With party manifestos now well thumbed, and some votes already cast, those with an active interest in human rights and civil liberties will be watching keenly the results of the election and the ensuing impact the next government will have on the protection of our rights.
There are of course considerable concerns about the potential scrapping of the Human Rights Act proposed by the Conservatives and its replacement with a British Bill of Rights, something we will be examining in next week’s blog. Beyond that debate however, there are also some interesting pledges in the main parties’ manifestos that seek to reform the way that the police and other state authorities operate.
In our work we see countless examples of clients who have been mistreated at the hands of the police, immigration or prison services. From deaths in custody and victims of assaults by police officers, to protesters who have experienced heavy handed policing or individuals who have seen their lives put on hold due to unfounded prosecutions, these failures have a profound impact on the lives of British citizens.
Therefore, whoever is in power after the votes are counted, we’ll be campaigning for the government to tackle police accountability. At a time when stories about undercover surveillance, cover-ups and failure to investigate serious crimes of the past are daily news, ensuring more effective accountability and restoring trust and confidence in the police, has to high up the political agenda.
The Labour Party has announced plans to raise police standards, requiring all police officers to become ’Chartered Officers’, holding a registration with the College of Policing, and being struck off in cases of serious misconduct. In our work, we regularly see officers resigning in cases of misconduct, only to move to another police force, or in some cases even return to the same force. This can’t be right and ensuring this does not happen and preventing these officers working in front line roles again would be a step in the right direction. A similar plan proposed for prison officers would also surely do more to keep the profession in check at a time when the Howard League reports there were a record 82 suicides in prison last year.
The Conservatives talk about overhauling the police complaints system, but do not state how, whereas Labour plans to scrap the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), replacing it with a new Police Standards Authority. For those of us who were around when the IPCC replaced the old Police Complaints Authority, the question is whether this would signal real change or would simply be a rebranding exercise. A police complaints body needs teeth and a willingness to question officers’ accounts fully rather than taking what is said at face value. A new body would need to use their disciplinary powers effectively to restore public confidence and ensure greater police accountability.
We often have clients whose complaints are not upheld, but then go on to have successful civil actions for compensation. This cannot be right. Another issue under the current regime is the length of time our clients wait for their complaints and subsequent appeals to be investigated. Any new body must speed up the complaints process to avoid the years some clients wait for a complaint to be dealt with. The police and the IPCC, or its replacement, also need to become better at saying sorry.
The Liberal Democrats are the party that arguably puts forward the most detail on civil liberties; championing the Human Rights Act, drawing up a Digital Bill of Rights and putting forward proposals in a Freedoms Act that aim to ‘protect citizens from excessive state powers’. Amongst other things, the Act would extend the rules governing the storage of DNA and fingerprints by public authorities to include all biometric data, prevent heavy-handed policing of demonstrations through tighter regulation of kettling and strengthening safeguards to prevent pre-emptive arrests and misuse of pre-charge bail conditions to restrict civil liberties.
Something the Liberal Democrats have in common with the Conservatives is reform of stop and search. The Conservative pledge to ‘legislate to mandate changes in the police practices if stop and search does not become more targeted and stop to arrest ratios do not improve.’ This is echoed by the Liberal Democrats who have even more concrete plans to issue tighter guidance to police. It’s disappointing that there is no further information in the manifestos on what this will mean in practice but both parties are no doubt mindful of the corrosive effect stop and search has had on police relationships with black and ethnic minority (BME) communities given reports that in some areas black people are 29 times more likely to be stopped and searched. This may be why the Conservatives wish to improve diversity in the police with more BME police officers.
Also in the Conservative manifesto is a plan to ensure proper provision of health and community- based places of safety for people suffering mental health crises, aimed at saving police time and preventing the detention of vulnerable people being held in police custody. This is almost certainly in response to a number of high profile deaths in police custody such as that of Sean Rigg.
As a result of the verdict in the Sean Rigg inquest, an Independent Commission on Mental Health and Policing was set up to examine the conduct of the Metropolitan Police in dealing with mental health issues. The report was critical of the police.
‘To speed up justice’, the Conservatives plan to extend the use of police-led prosecutions. This rings alarm bells for us, given the cases we already see involving malicious prosecutions, failures in evidence collection, disclosure and abuses of police powers. Without further checks on the police through the Crown Prosecution Service and Defence Solicitors, there is a real risk that there will be miscarriages of justice.
This also needs to be seen in the wider context of the current criminal legal aid reform with the tendering process currently underway and considerable pressure now being placed on Defendants to plead guilty due to the financial penalties imposed should they plead not guilty but subsequently be convicted.
The effectiveness of many of the manifesto pledges need to be considered in light of the fact that cuts to public services are fairly inevitable whichever party or coalition comes to power. Squeezing resources further will inevitably mean a worsening of many of the problems endemic in our justice system, which, certainly within the areas we work in, is already at breaking point. Access to redress when things do go wrong will continue to get harder as sadly none of the main parties (with the exception of the Green Party) are really willing to revisit the continual depletion of access to justice through changes to Legal Aid provision and recent reform.
What is not in doubt is that post-election, the government will have a full in tray regarding our state authorities. The inquiries underway involving Hillsborough, undercover policing and historic abuse claims have yet to report and much must be done to restore public trust in the police and justice system. We’ll be keeping a close eye on developments.