The Greater Manchester chief constable, Sir Peter Fahy, has told the Guardian that the police want quick and easy access to medical and other confidential records without the consent of the individual concerned. In the light of other recent revelations about state incursion into private data, one is tempted to note that it’s nice of them to ask.
Before stating the obvious – that this sounds horribly Kafkaesque – it’s worth mentioning the positive side of all this. It’s a good thing the police now recognise that the majority of the people who come to their attention are vulnerable and find it hard to do what’s best for themselves, let alone what’s best for those around them. It was only 20 years ago, after all, that even Britain’s prime minister, John Major, was claiming “society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less”. So this development signals a huge change in attitudes.
However, far from being an indication that the police need more power, it’s a sign that they are now straying too far from their remit, which is to maintain law and order. Fahy himself talks of having an ability “to solve the problem without a criminal justice system approach”.
On this, he’s dead right, even though his solution is an unwelcome one. The difficulty is that the police are already too embroiled in complex cases that may involve mental health problems, learning disabilities or addictions. That is the job of social workers. Fahy says the police do not have the manpower and resources they need to deal with the problems they are being asked to become involved in. The last thing we need is for them to have less clarity of purpose.
The issue is that other agencies – primarily mental health and social work services – are even more starved of investment than the police. Fahy, in essence, is allowing his thoughts to be guided by instincts of professional closure. He understands the police are involved in matters for which they are not equipped. But his answer is to equip them, not to call for others to become equipped. He does not see that his proposal would make the vulnerable even more so.
The dangers of this approach are most clear when considering Fahy’s most controversial example – that the police should be alerted to people suffering from domestic violence even if it isn’t what they want. If a person does not want the police involved, and the involvement of health professionals may trigger that anyway, then in some cases that’s going to make them reluctant even to turn to their GP.
That’s the trouble with passing on information without people’s consent. They become more reluctant to share any information at all, even when it is dangerous for them to keep things to themselves. On the contrary, people need to be able to get help before the police become involved. Too often, matters are allowed to reach a crisis before there is much in the way of societal intervention.