Before I call Harriet Harman to ask her urgent question, I wish to remind all Members that the House’s sub judice resolution means that no reference should be made to cases in which legal proceedings are active, which includes those where an individual has been charged with an offence. I would also ask Members to exercise caution in discussing matters that are subject to current police investigations. I call Harriet Harman.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would like, first off, to endorse the heartfelt tributes that have been made to James Brokenshire and send my deepest sympathy to his family.
I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this urgent question—
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 counter-corruption 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.
I thank the Minister for his statement and the work he and his colleagues are doing on this.
Wayne Couzens used his Metropolitan police warrant card, his Metropolitan police handcuffs and his police powers to kidnap and kill Sarah Everard. Since the full horror of this was made public at the sentencing hearing, there has been an outpouring about the failure of the police to deal with misogyny and sexism within the force. Women need to be able to trust the police, not fear them. That means that we need to be certain that allegations of sexism and misogyny result in immediate suspension—not just removal from the frontline but immediate suspension from the police—that findings of sexual misconduct lead to instant dismissal, that vetting and training is sorted urgently, and that if you are in a WhatsApp group that deals in sexual violence and misogyny you should not be in the police. The official inquiries that the Minister mentioned are under way are welcome, but even before those inquiries report, these basic issues should be tackled now.
We need firm leadership from the police—from the top of the police—in recognising that big change is needed, and a determination not to stand in the way of that change but to make it happen. I know the Home Secretary agrees with us on that. I do not believe that will happen under the current Metropolitan police commissioner, who should, I believe, step down so that this vital change can happen and happen now.
Of course we all agree with the sentiments expressed by the right hon. and learned Member. This kind of behaviour has no place in British policing. She is right that we need to pay constant attention to the processes and products that policing has so that we can root out this behaviour and deal with it once and for all. She will know that the office of constable is a sacred and special one within our society, and certainly within our legal system. We must do all we can to protect its integrity, but at the same time recognise that even constables are owed due process, and that where complaints are made, we must have a robust system around those complaints and detecting abhorrent behaviour. Where that abhorrent behaviour is detected, the system must enable us to examine the behaviour, give a fair hearing, and then deal with those officers accordingly.
The right hon. and learned Member will know that there has been significant work in this area over the past few years following a report by the inspectorate back in 2019 that looked at the specific issue. The National Police Chiefs Council has, as I say, set up a working group in which the Home Office participates to try to strengthen these routes. The inspectorate reported then that excellent progress has been made but there was still much more to do, not least in the detection and internal reporting of these matters. I am hopeful that the inquiry, when it completes, will give us the tools we need and the work processes to pursue to enable us to make sure that the net is ever tighter in maintaining the integrity of British policing.
We know that sexual abuse in our schools, our universities and our colleges is endemic. It is part of the culture that too many people still grow up with in our country, so little wonder it continues on into the workplace, including the police force. We have to change that culture. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the police, and indeed all employers, should stop using non-disclosure agreements to cover up allegations of unlawful behaviour at work, including sexual misconduct, and that anonymity should never be granted to protect the identity of police officers who are found guilty of sexual misconduct?
I applaud the sentiments behind my right hon. Friend’s work in this area. NDAs are profoundly to be avoided. I cannot, I have to say, envisage the circumstances in which they would be used in policing, not least because, as I said earlier, following changes in the law, offences of this type have to be referred to the Independent Office for Police Conduct. Decisions are therefore taken independently in terms of the investigation and the proposed sanction. The disciplinary structure around police constables, which then follows those allegations or charges, is an independent one, run by an independent panel and with an independent qualified chair who makes decisions about disclosure or otherwise regarding the case. I cannot see that an NDA would necessarily be applicable in those circumstances, but she is right to point out that they are deeply undesirable.
Forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I add my voice to the tributes we heard earlier to James Brokenshire. I worked with him, and always found him to be charming, committed and thoughtful.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) for tabling this urgent question. The killings of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa, Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman and others have shone a light on the epidemic of violence against women and girls. Zoë Billingham, from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, defined this epidemic in her recent report. She said:
“The problem is known, consistent and deep-rooted in its presence, and growing in the forms it takes.”
We cannot hope to tackle violence against women and girls unless we can be sure that those who are here to protect us will not turn on us. Every police officer I have spoken to since Sarah’s murder has said the same: they, more than anyone, want to root out any opportunity for perpetrators to join our police service, and they want to ensure that the culture and climate in every force enables victims to have the confidence to come forward.
To rebuild the trust and confidence of women and girls in police, there must be a comprehensive, independent inquiry on a statutory footing. The Minister said that the public are in urgent need of reassurance, and that is absolutely correct, but a non-statutory inquiry cannot act in the same way as a statutory one. It cannot compel witnesses to testify, it cannot demand documents and the evidence it hears will not be under oath, and we do not believe that is good enough. It is clear that we need to look at the whole system: the vetting process, the misconduct process, working cultures, misogyny and sexism within the police force and training processes. This could be a watershed moment, and it must not be left to women and girls to make this happen.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) asked this week, when will the Home Secretary implement the recommendations of Zoë Billingham’s report? When will the Government reform and invest in our police force, our criminal justice system and wider public services so that we are ready to start tackling this epidemic? For women and girls everywhere, and for our police officers who are devastated at the betrayal of everything they stand for, things cannot remain as they are. We would work with the Government, and thank them for it, if they took this moment to bring profound change.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. On her substantive point about the inquiry, she will know that a statutory inquiry is a very long-winded affair to set up, and a non-statutory inquiry can be much quicker. She will also be aware that it is contrary to regulations, since a change in the law recently, for a police officer not to co-operate with such an inquiry, whether statutory or otherwise, and they would be subject to disciplinary proceedings if they did not co-operate. Having said that, if the chair of the inquiry feels that he or she is not getting the co-operation or the information they need, we have reserved the right to convert the inquiry into a statutory one.
The hon. Lady is right that the inquiry forms part of a suite of tools that we need to restore and enhance the confidence particularly of women and girls in our police forces. One of those processes is what we are seeing with the uplift programme, which is essentially a greater feminisation of UK policing. We have moved over the past 10 years from 25% of the force being female to just over a third, and we have a number of forces where more than half of new recruits are female. I am hopeful that that progress will mean that women and girls feel that the police force better reflects them and may result in better contemplation of these issues.
I am sure my right hon. Friend would agree that any barrel can have a rotten apple. Most of our police are law-abiding, honest folk going about their job, protecting us properly. I know also that he will agree that this is not just an issue for the Metropolitan police, but is something affecting the whole police family and the nation’s confidence in policing in our country. Can he assure me on two things? First, can he assure me that the widest part of the culture of the police understands that because they are there to enforce the law, that means they are not beyond it? Secondly, can he ensure that when a police officer changes to another force, they are vetted as if from scratch, rather than just for specific serious tasks, usually involving the carrying of a weapon? When people move too quickly between constabularies, as in any other job, it usually should ring alarm bells.
On my hon. Friend’s second point, these are exactly the issues we want to learn from as part of the inquiry. He is right that we need to ensure that the vetting net is as tight as possible. He will know that police officers are vetted at a number of points during their careers, and often on transfer, as he says. We need to ensure that that is happening and has happened. If there are lessons to be learned, we will learn them. He is right that this is not necessarily a problem just for the police in one particular area or for the police as a whole; it is one that we have to face as a society generally. I have to reassure him that some of the strongest advocates for change, some of the individuals most outraged by previous events and some of those most committed to maintaining the integrity of the police force are police officers themselves.
May I associate myself with the comments of others across the House and pass on my condolences to James’s family?
The murder of Sarah Everard has truly shocked and saddened us all, and I once again send my condolences to Sarah’s friends and family. We on these Benches welcome the independent inquiry and the announcement of a taskforce, but more details must be given on exactly what will be put in place. The statutory inquiry must be put in place.
I recognise that this issue is not solely confined to the Met. As recent inquiries and news have shown in Scotland, there is a real problem and a culture that pervades establishments. The Scottish Government are taking this seriously and will take any concerns or issues raised seriously and ensure that those responsible are held to account.
Dame Elish Angiolini referred in her report to “a canteen culture” and
“racist, misogynistic or emotionally damaging”
conduct. While good policing will not end male violence against women, trust in the police is vital, yet over the past 11 years, more than 750 Met police officers and staff have had accusations of sexual misconduct, including accusations of sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape and using their position of power for sexual gain. Of those 750, only 83 were sacked. Does the Minister feel that those figures reflect sufficient accountability and, if not, what action is needed to address that?
I obviously cannot speak to the individual cases that the hon. Lady has outlined, but like most of the British public, I need to have faith in the independent structures that are put in place. All offences of that type must by law be referred to the Independent Office for Police Conduct, and all disciplinary proceedings within the police force are dealt with by independent panels chaired by legally qualified chairs. That is the due process that produces these numbers.
We hope that the work we are doing through the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the reforms that we have put in place around the IOPC and the lessons that will then come out of the inquiry will form a suite of information and tools that will help to bolster the faith that the vast majority of the British people have in the vast majority of police officers. As I say, our job is to help the police to rebuild that bond of trust, whether in Scotland, England, Wales or Northern Ireland, and we will do our best to stand alongside them.
A recent freedom of information request showed that more than 600 members of the police had been the subject of allegations of sexual misconduct since 2018. Most worryingly, nearly 10% of those had left the force before the disciplinary proceedings had concluded. In the public’s mind, that will raise a real worry that those people who do not have a black mark on their disciplinary record could rejoin an alternative force at a later date. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that those who are accused cannot leave the force and then rejoin?
We brought about reforms in the law to produce a police barred list, which is there precisely to stop police officers who are convicted of offences or disciplinary matters from rejoining the police. My hon. Friend raises a good issue that, in theory, when a police officer rejoins the police, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) referred to, that should come up on their vetting report. As part of our inquiries, we will have to make sure that the processes are in place to detect exactly the kind of information that she is looking for. As I say, following this dreadful event—the killing of Sarah Everard— our job is to make sure that the vetting net is as tight as possible and those are exactly the sorts of areas that we will need to explore.
The Minister and the police forces have rightly talked about the importance of rebuilding trust. When serious allegations are made against police officers about sexual assault or domestic abuse—offences that, by their very nature, involve controlling behaviour, the abuse of power, the abuse of vulnerable victims and misogyny—why are they not suspended immediately while investigations take place?
The Chair of the Select Committee is right that such offences or allegations need to be dealt with swiftly and robustly, but she will understand that the decision to suspend a police officer primarily lies with the chief constable, for important reasons. Obviously, we are working with the National Police Chiefs’ Council to make sure that we have a consistent approach to those kinds of offences across all police forces, but that is definitely a matter that falls into the area of operational independence, so the policy is decided on a force-by-force basis, albeit that the College of Policing issues guidelines. Given her long history in the area, I know that she will recognise the importance of a chief constable taking responsibility primarily for the suspension or otherwise of the officers in that force.
The truth of the matter is that sexual violence against women is too common and, as a consequence, it shows up in our police service. A few weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke at the Conservative party conference about the need for a broken windows theory of tackling crime. Against that background, what thoughts does the Minister have about applying that principle to the whole area of sexual violence? The simple fact is, if we let low-level sexual banter escalate, that is exactly what we end up with. Is it not incumbent on the whole of society to make every bit of sexually aggressive behaviour towards women and girls totally socially unacceptable?
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. She is right that we can put in place all the structures and processes that we like but, unless there is a significant change in the culture, such practices will often go undetected. There is, however, a strong movement in British policing now to deal with the issue. For example, a large number of male officers are involved in the HeForShe campaign within the Metropolitan police, led by the deputy commissioner himself, in trying to bring about the recognition of the need for transparency and reporting, and the recognition that everybody has a job to do to help to root out that kind of conduct.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) for securing this urgent question. I also thank all the good police officers who we have in our constituencies and here in Parliament. It is important to mention that, not just because it is true, but because whenever we talk about the police and bad apples, I for one am inundated with a lot of abuse on social media, especially from people with a thin blue line as their picture who claim to be former police officers. If they are former police officers and they levy that abuse towards me, I wonder what they were like when they were serving police officers and what they did on the street when they had all those powers.
Sarah Everard’s killing—her brutal murder—has shocked us all. Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman’s murder came before that of Sarah Everard and the police officers acted appallingly inhumanely by taking pictures of their dead bodies and posting them on a WhatsApp group. I understand that the officers in that WhatsApp group have still not been punished. As my right hon. and learned Friend said, we have to deal with the culture in the police force. At every single stage, whether the abuse is misogynistic, racist or sexist, we have to deal with it, because the same people are committing crimes over and over again. When police officers are accused of domestic violence, the police often surround them and protect them as if it is more important to protect each other than the public.
I thank the hon. Lady for recognising that there are many thousands of police officers out there doing an outstanding job. I know that they will appreciate her recognition of their work. If she is receiving abuse online from individuals purporting to be police officers, ex-police officers or otherwise, I ask her please to report every single one.
Well, I am grateful that she does, because gathering that kind of intelligence is exactly what we need. As she will know, there is an ongoing review of MPs’ safety and the kind of hatred and abuse that she and others have to put up with online.
In terms of the wider issue about cultural change, the hon. Lady is right. I cannot comment on the individual disciplinary proceedings around that horrendous murder in north London, but she is right that part of our restoring the trust and sense of integrity in British policing is making sure, when such events happen, that the disciplinary proceedings and consequences are swift and certain; that they are conducted with rigour and alacrity; and that there is transparency about them so that the notion that the police are defensive on those issues is completely dispelled.
I associate myself and my party with the tributes paid to James Brokenshire earlier, and I send my condolences to his family.
The Minister mentioned the increasing gender diversity in the police force. A way to continue that trend is to ensure that we effectively demonstrate that internal complaints are being dealt with appropriately. A Unison survey four years ago found that the more serious the behaviour, the less likely to challenge it police staff were. Some 39% said that they would find it easier to keep quiet. As a former police officer, I sadly suspect that little has changed. What consideration is being given to the management and encouragement of reporting of internal complaints, particularly those that do not necessarily become criminal but do constitute misconduct and suggest a potential course of conduct?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who brings her experience to bear on this area. The message we get from the inspectorate, which has looked at the issue over a number of years and no doubt will again, is that there has been change and improvement in a number of police forces, but it is too patchy, and that the greater resource and greater use of software in many ways—for reporting and for detection—could be more widespread.
The hon. Lady will know that a number of forces have software that detects when officers are accessing certain kinds of material on databases about victims or witnesses, which is useful. We have had several situations where officers have been caught illegally accessing that information and disciplinary or criminal proceedings have resulted from that. As she rightly points out, however, there is still a hell of a lot more to do, and I hope and believe that the working group that the NPCC has set up, in which, as I say, the Home Office is participating, will bring about the real change she is looking for.
Any woman who rings the police seeking assistance when they are suffering domestic violence or any form of abuse has to have the confidence that the officers who turn up will treat the matter seriously. If those officers have themselves been accused of domestic violence or any form of abuse, are they likely to do so? Can women have confidence that those officers will treat their concerns seriously? Surely the police need to adopt and enforce a zero-tolerance policy so that women can have confidence in the police force.
As I said earlier, these are necessarily matters that fall under the operational independence of a chief constable. One would hope that chief constables in those circumstances might, for example, place an officer on restricted duties or indeed suspend that officer if the allegation were serious enough.
The right hon. and learned Lady is shaking her head, and I understand that she finds that unsatisfactory, but there are important reasons why chief constables must be the primary source of responsibility, both for suspension and for discipline, in maintaining the integrity of their own police force. Having said that, the inquiries and reviews that are under way will teach us lessons about what more we can and should do to improve this situation. I would hope and believe that, when we come back with the conclusions from those pieces of work, we can talk again about this issue.
I also want to pay tribute to my constituency neighbour my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) for securing this really important question.
I want to come back to the Minister’s last reply, in which he mentioned that it is up to chief constables. The Minister will be aware of the former chief constable of Nottinghamshire police, Sue Fish, who has said:
“When I tried to address this I was denigrated, isolated, marginalised by many senior people because they didn’t see it as either important or necessary”.
That goes to the heart of the issue we are discussing. Police officers are still in post while those women and girls are fearful, and those women and girls are reporting it to their relevant police officers knowing that nothing will happen. That includes the many women and girls who have come to me in my Vauxhall constituency highlighting the issues of reporting crimes at Brixton police station. We have to change this culture, and warm words will not help those women and girls, so I want to ask the Minister: what help will the Government be giving to those victims?
I agree with the hon. Lady that things have to change, and that is what we are trying to bring about. She will know that, if she has specific constituency cases of people who are dissatisfied, alarmed or concerned about their treatment at the hands of the police, they can go to the Independent Office for Police Conduct and seek satisfaction through that route. They do not have to rely on the police themselves.
As I said earlier, we have to divide two issues here. First, there are allegations of serious sexual offending, which must now by law be reported to the Independent Office for Police Conduct. The issue generally of suspension or otherwise for a police officer does at the moment fall to chief constables. Obviously, they are accountable to the local police and crime commissioner—in the hon. Lady’s case, to the Mayor of London—and policy will be set between those two. As I say, there are important reasons why a chief constable must be responsible for the suspension or otherwise of an officer. That is separate from the requirement in law to report these offences to the IOPC, where an independent investigation can take place and then disciplinary proceedings follow, if possible.
I realise that many Members of the House believe that this process appears long-winded. Our job is to balance two things: the right of a constable to due process against the right and the need of the public, particularly women and girls, to have a sense of trust in the system. That is exactly what we will try to learn from and improve through the inquiries we are undertaking and the work that we are doing with the National Police Chiefs’ Council.
I understand that 750 police officers have been accused of sexual misconduct between 2016 and 2020, including 40 from Welsh police forces. While the numbers are in the public domain, in many cases the outcomes of the accusations are not, even though, as I think everyone here would agree, there is evidently an issue of legitimate public interest. I appreciate that the inquiry will be independent, but I think the public want to know that there is consistency of sanctions when the findings uphold those accusations. Could the Minister make a commitment to me that, in his dealings with the independent inquiry, he will be urging it to consider that within the terms of reference?
I am happy to consider that issue—absolutely. As I said earlier in my statement, we are about—I hope in the new year—for the first time to publish internal force statistics which will give us the full picture. At the moment, we publish national statistics to do with the IOPC inquiries in this area, but a number of allegations are dealt with internally in a force. Once we have that data and it is out in the public domain, we will be able to make a judgment, exactly as the right hon. Member says, about consistency of disposal, and consider what more needs to be done.
What concerns me about the response of the Minister so far to the issue of suspension of police officers who have been accused of domestic abuse or sexual assault is that this could lead and does lead to inconsistencies all around the country, and it seems to me that there is something the Minister could do. Has he had any conversations with chief constables about what the expectation would be when dealing with officers who have such allegations made against them, and whether suspension is the right way forward?
As I say, I am merely stating a fact that, at the moment, suspension falls to the chief constable, but it is in the nature of this that, with 43 chief constables across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, there will be a variable approach. It is in the nature of any—[Interruption.] It is in the nature of any organisation that that is the case, in the same way that we have a variable approach to detecting and prosecuting different types of crime. Our job at the Home Office—[Interruption.] Please allow me to complete my answer.
Our job at the Home Office, exactly as the right hon. Lady is seeking, is to try to embed a sense of consistency of approach across all of those forces to make sure that the British people can have trust in their police whether they are in London, Manchester, Belfast or Edinburgh. That is the work we are trying to get done through this working group with the National Police Chiefs’ Council. It is very apprised of the importance of this issue, and I have been pleased by the commitment it is showing to this stream of work. I am hopeful that we will reach the greater consistency she seeks in the months to come.
Despite his horrific actions, several Met police officers, inexplicably and alarmingly, spoke in favour of the murderer of Sarah Everard at his sentencing hearing. It has also been reported that he was apparently referred to jokingly as “the Rapist” or “Rapey”, as well as having three previous allegations of indecent exposure. Does the Minister agree with me that offering such support to a brutal murderer reveals a disturbing and unacceptable attitude by some policemen towards women and towards the seriousness of this crime?
The hon. Lady has stated a number of matters as fact that may not be the case. I do not want to prejudge the conclusions, certainly of part 1 of the inquiry. The whole idea of that inquiry is to look at exactly the entire career of that monstrous individual to learn lessons about what may or may not have happened—for example, what previous forces knew about him, and whether he did have that nickname in the previous force—and what lessons we should learn from that about wider policy in maintaining the integrity of the police.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) for giving us the chance again to discuss this essential issue, which cannot leave our radar. I was astonished when a female criminal solicitor recently told me that she and her female colleagues often experience ongoing ridicule and belittling from male custody officers at my local police station. I find this outrageous. Does the Minister agree with me that this disrespect towards female solicitors is very much part of the culture of misogyny within the police force, and that these disgraceful attitudes and behaviours must be tackled and rooted out of our police force?
First, I thank the Minister for his response to the urgent question. This is a very important issue, as has been illustrated. The Minister is aware that the bedrock of a successful police force is integrity and community relations. We have seen in the past in Northern Ireland what the appearance of two-tier policing does to the erosion of confidence. How does the Minister believe confidence can be restored within communities about the integrity of their police force, and in particular for frightened women?
The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on the button, and there is no single answer to restoring, building or even maintaining that kind of trust. He will remember, because of his long history in this House, that some years ago a measure of confidence in policing was produced, and a huge amount of academic effort and work went into understanding what would move that confidence measure—what they could do in policing to shift it and grow confidence. Much of that research went into a dead end. In the end there were broadly two conclusions. One was to do a good job fighting crime, and the second was to be transparent and open, and to have a great relationship with the local community. That is what the vast majority of police officers aspire to. Our stream of work in dealing with the dreadful offences that are committed against women and girls across the country on a daily basis and driving those numbers down, while at the same time working hard to build and restore trust between the police and women and girls, and with all groups in society, must be critical for the health of British policing, and for our greater safety.