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Policing in the UK: Governance, Oversight and Complaints

Published Tuesday, January 14, 2020

This House of Lords Library Briefing sets out how the police service in the UK is governed, including details of recent reforms. It also focuses on how the police are held accountable for their actions through systems of oversight and complaints.

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Devolution has enabled different countries in the UK to take varying approaches to the organisation of policing services. As a result, the police service is divided into separate forces. There are 43 territorial police forces in England and Wales, and a national police force in Scotland (Police Scotland) and Northern Ireland (Police Service of Northern Ireland). In addition, there are four national special police forces which cover specific areas, for example the British Transport Police.

A further result of devolution is that there is no unified policy for the UK. Policing policy and funding are therefore the responsibility of: the Home Office in England and Wales; the Safer Communities Directorate in Scotland; and the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland. Several national bodies also contribute to policing policy and governance. The College of Policing is a professional body which sets standards and develop those working in policing, while the National Police Chiefs’ Council is a collaboration body that enables independent chief constables and their forces to work together to improve policing.

In respect of police accountability, all police in the UK are subject to an independent oversight body. There are four bodies which cover different geographical areas. The purpose of such bodies to ensure that the quality of policing keeps improving.

The system for complaining about police conduct is complex and governed by multiple pieces of legislation. In most cases, the police force deals with complaints made against it. However, there are bodies in each country which deal with the most serious and sensitive matters.

In recent years, several police investigations into allegations of historic child sexual abuse have led to criticism of the police complaints and oversight systems. Some of the most high-profile complaints were in relation to an investigation called Operation Midland. The investigation looked at claims by Carl Beech, which were later found to have been false. Beech was subsequently sent to prison.

Lords Library notes LLN-2020-0013

Author: Nicole Winchester

Topics: Ministers, Non-departmental public bodies, Northern Ireland Assembly, Police, Scottish Parliament

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The House of Lords Library delivers research and information services to Members and staff of the House in support of parliamentary business.