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Police: Officer Offences

Volume 767: debated on Thursday 19 November 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many serving police officers in England and Wales have been convicted of offences of violence or dishonesty in the past 10 years.

My Lords, the Home Office does not currently hold data related to police officers convicted of certain categories of offences centrally. These are held at individual force level.

I thank the Minister for that response. I asked all police forces whether any of their officers who carry guns and Tasers have convictions for physical violence. Half the police forces were unable to answer; one police force said that it would require a PNC check on every officer in order to answer the question; and one police force said that the data it could provide may not be accurate because officers may not have reported the fact that they have had a conviction. Does the Minister share my concern that this appalling lack of data could have very serious consequences?

I certainly do share the noble Baroness’s concern about that. The College of Policing, which was set up to raise standards in this very important area, has said that in all but the most exceptional circumstances it would not expect anybody with any conviction, except the most minor conviction perhaps committed in their youth, to be on the force. Therefore, the type of circumstances that the noble Baroness refers to should not arise. Of course, one issue is that, because of the particular legal entity of a police constable, it is a matter for the local constabulary to act upon that, and we very much hope that they will.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that when I joined the police service, many decades ago now, each applicant had to be fully vetted? As well as that, the applicant’s spouse and family were also vetted. I noticed recently that pass-holders on the Parliamentary Estate are also required to go through a similar strict vetting procedure. Does the Minister draw any conclusion from that?

We draw the conclusion that that needs to be improved. We recognise that. That is one reason why the College of Policing has introduced a new code about how vetting is undertaken. At the moment, it is done on a constabulary by constabulary basis and there are differences. We want best practice across all constabularies. A new authorised, professional standard of vetting is being issued and is expected to be introduced across all the constabularies in the country.

Does my noble friend agree that conviction in open court for a criminal offence is a matter of public record? Will he therefore take steps to obtain the information which the noble Baroness asked for and publish it in Hansard, with the names of those concerned, the dates of conviction, the offences for which they were convicted and the sentences that they were given, as soon as possible?

My noble friend is right to say that it is a matter of public record. What we are trying to do here in the wider sense is to have a central role for the College of Policing, which we have established, to raise standards across a whole raft of areas. It has now introduced a “struck off” list. Some 444 police officers have been struck off, and that is a matter of public record. We have also said that disciplinary hearings need in future to be held in public and to be chaired by an independent, legally qualified individual. These are all steps in the same direction that I think the noble Lord wants to go.

A recent freedom of information request asked how many officers and PCSOs had been convicted of criminal offences since 2012 and for the total number of serving officers with criminal convictions. What was surprising from the outcome of that FoI request was the number of police forces—nearly half—which declined to provide the information sought on grounds of cost or did not respond at all. Of course, the overwhelming majority of police officers are committed to their job and to serving their community and it is important to place that on the record, but since police and crime commissioners were meant to provide greater police accountability to the public, do not the Government find it surprising that PCCs would not have already obtained for themselves the information sought in the FoI request to which I have referred about their own force, including the policy on recruiting new officers with previous convictions and retaining in the service those convicted of offences while in the force? That clearly could not have been the case in respect of those PCCs for those forces which did not provide the figures sought.

One role of the PCC is to have exactly that conversation with the chief constable in their area and to make sure that they are aware. When I looked into the detail of those freedom of information requests—which, on face, cause me as much distress as I am sure they cause the noble Lord—I found that in many cases, while there was a conviction for a current officer, that was countered by the fact that they were still undergoing gross misconduct procedures or appealing a particular decision. That was one of the reasons why those figures came out, but those conversations should be going on as a routine matter between PCCs and chief constables to maintain public confidence.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Freedom of Information Act has been important in eliciting information on this question and many others? Will he give the House an assurance that the Government will not weaken that Act?

Certainly for individual forces there can be a great cost of that. That is one of the reasons why we need better systems of central reporting. For example, from next year the annual data return will collect misconduct and conviction numbers. That can be done centrally and therefore there will not be a greater need for freedom of information requests. That will be better all round.

My Lords, I think that this is actually a problem of recording rather than having convicted officers still in the force. The reason for that is that they will have been charged in a police station and that fact will have gone to the professional standards department and the chief constable. If they are convicted, they will be put on a discipline hearing, which has the power to dismiss if someone has been convicted of an offence. The problem is not that we will have lots of people wandering around wearing blue uniforms who have been convicted of violence and dishonesty but that we do not know how many have been convicted. That is still a problem, but it is not the same as the hideous idea that there are lots of people with serious convictions inside the police service.

On that point the noble Lord is absolutely right. The number who have been struck off, which I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, was 444 out of 127,000 serving police officers. It is absolutely right that the vast majority behave to the highest possible standards of integrity.

My Lords, is there a national policy not to charge police drivers with killing people on the roads? I believe there has not been a single conviction of a police driver for killing other people—be they pedestrians, cyclists or people in other cars—for the past 10 years or so.

Whenever there is a fatality where the police come into contact with the public and those tragic circumstances happen, it is a mandatory requirement that that is reported to the Independent Police Complaints Commission and investigated. I am not sure of the actual numbers, but I will be happy to look into the issue and write to the noble Lord.