Don’t expect an apology from the police… even if they cost you your job. On Wednesday the three officers caught up in the so-called “pleb-gate” scandal, which led to former Tory Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell losing his role in the Party, REFUSED to issue an apology for their accounts of events, despite all three facing looming disciplinary action over their conduct.
Inspector Ken MacKaill, Detective Sergeant Stuart Hinton and Sergeant Chris Jones, all representing the Police Federation, appeared before a panel of MPs to answer questions over their handling of the affair, but steadfastly refused to issue an apology over the accounts they gave of the October meeting, going only as far as apologising for speaking to the media so promptly afterwards.
It was after this meeting that they informed the press that Mitchell had refused to tell them exactly what he said during a reported foul-mouthed confrontation with officers in Downing Street the previous month, leading to Mitchell losing his job.
All three were later accused of telling untruths relating to that meeting, which had been recoded. Speaking before the Home Affairs Select Committee, Hinton said: "We showed poor judgment in speaking to the media immediately following the meeting with Mr Mitchell. I think we are all happy to take the criticism on the chin for that. What we should have done is given ourselves an opportunity to debrief the meeting. We certainly didn't lie intentionally."
Likewise Jones, who said he did not believe that they had done anything wrong. "I'm firmly of the opinion that we did represent that meeting correctly when we emerged from that meeting. At the moment I'm not convinced that we have done anything wrong," he said.
MacKaill too stood by his initial account of the meeting, giving MPs the rather cryptic answer: "I gave what I believed was an accurate account of the meeting to the media but I subscribe to the apology that I shouldn't have done it in the way I did. We should have considered a response."
(Left to right) Sergeant Chris Jones, Inspector Ken MacKaill and Detective Sergeant Stuart Hinton
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Earlier Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons that the three officers and the chief constables should give "a full account and a proper apology" at today's hearing. The committee heard that the chief constable of West Mercia Police David Shaw has "rescinded" a decision that the three officers had no case to answer for misconduct.
Committee chairman Keith Vaz said that the move "totally vindicates" the findings of an original internal investigation which recommended a misconduct charge, but was overturned by three chief constables. The decision not to press ahead with misconduct charges was challenged by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), which said there were issues of ''honesty and integrity'' among the three representatives of the Police Federation, who held a private meeting with Mr Mitchell last October about claims that he had called officers guarding the Downing Street gates "plebs".
Chief Inspector Jerry Reakes-Williams, who conducted the internal investigation, told MPs that he still believes that the officers have a case to answer over accounts they gave of the meeting. He said: "I did find a case to answer for misconduct and that's still my view."
Mitchell met the three officers in his Sutton Coldfield constituency office on October 12 last year, after he was accused of calling officers guarding Downing Street ''plebs'' in a foul-mouthed rant as he was asked to cycle through a side gate on September 19.
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The Tory MP said he wanted to meet Mr MacKaill, Det Sgt Hinton and Sgt Jones to ''clear the air''. A secret recording made by Mr Mitchell shows that he apologised for swearing at the police officers but denied using the word ''plebs'', while in comments made after the meeting MacKaill claimed the former Tory chief whip refused to provide an account of the incident.
Reakes-Williams, who deals with professional standards for Warwickshire and West Mercia police, told MPs that, on the instructions of the IPCC, he omitted his recommendations on disciplinary action when he passed his report on to his superiors. But he said that in a later meeting with the deputy chief constables of Warwickshire and West Mercia, he made "absolutely clear" that he believed the three officers should be disciplined for "misleading" the public, but stopped short of finding that they should be sacked for gross misconduct.
"My view is that, taken as a whole, the comments made by the federation representatives did have the impact of misleading the public as to what happened in that meeting," Mr Reakes-Williams told MPs. "But I think it's important that I make the distinction between misconduct and gross misconduct."
For a charge of gross misconduct - which carries the possible sanction of dismissal - he would have to have been sure that the officers had gone to the Sutton Coldfield meeting with the "pre-meditated" intention of lying about Mitchell, he said. And he said he was not certain that Mitchell had in fact given a full account of the Downing Street incident in his discussion with them.
"I would disagree with you that Mr Mitchell gave a full account," said Mr Reakes-Williams. "Clearly, Mr Mitchell was absolutely clear in that meeting about what he did not say, but he did not in my view make it so clear what he actually did say." When asked whether he thinks Mitchell - who resigned his job in Cabinet shortly after the Sutton Coldfield meeting - is owed an apology for the way the case was handled, Reakes-Williams said: "Certainly I do."
The IPCC's deputy chairwoman Deborah Glass told the Home Affairs Committee that she was "absolutely astonished" when a final report came back from the three forces recommending that the officers had no case to answer. She went on: "Nothing gave me any concern until I saw that final report on August 28 which concluded no case to answer. Until that point I had no inkling that this was going to be anything other than at least misconduct, and I expected gross misconduct."
Glass added: "All I can say is that to me the evidence and the conclusions were so at odds that I needed to put that on the public record."
The three officers came under attack from several members of the committee for the way in which they had behaved after the meeting with Mitchell. Conservative MP Michael Ellis told them: "I suggest that you can give an apology for spinning a yarn to the press to get somebody out of high public office, because it is clear that that is what you were trying to do."
Ellis said that the Police Federation had engaged a media relations company to help publicise its campaign against cuts, and that a representative of the company, Jon Gaunt, accompanied them to the Sutton Coldfield meeting. The MP suggested that Gaunt took calls from the media about the location of the meeting, despite Mitchell having made clear he wanted it to be private, and advised the officers that they should conclude their discussions in time to appear on the 6pm news bulletins.
"You acted in concert with a view to discredit a senior Cabinet minister," said Mr Ellis. "You thought that collectively you could bring down a member of the Government in penalty for what you thought was a bad policy (on police cuts)."
Labour MP Chris Ruane asked them: "Do you not feel any pity, sympathy and compassion for what he has gone through?" But the three officers rejected any suggestion that they had plotted together to bring down Mr Mitchell. "I absolutely refute that suggestion," said MacKaill.
Hinton said that Gaunt had been told to keep the venue of the meeting with Mitchell secret, and told MPs he would be angry if he found he had leaked it to the press. He accepted that the row over the meeting had damaged the Police Federation campaign against cuts.
"The poor judgment shown in using the incident in Downing Street as a hook to draw attention to our cuts campaign was regrettable in hindsight," said Hinton. As the three officers concluded their evidence, Vaz warned them that giving inaccurate evidence to the committee would amount to a contempt of Parliament, and added: "We have found your evidence most unsatisfactory."