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Progress made but many still feel let down by police complaints system

1 March 2022

In its report published today the Home Affairs Committee has called on the Independent Office for Police Conduct to do more to drive change and build public confidence in the handling of police complaints.

The report focuses on the role of the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) in overseeing the police complaints system in England and Wales. Four years on from its foundation the Committee finds that substantial work has been done to rectify the failings of its predecessor, the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The body has looked to build public trust, listen to policing bodies and most importantly build transparency in how investigations are carried out. 

However, it is clear that much more needs to be done. Lengthy inquiries, poor communications and opaque processes are still having a detrimental impact on complainants and officers alike. The public perception remains that complaints against police are unlikely to succeed and would only result in minimal sanctions if officers were found to have committed misconduct. 

As one example the report highlights the acute failures of Operation Midland and the experiences of Lord and Lady Brittan as an example of how the police complaints system can go so badly wrong. It warns there were many further cases without the advantage of being high profile and attracting publicity that also left complainants feeling let down by a system failing to treat their complaints with the severity they merited. 

The Home Affairs Committee calls for more action to improve how complaints are handled by both the IOPC and police forces. This includes the speed with which complaints are resolved and the quality of communication and support with those involved. It warns that a culture of obstruction and delay remains in some cases and urges the IOPC to ensure no one can evade justice for police misconduct. 

Efforts by the IOPC to improve public confidence, notably through thematic reviews of issues such as domestic abuse and race discrimination, are welcomed by the Committee. A greater range of voices should be supported to raise such cases. 

The report finds that the unusual governance structure of the IOPC, with the combined role of a Chair and Chief Executive, may not be compatible with delivering the necessary internal safeguards over decision making and calls for an independent chair to be added to the board. 

It further calls for external scrutiny to be improved and supports a greater role for Police and Crime Commissioners as those directly responsible to the electorate for policing in their region.

Chair's comments 

Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, Dame Diana Johnson MP said: 

“Policing in the UK is based on consent and must do all it can to show it uses the powers invested in it to serve the communities it is there to protect. A key part of this is a robust, transparent complaints and misconduct system that holds police officers and forces to account when they fall below the standards we expect of them. 

The IOPC does deserve credit for the progress it has made in the four years since it was created. The vast majority of investigations are completed within a year. There are also clear strands of work to build relationships and improve public perception. 

However, the fact remains that more work remains to be done. Over the course of the inquiry we heard from individuals and communities who feel badly let down. We heard from Lady Brittan about the awful experience she went through, but we also received evidence from many others who felt that justice had eluded them. 

The succession of scandals in recent years has left public confidence in policing at a perilous point. The IOPC will need to ensure that it drives change to create a complaints system people can have full confidence in. There must be no repeat of past mistakes” 

Key conclusions and recommendations: 

Length of inquiries 

The progress that the IOPC has made in reducing the time taken to complete investigations is welcome. It is not in the interests of complainants, officers under investigation or police forces to have the process drag out, in extreme cases over several years. However, the Committee was concerned to hear policing organisations and the IOPC blame each other for ongoing delays. There needs to be a change of culture in police forces. It should not be necessary to compel officers to cooperate with investigations. This culture change must be from top to bottom to ensure that complaints are handled quickly and openly, delivering punishment for misconduct where necessary and clearing officers who have not committed an offence. 

Those responsible for blocking the progress of investigation must be held to account. The IOPC must utilise its powers at an early stage to minimise delays. Police forces, officers and their unions must also take responsibility for ensuring bad behaviour is rooted out. The Government should also consider whether stronger guidance on the expected length of inquiries would improve the drive towards more timely investigations, while being mindful that this does not affect the quality of decision making. 

Public Confidence 

The IOPC’s work on thematic reviews is a welcome move to build public confidence. By investigating diverse issues including domestic abuse, mental health and race discrimination it can identify key lessons to improve how police forces interact with the communities they serve. They should consider undertaking further investigations to ensure best practice in policing. 

The super-complaints process, which allows designated bodies to raise concerns on thematic issues, is an important part of this. The Home Office’s review on expanding the range of organisations who can bring complaints is welcome. However, they should do more to promote collaboration between designated bodies and other organisations so they can bring raise issues on their behalf. This should be an accessible process clearly explained on Government communications. 

Accessibility 

For the complaints and discipline process to work it needs to be simple to understand and easy to access. Despite improvements, the language used to explain the processes of the complaints system to complainants and members of the public remains is overly complex and technical in too many cases. The report finds this leaves people leaving disengaged and erodes confidence in the system. 

While IOPC statutory guidance encouraging the use of accessible language is welcome there appears to be a lack of take-up by forces at a local level. The Committee calls for all authorities involved in policing, including local forces, Crown Prosecution Service and the IOPC should be required to publish plain language versions explaining how their procedures work, in accessible formats and different languages, both online and in print. 

Ensuring best practice 

There is concern that not enough is being done to ensure the implementation of learning recommendations made by the IOPC to police forces across the country on how complaints are handled. It is unclear how recommendations are monitored and followed-up. The Government should report twice-yearly to the Committee on the implementation of IOPC recommendations by police forces. 

IOPC Governance 

The report raises concerns about the unified roles of chair and chief executive in the IOPC, implemented due to concerns of confused and divided decision-making in its predecessor, the IPPC. It finds that while this structure may have been successful in improving the speed and clarity of decision making, it lacks the security of internal checks and balances that are necessary for good governance. It calls on the Government to review the leadership structure of the IOPC and consider adding an independent chair to its board. 

Police and Crime Commissioners 

Police and Crime Commissioners are elected to oversee police forces in their area, including holding chief constables to account for the performance of their complaints and disciplinary processes. Most undertake the statutory minimum involvement in the complaints process, with only 2 out of 39 PCCs opting for the highest of three available models.  

In order to ensure the right structures are in place to support a more transparent and independent complaints system, the Government should consult on whether PCCs should be mandated to take a more active role in the complaints system than the current statutory minimum. This should include consideration of what additional resources may be necessary to support enhanced responsibilities.  

Further information

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