The Sussex police seem to have taken offence at their dapper Tory MP Tim Loughton. They issued him with a written warning for harassment of one of his constituents.
It’s a proto-ASBO. Like a cease and desist letter. It’s called a Police Information Notice, a PIN, a “peace-keeping” device the police have come up with on their own initiative without the aid of Parliament.
The PIN issued against Loughton said that any infringement of its instructions could lead to criminal proceedings. No small matter for an MP.
Sending a vexatious constituent a Hansard containing a speech explaining why he was no longer able to represent him.
Exhibit A – shortly after the Columbine massacres, the sometime Schools minister was photoshopped by this disaffected constituent into carrying a gun, wearing swastikas, and terrorizing school children. The image was put up on the constituent’s blog.
Exhibit B – the minister’s daughters had their Facebook pages penetrated, their photographs taken and doctored with horses’ heads. The image displayed as above.
Exhibit C – the MP sent a copy of Hansard to the constituent. It contained a record of a debate in which the MP explained why, partly on account of the first two exhibits (and much else beside), he felt unable to represent his constituent any more.
The police did nothing about the first two. For the third, they issued Tim Loughton that PIN threatening possible prosecution and have registered a hate event against him.
Why? He had repeated the Council’s description of the shaggy, bearded, pony-tailed constituent as “unkempt”.
The constituent has taken this mean “dirty” and because he claims Romany ancestry he has taken it as a racist slur.
The fact that he is wrong, and that “unkempt” means untidy (at root, “uncombed”) hasn’t registered with the police’s philologists. Nor that the constituent’s assumption that “scruffiness” is a characteristic of Roma is probably racist in itself. Nor that any reasonable person would see the nuisance is generated by the constituent and not by the MP.
The police have robustly taken the constituent’s side. We can see that by the fact that they describe Loughton’s behaviour as “harassment” and the constituent’s brutal internet activities as “alleged harassment”.
Leave that to one side.
The police and parliamentary privilege
The committee didn’t go into the dispute itself. They wanted to know what the police thought they were doing intruding on parliamentary privilege like this.
MPs are allowed to send parliamentary papers through the post. There’s even a law to that effect, passed in 1840.
The police had seven officers working on “the dispute”, and there was, we were told, a police GOLD group watching the committee proceedings because there was no doubt that the constituent would regard the meeting as an attempt to “antagonize, goad, exacerbate the situation”.
A man on the Clapham omnibus would see that in itself as evidence of the constituent being vexatious.
The committee’s questioning showed Sussex’s Chief Constable and the ex-Assistant Chief as evasive, obdurate and self-contradictory.
They’ve had seven officers working on this dispute for well over a year, half a dozen PINs have been issued, £100,000 has been spent and a QC’s opinion taken.
Committee member Robert Buckland had ex-Assistant Commissioner Merret agree that the dispute was “entrenched”.
Buckland went on, the ACPO guidance specifically says that these Police Information Notices aren’t to be used in “entrenched disputes”. Nor, indeed, for behaviour that wasn’t criminal in itself.
Merret used an old favourite of Tony Blair’s – the situation needed to be taken “in the round”.
He said that “guidance was only guidance”.
Hmm. The PIN was issued without first notifying Loughton. Was that true?
Merrett: “I couldn’t actually answer that immediately.”
Buckland: “I can tell you. He wasn’t told.”
Merrett: “I would have to refer to more detailed notes about that.”
Buckland again: “There are several important parts of the guidelines, NONE of which have been adhered to. Is this document of no relevance whatsoever?”
Merrett: “It is clearly guidance and things we bore in mind.”
Buckland: “You ignored the guidelines in every respect!”
Merrett: “We chose to act in good faith.”
Slippery but not smooth. The wriggling was too obvious.
It’s their reputation at risk
Paul Beresford asked why they thought sending a copy of Hansard to a constituent would constitute harassment? What was it they viewed as threatening?
Merrett then said, “We would welcome guidance from this committee.” That was odd, as he had just told the committee what he thought of “guidance”.
It became clear to the committee from the minutes of police meetings that they had precious little concern for parliamentary privilege (it was never mentioned) but only for “the reputational risk to the service, exacerbated by TL’s position as an MP”.
We also learned something about the way the modern police work.
Hidden in the mind of the citizen
Because of the hearing, a Gold group was being held to address the fall out. “There’s no doubt that other parties will view this as an attempt to antagonize, to goad, to exacerbate the situation.”
So, the police will “work with partners” to try and make sure this does not “spill over into a further dispute.”
It may be that the police have taken leave of their senses.
It may be that they are using their powers to intimidate elected representatives and to assert their authority over them.
The awkward fact is that the Commons has brought this on itself by passing such a damnfool law saying that a person who feels harassed, alarmed, distressed, is the sole arbiter of whether they are justified in so feeling.
The constituent thinks “unkempt” is a racist slur so it’s a racist slur. He feels harassed by a copy of Hansard coming through his letterbox, so an offence must have been committed.
And there’s no way round that. Chief Constable Richards was asked: “Would you have advised against sending Hansard?”
He said: “No.”
“And yet you issued a PIN on the basis of it.”
He said: “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
No offence had been committed until the constituent declared himself offended.
Chief Constable Richards: “It was never the intention in the PIN to say that further action would be dealt with criminally. That was never the intention.”
But, Alan Whitehead quoting the PIN said, “If the behaviour described continues, you would be liable for arrest and prosecution.”
“The issuing of the PIN was the right thing to do,” the Chief said, “but the wording could have been clearer.”
The wording could have been clearer by saying the opposite of what it said.
To stay within the law you have to be able to look into the minds of citizens to gauge their feelings, their mood swings, their covert cultural origins – and also into the minds of the police to see that they actually mean the opposite of what they say.
There’s a great war brewing between Parliament and the public service. These preliminary battles are drawing up the battle lines.