Police chief blamed for Soham failings wins local support

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The Independent Online

The stand-off between David Blunkett and a chief constable he wants to suspend for the Soham murder fiasco intensified yesterday after the senior officer continued working and claimed to have a growing band of supporters.

The stand-off between David Blunkett and a chief constable he wants to suspend for the Soham murder fiasco intensified yesterday after the senior officer continued working and claimed to have a growing band of supporters.

The case involving Ian Westwood, the Humberside chief, is threatening to become a major confrontation between the Home Secretary and the police service.

Mr Westwood received the backing of the chairman of his police authority and a letter from the county's high sheriff accused the Home Secretary of hypocrisy. He also claimed to have been contacted by fellow chief constables offering their backing. Mr Westwood, who was at work at his headquarters in Hull yesterday, said he had received a "tremendous torrent" of support after being severely criticised in the inquiry into intelligence failings on Ian Huntley, the Soham murderer.

His confrontation with Mr Blunkett deepened after the chairman of Humberside Police Authority claimed that Mr Westwood was being made a scapegoat. Colin Inglis, who is also the Labour leader of Hull City Council, said: "The last thing Humberside Police needs is a big song and dance about the Home Secretary trying to get rid of him."

Asked whether Mr Westwood had been made a scapegoat, Mr Inglis replied: "My first reaction is yes. The person who murdered Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman is in prison for the rest of his life. Trying to pin the blame on any other individual is a fool's errand.

"What this has done is make David Westwood a driven man. If anyone is going to see these failures corrected, it will be the current chief constable. I think he deserves to do that."

Mr Westwood said he also had a letter from the High Sheriff of East Riding which accuses Mr Blunkett of frequently attempting to "hide the truth from the public" and choosing to "blame junior officials" when "failures can no longer be hidden". By contrast the High Sheriff, Rodger Booth, describes Mr Westwood as a man who has "never avoided responsibility".

The letter was the single piece of communication Mr Westwood was prepared to divulge yesterday, though he claimed messages of support from fellow chief constables had included at least one faxed letter. A senior politician in the House of Lords had also added support, he indicated.

The Home Office has continued to insist that the police authority has no choice but to suspend Mr Westwood and that new laws allow Mr Blunkett to sack him. But senior police sources questioned the Home Office's interpretation of the legislation and whether the Home Secretary could ignore advice and dismiss the police chief. Humberside Police Authority, which is meeting tomorrow is also taking legal advice as to whether it has to follow Mr Blunkett's instructions.

Mr Westwood, who has held his £115,000 post for the past five years, was severely criticised in a report published on Tuesday, which blamed the chief officer personally for his force's disastrous handling of intelligence. The force failed to keep records that revealed Huntley had a history of alleged sexual abuse towards underaged girls. The killer of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman later obtained a job as a school caretaker in Soham, Cambridgeshire.

Mr Westwood said: "The force is telling me that it's right to stay. The police authority chairman is telling me that it's right to stay. I have to balance ­ I do have to make that judgement and it is a difficult call to make and I can't make it on my own. I have to listen and take soundings. But I have taken soundings and I have received some very influential phone calls that tell me I'm doing the right thing."

Humberside Police Authority has been given until 6 July to report to Mr Blunkett on the case but Mr Westwood is expected to be suspended following the meeting tomorrow. A Home Office spokesman said: "The Home Secretary has ordered the suspension and the suspension will happen. The law is unequivocal."

Chris Fox, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said it was "sad" that "only one person is identified as being accountable and has to take personal responsibility in this way".

But Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, called on Mr Westwood to resign. He said the stand-off would damage public confidence in the police.