A cuckoo in the nest?

For the second time in just over a month, two days spent in the austere halls of Royal Courts of Justice gave further, and, at times, quite remarkable, insight into the inner workings of five different policing bodies: The Police Federation, a police force Misconduct Panel, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, a Police and Crime Commissioner’s (PCC’s) office and the Chief Police Officers Staff Association (CPOSA).

The two cases are both pathfinding judicial review claims, and the issues that fell to be determined by senior judges will have far reaching implications for both the police service and the wider public. One hearing was very much low key, the other attracted wide media coverage due, in the main, to the presence in court of three high profile policing figures, almost obsessive references to an even higher profile MP (Andy Burnham) and the backdrop of the scandal surrounding the Hillsborough Disaster cover-up by South Yorkshire Police.

Andy Burnham seen arriving at Birchwood Park, Warrington to hear evidence at the new Hillsborough inquests. Alongside is Steve Rotheram MP who has also campaigned tirelessly for bereaved families and survivors.

The first claim, heard on 8th February, 2017, before Mrs Justice McGowan, was listed as Thames Valley Police -v- Police Misconduct Panel (CO/2810/2016). The substantive issue was the challenge by the chief constable of that force to a finding of the Panel at the conclusion of a gross misconduct hearing. It was submitted on the chief’s behalf, via his counsel, Stephen Morley, that the Panel had got the decision ‘badly wrong‘.

The Panel’s finding was that the officer, PC White (named as an Interested Party in the proceedings), facing a breach of order and instructions charge, and multiple neglect of duty charges, should receive a final written warning. The charges against PC White concerned various items of property, to the combined value of £10,000, that he had kept and not actioned on police databases, in one case impacting adversely on a prosecution case. Other evidential materials were also found in his locker, and bag, during a subsequent search, that were not booked in, either.

The chief constable contended that the officer should have been dismissed as a result of ‘integrity failings‘, and the fact that ‘he knew he had done wrong’ and failed to correct his actions. It is the first time since police regulations were changed in 2015 – which affected the composition of Panels amongst other innovations – that such a challenge against a Panel finding has been mounted.

The Misconduct Panel, through its lawyer chairman, declined to take any part in the judicial review proceedings on the grounds that the claim form was improperly served and, in effect, the legal action was a nullity. The defence of the chief constable’s claim was taken up by the Police Federation, on behalf of their member officer, PC White. They were represented by the formidable Alexandra Felix, a specialist criminal and regulatory barrister.  Her submissions, made with some force, could be summarised thus

(i) Dealing with police misconduct matters, including criminal offences, is a management function. ‘It is about learning and development, not punishment’. In this sense, it is set apart from other professional bodies or services.

(ii) Discipline is an operational matter and the chief constable picks the Panel – ‘it’s his Panel‘ and ‘part of the internal process‘. As such, the chief constable did not have the legal capacity to bring these judicial review proceedings.

(iii) The filing and service of the proceedings, in their present form, was a ‘procedural failure’. Civil Procedure Rule 57.4 had not been complied with. As such, the proceedings should be struck out.

There was extended discussion and argument, in which the judge took full part, concerning the meaning of ‘integrity’ and where it falls, in a police misconduct sense, in relation to ‘honesty’. Both, of course, being fundamental requirements of being a police officer under the College of Policing’s Code of Ethics.

Judgment was reserved, pending further written submissions being made by all parties to the claim. It is awaited, with considerable interest, and is likely to become a cited authority whichever way the judge finds.

It was accepted by both counsel present in court that her findings would have far reaching consequences on police misconduct matters, and the role of disciplinary panels within it. Other than the judge, her clerk, three lawyers and the Police Federation representative, I was the only other person present in Court 5 for what had been a fascinating, and highly informative, hearing. Not least, the public airing of the proposition that the powerful, and extremely wealthy, Federation had an almost unshakeable grip on police misconduct matters, concerning all ranks between constable and chief inspector, and the consequent fate of their members accused of either serious misconduct, or criminal offences. If the Fed takes up an officer’s cause, removal from the police service is nigh impossible. But, if the rank and file ‘union’ withdraws support, then the officer concerned is, almost inevitably, cast to the dogs.

To those not so familar with the labyrynthine processes of the police misconduct regulations, it is worth pointing out that it is not within a chief constable’s very considerable powers to simply dismiss a police officer . All the necessary steps, within the statutory framework, have to be followed. Whether he (or she) agrees, or not.

The second judicial review application, a much higher profile case and played out before a packed Court 3, has already been the subject of two articles on this website [1] ‘Bad on their merits‘ (preview of the hearing based on disclosed pleadings) and [2] ‘Much ado about nothing’ (a report of proceedings in David Crompton -v- Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire). 

This article focuses on the specific roles of the South Yorkshire PCC, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary (HMCIC) and the Chief Police Officers’ Staff Association (CPOSA) in those proceedings, heard before Lady Justice Sharp and Mr Justice Garnham, and their approach to both evidential and misconduct matters.

The Chief Inspector, Sir Thomas Winsor, is one of the key links the joins the two cases, as he was a member of the Misconduct Panel that found ACC Rebekah Sutcliffe guilty of gross misconduct in the controversial ‘Boobgate‘ scandal, but deemed that a final written warning was the appropriate sanction. Most observers, including her own chief constable, felt she should have been dismissed from Greater Manchester Police. ACC Sutcliffe has been sent out on secondment to Oldham Borough Council and is unlikely to undertake an operational policing role again.

PCC Alan Billings was, of course, listed as defendant in the case and present in court throughout the hearing, alongside his chief executive, Michelle Buttery, and Communications Manager, Fiona Topliss. it was argued, on his behalf, before the court, that he had followed misconduct procedure (in this case Section 38 of the Police Reform and Social Responsibilty Act, 2011) to the letter. Albeit, ignoring the advice of HMCIC along the way (as he was lawfully entitled to do).

The court also heard that two press releases, issued after the Hillsborough inquest jury determinations, were not the catalyst for former chief constable’s suspension (the main limb of Crompton’s claim). But, rather, the straw that broke the camel’s back. There are many, including me, who believe Dr Billings, accepted on all hands as a decent, honourable man, should have stepped in sooner.

Since he was elected in October, 2013 there must have been deep concerns about the constant adverse publicity that Crompton brought to his force over such as his notably poor handling of the Rotherham abuse scandal, and the infamous Cliff Richard/BBC farrago, over which the pop star is now claiming in excess of £1 million damages [3]. For example, the embattled police chief suffered a series of severe maulings at the hands of the all-party Home Affairs Select Committee (see the 3rd September, 2014 session below, courtesy of The Needle Blog).

The chairman of that committee concluded, after hearing the evidence by David Crompton, that it was incompetence on a grand scale on the part of South Yorkshire Police.

The appearance of CPOSA in the Crompton claim comes by way of legal costs support for the former SYP chief constable. To the independent-minded observer this is a huge investment for, potentially, very little return. The claim was brought on the premise that if a decision to, firstly, suspend the disgraced chief constable then, ultimately, force his resignation, was quashed, it would ‘restore his damaged reputation‘. Which relies entirely on the premise that David Crompton’s reputation was not irreparably destroyed BEFORE he was suspended. On any reasonable view, it was in tatters, and ‘Disaster Dave‘ as he was dubbed in the national press in 2014, had, indisputably, been under constant media (and Parliamentary) attack from his very first week in office in April, 2012.

Very few people are aware that, at the time of his appointment to head up South Yorkshire Police, David Crompton was under investigation by the IPCC, who were managing an investigation by one of his former forces, Greater Manchester Police (GMP), into misconduct and racism allegations made by former West Yorkshire Police Legal Services Director, Ajaz Hussain. Crompton, as far as I can trace, has never spoken publicly about this. The officer investigating the Hussain complaints, David Whatton, had been a GMP senior officer colleague of Crompton’s between 2002 and 2004. Whatton, on any reasonable view a perverse choice of investigating officer, ultimately cleared Crompton of wrongdoing.

The proposition, therefore, appears to be that CPOSA will rally round a chief officer, however incompetent and discredited he (or she) appears to be. Given that it is an organisation that has, over the years received an extraordinary, and controversial, amount of public funding [3a] then such unconditional support is very troubling indeed.

Chief constables, and their deputies and assistants, are expected to set the highest possible standards and, to the man (or woman on the Clapham omnibus, it would seem entirely improper that they should they provide mutual aid to those that don’t cut the mustard. In this context, it was a suprise to me, at least, that a former chief constable I hold in high regard, Neil Rhodes, was alongside David Crompton for almost all of the two day hearing. In a curious twist of fate, Rhodes was also CPOSA friend to Hussain which had led to another high profile court drama in 2013 [3b].

Tom Winsor is, plainly, a busy man. He did, however, find time to spend the entire two days of the Crompton claim in court, following proceedings assiduously – as one would expect of a successful, and highly experienced, regulatory lawyer. Indeed, as claim and counter-thrust was made in submissions, by counsel for the various represented parties, it became clear that the Crompton case was not about the former SYP chief, at all. It was brought as a means for policing bodies to continue to police themselves, as they have done for almost two centuries. Sir Thomas is the cuckoo in the nest – and he is not at all content to eat scraps from any elected official’s table. Particularly, one who may be minded to remove a chief constable against his specific advice which, it was advanced on behalf, should be regarded as akin to statutory guidance. His criticism of the decision making, and capacity, of Dr Billings, the PCC in question, pulled no punches.

But is Sir Thomas, himself, above criticism in this matter? Definitely not, on the basis of submissions made to the court on his behalf: There are four key issues that invite scrutiny:

Screen Shot 2017-04-06 at 11.20.54
Sir Thomas Winsor, who took over as Chief Inspector in September, 2012 had previously made his name as a highly regarded lawyer and reforming rail regulator

(i) His HMIC inspection of South Yorkshire Police in June 2015 rated the force as ‘good’. A peer review in May 2016, managed by the College of Policing and the interim chief constable, Dave Jones, and involving a number of experts in their specialist fields, found serious failings in the management and operational effectiveness of the force [4]. The disparity between HMIC’s findings and the peer review is, so far, unexplained. It was not directly tested in court, although it formed part of the written submissions made on behalf of the PCC. In another curious turn of events, just two weeks after the court hearing concluded another HMIC inspection saw SYP heavily criticised.

(ii) It was asserted, without any evidence, supporting information or details of source, that public confidence was NOT adversely affected by David Crompton’s running of the police force in South Yorkshire. Contrast that with ample, and highly informed, feedback from a large number of elected representatives (MP’s, MEP’s and councillors) in the locality, and the public who interacted either with DrBillings personally, or via his office. Plus an almost weekly round of stinging media criticism of the force, and one might take the view Dr Billings was in a much better position to take a stance on this issue.  Indeed, it was his emphatic view that confidence in his chief constable had almost ebbed away when the decision was taken to suspend him. Even the Home Secretary of the day, Theresa May, knew the game was up for Crompton and South Yorkshire Police. It was, therefore, nothing short of astonishing that, from his London office, Sir Thomas could deem otherwise. A fair-minded observer might take the view that his motivation for doing so ought to be examined independently.

(iii) The proposition was advanced, on his behalf, that Sir Thomas had a ‘bird’s eye view‘ of the performance of police forces and, therefore, by default, chief constables. There seemed no good reason to single out Crompton for opprobium. Which, given the beleagured South Yorkshire chief’s well chronicled list of failings, turns attention to how bad some of the other chief constables must be, if Crompton is not ranked below them. It may also explain why so many chief officers have left the police service, in disgrace, over the past five years. Often retiring to avoid disciplinary sanction.

(iv) Much was made in court of the fact that Crompton had broadcast an apology, on behalf of his disgraced force on 12th September, 2012, the day of the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel Report. Reinforced, it was said by another apology on the day of the jury determinations at the new inquests. It was claimed, in court, on behalf of both Crompton and HMCIC that he had not resiled from those apologies. That was, quite simply, incorrect. Crompton’s true feelings and views about the Hillsborough Disaster – and the role of the Liverpool fans in it – were exposed in the national press following disclosure of emails sent both internally to other South Yorkshire Police officers and, externally, to other senior policing figures, notably Sir Norman Bettison and Sir Hugh Orde. Crompton challenged the Panel Report as one sided, and wanted to set up a PR offensive to counteract the bereaved families fight for truth, then justice [5]. Sir Thomas Winsor, and his his legal team, were silent on this point. Did he not know, or was it just another Crompton flaw that he was, conveniently, prepared to overlook?

The sum of all these parts is that HMIC, and their Chief Inspector, are not all they crack up to be. Others have raised well evidenced doubts concerning the police force inspections they carry out and, particularly, their lack of rigour. But that is not the chief concern: As a watchdog, with a crucial role in maintaining confidence in those charged with the public’s safety and security, how can Sir Thomas sit there, stony faced, and allow unevidenced assertions, and in some parts, what may be considered as untruths, about the policing abilities of, and the public confidence in, David Crompton to be presented as fact?

Another unspoken factor may have been the career record of Sir Dan Crompton, David’s father, which ended with service as a leading light in none other than Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary. Crompton senior’s own adverse views on Hillsborough, and those bereaved families campaigning for justice, are also well known and for which he has steadfastly refused to apologise since they were first made public in 2013 [5].

Running a protectorate for the incompetent is, presumably, not what Her Majesty the Queen would have had in mind when she touched Tom Winsor’s shoulder with her sword in September, 2013. The revelations on the Strand, on two sunny days at the end of March, 2017, may yet be scrutinised, a short distance away along London’s riverside, before an MP’s Select Committee.

Page last updated: Thursday 13th April, 2017 at 1405hrs

[1] Neil Wilby – ‘Bad on their merits‘  24th January, 2017

[2] Neil Wilby – ‘Much ado about nothing’  29th March, 2017

[3] Neil Wilby – ‘David Crompton – The South Yorkshire Years’ 27th April, 2016

[3a] Yorkshire Post – Payouts to legal fund of shamed top officers set for axe 22nd January, 2013

[4] Daily Star – ‘Hillsborough Email Smear‘ 24th February, 2013

[5] uPSD WYP – ‘Sir Dan Crompton’  16th June, 2017

Corrections: Please let me know if there is a mistake in this article — I will endeavour to correct it as soon as possible.

Right of reply: If you are mentioned in this article and disagree with it, please let me have your comments. Provided your response is not defamatory it will be added to the article.

Copyright: Neil Wilby 2015-2017. Unauthorised use or reproduction of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from and links to the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Much ado about nothing?

An employment dispute that began in a glass fronted office block close to the Meadowhall Shopping Centre in Sheffield, was, eventually, played out in the hallowed halls of the Royal Courts of Justice on London’s Strand eleven months later.

It was no ordinary job, however, and the offices were those shared by the South Yorkshire Police (SYP) and its Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC). The Chief Constable of the beleaguered force was David Crompton and he was suspended from duty, by the PCC, Dr Alan Billings, on the afternoon of 27th April, 2016.

crompton-and-billings
South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Dr Alan Billings, endorses his chief constable, David Crompton, within minutes of being elected to office in October, 2013.

Crompton ultimately resigned on 29th September, 2016 at the end of a process empowered by section 38 of the Police and Social Responsibility Act, 2011 (the Act).

At the time of his suspension, Crompton had already set his date for retirement from the force – which was planned to be 30th November, 2016.

A rolled-up permission and substantive judicial review hearing opened on 28th March, 2017 before Lady Justice Sharp and Mr Justice Garnham. David Crompton is the Claimant, the PCC, Dr Alan Billings, is Defendant and there are two interested parties: Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary (HMCIC), Sir Thomas Winsor, and the Police and Crime Scrutiny Panel for South Yorkshire (PCP).

Dr Billings was present throughout the hearing, as was Sir Thomas and David Crompton. The latter was accompanied by his wife and daughter, together with retired Lincolnshire Police chief constable, Neil Rhodes, who was there in his capacity as Chief Police Officers Staff Association (CPOSA) ‘friend’. CPOSA are funding the claim through a contributory insurance scheme.

Rhodes is no stranger to these type of proceedings and successfully overturned a controversial suspension by the then Lincolnshire PCC, Alan Hardwick, in 2013.

Submissions were heard, for most of the first day of the hearing, from counsel for the claimant and HMCIC (Hugh Davies QC and Clive Sheldon QC respectively) which amounted to much the same thing: The decision of the PCC was taken in haste, not properly thought through, was defective in process, failed to apply due weight to HMCIC’s findings and undertaken with a political, rather than a policing, agenda.

Further, the PCC chose to ignore the recommendation of HMCIC which, it was advanced, on his behalf, a considered, objective and expert review of the section 38 process that the PCC had set in train.

As such, the decision by the PCC to, effectively, dismiss the chief constable was born of ‘political imperative rather than objectivity’, ‘disproportionate‘ and ‘irrational’. He had also taken account of ‘irrelevant considerations‘ when later justifying the decision. It was further argued that the decision under challenge infringed on David Crompton’s Article 8 convention rights as it impacted on his family and future employability. Mr Davies had earlier described him as ‘a highly effective chief constable‘.

There were no allegations made by the PCC, against his chief constable, of breaches of Standards of Professional Behaviour which apply to all police officers.

A declaration by the court that the actions of the PCC were unlawful is sought by the claimant. Which, it is said, would go some way to restoring his ‘damaged reputation‘ [1].

In the submission of Mr Sheldon, the events that led to the suspension centred on the jury determinations at the new Hillsborough inquests – and two SYP press releases that followed. The second press release included the words ‘other contributory factors‘ as causes of blame for the stadium disaster. Much attention is focused on the meaning and intent behind those words. He said, with some force, that accountability – as called for by Andy Burnham – did not necessarily mean that ‘heads should roll‘.

When asked (not for the first time) by Lady Justice Sharp where – with a wide discretion of decision making – the boundaries were, Mr Sheldon submitted that ‘the correct test was the old-fashioned Wednesbury approach on reasonableness‘. There had, he said, been no damage to effectiveness and efficiency of the force as a result of the chief constable’s leadership, and common law recognises that the Wednesbury test is dependent in each case on the facts. Mr Sheldon also stated, with some emphasis, that ‘There was no loss of public confidence in South Yorkshire Police‘.

Although not a party to proceedings, the name of Andy Burnham, MP and Shadow Home Secretary, was mentioned more than any other by counsel. He had called for accountability from SYP following the findings of the new Hillsborough inquests. According to counsel, the chief constable was the main target of criticism. The significance of a telephone call from a male bereaved family member, and prominent Hillsborough campaigner, to Dr Billings, just ten minutes before the PCC suspended his chief constable, was also raised in court.

The advocate for the PCP, Adrian Phillips, made brief submissions to the effect that the Panel saw their role as peripheral to these proceedings, they were neutral on its outcome and, accordingly, their decision should not fall for scrutiny by this court. He also, helpfully, explained to the court the statutory composition of a scrutiny panel and how it came to be, in an area such as South Yorkshire, that the Labour Party would be almost entirely dominant. He rejected the proposition, advanced by the claimant, that the Panel’s decision was born of political bias.

Jonathan Swift QC spoke eloquently, and persuasively, on behalf the PCC. The main thrust of his submissions, which took up almost the entirety of the second day of the hearing, was that the decision taken by Dr Billings (to conclude the section 38 process by asking CC Crompton to resign) was one that was reasonably open to him to make, by way of his statutory responsibilty to hold the chief constable to account under section 1 of the Act. He also maintained that all necessary processes had been correctly followed, including the required consultations with HMCIC and the PCP.

In rejecting one of the claimant’s (and HMCIC’s) main thrusts of argument, Mr Swift said that their was no statutory requirement for the PCC to give special weight to the views of Sir Thomas. He had considered those carefully and, in his discretion, had rejected those views.

He also invited the court to view the decision to suspend the chief constable through a wider lens, that brought into view an increasing discontent with the running of the police force in South Yorkshire. Particularly, in the months prior to the announcement of the Hillsborough inquest verdicts. Most notably, with the ongoing controversy of the handling of the aftermath of the Jay Report.

It was not, Mr Swift advanced, a spur of the moment decision, triggered by events in Parliament during an exchange between Mr Burnham and the then Home Secretary, Theresa May.

There were also submissions from Mr Swift concerning both the timeliness and merits of three of the decisions challenged by the claimant:

(i) To suspend the chief constable

(ii) To reject the advice of HMCIC and continue with the section 38 process

(iii) To refer the matter to the PCP

In respect of the remaining decision – to finally ask the chief constable to resign –  Mr Swift agreed that permission for judicial review should be given to the claimant as the matter was, quite plainly, arguable. But, at the same time, invited the court to dismiss this fourth ground on its merits.

Mr Swift curtly also dismissed the alleged breach of Article 8 as being without merit.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Lady Justice Sharp told the court that judgment will be reserved on both the permission and substantive issues. The judgment is unlikely to be handed down before May 2017.

It is estimated that the two day hearing, with four legal teams representing the various parties, will end up costing either David Crompton’s insurers, or the South Yorkshire taxpayer, in the order of £150,000. And for what, the reader might legitimately ask? It seems, on the face of the submissions, that the claim was brought with two purposes in mind: To restore the reputation of David Crompton (there is no financial remedy either sought, or available, via this legal process) and to give HMCIC the final word in future section 38 processes as to whether a chief constable is dismissed, or not.

A preview of the court case, first published in January, 2017, in which the arguments of all parties is examined in some detail can be read on this website: ‘Bad on their merits‘ [2]

Page last updated Saturday 8th March, 2017 at 2055hrs

[1] Neil Wilby May 2015 – David Crompton: The South Yorkshire Years

 

Corrections: Please let me know if there is a mistake in this article — I will endeavour to correct it as soon as possible.

Right of reply: If you are mentioned in this article and disagree with it, please let me have your comments. Provided your response is not defamatory it will be added to the article.

Copyright: Neil Wilby 2015-2017. Unauthorised use or reproduction of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from and links to the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.