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'Plebgate': police honesty queried
Police and politicians are embroiled in a furious row after a watchdog questioned the "honesty and integrity" of officers who allegedly tried to discredit a Tory Cabinet minister.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) said Inspector Ken MacKaill, Detective Sergeant Stuart Hinton and Sergeant Chris Jones should have faced misconduct hearings for lying about what chief whip Andrew Mitchell said in a private meeting about the so-called 'Plebgate' affair last year.
The findings were seized on by the Conservative MP's supporters, with Home Secretary Theresa May insisting West Mercia Police had been "quite wrong" not to take disciplinary action.
The force's chief constable, David Shaw, has been summoned to give evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee on the issue.
But West Mercia defended its handling in a joint statement with Warwickshire and West Midlands police.
"Andrew Mitchell MP has never made a complaint to police. West Mercia, with the support of West Midlands and Warwickshire Police, recognising the public interest in this case, independently decided to investigate this incident and made a referral to the Independent Police Complaints Commission," the statement said.
"We asked for the matter to be independently investigated by the IPCC because we recognise the significant public interest in the matter, however this was declined.
"The IPCC have supervised this investigation throughout and have been invited to reconsider their position on more than one occasion.
"The decisions following this investigation were carefully considered, with the support of appropriate legal advice.
"Warwickshire, West Mercia and West Midlands Police have separately considered the findings of the investigation and all three forces agree on the outcome."
West Mercia police commissioner Bill Longmore expressed surprise about comments by IPCC deputy chairwoman Deborah Glass and said he was seeking an urgent meeting with Mrs May.
"Given the critical statement which the IPCC Deputy Chair has made in the last few hours, I am frankly surprised the IPCC did not resume conduct of the investigation - they certainly had the power to do so," he said.
The chairman of the Police Federation, Steven Williams, also questioned the intervention by Ms Glass.
"My concern is that by releasing her personal view that she disagrees with the findings of the West Mercia investigation she displays a lack of independence," he wrote in a letter to Mrs May.
"This threatens to undermine the considered findings of the investigation in the eyes of the public, whereas in fact those investigating and deciding the case are the proper arbiters in this matter."
Mr Mitchell met Mr MacKaill, Mr Hinton and Mr Jones, federation representatives of West Mercia, Warwickshire and West Midlands respectively, on October 12 to "clear the air".
A transcript shows Mr Mitchell apologised for swearing at the police officers but denied using the word "plebs".
In comments made after the meeting, Mr MacKaill claimed the former Tory chief whip would not provide an account of the incident.
West Mercia Police conducted an internal investigation into claims the three officers were trying to discredit Mr Mitchell but concluded there was no case to answer for misconduct or gross misconduct.
However, Ms Glass said she disagreed with their findings and added that the evidence reveals "an issue of honesty and integrity, not merely naive or poor professional judgment" among the federation representatives.
She said: "In the media and political climate of the day, I do not consider that the officers could have been in any doubt about the impact of their public statements on the pressure being brought on Mr Mitchell.
"As police officers, they had a responsibility to present a fair and accurate picture.
"Their motive seems plain: they were running a successful, high-profile, anti-cuts campaign and the account that he provided to them did not fit with their agenda."
Ms Glass said the officers must have known Mr Mitchell was under pressure to resign his post following scenes at the Conservative Party conference at which Federation members were seen wearing "PC Pleb" T-shirts.
In a statement released after the IPCC published its findings, Mr Mitchell said he and his family had "waited in vain" for Mr MacKaill, Mr Hinton and Mr Jones to be held to account.
"It is a matter of deep concern that the police forces employing these officers have concluded that their conduct has not brought the police service into disrepute," he said.
"Most people will disagree. It is a decision which will undermine confidence in the ability of the police to investigate misconduct when the reputation of the police service as a whole is at stake.
"My family and I have waited nearly a year for these police officers to be held to account and for an apology from the Police Forces involved. It seems we have waited in vain."
The original incident, in which Mr Mitchell was accused of calling officers guarding Downing Street "plebs" as he cycled through the main gates on September 19 last year, was the subject of a separate Metropolitan Police investigation following claims officers conspired against the politician.
Giving evidence to MPs, Mrs May said: "The IPCC statement makes troubling reading. If it is indeed the case that warranted police officers behaved in the way Deborah Glass has described, that's not acceptable at all."
Asked if the chief constable of West Mercia Police should apologise to Mr Mitchell, Mrs May said: "I think that would be appropriate."
She added: "The police need the trust of the public. These sorts of incident will strike at the heart of that issue of trust."
Labour former home secretary Jack Straw, who is a close friend of Mr Mitchell, said: "It is lamentable but undoubtedly true, as the IPCC has concluded, that Mr Mitchell has been the victim of wholly unacceptable behaviour by some police officers, a wrong compounded by the woeful inadequacy of the police investigation into this misconduct.
"I hope that this will at last lead to effective action by the employing police forces concerned, and to Mr Mitchell being able to resume his full contribution to British political life. I also hope that the officers concerned might be big enough to apologise."
The Crown Prosecution Service is considering whether to bring criminal charges following Scotland Yard's £230,000-plus investigation, known as Operation Alice. Eight people including five police officers arrested under Operation Alice were re-bailed.
The police force has come under fire for its handling of the inquiry, with ex-director of public prosecutions Lord Macdonald and Mr Straw among senior figures who criticised the length of time and cost of the inquiry.
Boris Johnson said he was extremely frustrated that the "plebgate" row is going on for so long.
The Mayor of London said: "I share the frustrations of the IPCC and indeed of Andrew Mitchell and his family and indeed (Metropolitan Police Commissioner) Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe in wishing this thing were knocked on the head.
"It's got to be done, we need to get to the truth of what happened in so far as it could possibly be established for everybody's sake and it is extremely frustrating that it is taking so long.
"But the mills of justice grind slowly but they grind small, we will get the answer and that is the best we can do but we have to follow the correct procedures."
Former shadow minister for police reform David Ruffley MP said he wanted to see a return to the Cabinet for his friend Mr Mitchell.
He told BBC Breakfast: "There could be charges, as I understand it, in a matter of weeks, or no decision to charge.
"That's the big issue - to clear a man's name who was falsely accused, and Andrew Mitchell, I hope, will come through this and be back in the Cabinet."
Mr Ruffley said he would expect that to happen if there is a reshuffle next year, by which time he hoped the whole affair would be "laid to rest".
He added: "There is a growing view in Parliament, not just on the Conservative side, that a grave injustice has been done to Andrew Mitchell and justice demands he at least be reinstated and most of us think the Prime Minister agrees with that view and that justice will be done."
Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said the officers' behaviour had fallen below the standard expected, but their chief constables should be given the opportunity to explain their decision not to take further disciplinary action.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today: "In this case, what I am clear on is it requires an explanation from the leaders of those three police forces, all of whom have very clearly said that they want to come to the Home Affairs Committee and be held to account in an open and transparent forum to explain their side of the story which is currently running."
Sir Hugh added: "It seems to me in this case there is no issue that the finding by the police service was the officers' behaviour fell below the standard. The question is the quantum of seriousness and I think that's why the chief constables are clearly determined to explain that ... to the Home Affairs Select Committee and be held to account and judged on that."
Asked whether the Prime Minister thought the Plebgate affair had damaged public confidence in the police, David Cameron's official spokesman said: "He would agree with the point the Home Secretary was making yesterday... that incidents such as this do bring people to question their trust in the police.
"That's what the Home Secretary said in the House yesterday. Of course, as she said... and we are saying, we shouldn't forget that the vast majority of police officers operate to the highest standards and do a very dangerous job on behalf of the public and we should always remember that.
"With incidents such as this, of course that raises questions."
The spokesman told a regular Westminster media briefing that the Prime Minister believes there are more cases where the IPCC should investigate matters itself.
"The Government, led by the Home Office, is in the process of discussing, as the Home Secretary said, the resources that should be passed to the IPCC to enable them to do that," said the spokesman.