Sorry, but police and political cover-ups won’t cut it any more
Our masters talk about transparency, but when trouble strikes they still
resort to secrecy
The former Tory chief whip
Andrew Mitchell, who was forced to resign over Plebgate Photo: PA
By Sue Cameron
8:47PM GMT 06 Feb 2013
The public must be wondering if there is anyone in the British Establishment
who isn’t involved in a cover-up or conspiracy or some other serious misconduct.
The police are suspected of fitting up a member of the Government, our top civil
servant says there could be a gigantic conspiracy or a small one but either way
it’s better to “let the matter rest”, journalists stand accused of phone
hacking, NHS managers are guilty of putting corporate self-interest and cost
control ahead of patients, MPs are under a cloud for their expenses and bankers
have been fiddling the Libor rate. Welcome to Bent Britain.
Whatever happened to integrity, principle and the public service ethic? Where
did the leadership class go wrong? And what can they do to start winning back
public trust? The answers will vary from one sector to another, but there seem
to be some common factors. One is the disconnect between those at the top and
the people on the front line.
While those in authority bang on about transparency and accountability, they
appear not to realise that it applies to them. Another is the way technological
advances – CCTV, emails, Twitter – have made it so much harder to cover up
inconvenient facts and to close down sensational stories (whether they’re true
Take Plebgate and police misconduct. You might argue that, compared to the
suffering of desperately ill people at Stafford, the travails of former Tory
chief whip Andrew Mitchell are minor league stuff. Yet Plebgate is instructive.
Mr Mitchell was accused of calling the police in Downing Street “f------
plebs”, though he has always denied using the word “plebs”. His apology for
swearing was accepted by the police in what seems to have been a deal engineered
by Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, and Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the
Met Commissioner. That should have been the end of it. Instead the furore
snowballed until Mr Mitchell was forced to resign.
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Various twists and turns followed, mainly centring on CCTV film which gave
the lie to some of the accusations against Mr Mitchell. The footage was
ultimately made public by the journalist Michael Crick on Channel Four. I
understand Downing Street did not hand it over without a fight. In scenes
reminiscent of The Thick of It, a real-life Malcolm Tucker character was heard
shouting: “There’s f--- all in this… Mitchell’s obsessed! I don’t know why
anyone’s bothering.” The bureaucracy tried to plead national security as a
reason for not passing on the footage and also said that under the Data
Protection Act they need not disclose it for 40 days. In the end it seems to
have been the PM who forced them to stop procrastinating.
Sir Jeremy, who had viewed the footage, was subsequently criticised by MPs
for not instituting wider inquiries. Sir Bernard, who had closed down a four-man
inquiry, eventually launched a 30-strong police investigation and so far four
arrests have been made and other police officers have been partially suspended.
For Whitehall and for the police, the brown stuff has hit the fan with a
What Plebgate shows is that today stories and scandals grow far too quickly
for mandarins or police chiefs to close them down. The old days of what one
insider called “gentle conspiracies” to hush things up are over. More to the
point, so great is distrust in the authorities that the public don’t believe any
institution is capable of investigating itself. Only an independent inquiry will
carry any credibility.
MPs last month said the investigation by Sir Jeremy should have been handed
over to Sir Alex Allan, the PM’s independent adviser on ministers’ interests.
Sir Alex, a flamboyant former mandarin who once windsurfed down the Thames to
work during a strike while wearing a bowler hat, is paid £20,000 a year to
advise the PM on Plebgate-type rows. Since his appointment over a year ago he
has carried out only one investigation – into Baroness Warsi.
A couple of senior Whitehall figures told me this week that they think Sir
Alex should resign in protest at being sidelined. Sir Jeremy was widely seen to
be protecting the PM at all costs, even if it meant injustice for Mr Mitchell.
Sir Alex would surely have been seen to have acted more objectively. A
resignation might force Downing Street to recognise that it cannot go on holding
internal inquiries designed primarily to give political cover. Admittedly, Sir
Jeremy has huge responsibilities, and was doing his best for his political
master. He claimed that his remit was “very limited”, and last night No 10 said
he’d been restricted in what he could say by the police inquiry. Such claims
smack of the bureaucratic jobsworth.
The police must learn similar lessons. Sir Bernard should have insisted
sooner on a much more rigorous examination of the Plebgate claims and
counter-claims. As it is, the affair has done the police no good.
Senior officers admit that nationally a small number of high-profile cases of
misconduct can have a disproportionately corrosive effect. We have had the
Hillsborough inquiry, the case of Ian Tomlinson, several senior officers have
resigned under a cloud, some have been sacked and at least eight are being
investigated for misconduct. No matter how great the integrity of the vast
majority of officers, the police cannot afford scandals like Plebgate. They,
Whitehall and the rest of the Establishment must not only clean up their acts,
but recognise that they have to practise the transparency they so often talk
about – no matter the short-term cost
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