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Stephen Lawrence revelations: Why rushing out a new police corruption law won’t be enough

Written by Nick Maxwell on Friday, 7 March 2014

Is police corruption a problem in the UK? This debate has come to the fore again this week on the back of new evidence of police corruption and deception following the murder of Stephen Lawrence. The government has taken action by setting out plans for a new criminal offence of police corruption.


Is police corruption a problem in the UK? This debate has come to the fore again this week on the back of new evidence of police corruption and deception following the murder of Stephen Lawrence. The government has taken action by setting out plans for a new criminal offence of police corruption.

With phone hacking ‘plebgate’ and Hillsborough, there have been sufficient recent scandals exposing major corruption problems in UK policing, and public trust is in the force is fast eroding.

We also learned recently that from the early 2000s there is evidence that organised crime has actively attempted to corrupt the Metropolitan police with organised criminals apparently able to infiltrate Scotland Yard “at will” by bribing corrupt officers.

The probity and high standards of the police are essential to protect citizens and carry out their duties in the community. A breakdown in the integrity of the police, even if only by a small minority, is hugely damaging to public confidence in that institution and our society. We are therefore encouraged that Theresa May has admitted that the risks cannot be ignored and must be deterred.

However, the legal and sanctions regime for corruption in the UK is complicated, and is covered by at least 25 separate laws. It is important that a new law should not be composed in haste. The rushed and poorly drafted Lobbying Bill – also in response to a scandal – is case in point.

If we compare the alleged behaviours of police involved in the case against our Defence and Security Programme’s typology of the ways corruption manifests itself in these sectors the situation is alarming. The case demonstrates institutionalised lack of transparency through the discrediting of and spying on the Lawrence family and withholding such details from the review, to concerns over a potential culture of impunity and, as the most recent batch of evidence suggests abuse of power regarding corrupt relationships with informants.

This implies that corruption vulnerability, past, present and future, is considerable, and shows that transparency and oversight are potentially undermined. Not only do the allegations indicate misconduct, they indicate vulnerabilities that may hold the door open to malpractice and corruption in the future—and may have held it open to corruption before.

There are also broader issues to consider in corruption across the public sector. In the UK, we do not legislate against trading in influence corrupt hiring practices, abuse of function, cronyism or nepotism, political bribery, or corrupt enrichment.

Laws are also not enough. It is important to go beyond criminal offences and reactive measure and also look at ethics and behaviour.

In November we called for a more comprehensive approach on the breadth of issues in UK police ethics. Critically TI-UK believes that corruption should be explicitly prohibited, and the myth of so called ‘noble corruption’ should be de-bunked i.e. that the means of corruption can be justified by the ends. The potential for miscarriages of justice and impunity from such situations is clear. Disinformation is a form of evidence alteration, also mentioned in our typology and also has clear corruption potential. This is possibly what was at the core of misguided police thinking in putting undercover officers in to the Lawrence family network of supporters.

Consideration should be given to how Police and Crime Commissioners and their staff can be held to a comparable standard as the Code of Ethics for policing, and police forces should require suppliers and other third parties to agree contractually to observe relevant sections of a Code of Ethics.

The current College of Policing draft code of ethics should be expanded to include sections on accountability, including reporting and whistleblowing; conflict of Interest and typical corruption risks; and security of information and citizen privacy. This would be a significant step towards improving integrity within the police, and public confidence in them.

Rushing out a new law against police corruption is unlikely to be an adequate response to the challenge. Above all, we are recommending now that there should be time for a proper review of the problem of corruption in the police and the wider public sector, and deciding what the legislative response should be. 

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Read 12305 times Last modified on Tuesday, 24 November 2015 11:47
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Nick Maxwell

Nick is TI-UK's Head of Strategic Engagement. You can view his full bio here, and tweet him @NickJMaxwell.

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