The Metropolitan police have been accused of “double standards” after saying they would await the outcome Sue Gray’s inquiry into alleged 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 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?
The 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” did 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 might be “best practice”, she said there was a “heightened sense of responsibility and accountability” because this involved 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 had put the Met on notice that it would take legal action if the force failed to investigate parties at Downing Street, warned the approach could damage public trust in the justice system.
A spokesperson for the project 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, the 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 was “waiting for people in that same building to produce a report before they decide whether to investigate”.
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 was that forces were “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 looked into any others reported.