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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Forget sniffer dogs. To stop drug abuse in prison, fight the real enemy – boredom

Since I left prison in 2011, the system has had £900m sucked out of it. No wonder officers are struggling to control drug use.

It’s rare to go a day in prison without someone offering you drugs. When I was sentenced to 16 months in 2011, I was shocked by the sheer variety on offer. It wasn’t just cannabis, heroin, and prescription pills. If you wanted something special, you could get that too: ecstasy for an in-cell rave, cocaine for the boxing, and, in one case, LSD for someone who presumably wanted to turn the waking nightmare of incarceration up to eleven.

Those were sober times, compared to how things are today. New synthetic drugs – powerful, undetectable, and cheap – have since flooded the market. As the Ministry of Justice itself admitted in its recent White Paper, they’ve lost control: “The motivation and ability of prisoners and organised crime groups to use and traffic illegal drugs has outstripped our ability to prevent this trade.”

The upshot is that, rather than emerging from prison with a useful new trade or skill, inmates are simply picking up new drug habits. According to a report released on 8 December by drug policy experts Volteface, on average 8 per cent of people who did not have a previous drug problem come out of prison with one. In some of the worst institutions, the figure is as high as 16 per cent.

Why are people with no history of drug abuse being driven to it in prison?

There’s the jailbreak factor, of course. All prisoners dream of escape, and drugs are the easiest way out. But, according the report, the most common reason given by inmates is simply boredom.

Life when I was inside was relatively benign. On most days, for instance, there were enough members of staff on duty to let inmates out of their cells to shower, use a telephone, post a letter, or clean their clothes. Sometimes an emergency would mean that there might not be enough hands on deck to escort people off the wing to education, worship, drug therapy, healthcare, family visits, work, or other purposeful activities; but those occasions were mercifully rare.

Since then, the system has had £900m sucked out of it, and the number of operational staff has been reduced by 7,000. All such a skeleton crew can do is rush from one situation to the next. An assault or a suicide in one part of the prison (which have increased by 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively since 2012) often results in the rest being locked down. The 2,100 new officers the MoJ has promised to recruit don’t come anywhere close to making up the shortfall. Purposeful activity – the cornerstone of effective rehabilitation – has suffered. Inmates are being forced to make their own fun.

Enter ‘synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists’, or SCRAs, often more simply referred to by brand names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘Black Mamba’. Over 200 of them are available on the international market and they are, today, the most popular drugs in British prisons. A third of inmates admitted to having used ‘Spice’ within the last month, according to a recent survey conducted by User Voice, and the true figure is probably even higher.

As one serving prisoner recently told me: "It's the perfect drug. You can smoke it right under the governor's nose and they won't be able to tell. Not even the dogs can sniff it out."

The combination of extreme boredom and experimental drugs has given birth to scenes both brutal and bizarre. Mobile phone footage recently emerged from Forest Bank prison showing naked, muzzled prisoners – apparently under the influence of such drugs – being made to take part in human dog fights. At the same establishment, another naked prisoner introduces himself to the camera as an ‘Islamic Turkey Vulture’ before squatting over another inmate and excreting ‘golden eggs’, believed to be packets of drugs, into his mouth. It sounds more like a scene from Salò than the prison culture I recall.

The solution to this diabolical situation might seem obvious: but not to Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Her answers are more prison time (up to ten years) for visitors caught smuggling ‘spice’, and new technology to detect the use of these drugs, which will inevitably fail to keep up with the constantly changing experimental drugs market. Earlier this week, she even suggested that drug-delivery drones could be deterred using barking dogs.

Trying to solve prison problems with more prison seems the very definition of madness. Indeed, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, over the last six years, inmates have received over a million days of extra punishment for breaking prison rules – which includes drug use – with no obvious positive effects.

Extra security measures – the training of ‘spice dogs’, for example – are also doomed to fail. After all, it’s not like prison drug dealers are hard to sniff out. They have the best trainers, the newest tracksuits, their cells are Aladdin’s Caves of contraband - and yet they rarely seem to get caught. Why? The image of a prison officer at HMP Wayland politely informing our wing dealer that his cell was scheduled for a search later that day comes to mind. Unless the huge demand for drugs in prison is dealt with, more security will only result in more corruption.

It might be a bitter pill for a Tory minister to swallow but it’s time to pay attention to prisoners’ needs. If the prodigious quantities of dangerous experimental drugs they are consuming are anything to go by, it’s stimulation they really crave. As diverting as extra drug tests, cell searches, and the sight of prison dogs trying to woof drones out of the sky might momentarily be, it’s not going to be enough.

That’s not to say that prisons should become funfairs, or the dreaded holiday camps of tabloid fantasy, but at the very last they should be safe, stable environments that give inmates the opportunity to improve their lives. Achieving that will require a degree of bravery, imagination, and compassion possibly beyond the reach of this government. But, for now, we live in hope. The prisoners, in dope.