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Police Service: HMI Report

Volume 721: debated on Thursday 3 November 2022

Before we begin this urgent question, I remind Members that they must not refer to cases that are currently before the courts and should be cautious in referring to any cases in respect of which proceedings may be brought in the future. I now call Sarah Jones to ask her urgent question.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on His Majesty’s inspectorate’s report on vetting, misconduct and misogyny in the police service.

I thank my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), the shadow Minister, for her question on this extremely important topic. The report published yesterday by His Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services makes for deeply troubling reading. The inspection was commissioned by the previous Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), following the horrific murder of Sarah Everard by a then serving officer, as well as the emergence of wider concerns about policing culture.

The report concludes that it has been far

“too easy for the wrong people both to join and to stay in the police.”

The inspectorate found that on too many occasions vetting was not thorough enough and that in some cases it was inadequate. The Government take the view, as I am sure Members from across the House do, that that is unacceptable. It is particularly unacceptable and disappointing to hear about these vetting failures given that the Government have provided very substantial additional funding to fund the extra 20,000 police officers and additional resources for the police more widely.

The inspectorate concluded that, although the culture has improved in recent years, misogyny, sexism and predatory behaviour towards female officers and staff members “still exists” and is too high in many forces. That is shameful and must act as a wake-up call. That sort of disgraceful conduct undermines the work of the thousands—the vast majority—of decent, hard-working police officers who perform their duties with the utmost professionalism. More damagingly, it undermines public trust. This matters a great deal to all of us, which is why my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has made it clear that things must change.

Since the report was published yesterday, we have been studying it carefully; this has been my first week in this position, but I have been studying it carefully. It contains 43 recommendations: three for the National Police Chiefs’ Council; nine for the College of Policing; 28 for chief constables and three for the Home Office. The Home Office will most certainly be implementing those three recommendations. The NPCC said in a statement yesterday that it expects police to act on their recommendations urgently. That is most certainly my expectation as well: all of these recommendations will be acted on as a matter of urgency.

We should keep it in mind that the vast majority of police officers are hard-working and dedicated. They put themselves at risk to keep us safe, and we should pay tribute to the work that the vast majority of officers do on our behalf. The report has uncovered obviously unacceptable behaviour and we expect the recommendations to be implemented urgently.

I welcome the Minister to his place. However, I have to say that I am disappointed that the Government are not taking more responsibility and leading from the front following such a grim report.

Yesterday’s report is 160 pages of failure—failure to bar the wrong people from joining the police; failure to get rid of them; failure to protect female staff and officers, and failure to protect the public. A lack of proper action to root out racism, misogyny and serious misconduct means that some communities do not trust the police.

This is by no means the first time that serious failings and horrific examples of unacceptable behaviour have been exposed. After the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving officer, the Opposition came to this place and called for change. After the horrific murders of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, we came to this place and called for leadership. After the shameful case of Child Q, we came to this place and called for reform. After the shocking Charing Cross station report, we came to this place and demanded action. After the Stephen Port inquiry, we came to this place and called for reform. If the Government had acted and led from the front, we could have stopped people being harmed. Leadership must come from the top.

Yesterday, we learned that Metropolitan police officers had been sentenced to prison after sharing racist, homo- phobic and misogynistic WhatsApp messages. For years, there had been warnings—for example, from the independent inspectorate—about serious problems in the police misconduct system, including long delays, lack of disciplinary action, disturbing and systematic racial disparities and lack of monitoring.

We have heard anecdotal evidence of forces expediting the vetting process to meet the Government’s recruitment targets. What does the Minister know about that? What is he doing to ensure that it does not happen? Will the Minister confirm that the roles of police staff, who do a lot of the vetting work and have been subject to cuts, will be protected so that forces can introduce the right systems? Will the Minister follow Labour’s lead and introduce mandatory safeguards and professional standards, led from the top, into every police force in the country to keep everybody safe?

I thank the hon. Lady for her initial remarks and for her questions.

The Government have taken action. Indeed, the report we are debating was commissioned by the former Home Secretary directly in response to the issues that were raised. The fact that those issues have seen the light of day is thanks to that Government response. The Angiolini inquiry is also under way for exactly the same reason. We work closely with operational policing colleagues to ensure that the issues are properly addressed. I discussed the issues with Mark Rowley, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, a few days ago, before the report was published.

As for ensuring that there are adequate resources for vetting and related purposes, the spending review settlement that the police currently receive has meant an additional £3.5 billion since 2019 over the three years of the police uplift programme, not just to pay the salaries of extra police officers but to provide the support and resources required to ensure that they are properly trained and integrated.

The hon. Lady was right to ask about professional standards, which are extremely important. In 2017, national vetting standards were set out in statutory guidance, which the College of Policing published. The report recommends updating some elements of that. Misconduct procedures are set out in statute. We expect the recommendations about improving those areas to be implemented, and we expect police forces around the country to ensure that the report’s recommendations are fully implemented.

Most serving and retired police officers will feel as aggrieved as everybody else that a small number have been allowed to get away with bad things for too long.

For seven years in this House, working directly with Ministers and the Metropolitan police, I have been pursuing the case of the injustice to Sergeant Gurpal Virdi. I do not expect the Minister to know it, but does he understand that confidence can be restored only when lessons are learned, and that this is a good case to look at?

After reading the book, “Behind the Blue Line”, may I recommend that Home Office and Justice Ministers meet me with Gurpal Virdi, Matt Foot, his solicitor, the Crime Prosecution Service and the Independent Office for Police Conduct to review what went wrong, what should be put right and how the matter will be reviewed?

I thank the Father of the House for his question. I do agree that the vast majority of police officers, who are hard-working, brave and decent people, will share this House’s shock at the contents of the report. We should keep it in mind, as I say, that the vast majority of police are hard-working, brave and decent people. In relation to the case that he raised, if he is able to write to me with particulars, I would be very happy to look further into it and meet him.

I welcome the Minister to his place. The report contains very disturbing instances of sexism and harassment perpetrated against women within the police and among the general public, and the systematic failures that contributed to that. The Select Committee has just started an inquiry into police priorities. I want to invite individuals with experience of sexism and abuse within the police and of the systems that failed them to come forward and share those experiences with the Committee. On the specific issues in this report, can the Minister just say whether it is acceptable that police forces are not required to hold face-to-face interviews with candidates or to obtain their employment and character references? How can that be correct and right when the police service has such a pivotal role to play in law and order in this country?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. I strongly welcome the work that her Committee is doing in this area; it is very good that she is doing that. The issue that she raises around misogyny is a serious one. The report finds that progress has been made, but that there is a great deal more to do. I look forward to listening carefully to the recommendations that her Committee makes after it has conducted its own investigation. I think that 35% of officers are now female, which is a record figure—it has never been higher than that—and that an even higher proportion of recent recruits are female, which will hopefully add to the need to improve the culture. The training standards in the Policing Education Qualifications Framework do now include training around bias, tackling prejudice and discrimination, protecting people and looking after people with protected characteristics, but, clearly, there is a lot more to be done.

In relation to the vetting process and some of the issues that the right hon. Lady touched on at the end of her question, there are specific recommendations about them among those 43 items in yesterday’s report, and we expect police forces to adopt all of them.

I thank the Minister and the previous and current Home Secretary for the leadership that they are showing on this issue, but, clearly, the report makes deeply worrying reading. Obviously, the vast majority of police officers are dedicated and professional, but there are some wrong’uns who are serving in our forces. For example, is it right that male officers are viewing pornography at work on suspects’ phones? Is it right that they are engaging in “booty patrol”, where they are stopping attractive young women who they see driving in cars? When will the Minister come forward with the Government’s response so that women and girls across our country can feel safe and have their trust and confidence in the police restored?

All of the things that my hon. Friend describes are clearly completely unacceptable. No female officer or female member of the public should experience the things that she has just described. We do expect urgent action to be taken on these areas. The issues that she referenced are included in the 43 recommendations, and we expect implementation of those to be undertaken as a matter of urgency.

Much has been said at the Government Dispatch Box about the need for integrity, but that has to extend not only to police recruits but to those who purport to govern them. Given that the Tory police and crime commissioner of Cleveland, Steve Turner, has admitted to handling stolen goods from his employer, it cannot be that candidates for such positions who do not disclose their criminally dishonest pasts are able to stand for office or continue in office once such matters come to light. Does the Minister agree?

I am not familiar with the case the hon. Gentleman refers to, so I will not comment on the particulars. In general, however, when people stand for election, the public pass their verdict.

With over 100,000 police officers serving in England and Wales, it is important that everyone in this House accepts that they will be as outraged as we are with the contents of the HMI report. Those police officers will be out on our streets on Saturday night, and the vile individuals identified in the report have made their job of keeping us safe harder. Because they do not have a voice and we do, I rise to say that I stand with our hard- working police officers. I stand with our police officers in Lancashire. They are doing a good job of keeping us safe, and they will be as disgusted as we are.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The vast majority of police officers are decent, hard-working and brave people who put themselves at risk to keep us safe, and they will share our horror at these findings.

As many know, I was a police officer, joining Lothian and Borders police in 1999. I will not pretend that I do not recognise some of the elements of the culture described in the report, but I am concerned that policing by consent, which is the central tenet of policing in the UK, is threatened by reports such as this one. Scotland is not immune—the Minister mentioned Dame Elish Angiolini, who has carried out a similar report in Scotland. We need to sort out the vetting, but I have a real concern that there are people serving in the police force today who should not be there. What actions is the Minister taking to ensure that all forces do that? Given that the picture is quite fractured, with 43 forces, does the IOPC have a role in ensuring that that work is expedited?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and for her service as a police officer in Scotland. She is right to point out that this is not just about vetting on entry; it is also about conduct while in office. The recommendations touch on this matter, including in relation to the Home Office and the rule 13 processes around people who are still on probation. I have only been in post for a week, but I do think that making sure that misconduct allegations and wider performance issues are acted on quickly merits further attention, and it is something I will look into.

The significance and seriousness of the report should not be understated, but does my right hon. Friend recognise that the vast majority of police officers are honourable, hardworking and dedicated public servants? Can he assure us that he will take the strongest action to follow through and deliver on the recommendations, but that he will also show and give the greatest confidence to those honourable police officers who are public servants and who work daily to keep us safe?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. This Government and, I am sure, all Members on both sides of the House, stand with and behind the vast majority of police officers, who work hard to keep us safe, often putting themselves in danger to do so. We will continue to give full support to that vast majority while we take urgent action to address the findings in the report.

The report states that hundreds, if not thousands, of officers who should have failed vetting are now working in police forces across the country, including mine. What measures will he take to identify those individuals and take action?

There is already a process of periodic re-vetting of serving police officers. One of the 43 recommendations in the report published yesterday is to do that re-vetting more frequently, and that is with police chiefs as we speak.

It is vital that lessons are learned, and I thank the Minister for confirming that the recommendations in the report will be delivered in full, but does he agree that 99.9% of our police officers in this country do a brilliant job in keeping our communities safe, and that it would be a grave mistake if those who oppose the police for political reasons were to jump on the report as a way to undermine public confidence in the work the police do?

I agree that the vast majority of police are hard-working, decent and brave. I have not heard any Member attempting to exploit the report today, and I am sure that no Member of this House would do so. I am also sure that all of us will stand with our brave officers who are doing a good job while ensuring that appropriate action is taken where urgent improvement is needed.

When this urgent question was heard in the other place yesterday, the Minister in the Lords pushed responsibility for standards and reform on to individual police chiefs in individual forces. We know there is a clear postcode lottery with police standards, which is letting the public down. Does this Minister accept that that is wrong and that there must also be leadership from the top at the Home Office too?

Of course I agree that leadership is important, including setting clear standards and, for example, ensuring that those statutory guidelines were put in place in 2017. Leadership is important, and I believe this Home Secretary and the previous Home Secretary, who commissioned this report and the Angiolini review in the first place, have discharged those responsibilities. The hon. Gentleman is also right to allude to the fact that the police are rightly operationally independent; we must ensure that the institutions and structures are right, that police chiefs are supported as necessary, and that the College of Policing is setting the right standards. That is what many of the recommendations in this report seek to do.

Jonathon Cobban and Joel Borders were serving police officers in Hounslow. Yesterday, they were sentenced to 12 weeks in prison for sharing the vilest misogynistic, racist, ableist and homophobic messages in a WhatsApp group that also included Wayne Couzens and others. In court, they showed no remorse. All those officers had been transferred in from the Civil Nuclear Constabulary to fill gaps in the Met. Is the Minister aware of a wider problem of officers being transferred between forces without any real vetting or suitability checks at the time of their transfer, and what is he doing about it to ensure not only that it does not happen again, but that all officers currently serving in the Met are fully vetted and, if they are found to have issues, are sacked from serving in any police force again?

I share the hon. Lady’s horror at the case she describes, which was heard in her local area. It is a truly shocking case. On the question of transfers, one reason for the police uplift programme, hiring the extra 20,000 officers, is to ensure that there are no gaps that need to be filled. There are important recommendations among the 43 that address the question of vetting. On her point about checking the existing cadre of officers, I draw attention again to the point I made a few minutes ago about the regular rolling process of rechecking, which the report also refers to.

This is a sad saga of Government and police management failure. Understandably, there will likely be increased vetting after this important report, so by when will all the additional 20,000 police officers promised so long ago actually be in post?

Of the extra 20,000 officers, just over 15,000 were in post by 30 September this year. The information I have been provided with in the last week—my first week in this post—is that by the end of March 2023, in four or five months’ time, all 20,000 will have been recruited as planned.

This issue starts at the very top, and we have missed many opportunities to tackle it. It was also exacerbated by the incredible decision of the Conservatives to cut 21,000 police officers. Now we have a mad dash to try to backfill those gaps in the service. Can the Minister assure us that no lax vetting has been involved in filling those gaps, and what will he do to go back and re-vet those officers to ensure that they are of the highest standard?

The report made it clear that there have been problems with vetting—that is one of its key and troubling findings. There is a programme of automatic re-vetting of officers on a periodic basis, and one of the report’s recommendations is that that should be done more frequently, for the reasons the hon. Gentleman sets out. More broadly, officer numbers did go down shortly after 2010, owing to the catastrophic economic circumstances at the time, but they are now going up rapidly and by March of next year, as I said a second ago, we will have a record number of police officers—at no point in this country’s history have we had more officers on the books than we will have by March next year. In fact, my understanding is that in the force area covering his constituency and mine there are already a record number of Metropolitan police officers. Never in the Met’s history have there been more police officers on its books than there are today.

I thank the Minister for his response to the questions that have been asked. I also want to put on the record my thanks to the many police officers who are above reproach and do a wonderful and very courageous job; it is important to say that before asking questions. It is disturbing to learn in this report that petty theft or assault charges were either ignored or not found out in the vetting procedure, which tells us just how broken the system is. What has been done to fix that and to ensure that the past record of people of both genders is known, decisions are made in the best interests of the force and every action is taken to restore the general public’s confidence and trust? That is really important.

I thank the hon. Member for his question, and I agree with his comments at the beginning. We should keep in mind in this debate, both in the House and publicly, that the vast majority of police officers are decent, hard-working and brave people putting their own safety at risk to keep us safe; we should never lose sight of that fact. I share his concern about the vetting issues that we have discussed, and there are recommendations to improve those. Where applicants have served a custodial sentence or signed the sex offenders register, there is currently an absolute prohibition on them being recruited as police officers, and where they have a criminal conviction of any kind, there is a presumption against their recruitment. That is a rebuttable presumption, so they can make representations, but the presumption is that they will not be hired. Clearly, we need to ensure that that information is always known and always considered, and there are recommendations in yesterday’s report to ensure that that happens.