I am delighted to be here this afternoon as Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to talk about the public importance of ethical standards in policing. The Committee on Standards in Public Life is an independent committee that provides advice to the Prime Minister. Its role is to promote high standards across the public sphere. Its remit has since been expanded to cover all those delivering public services whatever the sector.
Trust and standards in public life is an issue that the Committee has been grappling with since its inception. For those of you of younger years, the Committee was founded in 1994 by the then Prime Minister, John Major, in response to a series of parliamentary scandals - most notably cash for questions - which were grouped together under the heading of ‘sleaze.’
At the time, John Major linked the formation of the Committee quite clearly to issues of trust and confidence. He said “It is important that the public have confidence in our system of public administration, our method of making public appointments, the conduct of people in authority and the financial and commercial activities of public figures. It has always been the wish of the House that British Government, Parliament and administration should be entirely free of malpractice and I am determined to ensure that it is so”.
The Committee’s first report recommended the Seven Principles of Public Life, popularly known as the Nolan principles, to guide the behaviour of those who serve the public in any way, they are - selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.
The first report set out the three common threads to ensure that the Seven Principles of Public Life were properly understood and would become integral to the conduct of individuals and the culture of organisations. These threads are 1) codes of conduct, 2) independent scrutiny, 3) guidance and education. In Nolan’s words:
“It requires those in senior positions to set a good example: and it requires organisations to monitor the awareness of those standards and take remedial action where necessary.”
Since its inception the Committee has reported on issues such as political party finance, local government standards, public appointments and MPs expenses. The Committee has never considered the police in any specific detail.
Twenty years on since its formation you may think there would be no need for us, the Seven Principles are well established, most of you will have heard of them, the private sector is adopting them, but not all the evidence supports this view.
Between the years of 2004 and 2012, the Committee on Standards in Public Life conducted a unique long term independent public attitude survey. This has proved an invaluable source of what the public thinks about standards in holders of public office. We can use its findings as indicators of trust in public institutions and those in public life.
Some of this you will be familiar with. The top lines, you may have seen in the papers – a league table running from judges at the top with just over 80% to tabloid journalists at the bottom with just over 10% and government ministers languishing second from the bottom at 25%.
Consistently in each of these surveys the police have repeatedly ranked near the top second only to judges in fact.
This view is supported in other surveys. Polling by Ipsos MORI published at the start of this year showed that when asked who they would generally trust to tell the truth, doctors polled most highly at 90% but the police were also highly trusted at 66%.
And this generally positive response to the police in the UK is matched by views across Europe. When we compared levels of trust in professions in the UK with other European countries, the evaluation of national police forces is very positive.
The majority of respondents in eight European countries have indicated that they trust their country’s police force. Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands offer the most positive evaluations, with the UK ranking alongside Ireland and Spain with more than 6 out of 10 respondents holding positive views of the trustworthiness of police.
These are the kind of figures that politicians would dream of. Some might say with figures like this there is room for complacency and you can relax.
But looking beyond the more obvious headlines and more deeply into the patterns over the lifetime of our survey we found that there was a continuous and substantial decline in the percentage of respondents rating standards of conduct of public office holders as “quite high” or “very high.” And, unsurprisingly, a continuous and substantial rise in the percentage of respondents rating those standards as “quite” or “very low.” This is more worrying.
In the 2012 survey there was also an increase in the proportion of people thinking that standards had “got a lot worse”, moving from 9% in 2010 to 12% in 2012. In 2004 it was 6%.
Also since this survey there appears to have been a catalogue of cases where police officers fell short of “doing the right thing”. These cases damage the reputation of the police, which ultimately damages public trust. A more recent poll conducted by YouGov concluded that trust in police is declining. The number of respondents who trust senior police officers has decreased from 72% in 2003 to 49% in 2012 and a quarter (26%) of those surveyed by ComRes in 2013 said that the “plebgate” affair has made them less likely to trust the police .
Every transgression chips away at the high standards maintained by individuals and the institutional improvements that have been made over the years. And sadly, responses to standards issues often come too late and only in response to public scandals which by then have done a lot of damage. Once lost, reputation can take a long time to regain.
So each individual transaction by a public office holder matters. When we asked the public about attitudes to front line staff with whom the public are likely to have more personal contact, a large majority of respondents thought they would be treated fairly when, for example, receiving medical care at their local surgery, applying to the local council for planning permission or as a victim of crime reporting it to the police.
The findings suggest that, while trust in senior public officials may not always be high, there are high levels of confidence in more face to face services.
This is important in relation to the police because as the second Peelian principle states “the ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.”
Public trust and legitimacy are fundamental to the British system of policing by consent, which is based on public cooperation rather than fear. The police rely on this trust to function effectively.
This is where Nolan’s principles come to life. The public are quite clear on what the ethical standards should be and are consistent in their expectation that those in public life should abide by them. Year on year, the public have affirmed that the definition of standards set out in the Seven Principles of Public Life are still relevant and should continue to apply.
But translating them into everyday practical action is the hard bit particularly for police officers on the ground facing complex ethical situations – taking decisions that can have a significant impact on people’s lives, often made in situations of high tension and with incomplete information.
The new Policing Code of Ethics is very much to be welcomed. But the Committee has always said that principles and codes can only go so far. They are simply pieces of paper if they are not recognised as both legitimate and relevant to the day to day work of those expected to be living by them.
Nor can codes override values or principles. It is never an acceptable defence for poor behaviour that it is consistent with the letter of a code if it nevertheless offends against one of the underlying principles. MPs found this out to their cost in relation to their expenses.
So any codes need to be sufficiently detailed to give clear guidance but not so over developed that that people lose sight of the underlying principles. If they become over-complicated, codes quickly become regarded as just another bureaucratic bind.
Especially when they are placed against a back drop of significant change across the police service – resulting from austerity measures, new and emerging crime threats, and a changing landscape including the establishment of the College of Policing and the advent of a new form of public accountability through Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs).
This is where we come in with our rather dry sounding inquiry commenced last autumn into “Local policing – accountability, leadership and ethics”. We chose this piece of work for three reasons. Firstly because as, you’re all aware, the introduction of PCCs has meant there is a new system and with any new system it is sensible to review its operation; secondly the new system as a whole and individual elements of it have been the subject of criticism, much of it arising from standards issues; and finally because in light of these criticisms all political parties indicated that they were likely to make further changes to the accountability framework. Our focus has been on exploring the relationship between standards and governance, and how governance structures can best promote ethical behaviour and limit ethical risks.
A public consultation ran between October and the end of November. The Committee has received detailed written responses from individuals and organisations, covering a wide range of stakeholders including Police and Crime Commissioners, Police and Crime Panels, police forces, national charities, the public, local government representatives, academics and professional bodies. We would like to thank all those who responded for the considerable time spent doing so and we are publishing these responses in full today.
Some of the emerging themes from the consultation responses are that success of failure of the tripartite model is dependent on the personalities involved; that there is some confusion among the public and the parties as to the respective roles and responsibilities; and there is variable scrutiny of PCCs with Police and Crime Panels with differing views on the exercise of hard and soft powers required by the panels to effectively carry out their role. Of course some of these issues are not new. The balance of power has always been a function of personalities. There will always be some asymmetry, but that speaks to ensuring appropriate checks and balances are in place so that any revisions to these structures do not replicate some of the perceived problems of the old that it was intended to address.
The Committee is currently in the process of visiting some police areas to gather further evidence and views. We have commissioned research with the public. The report and its recommendations will be published after the election in late June 2015.
Whether the existing model of policing accountability and governance is modified or stays the same, it is essential that it operates in a way which is capable of ensuring ethical behaviour, reduces ethical risks and provides effective accountability in order to command public confidence. The test for us will be coming up with some practical recommendations which ensure that the accountability framework lives up to the Seven Principles whatever the political parties decide after the next election.
The thing about the Seven Principles is that they are not a list of “Thou shalt not’s”, nor are they a list of traps we should be trying to avoid. They are positive values that we should be proud to live by.
Which is why standards and risks to standards need to be addressed in a proactive way by all public organisations, (and by those in the private and voluntary sectors too).
Processes need to be designed to support the kind of behaviour you want to encourage, and not work against it. Good behaviour should be rewarded and poor behaviour addressed robustly and swiftly. It is no good preaching principles and codes in an organisation if, for example promotions, pay and other incentives actually encourage something quite different. A number of investment banks had exemplary statements of values. But what was actually rewarded in them, right up to their chief executives, was excessive risk-taking and the pursuit of profit at the expense of customer service.
So we support the work the College of Policing has done in recognising, through the production of an assessment guide and organisational model that the Policing Code of Ethics must be reinforced and actively implemented at an organisational level.
Of course the final requirement for embedding high standards is effective leadership. It is important for all officers to act as exemplars to their peers by living out the principles in the code in their everyday work, thereby helping to create a culture in which high standards are the norm.
And all leaders have a particular responsibility to set and promote a “tone from the top”, modelling consistently the right behaviour for employees at all levels to follow in order to send a clear message about acceptable behaviour. They also need to understand, use, monitor, regularly re-evaluate and most importantly exemplify the Code through their behaviour. The responsibilities of police leaders are set out explicitly in the preamble to the Code of Ethics.
Part of this, in our view, is PCCs leading by example. We are aware that many PCCs have or are in the process of putting in place their own Ethical Framework or Code of Conduct and arrangements for monitoring ethical standards and the implementation of the Policing Code of Ethics. We will be considering as part of our ongoing inquiry how effective these arrangements are.
A previous inquiry witness referred to the inevitability of a crack at the top becoming a chasm at the bottom. It goes without saying that this applies as much to the police and those who hold them to account, as it does to, for example, banks or an NHS trust.
One further thought, of course public perceptions are just that – perceptions. They may bear little relationship to actual standards of behaviour.
For instance despite widespread beliefs that corruption is a problem, by 2013 the UK recorded the lowest level of experiences of corruption across the EU. But, while our experience of corruption stood at 3%, the same figure as our fellow citizens in the Netherlands, 69% of respondents in the UK thought that corruption in the UK was a major problem. Only 49% of those in the Netherlands thought that corruption was a problem, against that same experience baseline of 3% .
Public perceptions can be affected by a wider range of other factors, including the way issues are reported in the media. Or public dissatisfaction with the policies being pursued.
The role the media plays in terms of generating and undermining trust, promoting or devaluing standards in public life could be the subject of a separate lecture. The tendency in the media and in institutions has been to see ethical standards predominantly in terms of scandals and personal and institutional failings. This, I think, is something for us all to think about.
I would like to end on a positive note. One of the clear messages from our public attitudes research is that the public do respond to events and their reporting. Confidence levels in public standards may not be fixed in an inevitable long-term decline. They are feature of the British political scene that can be influenced by events. From our evidence it is clear that there is an acknowledgement of the importance of high standards and its relationship with public confidence in policing. Embedding and internalising what this means is the heavy lifting and I hope that our report in June will be a useful contribution to the work already underway.