Police chiefs to regain power to lead officer misconduct hearings

Police chiefs will be given back powers to preside over misconduct hearings in a bid to make it easier for them to sack rogue officers.

The Home Office reforms, put before Parliament on Tuesday, will allow chief constables to lead the proceedings that decide whether officers and staff found guilty of misconduct should be removed from their forces.

The measures, which restore responsibilities chiefs held almost a decade ago, are due to come into force next month after being announced last year.

The move is part of efforts to rebuild public trust and confidence in policing after it was shattered by a slew of scandals, including the murder of Sarah Everard by serving Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens and the unmasking of former Met constable David Carrick as a serial abuser and rapist.

The scale of the problem was exposed by the Carrick case amid revelations he was able to carry on offending over nearly 20 years while working as a police officer despite several incidents where his conduct was called into question.

The latest law changes – made in the form of a statutory instrument and set to come into force on May 7 – come after the Home Office reviewed the police disciplinary system.

Policing minister Chris Philp said: “Officers unfit to serve must be rooted out at the earliest opportunity and these changes will ensure chief constables are given greater control over this process.

“The public need greater confidence that the officers who serve their communities are dedicated to keeping them safe.”

Chris Philp
Chris Philp (James Manning/PA)

Despite some chief constables welcoming the plans, the Police Federation of England and Wales, which represents rank-and-file officers, said the shake-up was a “huge retrograde step” and warned it could see a return to the “dark days” of “kangaroo courts”.

Gavin Stephens, chairman of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, previously told the PA news agency the “sensible” plans put police chiefs “back in control” of being able to quickly remove corrupt staff.

Met Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley led calls for chiefs to be given greater powers to sack officers as part of his crusade to clean up the scandal-plagued force.

Eighteen months ago he estimated there were hundreds of officers in the force getting away with misconduct and even criminal behaviour, but said the rules meant he was powerless to dismiss them.

He called for police chiefs to be given the power to reopen old disciplinary cases and to sack officers who fail re-vetting.

Sir Mark also called for senior officers to have the final say on which staff get sacked instead of independent lawyers, and to stop fired officers being allowed to return to the force.

Sir Mark Rowley
Sir Mark Rowley (James Manning/PA)

The calls came after the Met was involved in a High Court battle over the case of Superintendent Robyn Williams, who was convicted of possession of an indecent image in 2019 and sacked from her job the following year.

She returned to the Met after successfully challenging the decision to sack her, with a High Court judge accepting the decision by the Police Appeal Tribunal that she should have received a written warning.

Ms Williams was convicted at the Old Bailey after the court heard she had been sent a child abuse video by her sister so she could investigate the footage.

But she failed to report the clip, and while the court accepted she had not viewed the video, the jury was not convinced she was unaware of it being on her phone.

Last year Sir Mark said he was “grateful to the Government for recognising the need for substantial change that will empower chief officers in our fight to uphold the highest standards and restore confidence in policing”.

Police officers are crown servants rather than employees and cannot be fired unless there is a disciplinary issue. They also do not have any industrial rights.

Lawyers known as legally qualified chairs (LQCs) were brought in to oversee police disciplinary panels in 2016 as part of efforts to make the system more transparent and prevent bias, but critics say the process is now too slow and senior officers are more likely to sack those found guilty of wrongdoing.

John Bassett, a barrister representing the National Association of Legally Qualified Chairs, speaking in a personal capacity last year, branded the plans a “fudge” which do not address problems highlighted.

Defending the current system as an “open, transparent and fair process”, he warned that without having independent lawyers leading a disciplinary panel, forces would effectively revert to the “pre-2016 system or something similar” under which “police officers or police chiefs are marking their own homework”.

But at the time Mr Philp insisted the measures strike the right balance and make sure the process is fair, with officers having the right to appeal against a decision.

Independent lawyers will continue to advise the misconduct panel, rather than lead proceedings, but the outcome of proceedings will still be determined by a majority decision and take place in public, the Home Office said.

Officers could soon also face being continuously vetted throughout their career after the Home Office agreed to provide £500,000 to develop an “automated and continuous integrity screening system of the police workforce” as part of its response to the first part of the Angiolini inquiry, which found Couzens had a history of offending dating back nearly 20 years before he killed Ms Everard.