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'Plebgate' officers remain defiant
Three officers at the centre of a row that erupted in the wake of the "Plebgate" scandal have remained defiant despite their chief constables issuing public apologies and the renewed threat of disciplinary action.
Police Federation representatives Inspector Ken MacKaill, Detective Sergeant Stuart Hinton and Sergeant Chris Jones appeared before MPs today and would apologise only for their haste in speaking to the media straight after the meeting in October last year.
They told journalists that Mr Mitchell had refused to tell them exactly what he said during a foul-mouthed confrontation with officers in Downing Street the previous month.
But the three were later accused of giving a misleading account of the 45-minute meeting, which was recorded by the politician.
Mr Hinton told the Home Affairs Select Committee: " 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."
He added: "We certainly didn't lie intentionally."
Mr Jones said he did not believe that they had done anything wrong, while Mr MacKaill stood by the initial account of what happened in the meeting.
But the chief constables of the three forces that they represent - Warwickshire, West Mercia and the West Midlands - have all apologised to Mr Mitchell.
David Shaw from West Mercia told MPs that he has written to Mr Mitchell to make a personal apology, and has asked for another chief constable to review a report that found the federation representatives had no case to answer for misconduct.
"It's a profound, unreserved apology for the impact that what has happened has had upon him," he said.
West Midlands Chief Constable Chris Sims told the committee that he has also written to the former chief whip and would like to meet him in person.
Warwickshire Chief Constable Andy Parker said he was "embarrassed" that his officers had become involved in a heated anti-cuts campaign in the wake of the Plebgate incident.
"My officers got involved in a political campaign which was ill thought-through and has led to a lot of public confidence issues for us," he said.
"I would certainly like to apologise to Mr Mitchell because this added to the already big impact of the Plebgate campaign and it is embarrassing that my force was involved in the way it was."
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."
Mr 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.
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 Mr MacKaill claimed the former Tory chief whip refused to provide an account of the incident.
Mr Reakes-Williams, who deals with professional standards for Warwickshire and West Mercia police, told MPs: "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."
But he said 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 "premeditated" intention of lying about Mr Mitchell, he said.
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."
Ms 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 Mr Mitchell.
Conservative MP Michael Ellis told them: "You acted in concert with a view to discredit a senior Cabinet minister.
"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)."
But the three officers rejected any suggestion that they had plotted together to bring down Mr Mitchell.
"I absolutely refute that suggestion," said Mr MacKaill.
As the three officers concluded their evidence, Mr 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."
Mr Sims and Mr Parker said they did not intend to reopen misconduct charges against the officers in their forces - respectively Sgt Jones and DS Hinton.
Mr Parker told the committee: "That's not my position. Clearly there was a procedural error, but my Deputy Chief Constable - who in this case took the decision that there was no action - had all the evidence available to him when he made that decision.
"There is actually no new evidence that another determination would have befallen."
The Deputy Chief Constable, Neil Brunton, was told at a meeting on August 1 that Mr Reakes-Williams was recommending a misconduct charge, but that a police inspector who conducted the investigation took the view that there should be no action, said Mr Parker.
"Rather than having a conclusion guiding him in any direction, he looked at all the primary evidence and came to his own conclusion," he added.
And he said: "The terms of reference are quite narrow - that (DS Hinton) gave a false account and he deliberately attempted to discredit Mr Mitchell. I understand why people may come to that conclusion, and I have to say that if I read the transcript of the meeting with Mr Mitchell and then just listened to the comments they made outside, I would absolutely agree that there's a case to answer.
"But I've had the ability to read the interviews and all the information surrounding this case and it's quite clear where Stuart Hinton's head was. He genuinely believed that Mr Mitchell had used the words `pleb' and `moron' and he explains that by the fact that the officers had written down those words in their pocket notebooks.
"I'm not saying he is right, but that was his belief. So when he came out and said `He didn't say what he said', what he is meaning there is that he didn't say the words `pleb' and ` moron'. I might not agree with him on that, but that was his honestly-held belief."
Mr Sims told the committee that the decision not to proceed with misconduct action against Sgt Jones was taken by Assistant Chief Constable Gary Cann.
"Mr Cann has, I believe, made a proper decision," he said. "I believe that that decision has been properly made, objectively made, and I see no reason to move from that decision."
Mr Vaz said he was "totally confused" by the decisions.
"Why are you apologising if you don't think that this should be looked at again, and you think you had a grip on all this, and you think your ACCs and DCCs acted properly?" he asked Mr Sims. "What on Earth are you apologising for?"
Mr Sims replied: "I'm apologising for the campaign that you heard about, the hurt that it gave to Mr Mitchell, the impact that it had on his family, the way that I think in an absolutely terrible way a police officer went before cameras and demanded the resignation of a minister.
"I listened to that. I was horrified. It should never have happened. That is why I'm making an apology.
"But my task is to make a much narrower legal decision on the allegation made against Sgt Jones. The allegation is very tight, very specific. It relates to not what he said but what he didn't say. It relates to his apparent inability to interfere in the press conference. That decision has been properly mapped out, is rationally taken and that's why I am where I am."
Mr Vaz told Mr Parker and Mr Sims that they were both "leaders of your profession", adding: "You are aware of the public concern about this. You are aware of what the Prime Minister has said, what the Home Secretary has said, what the deputy chair of the IPCC has said. But this doesn't seem to have any impact on either of you."
And he asked Mr Parker: "Don't you think as the appropriate authority, you should step in as Mr Shaw has done and show some leadership and take some action?"
Mr Vaz indicated that West Mercia Deputy Chief Constable Simon Chesterman, Mr Brunton and Mr Cann, who agreed there was no case to answer, would be called to give evidence.
He told the BBC: "We hoped very much that this was going to end, the committee is obviously going to produce a report. But there is so much new information here.
"This briefing meeting that took place, with the deputies of all these chief constables, that decided there was no case to answer extraordinarily - after a whole year, at an overall cost of about a quarter of a million pounds, the whole Andrew Mitchell issue - they didn't even take formal minutes at the meeting.
"We found this extraordinary at that level of policing. So there are more letters, I'm afraid, and possibly more witnesses who will have to come and give evidence.
"But we felt it was unsatisfactory. Here was a big opportunity to close this down but actually it's just opened more questions."
Asked if there had been a whitewash Mr Vaz said: "There are very serious questions. We believe fully the evidence of the senior officer who made some very firm conclusions.
"Those conclusions disappeared at a briefing meeting that had no minutes. So these are serious questions that need to be answered."
West Mercia Police chief constable David Shaw said he has identified a "significant procedural flaw" and that he is determined that the process will be correctly followed.
He told Channel 4 News: "That flaw was that effectively my deputy chief constable made a decision which was based on impartial information. I believe it is possible that may have changed his decision. Given that right from the start I wanted this investigated independently and asked the IPCC to do so, but they refused, there is a chance for me to bring some independence in to this at the end of the process."
Mr Shaw said he has made an "unreserved" personal apology to Mr Mitchell two days ago in a letter for the stress caused to his family.
He hoped that the three serving officers would follow his lead, adding: "I wish they would change their position. I am not comfortable with the nature of that apology and the way it was offered but you can't order an apology - that is a j udgment for them."
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: "The select committee's hearings have revealed that the investigation process over the meeting with Andrew Mitchell has been a total mess.
"It is essential that the case is independently redetermined. But it is also clear that the entire system needs to be reformed. The IPCC didn't have the resources to do an independent investigation and didn't believe it had the powers to direct conclusions.
"We have argued for some time that the whole framework of standards, investigations and complaints should be reformed with a new powerful Police Standards Authority. Lord Stevens's review will set out major reforms in this area. The evidence today shows just how confused the current system is.
"Andrew Mitchell has already waited too long for the result of these investigations and we are still waiting for the CPS decision over the events in Downing Street. These events are also casting a long shadow over the vital and much valued work police officers do across the country. We need rapid action and leadership to sort this out."