Saturday 17 February 2018

‘Plebgate’ officers facing new watchdog investigation over alleged misleading statements

Andrew Mitchell
Andrew Mitchell

OFFICERS accused of giving misleading accounts of a meeting with former chief whip Andrew Mitchell are facing a new watchdog investigation and will be hauled back before MPs to apologise for evidence they gave to an influential committee.

Police Federation representatives Inspector Ken MacKaill, Detective Sergeant Stuart Hinton and Sergeant Chris Jones were all told they would face no action for misconduct over press statements they made following the meeting with Mr Mitchell in the West Midlands in October last year.

He spoke to the officers, who were representing Warwickshire, West Mercia and West Midlands police, in a bid to clear the air after an alleged foul-mouthed confrontation with police in Downing Street the previous month.

Today, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) said it will hold its own investigation into their behaviour after finding "procedural irregularities" in the way the inquiry was dealt with.

Mr Jones and Mr Hinton have been also called to appear before the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) for a second time on Tuesday, after being accused of giving "misleading" answers when they gave evidence to MPs on October 23. The committee wants the pair "to apologise for misleading it".

The trio were told that they would face no disciplinary action after senior officers disagreed with Chief Inspector Jerry Reakes-Williams who found they had a case to answer for misconduct.

But IPCC deputy chairwoman Deborah Glass said there were "procedural irregularities" in how a final report on the matter was drawn up.

She said: "Evidence given to the Home Affairs Select Committee on October 23 revealed a number of procedural irregularities between the production of the draft and final West Mercia reports.

"On August 12 2013, a final report was provided to the IPCC. It contained a single set of conclusions to the effect that no case to answer for misconduct was made out against any of the three officers under investigation.

"However, it is clear from CI Reakes-Williams's evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee that this conclusion did not reflect his opinion. His opinion was (and remains) that a case to answer for misconduct was made out. However, he mistakenly believed that his report should reflect the view of the "appropriate authorities" - the senior officers in each of the forces involved.

"The 'appropriate authorities' are the final decision-making bodies, and they are entitled to reach a different decision to the conclusions of the investigator. However, this is an entirely separate process. The procedure described above has conflated the two."

Ms Glass, who gave evidence to the committee on the same day as the three officers, had told MPs she did not have the power to re-start the investigation.

But today she said that because the final report did not include Mr Reakes-Williams's opinion, the investigation is incomplete.

"What is now clear is that the final report I received did not contain the opinion of the investigating officer, but instead erroneously recorded the view of the appropriate authorities," she said. "Therefore, for the purposes of the legislation, I consider that in fact there is no final report.

"Consequently, the investigation is not complete and the decision making function of the appropriate authorities concerning whether the officers have a case to answer for misconduct is not yet engaged; the decisions they have purported to reach are void."

She said the IPCC was launching its own inquiry to avoid damaging public confidence.

"I have determined that a change in the mode of investigation is justified as it would be in the public interest to do so, not least because the catalogue of fundamental procedural irregularities is capable of significantly undermining public confidence in the final outcome of the investigation.

"The only mode of investigation that would satisfy the public interest and maintain confidence in the police oversight regime is an independent one, carried out by the IPCC's own staff, and this is what will now take place."

No one involved in the original investigation will be involved in the new inquiry.

HASC chairman Keith Vaz said: "We were appalled by the evidence given by DS Hinton, Sgt Jones and Inspector MacKaill. It is now clear that DS Hinton and Sgt Jones misled the Committee, possibly deliberately. We have recalled them to correct the record and if they do not, they will be in prima facie contempt of Parliament.

"We are also concerned that the chief constables of Warwickshire and West Midlands have not re-determined their conclusions to this investigation. This matter has been hugely damaging to the public's perception of the reputation of the police officers involved, the Police Federation and the force itself.

"We have referred the police officers to the IPCC and we welcome their announcement to make a fully independent decision on this investigation which is what we asked them to consider. It is vital that the public see that where police officers make mistakes, they will be held to account. Only then will we be able to focus on the outstanding work done by our police forces.

"The narrative of what we have seen could rival any great work of fiction. At every point and at every level, instead of being transparent, we have uncovered a process that obstructs the truth. If this can happen to a Cabinet minister, what hope is there for anyone else?"

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: "The select committee has done an important job in laying bare the failure of the process to deal with the Sutton Coldfield meeting between Andrew Mitchell and police officers last October. This case should now be independently re-determined.

"Their report is serious and troubling, not just for the officers and forces involved, but for the system of police standards and accountability which has failed in this case. Andrew Mitchell has already waited too long for the result of these investigations and these events are casting a long shadow over the vital and much valued work police officers do across the country. That is why reforms are needed.

"The evidence from the select committee also shows that the current system of accountability and standards in policing is completely inadequate. For the IPCC as police watchdog to be unable to take over serious cases where it disagrees with the police due to both lack of powers and lack of resources is completely unsustainable.

"We have argued for years that the framework of standards, investigations and complaints is in need of reform. A new Police Standards Authority is needed with stronger powers and a pro-active culture - simply giving more resources for the IPCC will not be good enough. Lord Stevens's review into the future of policing will set out major reforms in this area and will report this month."

In a report released today, the committee said the three officers' evidence was "possibly deliberately" misleading, lacked credibility and was contradictory.

"If evidence was given in a similar manner by three serving police officers to a court of law it is our view that such testimony would undermine a case and lead a jury to reach an unfavourable conclusion as to the credibility of the evidence given by those police officers," the report read.

"We are appalled at the stubborn and unashamed refusal of an apology by Inspector MacKaill, Detective Sergeant Hinton, and Sergeant Jones to Mr Mitchell.

"The only remorse shown by the three officers is that relating to the choreography of their dealings with the media after the meeting."

The committee said it was "incredible" the officers did not realise the detrimental impact they had on Mr Mitchell's life and career.

It also accused Det Sgt Hinton of being "mendacious" when referring to Home Secretary Theresa May as "that woman" during the meeting.

Det Sgt Hinton will be required to apologise for the comment or face contempt of parliament charges.

The committee also addressed an assertion Det Sgt Hinton might have claimed he was misquoted to avoid a disciplinary hearing.

"All evidence given to select committees should be provided honestly and not be affected by forethoughts of any future outcome," it said.

"It is an indictment of the quality of evidence provided by DS Hinton that, when specifically asked if the reference to 'this woman that the Conservative Party have' was about the Home Secretary, he suggested that it was 'a typo, to be perfectly honest'."

The committee said the "gross procedural irregularities" that lead to the officers escaping any disciplinary action was "deeply concerning".

It also mentioned "extremely serious" suggestions West Midlands Police Assistant Chief Constable Gary Gray put pressure on West Mercia police to release details of its initial police investigation and findings before the report had been signed off by the IPCC.

The committee said if Mr Cann did try to change the report's conclusions before the IPCC received it, it was "both unacceptable and unlawful".

But West Midlands Chief Constable Chris Sims rejected the notion.

"This is a serious inference to draw and I completely refute it," he said.

"I have today written to Keith Vaz MP to ask him to look again at this erroneous conclusion as a matter of urgency."

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