Thursday, March 06, 2014 

The not so shocking truth.

David Cameron is shocked. Theresa May is shocked. Ed Miliband is shocked. Doreen Lawrence is not shocked. Anyone who has paid even the slightest attention will not be shocked. It turns out, hardly shockingly, that those in the Metropolitan police's Special Demonstration Squad, invested with the power it seems to do more or less as they saw fit when it came to infiltrating political protest groups, were allowed to carry out "minor crimes" to maintain their cover and that some went much further. Specifically when it comes to the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, there are "reasonable grounds" on which to suspect one officer was potentially corrupt, while it seems the Lawrences were also personally spied on.

The two separate reports published today are a wonderful example of what happens when the police (although overseen by the IPCC) and an independent figure investigate the same thing. The interim Operation Herne report by Derbyshire chief constable Mick Creedon (PDF) goes out of its way to discredit Peter Francis.  It extends the familiar concept of neither confirming or denying that an officer was part of the SDS to Francis himself, despite how it is repeatedly made plainly obvious in the report that he clearly was with the unit, so all of his statements are referred to disingenuously and it might be said, disrespectfully, as claims.  Francis himself refused to have anything to do with Operation Herne, fearing that regardless of the promises made that he would be treated as a witness rather than a suspect, he could still face prosecution.  After receiving assurances from the attorney general he did co-operate with the Mark Elllison investigation, while refusing to allow the material from those interviews to be shared with Herne.

As a result Creedon's report repeatedly claims it could find no evidence to substantiate most of the allegations made by Francis.  It does this while not dwelling for a moment longer than necessary on the fact that the original intelligence files produced by SDS prior to 1998 were destroyed after the "sanitised" intelligence had been submitted or the operation ended, something that shouldn't be "viewed with suspicion", as this was SDS practice at the time.  Whether this should have been the practice or not doesn't seem to have occurred to Creedon.  It doesn't matter however as this sanitised intelligence was kept and has been located, and most of the SDS and Special Branch officers at the time did agree to be interviewed.  Unsurprisingly, only one of these officers provided anything amounting to to corroboration of Francis' most serious allegation, that the Lawrence family themselves had been spied on, and he is described as only having been recruited as DI in 2005, leaving in "discordant" circumstances in 2008.

Mark Ellison's report by contrast seems to be describing an entirely different world.  Having spoken to Francis and clearly found him to be a reliable and credible witness, something backed up by how even Creedon accepts that without Francis we wouldn't have known that the SDS stole the identities of children who had died as infants and that authorised or not, some SDS officers did have unacceptable long-term relationships with the activists in the groups they infiltrated, the same evidence is presented in a different light.  Ellison's report therefore attaches little weight to how "no record can be found to confirm any relevant aspect of claimed SDS activity" and so goes by what it has been able to uncover.  It finds that the on-going infiltration of one of the groups attached to the Lawrence campaign led to the passing of personal information back to the Met, and that a meeting in 1998 during a break in the Macpherson inquiry between the undercover officer and DI Walton, who had been seconded to the team involved in drafting the force's submission to the inquiry, was "wrong-headed" and at worst "completely improper".  Walton himself might not have been fully aware of what was he was being asked to do by meeting the officer, but it nonetheless leaves the impression of the Met spying on the Lawrences and attempting to gain intelligence on how they should respond at the inquiry.  Creedon's report, by contrast, accepts at face value the assurance of the undercover officer that "that the intention and actions of the SDS were to indirectly support the Stephen Lawrence family".  Of course.

On the specific allegation from Francis that he was tasked with gathering intelligence on the Lawrence campaign that could be used against the family, while agreeing there is no paper evidence and the other officers say otherwise, it notes there was a "strong feeling of indignation and a degree of hostility within the Met" towards the family and its statements. This was directed against the family itself rather than the groups that were also campaigning, such feelings possibly leading to a desire to collect information that could be used to correct the impression the force was incompetent or not putting sufficient effort into the search for Stephen's killers.  Combined with the fear that the campaign for justice could lead to public disorder, Ellison finds it believable that there may have been a desire to gather "collective" intelligence.  His overall conclusion is that only a public inquiry able to see and hear evidence can make a definitive finding on whose account is the more credible.

The response from the government to order just that makes perfectly clear which report Theresa May puts more stock in.  Nonetheless, Creedon's report which doubles as a criminal investigation will continue for another year, while Ellison will also conduct another inquiry into potential miscarriages of justice due to undeclared SDS involvement and both will have to be finished before the judge-led inquiry can begin.  This further delay could well mean that the full truth about the botched initial investigation into Stephen's murder will not be known until a quarter of a century after it took place, as appalling an indictment of the British justice and review system as it's possible to imagine. 

Just as the SDS was allowed to operate with almost nothing in the way of formal guidance, let alone legislation, so now the other section of the secret state, the intelligence agencies, are allowed to do almost as they please with little in the way of formal oversight.  If the development of facial recognition software could be hastened by tapping into the streams of webcam users, it was done.  No government minister however has so far commented on those allegations, as national security would be endangered by doing so.  Just as we attempt to finally get to the bottom of one national scandal, the door is slammed shut on one we could well still be dealing with in another 25 years' time.

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014 

Hosing down policing by consent.

One of the greatest myths of British public life has always been that our police force, unlike so many others around the world, operates through consent rather than fear.  While this might be true in certain areas, it most certainly isn't elsewhere.  It also fails to take into account how the police act in specific circumstances, most pertinently at demonstrations.  It's been mostly forgotten as a result of the riots of August 2011, but the policing at the G20 demonstrations in April 2009 was about as over-the-top and self-defeating as any in memory, leaving aside the actions of PC Simon Harwood.  Quite apart from the kettling, the number of officers who wielded their batons and used them with impunity demanded a response, and one was forthcoming in the shape of the "Adapting to Protest" report.  Then came the student tuition fee protests, where some felt the police held back as a result, and we seemed to have gone full circle.

Thanks then to the riots, the police both in London and nationally have found an excuse to demand they join their colleagues in Northern Ireland in being able to deploy water cannon if they so wish.  Not because water cannon is useful against the type of rioting and looting we saw two and a half years ago when the police were spread far too thinly to be able to cope, and when the perpetrators were moving from place to place rather staying in one particular area, as the author of the Association of Chief Police Officers report David Shaw admits, even if it would have been considered if available. No, it's more of an insurance policy as the police expect there to be further presumably violent protests against austerity measures.

Weirdly, Shaw writes that one of the other occasions when use of water cannon would have been considered was the protests outside the Israeli embassy back in 2009.  Strange, as I attended one of those demonstrations and I cannot for the life of me work out how water cannon would have helped the police one iota.  While I had left before the "kettle" was put in place, the main problem then was that the police had blocked off all other exits, leaving only one which you could reach by shoving past everyone.  There was never any danger whatsoever of the embassy itself being occupied, not least because the gates are impossible to scale, while the officers in front of the gates unlike some of their colleagues earlier in the day were properly kitted out and so well defended from missiles.  The main disorder that day happened after those still protesting were "kettled", with windows being smashed, so again I can't think how water cannon would have helped when it was the police that were stopping those demonstrating from leaving.  Unlike in Northern Ireland, where the police have come under concerted attack from protesters throwing petrol bombs and rocks at them, the worst that was thrown at officers that day were eggs, paint or the odd firecracker.  Some of those arrested following the protests, for instance, were convicted of violent disorder on the basis that they threw the balsa wood the placards were constructed out of at the police.

Odder still isn't that Shaw doesn't include the G20 protests as being an event at which water cannon would have been considered, despite the fact that senior officers had been briefing the press for weeks beforehand that they were expecting hardcore "black bloc" anarchists from Europe to be making the journey to London for the occasion.  The police deployment that day was far heavier than on the Gaza protests, and also one suspects for the first of the student protests, which makes you wonder if it's that precise fact that makes the difference.

It must be said that it's possible to exaggerate the effect of water cannon.  Certainly, while serious injuries have been recorded in line with its use and I simply don't believe the claim that no injuries have been associated with it in Northern Ireland, far worse can be meted out by officers tooled up and keen on whacking anyone they judge to be a threat with their batons.  It's also the case however that giving the police water cannon is another step towards militarising the policing of demonstrations when there is not the slightest evidence that their use would have prevented either injuries to officers or damage to property.  Would it have stopped the ransacking of Millbank?  Clearly not, when the police weren't prepared in the first place for the storming of the building containing Conservative Central Office.  It seems more about the police resorting to tactics they've previously eschewed precisely because they seem to think a precedent has been set where they think the public at large will support them.  They're probably right, but that shouldn't make Theresa May give in to their demands.

You suspect however that just as on stop and search, the forces ranged against her, whether they be in Downing Street or in the Labour party, which would think nothing of bringing it up should she refuse and there be further serious disorder, are likely to be victorious.  Policing by consent might remain in tact, but amongst those with reason to distrust the plod it will do nothing whatsoever to reassure of their good intentions.

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Wednesday, January 08, 2014 

Unanswered questions, familiar findings.

Of all the things you could have spent the last 4 months of your life doing, it's a pretty safe bet serving on the jury at the inquest into the death of Mark Duggan would rank at the very bottom of most lists.  To say you can't envy the 10 members of the jury would be putting it extremely lightly; whichever verdict they reached there would be have been major repercussions.  Had they found he was unlawfully killed, it's difficult to believe the Met wouldn't have reacted in the way they have in the past to jury verdicts going against them.  Members of CO19 downed tools after a jury found Harry Stanley to have been unlawfully killed, Stanley having been gunned down while being both Irish and carrying a chair leg in a plastic bag, the armed response teams happily returning to work after a judge overturned the inquest's findings.

The verdict the jury has reached however is just about the most inflammatory one possible.  They concluded by majority verdict that while Duggan had not been holding the gun when he was shot dead by officer V53, V53 was justified in believing that he needed to use force to defend himself as he genuinely thought Duggan was armed and about to fire.  Duggan was therefore lawfully killed.  The response from Mark Duggan's family, one of fury, is more than understandable.  V53 was not the only officer to testify that Duggan had been holding the gun when he exited the cab after the police conducted a "hard stop" on the vehicle; W70 also did, with both then saying the gun disappeared after the shooting.  W70's initial statement did not mention Duggan holding a gun though, with the officer saying in court he withheld it on legal advice, as this initial statement was not supposed to contain such details.

Where the jury's verdict is most likely to be challenged at a judicial review, and also where it collapses into a whole mess of contradictions is on how the gun got from the shoebox Duggan collected it in to behind a fence around 10 to 20 feet from where he died.  The jury's majority verdict by 8 to 2 was that Duggan threw it as soon as the minicab came to a stop, while one of the other two decided he threw it whilst on the pavement evading the police, leaving the last juror to decide that as no witness gave evidence that Duggan had done either he could not support either supposition.  Indeed, not only did Duggan manage to throw the gun without any bystanders or the police in pursuit seeing him, both the gun and the sock had no fingerprints or DNA evidence from Duggan on them.  The shoebox, by contrast, did have his fingerprints on it.  One officer specifically gave evidence that had Duggan thrown it he would have seen it, while Professor Jonathan Clasper gave evidence that as Duggan was shot first in the bicep, rather than in the chest as V53 testified, it would have been "very unlikely" he would have been able to have thrown it the distance it was found away.

If, then as the jury found Duggan had already thrown the gun away, how was it that not one but two police officers were certain that he still had it, only for it to disappear once he was dead?  Witness B gave evidence that Duggan had in fact been holding a mobile phone when he was shot.  Witness B also filmed 9 minutes of footage which he "sold" to the BBC (going by the Graun's reporting of the counsel for the officers, as I doubt the BBC did pay for it) of the aftermath of the shooting, at the time contradicting his later evidence by telling the reporter he thought he had been holding a gun.  The inquest heard that Duggan had been talking on a mobile phone 10 seconds before he was shot, yet there hasn't been much reporting on where the phone was found, or whether the officers could have mistaken it for a gun.  It would be one thing for one of the officers to do so, but for two seems unlikely.

It's not as unlikely however as the narrative we're meant to accept.  As no witness saw Duggan throw the gun, either before he got out of the cab or as he was shot, I can't see how the jury could make an informed decision as to how it got where it was found.  Whether that's a mistake on the part of the coroner in asking them to reach a decision, or on the jury for doing so might yet be decided in another court.

The jury was nonetheless entitled to find Duggan had been lawfully killed as they accepted V53's overall account of what happened, that he felt threatened and believed Duggan was about to shoot, even while finding he didn't have a gun. V53 was wrong about where he first shot Duggan, and about the colour of the cab, yet neither it seems was enough to make them doubt his evidence sufficiently to reach an open verdict. It's also not surprising when a jury is always likely to accept the word of an officer when there were no other independent witnesses close by, the cab driver's evidence contradictory, while Witness B was over 100 metres away.  From the time Duggan left the cab to being shot dead just 10 seconds went by, and while it's difficult to see how V53 could be so certain about the movements he thought Duggan was making in order to justify shooting him, it again isn't surprising they came down in the police's favour.

Little however it seems was learned from past tragedies and shootings involving the Met.  While nowhere near on the scale of the "complete and utter fuck-up" which was the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Met are once again describing a death they were involved in as being "by a thousand fuckups".  The jury found the police did not do enough to "gather and react to the intelligence" that Duggan was due to collect the gun, while in the aftermath we again heard the usual subsequently proved wrong claims that Duggan had shot at the police.  The crime scene was improperly secured, and handed over to the Independent Police Complaints Commission late, while the cab itself was driven away from the scene before later being brought back.  The officers themselves were, as in the de Menezes case, allowed to confer and write up their statements together, while they refused to answer the IPCC's questions, only giving written statements.  The IPCC is now set to be further reformed, but whether it will make much of a difference if officers are still to be allowed to confer before giving their statements remains to be seen.

The reaction of some to the verdict, best seen in the comments to David Lammy's piece that covers all the bases, reminds of the exact same calls we heard at the height of the riots that followed Duggan's death.  Regardless of how involved Duggan was with a sub-section of the Tottenham Man Dem, and the police likely have exaggerated it to a certain extent, when someone is killed by the police and there are unanswered questions about what happened, there has to be a swift response to such concerns.  That clearly didn't happen in August 2011, and what followed, even if not fully connected, were the worst riots in 30 years.  The exact reason why there were such suspicions is precisely because we've seen it all before, and while on this occasion the most likely explanation is the one reached by the jury, even if no one saw Duggan throw the gun, an unarmed man was killed when he should still be alive today.  There were never going to be any winners, but it's hard not to feel extremely hollow about today's verdict, and whatever happens from today, a dark piece of modern British history is still not yet over.

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013 

Echoes of past humiliations.

It was hard not to detect something faintly tragic about the press conference staged yesterday by Andrew Mitchell, David Davis and Mitchell's lawyer, in front of the clearly slavering representatives of the media.  It reminded of all those other politicians down the years who have made similar statements, often with their family by their side, many of whom were subsequently discovered to have been lying, or to have indeed been shacking up with someone other than their wife.  Those who can actually remember Jonathan Aitken standing up and saying it fell to him to "cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play", rather than in my case just having seen video clips of it may well have experienced deja vu.

This isn't to suggest the cases of Aitken and Mitchell are in any other way comparable, as they clearly aren't.  Aitken was corrupt to the core (and has since made amends for being so); Mitchell is at worst a liar, who like all of us, is flawed.  Their approach to what they say have been slurs is however eerily similar, with the presentation given yesterday echoing more of conspiracy movies than dour political thrillers.  What it all boils down to in the end, as it has from the outset, is the disagreement over who said what to whom.  Mitchell maintains the officer he admits he swore at, if indirectly, made up the rest of his account and inserted the toxic word "plebs"; PC Toby Rowland (for it is he) hasn't changed his story since filing the email log an hour and a half after the incident, and continues to stand by it.

The Crown Prosecution Service, for its part, hasn't really taken sides.  In new director of public prosecutions' Alison Saunders first major test, she decided there was insufficient evidence for Rowland to be charged with misconduct in public office (aka lying), while there was also insufficient evidence of a conspiracy against Mitchell.  This frankly backs up what anyone with a certain amount of distance from the case will have concluded from the public evidence available: that it's impossible to know what was said between Mitchell and Rowland, and for there to have been a conspiracy it would have needed to be put together extraordinarily quickly.  This isn't to say that Mitchell is lying, or that there wasn't a conspiracy, merely that the CPS felt there wasn't enough evidence for a realistic chance of a conviction.  Separate is how the email log was swiftly leaked to the Sun, which the CPS decided was in the public interest, and how PC Keith Wallis, otherwise unconnected to the incident, emailed the Tory deputy chief whip with his fabricated account of what happened.  One thing that remains unclear is just how quickly the Police Federation got involved, leading to the campaign via the Gaunt Brothers, the factor that really did for Mitchell.

There are nonetheless a couple of reasons to question the police investigation and so the case from which the CPS had to make their decision.  It's curious to say the least that Rowland was at no stage arrested, or it seems questioned on his account - they seem to have taken it at face value, one presumes down to how Rowland accepted Mitchell's apology at the time and until yesterday had stayed out of the spotlight, not wanting to take it further.  There's also the fact the IPCC, like with the investigation into the Federation three, could have conducted the inquiry themselves yet didn't due to lack of resources, instead only supervising.

Much of the rest of Mitchell's complaints (presented by Davis) are though fairly flimsy.  He claimed there wasn't enough time for him to have said exactly what Rowland maintains he did, which is pretty laughable when everyone talks at different speeds and MPs especially tend to have the gift of the gab.  His long-standing gripe that there weren't "several" people outside the Downing Street gates as Rowland wrote, when there were at least three passing by even if they didn't "look shocked", an unsurprising piece of exaggeration, was also further undermined by the CPS. 

It remains difficult to understand what Mitchell hopes to gain from his continuing campaign for exoneration.  His argument that if this happened to him it could happen to anyone has now been tested by a new broom, and found wanting.  If he had no previous dealings with Rowland, as he says, why would the officer have made up such an account, and within an hour and a half of it happening, unless he was so spooked by "not hearing the last of it"?  Why would he have accepted Mitchell's apology and felt the matter was closed if this was a grand conspiracy?  And is going through with the libel case really worth it when the involvement of the PF has already cast a shadow over the police's ability to investigate themselves, and Rowland says he will testify on oath that his account is correct?  Mitchell's not going to get his job back, and most now believe him rather than police, regardless of yesterday's decision.  The way instead seems open to further humiliation rather than redemption, and the last thing politics needs right now is another example of an ex-minister defending themselves up until the very last second.

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Tuesday, November 05, 2013 

The same old priorities.

There's a really simple answer as to why it is the likes of Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed and others before him have managed to go missing despite being under TPIMs or control orders: it's because they're not considered dangerous enough to truly be concerned about. Those connected with terrorism who really are dangerous, or at least pose a threat to the public in this country either directly or indirectly are prosecuted, or in the cases of Babar Ahmed and Abu Qatada, deported.  Clearly, this can never be an exact science: MI5 knew of some of those who went on to carry out the 7/7 attacks as they were on the periphery of other watched groups, and you suspect much is yet to come out at the trial of the two men charged with the murder of Lee Rigby, but for the most part those considered to be a present threat have been properly dealt with.

The fascinating thing is how much certain newspapers suddenly know about these individuals when they do manage to give those monitoring them the slip. All that was known yesterday was Mohamed was the man referred to as CC in this appeal against his control order, and that he was strongly linked to al-Shabaab, the case against him described by the judge as being "overwhelming". Not overwhelming enough for him to face any charges here, natch, and the judge also found that his arrest in Somaliland was against the law there, but this wasn't an abuse of process by our good selves. Equally naturally, the reason why it wasn't an abuse of process is only explained in the closed judgement.

Luckily for all concerned, we now know Mohamed is in fact so dangerous he's a "disciple" of the "white widow", none other than Samantha Lewthwaite herself, as both the Sun and Mirror tell us. Their evidence amounts to, err, she's connected with al-Shabaab and he's connected with al-Shabaab, therefore QED. The tabloid obsession with Lewthwaite seems to mean little things like accuracy don't apply; reading their articles gives the impression she leads the whole damn group, while previously they were near certain she was involved in the Westgate mall siege. She wasn't, and she's almost certainly just another western jihadi, only female and the widow of one of the 7/7 attackers, but when has the press ever let facts get in the way of a good scare/outrage story?

The only other point of interest is it illustrates how Labour is still undecided on civil liberties. The tighter control order regime didn't stop people on them from absconding, so how on earth would either resurrecting them or reintroducing "internal exile" make any difference? Those determined to go on the run will, and without more intrusive surveillance they won't be stopped from doing so.
 

Such inevitabilities do however distract from the cases where the secret state quite evidently oversteps the mark. Earlier in the year Justice Tughendhat ruled that the women who were misled by police spies into either long term relationships or sex could not have their cases heard in open court, instead having to go to the investigatory powers tribunal. There is no guarantee that the IPT will hear their case, and even if it does, all evidence will remain secret. Unsurprisingly, the IPT has upheld only 10 of the 1120 complaints made to it, and as such is an integral part of the regulatory system GCHQ boasted was less onerous than that of our American cousins' NSA.

Today the court of appeal upheld Tughendhat's ruling, although they did not repeat his bizarre argument that the regulation of investigatory powers act could be used to authorise spies relying on sex to get information they otherwise could not, as fictional accounts such as Ian Fleming's James Bond gave credence to the idea that such things did happen.  The only consolation for the women was the court overturned Tughendhat's other ruling that they had to go through the IPT process before claiming for damages under common law, something they can now go ahead with.

Our old friend "national security" also reared its head at the court martial of three marines accused of murdering an injured fighter in Afghanistan.  The entire incident was captured by one of the marines on a helmet cam, yet the judge advocate ruled the footage could not be released as he had to balance "the risk of members of the armed forces being killed if the DVD is released against the right of the press to have access to and publish information".  Unless he was seriously suggesting the video could lead to more Woolwich style attacks, the risk of being killed on operations abroad is one soldiers take on signing up, and it's extremely dubious one video is going to directly lead to dozens more recruits joining the Taliban.  It might well be a propaganda gift, as the Ministry of Defence argued, but that isn't a reason for not letting the public see both what troops are being asked to do in Afghanistan and the reality of what sometimes happens, allowing them to make up their own minds.

The default position when it comes to state subterfuge or embarrassment over defence remains secrecy.  More than anything else, this continuing refusal to allow proceedings in open court is at odds with our expectations of both government and business.  It invites cynicism and ridicule, and leads to people like me being dismissive of the state's case in its entirety.  There may well be instances where the only way to gain access to a violent protest group considering turning to terrorism would be to seduce one of its members; when it's been used as a matter of course to further infiltrate either peaceful groups or those using civil disobedience though, and the state refuses to defend itself in public court, it only encourages the demand for a full end to the policy.  Then again, when rulings such as today's get next to no coverage, just as the initial one did, while the disappearance of a terror suspect deemed to pose no threat to the UK public makes the front pages, the potential for reform remains as slight as ever.

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013 

Consistency, thy name is the Conservatives.

One of the complaints about modern life you tend to hear repeatedly is that there just isn't any consistency in the decisions made by those in positions of authority.  Whether it's councils and the existence of postcode lotteries, the funding of said councils by central government, or less seriously, (yes, really) the calls made by football referees, if we see what seems to be a lack of fairness we usually hear voices raised about it.  Of course, this doesn't mean those doing so are necessarily right: there's nothing intrinsically wrong with different areas focusing on different services, and it's expecting the impossible for different referees to always agree on whether a bad tackle deserves either a yellow or red card, just as we ought to be used by now to how what's a foul outside the penalty box can't always be one inside it.  Unless you really want a penalty almost every time there's a corner.

Which brings us, in an extremely roundabout fashion, to the Tory view on what is and isn't an abuse of power.  Both David Cameron and Theresa May have now stated that they support the IPCC's view that the three representatives of the Police Federation who completely misrepresented their meeting with Andrew Mitchell to the TV cameras should face misconduct hearings, as well as apologise.  While governments in the past haven't always been so swift to say they believe the police are in the wrong, we shouldn't hold that against this particular one.

More to the point, it's quite remarkable what exactly the police are defending in this instance: forget this involves a politician, and just think of the deserved uproar there would be if they had lied about a meeting they'd had with a family of a victim, or a celebrity.  You can't describe the PF three's version of the meeting, when they said that Mitchell refused to elaborate on what he had said, with the transcript which makes clear he did, as anything other than an outright lie.  It wasn't an untruth, or a different subjective view of what took place, it was a lie designed to keep the pressure up on a minister fighting for his position.  If one of us proles either lies to the police or refuses to assist with their inquiries, we can be charged with assisting an offender or even, at the extreme end, perverting the course of justice.  If we were to lie to our employers, we'd expect to face a written warning or even more severe consequences.  Is it too much to expect for that to be the case here?

Just as incredible is that the police and crime commissioners for West Mercia, West Midlands and Warwickshire have all stated they support the original decision not to bring proceedings against the officers.  Those of us who imagined the introduction of the PCCs was designed to increase political control over the police, as they surely were, can at least now be safe in the knowledge it hasn't quite worked out as the Tories had hoped on that score.  Less welcome is it hasn't improved police accountability one iota, and on this rare occasion when the IPCC has bared its teeth, the first thing that happens is the likes of Hugh Orde and other chief constables come out and either criticise it or say it should be replaced.  After all, what right has the IPCC to complain when it decided only to supervise the West Mercia investigation rather than carry it out itself?  Expecting the police to recognise when their officers are so obviously in the wrong might be reflective of the IPCC's continued naivety, but do their representatives really think this is a strong argument or one that's likely to resonate with the public?

Compare though the ire of the Tories towards the police for their apparent attempts to get Mitchell and in turn the party as a whole with the continuing position taken by the leadership on the Snowden revelations about the intelligence agencies.  Here we have another arm of the state acting at the very edge of its remit, with GCHQ able to suck up unimaginable amounts of personal data, aimed by its own admission at "mastering the internet", and all authorised by a ministerial signature every six months.  We now know almost everyone was kept in the dark about Tempora, whether it was ministers on the National Security Council, the committee set-up to examine whether the data communications bill was necessary, or the Intelligence and Security Committee, the very body meant to monitor the spooks' work.  Indeed, as has been pointed out, this seems to amount to misleading parliament, let alone breaking if not the letter then most definitely the spirit of the act used to authorise the programme.

Rather than so much as accept the revelations necessitate at the very least a debate over the current oversight of the security services, the response from ministers has been to continually shoot the messenger, and as we saw last week, encourage rival newspapers to accuse the Guardian of outright treachery.  Yesterday Theresa May claimed the public interest had been damaged by the revelations, while at prime minister question's David Cameron took the opportunity presented by Liam Fox, of all people, to call for the Graun to be investigated by a committee.  He also had no qualms about misrepresenting exactly how the government approached the paper, with the cabinet secretary apparently "politely" asking it to destroy its local copies of the Snowden files, and also presented their willingness to do so as accepting that their mere presence in this country was dangerous to national security, rather than as a pointless gesture when they had backups overseas.  Indeed, the continuing imperial arrogance of our politicians and securocrats is such that they attempted to intimidate the New York Times as well, who told them exactly where they could go.

While the government is more than prepared to stand up to those opposed to its reforms and present its own as a victim, it has no compunction in smearing and slandering others who want those with the ultimate power and responsibility to be more accountable.  When journalists are compared to terrorists and their work the equivalent of hacking the phones of murder victims, shouldn't it be clear that if you give it, you should able to take it?  Or is that a consistency too far?

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013 

Well, knock me down with a feather.

The thing that intrigues most about "Plebgate", as we seemingly have to call it, is if we're to believe Andrew Mitchell was "stitched up", just how quickly was this nefarious plot put together and then acted upon?  Was it really just a suggestion by an officer at the time as they went to record what had happened in the log, as the Sunday Times reports, and did it just consist of the addition of the word "pleb"?  Would those officers trusted with guarding Downing Street really be so quick to try and get one over on a cabinet minister, regardless of how he treated them?  And just how big a difference is there between Mitchell's version of events and those of the police?

I've always felt it was a big leap from the CCTV footage not tallying entirely with the log, and Mitchell telling the whole truth about what happened.  All that proved was the police exaggerated, which isn't the same as concocting the rest of the exchange beyond the agreed upon fact Mitchell said, as he cycled off, that he thought they "were meant to fucking help us", and that they hadn't "heard the last of this".  Where things truly get murky is when the Police Federation got involved, and as yet we still don't know when that was.  Was it as soon as the night the incident took place, or was it later with the leaking of the log to the Sun and Telegraph?

Today's statement from the Independent Police Complaints Commission on the separate meeting between Mitchell and three representatives of the Federation from the West Mercia, West Midlands and Warwickshire forces can't then be called surprising.  The PF, advised by of all people, the firm set-up by Jon Gaunt and his brother, had an agenda from as soon as the story broke.  It played into their hands; government minister insults police just as the cuts in funding were biting, as well as the day after two officers were shot dead in Manchester.

Their idea of the meeting with Mitchell wasn't to clear the air, it was an attempt to pin him down. Reading the transcript of the meeting, which Mitchell had the good sense to record, is painful. Mitchell prostrates before them, apologising again and again, even promising never to lose his temper again. The three aren't interested though, they're far more concerned that as Mitchell refuses to accept to reconcile his account with the log he's all but maintaining the officer is a liar.  It couldn't be that both are wrong, or both were mistaken, it's either black or white.

Having failed to get the response they wanted, they then misrepresented what had gone on to the TV cameras, a performance the West Mercia force decided wasn't a serious enough act of mendacity to warrant misconduct proceedings. The IPCC understandably disagrees, and the government has since voiced its support for their findings.

The problem is all this is a bit of a distraction. As contemptible as the PF's representatives were, and as remarkable as it is they felt they could act in such a way against a minister, it doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know: the police can't be trusted to investigate themselves, and the PF isn't averse to lying and slandering when attempting to get their own way.

As for what really happened that night, we're still in the dark. We continue to wait for the Crown Prosecution Service to decide what action, if any, to take against those who may have fabricated the exchange between the police and Mitchell. If it does turn out to have been the police that invented much of their log, then yes, it's apparent that certain officers do still think they can get away with almost anything, and if it could happen to Mitchell, it could to anyone. Again though, anyone with a healthy suspicion of authority in general, or indeed has followed the news over the last few years ought to be well aware that the police aren't always to be believed or trusted. Without prejudging anything, the evidence heard so far at the Mark Duggan inquest and the discrepancies between the witness and police accounts look to have the potential to be far more of a concern.

Moreover, if charges aren't forthcoming, or aren't against the officers who wrote up the log, where does that leave Mitchell and those who insisted this was a fit-up ever since Channel 4 obtained the Downing Street CCTV images?  Mitchell isn't going to get a ministerial position back, and the government's reforms of the police are going ahead in any case.  Vindication might mean a lot to Mitchell, but it seems unlikely to change anything else.  Why should it when far worse abuses have failed to?

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Wednesday, September 04, 2013 

Rachel Manning: some justice, at last.

The conviction of Shahidul Ahmed for the murder of Rachel Manning at last lifts any remaining cloud of suspicion from her boyfriend Barri White and his friend Keith Hyatt.  White and Hyatt were convicted of murder and perverting the cause of justice respectively back in 2002, the victims of one of the worst miscarriages of justice in recent years. White would almost certainly still be in prison if it wasn't for the BBC's Rough Justice programme, which in its last edition comprehensively dismantled the case against the two men.  Key to White and Hyatt's successful appeal was the debunking of the forensic evidence used by the prosecution, which was found by an independent reviewer to not only be wrong, but to have not been conducted sufficiently to have proven anything.

Not that the miscarriage of justice was purely down to the failings of the forensic lab. For White and Hyatt to have been in the area where Manning was attacked and then acted as described by the prosecution, they would have needed to do so in a incredibly short timeframe. As the BBC reporter Mark Daly put it after trying himself to recreate their alleged movements and failing, they would have needed to be commandos to have pulled it off. Nor was it explained why the pair first put Manning's body in the front of the Hyatt's van, from which the samples of material were taken, before then putting her in the back.

The only motive advanced for White's actions was that he had killed his girlfriend in a fit of anger after the two separated on bad terms following an argument in a nightclub.  For this to be the case, White would have needed to have stalked Manning after they had separated, unless he happened to come across her by chance.  He would also have had to struck within a couple of minutes of Manning phoning her flatmate, before phone calls were then made from the same phone box to Hyatt's home, which the prosecution claimed were from White rather than Manning.  Despite all these inconsistencies, Thames Valley police either ignored them entirely or brushed them aside.  To give them the most possible credit, as Mark Daly again puts it, they seem to have approached the murder with a "lack of open-minded vigour".  That almost no one in Milton Keynes believed White or Hyatt were guilty was also of little apparent concern.

Nor was the reopened case after the clearing of White getting anywhere until Ahmed carried out another opportunistic crime, sexually assaulting a woman who got into his car, wrongly believing it to be a taxi.  Even so, and perhaps because of the disproved forensic evidence used at White's trial, the jury at Ahmed's first prosecution failed to reach a verdict.  In spite of the lack of an apology or so far compensation for their own ordeal, White and Hyatt gave evidence for the prosecution at both trials, and were once again accused of being responsible under defence cross-examination.  The defence even went so far as to call a witness who claimed White had confessed to his guilt in prison, a witness whose testimony was only slightly undermined by his own conviction for murder, as well as how he's currently applying for parole for a third time.

With justice having finally been done as Manning's actual murderer begins a life sentence, it's surely time for that apology to be made.  The Manning family are entitled to hold the opinion they do, that had White not left Manning on her own in an area she wasn't familiar with she would still be alive, as they are also that the police have always "followed the evidence" (they complained at the time about the Rough Justice programme, believing White to be guilty), but Thames Valley police and the CPS shouldn't be allowed to hide behind those sentiments as they appear to be attempting to.  What was already a tragedy was turned into something far worse for three families through incompetence and an apparent eagerness to pin the blame on the "bit of a lad" boyfriend.  Lessons hopefully have been learned.  Those mistakes should now be properly recognised.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013 

Servants, not masters.

It's difficult at times to work out whether we have the equivalent of a bunch of maiden aunts for MPs or if the shock expressed when the next big scandal rolls around is expertly feigned.  This government alone has apologised for the actions of the army on Bloody Sunday, and the cover-up and smearing of the victims by South Yorkshire police following the Hillsborough disaster.  Those older than me will be able to recall the overturning of the convictions of the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four and Maguire Seven, while more recently Barry George was freed after being cleared of the murder of Jill Dando, a crime which notably none of the journalists who covered the case believed he had committed.  We could also point to the Baha Mousa case, or even the alleged cover-up by the Care Quality Commission of the problems at the Morecambe Bay Foundation Trust.

If after all that you're still surprised that the police would sink so low as to set out to smear the family of a murder victim and infiltrate the groups that were campaigning for his killers to be brought to justice, then frankly, there's not much hope for you.  Activists during the 80s tended to assume that there were either police informants or actual undercover police within their groups, such was the reach of Special Branch and MI5, and it doesn't seem to have been much different in the 90s.

Nor have the tactics of the police when criticised or caught acting heavy-handed changed much since then: you only have to remember the leaks to the sadly departed News of the World after the anti-terror raid on the Kalam family, or indeed the stories linking Jean Charles de Menezes to a rape.  The Met even went so far as to have its defence barrister in the health and safety prosecution against the force focus on the other smear against him, the fact he had traces of cocaine in his system, as an explanation as to why "he acted the way he did".  The fact that he acted perfectly normally prior to his being bundled to the ground and shot 7 times in the head apparently didn't enter into it.

More to the point, these organisations wouldn't have been able to avoid being brought to account for so long if they didn't either have enablers or backers in politics and the press. The bitterest thing about the Hillsborough report was that there was relatively little in it that wasn't already known. It had its impact through having collected all that available evidence, and presented it in such a way that the truth couldn't be denied. As Hugh Muir writes, before the Mail was converted to the cause, it was in the vanguard of belittling those who were calling for justice for Stephen Lawrence.  The Met needed little encouragement as it was to attempt to find out what its critics were planning; with newspapers calling them extremists they had just the justification they needed.

It also helps when the undercover officer tactic has on occasion had significant results. Bob Lambert, one of the officers who fathered a child with an activist he then promptly abandoned, infiltrated the Animal Liberation Front and prevented the group from launching a bombing campaign against shops that sold fur. He also though, according to Caroline Lucas using parliamentary privilege, planted a bomb in a Debenhams store that caused £300,000 worth of damage.

The few cases that did provide useful intelligence or stopped attacks seem to have justified the placing of officers in wholly peaceful groups, and with it the relationships they then cultivated and often so cruelly broke off. The use of sex also seems to have been so widespread that it's difficult not to believe it was encouraged: after all, wouldn't that be a great way of allaying suspicion? Would spies go so far as to get into serious relationships with their targets? Justice Tugenhadt claimed MPs had authorised exactly that through their passing of Ripa, denying compensation to women who had relationships with officers, as everyone knows spying is just like James Bond, and Bond often bedded his glamorous fellow agents.

Is there anyone other than Theresa May or David Cameron then that imagines the inquiry by Derbyshire's chief constable Mick Creedon is likely to get to the truth?  While it is at least being overseen by the IPCC, which under new head Anne Owers ought to be given a chance, we've surely moved past the point where the police should be allowed to investigate themselves.  Under Labour it was arguably the case that too many inquiries were ordered, mainly as a way of trying to save ministers accused of impropriety.  Under the coalition, we've had Leveson, and that, strangely, seems to have turned the government off the idea.  You also can't help but note that while the allegations about the National Public Order Intelligence Unit deal with Labour's time in office, the claims about the Special Demonstration Squad mainly cover the period of the last Tory government.

As with the revelations about GCHQ, what we've seen is an example of how power is always likely to be abused.  When it is, we need proper oversight and independent inquiries to ascertain what happened, how it happened, and how best it can be prevented from happening again.  That means we also need politicians that are suspicious of how power is exercised by the other arms of the state, rather than happy to be servants of the rest of the bureaucracy.

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Thursday, January 17, 2013 

Sex on the state must stay secret.

There are some posts you really don't need to add anything to.  This one, from the Heresiarch on the Mark Kennedy sex spying case, is one of those:

Are undercover police allowed, or even encouraged, to sleep with "targets" as a means of gaining intelligence on environmental protesters and other political subversives?
One would hope not.  Such a practice would be deeply unethical. It would represent a fundamental violation of trust and an invasion of privacy and cast senior police officers in the role of pimps. The people (mainly women) targeted in this way are human beings, and citizens. It's not just sex on the job, and it's not just "crossing a line": we're talking about the emotional manipulation of people when they're at their most intimate and vulnerable, what one lawyer has described as "the sexual and psychological abuse of campaigners for social justice". It can't be right.
But that's what spies do, though, isn't it? Sleep with sources. Everyone knows that. It works for James Bond. That's what Mr Justice Tugendhat apparently thinks, anyway.


...

Here's what he said (at paragraph 177):


James Bond is the most famous fictional example of a member of the intelligence services who used relationships with women to obtain information, or access to persons or property. Since he was writing a light entertainment, Ian Fleming did not dwell on the extent to which his hero used deception, still less upon the psychological harm he might have done to the women concerned. But fictional accounts (and there are others) lend credence to the view that the intelligence and police services have for many years deployed both men and women officers to form personal relationships of an intimate sexual nature (whether or not they were physical relationships) in order to obtain information or access.

In other words, he went on, at the time that RIPA was being passed "everyone in public life would have assumed, rightly or wrongly, that the intelligence services and the police did from time to time deploy officers in this way." So yes, RIPA authorisation probably does extend to sex - provided that the relationships themselves are not "degrading".


...

If Bond is a reliable guide on the appropriateness of undercover police officers indulging in sexual relationships with people they are supposed to be investigating for political protest, why wouldn't the officers equally at liberty to liquidate their sources when they cease to be useful? 007 has a licence to kill, after all, and regularly uses it to bump off his conquests. Many members of the public believe that secret agents behave like that anyway, and I don't think Parliament has ever explicitly forbidden it.

Another thing: apart from a short report in the Guardian, today's ruling has had very little media coverage, despite its potentially huge consequences for the rule of law. I realise, of course, that agents of the state engaging in sexual manipulation against peaceful, and essentially law-abiding, protesters matters far less than what some people on Twitter said about what Julie Burchill said in the Observer about what some other people on Twitter said to Suzanne Moore about what she'd written in the New Statesman. You'd think, though, looking at it from the outside (as I do) that the actual fucking police literally fucking duped activists and then using an obscure legal procedure to deny their victims open justice would interest people who call themselves radical and progressive rather more than a throwaway remark made by one self-identified feminist journalist, or even the genuinely offensive comments made by another high-profile feminist journalist a few days later in her defence, which is at the end of the day just words. You'd think so.  

Quite.

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Monday, December 24, 2012 

Ah, snobbery at Christmas.

Just when you thought the whole Plebgate nonsense couldn't get any more hilarious, the Tories finally discovering since one of their own might have been stitched up that you can't trust some officers as far as you can throw them, comes this:
There is such animosity towards the commissioner that some Tories – though not members of the Mitchell circle – have taken to referring to him as "Bernard Hogan hyphen Howe". Aristocrats traditionally look down on members of the middle classes who hyphenate double-barrelled names.
That is astonishingly witty, isn't it? Considering the "Mitchell circle" consists of, err, Mitchell, it's not a surprise that he wouldn't dream of being so snobbish, at least not where a police officer might be listening. As to its origin, a quick search suggests that it's been popularised by that other man of the people, Richard Littlejohn, who first used it in his column back in January and has repeated the gag numerous times since. So then, enjoy a thoroughly bourgeois Winterval, and I'll be back later in the week with all the usual end of the year crap.

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Friday, December 21, 2012 

Gosh, really?

I rarely do this, but it's nearly Christmas and hey-ho. Me, yesterday:


Not since David Blunkett have quite so many "friends of" a politician been briefing the newspapers. As it turned out, the friends of Blunkett were, err, Blunkett. Anyone willing to wager the same isn't the case this time round?

...

Was it simply not to antagonise the Police Federation further, or that Cameron had already decided his whip had to go, even if it was a time of his own choosing? 

The Graun, today:

Friends of Mitchell said it was "bloody astonishing" that Cameron had allowed him to resign even after No 10 officials had suggested that CCTV footage raised concerns about accounts of the incident. Mitchell met the prime minister to discuss the matter on Monday.

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Thursday, December 20, 2012 

The Tory who believes he was mugged by the police.

The old cliche goes that a conservative is just a mugged liberal.  Andrew Mitchell is that rare beast: a Conservative who believes he's been mugged by the police.  Amusing as it always is when those whose default position is to trust the police and the army while distrusting most other state employees discover to their horror that our brave boys in blue have the same flaws and potential prejudices as everyone else, Mitchell has clearly gone out of his to express how wronged he has been.  Not since David Blunkett have quite so many "friends of" a politician been briefing the newspapers.  As it turned out, the friends of Blunkett were, err, Blunkett.  Anyone willing to wager the same isn't the case this time round?

This isn't to say that there hasn't been an obvious element of foul play involved.  The member of the public who wasn't there but was a police officer does raise some uncomfortable questions both for the Met and the police federation.  It's understandable that Mitchell's outburst at the officers over their refusal to let him through the main Downing Street gates was soon more widely known, regardless of how it came about; what's more important is how it was leaked to the Sun, and how the letter from the officer came to be written.  If that can in any way be connected to the federation, and to the campaign that has been masterminded, if that's the right word, by Gaunt Brothers, then it becomes far more serious.

Let's not though fall into the trap of believing this is some grand conspiracy against Mitchell, the Conservatives and the government, at least until further evidence comes to light.  The CCTV footage from Downing Street proves precisely nothing either way: yes, it looks as though the officers exaggerated when they said in the log that there "were several members of the public present" and that "they look visibly shocked", as although there were people milling around, only one person seems to have taken much of an interest in what was going on.  This is hardly surprising, frankly, as anyone who's had almost any contact with the police will know.  What the CCTV doesn't contradict is the idea that's been established of Mitchell going on a tirade against the officers: in the log there is no mention of shouting, merely that there was a disagreement and Mitchell made his point extremely forcefully.  Moreover, Mitchell admits that some of the log is accurate: he did swear, saying something along the lines of "I thought you guys were meant to fucking help us," and he did say words to the effect of "you haven't heard the last of this" as he cycled off.  The only part he strenuously denies is calling them plebs.

As I wrote at the time, there was no real reason why this should have resulted in the end of Mitchell's career.  He apologised, the officers accepted his apology, and everyone ought to be allowed one such outburst or loss of temper, within reason at least.  It was the campaign orchestrated against Mitchell, not just by the federation but also a tabloid press not enamoured with Cameron's government that did for him.  Mitchell obviously believes that there is no way back into a ministerial position without proving his innocence, the obvious problem being that means either he or the police are lying.  Despite the exaggeration on the police's behalf about the witnesses, they had no reason to lie about Mitchell's use of words, unless we're meant to believe this was such a nefarious plot that the not letting him through the main gates was intended to precipitate just such a response from the chief whip, something that wasn't exactly guaranteed.  Pleb is also hardly a common insult these days; if you were making such a thing up, you'd probably go for "cunts" rather than "plebs", as it's just as believable.

Serious then as the allegations of fabrication higher up in the Met are, there's no reason as yet to believe Mitchell has been stitched up.  This doesn't so much resemble a plot against the government as it does the usual arse-covering that's endemic within the police, only this time they've been found of it.  What is worthy of further scrutiny is why the CCTV footage wasn't released earlier, when we know it was reviewed at the time.  Was it simply not to antagonise the Police Federation further, or that Cameron had already decided his whip had to go, even if it was a time of his own choosing?  If it was the latter, then this whole gambit from Mitchell looks to have been in vain anyhow.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012 

Don't leap to conclusions on Andrew Mitchell officer, says police chief...

...that's our job, insists Bernard Hogan-Howe.

In other news:
Desolate, frozen wasteland, neither use nor ornament, named after Queen
Lawyers disagree over how best to change human rights legislation to enhance their fees
Photo-sharing website owned by tax avoiders declares ownership of every highly filtered sex organ posted
UKIP voters "detached from reality", says Baron Ashcroft of Belize
 

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Friday, November 16, 2012 

Given the respect they deserved.

It was apparent from the moment Louise Mensch stepped down from her Corby seat that Labour would take the constituency back, such is the nature of the vast majority of by-elections held mid-term in key marginals.  The only question was how big the swing would be, and 12.7% with a majority of 7,791 is a thumping great win.  Grant Shapps (or is it Michael Green?), the Tory chairman, has naturally compared it with their win in Crewe and Nantwich in 2008, which saw a bigger swing of 16.9%, but it's hardly a comfort: the polls currently suggest a nationwide swing of 8.5% to Labour, more than enough for them to win outright if an election was to be held tomorrow.  Anything approaching 12.7% would be a landslide.  The turnout was 44%, more than respectable for a by-election held in November, so no excuses there either.

You of course extrapolate one result to a nationwide picture at your peril, yet the results in the other two by-elections, admittedly both safe Labour seats, were dismal for both coalition parties.  The Tories lost their deposit in Manchester Central, which had a pitiful turnout of 18% (although admittedly only down 26% from the general election itself), while the Lib Dems lost theirs in Corby, coming fourth behind UKIP, in spite of holding up the announcement of the results by about an hour through arguing the toss over it.  While the Lib Dem share of the vote will certainly recover come the election, it's clear that the polls aren't that far out in suggesting UKIP are almost neck and neck with them.  The European elections in 2014 are going to be very interesting indeed.

As for the PCC elections, all the predictions of a dreadful turnout have been proven right.  There were some wards where literally no one voted, which tells you all you need to know about how disgracefully the entire process has been instituted.  The highest turnout from the areas declared so far is 17.75% in Bedfordshire, where the candidacy of the EDL's Kevin Carroll (who came fourth) no doubt boosted it slightly (update: this has since been beaten by 19.15% in Humberside, where John Prescott was pushed into second place.  Don't think it was a good idea to get Tony Blair to canvass for you, John.).  Lowest is Staffordshire, which had the wonderful choice of either a Labour or Tory commissioner, motivating just 11.63% to voteLike Hopi Sen, I don't particularly want to believe that the whole point of holding the vote in November and with next to no information available other than on the internet was a specific ploy to depress the vote, and yet beyond the cock-up explanation, which isn't really convincing when all the warning signs were there, there doesn't seem to be any other reason for having done it this way.

The two bright spots are that despite the obstacles set in their way, independents have so far won in 12 authorities (although how independent they will be when some are former police officers is dubious), and that the number of spoilt ballots seems to have been high.  While some will have been down to confusion over the use of the supplementary vote, in Dwfed-Powys where there were only two candidates 4.3% spoiled their papers.  In my authority, where the Tory won after second preferences were counted, 6,413 ballots were spoilt, or roughly 2.8%, not all that far behind the independent who lagged in last with 6.79% of the vote.

Most important is that these were elections the Conservatives felt were theirs to lose.  Instead in the popular vote they're lagging behind Labour, and have lost in areas which are effectively Tory rotten boroughs at general elections: in Kent they were pulverised by a local magistrate and chair of the police authority, while in Gloucestershire a former police officer in favour of restorative justice and against the cuts won after the second round.  Sad as it is that so many party hacks have won, overall the elections and the parties have been treated with the amount of respect they deserved: very little.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2012 

Spoil early, spoil often.

Tomorrow, as you simply must have heard, sees the election of the first police and crime commissioners. Even if you've been living under a rock for the past year, you must have seen that wonderful video of the little girl crying over the constant coverage given to the issue, or found at least one piece of literature relating to the vote, such has been the abundance of leaflets shoved through letterboxes across England and Wales.  Who doesn't now know the names of the candidates standing in their police authority, or realise the utmost importance of putting some sort of political figure in charge, where previously chief constables dithered and blithered and told lies to everyone?  Everyone I know has been crying out for this sort of reform for years, and now finally we have the opportunity to put in place a washed-up party political figure to perform exactly the same task as was done in-house previously, only with the commissioner receiving an additional salary on top of that of the chief constable.

To call tomorrow's vote a completely pointless exercise is in some places hardly an exaggeration.  Such has been the enthusiasm that in three police authorities voters will have a choice between a Conservative and a Labour candidate, taking us back to the era when the two main parties won over 90% of the vote.  


The field is broader elsewhere, such as in my authority where all three main parties are standing alongside UKIP and two independents, but even then the candidates are deeply uninspiring.  The Labour candidate only defected from the Lib Dems after the setting up of the coalition, the UKIP candidate boasts, hilariously, that his party "does not have an overbearing central body of ideology built up over decades", and the pledges from the Tory candidate seem to have been copy/pasted from central office's guide on how to run your campaign.  The independents both say they're opposed to the politicisation of the police, but such have been the obstacles placed in the way of non-party candidates, with the deposit absurdly raised to £5,000 when it's only £500 at general elections, no free mail shots and the slightest of offences disqualifying candidates, the chances of anyone unable to gain major funding getting themselves elected seem minute.

Apart from the polling cards, I haven't received a single leaflet or any other indication through the mail that there's an election tomorrow.  If the Electoral Commission has been sending out booklets to every address in the country where there's a vote as they claim, then mine seems to have got lost somewhere.  Apparently there's been adverts running during the X Factor and Downton Abbey, yet anyone resistant to the charms of a programme dedicated to increasing Simon Cowell's bank balance while hastening the musical apocalypse and a drama based around the worship of early 20th century social deference will be none the wiser.  As for those without a free local paper or access to the internet, the only place to get information is a dedicated phone line, which naturally has been a fiasco.  This it seems will be the model for future elections, and interaction with the state in general: if you're not online, and clearly there's no excuse when it's the future daddio, then you might as well do yourself in now.

For those who like me have always voted, whether it be general, local, European or referendum, despite the chances of it changing anything being close to nil, the entire debacle raises a quandary.  The idea that these new commissioners will be a breath of fresh air and able to hold the police to account is laughable when the vast majority of the candidates are either local party apparatchiks or former MPs, many of whom will have dealt with the police previously on very favourable terms.  While some probably will try and put their own mark on local policing, demanding extra patrols in certain areas or zero tolerance on offensive beards, the chances are very little will change.  There may well be clashes of personality, and the odd sacking of a chief constable should they be deemed not draconian enough for a certain commissioner's liking, but it's not going to happen across the board.  Certainly, the public will barely even notice the difference.

Why then bother? Notes from a Broken Society argues that not voting or spoiling your ballot will be taken as a vote for the status quo, for the step-by-step privatisation of the police, and that wanting to keep politics out of policing is a misnomer in itself.  It's an argument I have some sympathy with: clearly, a low turnout isn't going to worry the Tories when the entire process seems to have been designed specifically to depress the vote.  Policing most definitely is political, it's true; what we don't need is the party politicisation of the police, especially at the local level.  We already have it nationally, and at best it's a distraction and at worst a licence for the persecution of minorities.  The requirement for the elected commissioners to swear an oath of impartiality is a cop-out, if you'll excuse the pun; why vote for a party candidate unless you agree somewhat with their national policy on law and order?  Also, while back office privatisation is taking place at a local level, it's going to be policy nationally that decides just how far it spreads, and regardless of Labour's opposition at the moment, you wouldn't bet against them changing their tune should they win the next election.

The best approach does then rather depend on your local circumstances (duh).  I'm most likely going to spoil my ballot, as neither independent seems to have a realistic chance of winning, and I can't see any significant difference among the party candidates.  As for the message to send, Janice Gwilliam has a template that's worth emulating, although I'm sure ACAB will also be a favourite.  Where there's an independent with a chance, there's never been a better opportunity to put the point across that parties should stay out of policing.  And as the elections are being held under the supplementary vote, you can always plump for a party candidate as your second choice if there's someone especially unpleasant (like John Prescott or the British Freedom Party's Kevin Carroll in Bedfordshire) on the ballot who could sneak in.

Oh, and as always, vote (or spoil) early and often.

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Monday, September 24, 2012 

Andrew Mitchell and me.

It turns out, against all the odds, that I have something in common with Andrew Mitchell. Both of us have sworn at police officers and thanks to the discretion of the police, not been arrested.

The circumstances of my altercation were though ever so slightly different. While Mitchell lost his rag after the police refused to open the main Downing Street gates to let him through on his bike, I was stopped on suspicion of being in the process of breaking and entering. I used to work at a shop on a main side street, and tasked with opening it one day, I naturally overslept. Rushing to get there on time, I also succeeded in forgetting to pick up the keys. Luckily, the shop had a pair of battered old wooden delivery doors which when suitably forced opened just enough for you to get the bolts out of the ground. Both myself and the owners had used this method before when locked out, or when the keys had done a vanishing act.

While trying to force the doors open, at the same time as reassuring anyone walking past that it wasn't what it may have looked like, I noticed that a police van had gone past on the junction at the bottom of the road. Hoping against hope that they wouldn't be coming back the other way, I continued my attempts, only for around three minutes later the van to come haring round the corner at the top of the street, with three officers swiftly leaping out. Someone had obviously stopped them and said there was some nutter trying break into a shop round the corner. Even though I'd taken my top off and left it on the ground and didn't try to run as soon as they approached, they refused to accept that I was anything to do with the shop, even after the owner of the shop next door came out and told them I worked there. "You two could be in this together for all I know," the officer who had took charge told me. It was then I informed him that he could go forth and multiply, although I did add a conciliatory "mate" on the end of my statement.

Luckily, he didn't arrest me there and then but did inform me I'd be nicked if I said anything else along those lines, and proceeded to search me. Finding nothing, and agreeing to ring my boss, who backed my version of events (after they checked the van parked across the road belonging to him was his), they finally decided I'd been telling the truth all along. I then apologised, he graciously accepted it, and off they went. A minute later and the doors had been pushed back far enough for me to get in. Apart from the embarrassment at my stupidity on all counts, that was that.

By rights, they could have arrested me even before I'd swore. Broad daylight or not, and in full sight of everyone walking down the street, it was possible I could have been breaking in to steal, even though forcing the doors had taken me a good five minutes or more and I'd taken my top off in the process. They were just doing their job. Yes, they could have taken at face value the account of the shop owner next door and not given such a specious reason for not believing him, but still. They could well have come across burglars drugged up or idiotic enough to be doing exactly what I was.

I do then have more than a sliver of sympathy for Mitchell.  We are surely all entitled on occasion to lose our temper, or get so exasperated for whatever reason that we let fly, even if it's at a police officer.  As long as we then apologise and ensure that it hasn't been taken as a personal affront, that should be the end of it.  In Mitchell's case, regardless of whether or not he did call the police who blocked him either plebs or morons, the officer he directed his frustration at has accepted his apology.  That ought to have sorted it.

Except, of course, this is the first government since the days of Macmillan to be so dominated by both millionaires and the privately educated.  Yes, if any minister of any recent government had called police officers "plebs" then there'd be uproar, but that it's this one, when the police are already up in arms over the Winsor report and when it was the day after the shooting dead of the two officers in Manchester, you might just have imagined that Mitchell wouldn't have been such a boor.  As is so often the case, it seems that someone who's reportedly a stickler for protocol and appearance in his office, asking for civil servants to wear ties when they're around him, expects respect and yet fails to always give it in return.  Add in how Mitchell initially denied he had swore at all, and it wouldn't have been a surprise if David Cameron had asked for his resignation.

That he hasn't is as much down to the Police Federation's role as anything else.  Their representative's appearance on Newsnight on Friday, when he claimed that David Cameron's words on the deaths of the officers in Manchester were hollow wasn't just over the top, it must have concentrated minds in Downing Street.  Why else would Cameron have accepted Mitchell's account, when the police from the diplomatic protection service had no reason whatsoever to lie about what happened?  "Pleb" is hardly a common insult, and it's difficult to see what else they could have mistaken it for, unless "Clegg" on its own is now a epithet amongst Tories.

This said, and as much as the opposition has to, err, oppose, the call for an investigation into it from Labour is utterly ridiculous and a waste of time.  If the police are to be believed, then the Tories have just confirmed the very worst that is thought of them, and that's going to be a difficult thing to shake.  Going after Mitchell isn't going to make any difference.  If on the other hand you take the minister's side, that it was just an aggravation at the end of a very long day, then Labour also aren't going to achieve anything.  Indeed, if you're among the former, then it just enhances the belief that this government is helmed by condescending posh boys who think the lower orders, including the police, should know their place.  And Labour can't really ask for much more than that.

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