Sedwill urged to reveal who approved police backdrop for Johnson speech

Home affairs committee chair said “the extraordinary participation police recruits and officers in an ostensibly political event raises serious concerns”

Photo: PA

By Richard Johnstone

09 Sep 2019

Home Affairs Select Committee chair Yvette Cooper has written to cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill asking what role of the civil servants in No.10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office played in Boris Johnson’s visit to a police training facility that has been criticised by senior officers.

The prime minister gave a speech in front of 35 police officers in Wakefield on Thursday at an event to mark the launch of a government programme to recruit 20,000 officers.

However, the content of Johnson’s speech also included Brexit and the government’s failed effort to get parliament to vote for an early election.


After the event, West Yorkshire Police chief constable John Robins said he had understood the speech would be solely about police officer recruitment. In a statement, he said the forice had been told by government there would be two speeches, with cops providing the backdrop for Johnson's launch of the recruitment drive, but not a separate event to brief the media.

“We had no prior knowledge that the speech would be broadened to other issues before it was delivered,” he said.

“Minutes before the speech we were told that [a planned visit to the National Police Air Service] and subsequent brief to a small media pool had been cancelled. I was therefore disappointed to see my police officers as a backdrop to the part of the speech that was not related to recruitment.”

Mark Burns-Williamson, West Yorkshire's Labour police and crime commissioner, said the event had been “hijacked” by Johnson. He added: “There is no way police officers and staff, who clearly thought it would be all about police recruitment announcements, should have formed a backdrop to a speech of that nature.”

HASC chair Cooper then wrote to Sedwill on Friday seeking an explanation for the events, which she said risked breaching “clear guidance prohibiting the involvement of the police in politics”. 

“Ministers and MPs routinely meet police officers in their normal work, but police guidance is clear on the need for impartiality and the avoidance of any interaction that could be used to show support for or opposition to a candidate, a political party, or a position,” she wrote.

There is also guidance setting out general principles concerning any contact with candidates in a pre-election period which, while an election has not been declared, Cooper said may be relevant given the prime minister’s attempts to call a snap poll. MPs are set to vote on the issue again today, after voting down an election last week.

“The extraordinary participation of West Yorkshire Police recruits and officers in an ostensibly political event raises serious concerns,” Cooper said, in the letter asking for Sedwill’s “urgent response” to a series of questions.

Cooper asked Sedwill to set out the role of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Cabinet Office in organising and managing Johnson's speech, and which government ministers and senior officials had been involved.

She also asked: "Can you confirm the understanding reported by West Yorkshire Police that, in addition to launching the police recruitment campaign with a formal backdrop of police students and officers, the arrangements made with West Yorkshire Police were that the prime minister would deliver a 10-minute speech to the media without police students and officers present?"

In light of Robins’ comments, Cooper also asked when and by whom the decision had been made to retain police students and officers as the backdrop to the prime minister’s political remarks, after the planned media briefing was cancelled. She also asked at what point Sedwill became aware that the format of the event had changed, whether the change was authorised by the Cabinet Ofifce, and if he would authoritse such a format in future.

Cooper has asked for Sedwill’s response today, when he is also due to appear before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson told CSW that Sedwill would respond to the letter in due course.

Read the most recent articles written by Richard Johnstone - Building the future: Steven Boyd on making government property work for the civil service

Share this page