Wednesday 23 October 2013

Has Andrew Mitchell really given a full account?

Let's recap.

On 21 September 2012 the Sun ran a front page story headed CABINET MINISTER: POLICE ARE PLEBS.

The Sun reported that police officers in Downing Street claimed Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell had called them "plebs" on Wednesday 19 September after they refused to open the main gates to let him wheel his bike through.

The report included the following allegations:

- that Mitchell said "Open this gate, I'm the Chief Whip.  I'm telling you - I'm the Chief Whip, and I'm coming through these gates."

- that Mitchell said "Best you learn your f***ing place. You don't run this f***ing government.

- that Mitchell raged "You're f***ing plebs".

The report stated that the row followed a similar standoff the previous night, when officers had also refused to let Mr Mitchell go through the main gate.

The report said that Mitchell had apologised "but insisted he did not use the word 'plebs'."

From the outset there were calls for Mitchell to clarify exactly what he did say:

The next day the Mail ran a front page story and it reported police officers saying Mitchell had said "I'll have your job for this!"

On 24 September the Telegraph published what it described as "the full 442 word police log of the incident" (in fact the full log of one officer):

Calls for Mitchell's resignation grew.

Michell gave a statement to the media in which he denied using the word "plebs" but refused to say what he did say:

This refusal was noted and Mitchell was widely criticised for it.

Amongst others, Nick Clegg called for Mitchell to give a detailed account of what had happened:

A few weeks later, on 12 October, Mitchell met with three Police Federation representatives local to his West Midlands constituency at their request.

It was still an issue that Mitchell had never given a full account.

After the meeting one of the Police Federation representatives, Inspector Ken Mackaill, Chair of the West Mercia Police Federation, made statements to the media in which he (a) pointed out that Mitchell's denials were at odds with the officers' accounts (b) said Mitchell was continuing to refuse to elaborate on what happened and (c) said that Mitchell's position was untenable and he should resign.

Interviewed by Channel 4 News he went further and said this:

"Mr Mitchell, although he has once again apologised for what he did say outside 10 Downing Street, he has also repeated a denial of key elements of a police report and for us that means a clear implication is police officers are being dishonest. But he will not tell us what he did say.  I think Mr Mitchell's position is untenable, he has to resign." (Emphasis added)

Seven days later, after a meeting with David Cameron at Chequers, Mitchell did resign.

On 18 December Channel 4 News ran a detailed report by Michael Crick casting doubt on at least some of the Met police officers' accounts and also the email account of a supposed passer-by who himself turned out to be a police officer.  You can watch the full report here:

Crick's report also cast doubt on the suggestion by Inspector Ken Mackaill of the West Mercia Police Federation that Mitchell had not given a full account of the incident.  It turned out the meeting had been recorded by a Conservative Party press officer.  The recording showed that Mitchell had given some account of the incident.  He said:

"The incident was very brief I complied with the officer and I picked up my bicycle but I did say under my breath but audibly, in frustration, I thought you lot were supposed to f***ing help us and it is for that I apologise..."

Crick interviewed Mackaill and put to him that that was a full account.  Mackaill did not accept that: 

"that is my understanding of what Mr Mitchell was saying to us, even in the meeting he didn't give a full statement, his full version of events."

Following the Channel 4 news programme, Andrew Mitchell made a formal complaint to the IPCC about the Met Police officers.  He did not make a formal complaint about the West Midlands officers.

The Crick report raised concerns about the honesty and integrity of some of the Met Police officers involved in the original incident, and those allegations were then investigated by the Met Police under Operation Alice.  That investigation is now complete and the file is with currently with the CPS for a decision whether to prosecute.

Meanwhile the West Mercia police also began an investigation in January 2013, supervised by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, into the apparent discrepancy between the statements made by Inspector Mackaill to the media after the meeting on 12 October, and what was actually said in the meeting.

A row has now broken out after the West Mercia investigation concluded there was no case for the officers to answer, and Deborah Glass of the IPCC made a statement to the media in which she publicly disagreed with that conclusion:

Notably Ms Glass says that although she disagrees with the conclusion, "Mr Mitchell ... has chosen not to make a formal complaint, therefore the power to direct misconduct proceedings is not open to me in this case."

That is curious.  If Mitchell really feels he did give a full account in the meeting, why would he not make a formal complaint about the officers who said he did not?

Twelve months after the incident, there seems to be a growing consensus that Andrew Mitchell did give a full account.  David Cameron told the House of Commons at Prime Ministers Questions last week that the police owed Mitchell an apology:

He said: "the former chief whip had a meeting with Police Federation officers in his committee where he gave a full account of what had happened, they left that meeting and claimed he had given them no account at all.  Fortunately this meeting was recorded and so he has been able to prove that what he said was true and what the police officers said was untrue."

He went on to say (with scant concern for due process so far as the officers are concerned): "Mr Mitchell is owed an apology, the conduct of these officers is not acceptable."

But has Andrew Mitchell really given a full account?

The IPCC have published a transcript of the recording of the meeting on 12 October 2012, so we can now see for ourselves:

At page 3 the Police Federation representative from Warwickshire clearly expressed a concern that "you haven't said what you did say".

Interestingly Mitchell does not dispute that, and says "That is a good point and I'll tell you why." 

So Mitchell completely accepted that he had not given a full account of what happened, and indeed he made it clear this was deliberate on his part.

He goes on to explain why he has not given a full account: 

"I felt should draw a line under all of this because my memory of what I did and didn’t say is clear and I will not as a supporter of the police for twenty six years be put in a position of suggesting an officer is not telling the truth but equally I did not say and I give you my word, I give you my word, I did not call an officer an f’ing pleb I did not say you are an f’ing moron and I did not say you should know your f’ing place I would never speak to anyone like that least of all a police officer and you have my word I never said those things."

So he wants to "draw a line" and he doesn't want to suggest the police are lying.

Mitchell's case now (as accepted by David Cameron) is that he has given a full account because he gave one in this very meeting.  Where do we find that?

At the bottom of page 4 Mitchell does give this very brief account: 

"The incident was very brief, I complied with the officer and I picked up my bicycle but I did say under my breath but audibly, in frustration, I thought you lot were supposed to f***ing help us and it is for that I apologise and I am grateful to that officer for accepting my apology..."

The problem with that is it clearly starts part way through the incident.  He doesn't tell us what preceded that remark.

At page 6 one third of the way down Mitchell gives this slightly longer account:

"I made a note of the exchange about two days later when I had no idea there would be this enormous shit storm so I made a note of what was said, you know the CCTV shows that it was forty seconds of exchange it was incredible short and I complied with the officer. They very generously opened the gates for me three or four times during the day so when I got to the gate and the guy said he wouldn’t open them, I mean they are extremely heavy gates and these guys they are there to secure the centre of Britain really and I shouldn’t have said what I said but then I gave him my absolute apology he pointed out some advice about my bicycle and I pointed out that I was the chief whip and I worked in number nine which is just above the gates so I did make a note of what I said but I remember the recollection absolutely and that is why I answered, have given you the answer now."

To say that this is incoherent would be an understatement.  We have a 40 second exchange (that much is corroborated by the CCTV footage) and on Mitchell's account we now have the following:

- "I complied with the officer" (presumably, this was during or after the heated exchange which remains undetailed other than as above)

- "I shouldn't have said what I said" (but he does not say what that is, except in the earlier passage already quoted above, which was clearly incomplete)

- "but then I gave him my absolute apology" (really - during the exchange itself? That is not consistent with at least some of the allegations e.g. "You haven't heard the last of this" "I'll have your job for this". Indeed it would be very surprising if the police officers concerned had felt it necessary to make a report at all if Mitchell had apologised on the spot.)

- "he pointed out some advice about my bicycle" (during the exchange itself? what advice?)

- "and I pointed out that I was the chief whip" (could that possibly be: "I'm the Chief Whip and I'm coming through these gates"?)

- "and I worked in number nine which is just above the gates".

And somewhere in this he would presumably say that he said "I thought you lot were supposed to f***ing help us."

And that is all the account Andrew Mitchell has given of the incident on 19 September 2012.

Well, 40 seconds is not long but that account is not what I would call a full and frank account.  It is incoherent.  It is not an exchange.  It does not make sense.

It is clear from the transcript of the meeting on 12 October that the officers did not press Mitchell for a fuller account, and obviously if they were not happy with the account he gave they should have pressed him, especially if they were going to criticise him to the media for refusing to elaborate.

But on any view what Mitchell said in the meeting on 12 October was not a full account.

To my mind this is important because it is not just swearing (which Mitchell admits) or saying "plebs" (which he denies) that Mitchell needed to answer to.  If he did say, for example, "Open this gate, I'm the Chief Whip.  I'm telling you - I'm the Chief Whip, and I'm coming through these gates" that would to my mind be almost as offensive as calling the officers "plebs".   And if he said "I'll have your job for this" to an officer who was simply doing their job, that would be completely unacceptable.

Mitchell has been very clear about denying some allegations, but I am not aware that he has ever denied those allegations.  (I am not saying that means they are true.  Just that we do not have a full account.)

Indeed, he seems to have avoided responding to these and other allegations by a clear strategy of saying as little as possible about what he actually did say.

I have no issue with the Police Federation officers being called to account to the extent that any statements they made after the meeting were not accurate, especially if this was done with malicious intent, but I cannot see how it can be said by anyone who has read the transcript that he gave a full account in that meeting.

If Mitchell is now going to seek reinstatement to high office on the basis that he has given a full account of what he said in Downing Street on 19 September 2012, the starting point is he needs to give a full account, and not just such account as it suits him to give.