The Guardian view on the Partygate investigation: blame the system | Editorial

To dismiss the Metropolitan police investigation into Downing Street’s lockdown gatherings as a waste of time, as rightwing newspapers did on Friday, is grotesque. No police inquiry that resulted in 126 fines on 83 individuals from a single workplace for Covid breaches in a country in which more than 178,000 people have died from the virus should be described in that contemptuous way. No investigation that established widespread rule-breaking at the heart of government, where those very Covid rules were made, deserves to be brushed aside as entirely pointless, as the Daily Mail did.

Yet the Met’s Operation Hillman inquiry was in many ways a sorry affair. It was a mistake not to investigate the parties much earlier. It was humiliating to then do a U-turn and launch an investigation under political and media pressure. It was foolish to apply rules of process that suggested special treatment for politicians. It was a misjudgment to suspend the operation during the local elections. It was wrong to wrap the whole exercise in so much secrecy. All this, though, was of a piece with many other inconsistencies in the way that the pandemic was policed around Britain.

Most of the response to Operation Hillman has focused on the implications for politics. But what about the implications for policing? The handling of the Downing Street breaches has done further damage to the credibility of a force that is already reeling from other recent scandals about race and sex. The Downing Street investigation has managed to offend almost everyone in some way, on the right as well as the left, in the civil service and the media as well as the Tory party, and above all among those who were bereaved by Covid. The police should be deeply concerned about this almost unanimous verdict.

One particularly troubling suspicion from the Partygate inquiry is that police felt intimidated by the possible consequences of what they were looking into. In theory, Britain’s police are operationally independent. But it didn’t always feel that way during the past few months, including this week. Downing Street, after all, is the place where they have the final say on police spending, police numbers and police structures. The Met commissioner’s job is also currently vacant and the force leaderless. These will have been difficult factors to ignore absolutely.

All this may be dismissed as speculative, but there is wider evidence that police accountability in Britain is not working as well as it should be. The state of policing report issued by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services in March states that “too many chief constables” currently lack confidence in the resilience of the boundary between political accountability and operational independence. In parts of the country, the report says, there is “an atmosphere of mistrust and fear” among police chiefs. In the worst cases, police efficiency and effectiveness have suffered and police leaders have been reluctant to put their heads above the parapet. Such a process may have applied in Operation Hillman too.

The system of police accountability in England and Wales – to elected police and crime commissioners as well as some mayors – is a decade old this year. It has not been a success. Turnout for the elections is derisory. The elections put too much power in the hands of one person, and there have been some bad breakdowns in trust. London’s experience has been particularly turbulent, but it is not unique. Police operational independence ought to be a crucial defence for the public against the development of a police state. The current accountability system makes it harder to uphold and produces poorer outcomes. When no one is satisfied with a system, it is surely time to change it.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.