Humberside refuses order to suspend police chief

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The stand-off over the Soham blunders descended to a new low yesterday after a police authority defied the Home Secretary's demand for the suspension of its chief constable.

The stand-off over the Soham blunders descended to a new low yesterday after a police authority defied the Home Secretary's demand for the suspension of its chief constable.

The Humberside police authority took the extraordinary step of ignoring David Blunkett's command for David Westwood to step aside because of his force's handling of intelligence on Ian Huntley, the Soham murderer. A clearly angered Mr Blunkett responded by threatening to take legal action against the authority unless it reverses its decision by the beginning of next week.

The Association of Police Authorities (APA) said that the Humberside authority was within its rights not to immediately suspend Mr Westwood. Ruth Henig, chairman of the APA, said: "Any police authority would want to consider carefully the impact of suspension on the confidence of the local community, to which the police authority and not the Home Secretary is accountable." The confrontation is the latest step in a unprecedented stand-off in which Mr Westwood has doggedly refused to accept suspension. On Tuesday Mr Blunkett made a statement in the Commons ordering him to step aside following a damning report into the Humberside Police's handling of the intelligence on Huntley.

Mr Westwood received the most severe criticism in the inquiry report into how Huntley was able to get a job as a school caretaker in Soham despite having a history of alleged sexual abuse of girls. Most of the intelligence on Huntley was destroyed.

The Humberside police authority, which met yesterday morning in Hull, had been expected to follow the Home Secretary's orders after the Home Office said that it had "no choice" but to suspend Mr Westwood and that not to do so would be illegal.

Instead, the authority put itself on a collision course with the Home Secretary by defying his order by a vote of 12 to five. It urged Mr Blunkett to reconsider his demand.

The authority chairman, Colin Inglis, said: "The police authority is not a rubber stamp. The authority exists for a purpose and that purpose is to reflect local opinion and to act on behalf of local people and what we've said to the Home Secretary in effect is that we think his decision was hasty and was not as well considered as it might have been and we would like him to reconsider it."

Another member of the authority, John Neal, said: "We are in the wrong, as I see it. My personal view is that we should have taken cognisance of what we were required to do by the law, by the Home Secretary and that advice has been ignored."

Asked if he wanted Mr Westwood to remain as chief constable, irrespective of the present controversy, he said: "In short, no. We are the second-worst police force in the country." He said that he and other authority members had been sent a personal letter from Mr Westwood.

In response to Humberside's decision, Mr Blunkett said: "In the absence of any new arguments I have decided to maintain my decision and I now call upon the authority to comply with the law and suspend Mr Westwood. If they do not I will be taking the necessary legal steps at the earliest opportunity at the beginning of next week to require them to do so."

Mr Blunkett is expected to go to the High Court to obtain an injunction. Failure to obey the injunction could result in the prosecution of the authority members.

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "The possible suspension of Mr Westwood ... is now descending into political chaos. This mess should be sorted out sooner rather than later for all concerned."