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Three PEEL-like problems with HMIC: Time to inspect the Inspectors?

OPEN Bernard Rix13th March 2017Bernard Rix - CoPaCC  4 Comments

CoPaCC Chief Executive Bernard Rix takes a look at HMIC's approach to police inspections. He asks whether it's time for Parliament and the public to see how HMIC measures up against the very same Efficiency, Effectiveness and Legitimacy standards it applies in its own inspections of police forces.

Earlier this month, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) published the latest in their PEEL series of inspections. This series covers police efficiency, effectiveness and legitimacy (hence PEEL), with the latest national inspections focusing on the overall question: “How effective is [each] force at keeping people safe and reducing crime?”.

Overall, one force (Durham) was judged to be ‘outstanding’, 28 forces were ‘good’, 13 ‘required improvement’ and one, Bedfordshire, was judged to be ‘inadequate’. (Here, I’ll declare an interest: I live in Bedfordshire).

The time is surely long overdue for HMIC itself to be inspected.

Following the HMIC report’s publication, the Durham PCC Ron Hogg wrote exclusively for Policing Insight with his perspective on the force’s “outstanding” classification.  But most of the HMIC report’s very considerable media attention, local and national, focused on HMIC’s criticism of forces’ effectiveness. In other words, on what HMIC believes forces are doing wrong, rather than on what HMIC thinks that forces (and, by extension, police officers and staff) are doing right.

Perhaps there’s nothing unusual about the media focusing on the bad news, rather than the good. Bad news probably makes for a better story. But it set me thinking about the role of HMIC, and the way in which it operates.

The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 changed HMIC’s own governance – according to the Home Office it “strengthened the inspectorate as a policing body independent of both the government and the police, and now accountable to the public and to Parliament”. I’ve heard it argued that these changes made HMIC a “law unto itself”. 

And that’s the difficulty illustrated for me by HMIC’s report, and the media response, last week. Is HMIC prepared to be judged by the criteria that HMIC itself judges others? 

HMIC Efficiency

I’ve previously suggested, for example, that once each HMIC Inspection report is published, forces and HMIC should publish the costs of producing that report. I’ve previously calculated, based on information provided by PCCs and their offices, that HMIC’s demands on forces require full time attention from around 450 officers and police staff nationally. 

Shouldn’t HMIC reduce the burden it places on forces? Or, at least, quantify and publish the extent of this burden?

Shouldn’t HMIC reduce the burden it places on forces? Or, at least, quantify and publish the extent of this burden?

HMIC Effectiveness

HMIC’s treatment of Bedfordshire Police in their latest report compounds the problem. The problem is well illustrated in a recent blog entitled “Police effectiveness 2016: Robbing Peter to pay Paul?”, by the Police Foundation’s Deputy Director, Gavin Hales. Here’s an extract:

In 2013/14 HMIC raised “significant concerns” about Bedfordshire’s response to domestic abuse, and then in 2014 said they were “very concerned” about rising response times. Both were then prioritised by the force, quite consciously at the cost of local policing, which was hollowed out.

Now Bedfordshire is being “commended” for their improved response to domestic abuse but being criticised for “not [having] put in place effective and consistent preventative community policing”, even while HMIC acknowledges ongoing funding and demand challenges:

“HMIC has found that in rightly focusing resources to protect its most vulnerable members of the community, the force has exposed its inability to maintain a preventative policing presence across Bedfordshire. However understandable the reasons for this might be, the consequence is that the people of Bedfordshire are not being well served by their police force.” (Emphasis added)

You can see the problem: context matters to the question of feasibility. Here the context is acknowledged but the criticism is nevertheless levelled and the feasibility question seems to have been ducked or ignored.

It’s been fascinating – not just as a Bedfordshire resident – to see the response from the force. Here’s an illustration, a tweet sent by the force…


HMIC Legitimacy

And these are not the only problems with HMIC. Back in September 2014, I wrote in Police Oracle that “HMIC should not remove PCCs’ mandate”. I argued there that it was for PCCs and chiefs, not HMIC, to determine how forces were run, and whether forces were achieving best value for money.

Are HMIC straying into territory outside their area of responsibility? Are their conclusions and recommendations providing a legitimate analysis, or are HMIC acting beyond their area of legitimate and statutory interest?

Inspecting the Inspectors

The time is surely long overdue for HMIC itself to be inspected. The Home Office themselves acknowledges that HMIC is “now accountable to the public and to Parliament”, so an inspection of HMIC could easily form part of the Home Affairs Select Committee’s work. Indeed, the Home Affairs Select Committee is currently undertaking a “Policing for the future” Inquiry – why not extend that to cover a review of HMIC?

Alternatively, it may instead be time for “the public” to hold HMIC to account. As the Chief Executive of CoPaCC, I’d be prepared to consider an “Inspection (or at least Examination) of HMIC” as a suitable topic for a future CoPaCC Thematic. However, a prerequisite for CoPaCC to run an “Inspection of HMIC” Thematic would have to be that it attracted the support of a significant number of Police and Crime Commissioners. The PCCs’ support would be needed for CoPaCC to obtain relevant evidence from OPCCs and forces without the need for us to raise Freedom of Information requests.

If you think the Home Affairs Select Committee should themselves consider an Inquiry into HMIC, do please let HASC know. If you think CoPaCC should run an “Inspection of HMIC” Thematic in the absence of a HASC Inquiry, do please let me know – particularly if you’re a PCC. 

And please feel free to leave your views below on whether an “Inspection” or similar of HMIC is now needed, whether by HASC, by CoPaCC, or by some other relevant body.

4 Responses to “Three PEEL-like problems with HMIC: Time to inspect the Inspectors?”

  1. Stu_F says:

    Unless HMIC are granted inspection rights over PCCs, particularly with no prescription over how PCCs operate, how can HMIC judge whether policing is “efficient”? If Fire and Police merge into a single entity in some places and not others how on earth can any meaningful comparisons even be carried out?
    Abolish HMIC and devolve their role to PCCs?

  2. Nick Quine says:

    Given the extreme difficulty, not to say impossibility of inspecting quality into a low volume, high variation service such as the police (or any other public service), the entire premise of inspectorates should be called into question. Regimes such as HMIC and OFSTED are predicated on an unspoken and unacknowledged assumption that the processes designed for managing a production line (high volume, low variation) can be applied to other contexts. They can’t, hence results such as that seen in Bedfordshire.
    I have no doubt my views will be met with howls of outrage in some quarters. All I would say is, look at the results, in education, in health, in social care, in policing…

  3. garethbr says:

    Interesting…as a former HMIC associate inspector (2 years on inspection) I can say that it is my experience that inspections conform to a tried and tested matrix that relies heavily on previous reporting and desk top research accompanied by triangulation of evidence through structured questioning of staff. This is an unwieldy and inflexible framework that focuses on fault, cause and effect. The inspection process leaves a lot to be desired. It is rushed and often ill considered with great emphasis put on listening to key staff through interviewing and focus groups many of whom are not comfortable with the process and not at all honest in their perspectives…..There is a need for a review of how inspections are carried out and by whom.

  4. robh0123 says:

    This article – and the other one by Dr Morrell – raise overdue questions about the value of HMIC reports. Their pronouncements over the years have at times appeared to reflect and reinforce current government and cultural opinion, rather than improve policing in any objective sense.
    1. A decade ago, HMIC was urging forces to adopt strong performance culture, now it urges them to drop it.
    2. Current concerns are around public protection and risk. This is a complex subject and its resource consequences are open-ended.. Police deal with industrial volumes of apparent high risk daily, yet severe adverse consequences are statistically rare. Real improvements would be around the ability to filter real high risk from apparent high risk but HMIC takes the easier course of identifying more risks, then criticising forces for failing to deal with it. For example, the mid 2016 report into Metpol child protection criticised the force in a very high-profile manner, referring 38 cases back to the force for more enquiries. Yet, when these were completed, none identified harm and no arrests were required.
    3. In 2010, the Chief HMIC suggested that there was an over-elastic and fudged view of what policing could achieve. Seven years later, his successors are effectively saying that some forces are achieving positive inspection reports, so they can all manage somehow.

    None of this is particularly conclusive, but it does chime with the results that you might expect from an organisation which in the main undertakes short-term inspections of single functional areas, ie they don’t have the responsibility of delivery of an all-round service.

    An inspection of the inspectors seems to be overdue.

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