The Bridge Interviews
Geoffrey Dear, or Baron Dear of Willersey in the County of Gloucestershire to give him his full style and title, is a man who has enjoyed three careers, very much at the sharp end: first he rose to the pinnacle of the police service; then he held a number of positions in both the public and private sectors; he has also been an influential member of the House of Lords.
He was born in 1937 at St Neots in Huntingdonshire, the son of a police sergeant who played Minor Counties cricket. He was one of the first cohort to sit the Eleven-plus exam, which he passed and gained admission to Fletton Grammar School in the same county. He claims he showed no academic distinction at school but excelled at sport, especially cricket and rugby. On leaving school at 17 he had no thought of going to university, which in those days was very much a minority activity, but hoped for a career which would enable him to take part in sport. This meant either the police or the army. “In those days Peterborough had its own city police force and they were hot on sport”, he explains. He joined up and was able to combine his work with playing Minor Counties cricket like his father and rugby for the police, the local club in Peterborough and on a couple ofoccasions for a major club. (He is atall and imposing figure and few would fancy getting in his way on the rugby field or when attempting a getaway from the scene of a crime).
By the age of 24 he was beginning to wonder if he had missed the boat by not going to university. However the police then created a scholarship scheme by which officers could go to university while still employed. He was accepted for this scheme and secured a place at University College London where he obtained a law degree and then read for the Bar.
By this time the Peterborough police had been merged into the Mid-Anglia Constabulary (now Cambridgeshire Constabulary) and Geoffrey returned to work there. He had clearly been talent spotted as a high flyer and was put into a newly introduced accelerated promotion scheme. “The chief wouldthrow a challenge at you and, if you handled it well, he gave you another.” He rose quickly through the ranks and was appointed divisional commander for the city of Cambridge as a chief superintendent at the age of 33. He was thrown in at the deep end. This was the era of student protests in many countries and Cambridge was the scene of what became known as the Garden House Riot. A hotel staged a “Greek week” to promote tourism in Greece and a picket by students protesting about the Greek military junta led to serious violence. “The previous chief superintendent had a stroke at the scene of the riot and was taken away in an ambulance. I took over two days later. There were sit ins at various university buildings. I talked to the leaders. They said they wanted to have a march but didn’t know how to organise it. I said we could help them. There were lots of marches and vigils but the sit-ins ended and there were no arrests or damage. The extremists were very disappointed.” Geoffrey thinks of his three years at Cambridge as the happiest time of his career, so perhaps Gilbert and Sullivan were wrong in saying that a policeman’s lot is not a happy one.
Geoffrey then moved to Nottinghamshire where he became Assistant Chief Constable (Operations). He was there for seven years although for two and a half of them he was seconded to the Police Staff College at Bramshill in Hampshire to run the senior command training course. After his return he was involved in an incident in which a miner went on the rampage with a sawn-off shotgun in a pit village, shooting and badly injuring a man who had been riling him and then firing off at random. He barricaded himself into the upper floor of his house together with a child which was not his own. “I sat at the bottom of the stairs for two hours talking to him while he was at the top pointing his gun at me when not firing into the ceiling. Eventually I went up the stairs, stepped over the barricadeand he surrendered to me.” For this action Geoffrey was awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery.
In 1980 he moved to the Metropolitan Police where he became assistant commissioner responsible for personnel and training. “I had to try to forecast what the job wouldbe like in ten years’ time and then plan how to recruit and train for it.” He also instituted racial awareness training for police officers in the aftermath of the Brixton riots. Next he was moved to be assistant commissioner for operations. He had to deal with, amongst others, race issues, terrorism, aircraft hijacking and security at home.
In 1985 he was appointed Chief Constable of the West Midlands Police. This is the second-biggest force outside London. “It has many of the same problems as London apart from not having the royal family, foreign embassies and a major international airport”. He set about modernising the way the police operated and negotiating an appropriate budget for this. “My predecessor, who is now deceased, had tried to focus everything on Birmingham but the West Midlands consists of seven cities and boroughs, some of which are older than Birmingham, and are fiercely independent.” He decided to allow local identity to play a larger role while standardising procedures and reducing bureaucracy. “To buy a new car it was necessary to obtain 16 signatures. I reduced it to three.”
Geoffrey’s management style was “to understand what is happening on the front line. You have to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people there at 10pm or 2am and ask what their problems are. I would tell them I was coming so they didn’t think I was trying to catch them out.” He was influenced by advice he received from a senior officer in Mid-Anglia. “He said you should always spend ten minutes every day talking to the cleaner (metaphorically). Then you got to know all you need to know.”
He was able to put this into effect spectacularly towards the end of his time in West Midlands when he went with a group of officers in an armoured van to the clubland area of Birmingham. There was often trouble there but at first it seemed a quiet night. Then there was a report of a break-in in progress in the city centre. “Bells went off and blue lights flashed and the officers dashed to the site. I found myself all alone - they were a lot quicker than me. I was next to some houses with a low fence about three feet high in front. I stepped over the fence and a voice said ‘Get off my neck.’ ” One of the burglars had (literally) gone to ground in the garden. Sensibly, he did not resist. By the next morning the local and national press had heard about this and thought that the chief constable catching the man (who turned out to be an escaped prisoner) was a good story. “By that time they said the fence was six feet high and I had pursued him for 400 yards and climbed over two walls.”
In 1990 Geoffrey was appointed one of HM Inspectors of Constabulary. There were four of these covering different regions, his being the north west which went from his old patch in the West Midlands to the Scottish border, encompassing 14 police forces. In additional he had national responsibility for counter-terrorism and organised crime. He did a great deal of travel including to India, the USA and much of Europe, including helping to set up Europol and negotiating an extradition treaty with Spain to bring an end to the “Costa del Crime.” He retired from this job in 1997 but was not idle. He chaired or sat on several enquiries including some on the Crown Prosecution Service and the criminal courts. He also sat on the boards of several companies as chairman or non- executive director.
He is cautious about commenting on modern policing as he sees the danger of “harrumphing that it wasn’t like that in…”. He accepts that the public have lost a lot of confidence in the police but points out that this is true of other professions, such as teachers, doctors and politicians. He is concerned about the way that social media have changed society so quickly, and worries about the lack of leadership in society as a whole. He is not a fan of the new system of police and crime commissioners and points out that, as they are directly elected, they may be inclined to focus on local issues to win votes at the cost of arguably more serious problems such as people trafficking, drug smuggling and firearms.
Sadly Geoffrey’s first wife, Judith, died of cancer in 1996. “I resisted attempts by well meaning friends to pair me off with someone. Then a friend asked me as a favour to go to a dinner party as they were one man short. On the day I felt ill and thought of cancelling but I went along.” The other single person was Alison and they fell in love immediately. They were married in 1998. “Both my wives have given me a huge amount of support.” He has two daughters and a son from his first marriage and they all live not too far away in Wiltshire, Hampshire and near Bristol. The sporting gene continues: his son, also a policeman, has played rugby for England and a granddaughter is in the Great Britain women’s Olympic rowing squad.
He was created a life peer in 2006. “I was number 601. There are now about 840.” He sits as a cross-bencher, i.e. he has no party affiliation. Cross-benchers are appointed by an independent body, not by patronage from a political party. And he has certainly been independent, successfully leading opposition to the imposition of provisions for terrorism suspects to be detained for 90 days without charge under the Terrorism Act 2006. He also helped to thwart amendments to the Public Order Act which he felt would restrict freedom of speech. He is vigilant about efforts to extend the power of the state and expressed shock at reports that the present government may seek powers to overturn court decisions made against it. “I thought that the fact that we live under the rule of law was settled in 1689.” More recently he has sat as a Deputy Speaker in the Lords, an onerous task - “For every hour on the Woolsack it takes two to three hours of preparation.”
He is a strong advocate of reform of the House of Lords. “I would cut the numbers to well under 600, take away political appointments and put it all in the hands of an independent commission. Peers should serve for a maximum of 15 years and in any event leave at 75.” He is firmly against elected peers. “In a constitution with two elected chambers and no president to intervene, there would be inevitable competition about which house had more power. The House of Lords should remain a revising chamber with power to amend and delay legislation as at present.” In case anyone wonders whether he practises what he preaches, he intends to stand down in a few months.
He will, however, have plenty to occupy himself with. He is president of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation. “I no longer shoot but am very interested in the conservation side.” He is chairman of the Friends of Northleach Church and is spearheading fundraising for repairs to the roof. He is an honorary bencher of Gray’s Inn and is the former vice-lieutenant of Worcestershire. He is a keen gardener. He and Alison have a house in Greece, where they keep a boat, and they spend time there every year. He does watch crime dramas on television, despite the gap between real policing and how it is portrayed. “On television murders are solved by one detective, usually at odds with his superiors, and a sidekick who stop work and go to the pub at 5pm. In reality there would be 60 or 70 detectives working round the clock.’
As mentioned, terrorism is one of the areas which has been of concern to him in his career. Just as we are leaving, he mentions that he has first-hand experience as there have been three attempts on his life. “The first was when the IRA sent a three-man team to kill me. They were foiled by Special Branch. They then sent me a parcel bomb. It blew up in a sorting office during the night. Fortunately the staff were on a break and no-one was injured. The third was in India when a roadside bomb was detonated a few seconds too early, before the car I was in reached it.” That’s the sort of thing that happens if you lead your life at the sharp end.