Police Ombudsman wants power to question ex-police

Posted By: August 12, 2020

Connla Young. Irish News. Belfast. Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson has laid out plans for new legislation which would see retired officers compelled to co-operate with her office.

The ombudsman, who took up her post last July, has prepared a legal paper which will be presented to justice minister Naomi Long next month.

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic she has continued to work from her office in Belfast city centre and has drafted a series of proposals to introduce a dedicated police ombudsman act.

The Police Ombudsman’s Office is currently set up under policing legislation.

The proposal to widen the powers and remit of her office, which investigates contemporary and historical complaints against the police, coincides with the 20th anniversary of its establishment in 2000.
Former RUC and PSNI officers are currently not obliged to take part in ombudsman investigations.

“What is a frustration for me is, and it has been for other ombudsman, is the fact I cannot compel retired police officers to give evidence,” she said.

“That can mean a challenge for investigating the past if you can’t actually compel officers to give evidence.”

She said a recent review of the Scottish police complaints system found that former officers should be compelled to “give evidence in relation to oversight matters.

Mrs. Anderson said that while at one time The North was a leader in terms of police oversight it can no longer be viewed that way.

“What I am saying is, Northern Ireland has fallen behind in terms of its legislation, in terms of police oversight legislation,” she said.

“It has fallen behind where previously we were at the forefront.

“When they created the Police Ombudsman’s office in November 2000, and this is our 20th anniversary year, when they created that office we were unique and it was ground breaking but now our legislation has fallen behind.”

Mrs Anderson said that she also wants to see a wider role for her office when it comes to discipling officers found to be in the wrong.

As it stands her office can make recommendations to the PSNI, however, she is not involved in the disciplinary process and police do not have to accept recommendations made.

The Ombudsman said that currently in England and Wales the Independent Office for Police Complaints (IOPC) has more extensive powers, particularly in relations to disciplinary issues.

She explained that the IOPC has a role in presenting “the case against the police officer and that is something the Police Ombudsman should do”.

She said that new powers would give members of the public, who may be “the victim of misconduct.” more confidence “if they are going into a forum with the police and the Police Ombudsman is presenting the case.

“It gives greater participation in the disciplinary process,” she said.

“I also believe the disciplinary panels should be entirely independent of the police and they should have a legally qualified chair, which is what happens in England and Wales.”

The ombudsman believes it is now time to expend the role of her office.

“In this 20th anniversary year there is an opportunity to look again at our legislation, to modernise it and bring it up to speed with other jurisdictions,” she said.

She said it was time for a dedicated Act to underpin the work of her office.

“In my former role as public services ombudsman there is a public services ombudsman act, why is there not a Police Ombudsman Act?

“Because the legislation has been amended and tweaked over the years it’s now sitting in various regulations and I think its time to have a consolidated act, to have a Police Ombudsman Act.”

She said any new act would have to go through the assembly “and it would be supported and sponsored by the Department of Justice”.

Ms. Anderson added she has already had discussions with minister Long and will present her with a legal paper outlining her proposals next month.

She has also had discussions with chief constable Simon Byrne and the chairman of the Policing Board Doug Garrett.

She also said the issue of police not accepting recommendations made by her office has been raised with chief constable.

“I have already made it clear to the chief constable that where the police do not accept one of my recommendations that they must give me full and cogent reasons why they do not accept the recommendation,” she said.

“That it is not simply sufficient to say we do not accept the recommendation.”

She also sees a role for the Policing Board in ensuring compliance with recommendations.

“I have been in discussion with the Policing Board because it’s my intention that, certainly my wish, that they should where my recommendations are not accepted, not fully implemented, that the Policing Board should take that issue up and hold the chief constable to account in public,” she said.

“That hasn’t happened previously.”

With just a year of her seven year term gone, Mrs Anderson is conscious that she has time on her side to implement change she believes are necessary.

“I am ambitious for this legislation,” she said.

“I don’t think that it will be without resistance but I think a consultation process might well bring other views about other changes that other stakeholders want.

“I am open to that, it’s not just about me.

“The consultation process is not a mere tick box exercise.

“Others will have their views about the Police Ombudsman powers and the office.”

Mrs Anderson also revealed that she shares the concerns of her predecessor over funding.

“We can’t go on limping through like this,” she said.

“There has been chronic underfunding for this office to undertake historical investigations.”

The Police Ombudsman is currently handling 430 historical cases and earlier this year she made a bid to the Department of Justice for extra resources to deal with the caseload.

“In February of this year I made a fresh bid to the department of justice for more funding,” she said.

“That business case is with the department.

“But if it is approved I will get 16 more staff, which is a significant uplift.

“Currently we have 25 investigators.”

She also revealed that she has secured additional cash for a dedicated disclosure unit which will provide information to coroner courts during legacy inquests.

Extra staff to deal with the workload are expected to be in post soon.

“It very important that this office is able to support the coroners inquests, we are mindful of the time table has been set by the Lord Chief Justice for the conclusion of these inquests over the next five plus years,” she said.

“We also have appointed a new lawyer to our legal team to work alongside those investigators to assist in the legacy disclosure.

“As you can appreciate it’s a complex area, you need to be assured you are not disclosing any information that is highly confidential, sensitive or would put people at risk.”