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If not now, then when?



Phil Kay, Senior Associate (Governance)

Wednesday 1 July 2020

One month from now a group of the the most senior chief constables in England and Wales will put the finishing touches to an action plan on diversity and inclusion within policing. Announced by Martin Hewitt, Chair of the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC), as part of UK policing’s commitment to tackle racism, discrimination and bias following the death of George Floyd, it will be put out for consultation. This is a positive move and one which should be welcomed. I know how seriously my former colleagues will be taking this and how strongly they feel the need to get this right.

One of the key issues the plan will consider is how the police service becomes more reflective of the communities it serves and inclusive for our black, Asian and ethnic minority officers and staff? This is a fundamental issue and of vital importance to the future of policing in this country. The Home Affairs Select Committee called four years ago for “urgent and radical action” to address the “gross under-representation” of BAME people in the police, adding that representation at senior officer level was “pitiful” (1). One estimate, in 2018, suggested that forces would continue to remain unrepresentative of the communities they serve until 2052, at the very earliest (2). The latest figures show that only 7 per cent of police officers are from a BAME background, compared to 14 per cent of the population as a whole (3). We must recognise that this is an issue which impacts differently upon different elements of BAME communities. This is a particularly acute issue in respect of young black men, who are under-represented in policing, yet disproportionately present in the criminal justice system. There have been as many black Presidents of the United States, as there have been black chief constables in England and Wales (and Barack Obama was in the White House more recently than Mike Fuller ran Kent Police). Let’s be clear, this isn’t a numbers game or about being politically correct, as some detractors will have you think. In modern day Britain, this is an operational imperative. It is vital for a service that requires legitimacy in order to police by consent and requires cultural awareness and diversity in background and thought in order to operate effectively. Put simply - being a more representative service will help the police reduce crime and better protect all our communities.

The 'Other' Report

Those with an interest in the Action Plan will, of course, cast their minds back to 1999, a seminal moment for the police service in this country, and look at the recommendations made by Sir William Macpherson in his report following the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence (4). I hope they look closely at the other key report on policing from that same year, one which arguably was more creative in its recommendations when it comes to representation and one which has made much more of a significant and long-lasting impact. The Independent Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland, otherwise known as the Patten Commission, came about following the Belfast Agreement. The Commission looked into policing in Northern Ireland and made proposals for future policing arrangements, including the police force composition, recruitment, training, culture, ethos and symbols. The aim of the proposals was to create a police service that would be effective, operate in partnership with the community, and be accountable both to the law and the community it served. Patten’s report was explicit in recommending that every effort should be made to ensure that all aspects of PSNI and its governance should be broadly reflective of the population of Northern Ireland as a whole, particularly in terms of political/religious tradition and gender (5). Whilst also recognising that achieving this position was not solely the responsibility of the police, calling on all community politicians, bishops and priests, schoolteachers and sports authorities to make it a priority to encourage members of their communities to apply to join the police. The recommendations also included, suggesting that responsibility for recruitment should sit outside of the police, that familiarisation days should be organised with schools and universities, that cadet schemes should be established, lay people should be involved in the recruitment process and that young people should not be automatically disqualified from entry into the police service for relatively minor criminal offences, particularly if they had since had a number of years without further transgressions. 

Positive Action vs Positive Discrimination

Recommendation 112, was perhaps the most controversial and far-reaching of the recommendations; “An equal number of Protestants and Catholics should be drawn from the pool of qualified candidates.” In effect, this meant that Protestants and Catholics were to be recruited on a one for one basis. This recommendation was not universally popular, with criticism that it would discriminate against Protestants and in some way would lead to the lowering of standards. There has of course never been any evidence provided to support the view that standards have been lowered. Despite the criticism, through a combination of legislative change to enable positive discrimination, strong leadership and the engagement and support of the communities, the 50:50 scheme was introduced for a limited period between 2001 and 2011. During this time, the number of Catholic officers serving within PSNI increased from 8 per cent to 30 per cent and confidence levels amongst the Catholic community in policing also increased.

Senior police leaders such as Sir Peter Fahy (2013), Lord Hogan-Howe (2016), and Dame Sara Thornton (2019), have all argued that the current employment laws prevent forces in England and Wales from being equally creative in order to effectively address the issue of under-representation, and that similar legislative change to that made in Northern Ireland is required on the mainland, to “shock the system” and “accelerate the diversification of our forces”.(6) The case law suggests they are right. When Cheshire Police attempted in 2018 to use positive action “tie breaker” provisions under the Equalities Act to boost recruitment of female, BAME, LGBT and disabled candidates, an employment tribunal found that it had discriminated against a white, male, heterosexual candidate(7). Martin Hewitt explained to the Home Affairs Select Committee last week that chief constables debated positive discrimination a year ago and, after recognising there were “advantages and disadvantages” to it, agreed a majority position not to support changes to legislation required to make it happen. (8) Instead, the policy remains positive action with “real energy”. Meanwhile, there appears to be widespread opposition to the concept among rank and file officers in England and Wales. YouGov reported last week that 65 per cent of police officers oppose positive discrimination to ensure equal representation of ethnic minority groups in companies and institutions (not policing specifically) compared to 36 per cent of the general public(9).

If nothing changes, nothing changes

However, the current recruitment of 20,000 extra police officers, replacing the numbers lost during austerity, remains a wonderful, once in a generation opportunity for policing to become much more reflective of the communities it serves. To deliver the uplift in the next three years, policing will actually have to recruit around 53,000 more officers to cover those expected to leave or retire. Chief Constables, Police and Crime Commissioners and Ministers are understandably keen to get new recruits through the door quickly, to meet operational needs and keep political promises. In doing so, the service risks missing this golden opportunity to bring about transformational change in the composition of its workforce. My fear is that doing what we have always done, will only result in retaining the status quo. There will be 20,000 additional officers, but the chance to bring about the sort of change seen in Northern Ireland, a police service that is more reflective of the communities it serves, with increased public confidence and reduced inequality in the CJS, will have been missed. There is even potential for the uplift to make policing even less representative, if few BAME officers are recruited as part of this cohort.

This surely needs to be a foot on the ball moment. There is a bigger game in town and a greater prize to be won. The police and the communities of Northern Ireland have shown just what can be achieved through time limited positive discrimination, combined with significant police and community leadership and a root and branch review of the recruitment process, to remove any potential for bias. Is there any bias present in the SEARCH assessment centre process? Do we properly understand why so many BAME parents find it difficult to recommend policing as a career to their children, in the same way Catholic parents used to in Northern Ireland? Do BAME candidates face a disadvantage at interview panels in the way they are composed or structured? Is vetting likely to rule out BAME candidates unfairly or disproportionately? England and Wales presents a different context to Northern Ireland, of course. Many parts of the country have far smaller BAME populations than others. But diversity does not just bring about benefits through better representation. Having more BAME officers in predominantly rural forces will bring a different perspective and, potentially, different thinking. That can only be a good thing.

Policing does not happen in a vacuum

The BLM protests are of course not just about policing, they are about us living in a much fairer and more equal society in all respects - education, health, housing, employment and everyone having an equal voice. Leaders from all sectors, not just policing, need to step forward and embrace this challenge, now. There is no one panacea to solving a complex, multi-layered societal issue, like this. But, if police, community leaders and politicians are genuinely serious about the police service being more reflective of the communities it serves and reaping the rewards that brings, then this is the moment for real practical change. Because if not now, then when?

Phil Kay is Crest’s Senior Policing Associate and a former Assistant Chief Constable of Leicestershire Police













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