'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.