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Conduct of the Metropolitan Police

March 19, 2014

Mark made the following contribution to a Westminster Hall debate on the conduct of the Metropolitan Police, tabled by Tessa Munt MP:

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative)

I congratulate Tessa Munt on bringing up this difficult, complicated case; it is greatly to her credit that she has done so. It would be easy for all of us, in this age of political correctness and in the light of some of the allegations, to sweep it under the carpet. That is not to say that there are not fundamental, general problems with the Metropolitan Police Service, which I want to deal with more generally, having been a Member of Parliament in London for 13 years. It is perhaps ironic that the MPS has, with good cause, great sensitivity about race-related incidents—I shall talk a little about the Stephen Lawrence affair in a moment or two—but that in spite of that sensitivity it seems to be engulfed in controversies, such as the one that has been outlined in detail this morning. The hon. Lady described an appalling state of affairs, and I hope that the Home Office will pay considerable attention to what happened.

It would be an understatement to observe that the Metropolitan Police Service did not enjoy its happiest decade or so in the noughties and beyond. It is still deeply damaged by revelations over the Stephen Lawrence case, which, distressingly, continue to this day. The organisation was of course brought into fresh disrepute following the controversial shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in Stockwell in July 2005, and the manslaughter in my constituency of the newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson some three or four years ago. I am sorry to say it, because like many people from the right of the political divide, my instincts are to favour authority, including the police service, but I have been worried; I have spoken many times in the House and written articles on my grave concerns about the way the Metropolitan Police Service has operated, and about failings by its leadership. Frankly, there have been mendacious and at times calculated attempts by senior figures in the Met to disguise what happened during various events, including those we have heard about today, and to influence public opinion in its favour.

In the case of Jean Charles de Menezes, we were told at the outset that he was an illegal immigrant who bore resemblance to a terror suspect; that he had vaulted a ticket barrier; and that traces of cocaine were found in his urine. The picture was not entirely dissimilar in the less well-known case of Ian Tomlinson. When the newspaper vendor died of a heart attack on the streets of the City of London in April 2009 during the G20 protests, most people probably instinctively had faith that the police were doing their best in difficult circumstances—and the police do operate in difficult circumstances, as we all know. After people had witnessed sanctimonious street warriors antagonising police officers, a sharp shove to an obnoxious protestor would not have made headlines, had the victim in question not died. The official line would be that a stressed officer in a tense situation lashed out, hitting an innocent person in the mêlée. Following the clash, the man walked off, and died only later of a heart attack, as the riotous crowd prevented him from getting medical attention.

The problem, of course, with that version of events, as put out by the Metropolitan Police Service at the time, was that it was plainly untrue. Fortunately—in contrast to the position in the case set out by the hon. Lady—there was a substantial amount of CCTV footage, which was not indiscriminately destroyed by the police.

Therefore video clips of the incident appeared later, revealing that the victim had been hit across the legs with a baton by a masked police officer in what was clearly an unprovoked attack. A subtle shift in message followed, through the selective leaking of information about Tomlinson’s background and behaviour. I am very sorry to say that was clearly not an isolated incident for the Metropolitan Police Service. Its apparent relationship with the media continues, and it seems to think it needs to be able to put out its own line on stories, as has been shown in various incidents that I shall refer to.

The Tomlinson matter was of course of some concern to me. I was reassured within days of the incident in a private meeting with the Independent Police Complaints Commission that a thorough investigation of the background to the incident was under way, yet the IPCC’s handling of the case came into question, as did its handling of the case that we heard about this morning, particularly in relation to its cosiness with the police in the capital.

Appalling as both the de Menezes and Tomlinson incidents were, I believe that it was the subsequent public relations management of the events, and the police culture that that revealed, that so harmed confidence, trust and faith in our law enforcers. In the case of de Menezes, I have always suspected that the public would have forgiven the Met had it immediately admitted that a terrible mistake had been made. Similarly, in the Tomlinson case, where media hyped the prospect of attacks by rent-a-mob anarchists, we had a situation not entirely removed from the frenzied situation on the streets of London in July 2005, when the fear of Islamic terrorism loomed large. Once again, I believe that the decent majority of the public would have been happy to accept that the Metropolitan Police are unable to micro-manage the conduct of all their officers at all times. It was the spectacle of coppers deliberately closing ranks and trying to distort the truth that utterly undermined the police force.

After both incidents, we were assured that lessons had been learned, so it has been incredibly disheartening to see controversial events in the current decade handled in a similarly opaque, if not outright deceptive, way. I refer, of course, to the shooting of Mark Duggan on the streets of Tottenham in August 2011 and the so-called plebgate incident a year or so later, which led to the political demise of a Cabinet Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell, after his fateful encounter at the gates of Downing street with a dishonest police officer.

On the Mitchell affair, although similar minor tussles occur between police and members of the public each and every day in our city, the damaging aspect of the encounter was that it reinforced the view that the Met goes to great efforts to protect its own, even if that is at the expense of the truth coming out. This makes it difficult for the public to trust that the organisation and its members are bastions of justice for the ordinary man and woman. In addition, when the Met’s top team is embroiled in such squabbles, focus inevitably rests on handling the media and careful construction of a PR narrative, rather than on fighting crime. Londoners can be forgiven for not seeing the plebgate row as especially critical to dealing with the problems on the streets, but none the less, it reflects a deep-seated mendacity in the police’s approach.

Even if Londoners are unconcerned about the fates of Messrs Duggan, Mitchell, de Menezes and Tomlinson, or of the territorial support group officers to whom the hon. Member for Wells referred, such incidents make even middle-class, Tory-voting residents in my constituency doubt the word of the Metropolitan police in a way that would have been unimaginable only 15 or so years ago. Londoners are, I am afraid, finding it increasingly difficult to trust that our law enforcers are law-abiders. Indeed, it is remarkable that many middle-class Londoners who would never previously have questioned the police are now inclined to think again.

At the time of the Tomlinson investigation, The Daily Telegraph advised:

“As a newspaper, we have a long record of defending the police even in the most difficult circumstances…Yet it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so, especially when the police themselves seek to cover up the failings that inevitably beset any organisation.”

Those words could have come from the mouths of many dozens of my Conservative colleagues, and they have certainly come from mine. That whole culture has to stop. For sure, there will always be mistakes, and it would be completely wrong for the errors of a few to undermine the elements of excellent police work done by the many. There is no excuse, however, for the mendacity apparent in the attempts at manipulation of public opinion that follow too many high-profile, controversial Metropolitan police slip-ups.

The immediate reaction of the Met’s leadership should always be transparently and without favour to seek out the truth, to isolate problems and to apply the rule of law to its own officers when necessary. It is understandable and inevitable that the initial police instinct is to close ranks when confronted by public aggression. The leadership, however, should recognise that the majority of those whom they police by consent—thankfully in this country we still have a passion for the notion that policing is by consent—are reasonable and understand some of the real pressures that the police find themselves under, in particular here in the capital city. Only by being honest and transparent with the public when mistakes have been made can trust be restored in the Metropolitan Police Service.