Steve Richards: An arresting display of ineptitude

The crisis around the Metropolitan Police is due to the blurred lines of accountability

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In order to measure the effectiveness of big public institutions it is necessary to ask only two questions: To whom is the organisation accountable? To whom are its leaders accountable within the organisation? If the answers are clear, the organisation and its leadership will almost certainly be robust. But if the answers to those questions begin with the words, "Well it's all a bit complicated..." you know for certain that the organisation and its leaders are in trouble.

The latest crises whirling around the Metropolitan Police are symptoms of blurred lines of accountability, a lack of clarity that leads to complacency, poor leadership and a sense that an institution can get away with a lot because so many are in charge that no one really is.

What were they thinking of when they entered Damian Green's office with such over-the-top insensitivity? Why did they instigate a "cash for honours inquiry" when the relevant legislation demanded a burden of proof they were never going to find? What was the thinking behind the policing of a protest in which a newspaper vendor subsequently died of a heart attack? How could a senior anti-terrorism officer walk into a blaze of photographers in Downing Street with a highly sensitive file on show to every clicking camera? This is an organisation that is out of control because no one is properly in control.

The resignation of Bob Quick, Britain's most senior counter-terrorism officer, was brought about by a relatively minor error that had serious consequences. His failure to appreciate that the cameras outside Downing Street would capture a document containing plans about a highly sensitive anti-terror operation was a minor error but nonetheless displayed a degree of thoughtless naïvety. Quick was also at the centre of the row over the invasion of the home and office of the Conservative front bencher, Damian Green, an operation that was also naïve in its heavy handedness.

Who was Mr Quick accountable to? Presumably he answered to the chief of the Met, Sir Paul Stephenson. So who is the chief accountable to? This is where it starts to get fuzzy. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, in effect sacked Sir Ian Blair as chief of the Met against the wishes of the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, even though the Home Secretary is ultimately accountable for the policies of the police and in particular the counter-terrorism strategy.

On the website for the Metropolitan Police Authority the chief executive, Catherine Crawford, writes that its main purpose is to, "hold the commissioner rigorously to account". Yet there is a qualification. "The MPA has a strategic role and is not responsible for day-to-day delivery of policing – this is down to the Commissioner". To what extent does the scrutiny of the strategic role impact on day-to-day policing as it surely must do or should do?

The MPA is itself an odd hybrid, chaired by the Mayor, and including members from the GLA and independent members, one of whom is appointed by the Home Secretary. It was the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith who formally appointed Sir Paul Stephenson, although it was Boris Johnson, as Mayor, who removed Sir Ian Blair. Yesterday Jacqui Smith was preparing a statement on the resignation of Quick when she heard, to her anger, Boris pop up on the BBC's Today programme, implying that he was in charge when she had been directly involved in the discussions about the important counter-terrorism operation.

Presumably it was Stephenson who appointed the ubiquitous John Yates to replace Bob Quick yesterday. Yates led the chaotic "cash for honours" inquiry, a flawed and wasteful investigation that would not have taken place in an organisation that was being led effectively. Yates seems to have been promoted on a regular basis ever since. I wonder if his conduct in that inquiry has ever been scrutinised internally and by whom. In many ways the response of the police to the death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests highlights more vividly the lack of accountability. This is a story that challenges so many orthodoxies. Before the demonstrations the focus was on whether the police could handle the angry mob. As it turned out most of them were not angry enough.

In another twist, the police have questions to answer because the incident involving Tomlinson was filmed. In this case the film was provided by an onlooker, but it could have come from the fashionably loathed surveillance cameras, apparently only in place because Britain is close to being a police state.

In this case the Independent Police Complaints Commission appeared to be steering the story to what they thought would be its obvious conclusion: that the newspaper vendor suffered an unprovoked heart attack as he made his way home. At the end of last week the IPCC was preparing to state it did not need to launch an inquiry into the death.

This is an independent commission that shows few signs of independence. A former member of the commission has stated that, "it is too late to start inquiries and they go on for too long". Another is quoted as saying that it has too cosy a relationship with the police, in the same way the chairman of the BBC is not entirely sure whether his role is solely to hold the organisation to account or to become its spokesman.

With the IPCC proving to be a weak overseer and the vaguely defined responsibilities of the Metropolitan Police Authority and the Home Secretary, I have a lot of sympathy for senior police officers as they seek to please a range of rulers. The sympathy evaporates when they abuse the blurred lines of responsibility and do more or less whatever they want to on the assumption they will get away with it.

This attitude can develop in any institution where the lines of accountability are not clear, from the Civil Service and local government to the BBC.

In the case of the police either the Home Office or the Metropolitan Police Authority needs to get a grip, not both institutions as that causes chaos. Whichever one does so should not be reticent about seeking more insight and explanation into day-to-day policing as well as the conveniently imprecise "strategic matters". Policing will be erratic until answers about accountability are clearer and those seemingly innocent words, "Well it's all a bit complicated..." are no longer applicable.

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