I know just the man to put the police’s house in order: Andrew Mitchell

Published in The Guardian (October 23rd, 2013)

A few months ago David Davis told me that if the police did not come clean over the case of former cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell, he might call for a royal commission. Today the MP did just that in one of the strongest attacks on the police that I can recall from a leading Conservative, adding that officers should be forced to wear cameras and microphones to record their actions while on duty.

In fact, police in at least two forces are already equipped with body cameras, partly for their own protection. But when such a senior figure on the right says officers can no longer be trusted in their daily interactions with the public, it demonstrates the depth of concern felt in Westminster over the “Plebgate” affair. This is unsurprising, given that police brought down a minister by at the very least exaggerating a row, then three officials of their union misrepresented a meeting with him and three chief constables failed to take any disciplinary action.

No one should doubt the gravity of these events that present a challenge to our core democratic values. Police officers colluded to smear a cabinet member, seemingly in pursuit of their own political agenda, while their superiors simply shrugged their shoulders. The widespread anger in Westminster is entirely justified, while the performance of the police and their watchdog in the home affairs select committee this afternoon with an admission by Jerry Reakes-Williams, the professional standards officer for West Mercia police, that the public was misled will have done little to inspire public confidence.

It is a sad reflection of political realities that only when one of their own is stitched up do our political masters finally accept the scale of the ethical crisis involving the police. Ethnic minorities, for example, have voiced similar complaints of abuse for decades, while the Hillsborough families had to fight against official disbelief of police wrongdoing for years. Prominent politicians on both sides have told me they felt empowered to speak out on such matters only after the middle classes began to lose faith, fearing their minor indiscretions were being picked on while major miscreants escaped justice.

The stark reality is a long and shameful charge sheet confronts the police that stretches from killing innocent people and taking bribes to bungling critical inquiries, botching high-profile investigations, abusing anti-terror laws, losing control of undercover cops and harassing minorities.

At the heart of the problem lies a lack of accountability and often-astonishingly inadequate leadership. Police mistakes will always be made, of course, and criticism ceaselessly levelled against such a crucial public service, but it is profoundly depressing when senior officers are seen to be colluding in cover-ups rather than drumming out deceitful officers who are undermining the dedicated majority in blue. Bear in mind seven of the nation’s 43 chief constables were sacked, suspended or forced from their jobs for misconduct in just 18 months up to the end of last year.

The coalition deserves some credit for starting to tackle the working practices and perks, some dating back nearly a century, of an inefficient and self-defensive institution. I suspect, however, the home secretary must now rue her refusal to allow the US police superstar Bill Bratton to take over the Met two years ago; an outsider in the top job might have produced a welcome shock to the system. Meanwhile, it is noticeable that while police numbers have plummeted to their lowest for a decade, crime has plunged to levels not seen for three decades.

Ultimately, however, as with other sensitive public services there needs to be far more accountability, greater transparency, additional protection for whistleblowers and a much fiercer watchdog that is prepared to take the most severe action against those officers caught lying and manipulating evidence – whatever their rank.

Public faith in the police is falling in the wake of Plebgate – although it should be pointed out it remains far higher than in either politicians or journalists. Yet to protect this remaining trust, there needs to be a drastic change in police culture and greater diversity in the ranks. Rather than a time-consuming royal commission, perhaps there is a simpler and speedier solution: reappoint Andrew Mitchell as a minister with an unfettered brief to restore the good name of Britain’s police.

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