Barton beats an unexpected retreat

Earlier this week Durham Constabulary announced the retirement of its chief constable, Mike Barton, both on social media and via a press release issued to local, regional and national media. The story attracted little attention, given the controversial figure he has frequently cut.

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But this announcement took many people by surprise, not least policing colleagues whom he had told that he wanted to complete 40 years police service before contemplating retirement. That would have taken him through to at least 2020, having joined Lancashire Police in 1980. 

In a typically robust Sunday Mirror article (read here), published hours before the retirement announcement, there was absolutely no inkling that the Durham chief was about to abandon his post and the high profile, and hugely important, war on knife crime.

Born into a farming family, Mike Barton became a constable with his local force in Blackpool, where his beat included the resort’s famous Golden Mile. He was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal in 2014.

Now aged 62, and a self-proclaimed ‘maverick’, Mr Barton agreed a five-year contract extension in November 2016 (read more here). That arrangement was intended to take him to the end of the current Police and Crime Plan agreed with his employer, the Durham Police Crime and Victims Commissioner, Ron Hogg,

For reasons that are unclear, for the present at least, the Sunderland Echo reported that Barton’s contract extension was only three years, and that ‘he had worked beyond his intended retirement date’.

News of chief Barton’s departure also came as a shock to those closely involved with Operation Lackan, a misconduct investigation into alleged dishonesty and disreputable conduct of Ian Hopkins, chief constable of under-siege Greater Manchester Police. The complainant is retired GMP superintendent, Peter Jackson. Currently, the country’s best known, and most widely reported, police whistleblower. The author of this article is, also, a deponent in those proceedings.

Mr Barton is Gold Commander of that highly vexed probe. A role he accepted at the very end of last year from Greater Manchester Combined Authority, the appointed body to deal with complaints against the region’s chief officer. At the present rate of progress, with terms of reference taking, it seeems, twelve weeks to agree, it is difficult to see Barton signing off the investigation outcome before he retires.

The question also hangs in the air as to why he took on the highly significant Manchester investigation if retirement was front of mind. His temporary replacement as chief will be present Deputy Chief Constable, Jo Farrell. Nothing in her police record, or via other open source material, suggests that she has experience of heading up such a controversial gross misconduct investigation. The major significance of that apparent deficiency unfolds as the sudden, and unexplained, departure of another chief constable is analysed later in this piece.

In these circumstances, the statement issued by his police force press office is worthy of further scrutiny: It begins by saying that the chief constable confirmed his retirement, in writing, that morning (11th March). Suggesting that he had already told his employer, verbally, that he was leaving the force. A leaving date of 7th June might imply that such a conversation took place during the previous week, on 7th March.

The usual valedictory prose pads out a substantial portion of the rest of the statement – and it is much nearer the beginning than the end where the reason for the sudden exit is given: Mr Barton wants to ‘spend more time in his greenhouse and with his grandchildren‘.

Earlier in the statement he is quoted thus: ‘There remain many challenges in policing that I would have relished tackling, but there comes a time when one should hand the baton to the next generation of talented and committed people who will bring their own style, thinking and approach’. Which is an oddity, of itself, as the National Police Chiefs Council, of which Mike Barton is a very prominent, outspoken member, openly admit there is a troubling, and worsening, dearth of senior officer talent in this country.

But above all, he said, the role as Durham’s chief constable had been ‘exciting’ and ‘enormous fun‘. His police colleagues in Durham, and possibly elsewhere, refer to him as a ‘nutter’. In the comedic sense, one assumes?

The statement concludes by saying that details of the procedure to recruit the next chief constable will be announced by the PCC’s office over the coming months. Which precludes any handover, by Barton, to his successor in the top job. The role currently attracts a remuneration of £134,400 per annum, plus the use of a pool car for private use and generous pension benefits.

This unexpected, and largely unexplained, departure is in a similar mode to that of a another experienced, long-serving, recently retired chief, the enigmatic Dave Jones, who ended his service at neighbouring North Yorkshire Police. Except that Jones did what was, effectively, a ‘moonlight flit‘. On the day his departure was announced, 9th April, 2018, after a period of annual leave over the Easter period, he put in a three month sick note and never appeared at force HQ again. NYP were then forced to seek a successor in his absence, with no smooth transition period, and the consequent cost and operational penalties.

Pertinent public interest questions put to the disgraced North Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Julia Mulligan, concerning proposed action over a possible contract breach, drew the usual blank. Jones’ had willingly committed to remain at NYP until May, 2020. Turning his back on around £350,000 in salary and benefits to ‘spend more time with his family‘. His three months of sick leave was worth over £40,000 in pay and benefits.

It is worth noting, in a wider context, that Dave Jones spent the first 21 years as a Greater Manchester Police officer and was, at one stage, a CID colleague of Peter Jackson.

Mike Barton has walked away from a similarly large sum, and given much the same reason for doing so. Which, in both cases and taken at their face, appears scarcely credible.

Jones was facing a mounting series of operational problems, adverse inspection reports, quite astonishing criticism from an appeal court judge, and other serious questions about his competence and integrity posed in the media. Other possible reasons for his departure are explored in another article on this website (read here).

But Barton has, previously, faced none of the sort of relentless journalistic scrutiny which came the way of North Yorkshire Police before, and during, the Dave Jones era, and he appears to have an excellent relationship with local and national media. Basking in the glory of being rated as the country’s best police force, according to Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary, and being a ‘colourful character’ to boot. Relations between chief constable and police commissioner also appear to be always positive. A situation that could not be said of Jones and his own controversial, and soon to depart, PCC.

But taking on the Hopkins investigation has brought about a different type of scrutiny, not least from this quarter, from whence, and with ample justification, Durham Constabularly is frequently referred to as “a grubby little police force” – and it is already very clear that Durham are not enjoying the oversight. Blocking posts on social media would be a particularly peurile, and futile, example. If a detective chief inspector, and a senior professional standards officer to boot, doesn’t want to hear the truth about the failings of her police force, then Victoria Martin might reflect on her Oath of Constable and whether she is, in fact, deployed in the right vocation. 

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Operation Lackan is very likely to turn out to be highly toxic and Mike Barton has appointed as his Silver Command an officer who appears, on all the evidence seen so far, to neither have the requisite competencies, judgement, resilience or the temperament, to cope with what faces him across the Pennines: Investigating the chief officer of a police force beset with very serious organisational and leadership issues, at least six times the size of his own. A journey so arduous he has, on at least one occasion, required the services of both a detective sergeant AND a driver.

Darren Ellis, a civilian investigator who appears to be Barton’s favoured bag-carrier, has already been placed on written notice concerning some of the professional failings identified, so far, and reacted to reasoned, and well evidenced, criticisms with a grotesquely unprofessional, spiteful, childish response. Ellis also appears to be highly sensitive to fair, and plainly expressed, comment on social media. Even though, surprisingly, and for one who has such an extraordinarily high opinion of himself, he appears to have no presence on Twitter. He was, also, previously a close working colleague of DCI Martin (and may well still be a subordinate in her department). Which may well imply a cultural, or organisational, issue within Durham Constabularly in dealing with hard truths. 

The obsession, stoutly maintained by Ellis, of the existence of a partnership, or other influential or advisory arrangement, between Peter Jackson and Neil Wilby does him no credit. He has been told, repeatedly, by both, it simply does not exist. There is simply no evidence to support his near-frenzied repetition. 

Neither does his bizarre authorisation of the release of lengthy, and unredacted, email correspondence between complainant and police investigator, to an investigative journalist, and all the consequent breaches of the Data Protection Act.

In a previous investigation in which Darren Ellis was closely involved, as lead investigator, Durham Constabularly were criticised, for apparent lack of understanding of data legislation, by Police Scotland’s Deputy Chief Constable, Rose Fitzpatrick. In the same letter, which can be read in full here, she also noted that Durham had stepped outside of the agreed terms of reference.

The Lackan investigation, conducted with appropriate rigour, and following the evidence, will see the end of the career of Hopkins, if he hasn’t already joined the ranks of disgraced senior officers from the Manchester force who have either resigned, or retired over the past few years. These include ACC Rebekah Sutcliffe (Titgate), ACC Steve Heywood (lied to Grainger Inquiry; forged policy log entries), ACC Terry Sweeney (Operations Poppy 1, 2 and 3), ACC Garry Shewan (Operation Redbone; Operations Lamp/Redhill; £70million iOPS failure).

Sweeney’s departure, whilst facing gross misconduct investigations, including the Shipman body parts scandal, infuriated many policing commentators and, actually, led to a change in the law. The other three departed on Hopkins’ watch as chief constable. He was deputy chief when Sweeney slid out the back door of GMP HQ.

Two of their replacements are already mired in controversy, ACC Mabs Hussain (read more here) and T/ACC Annette Anderson, who is currently on a three month absence from the force, whilst attending a senior leaders’ course at the College of Policing. Hopkins is directly involved in the former and, indeed, created it. His deputy, DCC Ian Pilling is closely involved with the Anderson scandal and is also the subject of robust, well-evidenced, criticism over a series of alleged ‘cover-ups’ that have already featured, regularly, elsewhere on this website. He presently faces no misconduct proceedings, but will definitely be cited in evidence supporting the section of the Jackson complaint that deals with institutionalised deceit.

Ex-ACC Dawn Copley could also, feasibly, be added to the list of controversial ex-Manchester retirees. She became the shortest ever serving chief constable in police service history when her tenure lasted just 24 hours at South Yorkshire Police. It has been well reported that ‘Big Dawn’, as she is commonly known, and Peter Jackson, clashed a number of times, as he repeatedly insisted that an investigation should be launched by another police force concerning the ill-starred Operation Nixon (read more here).

Both Copley and Pilling are former Lancashire Police colleagues of Mike Barton, and therein at least part of the answer to the latter’s sudden departure may lie. If, as might be expected, the dishonesty complaint against his chief constable colleague, Ian Hopkins, widens to examine an institutionalised culture of deceit and ‘cover-up’ that cascades down from the top of the Manchester force. A point presciently made in one of a series of articles by The Times journalist, Fiona Hamilton, who is also likely to give witness evidence in the Lackan investigation.

On any independent view, Greater Manchester Police, absent of any meaningful oversight from those public bodies responsible, principally the Deputy Mayor and the perenially hopeless Independent Office for Police Conduct, is a ‘bandit’ police force that, to maintain public confidence, requires urgent intervention from the Home Office. Reminiscent of the dark days of the infamous Leeds City Police in the late 1960’s and eary 1970’s. In slightly different terms, The Times newspaper has twice called for a public inquiry, via its hugely influential leader column. Read by every Prime Minister since 1788.

Which poses a second question concerning Mike Barton: In the twilight of what is reported to be a long, illustrious, and decorated, police career would the Durham chief want to risk being dragged, wittingly or unwittingly. into a situation that has already stained the careers of so many other senior police officers – and likely to end several more? 

Comment about any investigation would normally, and quite properly, be reserved until its outcome is published, so as not to engage prejudice. But this particular matter is wholly exceptional, as it has almost entirely been played out in the public domain. The complainant is a very high profile police whistleblower and the misconduct complained of concerns the chief constable of the UK’s fourth largest police force. Two of the witnesses are journalists. Another one is a retired police officer, a fourth is a serving police officer. There are a large number of national newspaper articles, and publicly accessible investigation reports, concerning the Jackson disclosures, which date back to 2014. Indeed, Operation Lackan centres around one of those articles, published by The Times in June, 2018; the Hopkins response; and two follow-ups in The Times that destroyed both the police statement and one made in support of it by the Deputy Mayor of Manchester, Beverley Hughes

In my own extensive and informed knowledge, there can only be one conclusion: Hopkins has, on any view of the facts, misconducted himself and, with it, brought disrepute to the door of his force. The only matter to be determined is one of degree. Which may be the third reason why Mike Barton has decided to go.

Fourthly, Operation Lackan promises to be neither ‘exciting’ nor the ‘great fun’ that the Durham chief says is his more familiar experience in police HQ at Aykley Heads. Far, far from it. There is likely to be a some banging of heads against brick walls dealing with the Manchester Mayor’s office and Barton may have decided, after his experience of the Police Scotland investigation, that enough is enough (read more here).

By way of another curious coincidence, a gross misconduct investigation, carried out on behalf the the Cheshire police commissioner, into another chief constable, Simon Byrne, was one of the reasons mooted for the abrupt departure of Dave Jones. Described by John Beggs QC as ‘sub-optimal’, at the subsequent disciplinary hearing, the much-feared barrister was being uncharacteristicly over-generous. As the public hearing unfolded in Warrington Town Hall, it became clear that Jones had been out of his depth: The investigation was a shambles, almost from start to finish. He had previously told the commissioner, David Keane, that he was experienced in such matters. It appears as though he was not. What was not disclosed to Mr Keane was that Jones and Byrne had a professional association, via the Scrutiny Board of the National Police Air Service. A member of that same body, at the material time, will say that the two ex-chiefs were friends. Both Byrne and Jones were also senior ex-Greater Manchester Police officers.

By contrast, there is no doubt at all that, given a free hand, Mike Barton could, and very probably would, investigate the Hopkins allegations effectively, and report back efficiently, with appropriate findings. But the big issue is, whether his terms of reference from the Manchester Mayor’s office, where knowledge of the applicable statutory framework appears seriously limited, would have allowed him such liberty. That could be advanced as the fifth and most crucial reason. Who wants to conduct an investigation with their hands tied behind their back? But now, with Barton’s impending retirement, we will never know.

Greater Manchester Combined Authority, on behalf of the Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, confirmed, in a press statement dated 15th March, 2019, that Chief Constable Hopkins would not be either suspended, or placed on gardening leave, whilst the misconduct investigation is in progress. That strongly implies that Mayor Burnham has not passed the matter over to Durham Constabulary as a ‘gross misconduct’ investigation, but a much lesser one of ‘misconduct’. GMCA has not confirmed, as yet, whether a Regulation 15 notice has been served on the chief constable. Enquiries to Greater Manchester Police press office on this subject were referred to the Mayor’s office.

Terms of reference for the investigation have now been disclosed by Durham (read here), after unnecessary delay, apparently as a result of invervention by Darren Ellis, and, put shortly, fall well short of what Ellis promised the complainant in correspondence with him and, it appears from that email chain, assurances given in the face-to-face meeting they had. Peter Jackson has emphasised two key points throughout his contact with Ellis:

– Firstly, that a term of reference be included to the effect that the investigation will ‘go where the evidence takes it’. In layman’s terms, that means if other offences, either misconduct or criminal, are uncovered during the taking and examining of the evidence, then the investigating officers would pursue those appropriately.

– Secondly, Jackson has maintained that the very public and deliberate smearing of himself, Fiona Hamilton and her newspaper by Chief Constable Hopkins cannot amount to anything other than an abuse of his position, and conduct that brings disrepute to both his own force and the wider police service. Hopkins has made no attempt to put the record straight with a correction statement and that fact simply adds an aggravating feature to the offences.

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Allowing the scope to be limited in this way, after a delay of what appears to be almost three months, does not bode well for the efficacy of the Mike Barton investigation. Neither does the secrecy surrounding his sharp exit from it.

The acquisition of further knowledge behind the Durham chief’s retirement decision, and the PCC’s enthusiastic endorsement of it, are now the subject of two searching freedom of information requests (read here and here). 

Page last updated on Sunday 24th March, 2019 at 1335hrs

Corrections: Please let me know if there is a mistake in this article. I will endeavour to correct it as soon as possible.

Right of reply: If you are mentioned in this article and disagree with it, please let me have your comments. Provided your response is not defamatory it will be added to the article.

Picture credit:  Durham Constabulary

© Neil Wilby 2015-2019. Unauthorised use, or reproduction, of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from, and links to, the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

Author: Neil Wilby

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

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