May 13, 2013 6:05 pm

Damian Green rejects probe into police whistleblowers’ arrest

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Ministers have ruled out an investigation into the arrest of three “whistleblowers” who allegedly leaked details of a £700 expense claim by a police and crime commissioner who hired a chauffeur-driven Mercedes to attend functions.

The case, involving Richard Rhodes, the police and crime commissioner (PCC) for Cumbria, is the latest in a series of controversies to ensnare the newly elected PCCs since last November’s elections.

A local MP said Mr Rhodes appeared to be running “a private police force”, after his office raised concern that copies of the invoices were leaked from within the Cumbria Constabulary, leading to three arrests. Mr Rhodes denied interfering in the investigation.

Damian Green, policing minister, said it would be “entirely inappropriate” for the government to hold its own probe while a police inquiry was under way, despite calls from all three parties for the Home Office to look into the case.

His remarks came in a letter to Jamie Reed, Labour MP for the northwest constituency of Copeland, who said he was surprised by the decision. “This tawdry affair is a backward step for policing,” said Mr Reed. “It is eroding trust.”

Mr Rhodes was one of 41 PCCs elected across the country in November as part of a government push to make the police more accountable to the public and promote its “localism” agenda. But the elections were marred by record low turnout, with fewer than 15 per cent of people voting in some areas.

Mr Rhodes, a Conservative, has apologised for the expense claims – related to transportation to two evening functions attended in his PCC role – and repaid the sum. Cumbria police said the three whistleblowers, including two employees, had not used approved whistleblower channels, and it had to “investigate any alleged unlawful disclosure of information from the constabulary”. The three are on police bail until May 25.

The home affairs select committee has launched its own inquiry into the case, with Mr Rhodes invited to appear before it, the Financial Times has learnt.

David Cameron pledged to look into the matter after Tim Farron, a Liberal Democrat MP in Cumbria, raised the issue in the House of Commons.

Cumbria’s commissioner is one of several PCCs to have come under pressure over ethics disputes.

Other controversies have included the appointment by Matthew Grove, Humberside commissioner, of a Conservative council colleague, Paul Robinson, as his deputy against the advice of the local crime panel. Mr Robinson has since stepped down from the council.

In South Yorkshire, Shaun Wright appointed Tracey Cheetham, a fellow Labour councillor, as his £45,000-a-year deputy. He was also criticised for spending £6,000 on security for his home. Mr Wright said the expense was justified by the need to protect his family.

PCCs in different parts of the country have also taken differing views of their powers. Mr Wright earmarked £1m to keep a mounted police unit, while Mr Grove said its abolition in his area was an operational matter outside his remit.

Tony Lloyd, Greater Manchester’s Labour PCC, has defied the government by refusing to cut constables’ starting pay.

Kent’s commissioner, Ann Barnes, meanwhile, faced embarrassment after she appointed a local youth crime commissioner, Paris Brown, who was forced to resign because of offensive comments the 17 year-old made on Twitter.

Peter Neyroud, former head of the National Policing Improvement Agency, fears an erosion of the role of the chief constable and the politicisation of policing.

He said chief constables were now “beholden” to PCCs. “If the chief . . . is someone who has been groomed and appointed by the PCC, then they are more likely to do what they are told and not stand up to ideas that are problematic.”

The Home Office said PCCs did not interfere with operations and their introduction “has been the most significant democratic reform of policing”.

They have worked with the police to cut crime and given communities a real say over policing priorities in their areas.”

Additional reporting by Helen Warrell

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