A public inquiry will, once again, force the Met Police to confront its institutional failings. Sarah Everard’s murder, much like the death of Stephen Lawrence 28 years before, has brought national attention to deep failings in police culture. Some of these flaws were ignored or overlooked for too long. Others were disturbingly familiar.
The combination of public concern and calls for institutional change meant it was appropriate for Priti Patel to announce a public inquiry into Sarah Everard’s murder by a serving Metropolitan Police officer. It was less appropriate for her to announce this at a party conference, in front of a partisan audience. The inquiry should have been announced on the step of Number 10, or in parliament with members of all parties present. But now that the inquiry has been confirmed, it can draw from the inquiry into Lawrence’s death – and the police response – to lead to lasting change.
Lord Macpherson’s report into the police response to Stephen Lawrence’s death successfully examined the culture of the police force, and how that culture influenced the way it investigated and prosecuted racially motivated crimes.
In terms of process, the ways in which Lord Macpherson and his colleagues managed to work with both the family of the victim and the institution of the Met offers a good example. He managed to get all on board with, and supportive of, the inquiry throughout, and the Everard inquiry must secure the full co-operation of the police.
The way Macpherson argued for and framed his recommendations was also effective: of the 70 proposed, 67 were implemented. But arguably the most enduring success of Lord Macpherson’s report was the framework it created for thinking about institutional cultures. In particular, the most powerful aspect of its legacy is the way it established the concept of ‘institutional racism’:
The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people. – Lord Macpherson, 1999
While controversial at the time, this concept has resonated and still has value today. We should not be surprised if the Everard inquiry seeks a similar conceptual model.
Unlike the Macpherson inquiry, this will be a non-statutory inquiry. That may allow it to move faster – it will have more flexibility than a statutory inquiry. While the inquiry should not rush to conclusions, it is always better to learn lessons sooner rather than later. The Macpherson inquiry took just under 20 months to complete. Of the 17 other inquiries currently ongoing in the UK, 10 have already taken longer than this. Inquiries are often (rightly) criticised for being slow-moving. This inquiry should use its agility to deliver its findings quicker, and in so doing, bolster public confidence in the process.
But as a non-statutory inquiry it will also lack the powers to compel the release of documents or take evidence under oath. As we have seen in the past, with inquiries such as Hillsborough, police forces can be incredibly reticent to share information. Other inquiries dealing with police conduct (such as Jermaine Baker, Sheku Bayoh, Anthony Grainger and the Undercover Policing Inquiry) have been convened under the auspices of the 2005 Inquiries Act and have made good use of the powers it affords to compel evidence.
In addition to setting out a narrative, likely looking back years, the Everard inquiry needs to examine why problems weren’t caught sooner. It should assess the effectiveness of existing police oversight and accountability, and ask how Wayne Couzens – despite his long history of concerning behaviour – was allowed to remain an officer. And it needs to identify who was responsible for allowing his continuing service.
The Everard inquiry then needs to set out clear recommendations about how the police manages officers, and about oversight of the actions and culture of the force as a whole. Inquiries can be a potent investigative tool, but they are no substitute for proper ongoing oversight.
The longevity of Macpherson’s report can be seen in the sustained interest it receives from parliament and others. The Home Affairs Select Committee has revisited it twice, at its 10th and 22nd anniversaries. The first revisit looked at the progress made since 1999. The second offered politicians a way to contextualise contemporary issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the global reaction to the death of George Floyd.
The Everard Inquiry will do well if, like Macpherson, it can establish a framework which allows politicians and the public to understand and examine how a working culture can disregard sexual violence and violence against women, and the tragic consequences that follow. At the very least this inquiry needs to instigate lasting changes to police oversight.
The aim of this inquiry should be to ensure that there is no need for another Everard or Lawrence-type inquiry 20 years from now.