When I was on the London Assembly between 2000 and 2004, most meetings of the Assembly itself were pretty dull with the only excitement (and that only counted as excitement if you were a pretty sad individual) being some fairly petty inter-Party bickering. However, maybe things have changed. Earlier today, I finally caught up with the webcast of yesterday’s meeting of the Assembly (I know I’ve been a bit slow but I have had quite a number of other things on in the last couple of days). This was the meeting where the Assembly was questioning Mayor Boris Johnson (in his capacity as Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA)) along with Sir Paul Stephenson, Acting Commissioner.
Len Duvall‘s questioning of the Mayor was scrutiny at its best and has been described to me as “forensic” by a number of people who were there. Len, of course, is Leader of the Labour Group and followed me as Chair of MPA until Boris Johnson took over at the beginning of October.
Len first of all asked the Mayor about the comments attributed to him that the arrest of Damian Green was unlikely to lead to a charge or a prosecution. The Mayor then repeated the comments and didn’t seem to see any incongruity in statements like that being made by a Chair of a Police Authority, who has just been briefed in confidence by senior police officers on a continuing police operation.
Len then asked another series of questions about who the Mayor had subsequently talked to about the police operation. Initially, the Mayor was reluctant to say, muttering something about his wife, but then blurted out that he had telephoned Damian Green himself. This is frankly an extraordinary admission.
As Len commented subsequently:
“It is astonishing that the Mayor, following a briefing from senior police officers, has been speaking to a suspect under police investigation. He received information as chair of the MPA, then went to his political ally and old friend, who is now under criminal investigation. This is not appropriate behaviour for a chair of the police authority.
“Whether he likes it or not, the public perception will be that he his too involved in this investigation and is looking after his mates. Regardless of the merits of this particular case, should the chair of the police authority be speaking to a suspect in a criminal investigation? Should he then pre-judge the outcome of that investigation? The answer to both those questions is ‘no’. Boris should reflect on how he and his officials have behaved from the start of this affair and re-consider whether, if he is going to use sensitive information for political capital, he is an appropriate person to chair the authority.
“The appropriate time to raise issues around police action is once an investigation, and in this case the review announced today, is completed.”
A police officer who did something similar and spoke without authorisation to a person who had been arrested and released on police bail would be liable to disciplinary action.
An ordinary member of a police authority who did something like this might well be reported to the Standards Board for breaching the Code of Conduct governing members of public bodies and could, in principle, end up by being suspended from office.
So what will happen to the Mayor? No doubt, he assumes that his charm, coupled with a bumbling mea culpa and an admission that he is new to this sort of public accountability will get him through. But Len gave him a lifeline and asked whether he would go away and reflect on whether his conduct was appropriate as Chair of the Police Authority. However, the Mayor wasn’t having it – instead, he effectively said he would do the same thing again.
If the Mayor continues as Chair of the Police Authority, some interesting issues are raised. Will the police ever trust him enough after this to brief him about confidential matters and on operational issues? They will certainly think twice in the future about talking to the Mayor in his capacity as Chair of the MPA about an ongoing investigation if they run the risk of the Mayor’s next act being to ring a suspect in that investigation for a cosy chat and to publicly announce his views on the likely outcome of that investigation.
However, if there isn’t a relationship of trust on such matters between the Mayor and senior police officers, London will lose out because everywhere else in the country one of the roles of a police authority chair is to be briefed and, on occasions, to give advice or to warn, whilst respecting the operational independence and decision-making of the police command structure. The Mayor was quite within his rights to urge caution on the police in the matter of the alleged Home Office leaker and Damian Green, but that should have been a caution urged privately (at least, whilst the investigation is in progress – and, of course, it is still continuing) and not then briefed out to the media and repeated to the London Assembly.