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Who polices the police?

Establishing an inquiry into setting up a new code of police-media ethics, as Theresa May proposed yesterday, whilst welcome, is not going to resolve the profound derelictions of duty recently exposed in police behaviour at the highest level:  failing in the face of abundant evidence which they themselves held to re-open the hacking inquiry in 2009; and taking bribes estimated at £130,000 for illegally passing on private information.

Dealing with such abject irresponsibility and deep-seated and pervasive corruption requires much more stringent and proactive strategic supervision. Mrs May has already set a bad precedent when she dismissed charges yesterday, brought by me among others, that she could and should have taken action much earlier in light of abundant evidence that phone-hacking was rife and being ignored by the police, by tamely saying she had accepted police advice that no new evidence had emerged. We now know that that view was influenced by Neil Wallis, ex-NoW deputy editor, who had been secretly hired by the Met Commissioner. So much for May’s vision of tighter supervision.

Nor do May’s other proposals inspire much confidence either. The HMIC inquiry into police corruption is an internal affair, operating behind closed doors, and without the presence of independent lawyers and other senior figures. May has also asked the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission) whether they had the power and resources needed, and been assured they had – in which case why didn’t they deal effectively with the repeated rumours of phone-hacking and corruption much earlier? May has also commissioned work as to whether the IPCCneeds further powers, including the right to question civilian witnesses. But that doesn’t get to the root of the problem since the IPCC remains a body for investigating complaints, not for proactive strategic supervision.

The key problem remains the still unthought-through issue of police governance and how and where overall strategic oversight should be located. The police authorities have generally never done the job properly, and the Government’s proposals for community-elected police commissioners are a high-risk recipe for instability. A much weightier and more powerful body is needed than anything currently in the field – and the Home Office on its record is highly unlikely to perform this role. It’s a body that should not only have the scrutiny and enforcement power to stamp out corruption and manifest failure of duty, but also the capacity to exercise effective supervision over such key issues as deployment of resources and handling of demonstrations.

Yates’ “too busy fighting terrorism to tackle hacking” shows how far the police have lost direction. The management of the G20 demonstration, the anti-fees student protests, and the use of under-cover operations against environmental campaigners shows the need for a more independent, considered and strategic assessment both of the overall deployment of resources and proper understanding and respect for democratic rights. What is needed is a powerful new supervisory body which has the necessary scutiny and enforcement powers to stamp out corruption and manifest failure of duty and can re-orient the police not only to the greater reduction of crime but the pursuit of criminality in high places where the damage is really done. May’s tinkering won’t begin to do that.

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