Police silent over claim Number 10 ‘may have perverted course of justice’
Met chief Cressida Dick says only that probe will examine illegal parties, but lawyers say allegation of destroying evidence is more serious
London’s Metropolitan Police has refused to confirm whether it will investigate allegations that Downing Street perverted the course of justice over lockdown breaches.
Announcing the Met’s probe today into illegal partying at Number 10, commissioner Cressida Dick told the London Assembly her force would look into “potential breaches of COVID-19 regulations” that could result in fixed penalty notices being issued.
But two legal experts have told openDemocracy that reports of incriminating messages being deleted – published in The Independent but denied by Number 10 – could constitute a criminal offence far more serious than the actual breaching of lockdown rules highlighted by Dick.
Breaching COVID regulations is usually punishable with a fine, whereas perverting the course of justice – which can include attempting to destroy evidence of a crime – carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Former Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne was jailed for eight months in 2013 after a court found that he perverted the course of justice by passing driving penalty points on to his then-wife.
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Marc Willers QC, of Garden Court Chambers, told openDemocracy: “At the time parties and gatherings were unlawful so, if they destroyed or attempted to destroy evidence that could show the commission of an offence with the intention of frustrating a possible police investigation, then that could amount to an offence of attempting to pervert the course of justice.”
But a Met spokesperson tonight refused to answer questions about other possible offences until the investigation had concluded.
Dick’s surprise intervention at this morning’s London Assembly police and crime committee came after the Met was passed information by the Cabinet Office.
“I can confirm that the Met is now investigating a number of events that took place at Downing Street and Whitehall in the last two years in relation to potential breaches of COVID-19 regulations,” she said.
“I should stress the fact that the Met is investigating does not mean that fixed penalty notices will necessarily be issued in every instance and to every person involved.”
In December, Downing Street staff were reportedly advised to “clean up” their phones by removing any information that could imply they had attended or were aware of anything that could “look like a party”, according to The Independent.
Sources said they were “leant on” by senior staff to scrub their phones “just in case” they had to hand them in as part of an inquiry.
Adrian Waterman, a QC with Matrix Chambers, told openDemocracy that senior staff and anyone else involved could face charges for perverting the course of justice even if police were to decide no lockdown rules had actually been breached.
The UK’s information watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), has warned that the allegations could also be a breach of the Freedom of Information Act, which requires records to be kept.
Earlier this month, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner wrote to the cabinet secretary Simon Case asking whether or not it was true staff had been asked to delete incriminating messages.
Rayner also asked whether any staff involved had referred themselves to the ICO. She received no reply.
Boris Johnson launched an inquiry in December into whether rules had been broken at Number 10 after reports that staff held a party on 18 December 2020, when London was subject to severe restrictions.
The inquiry was later expanded to include other possible breaches after it emerged that further parties had taken place – including a ‘birthday party’ for the prime minister in June 2020, which Downing Street admits he attended, though allegedly for less than ten minutes.
After Downing Street launched its inquiry, civil servants were reminded that all messages that are relevant to government business ought to be retained and recorded.
MPs raised fears that the inquiry could be a whitewash last week after the government refused to say whether all the evidence gathered will be made public.
The Cabinet Office refused to tell openDemocracy whether Sue Gray, the civil servant appointed to lead the inquiry, would record or publish interviews conducted as part of her investigation.
Nor would it confirm whether a list is being kept of people whom Gray interviews during her probe – and if such a list would be made public.
Number 10 has been criticised for appointing Gray to lead the inquiry after it emerged that the civil servant, who first joined the Cabinet Office in the 1990s, has a record of helping prevent government disclosures.
Campaigner Jason Evans, who was previously stonewalled by Gray after requesting information from a public inquiry, told openDemocracy that she “isn’t a person that believes in open and full disclosure”.
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