Worth the wait
When Theresa May announced that an independent panel would be set up to examine the case of Daniel Morgan I was sceptical about the value of the exercise. What would we find out that we didn’t already know?
The Metropolitan Police had already accepted that corruption had tainted its investigation into Daniel’s murder; countless newspaper articles and programmes had been devoted to the case; the names of those allegedly involved were well known, with huge efforts made in later years to bring them to justice. As for the shady, and sometimes illegal, practices of parts of Fleet Street and their links to dodgy private investigators and Scotland Yard, well, that had all been aired at the Leveson Inquiry.
There was one other reason why I questioned the need for the Panel: I thought systemic corruption was all in the past. Any wrongdoing identified in the Daniel Morgan case would be historical, surely. The key people involved had long gone. The Met had moved on. It had learnt its lessons. There was now more openness and scrutiny in policing than there’d ever been.
But the report has proved that Britain’s longest-serving home secretary of modern times was right to order the inquiry. It has exposed in unrelenting detail how the thread of corrupt influences and reputation management has been woven into the fabric of Scotland Yard for more than three decades. And, most worrying of all, the report finds that it is still there. Indeed, it’s the recent events outlined in the report that I found the most disturbing. When Mrs May launched the inquiry wouldn’t you have expected the Met, chastened by its failure to successfully prosecute the murder suspects, to have welcomed the opportunity for a comprehensive review, a chance to show that it was open to criticism and prepared to make improvements? Instead, the report suggests, the opposite happened.
It paints a picture of delay and obstruction, which Cressida Dick, then an Assistant Commissioner helping to support the Panel’s work, must take some responsibility for. By October 2013, just a month after the Panel had formally started, she told the Chair they had reached an “impasse” over arrangements for accessing police files relating to the case, most of which were held by the Met. Tortuous discussions went on for over a year. It wasn’t until January 2015 that the Panel began receiving the documents and it took until December 2015 for its work to start in earnest.
The report reserves its strongest criticism on the subject for the delays viewing material on the HOLMES computer database, which contains details of murder cases and other major crimes. It was said to be essential for the Panel’s work but Dame Cressida expressed a “strong reluctance” for them to see it.
“She did not give any explanation for her stance, other than that the Panel was not carrying out a ‘review’ of the Morgan investigations,” the report says.
“The Metropolitan Police minute of the meeting notes her saying, ‘[The Panel] is not there to give a view on how well or badly the investigation was run. The [Terms of Reference are] about why people have not been brought to justice.’ ”
Talks continued for months; it’s clear from the report that the Met didn’t see the need for the Panel to access the HOLMES database. At one meeting, the report says, Dame Cressida intended to “restart negotiations from the very beginning”.
In February 2015, after she had left the force, an official from the Panel was finally granted access to the HOLMES database - but only under police supervision at New Scotland Yard. Four years later, after repeated requests for a HOLMES computer to be installed in the Panel’s offices, the Met commissioned a structural survey to advise on what extra security would be needed.
“The enhancements recommended to be made included new strengthened walls, a new stronger secure door and reinforced windows. The Panel challenged the structural enhancement requirements identified by the survey, and it was subsequently agreed by the Metropolitan Police that these enhancements would not be required,” the report says.
A Panel official was eventually given an encrypted HOLMES laptop, to use in his home, after the coronavirus outbreak last year. “The laptop was provided on 2 September 2020. It should have been provided in 2013,” notes the report.
The report’s conclusions on this miserable aspect of the affair are damning.
“There can be little doubt that the Metropolitan Police were determined not to permit access to the HOLMES system which would have enabled the Panel to carry out its work far more efficiently and effectively. Very significant resources had to be spent challenging the continuing Metropolitan Police assertions about the difficulties of enabling the requested access to the HOLMES system. This should not have happened,” it says.
As for the role played by Dame Cressida, who returned to the force as Commissioner in April 2017, it says:
“The Panel has never received any reasonable explanation for the refusal over seven years by AC Cressida Dick and her successors to permit proper access to the HOLMES accounts to the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel. The consequential major delays to the Panel’s work, which inevitably added to the Panel’s costs, caused further unnecessary distress to the family of Daniel Morgan.”
Theresa May had initially hoped that the Panel would be able to complete its work within 12 months. That was hugely optimistic. Even if the Metropolitan Police had co-operated in the way the Panel had requested, it’s still likely to have taken several years. But the dispute over access to police files and the HOLMES database clearly prolonged the process, fuelling a sense that the Met is still trying to conceal or deny its failings in the case. That “dishonesty” is why the Panel concluded that the charge of “institutional corruption” applies to the force now, just as it did in the 1980s and 90s.
“The lack of candour and the repeated failure to take a fresh, thorough and critical look at past failings are all symptoms of institutional corruption, which prioritises institutional reputation over public accountability,” the report says.
Unlike the charge of “institutional racism”, applied 22 years ago by the Macpherson Inquiry report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the Met has not accepted that it is institutionally corrupt. That in itself is a cause for concern because it suggests senior officers haven’t acknowledged the core of the problems highlighted by the painstaking work of the Panel.
The label “institutional corruption” will cast a long shadow over Dame Cressida Dick’s remaining ten months in post, following a succession of other controversies, including the Sarah Everard case and Operation Midland. And although the 60 year old remains a highly respected figure in policing, it is difficult to see the current home secretary, Priti Patel, offering a contract extension, should she even want one.
More significant though, this report has given us valuable new insight into the workings of the Met and raises fresh questions about other botched police investigations - notably Stephen Lawrence’s initial murder inquiry - which may also have been affected by corruption. These cases must now be viewed through the lens used by the Daniel Morgan Panel.
It took them eight years to get there, but it was worth it.