The Covert Human Intelligence Services (CHIS) Act passed onto the statute books earlier this year. It will enable “authorities” (including the police) to commit a crime – including sexual offences – and avoid prosecution. It followed an inquiry that scrutinised the activities of around 139 undercover officers who had infiltrated political groups since 1968. At least 20 of these officers had deceived women into sexual relationships, and some had fathered children with the women they met while undercover.
The inquiry heard that some of the officers made “gross and offensive” jokes about the women they were deceiving, and that managers “across the board” were “not troubled” by the sexual relationships, and did not express any “outright criticism or disapproval” of the undercover officers.
This shows that misogyny was rife among serving police officers then. Has anything changed this century?
Police officer guilty of rape and murder
The recent rape and murder of Sarah Everard shocked the country to its core. The crime was all the more horrifying as it was committed by a serving police officer, Wayne Couzens, known by colleagues as “the rapist”, even before his crimes emerged. It will doubtless be seen as a “one-off” but, until serious efforts are made to counter sexist attitudes of the police and within wider society, crimes against women will persist.
In his judicial summing up of the court case, Lord Justice Fulford described Everard as “wholly blameless”, in an effort to refute the malicious trolling that had suggested that she had known her killer. Blame is an emotive word, but sadly women have always been regarded as more, or less, worthy of protection in the eyes of the law.
Widespread racism and sexism
Following the murder of George Floyd, and the worldwide protests that it sparked, I had occasion to speak with Anthony Wills, a former Chief Superintendent of the Met. He acknowledged that racism within a predominantly white cohort existed, but he was also concerned that sexism was widespread, and believed that the hierarchical system was part of the problem:
“Back in the ’70s you learned practice from other police officers. You’d go out with a ‘parent’ PC for the first two weeks of service. One of my first calls was a man beating up a woman in the house. He [the ‘Parent PC’] told me: ‘That’s domestic violence, we don’t have anything to do with that.’ So when I started to get involved [with domestic violence] later, I was still dealing with that attitude, and the system hasn’t entirely changed. I don’t think they [the Police] deal with it as well as they should. There is still an element of ‘It’s just a domestic. She won’t want to prosecute’, etc.”
“Less deserving women”
Such a laissez-faire attitude towards “less deserving” women was also apparent when cases involved women in prostitution. Joan Smith chairs the Mayor of London’s “Violence Against Women and Girls” board. As a young reporter in the ’70s she covered the Yorkshire Ripper case. A police investigation found that the case had been hampered by an attitude that regarded sex workers as unimportant. It was only when “innocent women” (their words) became victims, that the investigation was ramped up.
In her Guardian article in November 2020, Smith stated that the police are still making mistakes;
“Sutcliffe was not a rapist, but he was a misogynist. And the criminal justice system is hardly better now at identifying and convicting such men.”
Attitudes may have changed, but our creaking hierarchical systems aren’t keeping up. They are hampered by the misogyny that exists within them.
New law gives police licence to break law
The Covert Human Intelligence Services (CHIS) Act, known as the “Spy Cops Bill”, passed onto the statute books earlier this year.
When I put it to Wills that the police force is still failing women, he responded;
“While [Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] Cressida Dick has great principles, and believes in equality … I feel that she doesn’t seek to change the culture publicly.” He added, “Most police officers think ‘We’re putting our lives at risk, we’re doing a good job, and if we make errors we need to stick together, or all radicals – right and left – will criticise us unfairly’.”
One of the problems appears to be that protecting the institution takes precedence over the safety of the public.
And that includes tackling the misogyny that exists within the force itself. Wills again:
“Female police officers had a terrible time. They were treated as an underclass in the informal hierarchy, and subjected to much ‘banter’, often of a sexual nature, and had to undergo initiation ceremonies on occasions. There were stories about having their bottoms date-stamped with the [Police] Station’s stamp. That sort of thing was still going on in the late 1990s.”
Harassment of female officers by male officers
In October 2021 Sue Fish, who rose through the ranks to Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire police before retiring in 2017, was herself twice the victim of sexual assault by more senior police officers. She didn’t press charges as she acknowledged that it’s difficult to go up against a police officer, especially if you’re a woman.
In June 2021 the police were investigating up to 150 claims of domestic or sexual violence perpetrated by ex-partners within the police force.
“Don’t rock the boat”
The hierarchical structure of our institutions, and a culture of “sticking together” is stymying any real reform, which means that poor policing, and even criminality and miscarriages of justice, will continue to be overlooked in order to maintain authority. And now some of those committing serious crimes will be protected from prosecution, by law.
Jacob Bindman, a solicitor at Garden Court Chambers, wrote that,
“The new [CHIS] law will allow agencies to commit criminal offences where necessary for protecting national security, preventing or detecting crime or disorder, or protecting the economic wellbeing of the UK. This will have the effect of making such activity “lawful for all purposes” which, without providing so explicitly, effectively means full civil and criminal immunity for those who act within the terms of the authorisation.”
A lawyer’s view of the act
At the time that I spoke to Wills, CHIS was having its second reading in the House of Lords. I asked what he thought of the Bill?
“I can think of scenarios where there might be some leeway around legality for the greater good; the possibility of another 9/11 attack, for instance. But that’s me being pragmatic. The point is, though, that if the public believe that the police have a flexible approach to their own conduct, they [the police] may not be so rigorous when dealing with their [the public’s] victimisation, and the victims must be at the very centre of the response to crime.”
But CHIS means the opposite and is unlikely to restore the public’s trust.
House Of Lords’ amendments roundly rejected
Before CHIS became law, the House of Lords attempted to make some amendments, including one “that prevents criminal conduct authorisations being granted for activities including grievous bodily harm, perversion of the course of justice, sexual offences, degrading or inhuman treatment or deprivation of liberty.”
Of the Members of Parliament who voted, 143 voted in favour of such an amendment, and 311 against. CHIS passed onto the statue books unamended. So all the “We’ll do everything in our power to…” statements from Government Ministers and MPs are meaningless – twice as many of them voted to pass the Bill without this amendment.
Misogyny in government
Unsurprisingly, the government too has a problem with misogyny. Following the Harvey Weinstein case, and the “Me Too” movement, a spreadsheet emerged listing 36 Conservative MPs who were identified as behaving inappropriately – from harassment to sexual misconduct. I couldn’t find a single case where action was taken. In 2020 a Tory MP and former minister was accused of rape, but the whip wasn’t removed (for fear that he could be identified), and the charge was dropped.
In May 2021 another MP allegedly made repeated and unwanted sexual advances towards a former member of staff, but parliament’s own “independent expert panel” (IEP), judged that a six-week suspension was enough, and then only if MPs supported it, by voting for a motion in the House of Commons. Once again, an institution polices itself, and finds itself “not guilty”.
Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
If women working for the police force and within our Parliament are not safe from unwanted sexual attention, what hope is there that ordinary, vulnerable or “bad” women will be protected? Bindman again:
“There is ultimately no substitute for oversight that is at least capable of ensuring that unlawful decisions are identified before they cause harm. Nor are there any better means of maintaining public trust and confidence in a system than allowing a robust and open challenge by those wrongly affected by such activity in court. This attempt to legislate for criminal activity carried out by those acting for the state appears to provide neither.”
Until our institutions get their own houses in order, by encouraging whistle-blowing, sacking wrong-doers, and calling for jail sentences where appropriate, the message to those further down the chain is “It’s OK. We’re mostly doing a good job and if we do mess up, there won’t be any consequences”.
If the state machinery gives itself even more powers, none of us are safe.