A police chief was ‘flabbergasted’ at suggestions there may be political interference over inquiries into the Northumberland County Council-owned company Arch.
Chief Constable of Northumbria Police, Winton Keenan, attended yesterday’s full meeting of Northumberland County Council, where he spoke and took questions from members.
Coun Georgina Hill, the independent councillor for Berwick East, is chairman of the audit committee, which has received several reports detailing concerns over spending and governance at the development company under the previous Labour administration.
She asked Chief Constable Keenan for an update on the police inquiries into Arch, which is now being replaced by a new company, Advance Northumberland.
Coun Hill said: “Members of the audit committee, including the independent members, and members of the public are saying, what is going on, are they taking these allegations seriously, are they deploying resources to investigate properly?
“More worryingly – and this is a perception and I’m quoting from members of the public and others – the Police and Crime Commissioner (Dame Vera Baird) is a prominent member of the same party and some people are saying things like, would they really take this seriously given they’re members of the same party?
“Can you give me assurances that this investigation will be robust and thorough and free from any political interference?”
Chief Constable Keenan replied: “First of all, I’m flabbergasted in truth by the latter suggestion. I’m not sure you should need me for Northumbria Police to say we will investigate it without fear or favour absolutely independently, but if you do need that assurance, I’m giving it to you personally now.
“The officers that will be investigating this matter are the types of officers you see every day in every walk of life who go about doing their very best for you and I assure you that anybody charged with a duty of inquiring into any matter will do so without fear or favour no matter what political persuasion anybody involved in the oversight of policing may have.”
Despite this response, after the meeting, Coun Hill said: “In these matters, not only does there need to be complete impartiality and no conflict of interest, but the public needs to have confidence that this is so.
“Therefore, it would be wise to hand over the fraud investigation to another police force.”
Northumbria Police has said that while it is working with the council on matters ‘relating to finance and governance issues at Arch’, there is ‘currently no ongoing criminal police investigation’.
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service