If Andrew Mitchell is cleared, Ed Miliband should apologise

The Labour leader should begin by backing Cameron's call for a swift investigation to establish the truth.

It was fun while it lasted.

"Plebgate" and the drawn-out resignation of Andrew Mitchell has been pure gold to Labour these past few months.

Here we had an aloof Tory politician – the government’s new chief whip no less - upbraiding dedicated public servants as "fucking plebs" for simply following security protocol and politely refusing his demand that Downing Street’s gates be opened so he could ride out on his bicycle. For their temerity in directing him to a side-gate they got a gob full of insults and threats. The depiction was damning: a government that is out-of-touch, arrogant, selfish and, most of all, posh. Specifically, Mitchell is alleged to have said to the officers on duty:

"Best you learn your f------ place...you don’t run this f------ government...You’re f------ plebs." 

So says the police’s log, leaked to the Daily Telegraph a few days after the incident last September, with Mitchell adding menacingly, "you haven’t heard the last of this". Although he admits using the ‘f’ word, Mitchell has always denied calling officers "plebs" or "morons". However his – and Downing Street’s – weak handling of the crisis made many assume the worst possible version of events had to be true.

It didn’t help that we were treated to tales of Mitchell’s quick temper which earned him the nickname "Thrasher" at school, while it was made clear time and again from enemies in his own party that he was damaged goods and unable to perform the role of parliamentary disciplinarian after showing little self-restraint himself.

That was then. Now we learn, courtesy of Channel Four’s Dispatches, that all is not as we had assumed. Leaked CCTV footage of that fateful night shows no angry confrontation with the police. There is no finger-jabbing or aggressive posture. Nor does the footage show "several members of public" who were "visibly shocked" by the episode, which the police log assures us was the case.

Perhaps most damningly, Dispatches uncovered that a constituent of deputy chief whip John Randall who wrote to the MP claiming to have witnessed the incident first-hand, including details that corroborated the leaked – and contended – version of events in the police log, turns out to be a serving police officer.

The plot thickens. As does the dilemma for the Labour leadership. Downing Street has demanded the police "get to the bottom of this as a matter of urgency", saying any allegation that a serving police officer "fabricated evidence" is "exceptionally serious". Meanwhile the BBC’s Nick Robinson reports that Boris Johnson has told Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe that he is “extremely concerned not just about this alleged wrongdoing but any suggestion of an alleged conspiracy” to damage Mitchell. This is significant as Boris was quite happy to pour petrol on the situation himself. He said at the time that it would have been "wholly commonsensical" for officers to have arrested Mitchell for his conduct.

Which brings us to Ed Miliband. Mitchell has been good sport. Back in October the Labour Leader goaded David Cameron over the "double standard" that while someone "abusing police officers" in the street would be arrested, Mitchell was being protected. "While it’s a night in the cell for the yobs, it’s a night at the Carlton Club for the Chief Whip," he quipped.

If it now turns out that Mitchell is a wronged man, and is only guilty of the minor indiscretion of saying "I thought you lot were supposed to fucking help us" (his admitted remark) then he is entitled to feel aggrieved at what has happened to him. A quick return to the cabinet might not be on the cards, but speedy and earnest apologies should be. And Miliband should be first in line.

Today he has the opportunity at the final Prime Minister’s Questions before the Christmas break to position himself against the real possibility that this issue will now move in Mitchell’s favour. He should strongly back the Prime Minister’s call for a speedy investigation to establish the full facts once and for all and concede that there now appears more to the story than everyone first thought. Indeed, Miliband urged such an inquiry when the issue came to light in September.

On the basis of never letting a good crisis go to waste, he should show us that "the new politics" he espouses means political leaders can show generosity to their opponents – and even contrition – in due course – if Mitchell is now cleared.

Former government chief whip Andrew Mitchell, who resigned in October. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.