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Independent Police Complaints Commission

Volume 535: debated on Tuesday 15 November 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Alistair Carmichael.)

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to debate the Independent Police Complaints Commission, an organisation that has taken on increasing importance in recent months. It is right in such a debate to begin by thanking all local officers in Tottenham for the work that they do day in, day out. The vast majority of them serve us very well indeed. Some of those brave men and women serve their own community, and it is clear that they put others ahead of their own needs. All of them put their lives on the line to keep Tottenham safe, and I thank them for that.

However, for all the bravery of those officers, things very occasionally go wrong, and when they do individual officers must be held to account for their decisions and actions. There is no way of escaping Tottenham’s recent history: there is a history of people in Tottenham dying during or following police contact. I wish to God that this were not true, but anyone who has lived in Tottenham knows just how those deaths have strained the relationship between some of our residents and the police. With the death of Cynthia Jarrett in 1985, Roger Sylvester in 1999, and Mark Duggan this August, Tottenham’s history has been punctuated and measured by these tragic events.

Of course, deaths in police custody or following police contact are not only a Tottenham issue, as, for example, the unexplained death of Christopher Alder in Hull more than a decade ago shows us, and they are not just an issue for the black community. Recent years have seen the deaths of Ian Tomlinson and Jean Charles de Menezes due to police actions. But in Tottenham we do seem to bear our share of these tragic events.

It takes years—decades—of effort to build community relations and to foster a two-way sense of trust between residents and the people who should be their police. Despite a lot of good work, it is the list of deaths that everyone remembers. It is not just the fact that a person has died following contact with the police that is important; how the death is investigated and who carries out the investigation are just as important. That is what I want to discuss this evening.

Before describing how I think the IPCC can be improved, it is important to recognise that the journey to the creation of an independent complaints authority has not been short or without controversy and resistance, because we have come a long way indeed. In 1985 Lord Scarman produced his groundbreaking report on the Brixton riots four years previously. He was deeply concerned about the total breakdown of trust between the police and some of the communities they were supposed to serve. His report called for an independent body to be set up to investigate police complaints as a means of restoring trust.

Unforgivably, it would be another 19 years before the IPCC opened for business. Instead of the Government agreeing to what was so obviously needed, deckchairs were duly rearranged and the old Police Complaints Authority was set up to replace the Police Complaints Board, but it proved just as hapless. Changing a word in the title proved easier than changing the way of working, because in those days it did not matter whether it was the Police Complaints Authority or the Police Complaints Board that conducted the investigation. They were not investigations for the victim, their family or the concerned community; they were investigations by the police and for the police.

The opening of the Stephen Lawrence murder trial yesterday again brings the failures of the Police Complaints Authority into sharp public view. The Macpherson report on Stephen’s death highlighted these failures perfectly. It noted that the authority’s report on the Metropolitan police’s handling of the death was known as the Kent report, principally because the Kent police handled the inquiry into the Metropolitan police. The Kent report began making excuses for the Metropolitan police in its preface:

“The depth of detailed scrutiny applied in the complaints investigation could have found fault in most police criminal investigations. The reader of this report should bear in mind that the benefit of hindsight and the luxury of having time to assess all of the information that was available to the MPS is bound to reveal errors, omissions and flawed judgement.”

The Macpherson report highlighted the shocking extent to which the Police Complaints Authority examined whether racism impacted on the Met’s investigation, stating:

‘Many officers were asked directly whether racism had an impact upon their activities in the case. Predictably they replied in strong terms denying such impact. The result was the finding by Kent that: “Kent Police have found no evidence to support the allegation of racist conduct by any MPS officer involved in the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence.”’

Scarman’s warning in 1985 about the lack of independent oversight of the police had become, 12 years later, the whitewash of the Kent police’s so-called investigation of racism in the Met. Like the Scarman report, the Macpherson report called for an independent body to investigate police complaints.

Thankfully, one Home Affairs Committee report later, the Government listened that time and the IPCC was set up in 2004. Make no mistake: the IPCC is certainly an improvement on what went before, as the police are not investigating themselves. We are pleased about that, but not very pleased, and certainly not content. The death of Mark Duggan tells us why we should not be content with what we have, because it is not yet good enough.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important and timely debate. Does he share my concern, and that of members of the Home Affairs Committee, that several months after the current chair of the IPPC announced that he was leaving, there is still no replacement? We now understand that the job is to be advertised again. Does he agree that there needs to be a permanent chair to provide that organisation with good leadership?

I totally agree with my right hon. Friend. I was surprised when I found out that that important role in our country had been vacant for so long. I hope that when he comes to the Dispatch Box to reply to the debate, the Minister will explain that.

The IPCC has two roles, police scrutiny and public guardianship. It is charged with investigating complaints independently, and with the fullest scrutiny, but its role does not stop there. Given that it investigates on behalf of all of us, it must communicate and work with the public.

In the case of the death of Mark Duggan, it remains to be seen whether the IPCC fulfilled its primary duty to scrutinise the actions of the police on 4 August, but it is vital that the commission does all within its power to convince the Duggan family and the wider Tottenham community that its investigation is thorough, impartial and independent. Without that, we will be back to the bad old days of the Kent report and the police investigating police, and I hope that the IPCC do not take us there.

We wait to see whether the IPCC will fulfil its primary duty, but even in the days immediately after Mark Duggan’s death it was clear that it had failed completely and utterly in its secondary duty—that of guardianship. Mark Duggan’s family were forced to learn of the death of their son and father from watching television. That is beyond unacceptable. Why did nobody from the IPCC contact the family on the day of his death, when it had opened its investigation? Despite warnings from people throughout the community, the IPCC failed to communicate with the family until two days after the shooting, and even then it was unable to communicate anything of substance to them. That is not good enough.

Despite employing 15 media officers, the IPCC failed to make an appearance in the media to reassure a sceptical public—certainly in my community—that it would investigate Mark Duggan’s death thoroughly, impartially and independently. Its inability to fulfil that responsibility is difficult to explain. There was no direct communication by the IPCC to the affected communities in Tottenham in the hours and days after Mark Duggan’s death. Would it have been too difficult to hand-deliver a letter to residents of the affected areas, reassuring them of the investigation, explaining the known facts and appealing for calm and co-operation? No, it would not—but yet again, that did not happen.

In the absence of any word from the IPPC, a dangerous vacuum was allowed to open up, and rumours were allowed to take hold in the place of hard facts. That is not good enough. When the supposed facts were released to the media, they were quickly retracted. It was put out that there had been an exchange of fire in the incident that led to Mark Duggan’s death, but that turned out not to be true. Why did that happen? Again, that is far from what we would expect of an organisation with the role of public guardianship.

To this day, communication between the IPCC and Tottenham residents, as well as with the wider black community, appears sparse at best and unthinking at worst. That has to change. The magnitude of the IPCC’s task is immense, and some of the signs leave little hope in the strained community that I represent. Two thirds of people have heard of the IPCC, a number that has barely budged since the body was founded seven years ago, but one third of those think that it is part of the police—again, a figure that has barely budged. Ethnic minorities are even less likely to have heard of the IPCC, and they are more likely to believe that it is part of the police. That is the scale of the challenge awaiting us.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of any police investigations in other regions of the United Kingdom, such as Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales, that could be a catalyst for, and an example of, an improvement on what he has described?

I am grateful for any suggestions, and I suspect that the Government will be, too. I know that communities beyond the black community have had concerns about how the police investigate the police, and I am sure that in Northern Ireland there are lessons that need to be carefully reflected on, developed and learned.

The IPCC has to do more to convince a sceptical public that it is truly independent and has learned the lessons of Scarman and Macpherson. I hope that the Duggan inquiry will go some way towards doing that, but the IPCC, given the way in which it handled those initial days, has made things hard and has not lived up to those expectations. What assurances can the Minister give the people of Tottenham that the Duggan inquiry will be thorough and independent? A good start would be to address the shocking statistic that 30% of IPCC investigators are former police officers, and far fewer are from an ethnic minority background. Investigators such as police officers must look like the communities they are working in, and the IPCC must never allow itself to appear simply as a replica of the old Police Complaints Authority. What assurances can the Minister give that those figures will change?

The IPCC can work only under its current powers, and it is time for those powers to change. At the moment the IPCC cannot compel a police officer to speak to it unless that officer is a named suspect in a criminal investigation. The IPCC needs the power to speak to everyone, including the police, right up to the top. Will the Minister assure me that the IPCC will be given the powers to compel police officers to co-operate with its inquiries?

At the moment the IPCC does not have the power to suspend a police officer pending an investigation. The officer involved in the Mark Duggan case has not been suspended and is still working. The Minister will understand that members of the community that I represent find that quite incredible. Will he assure me that the IPCC will be given the power to suspend police officers who have been involved in a death due to police contact?

At the moment the IPCC does not have the power to initiate its own prosecutions following an investigation. In the Roger Sylvester case, as in others, power is often handed to the Crown Prosecution Service, which then does not prosecute. There is an inquest that brings in an unlawful killing verdict, and the families feel very let down indeed. The initial inquiry should have that prosecution power in the first place. Will the Minister explain why the IPCC finds itself caught between the coroner, the CPS and the police in relation to its powers, and say whether he will review what powers are needed following the concerns that have been raised not only in the cases I have mentioned, but in successive cases over many years?

At the moment, the IPCC does not own the scene of an investigation until some time after an incident has taken place. The scene of the Duggan death was not owned by the IPCC until hours after the shooting. That has to change. Will the Minister assure me that the IPCC will own the crime scene right from the beginning in recognition that there can be tremendous concern and anxiety about the fact that the initial officers caught in the incident can effectively own the scene for hours before any degree of independence takes over? The IPCC budget is tiny. It is £35 million a year, which is less than that of every single force in the country.

I want to mention something I have learned from recent meetings with the IPCC. Is my right hon. Friend aware that a very limited and relatively small number of cases are managed cases, so the vast bulk of work that the IPCC is dependent on is dealt with by the police themselves?

With that budget, one can understand that the IPCC simply cannot get through the level of complaints that are being made. In fact, a sub-set of complaints is in effect being handled by the police. Again, we will need reassurances about whether the budget is appropriate for the sort of organisation that has to be armed to do this job independently and effectively. This is why there is a trust deficit in what the organisation does, and I hope that the Minister will respond to it.

The Minister will, of course, need to start by reviewing the many deaths that take place following police actions. Since 1999, according to the Library, 322 people have died in or following police custody, yet not one police officer has been jailed for any of those incidents. These are shocking figures. I ask the Minister to reflect on the sheer extent of those figures, whether he is content, and whether there should not be some independent review into that aspect of its work.

I hope that the Minister will commit to an inquiry into the disgraceful revelations regarding the handing over of the wrong body to the family of Christopher Alder, who died in police custody in April 1998. Mr Alder was a paratrooper who fought for his country, yet he was left to choke to death, handcuffed on the floor of a police station in Hull. The fact that his family found out just two weeks ago that the body they buried was not in fact his, and that he is in a mortuary over a decade later, is a disgrace and of tremendous concern in a civilised country. I hope that the Minister will undertake an inquiry and get involved. I am pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, in his seat; I am sure that he is as concerned as I am.

We need a review of deaths in police custody. We need a review of the IPCC’s powers and resources, and we need to understand that it is truly independent. My community waits to see its conclusions in relation to the death of Mark Duggan, and I hope that the Minister can reassure them.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on securing this debate. I appreciate his long-standing interest in this topic and his immediate concerns about the ongoing investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission into the events surrounding the shooting of Mark Duggan in his constituency on 4 August. The whole House will recognise the passion with which he speaks on these issues and, I believe, will share his overriding concern, which is to secure community confidence in policing. That confidence is essential to ensure policing by consent, which we so prize in this country.

I join the right hon. Gentleman in praising the police for the work that they do, including that to secure order on our streets in the summer. That work is often difficult and dangerous. It is nevertheless imperative that when there are instances where police action goes wrong and there is culpability, there must be a robust system to ensure that that confidence in policing is maintained. That is as much in the interests of the police themselves as of those of us who guard the public interest to ensure that it happens.

I should like to address two key issues that the right hon. Gentleman raised. First, I will set out the background to the IPCC, including how it is set up and the way it operates, and deal with some of the issues relating to budgets and staffing. Secondly, I want to turn to the future and set out the issues confronting the IPCC in the context of the Government’s overall programme for reform of the system to ensure that we can maintain confidence in the police complaints system and that it plays a key role in the new policing landscape.

The police are a monopoly public service and their officers exercise coercive powers over citizens. They are expected to, and must, uphold the highest standards of behaviour and provide a policing service that enjoys the confidence of the public. The police complaints system is an important safeguard in holding the police to account. The complaints system should focus on allowing people who are dissatisfied with the provision of a policing service to make a complaint, and that complaint to be responded to appropriately.

There needs to be public confidence in the integrity and independence of the complaints system. It was the importance of that independence that gave rise, for the reasons the right hon. Gentleman described, to the establishment of the IPCC, in preference to the bodies that preceded it, in 2004 under the Police Reform Act 2002. It is worth reiterating that the IPCC is independent by law and makes its decisions independently of the police, Government, complainants and interest groups. This means that all complaints must be dealt with in accordance with legislation and the guidance issued by the IPCC and agreed by the Home Secretary. All complainants who have their complaints dealt with by the police in the first instance have a right of appeal to the IPCC. It independently investigates the most serious incidents and complaints. It regularly reports publicly on the outcome of investigations and it makes local and national recommendations as appropriate to ensure that the same things do not go wrong again. Its reports have to stand up to the scrutiny of inquests and courts.

The Government no more direct the IPCC than we direct police forces. It is essential that it remain an independent body.

When do the Government intend to appoint the new chair of the IPCC and why has that position been vacant for so long?

I will come on to that issue.

I would first like to respond to the concerns of the right hon. Member for Tottenham about the proportion of IPCC investigators who come from a police background. He said that about 30% of investigators and about 10% of the IPCC’s staff overall come from a police background. Let us put it the other way around: the vast majority of investigators—70% of them—do not come from a police background. The contribution of those from a law enforcement background is vital in ensuring that the IPCC conducts competent and robust investigations. The idea that the IPCC is an organisation that consists of police officers investigating other police officers is a grotesque caricature, because of its make-up, the way it operates, and the way Parliament established it.

The right hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of the IPCC’s budget. Its budget is some £35 million a year and it employs approximately 400 staff. That does not make it a small organisation by any standards. Shortly before I was elected to the House in March 2005, the IPCC had a total of 72 investigators, deputy senior investigators and senior investigators. In March this year, it had 121 such investigators. Its role has broadened in some respects, but it is not an organisation that has been starved of public funds. Of course the IPCC needs to manage with a diminishing budget during the current period, because all policing organisations have to make savings. Nevertheless, in 2010-11 it started 164 investigations and completed 154, which is more than 50% more than in the previous year. I therefore do not believe that allegations about resourcing can be made about this organisation.

What proportion of complaints lead to managed investigations that are investigated directly by the IPCC?

I do not have that figure to hand, but I am happy to let the hon. Gentleman have it after the debate. Of course, we have a structured system that ensures that the commission has the overall supervision of complaints, which I will come to, and that it deals directly with the most serious complaints. That is as it should be.

The IPCC will not become complacent, nor will this Government let it. Having made those points to the right hon. Member for Tottenham, I do not want him to think that I am dismissing what he has said. I hope he knows that I am not.

Following four years’ operational experience, the IPCC conducted a review of the police complaints system, the aims of which were to check how well the system was delivering against the original aspirations and to ensure that it continued to improve. The review found that some of the statutory provisions for the handling of complaints were unnecessarily bureaucratic or no longer necessary. Through the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, which we have just passed, the Government are introducing reforms that will put an emphasis on police accountability and make the police complaints system more effective and efficient. That will mean giving police forces additional discretion to deal with low-level complaints, which will free up the IPCC to deal with the most serious and high-profile complaints. It is important to distinguish between matters of public concern about performance issues, in which case what often matters is that there is strong police accountability and responsiveness, and those on which there are serious complaints about a breakdown that needs investigating by the commission.

We are giving the IPCC new powers to recommend and direct that unsatisfactory performance proceedings be brought against an officer when a complaint reveals that their performance is unsatisfactory. We are also giving the commission more flexibility in how it carries out its administrative functions, so that it has the freedom to direct more resources to carrying out its investigations. Those changes and others will improve the handling of police complaints by removing bureaucratic processes from the system, but it is important to realise that we are not stopping there.

In July, on the back of the revelations about phone hacking, we announced to Parliament that we would give further consideration to whether the IPCC needed additional powers, including the power to question civilian witnesses during the course of its investigations, and whether it should be given greater powers to investigate institutional failings in police forces. As the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, the IPCC is also in the early stages of a review of its powers, resources and approach in relation to investigations arising from deaths following police contact. That is obviously a very serious issue, and I know the IPCC has been in touch with him, and will keep in touch, about that piece of work. I will take the closest interest in it as well. In addition, we are setting up police and crime commissioners, to be elected a year from today, to hold the police to account.

I also want to respond to the points made about the IPPC’s chairmanship. I am aware of concerns that we do not have a permanent chairman at the moment. We are taking particular care over the position, precisely because it is crucial to ensure the success of the IPCC. A new chair should be in place early in the new year, but until then Len Jackson, a highly effective individual in whom the Government have complete confidence, has agreed to remain interim chair. We are determined to secure the right appointment to the organisation, because we invest considerable importance in its independence and integrity. It has new challenges to meet and old challenges that still have to be met. I accept the right hon. Gentleman’s concern about it, and I want to assure him and the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee that the Government will continue to ensure that the IPCC does the job that it was set up to do—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).