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Police must not be influenced in conducting high profile investigations

20 November 2015

"Errors of judgment" must be rectified and future decisions taken purely on evidence – as suggested by the Home Affairs Committee in its report on police investigations published on Friday 20 November 2015.

The Commons Home Affairs Committee says the Metropolitan Police Service was wrong to be influenced by a fear of "media criticism and public cynicism" in its handling of the Lord Brittan case. It says this is not a proper basis for police decisions on whether to proceed with an investigation, which should be considered in a wholly objective manner, based solely on the evidence. It believes that errors of judgement were made in this case and that the MPS should take steps to ensure that its future decision-making is not influenced improperly by its perceptions of potential public criticism.

Findings

The Committee concludes:

  • The MPS pressed the CPS to review its decision that the evidential criteria in the Lord Brittan case had not been met, despite acknowledging that its own further investigations "had not strengthened the available evidence".
  • The Metropolitan Police has asked the DPP to consider changing her Director's Guidance to allow "significant public interest" to be taken into account when coming to decisions about whether a case should be referred to the CPS, where the evidential threshold is not satisfied or the case is borderline. The Committee does not agree with this proposal and supports the DPP's position that the requirement to meet the evidence threshold should remain the first criterion for coming to a decision.
  • The report notes the similarities between the handling by the MPS and CPS of the Lord Brittan and Paul Gambaccini case. It concludes that proper account needs to be taken of the considerable publicity which high-profile cases attract, and the enormous impact which this has on the individuals against whom allegations have been made. These cases need to be dealt with sensitively, with exactly the same standards exercised as in any other case. It asks the MPS and the CPS to set out the steps they plan to take to improve their handling of such cases.
  • Members of Parliament should confine their involvement in criminal investigations to passing information to the proper authorities. The Committee says it was not appropriate for Tom Watson MP to have made the comments he did about Lord Brittan in the press, which could have potentially impacted ongoing inquiries and only served to further impugn the name of the (by then deceased) Lord Brittan. The Committee recommends Mr Watson make a written apology to Lord Brittan's family.

Chair's comments

Rt Hon Keith Vaz MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

"We do not agree with the Metropolitan Police's argument that Lord Brittan could not have been informed about the status of the investigation by the time he died in January 2015. The only reason for the delay was the MPS's errors of judgement and insistence on appealing the CPS decision that the evidence file did not meet the necessary threshold. Although the MPS's late apology to Lady Brittan is welcome, she has had the anguish of seeing her husband die without him knowing that he had been cleared.

The MPS is highly respected in Britain and internationally, and the police must continue to command public confidence on these matters. 'Policing by consent' is not the same as reacting to criticism by members of the public and by the media. For the Police to be seen to be influenced by "media criticism and public cynicism" risks undermining the whole basis of its investigations.

There are disturbing similarities between the handling of this case and that of Paul Gambaccini. The CPS and MPS must set out the steps they plan to take to improve their handling of these cases, particularly in relation to avoiding delays in the investigation process, and in informing the suspect about progress with, and the outcome of, the investigation. False allegations made against any individual has devastating reputational consequences.

Both the Director of Public Prosecutions and DCI Paul Settle should be commended for their actions. Members of Parliament should take care that their passion for justice should not cross the line into areas that are not appropriate or for giving rise to any perception, real or imagined, that the criminal justice system is being used for other purposes. An apology from Tom Watson to Lady Brittan would draw a line under these unfortunate circumstances. There are clearly lessons to be learnt."

Further information

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