Police and Crime Commissioners, Scrutiny Panels and some ‘holding to account’ myths

In November 2012, voters in forty-one police areas in England and Wales went to the ballot box and elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) for the first time. They would replace the moribund police authorities, which had existed since the abolition of watch committees in 1964.

The three principal functions of a PCC were, by statute, to be the drawing up of policing priorities, setting the budget for their force and holding the Chief Constable to account.

As part of the same Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act, Police & Crime Panels (PCP) were to be established to provide financial and performance scrutiny, deal with complaints and to hold the PCC to account. The Panels were established in line with the legislation, comprising of a large number of elected local councillors and a small number of independent nominees. It was a natural sinecure for former police authority incumbents.

The Police Commissioner poll was, by general consensus, badly conceived, poorly executed and resulted in voter turnouts at unprecedentedly low levels. It resulted in almost all of the successful candidates having a mandate from their electorate of less than 8%. It was a notable Home Office failure.

It comes as no surprise in this maelstrom to find that some of the new PCC’s were to prove either incapable of fulfilling the role or to have have been embroiled in controversy of varying degrees of seriousness: Bedford’s Olly Martins, Cumbria’s Richard Rhodes, Durham’s Ron Hogg, Kent’s Anne Barnes, Lancashire’s Clive Grunshaw have all faced Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) investigation and, most notoriously, Shaun Wright resigned his South Yorkshire post following the breaking of the Rotherham children abuse scandal and Wright’s alleged complicity in it.

West Yorkshire’s Mark Burns-Williamson has narrowly avoided IPCC investigation over criminal complaints thus far (three previous referrals to them and one being presently considered) but has suffered the ignominy of having a Chief Constable he hand-picked being suspended for over a year over bribery allegations and Mark Gilmore is still, to date, on gardening leave whilst Lancashire Police conduct further investigations under the codename Operation Barium, and led by ACC Tim Jacques. Burns-Williamson did not come out unscathed either, in the IPCC investigation that followed the sudden, and controversial, retirement of Sir Norman Bettison.

He is joined in this calamitous situation by Avon and Somerset’s Sue Mountstevens, who dispensed with an incumbent Chief Constable (Colin Port) to install York born and bred Nick Gargan. After a suspension of over a year, whilst the IPCC conducted an investigation-cum-fishing expedition, Ms Mountstevens has asked Gargan to resign. A decision which was the subject of challenge by Gargan and over which the Police Scrutiny Panel were due to have the last say. In the event, Gargan tendered his resignation on 16th October, 2015 and it was accepted with immediate effect. Thus, apparently, ending a saga which is estimated to have cost approaching £1 million.

Over in Lincolnshire, former ITV Calendar presenter Alan Hardwick wrongly suspended his Chief Constable, Neil Rhodes. The £500,000 High Court spat that followed completely exonerated Rhodes, as did the subsequent Operation Redbone police investigation conducted by Sir Peter Fahy of Greater Manchester Police. At the core of the dispute were allegations made by the West Yorkshire PCC’s Chief Executive, Fraser Sampson, who emerged with little credit at the conclusion of the saga.

Amidst all of this controversy, there has been an almost eerie silence from the Scrutiny Panels and no visible holding to account. Even allowing for the limitations placed upon the Panels by the woefully-drafted Elected Local Policing Bodies (Complaints and Misconduct) Regulations, there has been no robust condemnation of some notably poor conduct. As with their police authority predecessors, drawing a handsome honorarium and not rocking the boat is, seemingly, the priority.

The North Yorkshire PCC, Julia Mulligan, is Chair of the Transparency and Integrity Standing Group at the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, an organisation set up – and funded by – the Home Office. No criticism of her colleagues’ behaviour by Mrs Mulligan can be traced by searching the internet. Apart from her sub-group role Mrs Mulligan is also a Main Board Member of the APCC. Along with, incidentally, the aforementioned Mark Burns-Williamson.

Mrs Mulligan, whose husband Paddy is both a local and county councillor in North Yorkshire, earned the notable distinction of polling the highest percentage vote (58.25) of all the PCC election ballots, but by way of the sixth lowest turnout (13.25%), has neither suffered such widespread opprobrium nor has she, so far, been referred to the IPCC (or, in this writer’s certain knowledge, ever looked likely to be) over her conduct, by the PCP sub-committee that handles complaints against her.

It is known that of the eight complaints made against Mrs Mulligan, in the near three year period since she was elected, three are from journalists (this writer and two others I will not name, at this stage, as Mrs Mulligan is funding civil action against them) and one is from a retired Middlesbrough solicitor, Anthony Nixon. The Nixon complaints are in the public domain and can be read at this link.

Two of the journalist complaints were both concerned with poor communication from the PCC’s office and, also, of prejudicial treatment against each of them when pursuing complaints on behalf of others, in the public interest. Broken promises, and insulting comments made by Mrs Mulligan, were amongst other issues cited in the complaints. She has also refused, for over two years, to apologise to one of the journalists after being recommended to do so, by the PCP, following the upholding of his complaint: A rare instance, indeed, of the PCP holding their PCC to account. Albeit, with little or no discernible effect. The complaint from ‘Mr H’ – and its outcome can be read here.

But it is the latest of these complaints to have been lodged against Mrs Mulligan that has, arguably, caused her, and the North Yorkshire PCP, the most angst. These are the core of those complaints, submitted by this writer:

  • She has failed to hold the Chief Constable to account over (a) a bomb hoax that appears, on the face of it, to have been instigated deliberately by police officers in Northallerton (b) woeful outcomes delivered on a regular basis by the force’s professional standards department, at least one of which was widely reported in the regional and national press. Read more here. (c) routine breaking of the law concerning disposal of freedom of information requests (d) victim support – specifically not providing written outcomes to complainants/victims of crime (e) 101 service being not fit for purpose
  • She failed to comply with her statutory duty (See here for The Elected Policing Bodies [Specified Information] Order 2011) to provide a Decision Notice, concerning the expenditure of several hundred thousand pounds funding a civil court claim, filed by three very senior police officers and six members of the public. Two months after this complaint was recorded – and very probably ten months after it should, lawfully, have been published, a Decison Notice (of sorts) appeared on the PCC website. It’s full text can be read here and is presently the subject of robust challenge, by way of a judicial review application. A Letter before Action was served on Mrs Mulligan on 9th November, 2015.
  • The legality (vires) of that funding was also raised in the complaint and is, also, argued in the judicial review application referred to above.
  • She allegedly made defamatory statements concerning two local journalists in public statements published in two regional newspapers and on the police force website.
  • There were other minor matters concerning failures to engage effectively (a regular feature of earlier complaints against Mrs Mulligan) and one which is still very much extant. For example, she has so far failed to acknowledge the letter despite being specifically requested to do so.

These complaints were recorded by the PCP Secretariat on 30th July 2015 and considered by the Panel complaints sub-committee on 19th August. At which, the notably weak submissions of the PCC (compiled by her Chief Executive) in response to the complaints were considered. The three sub-committee members, presumably acting on advice from the Panel’s legal officer, Barry Khan, decided that some of the more serious elements of the complaint were to be referred to the next full Scrutiny Panel meeting, where Mrs Mulligan was to be questioned on these. So far, so good: A discernible level of holding to account by the PCP.

That full meeting, which took place on 8th October 2015 had been in the calendar, and advertised on the PCP website, for months. Mrs Mulligan, allegedly, told the Panel Secretariat that she wasn’t able to attend the Panel meeting and the Secretariat declined twice to respond to written requests from this writer to provide an explanation for her absence. Which is a most peculiar stance to adopt, from a body whose principal purpose is to hold the PCC to account.

After persisting via social media, this writer was able to obtain details of Julia Mulligan’s diary for 8th October, the day she was supposed to be facing questions over the complaints against her at the Panel meeting. The diary shows she was in her office making, and receiving, phone calls. On any independent view, fairly routine stuff and certainly nothing in the way of a good and sufficient excuse not to be at the PCP meeting. All public entreaties to her office, via social media, to elicit the reason for Mrs Mulligan’s absence from the Panel meeting failed.

The presumption is this: There is no viable reason – and the North Yorkshire Police and Crime Scrutiny Panel are now complicit in the failure of their PCC to hold the Chief Constable to account and, further, are not overly exercised in holding Mrs Mulligan to account, either.

Both the office of PCC Julia Mulligan, the Panel Secretariat and its Chair, Cllr Carl Les, were approached for comment on the matters set out above. Mrs Mulligan’s staff officer, Will Naylor, claims that she was told by the Panel ‘she was not needed at the meeting’ which is at complete odds with what this writer was told, in writing, by the Panel Secretariat’s Corporate Development Officer, Ray Busby. The Panel, through Cllr Les, responded with a statement that, in parts, stretched the bounds of credulity and further clarification has been sought from him before his response is published. In the interim period, this writer is happy to reproduce the factual part of Cllr Les’s statement: ‘During the (period) since Mrs Mulligan took office, the Panel has met fifteen times. Mrs Mulligan has attended all those meetings, except the one on 8th October, (2015)’

It is unclear, at this stage, whether Mrs Mulligan’s absence was connected to a Conservative Party PCC selection meeting, on 15th October, at which she was re-selected as candidate for the May 2016 election. Presumably Cllr Les, as Chair of North Yorkshire County Council, as well as the Police Scrutiny Panel would have had a big say in that. As, it is reasonable to assume, would Cllr Les’s fellow County Councillor, Paddy Mulligan.

It is also worth recording at this point that Cllr Les has come under journalist scrutiny from in the past, over expense claim and register of interests issues (read here) which might lead some to question as to whether he is, in fact, the right person to be holding the Police Commissioner to account. Mr Les has also refused an interview with this writer, in an attempt to get to the bottom of this farrago.

For his part, Ray Busby, has now decided that being asked, in his role as a public servant, to provide honest answers to polite, if awkward, public interest questions by a journalist concerning legitimate business with the Panel is just too much for him to bear. He has requested that this writer does not contact him again, directly. Not much evidence of holding to account there, either.

This is a story that will run for some time yet and one that will be regularly updated as more information is prised from the relevant authorities by way of Freedom of Information requests, or the judicial review challenge to the Decision Notice referred to above.

But one crystal clear view has emerged from this sorry saga: The Police and Crime Scrutiny Panel in North Yorkshire is a sham, and a shambles, and it fails in its primary duty to hold to account the Police and Crime Commissioner, Mrs Mulligan.

Author: Neil Wilby

Former Johnston Press area managing director. Justice campaigner. Freelance investigative journalist.

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