Saturday, December 02, 2017

Do we need a new code for the relationship between politicians and the police?

If there is one good thing which might come out of the allegations made by two former police officers about the current First Secretary of State it would be a review of the rules governing the relationship between the police and politicians. I hope that such a review would lead to updated and better enforced rules to give clearer guidance to both police and government and keep the police out of politics in everyone's interests.

I was outraged at the time when Damian Green, then an opposition MP, was arrested for being too effective in embarrassing the government, Separate reviews of the arrest which took place shortly afterwards by the former head of British Transport Police, Ian Johnston and by the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Denis O'Connor, were also critical of the arrest and the way it was handled as you can read here.

Ian Johnson said there was a "strong question mark" both over the police decision to arrest the then Conservative immigration spokesman and the manner in which it was carried out.


Denis O'Connor also found the arrest disproportionate, but the most striking thing which he said at the time and clearly still resonates is the impossible position the police were put in.

He said: "Police feared they would be damned if they did and damned if they didn't because of the politics around them and they worried about how things might play out."

The inference is that the case continued long after it was clear that there were no national security implications because the police were afraid that the Labour party and it's allies would accuse them of bias if they dropped it. Of course what happened instead is that the then opposition parties, the press and even more honourable members of the Labour party criticised them for not dropping it.

I think new safeguards may be needed to protect everybody from the risks to justice which this kind of prosecution can represent.

There are two completely separate issues raised by the inquiry into the current Deputy Prime Minister.

One of these must be impartially investigated and be seen to have been taken seriously and it is right that it has not been swept under the carpet.

In the other case however, it is the manner in which the allegations were made, not their content, which raises the most worrying concerns. 

Nobody - not MPs and not serving or former police officers - is above the law, and nobody should be subject to sexual harassment.

I have no idea whether the allegations by the journalist and former Conservative activist Kate Maltby are true or not, but clearly in the interests of justice they have to be seen to be taken seriously and appropriately investigated.


However, the contradictory allegations made by two former police officers about the material supposedly found on a computer in Damian Green's office, raise serious concerns not about what the MP is supposed to have done but about the history giving rise to these allegations.


It is also a matter of grave concern that one of those officers has admitted keeping a copy of information which his superior officers at the Metropolitan police told him to delete.

Even if one of the sets of allegations reported in the press to have been made about Damian Green were true - and incidentally, they cannot both be accurate because the allegations are incompatible, although one thing both accounts are agreed on is that the material allegedly found on the computer was legal at the time - they would represent less of a threat to democracy than the way these allegations came to be first made and provided to the press.

This is not, and must not be allowed to become, a row between Conservatives and "the police."

The people who have expressed concern ranging from regret that the matter has been placed in the public domain to outright condemnation of the actions of the two former police officers making the accusations against Damian Green have included a number of senior police officers.


Their own boss at the time of the arrest, Sir Paul Stephenson, (later Metropolitan Police Commissioner 2009-11), has told the BBC that he was made aware of the allegations but did not consider that it was appropriate either to take any further action or that the allegations have been published.


"I regret it's in the public domain," Sir Paul said. "There was no criminality involved, there were no victims, there was no vulnerability and it was not a matter of extraordinary public interest."

The present Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Thomas Winsor, has stated in the strongest terms that the release of these allegations to the press should not have happened.

Sir Thomas said police have an "enduring" duty of confidentiality, even after they have left the service.

In a statement, he said if a serving officer had breached that duty they would face disciplinary action potentially leading to dismissal and, in certain circumstances, criminal charges.

"The special powers which citizens confer on police officers are inseparable from the obligations of special trust placed in police officers to enable them to do their duty," Sir Thomas added.

"That trust requires every police officer to respect and keep confidential information which they obtain in the course of their duties and which is irrelevant to their inquiries and discloses no criminal conduct."

In his statement, Sir Thomas said that if the police could not be trusted with confidential information, public confidence would be damaged.

"The public need to know that when information about their private lives comes into the possession of the police, and that information is irrelevant to the work of the police, its confidential and private nature will be respected in perpetuity," he said.

"If public confidence in this respect is damaged, and people do not believe they can trust the police in such circumstances, great harm may be done to the relationship between the police and the citizen, and the efficiency and effectiveness of the police will be impaired."

Similar concerns were expressed by the former Chief constable of Greater Manchester, Sir Peter Fahy, who said the retired officers were entering "dangerous territory" over the allegations, and urged the police to stay out of politics.

“It is very dangerous territory for a police officer to be making judgements about whether a politician is lying or not,” he said.

“That should only happen in a criminal investigation and even then ultimately it is for the court to decide." 

“Police should also be extremely careful about making judgements about other people’s morality when it is not a matter of crime. It is something really central to our democracy that the police are not involved in politics,” he told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme.

Asked if the leaks were “wrong”, Sir Peter added: “I personally believe that they were. I think most police officers and police chiefs would think that they were and would be dismayed at the way this case has developed.”
On Tuesday, Scotland Yard confirmed its department for professional standards was examining allegations that one of the officers who appeared on the BBC making allegations against Damian Green had disclosed confidential information.


The present Metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, has condemned the former police officers who claimed to have found pornography on Damian Green's computer and confirmed that the Met is looking at whether their disclosure is a crime which could lead to prosecution. She told BBC Radio London,

"All police officers know very well that they have a duty of confidentiality, a duty to protect personal information.

"That duty in my view clearly endures after you leave the service.

"And so it is my view that what they have done based on my understanding of what they're saying... what they have done is wrong, and I condemn it."

Officers come across sensitive information every day, the commissioner said, and "know full well" it is their duty to protect it.

A statement from the Metropolitan Police said: "Confidential information gathered during a police inquiry should not be made public."

There are good reasons why rules like this are on the books, and they are to protect the innocent. Whatever the retired officers who brought these charges may think, I am not convinced that Damian Green or anyone else in his office was actually searching for or downloading pornography on a work computer.

Even today - and it was MUCH more true nine years ago - anyone who has done a search on the internet knows that stuff which is not related to what you are looking for, including pornography, can come up. Ironically the present Prime Minister shares her name with another lady who is what is euphemistically known as an "adult performer" and as the PM herself said during a TV discussion while she was shadow education secretary some time before the 2010 election,

"If you put 'Theresa May' into an internet search engine the first thing that comes up isn't Tory Education Policy."

What the retired officer who actually looked at the computer says he found was not full size pornographic images themselves but cached thumbnails - records of the icons on a page with links to such image. Computers can "cache" e.g. store such images even when nobody clicked on those icons to view the relevant images, and pages like this can - and did more frequently a decade ago - come up when they are not what the computer user was actually searching for.

Links to other articles and reports on this subject:
1) Mark Wallace at Conservative Home, whose article concludes as follows:
"This is another reminder about the importance of proper protections for liberty and privacy.
There’s a fair deal of outrage among Green’s colleagues that the police might act in this way – and rightly so. We saw the same on Fleet Street when journalists were targeted with intrusive police powers, then left in a legal limbo on police bail, sometimes for years. But this isn’t just about MPs, just as the previous example wasn’t just about journalists.
There’s a wider lesson about the need to ensure individuals’ privacy and liberty is properly protected.
If someone like a Minister of the Crown can experience something like this, then you can be sure people with less influence, prominence and resources are far more vulnerable to abuses of power.
Any MPs concerned about the way Green is being treated should think on the experience next time they are asked to approve further extensions in police investigatory powers and further restrictions on privacy – the idea such measures will never be misused is clearly erroneous."

2) Dan Hodges at the Mail writes about a cynical vendetta against Damian Green here.


Conclusion

If there had been a case to answer against Damian Green at the time of his arrest, it would have been for the courts to decide whether that case was valid. For former police officers  who had been involved in an investigation to try to wreck the career of a cleared suspect nearly a decade after the original investigation because they think he did something legal which they disapprove of and which is not relevant to the original charged, is no recipe for justice or for the rule of law. 
It is exactly what former US President John Adams was trying to get away from when he said that he wanted his country to have "a government of laws and not of men."



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