Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Maddy problem

The Prime Minister's decision to intervene in the case of Madeleine McCann could have political repercussions.
Although no one would have anything but sympathy for the McCanns' agonising plight, the decision of Downing Street and the Home Office to effectively direct the Met Police to get involved is causing some unease.
Some within Scotland Yard are uncomfortable at the way No.10 got involved and now politicians are expressing worries too.
I've just talked to Lord Toby Harris, an independent member of the Met Police Authority (and Labour peer) and he says:
“It raises very big questions about political direction of the police. Presumably, if a Police and Crime Commissioner gave such an instruction it would be in contravention of the protocol published this week [SEE HERE] by the Government?
“Of course it goes without saying that this is a very heart-breaking case, but what we are looking at is a case where the Met has no direct responsibility.
“There is clearly an issue about the resources being used and are they in effect saying that the Met is the default investigator for every case in the world involving a British citizen?
“It’s not just a question of direct costs, it’s a question of opportunity costs too. Our detective capacity is limited as it is.”
The Met had been examining the case but as recently as last week had largely ruled out any chance of making significant progress. The Home Office has agreed to meet the costs of the investigation but it appears only after the Met Police Authority and City Hall made clear it was unlikely to be able to approve the extra spending.

UPDATE: I just raised this at the morning Lobby briefing and the Prime Minister's official spokesman tried to draw a distinction between a 'request' from the Home Secretary and 'political direction' from the Home Secretary.
"It was done, yes, at the request of the Home Secretary, but it has been agreed by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. It's not direction, it's a request," he said.
"It's quite an exceptional case. This is a very high profile case. It's clearly been going on for some time and there's a huge amount of public interest in this case. The Prime Minister has been very clear that he wants to do everything we can to support the family."
When asked if the PM was simply following a tabloid agenda in the hope of good headlines, the spokesman said: "We are responding to a request from the family in a particularly exceptional case".
I pointed out that if you are the Metropolitan Police Commissioner then a 'request' from the Home Secretary - especially about an operational matter like this - will feel very much like 'political direction', if not an order.
Lord Harris is not alone either. Senior Labour figures agree that it's right for him to raise the points he has.

FURTHER UPDATE. Lord Harris has gone further on his own blog HERE.
On the Prime Minister's intervention, he states:
"This is in response to an open letter in The Sun and is entirely predictable in terms of the “pulling power” of News International on Government policy."
He says the intervention "drives a coach and horses" through the draft protocol. Lord Harris adds that the new probe:
"embroils their officers in a high profile investigation, where the chances of success are unclear, and which will divert limited investigative resources away from other matters."