Mary Dejevsky: Undeclared gifts – and how they corrode public life

There was clearly an intense social whirl attached to the office of commissioner, and this appears to have been a milieu in which Sir Paul Stephenson flourished

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The Metropolitan Police and other forces have finally ventured in where other institutions still fear to tread. They have published, for the first time in their history, what they say are full details of gifts and hospitality accepted by the Commissioner and senior officers. You can find the Met's Hospitality and Gifts Register online at www.met.police.uk/foi/c_lists_and_registers. But before you become too indignant in the anticipation, there is actually quite a lot not to be indignant about. There is the good, as well as the bad and the really ugly.

Senior police officers, especially the Met Commissioner and his deputies, give up afternoons and evenings to deliver speeches, attend presentations and partake of dinners that must often be crushingly tedious occasions. If they are decently fed in return, you might feel, that is the very least they deserve. What they are doing really is all in the line of duty, showing the flag, bolstering morale.

The only question you might reasonably ask is whether all these gatherings are strictly necessary. A few more duty inspections, perhaps, especially during the evening hours; fewer paper-weights and plaques; fewer gatherings for back-slapping and mutual congratulation – and not only the Met might be a better place.

But the bad and the ugly are exactly that. And while it is a fact of life that the Met Commissioner, as the commander of a large and dispersed organisation, is bound to receive more, and more lavish, invitations than his subordinates, it is hard not to feel that Sir Paul Stephenson was at the receiving end of more organisational and corporate generosity than was strictly necessary. In his short tenure (a bare 18 months, of which almost four months was on sick leave), his diary appears to have been so stuffed with engagements as to call into question how much time he had left for running the police.

Most could be legitimately defended as part of the job – including the lunches, dinners and meetings with media representatives. Public relations intermediaries are all very well, but there is no substitute for meeting the person actually in charge and hear them speaking for themselves. If this happens over lunch or dinner, as is common practice in Britain, this does not automatically make the encounter scandalous.

Yet you have to ask what the Met Commissioner was doing, at someone else's expense, at Wimbledon, or at the Uefa Champions League Final at Wembley, courtesy of the Football Association (though he did make a donation to charity in lieu). You might also wonder why a private boat and overnight onboard accommodation were needed for his attendance at the National Police Offshore Sailing Championship in May – funded by the management consultancy, Capgemini. Or what the purpose might have been of a week-long sojourn in Jamaica in April 2010, described only as a business trip, or of a jaunt to Abu Dhabi last November for "ongoing strategic liaison", which took in the Bahrain F1 Grand Prix.

If these might be described as the bad revelations from the Gifts and Hospitality Register, then Sir Paul's five-week stay at a Champneys health spa, as he recuperated from his illness, must qualify as the ugly element. The entry clarifies this as being "provided by a friend through Sir Paul's family and not in connection with the office of Commissioner" – which leaves the impression, rightly or wrongly, that he regarded it as no one's business but his own.

In fact, it was probably the Champneys episode, and Sir Paul's failure to appreciate how it looked to the British public, that speeded his departure from the Met, quite as much as the glaring failings in the phone-hacking investigation. The sum involved amounted to about half of the average annual British salary, yet Sir Paul seemed amazed that anyone thought his acceptance of such a gift as incompatible with his position. He defended it as helping him to return to work earlier than he would otherwise have done.

That indicates a bigger problem: that he did not appreciate to what extent the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police is, and has to be, a public figure. The private and public, personal and professional, can be hard to separate. I recall what an old headmistress used to say of our behaviour outside school in uniform: "You must remember, girls, you are always on show." How many million more times does that apply if you are wearing the cap and braid of the country's most senior police officer? But the whole sorry saga of the Met – and it is not over yet – from the reopening of the phone-hacking investigation, through Sir Paul's resignation, to the appointment of his successor and yesterday's release of the Gift and Hospitality Register, is a morality tale that illuminates some of the less palatable aspects of life and culture at the top of Britain today.

One arises from the declared diary engagements of the Met Commissioner. There was clearly an intense social whirl attached to the office, and this appears to have been a milieu in which Sir Paul flourished. But how far is such intensive socialising really part of the job, and how far might it rather be a reflection of the constant visibility and glad-handing needed to climb the greasy pole of promotion in the police – or any other big institution? Is competence the deciding factor, or being noticed by the right people?



The second is the pervasive – and corrosive – use of hospitality. Among the events noted in the police register, aside from Wimbledon, the Uefa Cup, and the Bahrain Grand Prix, are Royal Ascot, rugby at Twickenham and the BBC Proms. You could probably add Test matches, opera at Covent Garden or Glyndebourne, the Henley Regatta and more. With so many of the best tickets to so many national events being given free to chosen recipients, those outside the charmed circle might well ask whether access and pricing is not being distorted to the disadvantage of those who pay their own way. Roll on the Olympics.

And the third is the glaring need for more – no, all – taxpayer-funded organisations to publish registers of gifts and hospitality similar to the one now provided by the police. I would not mind betting that the new Met Commissioner and his deputies will have a whole lot less to declare next year. They might even have time for more policing.



m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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