The transcripts of the official inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press. More…

  • MR BEN WARNER PRIESTLEY (affirmed).

  • Could you confirm your full name, please?

  • It's Ben Warner Priestley.

  • You've provided a witness statement to the Inquiry. I understand that there is a correction that needs to be made to the figure at paragraph 4, that you want to change that from 40,000 to 42,000; is that right?

  • Subject to that correction, are the contents of your witness statement true and correct to the best of your knowledge and belief?

  • You work for the trade union UNISON, and you tell us in your witness statement that UNISON has 1.2 million members in the health, local government, education, police, justice and utility sectors, but your role is as UNISON's national officer with responsibility for members in the police probation services and CAFCASS; is that right?

  • You've worked for UNISON and its predecessor unions since 1990; is that right?

  • Have you personally got any experience of working yourself for the police?

  • No, I've never worked for the Police Service.

  • Paragraph 2 of your witness statement, you give us an indication -- and I understand these numbers are approximate -- of the number of members that you have amongst police staff, and you tell us that it is 42,000 members. Approximately what percentage of the overall number of police staff in the forces that you cover are members of UNISON?

  • On average we would have about 50 per cent of the working population in membership. In each force.

  • Can you give us some idea -- obviously it will vary from force to force, but what sort of proportion of the workforce are police staff as opposed to police officers?

  • That's a figure that's changed quite remarkably in the last 10 or 15 years through a process called workforce modernisation or, in other quarters, civilianisation, where the roles previously undertaken by police officers are now very often undertaken by police staff, 999 call takers, forensic officers, investigators, custody and detention officers. About 40 per cent of the police workforce is now police staff rather than police officers. In some forces actually there is a majority of police staff, but they're very, very small in number.

  • Just to be clear of the distinction, you represent police staff. Police officers, if they want representation, must join their own staff associations a opposed to a trade union?

  • Yes. I think the important distinction is that we represent those individuals who are employed under a contract of employment with the Police Authority, that is until the election of police and crime commissioners, whereas a police officer is sworn into the office of constable and not technically an employee.

  • They're members of the federation up to the rank of superintendent?

  • And superintendents have another association that looks after their interests?

  • The Superintendents Association, yes, indeed.

  • Not perhaps surprisingly called that. Right.

  • As to the forces whose staff you represent, you tell us that you do not represent police staff who work for the Metropolitan Police Service or for the City of London Police. They are represented, aren't they, if they want trade union representation, by the PCS, Prospect and the FDA?

  • Having dealt with those matters, can we now turn to the way in which you have sought to garner the views of your members for the purposes of giving evidence today? You sent out a letter, didn't you, to 49 different police branches and you tell us that in fact the response you got was surprisingly small; is that right?

  • Presumably you from time to time, for varying reasons, send out requests for views from your members. How does the response to this request compare to other requests that you've made?

  • Well, I can confirm that of the 49 responses that were solicited, I received two responses. That is an extremely low response rate. We would normally expect to get at least half of our potential respondents to communicate with us. It seems on this matter that for whatever reason, and I have a few thoughts on that, that our branches did not believe that this was, in terms of UNISON's contribution to the Inquiry, something they were particularly able to help with.

  • Perhaps you could share those thoughts with us.

  • I followed up the very small number of responses that I received, and the impression I had from talking to colleagues was a perception that the Inquiry was predominantly concerned with matters that related to the Metropolitan Police and that some of the issues and concerns that the Inquiry was examining were not of themselves writ large in provincial forces. That may or may not be correct and I don't make a judgment on that, but certainly that was the outcome of some of the conversations, limited though they were, that I had.

  • So that's the perception, at least --

  • -- of those members who had spoken to you?

  • Actually, that itself is an important fact. If true, that itself is important.

  • Yes. Of course I can't verify that is the case.

  • But I think that is an important observation, yes.

  • If we move now to some specific topics, and can I start first of all with ACPO's guidance. You deal with this at paragraph 6 of your witness statement where you tell us that generally speaking UNISON considers ACPO's Communication Advisory Group 2010 guidance relating to media matters to be helpful, but you do identify a lacuna in that it doesn't deal to your satisfaction with inappropriate or unethical contact between the police and the press, and you tell us that you want to see that lacuna dealt with as the HMIC's recommendations arising from "Without fear or favour" are dealt with and actioned.

    Can I ask you: what role does UNISON expect to play in any consultation exercise arising from the HMIC's report?

  • We would expect, as has been the case with all HMIC consultations certainly since I've been doing this job, that UNISON will be contacted as a stakeholder, as a representative body within the Police Service, and that our views and the views of our members' branches would be sought as part of that. That is our clear expectation.

  • I'm going to ask you a question; I suspect, given the response you've told us about a moment ago, you may not be able to go too far in answering it, but I'll ask it anyway. Is there anything in particular that UNISON is likely to be pushing for in ensuring that inappropriate or unethical contact between the police and the press is properly covered in any revised guidance?

  • I think the terms of reference and indeed the already published "Without fear or favour" document does indicate that HMIC wants this matter to be dealt with, and whilst we will have some views that I think possibly we'll explore today about where the line might be drawn around inappropriate contact, hospitality, gifts, et cetera, we certainly do expect that to be a key part of the consultation and we will certainly be majoring on that when we provide our views.

  • I'll move now to the question of off-the-record guidance, which you deal with on page 5 of your statement. You tell us that UNISON doesn't provide any guidance to members about off-the-record conversations with the media. Do you expect the employing police forces to do that?

  • Yes, I think it was our clear view that we would not ordinarily expect to be guiding our members who might work in either a press capacity or indeed an operational capacity in relation to their contact with the press around operational matters. Clearly the union will advise its members or its activists, its branch representatives, on contact with the press in relation to trade union issues, around disputes, et cetera; that would be a quite natural --

  • Quite different?

  • Quite a different set of circumstances. So yes, we would expect the police force in question to be providing that guidance to its staff.

  • From the conversations that you have had with your branches, what picture has been painted about the amount of off the record contact that your members have with the media?

  • I think the reality is that police staff are less likely to be involved in the sort of contacts with the media that the Inquiry is particularly concerned with, because of their relationship with investigations. My conversations with UNISON members who are police press officers suggest that it would be the senior investigating officer who might be taken for a business lunch by a journalist, because he or she would have the overview of a particular investigation and the journalist would be looking for a particular scoop or a particular angle on that over-arching investigation.

    Police staff, by nature of their work, tend to work on discrete parts of an investigation. There will be a scenes of crime officer or a fingerprint expert or a crime analyst, and he or she would not have the sort of overview of a particular crime that would enable him or her to give the sort of picture to a journalist that I think is probably looked for.

  • When it comes to setting professional standards within a police force, are the standards expected common to staff and officers or are they different?

  • There is a common code of professional standards that was previously in place only for police officers. We certainly took the view as a union that in a service that aspires to be a one culture service, where officers and staff are working together as equals within teams, that actually the same standards should quite rightly apply to all in that workforce, and we were instrumental in bringing that code of professional standards into play for police staff working with ACPO, with the Association of Police Authorities, so yes, there is a common code.

  • Does it follow that looking forward to any future guidance on dealings with the media by police, if I use that word deliberately, you would prefer to see common standards applied to both police officers and police staff in relation to their dealings, even if the ground truth is that your members are rather less likely to deal with the press?

  • Yes, we would take that position.

  • Is that quite right? Because it may very well be an appropriate part of an SIO's duty to speak to the press. It's quite difficult to see why it would ever be a part of a scenes of crimes officer's duty to speak to the press, therefore why would the rules necessarily be the same?

  • I think one would want to see rules which covered all eventualities, so there would be potentially the on-the-record conversation between the senior investigating officer and/or his police staff equivalent, but there might also be more informal contacts. Police staff press officers, for example, who we do represent, might find themselves in that position, for example.

  • Yes, I can see why press officers are different, but what I'm really saying is that the rules have to be consistent, but they're not necessarily the same, depending upon the occupation of the person affected.

  • No, I think it would be fair to say that were we engaged in the process of developing those rules, there would be an element of proportionality that might have to apply in the application of X, Y and Z, and that the role and occupation might be taken into account.

  • Does it come to this: you're saying the moral and ethical standards that should be applied should be uniform, albeit the individual duties of people at different levels and different roles will differ?

  • Yes. I think we start from a presumption that they should be the same, but I think looking in detail at roles would be a part of that investigation and consideration.

  • You tell us on page 6 of your statement a little about leaks, and I'm interested in picking up on what you say in paragraph 23, where you say:

    "There are many reasons why leaks are believed to take place, including ..."

    And the first thing you mention is "lack of confidence in whistle-blowing mechanisms".

    Can I ask you, from your experience of representing your members, what sort of level of confidence is there in police whistle-blowing policies?

  • Well, you have to be a bit careful here because there's an anterior question. Is this general from your experience as a trade union official across a wide range of occupations, that lack of confidence in whistle-blowing mechanisms, which I can understand, or is this intended to be specific to the police, given the response you got and all the limitations that you've put around it?

  • Sure. In terms of my work, the figures that are provided at the beginning of the witness statement in terms of the number of members we represent gives you an indication of what proportion of my work relates to police staff, and it is the majority of the work that I do. So I have a view across policing, probation and CAFCASS, although I've worked in other areas of the union previously.

    I think in this context, and I'm limiting my comments to policing and an impression that I've gathered over a number of years as to confidence in whistle-blowing, and if I can develop that, I think it's a lack of confidence that relates in policing particularly to the working environment of the Police Service, and you will appreciate that policing is a disciplined service. It is a very hierarchical and authoritarian workplace. Police staff are part of that workforce and much work is being done to integrate them better in that workforce than was perhaps previously the case, but they do on occasion feel themselves to be second class citizens in a service that's predominantly police officer led, and particularly in terms of the management structure, and there is a view amongst our members and our branches that it is very difficult to be seen to rock the boat within a service such as that.

    I'm not aware in recent years of any public interest disclosures that have taken place, and there is an atmosphere within police forces that I think makes it very difficult for a member of police staff to raise a particular concern, particularly if he or she is ranged against very powerful authority within that particular employer, and I hope that paints you a picture of some of the difficulties that might be faced, particularly in policing when compared to other parts of the public sector, where there may be a slightly more egalitarian feel to the workplace.

  • I suppose we need to be careful to distinguish between a complaint and blowing the whistle on some wrongful behaviour, and it's very much the latter that I want to concentrate on.

    What measures would you suggest could be taken to improve the level of confidence of your members in whistle-blowing procedures in police forces?

  • Sure. I would like to think that as an outcome certainly of the HMIC review and potentially also of this Inquiry, that work be done to review the effectiveness of whistle-blowing mechanisms within the Police Service and to examine whether those current procedures have been used, whether they have been essentially left on the shelf. That would be a very useful piece of work and one which I think, were we to arrive at a better system to allow staff the confidence to raise issues, would be a very positive outcome.

  • If I move now to the question of press officers, paragraph 25 of your witness statement, you, if I've understood the tone of your witness statement correctly, placed a great deal of emphasis and want to convey your opinion that press officers have a very valuable function to play, in particular that the feedback you've received is that they help to solve a great deal of crime. Is that fair?

  • Yes, I think that is fair. I was struck in the albeit limited conversations I had with UNISON members who do work in press for the police that there were numerous occasions that they cited where contact with the press had been beneficial, that it had produced results in terms of witnesses coming forward in relation to crimes or missing persons that would not otherwise have been the case, perhaps in the publication of photographs or indeed names of victims, and that is seen as a very positive relationship.

    Of course, what I'm describing there are everyday on-the-record contacts between police, press officers and the media.

  • You deal at the bottom of the page, paragraph 26, with the topic of hospitality, and on the face of your statement you express a very firm view about hospitality. You say:

    "UNISON takes the view that hospitality and gratuities, in the increasingly commercial environment in which the Government is forcing the Police Service to operate, are not acceptable in any form."

    You go on to point out:

    "Commercial interests have a real potential to corrupt the service, and senior leaders in the police should do the right thing and rule out the hospitality gravy train in its entirety."

    Can we explore that view a little bit? First of all, are you referring to hospitality provided by third parties or hospitality provided by the police or both?

  • In terms of what you mean by "hospitality", are you ruling out really absolutely everything, including the offer of a cup of tea, or do you accept that there has to be some threshold somewhere?

  • I've been interested to hear some of the discussion whilst sitting in the Inquiry today, and it certainly does seem to me that if we take a very wide definition of hospitality, attending a conference and eating a dinner at that conference with tens or potentially hundreds of other people was not really what I was referring to in describing hospitality. So I think I accept your point that this may seem overly definitive and would need to be clarified, but I think hospitality in respect of an individual or individuals, excepting perhaps in a private dinner or accepting a private gift, I can see and the union can see no place for those activities within a transparent and open Police Service.

    I suppose I'm forced to ask the question: how would policing suffer, what part of policing would suffer, if those opportunities were simply ruled out full stop and the agonising of individual officers or staff as to whether they could or couldn't accept a gift or a private dinner or a business lunch were ruled out? It seems to me that the business lunch that the senior investigating officer attends could be replaced by the officer saying to the journalist, "I have a very good office in my police station, would you like to come in and have a cup of tea and we'll talk these things over?"

    It does seem to me that there has been a very great difficulty on the part of staff and officers potentially in interpreting what it is or isn't acceptable and some very clear lines on that, we feel, should be drawn.

  • Common courtesy of a cup of tea or a cup of coffee is one thing, but going out for a rather more expansive lunch is something else.

  • Yes, I think we would take that view and we would certainly be making this point in responding to the HMIC or service consultation on this, that it would be better to draw some very tight definitions to help staff and officers in the better performance of their duties.

  • Would you accept that there may be circumstances in which people working for the police are often offered gifts or hospitality in certain circumstances where to turn it down might cause offence and in those circumstances it might be better to accept the hospitality, obviously declaring it in the register and not necessarily keeping any gift? Do you see that that circumstance might arise?

  • I think the Police Service very often is in a position where it has to provide offence to people, and I think turning down gifts is probably not the most serious of those, and I think, frankly, if it were made very clear that the Police Service is no longer in the business of accepting gifts or gratuities, those people who might wish to offer it would be in a very clear position that it was no longer appropriate.

  • I've looked at the register and it might be that a delegation of visiting police officers from another country bring a badge representing their police force or some small token representing their country that has no real monetary value of any sort. You don't include that. You're talking about something rather more tangible?

  • Yes, indeed. If one visits police stations normally those gifts are on prominent display and the sense one has is that they belong to the force, that they are not subject to individual ownership. So yes, I think that is an absolutely correct point.

  • Finally if I can take you to paragraph 27, where you deal with Elizabeth Filkin's report, obviously accepting straight away that that report is directed towards the Metropolitan Police and not to those services whose staff you represent. You tell us that her recommendation 4 in respect of creating a personal contact log with the press is already in place in many police press offices. Are you able, from the conversations that you've had with your branches, to help us with whether or not in those forces it's been a workable and effective practice?

  • The contact that I've had, which led to this part of our submission, our statement, was with police press officers, and my clear understanding following those discussions was that that was what they worked to, that that was a modus operandi in the press office that everyone adhered to. Clearly that particular procedure does not apply to off-the-record discussions that senior investigating officers, for example, might have. That was my impression.

  • But there's no reason why it shouldn't.

  • Because "off the record" doesn't mean to say off the police's record.

  • Thank you, those were all my questions.

  • Thank you very much indeed and thank you for coming.

  • We'll have a short break.

  • (A short break)

  • Yes, Mr Jay?

  • The next witnesses we're going to take together, Mr Cunningham and Mr Fegan, please.