Any expectation that the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel and Met Commissioner Cressida Dick would show signs of a diplomatic rapprochement when both appeared before the London Assembly’s police and crime committee yesterday were swiftly disappointed by the opening remarks of panel chair Nuala O’Loan.
The Baroness did not mess around. “We have found the Met to be institutionally corrupt,” she said, confirming the bruising conclusion of the Panel’s report into the unsolved 1987 murder in south London of private investigator Daniel Morgan, which took eight long years to compile. “The responses by senior officers to the report have been most disappointing,” O’Loan went on. She criticised public comments by Dick and senior Met colleagues. “They illustrate exactly the problem we have been describing,” she said.
Those problems were strikingly summarised in a statement by the panel when its report was published last month: “At times our contact with the Metropolitan Police resembled police contact with litigants rather than with a body established by the Home Secretary [Theresa May at the time] to inquire into a case”. It details “seven years’ refusal by very senior Metropolitan Police officers” to allow panel members “to permit proper, independent and unsupervised access” to a crucial investigation database.
O’Loan told the committee that although the panel’s work had demonstrated clearly that corrupt behaviour by individual officers in the Met and other forces had taken place at various stages in the handling of the killing and its aftermath down the years, no existing definition of corruption covered “the serious and egregious behaviour which we encountered when we were doing the work.” She described this behaviour as amounting “to far more” than current Deputy Commissioner Sir Stephen House’s concession that “occasionally, we may be over-defensive”.
The panel found the definitions of corruption available so inadequate they came up with a new one of their own (paragraph 25, page 1,020). The committee heard of failures by the Met to confront corruption, to conduct and manage investigations into it properly or to learn from past mistakes. The chapter of the report in which the new definition of is contained is entitled Corruption: Venality To Lack Of Candour. “The Metropolitan Police has placed concern for its reputation above the public interest,” O’Loan said. There had been “dishonesty” to that end. “That is institutional corruption.”
This was shocking and perturbing stuff. How would Cressida Dick respond to the panel’s complaints about unexplained delays, a habit of denial and the frequent struggles to get the Met to disclose material its members needed, some of which turned up incomplete and in the form of jumbles of disordered papers in crates?
O’Loan had described her disbelief at once being told by Dick, an Assistant Commissioner at the time, that she didn’t understand why access to a key database called HOLMES was necessary. When access was first allowed it was selective and tortuous. Eventually, in 2019, the panel was told that to have full and convenient use of HOLMES would cost them £85,000. “It just beggars belief,” O’Loan said.
The Commissioner was given her own section of the meeting, accompanied by Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime Sophie Linden. Dick is under pressure. The Liberal Democrats, the Daily Mail and Theresa May’s former adviser want her gone. London Conservatives prefer blaming Sadiq Khan for crime levels in London, but that doesn’t mean the Tory national government won’t dump Dick when her contract comes up for renewal next spring (and given their flag-waving erosion of mayoral autonomy in other areas, who knows what else Boris Johnson’s freewheeling inner circle has in mind).
She began by insisting that the Met as described in the panel’s report is not the one she knows today and that “massive changes in our accountability” have taken place. “Our default position, I believe, is to publish and to be open,” she said.
Dick characterised the report, rather un-effusively, as a “very complex piece of work” in relation to corruption, one which had come up with something “totally new” to describe what corruption is – something it would not be “appropriate” to discuss just now. Conveying patient weariness and an implied plea for understanding, she said the suggestion that “we keep things quiet to protect our reputation” was “bordering on offensive”. She would concede only that “there may be occasions when we look like that”.
This didn’t feel like what the occasion demanded. It wasn’t helped by the Commissioner’s repeated refusal to answer questions from AMs about what she may or may not have done to make the panel’s job more difficult, arguing that there might be an assessment of that to come which she could not risk prejudicing. Nor was it helped by her circuitous denials that a culture of denial exists. The essence of her response to the report was that she would have to go away and think about it.
OK, have a heart. The pandemic has presented the Met with vast and unenviable challenges, Dick’s responsibilities include staff morale and it would be naive if nothing else to expect her to plead guilty to all charges just like that. The Met won’t be alone among large organisations in being unwieldy, sometimes inward-looking and prone to inefficiencies. But it is a public service and a very important one. It would have been nice if its boss had at least acknowledged that its filing systems aren’t quite up to scratch.
Watch the police and crime committee meeting in full here.
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