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Straw moves on crooked police

Independent investigators from military intelligence, Customs and law firms could be used to examine allegations of police corruption and malpractice, the Government said yesterday.

The Home Office is also to set up a study to examine whether a new independent investigation system is needed and can be afforded. The move is part of a series of measures to reform the police complaints and discipline procedure to ensure corrupt officers do not escape punishment. This included lowering the burden of proof against officers, removing their 'right of silence' and introducing a six-week fast-track system to deal with allegations of serious misconduct.

Jack Straw, Home Secretary, said that in exceptional cases the Police Complaints Authority should be able to bring in independent investigators including experts from the military, law and accountancy companies, retired police officers and the post office.

He saw this as "the first step" towards setting up a totally independent agency which he described as "desirable." He also intended bringing in powers to allow the Home Secretary to instigate investigations into serious issues, such as a football tragedy like Hillsborough, without waiting for a formal complaint. Reforms of the complaints system, however, will need new legislation which is unlikely to be introduced before next year at the earliest.

The changes have been introduced following widespread criticism of the current disciplinary system that has allowed officers facing serious allegations of misconduct to escape on sick leave and ill-health pensions. Among key initiatives announced yesterday were:

Shifting the burden of proof at the hearing from 'beyond reasonable doubt' - the measure used in criminal proceedings - to the 'balance of probabilities' formula of civil courts.

Chief officers will be given power to conduct disciplinary hearings in the absence of officers claiming ill-health.

Cases in which officers are accused of serious misconduct or corruption must be heard within six weeks.

The rule of 'double jeopardy' - where an officer cleared by the courts of criminal activity cannot then be disciplined by his force - will be abandoned.

Mr Straw criticised the police for not making better use of their existing powers. He said: "Too often they have taken the easy way out to get rid of a bad apple by allowing them to retire early - they have got to stop doing that."

Police officers would no longer have a 'right of silence' and adverse inferences can be drawn from a failure to talk.

On pensions, all officers convicted of a criminal offence will be automatically referred to the home secretary in future. Up to 75 per cent of a police officer's pension can be deducted as a punishment. Mr Straw rejected calls to publish reports by investigating officers into alleged malpractice. He also said police files relating to deaths in custody should not be released to the deceased's family before an inquest, although both issues are to be given further consideration.