Leading Article: Liverpool seeks a deal

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TO THE public it must reek of dirty dealing. There have been weeks of sensational allegations at a local industrial tribunal concerning systematic drunkenness and gross and sexist behaviour at the top of the Merseyside police service. Now representatives of the complainant, Alison Halford, suspended assistant chief constable, and of her employers have been discovered attempting to reach a comprehensive settlement of their differences.

If the negotiators are successful they will quietly dispose both of Ms Halford's accusations of sexual discrimination, brought against the chief constable and others, and the serious disciplinary charges brought against her by the service. The idea is that Ms Halford would drop her industrial tribunal complaints of discrimination and accept an ex gratia payment. The force would abandon its own disciplinary proceedings against Ms Halford and allow her to take early retirement with her substantial pension rights (and her reputation) untarnished. No more dramatic public revelations about life on the Mersey beat. End of story.

Informal and secretive settlements are neither unlawful nor unusual. In industry and commerce, those who accuse their employers of sexual or racial discrimination may accept tidy sums to go away. Similarly, an employee accused of disciplinary offences might be happy to quit without a stain on his or her character rather than face a formal resolution of the charges. These deals often include a specific and legally binding agreement that neither side will comment on the background to the case.

Where there is no particular public interest (and no public money) involved, such procedures are acceptable. The Halford case is an exception both because the police service is a particularly sensitive public institution whose image has been tarnished recently and because the accusations are very serious. We have to assume that Ms Halford was not being frivolous when she accused the top people in Liverpool of quite appalling behaviour, some of it unlawful insofar as it was discriminatory. Equally we must assume that those accused were acting in good faith and not vindictively when they suspended Ms Halford while their counter-accusations of unprofessional conduct against her were investigated.

Both investigations should be completed, however prolonged and costly the exercises prove to be. The public should be aware of the findings and of consequent actions. If Ms Halford is right, the management of the Mersey force is a disgrace and the culture of institutionalised yobbery which she has identified must be broken. As for the accusations against Ms Halford, either they are correct and sustainable - in which case she should be dismissed forthwith - or they are not. In this latter case she is a brave and improperly maligned woman who merits not merely reinstatement but, quite possibly, the promotion she claims to have been unfairly denied. Either way it would be wrong for the police to pay her to go away and keep quiet.

There have recently been whispers that the Home Office is in favour of an informal resolution of the disputes because industrial tribunals and the police disciplinary machinery are slow and expensive. Both complaints are correct. Procedures designed to be cheap, fast and user-friendly have fallen into the hands of lawyers. But the complaints would be more convincing if Home Office ministers were working overtime to produce more effective machinery. Until the Government comes up with alternatives, the current procedures should be employed with rigour in the interests of police and public.