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Priti Patel’s Interference is Jeopardising the Future of Independent Panels

David Hencke explains why the Home Secretary’s intervention in the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel report is so unprecedented and disturbing

Home Secretary Priti Patel making her keynote speech at the Conservative Party Conference/ Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Images

Priti Patel’s Interference isJeopardising the Future of Independent Panels

David Hencke explains why the Home Secretary’s intervention in the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel report is so unprecedented and disturbing

Priti Patel’s ill-timed intervention to delay the publication of the Independent Panel report into the murder of Daniel Morgan could spell the end of independent panels.

Who would want to spend years investigating highly complex, systemic, tragic issues only to have your words censored and delayed by a Government minister?

There is a history in the UK of independent panels investigating difficult and long-standing subjects. Hillsborough, the first inquiry set up by former Home Secretary Alan Johnson in 2009, involved the tragic death of 96 football fans in 1989 at an FA Cup semi-final. The case had been festering, unsolved for 20 years and legal proceedings are still ongoing.

The Gosport War Memorial Hospital Independent Panel, set up by health minister Norman Lamb in 2014, investigating the unexplained deaths at the hospital, followed a 20-year campaign by relatives to have their case heard. I was on the Gosport Panel, which has now triggered a police investigation, after it found that 456 elderly people at the hospital had their lives shortened.

The Daniel Morgan report – now delayed – followed a 30-year campaign for justice by his brother, Alastair, into his brutal murder and corruption involving the Metropolitan Police and the Murdoch media empire.

Independent panels are unique. They are not led by a judge and they don’t cross-examine witnesses. Instead of articulating just one person’s view, a collaborative group of experts work away in private for years, assembling evidence and drawing up an indisputable factual account of what happened, often unearthing previously undisclosed material.

They typically have a family-first policy of informing the relatives of their findings and keeping them fully informed of their progress, without publicly releasing what they have found until the end of the inquiry.

The collaborative effort is encouraged by their chairs – who are typically fiercely independent. Two were chaired by Bishop James Jones, former Bishop of Liverpool, while the Daniel Morgan review is chaired by Baroness Nuala O’Loan. Both are known for their opposition to any interference and those who know Baroness O’Loan say she will not take Patel’s actions lying down.

The independent panel system has its enemies. Lawyers and judges dislike them, given they could deprive their professions of power and income. Politicians are also anxious about them – worried about what they might reveal.

The Gosport inquiry nearly never happened because civil servants took advantage of Norman Lamb going on a camping holiday to France to draft a parliamentary answer, rejecting the need for an inquiry. It was only when he checked his emails while in France that he realised this was happening and countermanded the civil servants.

Lamb himself has rebuked the Home Secretary’s actions in relation to the Daniel Morgan review, calling it a “very dangerous precedent”.

“Any move to vet or delay an independent report damages the integrity of the independent panel system. This is a system that should be developed by the government not undermined,” he added yesterday.

In recent times, former Prime Minister and Home Secretary Theresa May had been persuaded to replace an independent panel examining historic child sexual abuse with a full legal inquiry – though not chaired by a judge. And May’s successor, Amber Rudd, reversed Theresa May’s plan to have an independent panel examine the 1984 ‘Battle of Orgreave’, where police charged striking miners.

So, does Priti Patel have any justification for delaying this inquiry report? Two questions have surfaced from my contacts: was there any suggestion that some written evidence given by senior Metropolitan Police officers to the panel had been wrongly presented in the report and has therefore caused a dispute? And would disclosure of some facts jeopardise a strategy to re-open investigations into corrupt officers – hence the reference to national security?

Even if this is the case, Patel’s insistence on vetting the report is a breach of the terms of reference and could open the Home Secretary to a legal challenge. So it is no surprise that the panel has refused to hand over its finding. The inquiry has its own QC, Kate Blackwell, who sat with me on the Gosport inquiry and is a formidable legal practitioner.

The person who is entitled to see the report first is Alastair Morgan, Daniel’s brother, before it is released to Parliament and the media. If it is tampered with by Priti Patel beforehand, that would be a breach of the practice adopted by both the Gosport and Hillsborough inquiries.

It would be surprising if Priti Patel can indefinitely hold back the publication of the report – and it’s right for the panel to take a stand.

Whether the independent panel system – which was heavily supported by Theresa May when she was Prime Minister – can survive this is another matter. As a way of shedding light on issues of grave sensitivity and importance, I hope that it will.

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