Operation Ore is the admirable charge against paedophiles, lead in chief by the Metropolitan Police while coordinating with other constabularies throughout the country. Any effort to stamp out the morally bankrupt deviance of that black market trade is worth its salt, but according to a Labour MP, there are worrying cracks in the system.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Robert Flello, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent South highlighted a tangled case of mistaken identity, burglary and illegal pornography.
In December 2002, one of Mr. Flello’s constituents, who wished to remain anonymous, had his house crowded by the local Staffordshire police force. Vans were parked in front of the house, with which he stayed in with his parents, drumming up understandable interest from nosey neighbours. Computer equipment in his house was confiscated and he was arrested as part of Operation Ore.
The problem was, about four years before the arrest, the constituent reported a credit card theft to a police station in Stoke-on-Trent, which acknowledged the incident by issuing a crime number to him and to Barclaycard. He received a refund of £179.76 for unlawful transactions made on his card.
The constituent was arrested in 2002, linked to a Barclaycard registered to him that had been used in 1999 to access a website containing child pornography, although he had reported the theft to the local police, and issued a ticket, as early as January 1999.
Since, the family of the constituent has explored making an official complaint against the police.
They were discouraged, according to the MP, handed to-and-fro and faced with red-tape and bureaucracy. After being passed between various inspectors since the decision to make a complaint in 2003, the constituent’s parents were told that as it was not them that had been arrested, they were not elligible to complain. They withdrew, though the constituent still decided to press forward: he was “persuaded not to pursue a formal complaint” because it would be “interpreted as a personal attack on the police officers,” and instead it was suggested he make an “informal complaint”.
The family got in touch with a local legal team. The constituent was informed that, during a meeting with a Mr. Hulse from the Police’s professional standards unit, only records dating back to 2002 had been checked before his arrest – so the 1999 card theft report was nowhere to be seen. The solicitors told the constituents that the missing records would make it difficult to proceed because it would be tough to prove negligence, not to mention expensive.
Seemingly at their wits’ end, the parents wrote a letter to the Metropolitan Police, which is top of the chain in the operation. It was, according to Flello, forwarded to the Staffordshire police.
Staffordshire police passed the buck along to local CID. It was time for a different approach, and the anonymous constituent hired the services of new solicitors in September 2003, issuing a formal complaint made for wrongful arrest on the 1st October 2003. On the 17th October, the constituent received a letter telling him a familiar Inspector Humphries – who had previously handled the case – was looking after the complaint again.
Here is where it gets more complicated: The police claim to have in their possession a withdrawal of a complaint form, dated 24 October 2003, allegedly signed by the constituent. The constituent has denied ever signing it to this day, says the Labour MP, and at no time “did he agree to withdraw his complaint, sign any such document or have the inclination to withraw his complaint.”
Staffordshire Police, according to the MP, have no record of the original complaint – just the withdrawal. When confronted, they allegedly told the MP: “Who are you to be even considering reviewing such a document?”
Solicitors made their intentions clear in February 2004 to file for damages for wrongful arrest and imprisonment. That was acknowledged by Staffordshire police on the 24th of the same month, then again by the police’s insurers in early March 2004. Eventually, in October 2004,
Staffordshire’s police legal adviser – Mr Griffiths, according to the debate – allegedly rejected the claim and insisted that the arrest was lawful.
It was lawful because police were not made aware of the theft of his credit card in 1999 until through his interview rather than the time of his arrest, although the constituent claims the circumstances were confusing and he didn’t know what he was being arrested for, or all the surrounding implications. Mr Griffiths supposedly said in his letter that the mentioning of the credit card was “merely trying to pass the blame onto others.”
The solicitors said that the use of the credit card illegally leaves trails with a unique IP address, which would make it possible for investigators to be sure of the computer that had directly accessed the websites, and whether the constituent had accessed it. Flello says that point has never been addressed by Staffordshire police.
The file was shut in January 2005 when the solicitors decided that, given the light of all complications, there would be “no reasonable chance of progressing the complaint further”.
Not caving in, the constituent – who suffers from a medical condition called ulserative colitis and is prescribed medication – made another formal complaint in August 2005. It was on the back of undue stress contributing to his illness and the police’s failure to provide him with that prescribed medication. The police’s lawyer, Mr Griffiths, replied and suggested that any further complaints should be made through legal representatives.
The constituent got in touch with the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which, in October 2005 informed him that he would be contacted by… Staffordshire Police. It’s alleged that no contact was ever made.
Eventually, in December 2005, Deputy Chief Constable Lee of Staffordshire police made contact through a letter and upheld the initial rejection. But why had there been no investigation into records before 2002? The constituent approached the IPCC again. However, the complaint predated the IPCC and so was unable to accept the complaint.
In August 2006, says Flello, the then Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office Vernon Coaker advised the Labour MP that the Home Office could not get involved. It was an operational matter for the Staffordshire police, who had so far allegedly done everything in its power to fob the case off. The details were again forwarded to the Staffordshire police.
Mr. Flello’s representations were presented again through the course of 2007, but again Staffordshire police refused to reconsider his constituents complaints. Flello was advised by the IPCC that it had no record of the constituent’s case file.
Now Robert Flello has posed questions to the House: “I would like to ask the Minister to give me some reassurance on five specific points,” he begins, “first, will he use his good offices to persuade Staffordshire police to apologise, at long last, to my constituent and his parents, if for no other reason than for withholding the prescribed medication, for which I can see no justification?”
Flello also requests that all records for any arrest are checked rather than just from 2002 onwards, so “no other innocent person and their family has to suffer the trauma and indignity experienced by my constituent and his parents.” He also asks for clarification whether it’s correct that any complaint made before the creation of the IPCC can’t be persued, and if there is any recourse to open up to other complainants in a similar situation.
He asks if it’s reasonable that police are able to respond to complaints in ways which leave the complainant feeling “less than reassured,” and pleaded for a message to be sent to all police forces that, “when a mistake is found to have been made, a swift apology must be forthcoming”.
“This is a dreadful case of sloppy practice leading to an injustice, yet, even now, all my constiuent really wants is an apology.”
James Brokenshire, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Home Office, congratulated Flello on securing the debate. As with before, the Under Secretary, although now changed, underlines that it is difficult to respond specifically on individual cases.
Brokenshire provided some background. He said that this particular case was on a scale that had not been witnessed before in Operation Ore, when in September 1999 the United States Postal Inspection Service came across a company called Landslide Inc which was providing access for payment to child abuse images – material was seized including a database of subscribers.
About 2,700 individuals had been convicted on the back of Landslide Inc data, including over 700 admitting their guilt. In “almost 2,300 cases, child abuse images were discovered”. In 22 percent of dissemination following investigations, police took no further action, and 154 children were safeguarded, says Brokenshire.
He says that it wouldn’t be appropriate to discuss individual cases.He continues, talking about child protection in broader terms, before concluding that the Home Office will “ensure that cases are handled in accordance with the law.”
Brokenshire thanks Flello for raising the points and the case of the constituent. While unable to comment specifically, he finishes: “Members who are in the House this evening, and people outside, will have heard the points he has raised tonight and will take notice of them”.