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Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset Police Force

Volume 612: debated on Tuesday 28 June 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Conduct of the Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset Police Force.

I am very grateful to have a chance to raise this incredibly important issue. I am also very thankful to the Minister for Policing, Fire, Criminal Justice and Victims for allowing me to go on for slightly longer than usual; he has allowed me to talk at some length on this issue because, as I say, it is incredibly important.

There are some very sensitive questions to be asked about the most senior policeman in my neck of the woods and the matter of his appointment; they deserve to be put before Members for consideration. I would never bring such matters to the Chamber if they were not of genuine public concern.

May I say at the outset that I have not had the opportunity to meet our new chief constable, Mr Andy Marsh. Since he is the subject of fresh investigations of alleged misconduct, to which I will refer, he may prefer to keep it that way for the time being. However, I confess that I am so worried about this issue that I have intervened twice in the main Chamber of this House during business questions. In addition, the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), approached me independently about this issue, as the Minister is aware.

A few days ago, believe it or not, I mysteriously received letters from the chief constable and the police and crime commissioner, both of them complaining about my parliamentary involvement and reporting me to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority for doing my job. That was a new twist. They wanted me to apologise and to retract what I had said in the House. Was this a cack-handed attempt to intimidate me? I hope not; it is not their role to intimidate me and it is certainly not my role to be intimidated. I am sure that they would much rather that I shut up and leave them alone, but that is something I cannot do, will not do and should not do.

The integrity of the police service is vital. The public rightly expect the very highest standards of probity from all serving officers, and I am doing my job in making sure that those standards are upheld. What worries me is how and why the appointment of this chief constable was made in the first place. To answer such questions, I am afraid that it is necessary to return to some dreadful events that took place a few years ago at a specialist residential school for children with learning difficulties. Sir Edward, I hope you will bear with me.

The school was near Southampton and Mr Andy Marsh was the deputy chief constable of Hampshire at the time. His force launched an investigation into claims of sexual abuse. Shocking allegations were made by some former pupils; stories of the grooming and rape of vulnerable children emerged. Something rotten seems to have taken place at the Stanbridge Earls school. However, despite investigations being carried out by the local authority, Ofsted and the police, nobody was ever prosecuted. That was back in 2011.

Two years later, the story had not gone away; in fact, the number of allegations had increased and there were questions about how thoroughly the police had examined the case. By that time, Mr Marsh had been promoted. He was Hampshire’s chief constable and on his watch Operation Flamborough was launched to try to get to the bottom of matters. Had he done a proper job? Were there grounds for disciplinary action against any officers? The investigation lasted eight months, with inquiries in 10 different counties. More than 1,200 documents containing 20,000 pages were reviewed; 79 witness statements were taken; and 172 officer reports were submitted.

However, all that came to nothing. There was no disciplinary action and there were no prosecutions. At that time, Mr Marsh himself was under scrutiny. The rules for complaints against chief constables are different. A commissioner can deal with a matter internally or, if a complaint is considered to be serious, they can call in another police force to investigate.

Hampshire’s commissioner asked Essex police to do the digging. There were nine complaints against Mr Marsh, including failure to undertake a thorough investigation into sexual abuse of vulnerable pupils and failure to protect one vulnerable child in particular. It took almost a year to complete the inquiry and on 10 June 2014 Essex police announced that it had found “no grounds to justify” any allegations. Mr Marsh was formally cleared.

Was that the end of the story? I simply do not know. I am not a Hampshire MP; I can only read about this issue in Private Eye and elsewhere, just like anyone else. However, what is quite clear—because there were so many references to them on the internet—is that allegations went on being made, and I am afraid they are still being made. No doubt all chief constables make enemies from time to time, but this chief constable seems to have attracted some very determined foes.

I find it hard to understand why none of this seems to have rung any alarm bells whatever in the office of the police and crime commissioner for Avon and Somerset when she hired Mr Marsh. Of course, the “she” in question is Mrs Sue Mountstevens, and it might be helpful for this House and for the record if I provided a little background information on her. She used to be a big wheel in fast food, running one of Bristol’s best known family bakeries; Mountstevens made its name by churning out pasties. However, when Mrs Mountstevens inherited the business, she must have changed the recipe. The customers stopped coming, the shops were shut, 300 staff lost their jobs and a century of tradition went down the pan—probably along with the pasties.

However, Mrs Mountstevens wasn’t going to let a business disaster stand in her way. She joined the old police authority, did “good works” and founded a team of life coaches offering business advice. Here is an example of her advice from an interview she gave to that indispensable organ of record, The Grocer magazine:

“A great leader is someone who communicates extensively, is prepared to say what she feels when there’s a tough decision to be made and admits when things aren’t going too well!"

Down at the Portishead HQ of the Avon and Somerset police force, I suspect that they are chuckling about that comment.

Anyway, by the miracle of democracy “the Pasty Queen”, as she is known in Bristol, has held the job of police and crime commissioner since 2012. A dismally small number of people—only 14% of the electorate—bothered to vote the first time round, and the second time only 26% of the electorate turned out to mark a cross on the ballot paper. Of course, we all know that the election process for police and crime commissioners is about as thick and indigestible as the crust on a Mountstevens pasty. However, the end result of that process is that very few PCCs are in their job with genuine, widespread public support, and Mrs Mountstevens certainly does not have such support.

On her very first day in the job, Mrs Mountstevens told the old chief constable, Colin Port, that his services were no longer required—“goodbye”. Colin Port was gobsmacked. I would like to believe that she fired him for getting the police saddled with South West One, a joint venture company set up with IBM and two of Somerset’s councils, which was an absolute and total disaster. To put it crudely, it was half-baked; in fact, it was not even half-baked because it was never cooked. It cost the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds, saved nothing and, as I say, was a disaster.

I learned today that South West One lost so much money that eventually all the participants in it baled out, including Avon and Somerset police force. I am not sure that Mountstevens sacked Colin Port for any sensible reason; I have a horrible feeling that she might have done it out of pique, or because she had a headache, or because she just did not like him. Her management style gives everybody the heebie-jeebies, in particular her high-speed hire-and-fire policy.

Avon and Somerset is now on its third chief constable in three years, and that does not even include the deputies; including deputy chief constables, all together the force has had six chief constables or deputy chief constables in four years, with three chief constables and three acting constables. Whoever steps in to cover the gaps that exist, I think the office of chief constable is the ultimate poisoned chalice. It is hard to keep up with the musical chairs in the Portishead HQ; Colin Port was hardly out of the door before Nick Gargan was pushed in through it. The rules say that Mrs Mountstevens has the right to clunk chief constables in or replace them, and she did those things.

Mr Gargan was a totally different animal to Mr Port, being much more of a modernising, fast-track copper. He was young, clever and—believe it or not—had a love of opera. The old guard probably thought, “Allo, ‘Allo. He’s not one of us”, but he was the first choice of the Pasty Queen, possibly because he was the only serious candidate.

There is an increasing problem—chief constables do not seem to be falling over themselves to apply for the top jobs. Perhaps they think the pay is not worth it or that the responsibility is too onerous; perhaps they will not apply because they cannot be certain of being successful any more. Or perhaps they do not fancy working alongside a particular police and crime commissioner. Now, there is a thought.

Last year, the Chief Police Officers Staff Association carried out a survey of 25 forces. There were five chief constable vacancies, which attracted only 11 applications. Two of the vacancies had just a single candidate. I say to the Minister that that was not so much a recruitment process as a cosy shoo-in, and I know that he does not like that any more than I do. I am afraid the Home Affairs Committee has already highlighted this issue and I know that the Minister will probably want to address it when he replies to this debate.

Anyway, let us go back to Nick Gargan. He had been running the national Police Recruitment agency after a stint as No. 2 at Thames Valley police. He had never applied to be a chief constable before, but Mrs Mountstevens reeled him in. Gargan was hired to make changes. He favoured a direct entry scheme to allow non-officer staff to take up jobs at inspector or chief inspector level, thereby skipping the lower ranks. That was in line with Home Office thinking, but the Police Federation called it “half-baked”. Honestly, I am not inventing these baking references; they have actually been used by others.

As far as I am aware, Nick Gargan was well thought of by officers, but higher up the ladder there were people out to get him. He had served a mere 14 months when allegations of inappropriate behaviour began to emerge. In came the Independent Police Complaints Commission to investigate and he was suspended, but nobody gave any formal evidence against him; it was more of a whispering campaign. The investigation went on for a year and the verdict was that he had showed “flawed judgment”, which is hardly a sacking offence; if it was, there would not be any of us MPs left. By then, however, Mrs Mountstevens was getting twitchy. She set up a fresh inquiry, which took ages to decide that Mr Gargan was not guilty of any gross misconduct at all. He was rapped over the knuckles with eight written warnings and it was recommended that he return to work. I don’t think Mrs Mountstevens had a clue. She is not bright; she is, in fact, incredibly thick. She did not know how to react. She dithered, and the lynch mob got busy—not edifying in the police.

The Police Superintendents Association asked its members what they thought, and 24 out of 25 of them said that they had lost confidence in Mr Gargan, which unexpectedly provided Mrs Mountstevens—aha!—with the ammunition she needed. Funny that. Could it have been deliberately orchestrated? Perish the thought. After all, it is very unusual indeed—unprecedented in my experience—for a group of top officers to gang up in public and stab their chief in the back. The whole thing appears to have been arranged by Chief Superintendent Ian Wylie, who happens to be head of the standards, culture and ethics department of the Avon and Somerset constabulary. [Interruption.] I hear sirens—they are coming to get me. I do not know what ethical standards were being used when Ian Wylie’s letter to Mrs Mountstevens damning the chief constable was leaked, but I could hazard a guess—Wylie by name, wily by nature. That is dirty tricks at the lowest level.

And there was more. Out of the woodwork came three former chief constables, all parroting exactly the same criticism of the chief constable. Dave Shattock, Steve Pilkington and Colin Port wrote to Mrs Mountstevens saying that they thought it was impossible for Nick Gargan to return to work. The dithering baker was forced into a corner—not surprisingly. In desperation, she asked Tom Winsor, chief inspector of constabulary, what he thought. Surprise, surprise: Sir Thomas looked at all the letters and concluded that Mr Gargan had lost the confidence of his staff. Nick Gargan is no fool. There was now more mud flying than at Glastonbury, and it was all being chucked his way. He did quit, but what a dismal, appalling way to run a police force—backstabbing, innuendo and downright dishonesty.

Let us come back to Andy Marsh. Just before Christmas last year, Mr Marsh got Mr Gargan’s job. There were only two candidates: Mr Marsh, and the assistant chief constable, Gareth Morgan, who had been holding the fort since Nick Gargan had left. Remember, Mr Marsh had already been a chief constable, over at Hampshire, but he has always had a soft spot for Avon and Somerset where he started as a recruit and where he met his wife, Nikki. Sorry, I should paraphrase that. Mrs Marsh is also a senior member of the Avon and Somerset police force. Believe it or not, she is one of the assistant chief constables, and she uses her maiden name of Nikki Watson. Funnily enough, the Avon and Somerset constabulary website states:

“Andy is married with two daughters and enjoys fly fishing, running and rowing.”

Elsewhere, it states:

“Nikki is married and has two daughters.”

It does not put the two together. She was there when he came back. That is an unusual situation. It may be unique, but in no way can it be called ideal. Mrs Marsh will have to report to another deputy chief constable to avoid conflicts of interest. Once again, the pasty queen has bent over backwards to get the man she wanted. But has she bent too far?

Andy Marsh took up his new job in February. Three months later, he was back in the headlines because of another complaint against him. Mrs Mountstevens said she received a new complaint relating to Andy Marsh’s role in investigating the allegations of rape at Stanbridge Earls school in Hampshire. Her instinct was to clear it up quietly with Mr Marsh himself, but the complainant appealed and here we are again. The pasty queen has called in another police force to look over it again. Remember, last time it took a year to clear Mr Marsh’s name.

I am not happy with the situation. It was obvious that the accusations were likely to follow Mr Marsh. They may be vexatious; they may be legitimate. That is for the new inquiry to determine, but their hanging in the air does absolutely no good for the reputation and morale of the Avon and Somerset police force. The police and crime commissioner deserves to take the blame for another expensive fiasco and mistake. According to the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the cost of running her office is a fifth greater than that of running the old police authority. That is not surprising—she employs 19 people. How can a police and crime commissioner employ 19 people? What are they all doing? Stabbing the chief constable in the back?

I notice that my right hon. Friend the Minister’s Department is giving commissioners, including Mrs Mountstevens, new powers to oversee the fire and rescue service. I beg him not to do that, especially in Avon and Somerset. The Fire Brigades Union has called it a “half-baked idea”—I do not know what this is all coming from. Mrs Mountstevens is no Berry; I am not convinced that she could be trusted to run a police canteen. But the point here is simple. Mrs Mountstevens should suspend Chief Constable Mr Andy Marsh, as she did all the others, until the matter has been cleared up.

These are not trivial fly-by-night allegations; they are serious. We cannot pretend that they have not been made. We cannot pretend that they are not current. Why the chief constable is still there is beyond me. I think one reason may be that if he goes it is his missus who takes over—that could make the breakfast table interesting in the Marsh household. I suspect also that Mrs Mountstevens has once again lost her nerve. She does not know what to do. Like I said, she is not bright—I am being generous.

We need a clear understanding of the roles of the police and crime commissioner and the chief constable. In Avon and Somerset the roles are blurred. Avon and Somerset is becoming a police farce, not a police force. I know there are limitations to what the Minister can say—I understand and agree with that, because of the ongoing investigation—but I know that he has heard my words and I am grateful that he has said he will meet me and talk to me about the matter. We need to come to an understanding of the future roles of these people, because unless we do I strongly believe that people in my constituency and across the Avon and Somerset police force area will lose their faith in the police. They need faith in the police. They need trust in the police. The coppers on the ground are damned good. They do a good job. The role of policemen has not changed in 100 years. They are still vital to law and order, to the safekeeping of people and to looking after the wellbeing of my constituents and those of the other Somerset and Avon constituencies. This is a mockery of all. I ask the Minister: please, give my thoughts a fair wind and see what we can do to change the situation.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. At this stage of a speech I normally say, “I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the debate to the Chamber”. Although it is right and proper that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) has done that today, I am enormously restricted in what I can say, as he mentioned. He made a far-ranging speech but I am here, really, to talk about the chief constable of Avon and Somerset police force. I will touch, however, on some of my hon. Friend’s points.

Police and crime commissioners—PCCs—are elected, whether on a 1% or a 100% turnout. The public have the right to decide whether to vote for them, vote for someone else, or not vote at all. Naturally, in the early days people did not know what they were voting for, but the turnout has since gone up substantially, in particular when the elections have been alongside local government elections. The next PCC election should be concurrent with a general election—but nothing is perfect in this place, so we do not really know, what with the events taking place around us as we speak. I hope that this Parliament stays for the full term; the PCC election turnout will then be completely different.

What we have done is to place powers—administrative not operational—with an elected person, who is responsible for their community, and it is for them to decide how much they spend. The public can then see the exact details. The process is not opaque; it is very open. That openness is the reason my hon. Friend has been able to comment in the way he has about how many staff there are and how much is being spent.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is an ongoing inquiry. There is a process in place for that, and it is not for a Policing Minister to interfere in or influence that in any way. The allegations are serious and it is important that they are investigated fully.

I saw some of the commentary about my hon. Friend’s previous comments on the Floor of the House. This place has privilege, and it is for my hon. Friend to decide the language he uses and what he says in his speeches. In that way, we have the freedom to represent our constituents in the way we feel we should.

The ongoing investigation means that there is uncertainty and I fully accept my hon. Friend’s concerns. I also fully accept that, as in the other 43 forces that I am responsible for, the boys and girls on the beat in his area do a fantastic job, day in, day out. It is, as he alluded to in his comments, deeply unsettling that the force has had so many chief constables over a short period of time, but sometimes there are good reasons for that. I will not go into that: it is very much for the PCC and the local community. However, I know what it is like. My hon. Friend and I have both served in Her Majesty’s armed forces. If a soldier does not know who their colonel is from one day to the next, it is very difficult to get that feeling of unity running through the system.

My hon. Friend also commented on the number of people applying for chief constable jobs, and the situation is difficult. South Yorkshire is going through a difficult time and is also advertising for a new chief constable. It is an enormously onerous task to be chief constable of a force. In many parts of the country, the political and management skills are as important as the understanding of day-to-day policing, because of how they have to deal with things—I would not have wanted to take on that task. We have opened the job up, however. There are people for and against the direct entry scheme, but it will open up opportunities for people to come through the ranks in so many parts of the police force. The old saying when we were in the Army was, “Dead man’s shoes”, but that cannot happen now. We need to ensure that people can aspire to and dream of being chief constables, if that is what they want to do. They may want to go into other specialist areas, but it is crucial that we open things up.

The Policing and Crime Bill has passed through this House and will fairly soon have its Second Reading in the other place. It gives powers to PCCs to put forward to the Home Secretary a business plan to take on the administration of the fire service. I have to declare an interest: I wrote a paper some 30 years ago saying that the emergency services must work more closely together and there is no argument about that. The debate we had in Committee was whether it should be a councillor seconded on to a committee and paid a bit of extra money or someone directly elected to do that role. I freely admit that one size will not fit all. If an agreement cannot be reached locally and a PCC or a metro mayor wants to put forward a business plan to the Home Secretary and me—I am the first ever Minister to have responsibility for policing and fire—we would look at that. One size truly will not fit all.

May I use the Avon and Somerset force area as an example for clarification? Our fire brigade, as the Minister is well aware, comes under Devon and Somerset fire service. We have an elected mayor in Bristol. The rest of Somerset is not covered. If the metropolitan mayor of Bristol put forward a case to take over the fire brigade, given that we are slightly skewed, that has merit because of devolution. The Minister is well aware of how we are looking at joining things closer together with devolution in Somerset and Devon, but that does not include Bristol or what we call north Somerset, which covers the constituencies of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), my hon. Friends the Members for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) and for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), and a bit of Bristol. How would that devolution work? That is of some interest, I think.

I said a moment ago that one size does not fit all, and my hon. Friend raises a classic example of that. In certain parts of the country, it is a very simple procedure: there is a fire authority and a police authority—now the PCC—and they can mesh very closely. If that was the situation across the country, I would have a very simple job in looking at all the business plans and coming to some conclusions, but that of course is not the case. Amalgamations of fire services were taking place right up until the responsibility was transferred from the Department for Communities and Local Government into my portfolio.

It is best not to use Avon and Somerset as the only example. Looking at some of the other models that are being talked about—I freely admit that I do not have the business plans on my desk—chief fire officers from some parts of the country have approached me and said, “Our fire brigade is too small. We do not want to be regionalised. We have seen some of the problems that have occurred with the ambulance service being regionalised, but we would be a better administrative functional body if we were a larger fire service. Does that prevent us from being amalgamated? What if a metro mayor takes over?” There is a little feeling of, “If we grow in size, perhaps that will prevent us being amalgamated with the police.”

Other areas are looking at whether they can take over the emergency ambulance service, as well as fire and the police. The ambulance service is commissioned by clinical commissioning groups; the money does not come directly from central Government. I have other areas—Merseyside is probably one of the obvious examples when we look at the introduction of metro mayors—where the boundary goes slightly into another area. For instance, the Merseyside boundary goes into Cheshire. What we have said all along is that that is not a game-stopper and that we would work across Government to come to sensible conclusions about the best way to deliver services and emergency services where they are needed.

There is no simple answer to my hon. Friend’s points. During consideration of the Bill, we said that it is vital not to look at things in terms of silos or buildings. Using the analogy of a church, it is about a group of people coming together, and not necessarily a building. We always look at churches as buildings. The London fire service looks at fire stations and headquarters, and it is similar with the police service. I have been pushing hard, as we move from a difficult austerity situation, for us to continue to look at how we spend on capital assets. The police services and fire services around the country have extensive assets, and the situation in Avon and Somerset is no different. I have been saying, “If we are going to have a different kind of policing, why could the police station for that community not be based in the local fire station?” It is difficult to put a fire appliance inside a police station, because a 10-tonne truck does not fit so well in the foyer, but it is very easy to do it the other way around and put a police car in a fire station. We have seen that in Hampshire and Lincolnshire and other parts of the country.

That was a very long answer to a simple intervention, but in short we rule nothing out and we have an open mind. We would prefer to have things agreed locally under devolution and localism, but we are pragmatic enough to realise within the Department that that will not happen every time, so sometimes difficult decisions will have to be made by the Home Secretary with some advice from me.

On the specific points to do with the future and the chief constable’s investigations, that is frankly not within my remit, and rightly so. We do not live in that sort of society, thank goodness. The PCC was duly elected. Should my hon. Friend feel that the PCC is not doing her job correctly and has brought the force into disrepute, there are mechanisms in place. PCCs are not exempt from disciplinary action. That mechanism clearly has not been triggered yet, and whether it is has nothing to do with me.

Even though I am not skilful enough to have used some of the language and links to the bakery industry that my hon. Friend used, one thing that is important to me as a parliamentarian is that colleagues from across the House have confidence that they can express their concerns on behalf of the public without the worry that they will lose privilege. Parliamentary privilege is important. So many times in the House, I have heard people say, “If I was not a Member of Parliament and I was not in this Chamber, I would not be allowed to say that, even though I passionately believe it is true, mostly because I could not prove it in law or in fact.” That principle keeps this democracy sound.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and encourage him to continue expressing his concerns. There is a process in place. It is clearly not for the Minister for Policing, Fire, Criminal Justice and Victims to interfere in that, but I stress that it would be useful and sensible—it might be a difficult meeting—for my hon. Friend to take up the PCC’s offer to meet with her and the chief constable, because at the end of the day they are responsible for wellbeing in the constituency.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.