As if all the revelations and scandals surrounding the British police were not enough to convince us that there is something deeply wrong with the culture of this vital public service, along comes Operation Sacristy to reveal the full extent of misbehaviour in the Cleveland force. In a crowded field, Cleveland is routinely described as Britain’s most scandal-hit force, although from what we have heard recently about the (much larger) Metropolitan service there’s some pretty strong competition – the Stephen Lawrence spying allegations, aspects of the Mark Duggan shooting, and so-called “plebgate”, to name but three areas of concern.
The Operation Sacristy inquiry revealed evidence of “mismanagement, favouritism and an endemic culture of exploiting hospitality”. There were sports events, exclusive hotels and expensive restaurants. After almost three decades of outsourcing, and all the lessons that have been learned about securing value for money, that seems rather more than an oversight.
Some of the solutions are obvious: a stronger code of conduct would be a start, as well as stricter rules on internal and external disclosure of conflicts of interest. Gifts and payments in kind need to be publicly declared. Whistleblowers should not only be protected but rewarded, given the potential savings to the public purse. The auditing of the police and other public bodies – notably NHS trusts – which is now being opened up to private competition with the abolition of the Audit Commission needs to be much more stringent. Taken together, such reforms might make a difference.
Depressing as Operation Sacristy is, it does not constitute a case for moving away from outsourcing functions currently performed by the public sector. In areas such as housing and council administration there is still much potential to save the Exchequer many billions of pounds. What is clear now, and has been through previous PFI scandals, is that all contracts need to be subject to the full scrutiny of the public and the media. Sadly, we cannot take it on trust that our police forces are properly run.