1 September 2023
Derbyshire Police Federation chair Tony Wetton says new powers to allow chief constables to chair misconduct hearings are a backward step that undermine confidence in the process.
Tony said there were already mechanisms in place for police chiefs to remove officers and that the new reforms felt “like a return to the bad old days”.
His comments follow a Government announcement that a finding of gross misconduct will automatically result in a police officer’s dismissal, unless there are exceptional circumstances. Officers who fail vetting checks can also be fired.
Under the new system, chief constables or their deputies will chair misconduct panels. In recent years they have been chaired by an independent lawyer.
Tony said: “Our members will all vehemently agree there’s absolutely no place in policing for corrupt officers. Where those individuals are identified, we want them out of the service more than anyone – our professional reputation and effectiveness depends on it. However, this is a backwards step.
“We had legally qualified chairs (LQC) brought in to provide independence, fairness and transparency to the system.
“So much progress has been made in terms of the fairness of the process and these proposals will take us back years.
“Police officers make mistakes and where they have done so they should be treated fairly and proportionately. There has been much focus on officers learning from less serious transgressions.
“How can officers be expected to accept their failings and learn from them when an admission would automatically result in their career being ended? The conduct regime is and always must be nuanced with each case judged on its individual facts and merits.
“LQC’s are free from political pressure and provide legally-reasoned judgements, fair and consistent decisions and their involvement has significantly increased confidence in the process.
Derbyshire Police Federation chair Tony Wetton
“Our members are important stakeholders in the conduct process and must have confidence they will have access to fair and transparent disciplinary hearings, which could have serious consequences on their career and wellbeing.
“Police officers don’t have the same employment rights as other workers – including the ability to claim for unfair dismissal in an employment tribunal.
“It feels like a return to the bad old days when officers felt they didn’t get a fair hearing and were already guilty in the eyes of senior officers.
“Chief officers would become judge, jury and executioner in terms of officers’ careers. Forces make the decision to investigate, they conduct that investigation and they make the decision whether to put the officer through misconduct proceedings.
“The proposed changes would mean a total absence of any independence in the process and it is hard to see how police officers, directly accountable to the law under the office of constable, will have any confidence that they will be treated fairly.
“My fear is that a worrying result of these changes will be a natural reluctance for officers to call out improper behaviour of senior officers due to the fear of repercussions and reprisals in the future.
“I understand that chief officers want to be involved in maintaining culture and standards in their forces. They could do this by being a part of the disciplinary panel, chaired as at present by an independent legally qualified chair, and have the opportunity to make their representations directly within the hearing and as part of the panel’s decision making.”
Tony said the changes were a response to recent high-profile cases and feared they haven’t been properly thought through.
He said: “The tearing up of the conduct process is a knee-jerk reaction to recent events, but the powers were and are already there to dismiss officers on conviction or where their conduct deserves it.
“I fail to see why every news story on this subject features pictures of Couzens and Carrick. Why are they relevant to this? They were quite rightly rooted out of the service at the earliest opportunity through due process, and good riddance to them. There are plenty of powers available to rid the service of the tiny number who do not deserve to hold police powers and would seek to abuse them.
“Gross misconduct shouldn’t always mean dismissal and at the moment there is a process where the seriousness of the case, if proven, is assessed and an appropriate and proportionate sanction applied.
“There is comprehensive guidance to inform the decision as to the most appropriate sanction where an officer is found to have fallen short of the standards of behaviour rightly expected of them by the public.
“The fear is that that proportionality will be lost in the clamour to be seen to sack officers – or indeed in not having the discretion to make a reasoned decision on the outcome of proceedings.”
Tiff Lynch is the national Federation's deputy chair
Tiff Lynch, the national Federation’s deputy chair, said speeding up the disciplinary process would help to rebuild public trust in the conduct process.
She said: “Ministers want chief constables to act fast, and chief constables want to act more swiftly. We would urge them to back our Time Limits Campaign to make a real difference to the dismissal process, to make it fairer and more robust for both police officers and complainants, paving the way for the rebuilding of public confidence which is paramount.
“Disciplinary investigations take too long to conclude. In the Baroness Casey Review it was highlighted that on average, the Met takes 400 days to finalise misconduct cases - but this is a nationwide problem.
“Latest statistics show one in eight cases still take more than 12 months to conclude, according to the Home Office.
“Via our long-running Time Limits campaign, we are fighting for police disciplinary investigations to be concluded within 12 months from the moment an allegation is made.
“We are proposing legislation which would give legally qualified persons power to impose deadlines on investigations which have dragged on for a year.”