9 Jun 2013

David Davis’s tough questions to Hogan-Howe over Plebgate ‘leak’

The senior Tory and former shadow home secretary David Davis has added to the pressure on the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, over the Plebgate affair by sending him a tough letter.

And tonight on Channel 4 News, the former Justice Minister Crispin Blunt warned the Metropolitan Police Commissioner’s position would become “untenable” if it was found he had leaked sensitive information on Operation Alice – the criminal inquiry into Plebgate – to the press.

Channel 4 News has obtained a copy of a letter David Davis sent to Hogan-Howe on Friday asking further questions and making Freedom of Information requests.  The MP asks whether Hogan-Howe leaked to the press information about the Operation Alice inquiry, and the conclusions of the Scotland Yard file sent to the Crown Prosecution Service at the end of March.

Davis writes in his letter: “As you know my concern stems from the original assault on Andrew Mitchell’s reputation and career created by the account given by some police officers of the events in Downing Street on the 19th September 2012.  Subsequent evidence showed that one officer lied about his status, masquerading as a civilian, whilst video evidence cast extreme doubt on at least part of the testimony of another.

“I was rather surprised therefore to see remarkably similar headlines in both the Guardian and Times Newspapers, to the effect that ‘Police find no evidence that Plebgate officers lied.

“Put to one side the fact that the original offence was a (possibly deliberate) assault on the reputation of Mr Mitchell, which this briefing seems to compound.

“My understanding was always that communications between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service were classified at least as “Restricted”, and certainly not intended to be disseminated to the press, either in detail or in summary form. To do so undermines the judicial process and the public’s confidence in the impartiality of the system.”

Awkward questions

And David Davis then poses a series of awkward questions to Sir Bernard: “Can you tell me categorically whether you said anything to those journalists that could have led them to write the stories that appeared in the Times and Guardian of the 28th and 29th March 2013?  In particular did you give them any grounds whatsoever to write that there was no evidence that police officers had lied?

“All of these questions would be unnecessary if you were able to provide a record of the conversations.  You say that no note was made of any of the conversations. This is, of course, a breach of the Filkin guidelines.

“It is, even more seriously, a breach of the guidance that you issued to your own officers in May of last year.”

Since you had MPS [Metropolitan Police Service] press officers in attendance at each of these meetings, did you instruct them in advance not to take notes at these meetings? Or was this their standard procedure solely for your meetings, in contrast to the standing orders for the rest of the Metropolitan Police?

“Finally, whilst it is said that no notes were taken in these meetings, the [previous] FOI response is silent about whether any of them were recorded by electronic means.  I would be grateful for an explicit response to this question.”

‘Wretched position’

Meanwhile, Crispin Blunt told Channel 4 News on Sunday that if Sir Bernard was the source of leaks to journalists, “his position is very difficult to be tenable”.

Mr Blunt added: “If he made a clean breast of what he has done and why he has done it, he is a police officer with a very high reputation…I think in those circumstances one would then want him to continue, having then learned the lesson of putting in place the policy that he set up a year ago.

“It’s a wretched position at the minute, that things are having to be dragged out of him bit by bit.”

Some senior Tories clearly won’t let the matter drop.  They feel Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe badly mishandled the Plebgate affair last autumn; that he was too willing to defend his officers, and showed a lack of curiosity about what happened that night last September in Downing Street. 

Now they are exasperated that the Operation Alice inquiry is taking so long, quite apart from these strong suspicions the Met chief personally and seriously broke the rules about briefing the media.

Alongside David Davis’s efforts to find the truth, another leading backbench Tory, Richard Ottaway (who is chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee) will raise Operation Alice at Home Office questions on Monday.  And members of the Home Affairs Committee plan to question Hogan-Howe about his media briefings when the commissioner next appears before the committee at the end of this month.

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