On Monday the 8th of June 2009 I met the Chief Executive of Cambridgeshire Police Authority Dr Dorothy Gregson. The authority’s Media & Communications Officer Anna Turner was also present. I had been invited to discuss the authority’s openness and accessibility to the public.
There were three areas which our discussion focused on:
- Accessibility of the opportunity for members of the public to ask questions or make statements at meetings of the authority.
- Quality and appropriateness of the answers I received to the specific questions I had asked at the Authority’s April 2009 meeting.
- Contacting members of the authority.
- The Chief Executive agreed the Police Authority ought not keep the fact it is meeting secret.
- The Chief Executive thinks the “power of the Police Authority is Limited”.
- There is currently a vacancy for an Independent Member on Cambridgeshire Police Authority.
- The Chief Executive agreed to publish the guidance for operating the police authority during elections.
- I was able to get across to the Chief Executive why I feel Cambridgeshire Police considering the PACE Codes guidance they can ignore is very worrying.
- The Chief Executive thinks it is for the Chief Constable to decide what is a matter for the Chief Constable, and what is a matter for the Police Authority. I think this is wrong.
My View on Police Authorities
Police Authorities ought comprise more elected councillors, and perhaps others such as elected Mayors and MPs. The make-up has to reflect the local situation. In Cambridgeshire, I think a strong argument can be made for a Cambridge City Councillor having a place on the Authority. I do not support direct election, on the grounds that I do not believe there is an appetite for it and am concerned about the implications of poor turnout (extremists elected or simply a lack of mandate). I think it is very important that in terms of strategy, direction and policy the police are under democratic control, though of course the police need to retain operational independence. I think there ought to be a highly local element to police priority setting and strongly support the system we have in Cambridge where councillors at area committees set local policing priorities (Though this system needs many improvements, more publicity and we need to elect more councillors who are prepared to use it).
Accessibility of the Public Questions / Statements Opportunity
Getting an Agenda Item
I started by asking if there was an upcoming agenda item at the next authority meeting to discuss the working of the public speaking slot at the beginning of meetings. Such an item had been requested by member of the authority David Sanders following one of my questions to the April 2009 meeting, this appeared to me to have been agreed to there and then. I was shocked to hear that no such agenda item was now being planned. The reason given was that the process was now being discussed, along with other elements of public engagement, by the authority’s Citizen Focus Panel (an unpublicised meeting of which was, I was told, being held that afternoon). The Chief Executive said that there was no chance of the item getting onto a full Police Authority before October, which as there is a full authority meeting scheduled for the 30th of September 2009 probably in means December 2009 or even next year. I said this sounded very slow, and that I couldn’t imagine the members who had decided to put it on their next agenda being happy with that.
The kinds of problems which were to be discussed included things like providing written responses to questions asked in advance both to members and the questioner. The current arrangements allow a public questioner to seek clarification of an answer given, but do not extend this privilege to members of the authority. Allowing brief discussion of points raised by the authority, if only to decide what, if anything, they are going to do next would seem to me to be a good idea.
Advance Publication of Agendas / Secret Meetings of the Police Authority
I raised the question of the timing of the publication of agendas. I noted that for both the 17th December 2008 and 18th February 2009 full police authority meetings the agenda had been published online after the deadline for public questions as well as the fact a full meeting of the authority appeared to have taken place with no public notice at all on the 14th of January 2009 (as indicated by the agenda to a special meeting on the 13th of February). The agenda for a full meeting of the authority held on the 17th of September 2008 was only published online, after my prompting, a month or so after the meeting had taken place.
Dr Gregson agreed that the Police Authority cannot meet in secret. While it can go into closed session the fact it is meeting cannot be kept secret. I noted that the justification for secret meetings, which has been used in emails to me by both Dr Gregson and her predecessor, Mr Peaston, has been that all the items on the agenda were confidential items which were to be taken in closed session. I pointed out that this was not an acceptable justification as members of the public might wish to attend and speak at the these meetings and in order to use that right effectively needed to know what was being discussed and when. She agreed, and noted that at two such meetings this year (one of which was discussing pensions for injured officers) members of the public had spoken in advance of meetings which had conducted all their business after having excluded the public. (As to how the retired police officers got to know about the meeting and its agenda, borrowing a phrase from Mark Thomas: perhaps some of them were detectives.)
Dr Gregson appeared not to have been aware that the February 2009 papers were published so late, despite having written to me explaining why she felt it didn’t matter.
I drew attention to the fact that the target for publication of seven days in advance, published on the authority’s website, was not formalised in the standing orders. I suggested it ought be, and this was noted. I asked if the omission from the standing orders was due to the required time period being specified by legislation. Dr Gregson said this was the case, and the legal requirement was three days in advance. I noted this was incompatible with the apparent requirement for public speakers to submit their requests to speak three days in advance, as that would mean them having to do so without knowing what is on the agenda. Dr Gregson explained that currently they wait until they have all the papers for a meeting available before publishing any of them, and that this is a source of delay.
I suggested publicising the agenda as soon as possible and/or giving better notice of upcoming items known to be of public interest such as closures of police stations, or TASER policy. This suggestion was also, I believe, noted.
Interpretation of the Standing Orders
I noted the text of the Police Authority’s standing orders which states:
In order to give a meaningful response to questions and to manage the agenda the question to be asked should be submitted to the Chief Executive three working days before a meeting of the Authority or its Committees.
I drew attention to two problems which had arisen in practice. One is that the three day time period does not appear to apply to statements by members of the public, just questions. This makes sense as statements would not be seeking a reply. However Mr Walters, while charing the authority, decided to interpret this differently, and require notice for all public contributions. I also pointed to the use of the word “should”, and suggested greater clarity could be gained by changing this to “must” if that was in fact the intention. I said that I realised chairs of meetings had discretion to interpret the standing orders, but expressed surprise at the degree to which they deviated from them; noting that at a recent professional standards committee meeting I had been invited to ask a question when the public questions / statements agenda item was reached even though I had not given notice of one.
Dr Gregson said that while meeting chairs have absolute freedom to interpret the standing orders as they like, she will provide better guidance to them in the future. Hopefully this will result in more consistency.
I also commented on the wording of the note with respect to public speaking which is now included on agendas; I suggested this be improved so that it actually mentions the existence of any deadline. I suggested an alternative approach where statements relating to items on the agenda could be allowed from anyone who attended the meeting (subject to a time limit), questions or statements on other subjects could require notice. Members of the public could be asked as they enter (assuming they do so before the meeting starts) if they want to make a statement on an agenda item.
Data Collection / ID Requirements
I noted the draconian requirement for photo ID, a photo to be taken, a visitor pass printed, car registration number taken, and all apparently held indefinitely on a police computer just to visit a board room where meetings are held. The room is clearly specifically designed to be accessed without entering the rest of the building as it is situated right by the reception area.
Dr Gregson said this was not likely to change, as the conference facilities were to be moved to another area, deeper into the Police Headquarters site.
While I noted they appeared a long way away from there at the moment, I suggested webcasting might be worth considering in the future as it becomes easier, cheaper and more people are prepared to use it. I noted that the Metropolitan Police Authority webcast their meetings. And questioned if the required equipment was already present in the rooms used at Police HQ (as it is at City Hall).
Openness of Sub-Committees and Panels
I have realised since this meeting that the dates of and papers for of a number of the Police Authority’s sub-committees don’t appear on the authority’s website. For example there is no evidence of the citizen focus meeting which was held on the afternoon of the day I met Dr Gregson. It would be worth clarifying if these are public meetings, and asking for their agendas to be published. They do report to full meetings of the authority though, so there is a degree of openness there in retrospect.
Functioning of Cambridge City’s Police Priority Setting Area Committees
Being aware that I have made numerous contributions on policing matters to Cambridge City Council’s Area committees Dr Gregson asked me my view of them. Some of the things I have been lobbying for have been taken up such as prioritising burglary – which has the effect of the police actually patrolling the streets at night, something I think they ought to do. I expressed my support for councillors voting on local priorities, and cited speeding in the East area as a recent example where councillors had effectively set a priority rather than just endorsed those put forward by the police. I noted the functioning of the scheme depended on councillors actually being willing to use the opportunity given to them to influence the police, and noted many Cambridge City Liberal Democrats are reluctant to do so. (I didn’t have time to specifically cite ex. Cllr Julian Huppert who despite standing for election on a ticket of tackling crime and anti-social behaviour holds the view that the police in the UK are not, and should not be, under democratic control. His comments referred to the setting of police priorities, not operational decisions ). We also briefly mentioned problems such as the policing item often being taken many hours into the meeting, the terminology used (Safer Neighborhoods) and the lack of (or rather selective) feedback in terms of court decisions and sentences.
Discussing the Answers I revived to Questions I had Asked at the Authority’s April 2009 Meeting
I have written articles on each of the questions I asked:
- Alerting Cambridgeshire Police Authority to the Fact Cambridgeshire Police Ignore the PACE Codes
- Cambridgeshire Police Authority Dodge my TASER Questions
- Improving the Openness and Accessibility of Cambridgeshire Police Authority
- Cambridgeshire Transport Commission – Police Input
- Police Stopping People Taking Photographs in Public Places
I first raised the attitude of the acting chair of the Police Authority, Ruth Rogers, in advance of my questions being dealt with. She had made a speech expressing her view that problems raised by the public were almost certainly merely issues with perception and communication and said that in her opinion the constabulary were doing a “great job”. I felt this was a shockingly dismissive of my questions, and wrongly inferred that by asking questions I was suggesting the police were not generally doing a good job.
Dr Gregson said that she had interpreted Ruth Rogers’ speech slightly differently. We agreed on what she said, but disagreed on the impression it would give to a public questioner.
I had raised concerns about the fact Cambridgeshire Police consider the PACE codes guidance they do not have to follow. The opportunity to explain to the Chief Executive why I feel this is so important to was very useful. She was under the impression that Cambridgeshire Police’s deviation from the PACE codes applied only to stop and account recording. I was able to explain that what concerned me more was the general statement which Detective Superintendent Jeff Hill, the force lead for Stop and Account has made:
These Codes of Practice are not primary legislation but guidance associated with the Act.
It is not just me who finds this statement worrying, Michael Zander QC a member of the Home Office’s PACE review board has contacted Mr Hill’s directly to clarify his views and has described what Mr Hill said (which I assume represents force policy) as a:
dangerous misconception regarding the status of the Codes.
The codes are not primary legislation; but they are much more than mere guidance.
Dr Gregson committed to seek a statement – to be printed at the top of the next report on the police’s view of the PACE codes – on if their views on the PACE codes are limited to Stop and Account or more general. I had raised the fact it was crazy for custody sergeants to be handing copies of the PACE codes to those who are detained if the force doesn’t follow them, the authority’s response was bizarre, it stated:
With respect to your comments regarding the custody sergeant, Codes of Practice under PACE are offered to all detainees when brought into custody. The Authority would wish you to pass on specific details of allegations of inappropriate behaviour to the Constabulary so these can robustly investigated.
Mr Wilkins, a Cambridge City County Councillor and member of the Police Authority spoke to say he, for one, realised I was not suggesting any inappropriate behavior on the part of custody sergeants, but drawing attention to the fact that offering the PACE codes isn’t much use if the force policy isn’t to follow them.
During our meeting Dr Gregson finally got this point too; she commented on the fact that one of the key things the independent custody visitors (who are co-ordinated by, and report to, the Police Authority) do is check compliance with the PACE codes. She understood that all that is undermined if the police don’t feel they have to follow the PACE codes. I also drew attention to a recently reported case where a diabetic held in custody had not been given access to medication. PACE Code C states the custody officer is responsible for the safekeeping of any medication and for making sure the detainee is given the opportunity to take or apply prescribed or approved medication. I explained that when I heard the news story my first thought was – of course that can happen in Cambridgeshire as the police don’t follow the PACE codes. That is exactly the kind of case which explains why I have spent so much time trying to get Cambridgeshire police to change their position on this. It is my view that there are many important safeguards intended to protect people when they are stopped, searched, arrested, questioned and detained by the police contained only within the PACE codes.
Dr Gregson stressed that the Police Authority were very closely monitoring the force’s deviation from the PACE codes with respect to Stop and Account.
Our discussion on TASER focused on the role of the Chief Constable vs the Role of the Authority. I explained that I thought it was not right for the discussion of TASER to start with the chair stating that “it has been decided between the Chair of the Police Authority and the Chief Constable that the Chief Constable will have the final decision on TASER deployment”. Dr Gregson expressed support for this point of view; expressing her opinion that the debate was about how particular individual officers ought be protected, and as such that was clearly an operational matter for the Chief Constable.
I argued that moving from a position where only firearms officers are armed with TASER, so that it is available as an alternative to a gun to all response police being armed with the weapons was clearly a strategic matter and therefore one for the authority. I also argued that in the interests of transparency the question of where responsibility lay ought be debated in public. Dr Gregson expressed her opinion that in this area the authority’s role was one of scrutinising the police’s decisions. I argued that the Police Authority ought to be doing more to set the strategic policy in this area, and noted the matter had still not been substantially discussed at a full meeting of the Authority since the Home Secretary’s announcement that all response police were to be armed with TASER in November 2008. Dr Gregson reached for a copy of “the act” (presumably the Police Act 1996) in which the responsibilities of police forces are defined. This doesn’t actually charge them with setting “strategic direction” in so many words. However describing the role of Police Authorities as being to set the strategic direction of their forces is very common. The problem with Cambridgeshire Police Authority’s position on this key point was shown when the authority allowed the chief constable to buy two rounds of luxury cars for chief officers. The explanation was not that the Chief Constable had persuaded the authority there was an operational need for the vehicles, but merely that the chief officers said they needed them. We need a less supine Police Authority.
Dr Gregson stated that the power of the Authority was very limited.
On the failure, so far, of the police or police authority to give evidence the Transport Commission, despite being invited Dr Gregson defended the decision to send the “local senior police commander”. She said that they would be able to answer on behalf of all aspects of the police. I agued against this point of view, questioning if that officer would really be able to answer questions on subjects such as the police’s desire to get their hands on the data collected for data-mining purposes; or the possible additional costs to the police if they were not exempt from the charge (amazingly, apparently due to Government guidance they are not exempted in the current plans. )
Police Stopping People Taking Photographs in Public
I made clear that I had only brought this question to the Police Authority after having raised it elsewhere first, including via an ecops email, a face to face discussion with a police officer, attendance at ward based police meetings, and area committees in Cambridge. Dr Gregson said that the matter had not come to the authority’s attention. I pointed out it was a widely reported problem on a national level.
The one line answer I received stated:
We note your concern regarding this and ask if there are specific concerns or complaints regarding the actions of Cambridgeshire Officers that these are directed to the Chief Constable so they can be investigated.
I explained that I didn’t feel specific officers were at fault, so didn’t have a complaint. I also explained that I preferred to try and influence the police on policy issues in public fora, as I felt that ought be the most effective route. I spelt out that I judged the police stopping people taking photos and video in public places as such a broad and strategic problem that I felt it appropriate to take it to the Police Authority. I noted member of the Authority – Mr Wilkins’ suggestion for how the Authority could deal with something like this – by asking the force to improve their training in this area, and asking them to report back to the authority on what they have done. Dr Gregson agreed that was the kind of approach she thought it might be appropriate for the authority to take. I hope Mr Wilkins or one of the other members of the authority take this on and take action.
Contacting Members of the Authority
I asked why all members of the authority did not have personal contact details (email addresses) posted on the authority website. I asked what happened to emails sent to the contact address given. Dr Gregson responded to say that she didn’t think members, particularly the non-councillor members ought be in contact with the public, and that public enquiries ought be dealt with “corporately”.
I said I was surprised when I wrote to Ruth Joyce, the “lead member” for the area where I live, Cambridge, to receive a reply from the Chief Executive rather than the member. Dr Gregson said that she didn’t view the role of the independent members, even those who were lead members for a geographical area to actually represent the views of people in those areas. She said the term “lead member” related to taking the lead in auditing / overseeing aspects of policing in that area. She added that in terms of representation every authority member was expected to act in the best interests of good policing for the the whole force area.
I note Cambridgeshire Police Authority’s guide to being an independent member states:
As a police authority member, you must represent the views of people who live in, work in, or visit the police authority area. You will need to build partnerships between the police force and local communities through consulting a wide and diverse range of people about policing in your area.
and top of the list of the roles of an independent member is:
Engaging with local people to find out what they want from their local police force;
and on the list of things members are expected to do in return for their allowance is:
Responding promptly to correspondence and e-mails;
I find it difficult to understand how those roles and requirements can be fulfilled while refusing to directly correspond with members of the public. We discussed the wider reluctance of independent members to communicate, even with those such as councillors. I raised the other problem which has been reported to me, of them being intimidated by their indoctrination and confidentially agreements they have to sign up to. Dr Gregson surprisingly agreed that this was a significant problem with newer members, but indicated she felt it was mitigated by the presence on the authority of individuals who had been members for many years – I think she said twelve years in the case of Mr Walters.
I asked why Ruth Joyce refuses to publically identify herself when she attends area committees in Cambridge. Dr Gregson explained that members of the authority, while they might attend such events to listen, have to be careful not to be seen to be involved in influencing decisions which they would then be expected to scrutinise later; they mustn’t get too involved in something they are later going to be asked to assess the effectiveness of. I can’t see how that could arise as a problem if members were introduced in community meetings, I’d like to see them contribute and not just listen.
I briefly discussed the tone of the response I recieved from Ruth Joyce and the previous Chief Executive. As an example I pointed to the attitude to Freedom of Information which was revealed:
“The fact is that whilst we endorse the principles of FoI and are rightly bound by our obligations, and endorse an individual’s right to information within the context of the Act, public bodies are inundated with requests for information and we are no exception. Frankly, as a rule of thumb, 50% of the information requested seems to have no practical purpose and we really do wonder what the recipient does with it. Some “drill down” endlessly and we see no product from it in the media, at our public meetings or in other forms. We feel something will have to change to control this headlong dash for information which is an industry in itself.”
I explained that I found it difficult to understand how, with that view Ruth Joyce was made lead member for Freedom of Information. Dr Gregson looked surprised as if she wasn’t aware of this; and made no comment. Dr Gregson also didn’t comment on if Ruth Joyce lived in the force area or not, I noted the wording of her biography on the authority website appears to leave open the possibility she does not and she, or the previous Chief Executive, did not answer the question when I put it two them. Members must live or work in the authority area.
I think it would be worth mentioning again that Ruth Joyce, an ex Home Office civil servant has been using her position on the authority to push for the adoption of the national ID database for children, Contact Point by Cambridgeshire police.
Writing This Article
Dr Gregson appeared worried about how I might report my meeting on my website, asking me how I planned to portray it. I said I would do my best to portray it accurately, and I was very grateful to have been given the opportunity to speak to her directly. It was interesting to hear her views on the role of the authority, and on the role of independent members. Having the authority’s view of what “lead member” means explained helped me understand why Ruth Joyce’s approach was seen as acceptable.
I think Police Authorities ought be stronger, they ought not shy away from setting strategic policy and direction, as they do elsewhere. I find the fact that Cambridgeshire Police Authority’s Chief Executive does not appear to see this as the role of the authority worrying. Given the fact her role is essentially to service a committee and she is paid around a hundred thousand pounds a year, and has a million pound budget to do that it is incredible that secret meetings are held, papers don’t go out on time, and when they have put papers online they’ve posted the confidential ones too.
Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act
In my article on the Police Authority committee meeting which discussed the retention of DNA of innocent people I explained how the Chief Executive had given advice that the committee could not set policy due to the fact an election campaign was on. (When I asked questions, I was asked by a member of the Authority if I was standing for election, even though, I believe, that point was well in advance of nominations, he was under the impression candidates can’t ask public questions during elections). I suggested that the detailed guidance ought be made public, and perhaps incorporated into or referred to from the authority’s standing orders. Dr Gregson’s initial response was to suggest it didn’t really matter as elections were only held every five years. Her communications officer and I reminded her there were also district council elections, Peterborough City Council elections and Parliamentary elections so holding a meeting during some sort of election would not be that infrequent an event. She agreed to publish the guidance that she was working to, and had distributed to members of the authority, she explained this had originated from the association of police authorities.
A New Independent Member
Dr Gregson told me that one of their current independent members has been elected to a relevant council, and has therefore become ineligible to hold their position. Cambridgeshire Police Authority are currently looking for a new independent member. Their advertisement, and details, are available online, the deadline is the 17th of July 2009. The vacant position is currently not advertised on the front page of their website, you have to know it is there and click “vacancies” at the bottom. I think it is clear from elements of the application form that they are looking for a member of the establishment. While Cambridge City Council doesn’t get to appoint a councillor to the authority it is possible for a Cambridge City Councillor to become an independent member, I would like to see some apply.