Jo dismiss the Metropolitan Police investigation into the Downing Street lockdown rallies as a waste of time, as right-wing newspapers have done Friday, is grotesque. No police investigation that resulted in 126 fines on 83 people from one workplace for Covid violations in a country where more more than 178,000 people died of the virus should be described in this dismissive way. No investigation that has established a widespread breach of the rules at the heart of government, where those same Covid rules were established, deserves to be dismissed as wholly unnecessary, as the Daily Mail has.
Yet the Met’s investigation into Operation Hillman was in many ways a sad affair. It was a mistake not to investigate the parts much earlier. It was humiliating to then turn around and launch an investigation under political and media pressure. It was foolish to apply procedural rules suggesting special treatment for politicians. It was an error of judgment to suspend the operation during the local elections. It was a mistake to shroud the whole exercise in such secrecy. All of this, however, was in one piece with many other inconsistencies in the way the pandemic was controlled in Britain.
Most responses to Operation Hillman have focused on policy implications. But what about the implications for the police? Downing Street’s handling of the breaches has further damaged the credibility of a force that is already reeling from other recent scandals over race and gender. The Downing Street inquiry succeeded in offending almost everyone in one way or another, on the right and on the left, in the civil service and the media as well as in the Conservative Party, and especially among those who have been bereaved by the Covid. The police should be deeply concerned by this almost unanimous verdict.
A particularly disturbing suspicion from the Partygate investigation is that the police felt intimidated by the possible consequences of what they were investigating. In theory, the British police are operationally independent. But that hasn’t always been the case in recent months, including this week. Downing Street, after all, is where they have the final say on police spending, police numbers and police structures. The post of Met commissioner is also currently vacant and the force leaderless. These factors will have been difficult to completely ignore.
This can all be dismissed as speculative, but there is wider evidence that police accountability in Britain is not working as well as it should. the police status report published by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Gendarmerie and Fire and Rescue Services in March states that “too many police chiefs” currently lack confidence in the resilience of the border between political accountability and responsibility. operational independence. In some parts of the country, the report says, there is “an atmosphere of mistrust and fear” among police chiefs. At worst, police efficiency and effectiveness suffered and police chiefs were reluctant to put their heads above the parapet. Such a process can also apply to the Hillman operation.
The police accountability system in England and Wales – towards the elected police and crime commissioners as well as some mayors – turns ten this year. It was not a success. Participation in the elections is derisory. The elections put too much power in the hands of one person, and there were serious breaches of trust. London’s experience was particularly turbulent, but it is not unique. The operational independence of the police should be a crucial defense for the public against the development of a police state. The current accountability system makes it more difficult to respect and produces less good results. When nobody is satisfied with a system, it is surely time to change it.