An irritating little loose end was left in the lay spectator’s mind long after the Home Affairs Committee had finished its understandably waspish grilling of a defensive Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe on the shredding of documents relevant to the Met’s anti-corruption investigations.
Maybe Sir Bernard could explain it away in seconds. Maybe it’s completely insignificant, especially compared with the other disclosures. But if this was a television drama series, which it very much isn’t, being infinitely graver than that, you would expect it to be cleared up in a later episode.
Explaining to the chairman Keith Vaz why he couldn’t name the now retired witness, who now believed the shredding took place in 2001, not 2003 as previously thought – currently helping police to establish the facts, the Met Commissioner explained that the person was “trying their best to help and already feeling quite threatened. And I’m aware that a member of the [witness’s] family is not well.”
The police needed to help the witness to give information and “not be intimidated.”
Vaz said that the committee had no wish to “intimidate” anyone particularly when illness was involved, though he remarked, having possibly mis-heard the answer, that it appeared to be a “feature” of internal investigations that “people suddenly seem to fall ill.”
Hogan repeated that it was not the witness but a family member that had fallen ill. At which point Keith Vaz went on to the wider implications, pointing out that it was a “serious blot on the reputation of the Met that police officers would be involved in shredding information about corruption in the Metropolitan Police. It doesn’t get worse than that, does it?”
Sir Bernard replied: “Well, if the allegations in the terms you put it are true, I agree.”
He amplified this answer later under questioning by saying that the investigation would try and establish among other things whether whatever shredding of documents had taken place had been “malicious” or had been done for other reasons.
Asked by the Conservative MP James Clappison about a report attributed to “Scotland Yard sources” that the destruction could have happened for “human rights” or “data protection” reasons, the Commissioner said that while he had no knowledge of “human rights” as a factor, it was indeed possible – he put it no more strongly than that – that documents would be shredded because of data protection. Some information was apparently transferred to a computer, and then to another computer, but since the famous hard-drive (which it took the Yard more than a year to find) was damaged we would never know how complete those transfers had been.
This would be funny if it was not so serious – “The dog ate my homework” on an industrial scale.
But here – finally – is the point. Leaving aside the strain on public credulity created by the idea that a possible explanation for this is entirely innocent, why then did the witness feel “threatened” and who by?
The committee didn’t ask this question. But perhaps they will next time.