Met Commissioner Sir Ian Blair
Who's Listening to Whom?
One of the most important commodities in policing our City is trust. But as Kurt Barling reports, taking things on trust is not something the Head of the Met is entirely comfortable with when dealing with the government or the new police watchdog.
So the Commissioner of Police has recorded telephone conversations between himself and the Attorney General and senior members of the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The question is not why he did it, so much as, why he did it without the other party knowing (i.e. secretly). Furthermore when and what was he going to use the resulting information for? Perhaps more worryingly given this information only became available after a public disclosure, is he in the habit of recording all his telephone calls?
Sir Ian Blair has apologised for this latest faux pas but it can't disguise how much unease there appears to be in his commissionership. BBC London has been running its Metwatch contributions over the last week. In response to the Commissioner's call for more public debate on modern policing in his BBC Dimbleby lecture last November we asked our audience to send us questions to probe the Met. One thing that becomes clear, from the type of questions our viewers and listeners have been asking, despite a flurry of announcements since he took over the running of the Met last year many people remain unsure about the direction London policing is taking.
Some of the Met's central messages don't seem to have been heard. For example, despite numerous launches, neighbourhood policing teams remain largely a mystery to Londoners. Sceptical capital dwellers want results. They're not yet convinced policing change is on its way or the service on its way to becoming more accountable. Ordinary folk are expected to take an awful lot of the promises on trust.
Back in October (see Streetwise weblog) I interviewed a North London family about the predicament facing all of them after their son had been threatened with a gun, for money. Even after the police arrested the alleged offenders and the courts remanded the individuals the intimidation didn't stop. What, you might ask, has been done about it? Five months on the anxiety and threat of violence still hangs over the entire family.
The family decided they couldn't face abandoning their present life for a new identity. This limits what the police can actual do given the resources available to them. They have no means of guaranteeing alternative housing outside of the National Witness Protection Scheme.
The next step was to approach the local housing authority. It took them six months to officially acknowledge the predicament the family is facing despite letters from the local police outlining the dangers. I've seen the letter sent by the local authority. Although it is a change in tone from the first housing official who told the family that they'd put themselves at risk by reporting the crime, it fails to offer a real solution to their particular problem.
The family is beginning to believe they would have been better off keeping their mouths shut. Their faith in the system that should deliver them justice and security has been profoundly shaken. Hardly an advert for getting involved.
At long last the local authority has started to look for alternative accommodation but at the moment the only thing they can offer is a move within the same local authority. Not ideal if you're trying to put a fair distance between your family and violent men.
It appears that no institution is willing to take responsibility for dealing with the family's desire to move to another (safer) council flat. On balance there are very few real financial costs of making this happen. The resolution is almost entirely an administrative one. Only no-one seems to have the power to resolve it. Perhaps judges should get the power to force the administration to act.
This family is a victim of a pernicious crime but they may soon become like others before them fall victim to an overloaded criminal justice system which expects far too much stoicism and offers far too little support for many vulnerable and intimidated witnesses.
One community in particular is being expected to take an awful lot on trust. When three Britons returned from their incarceration in an Egyptian prison ten days ago, the initial police reaction brought howls of disbelief from the families and supporters alike.
The men had faced charges of belonging to a political organisation, banned in Egypt, Hizb Ut-Tahrir. This group professes non-violence and calls for the return in Muslim majority countries to the Caliphate which oversaw the so-called golden age of Islam before European imperialism colonised the Middle East.
Some of this group's views are considered radical and the government is considering banning Hizb Ut-Tahrir in the UK. It has not yet done so yet and did not do so for the entire four years Ian Nisbett, Maajid Nawaz and Reza Pankhurst were in prison. Whilst in jail, Amnesty International and Fair Trials Abroad lobbied for their early release on the grounds their trials were grossly unjust.
However after they were released and deported back to the UK, they were greeted at Heathrow airport by Special Branch officers who interviewed them for around three hours. It is reported that they had a DNA sample taken; they were fingerprinted and asked about their political beliefs. More contentiously, Maajid Nawaz claims that the officers suggested he offer them his services.
The question being asked across Muslim communities is how often are DNA samples and fingerprints taken from individuals who are not accused of a crime. People can legitimately ask when and what will this information be used for? There is some doubt they will ever get a truthful answer. It is a question of trust.
Perhaps because of our heightened fears and expectations, the Met remains under unparalleled scrutiny. In these circumstances trust becomes an even more precious commodity.
In all this the police can be a soft target. They are the one visible institution when the balance between justice and rights appears to fall out of kilter. That is why the issue of trust between Londoners and the Met is so important. Unless the citizen can trust those who police us to follow the rules, the criminal justice system will fail to deliver just outcomes because the citizen will not want to get involved.
last updated: 19/05/2008 at 18:17
Have Your Say
Has the news that Sir Ian Blair recorded calls he made to members of the government shaken your faith in his leadership of the Metropolitan Police?