At the Labour party conference, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper made a case for replacing the IPCC with a new Police Standards Authority aimed at speeding up the complaints process and providing better support for complainants. An independent and time-sensitive complaints system is crucial to public confidence in policing people need to know that the actions of their police are legitimate but will changing the name achieve this? And didn’t the Labour government do exactly this last time round?
Since the IPCC replaced the Police Complaints Commission (PCC) in 2004, the volume of complaints has more than doubled without a corresponding increase in staff or budget. This might have something to do with its performance and is in fact regularly cited by the IPCC in its defence, but the real issue is its actual and perceived independence; and changing its name won’t change this. As our Briefing on Police Complaints states, the IPCC has persistently been criticised for being culturally tilted’ towards the police and while I do not think those in charge have the intention of being anything other than wholly independent, the powers, procedures, composition and even the resources at their disposal often dictate otherwise. In times of austerity, it would be irresponsible to pump resources into establishing a new organisation unless the new body was radically different in all these respects. So in concrete terms what needs to change?
Firstly, the IPCC’s remit should be expanded to allow it to deal with a broader range of complaints beyond those relating to the behaviour and conduct of the police. So, for example, as more and more policing is outsourced, there will be more and more complaints about the services these new providers deliver. Consideration should also be given to giving the IPCC greater powers to initiate misconduct hearings and to call police officer witnesses for interview (currently enforceable only in a criminal investigation).
Secondly, serious questions must be raised about the right of complainants to appeal IPCC decisions – currently the only route is through judicial review and about the use of ex-police officers as investigators. Although ex-officers provide a valuable understanding of the police system and high quality investigative skills, they also help to reinforce an investigatory culture that too often implicitly favours the police view at the expense of the complainant and lends weight to criticisms of partisanship. Reducing their numbers and reviewing their roles might be a good place to start.
There are already some encouraging signs of a shift in direction. The IPCC now focuses more on accepting criticism and learning lessons and at our annual lecture, Dame Anne Owers, the new Chair of the IPCC, announced a number of planned changes including a recruitment drive directed at people from non-police backgrounds and the pursuit of new powers to improve the organisation’s work. Changing cultures requires much more than changing names and in the current climate it must be better to make good that which we already have.