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Met Police acted without fear or favour on partygate, acting chief insists

The front door of No10 Downing Street (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
The front door of No10 Downing Street (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The acting head of the Metropolitan Police has launched a bullish defence of the investigation into lockdown busting parties in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office.

Giving evidence to the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee on Thursday, Sir Stephen House insisted he would not have been swayed by the risk of the Prime Minister being forced to resign and is confident in how the inquiry was carried out.

Admitting that some photographs of the parties “look bad”, he said the key legal questions were whether people had a reasonable excuse to be at an event rather than how many others were present.

He said: “I accept that many of the photographs that we are seeing look bad and Sue Gray’s report has dealt with that.

“We deal with the law, not what looks bad. And just because there is alcohol present, can I just remind people that the Covid regulations are about breaching Covid regulations, they’re not about whether there’s drink there or not.

“We have to put fixed-penalty notices to people that we think will win in court. And there has to be evidence behind it and there is not always evidence and… a photograph can be somewhat deceptive in these areas.”

Sir Stephen added: “We have not, I repeat this, we have not shied away from issuing a fixed-penalty notice where we thought it was deserved.

“We have policed without fear or favour and I would not have presided over anything less than that.”

The acting Met Commissioner, who is in post until a replacement is found for former boss Dame Cressida Dick, has also written to London Mayor Sadiq Khan after he was asked to give “a more detailed and formal explanation” of how decisions were made.

During one event in Downing Street on December 18, 2020, a panic alarm was accidentally triggered and the police officer who responded saw a large number of people outside the press office but failed to challenge them.

Committee member Caroline Russell put it to Sir Stephen that the event “looks and smells like a party”. Staff in other parts of Downing Street reported hearing “significant levels of noise”, and red wine was found spilled on a wall and boxes of paper the next morning.

He said: “One of the things we had to decide was, is this gathering, is this event, work-related or not work-related. And that was an important question asked.

“I think it’s impossible to expect an officer walking through a room with a lot of people in it to work out whether or not these people are breaching coronavirus regulations, when it’s taken a team of 12 experienced detectives many, many weeks to do the same thing.”

Frontline officers issued on-the-spot fines to thousands of members of the public believed to have gathered in groups in breach of lockdown rules throughout the pandemic.

Sir Stephen told the committee: “The officers’ roles there (at Downing Street) are ones of security and safety. They’re there to protect the perimeter.

“They’re not there to police what goes on inside the building.

“And I don’t believe that the officer that we’re talking about felt that they were seeing something that necessarily breached coronavirus regulations.”

The investigation team looked at hundreds of documents including emails, electronic door logs, diary entries, witness statements, photographs, CCTV images and the responses to questionnaires sent to those believed to have attended gatherings, the committee heard.

They looked at “each individual’s activity” at each event, how long it lasted and the amount of time they spent there.

Sir Stephen also faced questions on how the force decided who should be fined for the November 13 2020 party at Number 10 amid lockdown restrictions.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson outside 10 Downing Street
Prime Minister Boris Johnson outside 10 Downing Street (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Pictures published in Sue Gray’s report include an image of Boris Johnson raising a glass of wine at the leaving do for his former spin doctor Lee Cain.

Sir Stephen said the Met did issue fines for the event but refused to confirm the Prime Minister did not receive a fine, saying the force had a policy not to name those it issues with fixed-penalty notices.

He insisted the Met was not deterred by the prospect of Mr Johnson potentially having to resign if he were fined more than once.

Sir Stephen said: “I was involved in these decision makings myself, I am very confident of the integrity of the decisions that were made in this investigation, which was a difficult investigation.

“I’m not particularly concerned about what the Prime Minister thinks, I do my job without fear or favour.”