The NS Interview - Sir John Stevens

The head of the Metropolitan Police asks if our justice system can deal with witnesses who are so al

There comes a time, in the life of any Metropolitan Police Commissioner, when the job starts to get to you. New problems accumulate; old ones never go away. Sir John Stevens, conscious perhaps that gloom is a Commissioner's natural destiny, is adept at mustering reasons to be cheerful. Here are a couple, straight off. First, Stevens believes that a slicker, faster justice system is now assured. "We in ACPO [Association of Chief Police Officers] think we've gone quicker in the last ten weeks than we have in the last 15 or 20 years," he says. "I honestly believe that."

Second, he is sure that (while he would never put it so crudely) David Blunkett's ambitions to turn the police service into a Home Office fiefdom have been seen off. Although the Police Reform Bill, already defeated in the Lords, faces further storms, Stevens is satisfied Blunkett has already accepted that loss of operational independence will not be tolerated. There will, he thinks, be "no more talk of sacking chief constables".

Does that include him? "Oh, I could be sacked by anybody," he says, and laughs. Few Commissioners have had to face such open meddling from a Home Secretary. Only a few weeks ago, Blunkett was reportedly threatening to displace Stevens unless crime figures fell. Perhaps this is why he seems wearier than usual.

Maybe he has just had a bad meeting. He flicks anxiously through reports of Paris riots, certain that Jean-Marie Le Pen's triumph will embolden the BNP. There are other worries. London muggings are up by 38 per cent, a rise that Stevens calls "alarming", although he believes his decision, four months ago, to switch 500 officers to street crime is paying off. "It is coming down. We arrested 1,000 robbers and 14,000 others in the first eight weeks."

He hopes that £180m of new but unallocated Budget money will include the £60m he wants for anti-terrorism. After 11 September and a series of Real IRA attacks, the Met remains on "high alert" for domestic or international attack. Other flashpoints loom. Stevens is expecting anarchists on May Day and, on 6 May, a possibly incendiary march by groups in favour of Israeli military action. "What has happened in France may well have some effect on the extreme right. We [also] have the possibility of counter-demonstrations by Muslims and others. It is potentially very worrying."

Having seen off the Queen Mother, in what was judged a good funeral for the Met, the force will now play host to the million well-wishers expected to travel to the capital for the Queen's jubilee weekend in early June. "It will be an unprecedented six weeks. These are massive operations; we have never had such a demand on the Met Police." Too much pressure, too little money and the general thinness of the blue line are the familiar plaint of all Commissioners. And then there are the one-off events that may define how a police force is viewed.

We meet on Monday morning, two hours before the Damilola Taylor jury retires to consider its verdict. While Stevens can make no comment until that result is delivered, he has already taken steps to address issues raised by the trial judge, Mr Justice Hooper, who threw out the evidence of a 14-year-old girl, Witness Bromley, and strongly criticised the police's role in her "embellished lies". Stevens has launched an internal inquiry.

"We're looking at how we deal with that kind of witness. When any High Court judge says that sort of thing, we have to take notice and act on it. Is the system that we have at the moment adequate to deal with people who come from a background most of us don't understand? It goes back to the speech I made the other day."

He is referring to his warning, delivered to a youth crime conference, that a generation of young men, many of them black and some as young as eight, is being ruined. "By bringing them into the [justice] system at such a young age, we are stigmatising them for life," he said.

His message, that society must find ways to keep children out of crime, contrasted oddly with the speech he gave last month at Leicester University. Victims and witnesses were treated "appallingly", he said then. Too often, "the criminal trial is simply an uneven game of tactics", and "the guilty are walking out, almost as if through a revolving door". The speech caused uproar and a more measured critique by lawyers questioning Stevens's assumption that the police were the wellspring of civil virtue.

If the Commissioner's lurch between anguish for lost children and lock-'em-up intransigence implies a tactical manoeuvre, it should not. Although Stevens would not say so, I think he is, at one level, unsure. He has identified the scourge of society (20 to 30 young untouchables in any borough). He has the remedy (roll on the Auld reforms, complete with the likely compromise of fewer jury trials and magistrates handing out 12-month sentences). He has some fast-track measures, such as video identification and robbery courts, in the bag.

And still, there seems to be, in the new, feral breed of young criminal identified in his Leicester speech, something to which Stevens cannot relate. It's almost as if the Met is losing touch with everyday life all over London. "What the Metropolitan Police has to do is to investigate as best it can," Stevens says. "If the evidence is not there, if you have people down on an estate who refuse to speak to the police, if you find that forensic evidence is not compelling, then the last thing I want anyone to do is to start to put pressure on, or manipulate or manufacture evidence.

"What I'm saying is that some of these cases are simply massively difficult to investigate; more difficult than any of us have done. My background is in investigation, and I know about difficulty . . . I think you've got to be in the business of saying: OK, we are going to lose some of these cases, and let's not castigate the police force for it. We have to do the job as best we can, and that is as much as we can do. We must not get into the business of saying that every single time the police arrest someone and take them in front of a jury, they've got to be found guilty . . . You have to live within the system. That is why it's there."

I ask what he plans to do about Commander Brian Paddick, switched from his Lambeth job after a Sunday paper published allegations involving cannabis smoking by a former gay lover. Does he want Paddick, who denies any wrongdoing and has won vast public support, to have his post back? "He's had great support. He's done a good job. But we have to wait for the inquiry. Because of the allegation of crime, it will have to go to the CPS." Did Stevens find it distasteful to watch a senior officer's private life trawled through? "Everyone is entitled to privacy, unless of course there are allegations of crime," he says. "Then there must be investigation. That wasn't [about] private life; that goes directly to his whole persona and his position as a police officer. That's the difference."

After the Macpherson inquiry, Stevens was hired partly to raise morale in a dispirited staff. Nine years after Stephen Lawrence's murder, controversy stirs again. The retirement of John Grieves - head of an ongoing inquiry - has prompted the charge that the Met is downgrading its fight against race crime and its attempts to bring Lawrence's killers to justice. According to speculation, Stevens personally wants money diverted to other crimes. Is the emphasis off race? "No, absolutely not. John Grieve has done 37 years. He's entitled to leave. He's a legend, and to lose his talent is a loss, but the organisation has to march on. He has done everything he can."

As the Crown Prosecution Service considers the Lawrence dossier, does Stevens think his killers will face charges? "I honestly don't know," he says. Is he even hopeful? "I'm jolly hopeful. In this business, you never give up. Think about where we're going in Northern Ireland. Don't bother doing that job unless you believe you'll get there in the end." The Stevens inquiry, set up in 1989 and still investigating alleged security force collusion, may, he hints, be close to getting a result on the murder of the solicitor Pat Finucane.

Then there is his vision of a slicker judicial system, now being choreographed by the Prime Minister, the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice, a "very vigorous" Home Secretary and the Met. The prospect of this chorus line staying in step sounds uncertain, but Stevens is hopeful. "I believe that there are lots of grounds to be optimistic," he says again. So many reasons to be cheerful. When the justice system creaks, violent crime rises and even the criminal class mutates, pessimism is not an option.