The Independent Police Complaints Commission is to reconsider whether there is a criminal case against South Yorkshire's former police and crime commissioner after the watchdog admitted it misunderstood the law in relation to lying to Parliament.
The IPCC has acknowledged it should have examined the case against former South Yorkshire PCC Shaun Wright last year instead of concluding his alleged lying to the Home Affairs Select Committee over the Rotherham child exploitation scandal could not amount to a criminal offence and was not under its remit.
The watchdog has now taken responsibility for the inquiry after the committee referred the allegations over Mr Wright’s evidence to the Metropolitan Police in November last year.
The case could have significant implications for how allegations surrounding evidence to select committees are handled, particularly when witnesses give evidence under oath as Mr Wright did.
An IPCC spokesman said: “In December 2015, the IPCC received a referral from the South Yorkshire Police and Crime Panel in relation to evidence given to the Home Affairs Select Committee relating to child sexual exploitation in Rotherham.
“The IPCC referred the matter back to the Panel on the basis that misleading a Select Committee, if proven, would be a contempt of Parliament rather than a criminal offence. This was founded on a misunderstanding of the extent of Parliamentary immunity in the context of witnesses giving evidence on oath before select committees.
“Since that decision, the Home Affairs Select Committee referred the same matter to the Metropolitan Police Service. Following recent correspondence received from the Metropolitan Police Service, we have re-reviewed the law relating to evidence given at the Home Affairs Select Committee and believe that this matter does come under our remit, rather than being a contempt of Parliament issue. As a result we have written to the South Yorkshire Police and Crime Panel to ask them to re-refer the matter for our consideration.”
In line with protocol, the IPCC said it would carry out an initial assessment of the allegations once re-referred before deciding whether to launch a full investigation.
The select committee referred the allegations against Mr Wright to the Met in November last year. The case relates to the former PCC’s appearance before the committee in September 2014.
At the time the committee said it had received two complaints that Mr Wright had given deliberately misleading evidence on oath. The complaints were those initially made to South Yorkshire's Police and Crime Panel, which referred them to the committee after the IPCC said it had no remit to investigate.
The committee said it made the referral to the police because lying under oath would constitute the criminal offence of perjury.
When the former PCC appeared before the committee he was one of a number of key witnesses on the child grooming scandal who were required to give evidence under oath – a relatively rare step for a select committee to take. The chairman at the time, Keith Vaz, explicitly warned him that meant action could potentially be taken for perjury if he gave false evidence.
During the course of Mr Wright’s appearance, Vaz made it clear the committee did not accept his evidence. In particular, Vaz took issue with Mr Wright’s claims he was not aware child sexual exploitation was a significant problem while he was responsible for children’s services as a Rotherham Council cabinet member between 2005 and 2010.
At one point, Vaz said: “We do not accept for one moment the evidence you have just given that you did not know that this was an issue. We accept as a committee that you did know. We accept the evidence that has been given by people who have come here before this committee and gave evidence before the committee last year that you were well aware of what was happening. That is our view as a committee.”
Other MPs took issue with Mr Wright’s evidence that he did not recollect a reported face-to-face meeting with a victim of sexual exploitation. The PCC was giving evidence in the wake of the publication of a devastating report two weeks earlier that found at least 1,400 children had been sexually exploited in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013.
Professor Alexis Jay’s report described the abuse, which included girls as young as 11 being raped by multiple men, as appalling and laid bare the failure of the council and South Yorkshire Police to tackle a problem that was an open secret in the town and had been raised in a series of official reports.
Mr Wright told the committee he didn’t recall a single report from Ofsted or any other external organisation that flagged the abuse as being a significant issue and said he had acted on recommendations in internal reports, including the provision of increased resources.
A week after the committee appearance, Mr Wright finally resigned as police and crime commissioner after a chorus of calls for him to go, including one from then Prime Minister David Cameron.