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Sexual Misconduct in the Police

Volume 815: debated on Tuesday 26 October 2021

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 20 October.

“Abuse of position for sexual purpose by a police officer is abhorrent, betraying the trust of victims from a position of power. The Government are working closely with the National Police Chiefs Council and other policing stakeholders as part of a new national working group to implement the right strategies, policies and products to help forces to tackle those officers abusing their positions for sexual purposes. In February last year, the Government strengthened the powers of the independent police watchdog, the Independent Office of Police Conduct. Now all allegations of abuse of position for sexual purpose must, by law, be referred to the IOPC. For the first time, the Home Office will also now be able to collect and publish data on issues of internal sexual misconduct by officers, and we aim to publish the first tranche of data in the new year.

But we are determined to go further. The heinous murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer shook our country to the core. I know that the thoughts of everyone in this House will remain with Sarah’s family. The public are in urgent need of reassurance; so too are the vast majority of police officers who serve with courage and professionalism and who rely on all their colleagues to uphold their values. This is why the Government are launching a two-part independent inquiry. The first part will examine the recruitment and employment of Sarah’s killer and whether there were opportunities to have intercepted him along the way. I would expect the second part to look at a range of relevant issues, from policing culture to whether enough is being done to identify and report patterns of behaviour of those individuals who could go on to abuse their policing powers. We will appoint the chair of the inquiry shortly and then agree terms of reference. The Home Secretary will, at that point, provide the House with an update. We have also asked Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary to undertake an urgent inspection of forces to look at their vetting and countercorruption arrangements, as well as focusing on how well forces can identify unacceptable behaviour.

We recognise that sexual violence is a broader issue in society and we must leave no stone unturned in confronting it. The Prime Minister will therefore launch a taskforce to drive cross-government action and to help maintain public confidence in policing and our many thousands of outstanding police officers. The police have a unique and vital role in our society and we rightly expect them to meet high standards of behaviour and professionalism. Across government and policing, we must continue working ceaselessly to protect the precious bond of trust between officers and the public.”

Since the dreadful murder of Sarah Everard and the appalling revelations of the abuse of police powers by her killer, there have been many other shocking allegations of the failure of the police to deal with misogyny and sexism in their own ranks. Today, we learned from the Independent Office for Police Conduct that, in the last three years, 66 officers and members of staff have faced disciplinary proceedings for alleged abuse of position for a sexual purpose; let alone those not reported, that is a big rise in the last year. The trust we rightly have in the police is everything. What, as well as the inquiries, are the Government doing now to change a culture where there are too many examples of totally inappropriate behaviour, which, at its worst, allowed a serving police officer nicknamed “The Rapist” to continue in post?

I must join the noble Lord in expressing my disgust. Every one of those numbers represents a person who has been the victim of sexual misconduct by a serving police officer. On the one hand, any number is too many but, on the other hand, we should look to the legislation that we introduced last year to give additional powers to the IOPC. That includes the power of initiative, which allows it to bring forward and investigate allegations without requiring referral from the police. In addition, forces must refer all allegations of serious sexual offences or of police officers abusing their position for a sexual purpose to the IOPC. For the first time now, the Home Office will be able to collect and publish data on internal sexual misconduct by officers, and we aim to publish the first tranche in the new year.

My Lords, I was a police officer for over 30 years, and I want to be proud of that fact. We do not need working groups, inquiries, inspections and a task force to reassure the public. When will the Home Secretary give the Independent Office for Police Conduct the additional resources that it needs to effectively investigate sexual abuse by police officers? As a former Home Secretary did with racism after the tragic death of Stephen Lawrence, when will she tell police chiefs: “Misogyny is a problem and you must address it now”? That is not just what we want. It is what every decent, honest, hard-working police officer wants.

I repeat my response to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, that every report or allegation of police misconduct for a sexual purpose must be referred to the IOPC. It will be up to individual force chiefs to decide but if it is sexual misconduct it must be referred to the IOPC. We have that additional layer in that the IOPC now has the power of initiative. Decisions on whether officers have committed sexual misconduct, and, if so, what sanctions there ought to be, are for misconduct panels led by the independent, legally qualified chairs.

Additionally, following the recommendations of the Zoë Billingham report, we will be working closely with the new national police lead for tackling VAWG, DCC Maggie Blyth, who took up the post recently to address the report’s findings and drive forward improvements in policing’s response to VAWG.

The Minister appreciates that trust in the police has taken a real hit, particularly among young women. Given the problems that the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, had with non-co-operation from the Metropolitan Police—including, I am sorry to say, the commissioner—with her Home Office review of the Daniel Morgan case, will the Government please consider putting the new inquiry announced by the Home Secretary on a full statutory footing, with powers of compulsion?

I thank the noble Baroness for that question and for the conversation that we had the other day on this matter. On whether the inquiry could be on a statutory footing, one change since February 2020, when we amended the law, is that police officers are now under a duty to co-operate as witnesses with investigations, inquiries and formal proceedings under the revised standards of professional behaviour. They are guilty of a disciplinary offence if they fail to do so. On the fundamental question, should we assess it necessary, the inquiry can be converted into a statutory inquiry where witnesses can be compelled to give evidence.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a practical measure which would enhance the confidence that women have in the police force would be for any officer against whom a credible complaint of sexual misconduct is made to be immediately suspended, and that it is not good enough for this matter to be left, as it currently is, to the discretion of chief constables?

Officers can be and are suspended for allegations of misconduct. Every case is different, so it is left to the discretion of police chiefs to decide on a case-by-case basis. I would not want to make a blanket determination because there may be spurious allegations. It would be up to the police chief in question to determine whether a suspension was relevant or appropriate.

My Lords, following the terrible, tragic murder of Sarah Everard and all the revelations that followed after the conviction of Wayne Couzens, it became very clear that there needs to be a serious culture change within sections of the police force. In order for that to happen root and branch, there needs to be change in the atmosphere where women and other police officers—we have heard particularly from female police officers—have witnessed this kind of toxic behaviour but felt unable to do anything about it, or, if they complained, felt that they were ostracised or demoted. What is being done about that specifically to enable whistleblowers or serving police officers to come forward to report such behaviour and to ensure that it will be dealt with properly?

Also, Commissioner Cressida Dick has announced that when plain-clothes police officers stop a lone woman, they will now have to video call into a police station for an identity check to prove that they are actually a serving police officer—something called Safe Connection. How would that have helped in the case of Sarah Everard? Wayne Couzens was a serving police officer, so it would not have helped.

I have the utmost sympathy with the second part of the noble Baroness’s question, because, were I to have been stopped by that killer, I would have complied. Something that is at the forefront of the Home Secretary’s mind, and must be on the Metropolitan Police Commissioner’s mind, is trust in the police. Such events are, mercifully, rare—in fact, I do not know of one that is the same in my lifetime—but the noble Baroness absolutely hits on the point: had the same thing been repeated under what the Metropolitan Police has suggested, would it have happened again? That gives both the Metropolitan Police and the Home Secretary something that they need to—and will—reflect on.

On culture, again, I totally concur with the noble Baroness’s point, and the second part of the inquiry will look at a range of relevant issues, from policing culture to whether enough is being done to join up, identify and report patterns of behaviour of those individuals who could go on to abuse their policing powers.

My Lords, the police are in the middle of a recruiting drive which will recruit about 45,000 officers in the next two years. One of the issues raised by the terrible murder of Sarah Everard was whether the appropriate vetting was carried out on Wayne Couzens, both in his transfer and, obviously, for new officers. First, can the Minister say something about how vetting standards have changed since 4 March this year—since when I would hope that things have moved on? Secondly, what action is being taken about information coming from within the forces—such as the comment that this officer had been known as “the rapist”? If that intelligence is around, what has changed to do something about it?

On the noble Lord’s latter question about “the rapist”, it is pretty disgusting, if indeed it is true. On what the Home Office is doing now about vetting, new recruits are subject to a rigorous vetting and assessment process to assess suitability for the role of police officer, and, although decisions about police recruitment are made within a national framework, they are locally managed by the police. On the inquiry, the first part will of course examine the recruitment and employment of Sarah’s killer and whether there had been opportunities to intercept him along the way.