Britain’s secretive provision of police training to foreign regimes with dubious human rights records threatens the integrity of the UK “brand” of policing that such programmes aim to promote internationally, a parliamentary report has warned.
In highly critical findings about how security personnel from states such as Saudi Arabia benefit from British assistance, the home affairs select committee describe the government’s refusal to reveal details of “opaque” training agreements as “totally unacceptable”.
They call for the government to secure written guarantees in future that such training will not include purposes deemed to be unethical.
The findings are contained in a report by the committee on the College of Policing, which has statutory responsibility for setting standards for British forces. Set up in 2012, it is regarded as one of the legacy projects of the home secretary, Theresa May.
However, the college has been put under pressure by the Home Office to raise revenues, the report notes, and has generated more than £8.5m from international work that has included providing training in forensics, child abuse investigations and counter-terrorism.
Foreign secretary Philip Hammond came in for fierce criticism from committee chair Keith Vaz. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Such engagements and, in particular, the specialist training given to hundreds of Saudi officers have recently come under a critical spotlight. The committee said it had been told by the college’s chief executive, Alex Marshall, that the Foreign Office had advised him not to answer questions on the matter for reasons of commercial confidentiality and security.
The foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, was also criticised for not providing details of the contracts when requested by the committee. Its chair, Keith Vaz, said: “For a foreign secretary to act in this manner and tell the British parliament that he will not disclose such important information is totally unacceptable.
“Withholding the terms of the provision of training threatens the integrity of the very brand of British policing that the college is trying to promote. It smacks of hypocrisy.”
The human rights organisation Reprieve said: “This report is clear – excessive secrecy has undermined the government’s stated aim of avoiding British involvement in human rights abuses.
“If British police officers are being asked to risk complicity in human rights abuses, then the public deserve to know about it.”
In other sections, the committee accuses police forces across England and Wales of an “alarming lack of consistency” when it comes to adopting a code of ethnics designed to prevent repeats of scandals such as Hillsborough and the controversies over undercover policing.
While they describe the college as a “permanent, essential part of the new landscape of policing”, the MPs criticised it for failing to increase its board’s minority ethnic representation. They also call for the body to be given the legal power to hold a register of those who work in policing and responsibility for admitting and striking individuals from it.
Responding for the College of Policing, Marshall said that it was looking at ways to address inconsistencies, including the establishment of a system of accreditation for high risk areas of policing.
“The college’s role is just one part of this and we welcome the committee’s call on others from the policing landscape to support the profession to deliver consistent standards,” he added.
“We are committed to transparency and are keen to help the public understand our international work as much as possible.”
The Home Office said: “The creation of the independent College of Policing has been an important pillar in our programme of police reform, setting professional standards, sharing best practice and ensuring police training and ethics are considered and to of the highest possible quality.
“Given the high level of skill and expertise across British policing, it is not surprising that there is an international appetite to learn from the best. We cannot stand by and criticise countries from the sidelines if we want to see wholesale changes, and the government’s policing programmes in Saudi Arabia, led by the College of Policing, are specifically designed to improve the justice system by improving human rights compliance and reducing the likelihood of miscarriages of justice.”