those to deal with inefficiency, though they
had not quite reached the same finished state. The Committee makes
several recommendations for reform of procedures for dealing with
misconduct by police officers.
Standard of proof/"malicious complaint" offence
The Committee recommends that the standard of proof to be
applied in formal discipline proceedings should be the civil standard
of the balance of probabilities. I accept this recommendaton.
I recognise and understand the concerns of some officers that
this will increase the susceptibility of police officers to malicious
complaints, but I am not persuaded that a lower standard of proof
would result in police officers being significantly more vulnerable
from malicious or frivolous complaints than now. Such complaints
are normally easily identifiable, and I know of no evidence which
demonstrates that formal discipline arises from a complaint which
is not a real one. Nevertheless, I am open to debate about the
possibility of a new offence of making a false or malicious complaint,
whilst I note the arguments considered by the committee in reaching
their decision that such a new offence would not be appropriate.
In reaching my decision that the standard of proof should
be changed, I also took account of arguments that it could affect
the way officers perform on the streetsthat they might
be less likely to engage in confronting criminal behaviour out
of anxiety that a lower standard of proof could find them guilty
of abuse of their powers. I am not persuaded that good police
officers will become less effective and proactive for this reason,
but I am exploring the possibility of conducting attitudinal research,
both now and in a few years' time when the new arrangements have
bedded down. Any evidence of real impact of this change on the
operational effectiveness of police officers would rightly reopen
I recognise that a lowering of the standard of proof will
have an effect on what is known as the double jeopardy situation.
At present an officer who is acquitted of a criminal offence may
not be charged with an equivalent discipline offence. The present
situation of the standard of proof being the same in criminal
and disciplinary proceedings is relevant, but so too is the factor
that conduct which has not been proved to be a breach of the criminal
law may nevertheless constitute a breach of discipline. I agree
with the Committee that the existing plan to scrap the double
jeopardy rule should be abolished, even while I recognise, as
do the Committee, that reducing the standard of proof for discipline
offences makes this decision more momentous than if I had decided
that the standard of proof should remain as "beyond reasonable
Right to legal representation
At present officers who face loss of job or rank as a result
of discipline proceedings are entitled to legal representation
at all stages of formal disciplinary action. This right is enshrined
in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and repeated in the
Police Act 1996. Chief Officers argued that it was not appropriate
for police officers to retain this right in what is essentially
part of an internal management process. The Superintendents' Association
and the Police Federation argued for retention on the basis that
officers who lost their jobs would not be able to work as police
officers again and so it was essential that they had access to
the best advice available when faced with such far-reaching consequences.
The Committee recommends that the right should be maintained for
those officers who are at risk of losing their jobs. I have decided
to accept their recommendation, and to that add in those who may
be at risk of losing their rank. This would maintain the status
Fast track dismissal
The Committee recommend that Chief Officers should have available
to them a system of "fast track" dismissal where there
is clear evidenceto a higher standard of proof than the
balance of probabilitiesof serious misconduct, and that
officers' rights should, in such circumstances, be reasonably
protected. Such a provision should be subject to agreement by
the CPS where criminal proceedings were contemplated against the
officer. In their submissions to the Committee, Chief Officers
had asked for the power to dismiss without the necessity of a
full hearing, on a presentation of facts. The Superintendents'
Association and the Police Federation were prepared to contemplate
a fast track system but with built-in safeguards for the accused
officer and subject, where appropriate, to CPS agreement. I have
decided to accept the Committee's recommendation in principle
but I recognise that a fast track system needs careful and detailed
work before it can be ready for implementation. I can say, though,
that I have decided that such a system would be based on the existing
premise that no police officer can be required to leave the service
or lose his or her rank without the right to legal representation,
but that a fast track procedure would be an unstoppable process
which would be completed in no more than six weeks. There will,
of course, be a right of appeal.
Suspension on reduced pay
The Committee also recommend that, in slightly less serious
cases than those for which fast track dismissal would be appropriate,
there should be a provision to suspend an officer on reduced pay
pending discipline proceedings. At present Chief Officers have
the right to suspend an officer but may not reduce his or her
pay for the duration. I will ask the Police Negotiating Board
to consider this recommendation and report back to me in due course.
In considering the concerns of complainants, the Committee
recommend, amongst other things, that discipline hearings should
be held in public. It should be recognised that less than a third
of all disciplinary convictions arose from complaints by members
of the public. Complainants are permitted to attend disciplinary
hearings, subject to the discretion of the person presiding over
the proceedings. I am not persuaded that the advantages in making
disciplinary hearings in general open to the public at large outweigh
the disadvantages as regards the confidential nature of some aspects
of most of the proceedings and the fact that most arise from and
relate to internal inquiries. I therefore do not accept this recommendation.
Completion of discipline proceedings where an officer is sick/seeks
early retirement on the grounds of ill health
The Committee refer to the possible abuse of the discipline
system by officers who claim to be sick. As far as discipline
hearings are concerned, the present regulations provide that Chief
Officers may not proceed if good reason is provided for an accused
officer's absence. However, the staff associations have already
agreed that disciplinary proceedings could be concluded in the
absence of an accused officer in any case considered appropriate.
The Committee endorses this proposal, and I confirm my agreement
The other significant problem which arises, and which has
been the subject of public debate, is where an officer who is
the subject of a discipline inquiry is permitted to retire early
on the grounds of ill health. Chief Officers recognise that the
existing provisions are not at present properly enforced in some
areas, and I endorse the Committee's exhortation to Chief Officers
to show a higher degree of commitment to their powers to verify
the genuineness of an officer's claimed sickness or disability.
They should also ensure that the police authority is aware of
their powers to postpone agreement to a request to retire an officer
on the grounds of ill health until the completion of disciplinary
None of this should be taken to imply that the vast majority
of police officers who retire on an ill health pension are not
genuinely sick and are not in any case the subject of discipline
proceedings. I fully appreciate that police officers are vulnerable
to injury and health problems arising from the stresses of the
job, and they fully deserve the pensions which are awarded to
Increasing punishment on appeal
The new discipline procedures provide for a right of review
by the Chief Constable against decisions on discipline by a discipline
board of an Assistant Chief Constable and two Superintendents,
and then a right of appeal to a police appeals tribunal. As a
direct result of public concerns about police discipline procedures,
I intend to consider the possible reinstatement of the power to
increase punishment on appeal. In certain circumstances this is
now available in regard to criminal offences, and I think it is
right to consider whether this should be available again in police
discipline cases. There are arguments both for and against, and
my mind is open at present. However, I believe there are legitimate
concerns that occasionally a punishment was too lenient, and that
some appeals are made lightly on the basis that the appellant
has nothing to lose.
Forfeiture of pension
Where officers or former officers have been convicted of
a criminal offence there is provision, in certain well-defined
circumstances, for the police authority to forfeit his or her
pension. I intend to require police authorities to give automatic
consideration to making an application to me for a certificate
authorising forfeiture in all such cases. It is abhorrent that
public money should be paid out as a pension to those very few
officers who abuse the position of trust to which they were appointed.
I will now turn to the Committee's recommendations on complaints.
The present complaints procedures provide for the police
to record and investigate complaints which cannot be resolved
informally. The Police Complaints Authority has the power to supervise
the investigation of the most serious complaints. The PCA receives
the report of every investigation and it has the power to recommend
or direct that the chief officer brings disciplinary charges.
The Committee has addressed both the potential for fundamental
reform of the complaints system and the improvement of the existing
arrangements. I am grateful for the Committee's approach. Detailed
study and consultation would be required before we could put new
legislation before the House to replace the existing complaints
system. We must also be realistic about the resource implications
of creating new complaints investigation structures.
I do recognise, however, the pressing need to build public
confidence in the existing complaints system and I believe that
the Committee's proposals for increased independence and openness
point the right way forward.
It would be wrong for me to suggest, in welcoming the broad
thrust of the Committee's recommendations on police complaints,
that I have the necessary funds available today to give effect
to them also. But let me make clear my commitment to doing as
much as I can now and as opportunities arise in the future.
The PCA's budget
The Committee recognises the Government's commitment to living
within the public spending limits we inherited from the previous
administration. As far as the PCA is concerned, that included
tough settlements for all Non-Departmental Public Bodies. The
PCA was not singled out. We are however, committed to maintaining
an effective police complaints system.
The PCA has already achieved improvements in efficiency,
working within the public spending limits.
Nonetheless, we note the Committee's concerns and fully recognise
the pressures which the PCA currently faces. We will continue
to work with the Authority to offer whatever help we can in identifying
further efficiencies and encourage it to explore all options.
Independent investigations of complaints
The Committee explores a range of measures which would improve
the system and reassure the public. It notes that the independent
investigation of complaints is desirable in principle and would
increase public confidence in the system. While it hopes that
its other proposals for reform of the system will have some beneficial
impact, it recommends that the Home Office should conduct a detailed
feasibility study of different possible arrangements for an independent
complaints investigation process which should be considered if
its other recommended reforms do not increase public confidence.
We made it clear while in opposition that we wish to take
measures to increase public confidence in the complaints system,
including examining the scope for introducing a greater independent
element. The Home Office will therefore arrange for a feasibility
study to be carried out as recommended by the Committee.
The Committee note that, in the absence of a totally new
investigative body, fundamental changes to the complaints process
would be premature, but they recommend that the PCA should make
robust use of its powers. I agree with the Committee's recommendation
and will support the PCA in making full use of its powers.
Powers and funds for the PCA to commission independent investigations
The Committee recommends 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. I accept that the PCA should have such a power in
principle, although I would envisage it being used only in exceptional
cases. Nevertheless, there could still be significant resource
implications, and the public expenditure limits which we are committed
to maintaining preclude early changes in this area.
Power to call in investigations for supervision
The Committee recommends that any independent review body
should be able to call in for possible supervision investigations
which arise from any matter, whether or not it has been the subject
of a complaint.
The police can, and do, already refer voluntarily to the
PCA matters not resulting from complaints cases. There are also
a number of mechanisms for considering these sorts of issues.
I am thinking here of the role of police authorities; the work
of HM Inspectorate of Constabulary; and my powers to call for
reports and/or establish an inquiry. However, I accept that a
case can be made for the PCA having a power to become involved
where there is a wider public concern in cases where no formal
complaint has been made. It may be that the PCA would be required
to seek my approval before exercising any such new power. But
I would wish to consider this and other considerations carefully
in the light of consultation before deciding whether it would
be appropriate to widen the PCA's remit to meet the concern underlying
the Committee's recommendation.
Investigation by outside forces
The Committee recommends that investigation of complaints
by outside forces should become a more regular occurrence. Although
this is primarily a matter for individual chief officers, I agree
that the more regular use of investigators from outside forces
may go some way to increasing public confidence in the system.
I do not, however, underestimate the practical problems involved.
OpennessInvestigating Officers' reports
The Committee recommends that investigating officers' reports
should be subject to disclosure on the same basis as other documents
relating to a complaint.
Whilst there are circumstances in which statements and other
material gathered for the purposes of a complaints investigation
can be disclosed, the reports of investigating officers form a
class which the courts have ruled are entitled to public interest
immunity. Where a court is satisfied that the public interest
in disclosure of a report outweighs the public interest in preserving
its confidentiality, the police can be directed to disclose it.
There are complex issues to be addressed. But, as a general
principle, the Government favours greater openness in the complaints
system and I will, therefore, consider with the Law Officers what
scope there may be for change.
The Committee also recommends that investigation files relating
to deaths in custody should generally be made available to the
deceased's family before inquests.
I appreciate the reasons for the recommendation and have
sympathy with it. It is important to remember that inquests are
inquisitorial and not accusatorial, and we should be careful not
to do anything which would prejudice that. The Coroners Rules
make provision for documents to be made available to interested
parties, but only those documents put in evidence at the
inquest and only after the inquest. The High Court has
held that a person is not entitled in advance of the inquest to
see copies of statements prepared by the police and provided to
assist the coroner in deciding the conduct of his inquest. The
release of such documents thus remains at present at the discretion
of the police. Nonetheless, provided there are no legal reasons
against disclosure in a particular case, and provided it would
not prejudice a possible prosecution, my instinct is in favour
of greater openness.
Again, I will consider with the Law Officers whether there
is scope for more openness in such cases.
The Committee is sympathetic to the proposal that the onus
for restarting a complaint investigation after other proceedings
have finished should rest with the complainant subject to suitable
This would have the advantage of releasing resources within
the PCA and the police. At present the PCA considers about 3,000
applications for dispensations a year in which the complainant
has not co-operated with the complaints investigators once criminal
proceedings are complete. I accept this proposal.
Other confidence building measures
The Committee helpfully covered a range of other issues which
could improve the current complaints system and help build greater
pubic confidence in it.
The Committee recommends that police forces make greater
efforts to resolve complaints by judicious use of apologies and
ex gratia payments. I endorse this wholeheartedly although
this is primarily a matter for police forces and their police
authorities to put into practice. It would do much, however, to
help reverse the current trend for recourse to civil action against
the police in preference to using the complaints system.
The Committee made a number of recommendations about how
complaints are recorded and how statistics are presented. In particular,
it recommended that it should be mandatory for all representations
which could constitute a complaint to 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
The complaints system as at present established is concerned
with the conduct of individual officers. However, many people
who make a complaint may not have it recorded by the police as
such because the matter concerns the direction and control of
the force in question. It is understandable that, in such circumstances,
the complainant may not easily appreciate the distinction. They
have a grievance and they want it recognised. I accept that it
would be better for the police to make an entry on a record before
a decision is taken about whether it falls within the definition
of a "complaint". The complainant could at least be
assured that his grievance would be considered. I also accept
that, where the complainant has good reason for not wishing to
lodge his complaint with the police, he or she should be able
to register it with the PCA, although ultimately the matter would
usually be investigated by the force complained of, under current
arrangements. We will consider with interested parties the detail
of how such a change might work in practice and will give effect
to it when there is a suitable legislative opportunity.
The Committee supports proposals to change the name of informal
resolution in such a way as to indicate more accurately that it
is a serious procedure. Also, it sees merit in introducing a mandatory
procedure which would make it absolutely clear to complainants
what they have agreed to under the procedures, and a requirement
for them to confirm their agreement in writing.
I have little doubt that a system which enables matters to
be resolved without the full panoply of the complaints system
will often provide a suitable means for resolution, but that there
should be no suggestion that this means that complaints dealt
with under this system are not taken seriously. Equally, it needs
to provide adequate safeguards for complainants so that they know
what they are agreeing to. I therefore accept the Committee's
recommendations, which already represents best practice in forces
I also accept the Committee's recommendation that the published
statistics on "informal resolutions" should indicate
more precisely the outcome in each case.
Two of the Committee's remaining recommendations are, in
effect, concerned with service delivery. One concerns delays in
the PCA in considering reports of investigations. While primarily
a matter for the PCA, I will continue to examine ways in which
changes to current arrangements might be made which would release
resources to help the PCA reduce such delays.
The second relates to the desirability of informing complainants
in writing whenever one of the target time limits is exceeded.
I would hope that the PCA would do this as a matter of good practice.
A number of the recommendations relating to the complaints
system which I have accepted will require primary legislation
and we shall look for suitable opportunities to introduce the
A lot of detailed work will be required and we shall take
these proposals forward in consultation with ACPO, the police
staff associations, the Association of Police Authorities and
other interested parties to ensure that we provide a complaints
system which carries the confidence of the police and public alike.
In reaching decisions on the way forward for police disciplinary
and complaints procedures, I had full regard for the concerns
put to me about the implications for the rank and file of the
police if the Government took action which appeared to them to
reduce the protections which were important to them against malicious
complaints and unscrupulous managers. Nonetheless, there is no
doubt that robust action must be taken to address the very real
problem of waning public confidence in a service which, with very
few exceptions, has never ceased to deserve their trust. The measures
I have announced today will address those concerns. I am placing
a copy of the Government's response to each of the Committee's
conclusions and recommendations in the library.
23 March 1998
1 HC (1997-98) 258-I. Back
2 See also
statement made by the Home Secretary on the floor of the House
on 23 March 1998, Official Report cols. 21-37. Back