Ben Houchen, the Conservative Mayor for Tees Valley, has sharply criticised the management of the police force in Cleveland. The catalyst has been the appointment of Mike Veale as the new Chief Constable there. It was a controversial decision as Veale has faced criticism, as Chief Constable for Wiltshire, over the handling of accusations of historical child sex abuse against Sir Edward Heath.

Veale’s new role was approved by the Labour Police and Crime Commissioner for Cleveland, Barry Coppinger.

Last month Houchen said:

“Let’s be clear, this is a Chief Constable who spent millions of taxpayers’ money on a witch hunt against Sir Edward Heath, and refused to apologise or acknowledge his part in the ridiculous debacle.

“We now find that Mr Veale is subject to a misconduct investigation by the police watchdog, and that this was known to Cleveland’s Police Commissioner before appointing him.

“Mike Veale shouldn’t be taking charge, and Barry Coppinger and Cleveland Police really need to seriously reconsider appointing him.

“I have absolutely no faith that our new Chief Constable will be able to provide the support that is required for our frontline police officers to fulfil their duty to protect the public.”

Coppinger hit back saying:

“It was extremely disappointing to then see you attacking Mike Veale and declaring you have “absolutely no faith” in a new Chief Constable for Cleveland – before he has even started in the job and before you have even met him.

“This hardly sends out a positive message to the outside world of a location where local agencies and services – and indeed local politicians – work together to deliver for our communities and promote a positive image of our area.  The stakeholder panel was exactly that – senior criminal justice and public service representatives; independent and community scrutineers; and police workforce representatives. All fully supported Mike Veale’s appointment.

“Your comments re Mr Veale are an extremely unfair and unjust attack on the reputation of a hard-working, dedicated Chief police officer, who has given over 30 years of service to policing, much of it on the frontline.”

He added:

“You have also claimed Cleveland police is ‘broken’.  This is absolute nonsense.  My view, based on considerable local knowledge and daily experience, is the force has its strongest ever leadership team.  A view shared by many officers and staff I come into daily contact with; evidenced by positive and continually improving HMICFRS independent inspection reports and reinforced by the many partner organisations and local stakeholders I work with on a daily basis.

“Most important of all to me since being elected, is the feedback, gained from attending well over 500 residents meetings across all 78 wards here, of their high regard and support for the work Cleveland police do in keeping us safe.   This was reaffirmed only last week by a public consultation on council tax precept where over 80% of those responding support a £12 annual increase, rather than none and service cuts.

“The force has had its share of challenges, some down to inappropriate behaviour by a very small number of people, which have been subject of due processes.  Moving forward, I have worked with and supported the force leadership in making significant cultural and organisational changes over the last year or so, to address those, with more work to come.”

Houchen has now responded – very robustly:

“I welcome this opportunity to set out why I have no faith in your decision to appoint Mr Veale. First and foremost – as if this isn’t enough of a reason – he is currently subject to a misconduct investigation by the Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC). You knew about this, yet appointed him anyway.

“Secondly, this is a man who presided over a two-year, politically-motivated witch hunt against the late Sir Edward Heath, at a cost to the taxpayer of £1.5 million. What’s worse is that it resulted in no action being taken. Indeed it later emerged that the main accuser in which the case relied was a convicted paedophile and fantasist, whose family had dismissed as a ‘born liar’. You knew about this, yet appointed him anyway.

“Thirdly, I want to draw your attention to the highly offensive comments made by Mr Veale as reported in The Times on 16 January 2018. According this article, there’s an attendance note that was obtained by the newspaper under a freedom of information request in which Mr Veale allegedly said:

“If you have a six-year-old girl who has trauma in her vagina or anus, you would expect me to believe her. If you have a drunken prostitute making allegations regarding a bad debt, you have to make more of a judgment.”

“Mr Veale’s reported comments suggest that he was less likely to believe a complaint by a “drunken prostitute” have been widely condemned women’s charities. Specifically the co-director of the End Violence Against Women coalition, who said that such comments implied that rapists could act with impunity “as long as they pick their victims well.” You knew about this, yet appointed him anyway.

“Let me be as clear as I can: every day the men and women of Cleveland Police put their own lives on the line to protect local communities. They are doing an excellent job and they deserve better. I’ve long said that Cleveland Police are failing in their duty to support officers and the public. They need to feel supported by an organisation that enjoys full public confidence. For you to suggest all is well demonstrates your complete ineptitude and unwillingness to deal with the fundamental problems of the force. Unless these are dealt with properly and head on, you will always fail to support our officers who do their best and putting their lives on the line very day. You can’t keep sticking your head in the sand as our force lurches from one crisis to another. Our force is broken and it needs repairing.”

On his broader concerns about police failings locally Houchen added:

“I want you to understand why there needs to be a review. Since the force’s inception, Cleveland has acquired notoriety through an anthology of serious incidents involving
corruption and racism. Your weak excuse that all that is wrong with the force is historic is an abdication of your responsibility to improve our force. To those still affected by the impact of these issues, you continue to fail to address those that are still very real and present. So as to not allow you to trivialise the problems, I will list a small number of the many failings that clearly demonstrate why we still need a review of local policing, and why your refusal to engage in the process is deeply wrong:

“Operation Lancet – corruption involving the trading by officers of controlled drugs for information and assaults against suspects or potential informers.

“False imprisonment of Sultan Alam after he raised industrial proceedings for “race discrimination”. He was awarded an unprecedented £841,000 for “malicious prosecution”.

“The reported vendetta and false imprisonment of a local defence solicitor, James Watson, who was awarded £550,000 plus legal bills of £1,000,000. The then Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) report, titled Operation Pomeroy, is scathing citing “a host of investigative failures” with ‘mistakes, incompetence and
alleged dishonesty”.

“Operation Sacristy – A three year criminal investigation leading to the dismissal of the Chief Constable (Sean Price) and the Deputy Chief Constable (Derek Bonnard). The former Chair of Cleveland Police Authority (Dave McLuckie) was jailed for perverting the course of justice.

“Former Police Constable Nadeem Saddique was racially discriminated against over a 20 year career and was awarded £480,000. Police Sergeant Waseem Khansubjected to 4 years suspension whilst his misconduct hearing collapsed due to police corruption. To date none of those found responsible for racism, corruption and/or criminal conduct have been held to account.

“I can only assume that your latest plan to increase the police precept on people’s council tax bills is to finance these compensation payouts. Indeed since your election in 2012, you have increased the precept by almost 16 per cent. I suggest that getting your house in order first would remove the need for you to increase taxes on hard-pressed families.

“I will end on this: until you face up to the structural issues at Cleveland Police, the public will continue to suffer. You claim morale is low because of my interventions – this couldn’t be further from the truth. Staff morale is low because of your failure to address systematic failures in senior management. I’m on the side of those officers on the front line who have been failed by a Chief Constable merry-go-round, and a Police and Crime Commissioner who is blind to the issues that are staring him in his face.

“It is a criminal shame that you have missed this opportunity to give officers and the public a fresh start. All serving officers want is the opportunity to serve a force that is not tainted by constant scandal and to be proud of the job they do every day. You have instead needlessly chosen to throw away this opportunity and perpetuate the cycle of scandal that has mired our force for decades.”

It should be noted – lest the party political aspect of the row should appear too straightforward – that Veale had the support of some Conservative MPs in Wiltshire who would have liked him to continue.

Just as startling as the claims and counterclaims in this row is that such matters are being thrashed out so openly. I welcome it. It is right that the police should face transparency and accountability. It is healthy to have a vigorous local democracy – and that a young Conservative Mayor elected in traditional Labour territory should be challenging the establishment.

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