Wiltshire Police has voluntarily referred itself to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) following the discovery of failures to make disclosures to applicants seeking information within Clare’s Law about potentially violent partners.
This law is named after Clare Wood, who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, who had a record of violence against women, in 2009. The process allows for the release of confidential personal information about a partner, such as a history of domestic violence, to anyone vulnerable to abuse or a concerned relative or friend.
Between April 2015 and August 2023, just over 3,500 applications were submitted to Wiltshire Police. In 1,195 of these cases, disclosures were made. This is the law operating as it was intended, protecting people from potential harm.
What is not clear is in the remaining roughly 2,300 applications, how many disclosures should have been made but did not happen, leaving people at risk of harm. Wiltshire Police are now reviewing applications to address failures in the process.
One member of staff has been suspended and is subject to investigation. Whilst this individual might have erred, this is also a significant organisational failure that reflects badly on Wiltshire Police.
Reading between the lines, it is improbable that this staff member’s sole responsibility was processing Clare’s Law applications. The volume of just over 3,500 applications over an eight-year period is unlikely to justify a full-time role. This means that processing applications would have been part of a broader range of responsibilities.
It is not clear whether the person suspended is the staff member responsible for processing applications. However, if this is the case, how was that person qualified to take on this role? How was this person’s workload managed? Where was the supervision?
Many years ago, I was responsible for authorising disclosures within the DBS process of checking people seeking employment or other access to children. Before making a disclosure, I had to be certain that this was proportionate and legally justifiable. For example, would a caution for possessing cannabis twenty years ago be sufficient to prevent a parent from helping run a boys’ football team? The rationale for making as well as not making disclosures was fully documented, as decisions could be challenged.
In my view, the same rigour should have applied to processing Clare’s Law applications. Where were the checks and balances in quality-assuring decisions about disclosure? What performance measures were in place to monitor timeliness in processing applications? Ultimately, why did it take eight years to realise there was a problem?
According to the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC), the role of the PCC “is to be the voice of the people and hold the police to account. They are responsible for the totality of policing.” This being the case, our PCC has failed as well.
It is exceedingly unlikely that there is a single root cause for this situation. A combination of factors is far more likely e.g. individual error, inadequate supervision, insufficient resources and poor performance management.
This latest failure follows on from other problems identified within Wiltshire Police by His Majesty’s Inspectorate, particularly in respect of protecting the vulnerable. Further evidence of the current crisis in policing following years of reduced funding and cutbacks in staff numbers.
We are policing England and Wales with forty-three police forces with forty-three Chief Constables, Deputy Chief Constables, Finance Directors, Heads of HR, etc. In my view, part of the answer rests in police reform, rationalising the number of forces to achieve economies of scale and greater consistency in service delivery.
Our Chief Constable has her work cut out driving change with an inexperienced workforce, probably suffering from low morale after repeated criticism of performance.
Reforming police structures will come at a price and will take time e.g. harmonising IT systems. It is the case, however, that tinkering around the edges at an individual force level within the existing structure is unlikely to be sufficient to deliver sustained improvement.