The Metropolitan Police has been accused of “double standards” after saying it would await the outcome of a Government inquiry before deciding whether to investigate breaches of Covid laws at Downing Street parties.
Scotland Yard indicated any police investigation would depend on evidence unearthed in the Cabinet Office inquiry carried out by Sue Gray, adding: “If the inquiry identifies evidence of behaviour that is potentially a criminal offence it will be passed to the Met for further consideration.”
Some lawyers and policing commentators described the approach as suggesting there was one rule for those in power and another for everyone else.
Raj Chada, the head of the criminal defence department at Hodge Jones and Allen, told the PA news agency: “The Met does seem to be saying there is one rule for politicians and one rule for others.
“The idea that ‘we’re just going to wait and see what happens’ is unheard of in criminal investigations because it means that evidence can disappear.
“The Met has double standards on this. They broke up the Sarah Everard vigil in pretty heavy-handed terms and the justification was Covid regulations.
“The Met is meant to be completely independent and there to safeguard and ensure the law is applied to all, irrespective of status. And it just doesn’t feel like that, does it?”
Human rights barrister Kirsty Brimelow, who has defended cases of Covid breaches and is vice chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said the police “obviously” do not need to wait for an internal inquiry “when they already have evidence and can easily gain more evidence”.
While the force’s policy to not investigate breaches of Covid laws retrospectively may be “best practice”, she said there was a “heightened sense of responsibility and accountability” because this involves a Government which imposed the laws on the public.
She added: “If there is an unequal application of law depending on status, this is bad for a functioning rule of law. It is bad for democracy.”
The Good Law Project, which said it has put the Met on notice that it will take legal action if the force fails to investigate parties at Downing Street, warned the approach could damage public trust in the justice system.
A Project spokesperson said: “We think very clearly that it looks like there is one rule for those in power and one rule for everyone else. And we think it’s intolerable – the operation of a separate criminal justice system, which is a softer one for people in power or those who have influence and a harsher one for those without.
“We are very concerned about the level of damage this is doing to public trust in the rule of law.”
Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, described the situation as a “gross injustice” and said The Met had issued “thousands” of fines for “minor Covid breaches”, adding that it was “incredible” that the “most heavily policed building in the country” hosted parties and yet the Met is “waiting for people in that same building to produce a report before they decide whether to investigate”.
“It’s understandable why the British public feel that those with power play by a different set of rules. The very people who made the most restrictive laws in British peacetime appear to have flouted them repeatedly, right under the nose of the police”, she said.
Jun Pang, policy and campaigns officer at Liberty, said The Met had “serious questions to answer” over its approach while Norman L. Reimer, the chief executive of organisation Fair Trials, said: “We cannot have a justice system where people in power can break lockdown with impunity while others are prosecuted and fined.”
But Nick Aldworth, a former Metropolitan Police chief superintendent and counter-terrorism national co-ordinator, told PA a fundamental principle of policing is that forces are “operationally independent from government” and warned that if the force did investigate the allegations of breaches retrospectively then it would be “absolutely right and proper” that it then also look into any others reported.
While he said the Met should not be drawn into politics, he warned: “Nobody is exempt from the law and if officers believed offences were being committed at the time, they should have reported them” and described the incidents as showing an “appalling culture across the governing classes.”
Mr Chada added: “Downing Street’s the most policed street in the country, so the officers must have known what was going on. And so why didn’t they take action at the time? At the very least, they’re now potential eyewitnesses to what’s occurred.”
Some also questioned whether the incidents may be examples of malfeasance or misconduct in public office or neglect of duty.
The Met’s policy on investigating Covid law breaches, first published in spring 2020, said when it receives reports it would “focus on those that are live or ongoing where police action can enable a change to behaviour that is posing a current public health risk.”