Sunday, 15 December 2013

Plebgate and why Good Governance is about Trust

It has been some time since I wrote a blog on this site. This is because I can see problems but so seldom do I see their solutions and, after a while, I despair of just writing about failure. Nonetheless, I think the issue of trust is so important that it deserves an airing.

Forgive me for quoting background liberally from Wikipedia but I can't set out the critical facts any better;

The "Plebgate" scandal in the United Kingdom concerns an altercation between Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell, the former Government Chief Whip, and the police, which took place in September 2012. It gained notoriety initially for his alleged conduct and again, two months later when, subsequent to his resignation, CCTV and other evidence was revealed which appeared to call into question some of the evidence against him.
Leaked police logs, later backed up by eyewitness evidence, had suggested that Mitchell swore at police officers on duty at Downing Street and called them "plebs" (a pejorative word signifying someone of low social class) when they refused to open the main gate for him as he attempted to leave with his bicycle. Mitchell apologised but denied using the words claimed and in particular calling officers "plebs". However, finding his position untenable amid the media storm, he resigned from office.
The story returned to the headlines again in December 2012, when CCTV footage was released which threw into doubt the police version of events and it was revealed that an email purporting to be from a member of the public, which had backed up the accounts given in the police log, was actually sent by a serving police officer who had not been present.

The affair was revisited again in October 2013, after a report from the Independent Police Complaints Commission concluded three officers who met Mitchell at his constituency office, supposedly to clear the air, had given a false account of what was said while the findings of a subsequent investigation had been changed at the eleventh hour to recommend no disciplinary action be taken against them. This report prompted both Home Secretary Theresa May and Prime Minister David Cameron to criticise the conduct of the officers involved and bemoan the lack of disciplinary action.

The issues in this case are wide ranging and build on previous highly publicised instances of unreliable police evidence and subsequent cover up by senior officers. Why does it matter? Well, clearly, if a senior government minister can be brought down by an apparent conspiracy of lies then who is safe? But more important is the issue of trust. Our entire criminal justice system is built on believing what police say. If they not only lie but also engage in conspiracy and cover up then the whole edifice crumbles. Over twenty years ago I sat on a jury which was unable to reach a conclusion because one member would not trust the police version of events. I was horrified. If you don't believe the police evidence then where does that leave us? How can we convict the bad people in society?

I realise I am taking a step away, but the same principles arise in all aspects of society and including business organisations. So when local councils in the UK earn huge incomes from parking fines and fees but  claim they are engaged in improving traffic flow and not in income generation then that damages our entire democracy because we all know they are lying. When business leaders earn eye watering sums of money, often from failure, then that erodes the trust of their work colleagues who are less empowered to eat at the trough. The consequences matter: staff motivation is reduced and honesty suffers at all levels. Why not manipulate reported figures to boost bonuses if the bosses are helping themselves? Why not use company assets for personal use if the bosses also appropriate such assets? Why be the only one who is honest? Why not take the odd back-hander?

Indeed, remuneration committees and non-executive directors bear heavy responsibilities.

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