This article is taken from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
How can we ensure that police forces are accountable to the public without making them answerable to party politicians? That’s the problem that has dogged the UK’s largest constabulary, the Metropolitan Police. A showdown is scheduled for mid-November.
For 170 years, London’s police force was accountable only to the home secretary. That changed in 2000 when parliament created a London Assembly and a Mayor of London. The mayor’s role was strengthened in 2012 when new legislation established the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime.
Mopac, as it’s called, is not an office with staff sitting at desks. It’s a public office, held by whoever happens to be Mayor of London at the time. Since May 2016, Mopac has been Sadiq Khan, who practised as a solicitor before serving as a Labour MP. Legislation passed in 2011 allows the mayor — as Mopac — to hold the Metropolitan Police commissioner to account.
Mopac, in turn, is accountable to the London Assembly, acting through a committee called the police and crime panel. That panel can investigate Mopac’s actions and decisions. It can also require the mayor – as Mopac – to attend the assembly and give evidence.
Khan has been ordered by the panel to attend a meeting in November at which it will ask him about the resignation of the former commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick. This is the first time the mayor has been summonsed in this way.
And what if Khan fails, without reasonable excuse, to turn up?
And what if Khan fails, without reasonable excuse, to turn up? Or he refuses to answer any question properly put to him there? Or fails, without reasonable excuse, to produce a specified document? Or intentionally destroys such a document? He could be prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned for up to three months.
Is there any reason to think he might not cooperate with an official inquiry? Unfortunately, there is. To understand why, we must go back the beginning of this year.
Despite widespread concerns about policing in London, Dick’s five-year term as commissioner had recently been extended until April 2024. On 19 January, she had a meeting with the mayor and the home secretary, then Priti Patel, at which Khan praised the commissioner’s work.
A week later, though, the mayor was shown new details of serious misconduct by some officers at Charing Cross police station – most of which happened before Dick became commissioner. That led to a heated meeting with Khan. According to Dick, the mayor told her to sack all those who had been investigated. She told him she had no power to dismiss officers who had been cleared or punished already. Khan denies this account of their conversation.
A tense week passed and Khan gave interviews in which he failed to express confidence in Dick. There were further meetings before Khan announced on 10 February that Dick had resigned. In fact, she remained commissioner until 24 April.
Patel (who had not been consulted by Khan) ordered a review. On 25 March, Sir Tom Winsor, a lawyer who had served for nearly ten years as chief inspector of constabulary, was asked to find out what had happened and make recommendations for the future.
Appointed under the Royal prerogative, he had no power to demand answers. Winsor received extensive co-operation from Dick. But Khan, who was first approached in early April, did not agree to meet him until 17 August. This level of engagement, says Winsor, was “far too little and far too late”.
Mopac did not follow due process, Winsor concluded in a report published by Patel at the beginning of September. Khan’s failure to comply with statutory procedures was an abuse of power. “The commissioner is not an employee of the mayor,” he said, “but she was in effect constructively dismissed by him.” Dick felt she had no option but to step aside.
Winsor thinks it was open to her to stay and fight. “Stepping aside too readily risks encouraging elected local policing bodies to make public declarations of no confidence in a chief officer, in expectation that they will render the officer’s position untenable and their decision effectively unchallengeable,” he wrote. That would politicise the commissioner’s position, like a US police chief who goes in and out of office with the mayor and can be dismissed at will.
Winsor regards the commissioner’s job as probably the second hardest in the country, after that of prime minister. Given London’s unique position, he believes the home secretary should retain responsibility for the Met rather than transfer more power to the mayor.
Indeed, he agrees with one witness that the system should make it more politically hazardous for a mayor to try to remove the commissioner without sound reasons. He suggests a number of reforms that would make the mayor think twice before behaving inappropriately. These need to be considered carefully by Patel’s successor, Suella Braverman.
Khan says that Winsor’s report is “clearly biased and ignores the facts”. But the mayor still has questions to answer. No doubt he will welcome the opportunity to do so on 16 November.
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