Ahead of his retirement, Michael Fuller sat down with CSW to discuss his time as chief inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service.
From his office on the fourth floor of One Kemble Street, Michael Fuller is recalling one of the most difficult times in his role as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
“The worst day was probably about three or four years ago. We were brought in to inspect CPS Nottingham – the area at the time was one of the worst performing in the CPS. Staff morale was really low, and the relationship with the police was really strained.
“I had the CPS complaining to me about the police, and the police complaining about the CPS. You can imagine we weren’t made to feel very welcome,” says Fuller, who sits down with CSW a few days before he retires from the inspectorate.
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But the experience was ultimately very satisfying, he says. Returning to Nottingham two years later, he barely recognised the office. Having implemented “much-needed changes”, chief crown prosecutor Judith Walker had transformed the place, Fuller says.
“On our return the morale was totally different: the whole atmosphere and the performance had transformed,” he explains.
And it’s a pattern he has seen replicated elsewhere over the last five years: “Organisations I’ve inspected have been very responsive to the recommendations that have been made,” Fuller says with satisfaction.
Appointed chief constable of Kent police in 2004 – Britain’s first ever ethnic minority chief constable – Fuller is used to working on challenging issues at the top level. And as chief inspector of England and Wales’s main prosecuting authority, he has certainly kept busy since starting in 2010.
“We’ve expanded the remit of the inspectorate, so we’re much more effective and efficient in the way we operate. Now, not only do we offer recommendations, but I’ve introduced a system where we follow up on recommendations – something I’m very keen on,” Fuller says, adding proudly that this system has since been praised by the National Audit Office.
Throughout his career, Fuller – who joined the police force in 1975 – has worked on some of the UK’s most high profile police cases and it is this first-hand experience that has influenced his understanding of the role of the CPS.
“When I was a police officer I conducted all the lower level prosecutions myself, so I was very accountable for success or failure of my cases,” he says.
“Now, prosecution decisions are made according to a national code, and prosecutors are expected to follow the code as to whether something gets prosecuted or not. I think that’s important for fairness for the individual.”
Recognising the frustration that some police officers have felt with the introduction of the code, Fuller says he understands the desire for a conviction.
“As a police officer, you want somebody to be prosecuted because you’ve made the initial arrest, and you’ve investigated the offence. So there’s always been a bias and a tendency to want a prosecution. But what the CPS has introduced is a sense of detachment and objectivity to that decision.”
Not that the CPS is perfect. When asked what has most surprised him about the way it operates – and the thing he thinks needs changing the most – Fuller says there “isn’t always the commitment to the quality of work that there should be”.
He adds: “While the staff work really hard – and there’s no question about their commitment – that commitment isn’t always about the quality of work that’s carried out.”
Reluctant to appear too critical, the watchdog is quick to praise the CPS’s handling of serious crime: “When the CPS deals with terrorism and terrorism offences, the quality of the work and presentation of cases has been very good.”
But, he says, there is room for improvement. “It’s about values and ethos. I’ve often cited other organisations and retailers – and we’re all aware of names of retailers that are famed for the quality of their products – I think the same ethos needs to be adopted in terms of the quality of the CPS’s work.”
The CPS has also not been spared the austerity measures that have impacted most public bodies in the last few years. Fuller’s recently-published Five Year Review and Annual Report 2014-2015 shows that, since 2010, the number of CPS prosecutors has fallen by 28.9%, while the number of administrative staff has fallen by 31.1%.
Is there a link between this reduction of resources and problems with the CPS’s quality of work? Fuller’s final report – which concludes that CPS performance has remained relatively steady over the last five years – suggests there isn’t.
“The interesting and surprising thing for me is that when we looked back over five years, although the CPS has seen a huge reduction in estates and budgets, the performance has remained stable. In many ways the CPS has had to become more efficient and proficient in the way they carry out their work.”
Proof, perhaps, that Francis Maude’s mantra that “more can be done with less” is right? Fuller is hesitant to say resource cuts have been a good thing. “I do think the CPS are now at their limit,” he warns.
“I’d say it would be unlikely that they could sustain any further reduction, without damaging the service or having to do the service in a very different way, in terms of what they focus on.”
During his time as chief inspector, Fuller has worked with two very different directors of public prosecutions (DPPs). As the first CPS employee to be appointed as DPP, barrister Alison Saunders – who has worked for the CPS in one form or another throughout her career – replaced vocal human rights lawyer, and now Labour MP, Sir Keir Starmer in 2013. How does Fuller think the distinctive outlooks of different DPPs affects the way the CPS works?
“I believe the person at the top always sets the tone of the organisation and what happens. But I also know that what matters is having a vision and trying to sell that vision to your staff,” he says.
“I’ve noticed with some DPPs – without naming names – that they’ve been very good at selling or expressing their vision, but in terms of what’s actually happening on the ground, it’s been quite different to what they wished.”
One area of common ground between the two DPPs has been the promotion of a victim-centred approach. In June 2013, Starmer introduced the Victims’ Right to Review and in 2014, Saunders launched 13 regional sex offence units to deal with the rising number of sexual assault cases. This is something Fuller wholeheartedly supports, having championed a victim-based approach throughout his police career.
“I’ve seen first-hand the devastating impact on a victim when they’re told that the CPS is not going to prosecute. So I’m heartened by the fact that the CPS has now introduced a Victims’ Right of Review. If a victim isn’t happy, at least there’s now an opportunity for that initial decision to be reviewed by another prosecutor,” he says.
Another CPS drive that the watchdog supports is the attempt to overhaul outdated IT systems. Last year, Saunders told CSW that while the CPS’s work is now almost totally digital, some organisations working with the CPS – like the Crown Court – have been slow to catch up, creating challenges for the organisation. In some cases, for instance, CCTV evidence has not been compatible with the equipment in court.
Fuller backs this up. These days, while the CPS physically loses far fewer files because they are available digitally (prosecutions not going ahead because of missing files is “inexcusable” and “unjust”, Fuller says with passion), the lack of digitisation is some parts of the system is still undermining progress.
“What you want is a system where everyone is working digitally, and that brings the efficiency benefits that you need,” he says.
With his successor Kevin McGinty – who took up the role April 1 – now in charge of the inspectorate, Fuller is looking forward to the chance to relax.
“Before I came in to do this job five years ago, I was in the police for 40 years. I started as a cadet and retired as a chief constable – so I want a bit of a break!” he laughs.
For Fuller, who has recently been to Iceland to capture the spectacle of the Northern Lights with his DSLR camera, this means taking the time to combine two of his passions: travel and photography. Ultimately, however, he knows he’ll find it hard to remain off-duty for too long.
“I still feel I’ve got lots of energy and enthusiasm and a passion for criminal justice. Criminal justice is what’s driven me: to see people fairly treated, whether they’re victims of crime or defendants.”
“I think one of the consequences of austerity is that there is a need for agencies to work closer together and be more efficient in the way they operate. There’s clearly a lot of back office functions that can be shared – that’s something I saw in policing, and something we’ve talked about and introduced among IT, delivery and HR and finance. There’s no reason why government departments can’t share back-office functions. You have to be more creative and imaginative.”
“There aren’t [enough BME] police officers. I was chief constable and there haven’t been any black chief constables since I left five years ago. I find that very disappointing. In the CPS, there’s a far better picture in terms of ethnic representation. At the chief prosecutor level there is good representation, and, if anything, it’s a model for the police service to emulate.”