Business as Usual: Incompetence, Corruption and Cover-Up at Scotland Yard

Review: Michael Gillard, For Queen and Currency: Audacious Fraud, Greed and Gambling at Buckingham Palace (London: Bloomsbury Reader, 2015), pp. 432, RRP £9.99.

“The best place about the towne for persons of the best quality to be exceedingly cheated at”, so wrote diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) of the fashionable Mulberry Garden. Pleasure grounds born of King James I’s failed enterprise to encourage the growth of silk. Long buried beneath present-day Buckingham Palace. Symbolic heart of nation to some, expensive tourist attraction to others. Perhaps the distant echoes of history may still be heard, for within Nash’s cadaverous crumbling asbestos-ridden Regency edifice, a fool and his money are soon parted.

No mere metaphor, for Michael Gillard’s new book For Queen and Currency serves both as an expose of the parlous state of Metropolitan Police accountability and an autopsy upon the rotten anatomy of twenty-first century Britain. His narrative is based on an array of primary sources including police reports, interviews, secretly recorded telephone calls and witness statements. Gillard’s pedigree is impeccable. Formerly of the Sunday Times Insight team and now resident at BuzzFeed UK, Gillard was voted Journalist of the Year in 2013.

At the heart of this story lies the career of ex-police officer Paul Page. In 1998, three years after joining the Met, 28-year-old Page was recruited to the ranks of the Royalty Protection Department, known as SO14. Page’s post: Buckingham Palace. During his time at Buckingham Palace, Page persuaded fellow SO14 officers and Royal Household staff to join his wide boy money-making schemes. With losses amounting to £3 million, the occupational alcoholic Page was arrested in 2006 after he threatened a Sun photographer with an imitation Berretta. Following his mental breakdown, and being found not guilty of assault, Page was tried in 2009 for fraud and sent down for six years.

That this scandal erupted not only pours scorn on the idea of SO14 as an elite unit. The Paul Page debacle also points to, at best, poor management practices at Scotland Yard. Gillard also raises questions as to how banks and building societies (AA Savings, Abbey, Alliance & Leicester, Barclays, Halifax HBOS, HSBC, Lloyds TSB, MBNA, National Savings, Nationwide, NatWest, Scarborough, Virgin One and Woolwich) allowed large sums of money to be transferred between his accounts. On the first year anniversary of Page’s deployment to Buckingham Palace, his basic pay was £33,000 a year. Few concerns were raised as to how a young officer in such a sensitive post was earning ten-times his income in share dealing. In 1999 Page gained nearly £1 million, tax-free, from his share dealings. Gordon Brown had abolished “boom and bust”.

Gillard’s analysis of the culture at SO14 disabuses the notion of a specialist police division. Page gave “the impression of a Sunday league football team of hung-over, middle-aged dads, not a Praetorian guard”:

Those within Royalty Protection were stationed there for limited reasons. Some were lazy and did not wish to work hard so therefore enjoyed the slow pace of the squad until retirement. Others had just had enough of policing and were clearly frustrated with the legal system. Some wanted the “down time” for studies to progress through the ranks by preparing for police exams. A further common feature was officers using their time to make money from other business interests outside the police.

The prevailing attitude within the Royalty Protection Department was that it was a license to print money for officers. Thousands of pounds could be earned on overtime for doing very little. All these factors made the system very close knit and officers wanting to join would be “vetted” by other officers before their formal interviews. This exercise would entail the potential departmental recruit being invited to spend a day with departmental officers. If they were not deemed popular they would be “blackballed”.

The cast of colourful characters whose activities contributed to the annual £128 million bill for Royal and VIP security included “Barry Norman” (watches films all day), “The Don” (Police Federation representative and well respected), “Doug the Slug” (particularly overweight and lazy), “Eddie the Hen” (forever moaning and spitting feathers), “Elton John” (looks like the singer), “Elvis” (moonlighting Elvis impersonator), “Fagan” (unhealthy interest in the Royals, named after the infamous Buckingham Palace intruder of 1982), “MAPS” (My Arm Pits Stink), “Monkey Boy” (white copper built like a gorilla), “Mr Angry” (short fuse)”Pretty Boy” (fond of personal grooming and sunbeds) “Shaky” (dipso) and “Two Heads” (split personality).

New recruits deemed “sound” underwent the rite of passage of being allowed to sit on either of the two chairs of state in the Throne room. Heavy drinking was also prevalent amongst these plods. Sleepy officers on guard duty would evade detection by the establishment of a ring-round system. Drug-dealing, gambling and trading in hard-core porn were not unknown.

Family, friends and potential investors to SO14’s “Currency Club” benefitted from the perks of the job too. Gratuities included being able to park at St James’s Palace when visiting the West End for a shopping trip or a night out and attendance at Buckingham Palace garden parties.

Slack practices thrived as SO14 was not only charged with protecting the security of the Royal family. SO14 was also unofficially deputed to safeguard the idea and institution of monarchy. Such was the closeness between certain SO14 officers and members of the Royal Household that, as recently as 2008, they formed their own masonic lodge. Yet, at times, the dual duties of protection conflicted. For example, while a constable was never supposed to leave his post, on one occasion Page and another policeman were ordered by the duty inspector to drive a senior palace aide to a lap-dancing club who, after being ejected from the premises, had left behind a briefcase containing sensitive documents. Prince Andrew was a prominent piss-taker  on the issue of security protocol. Page remarked in a defence statement that Randy Andy:

would often have lady friends come to visit him, including frequent visits by Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of the disgraced late Robert Maxwell. Very rarely would they have to sign in the “gate book” when entering the Palace grounds, in direct contravention of accepted protocol. In addition royalty officers would be told on occasion  to drive these “lady friends” home when this was a clear dereliction of their duties. When on occasion [officers] challenged Prince Andrew and/or his guests [he] was verbally abusive. Any complaints made to the department were not properly dealt with.

These allegations were not denied by the prosecution in court, they were merely swept aside as irrelevant to the charges which Page faced. Feathers were ruffled. Gillard remarks:

According to a well-placed source, the judge [Geoffrey Rivlin] was “panicking” over the defence statement, in particular the references to the Royal Family. He believed that the case could spiral out of control from a straight fraud into a media circus unless experienced barristers, so-called Queen’s Counsel, held the reigns. Rivlin ordered that each side should have a QC and a junior barrister paid for by the taxpayer.

How was it that Page was able to run his Ponzi scheme without attracting the attention of his superiors for so long? Page’s shenanigans first reached the attention of Scotland Yard as early as 1999, when one bank forwarded its misgivings to the Met’s Complaints Investigation Bureau, the forerunner of the Directorate for Professional Standards (DPS). It was not until 2004 that the DPS’s covert Intelligence Development Group, known as the “Dark Side”, identified nine transactions totalling £236,000 between May and June of that year which showed “cause for concern”. The DPS informed SO14’s second-in-command Chief Superintendent Peter Prentice:

Whilst there are no criminal or discipline concerns at present, there are welfare concerns around PC Page with regards to his gambling addiction and that upon his return [Page was on unpaid leave] to Buckingham Palace from his career break he would have access to a firearm and confidential SO14 intelligence.

The report was shelved. The ramifications of the Met’s inaction were disastrous:

Page had already taken approximately one million pounds from police and civilian investors. Over the next two years he would take at least two million more before his fraud collapsed in a spiral of alcohol abuse, degenerative gambling and violence.

Two officers warrant distinctive criticism for allowing Page’s venal behaviour to run unchecked. Peter Loughborough commanded SO14 between 2003 and 2014. An old Etonian, member of the exclusive White’s Club in St James’s and hereditary peer who sits as a crossbencher in the House of Lords, a number of embarrassments occurred under the watch of the 7th Earl of Rosslyn and 10th Baronet St Clair. Royal blushes included Aaron Barschak disguised as Osama Bin Laden in a dress gate-crashing Prince William’s twenty-first birthday party at Windsor Castle (2003), Fathers 4 Justice protesting at Buckingham Palace (2004), News of the World journalists gaining access to Buckingham Palace posing as Middle Eastern businessmen (2009) and a break-in at Buckingham Palace (2013).

Commander Loughborough has been described as an “impeccable diplomat” who “speaks the Queen’s language”, though there is no doubting his early-career credentials. He cut his teeth pounding the streets of Southwark and Peckham and gained praise for leading a clampdown in 1994 against crack dealers on one of Paddington’s (West London) more notorious estates. Despite Loughborough commanding SO14, Page was not allowed to call him to court. On retirement Loughborough was bestowed the honour Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO), a gong in the personal gift of the Queen, and subsequently employed by Prince Charles as Master of the Household at Clarence House.

The second unwitting facilitator of Page’s fraud was Scotland Yard’s Assistant Commissioner for Human Resources. Back in 2003, Page set up United Land & Property Development Ltd (UPLD). Effectively a hedge fund for police officers, the company had no staff, no offices, no accounts, wasn’t VAT registered, and the Financial Services Authority was not notified of its existence. Police officers had to inform Scotland Yard of private commercial interests. The Assistant Commissioner wrote to Page that “I consider that this business interest is compatible with your membership of the Metropolitan Police Service”. Such outside interests had to be reviewed annually before they were renewed. In 2008, the Crown Prosecution Service informed Page’s lawyers:

Paul Page’s business interest was not reviewed after it was first approved (in November 2003) and the questionnaire that should be completed each year before the annual review is not on the file and does not appear to have been submitted.

The officer then in charge of human resources? Bernard Hogan-Howe, better known by his current official title: Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis.

In the Met’s time-honoured tradition, the activities of Page were portrayed as those of a black sheep, a rotten apple, a rogue cop. Gillard indicts:

Nothing had been done to interrupt the fraud or protect investors from Page, or Page from himself. Instead, SO14 and the DPS had secretly agreed a strategy that Page would never come back to work from his period of extended leave.

Gillard, the only journalist to cover the entire fraud trial, overheard one juror voice misgivings about the integrity of the DPS investigation and developed a sense some of the prosecution witnesses should have been in the dock alongside Page. No other SO14 officers were prosecuted.

Protection Command, the umbrella detachment comprising SO1 (Specialist Protection, such as guarding the Prime Minister), SO6 (Diplomatic Protection Group) and SO14, is still dogged by malpractice. The Guardian revealed recently that 80 police officers and civilian staff have been disciplined for misconduct since 2013, though SO6 accounts for the majority of misbehaviour.

The Met is not alone, however, in seeking to protect its corporate image. Persecution of whistle-blowers within the NHS suggests that closing ranks in the face of criticism is common to many institutions. Moreover, it would be mistaken not to acknowledge that conduct common to the police up until the 1990s is unacceptable today. The culture of the canteen room is not tolerated, at the very least, in public.

Yet the death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests (2009), the phone hacking scandal (2011), “Plebgate” (2012), evidence that the Special Demonstration Squad was infiltrating “dangerous subversives” such as environmentalists and those campaigning for justice for Stephen Lawrence (2013), allegations that restricted items confiscated from tourists visiting Buckingham Palace had been “mishandled” and appeared on eBay (2014) and that officers working at Scotland Yard’s Westminster licensing unit have been receiving bribes from security firms working for Soho bars and strip-joints (2015) suggests that more work is needed for the Met to gain public confidence and consent. Police officers would do well to live up to their self-fashioned myth of being citizens in uniform.

Related Blogs

Michael Gillard: An Appreciation of an Indefatigable Investigative Journalist

The Best Police in the World?    

Further Reading

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