Leading Article: An odd form of justice

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The Independent Online
ALISON HALFORD, Assistant Chief Constable of Merseyside, said yesterday that she regarded the settlement of her sex discrimination case as 'a significant victory' for herself and the Equal Opportunities Commission. The public may not agree. The industrial tribunal hearings were terminated before her employers had been able to defend themselves. No conclusion was reached about the justice of her case. Her claim to have been denied promotion because she was a woman was withdrawn.

In exchange, the police authority dropped its own charges against her of misconduct, based on an alleged episode in a swimming pool while she was the senior officer on duty. As has happened in other analogous cases involving the police, she is to retire, aged 52, on medical grounds, with a generous pension and a six-figure pay-out.

That is an unsatisfactory return, except to the lawyers involved, for the expenditure of more than pounds 1m of public money. The Government has no hesitation in fighting expensive legal proceedings to the end when it considers its own interests to be at stake, as in the Spycatcher affair. In this case, Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, not surprisingly decided that more stood to be lost than gained from the tribunal's continuation: an odd approach to justice, however realistic an assessment of the impression created by the proceedings in Manchester.

For there can be no doubt that the affair has done further serious damage to the reputation of a police service tarnished by a series of miscarriages of justice, by no means all in the distant past. Miss Halford's evidence, regrettably untested and unanswered, painted a lurid picture of the macho 'canteen culture' of the Merseyside force, with much foul language and heavy drinking. Her way of dealing with the phenomenon appears to have been to become one of the boys. The Merseyside force may be, or may have been, an extreme case. But the police service as a whole can ill afford such a sustained bout of appalling publicity. It is bound to discourage just the type of more open-minded recruit, of both sexes, that it needs.

Reasonable people accept that the police have an unenviably difficult task to fulfil. Their work is often dangerous and performed at unsocial hours. It tends to breed a siege mentality, and that in turn fosters the type of behaviour revealed by the Halford case. Fortunately, some senior officers realise that drastic steps must be taken to arrest the decline of public confidence: the Metropolitan Police's new booklet on combating racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of bigotry, on which we report today, is a useful step forward.

Old habits die hard, however. Parts of the force sometimes seem to regard the community as an actual or potential enemy. It is fortunate that in Mr Clarke the Government has a vigorous Home Secretary, one who is determined to eradicate institutional rot and introduce fresh air into the force. He has recently announced a review of police pay and

responsibilities.

As a result of the Halford case, promotion procedures will also be reviewed. A Royal Commission is examining miscarriages of justice. If the Halford episode has helped to drive home the urgency of reform, it will have been at least a partial victory.

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