Westminster Magistrates Court decision – Gavin Williamson: Misconduct in Public office

On Wednesday 28/04/2021 ‘An Information’ was laid at Westminster Magistrates Court in London, England under Section 6 of the prosecution of offences act 1985, with an application for a summons against Gavin Williamson, MP and Secretary of State for Education, requiring him to face allegations of having committed the offence of Misconduct in Public office, contrary to Common law.

The application was dismissed, by Judge Tanweer Ikram, the Deputy Chief Magistrate (the second most senior Magistrates position in England and Wales). The reasoning being that any alleged failings in his view could not overcome the criminal threshold that would be needed to be reached, to result in any Jury convicting Gavin Williamson of the offence. A reconsideration and failing that, a Judicial review of the decision may now be sought in the next few weeks.

The case is being brought by ‘The Safer Schools Campaign’ through ‘Fight for the Fatherless in Action’. The campaign consists of over 150 families from across the UK, that have had children seriously harmed or killed, many having lost children to suicide as a consequence of alleged bullying, physical and sexual violence in schools. The claim and criminal allegation, is that some of these harms and deaths are potentially as a result of deliberate actions and failures of Gavin Williamson but also Government and specifically the Department for Education (DfE) over a number of years.

The laying of ‘the Information’ followed a decision by the London Metropolitan Police, who had initially begun an assessment of the allegations and evidence in support of those allegations, via the Office of the Met’s Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick and the ‘Central Specialist Crime Division’ from late November 2020 to mid February 2021. This followed a meeting in Parliament, which was organised with Ministers and MP’s in February 2020. After assessing the evidence and making further enquiries, they made a decision to take no further action. It was that decision that led to the application for a private prosecution, with reasons given to the court as to why the police had failed to address the complaint properly.

The Application includes a statement made under oath of the ‘Alleged offence’. This was the opening paragraph from the statement summary that was made in the initial application, which is included in the Judgment as a brief summary of the issue:

3.2: ’ It is alleged that Gavin Williamson, as an MP and Secretary of State for Education misconducted himself on not less than 5 occasions, between 23/01/2019 and 22/03/2021 in that he wilfully neglected his duty, to take reasonable steps to protect children from harm, and to protect children who’s lives were at risk, by wilfully failing to investigate and act to address, alleged failings in the safeguarding complaints/recording systems of the Department for Education (DfE), in addition to complaints of a potential cover up of the issues.’

The allegations as shown in the Judgment, stem originally from a complaint about a school in the UK, where serious incidents and assaults, often with weapons including glass took place on a daily basis for almost a year, with many incidents involving the police and hospital treatment for children being covered up. The concerns and reports of the incidents were raised with OFSTED (School Inspectorate) and the DfE in 2015, who it is alleged failed to investigate. It is alleged that Damian Hinds (previous Secretary of State for Education) and his officials, as well as other Ministers and MP’s, then deliberately failed to investigate these failures, which raised a number of concerns about the National safeguarding systems firstly in England but eventually across all 4 of the devolved nations. It is alleged that the concerns of failure and a potential cover up were raised with Gavin Williamson and it is alleged that he then deliberately failed to investigate, in order to further cover up the issues.

Below is an extract from the Judgment from the applicants statement made under oath;

3.7: ‘At the heart of the complaint of the alleged offences of Misconduct in Public office, is the fact that the results of any reviews of the applicant’s complaints as a whole, at any point over the last two years and more, ultimately would have led anyone reviewing the material, to damning evidence of failings in the countries national safeguarding systems and evidence of a potential cover up of those flaws. The flaws it is evidenced may have resulted in numerous harms and deaths, not just in the last two years, but over decades.’

‘ It is the fact that the conduct alleged, of consistently covering up allegations and evidence of failings and misconduct, as well as leaving alleged serious safeguarding policy concerns to go un-investigated, knowing that children are potentially losing their lives as a result, was deliberate and calculated. It is this act of doing what Mr Williamson is alleged to have done, knowing it to be wrong or with reckless indifference as to whether it is wrong or not, that would be clearly decided by any reasonable jury, to have injured the public interest, so as to call for condemnation and punishment.’

On 18th June 2021, the District Judge refused to issue a summons based on the fact, that in his view he found that although there may be evidence to show that Gavin Williamson may have acted unlawfully and breached the Ministerial code, that that in and of itself is not a matter for the Criminal court. The Judge also found no evidence of a corrupt motive in any of the alleged failings or any evidence of a cover up. Ultimately in his view, there was no evidence that the alleged failures of Gavin Williamson were enough to engage the very high threshold of seriousness needed to engage the criminal standard that would allow a Jury to convict him of the offence.

Below are the District Judges conclusions and reasons for not granting a summons taken from the official Judgment;

3.13: ‘ There is a high threshold for this offence. The Informant accepts there is a safeguarding policy team, policies and laws. A failure to carry out the responsibilities and duties of a Minister, even if true, does not of itself constitute prima facie evidence of criminal conduct. Formulation of policy is a political act and failures in that area are beyond the scope of the alleged criminal offence. Any failings such as the implementation of national safeguarding systems are an operational issue, in my judgment, also beyond the alleged criminal offence as regards the Defendant. Ministers can be held to account for their performance, as regards formulation of policy and giving direction, through the ballot box or through civil remedy where they have acted unlawfully. Criminal conviction can only follow where their misconduct is of such degree as to call for ‘condemnation and punishment.

On any reading, the neglect of duty as framed does not come close to the threshold required, ie ‘so far below acceptable standards as to amount to an abuse of the public’s trust in the office holder’.’

There is reason to believe though, that the Judge has made a procedurally flawed decision, in that he potentially failed to take into account relevant evidence that was put before him of a corrupt motive, and it is on that basis, that an application for Judicial review to the High Court may now be made.

It’s important to add that Gavin Williamson remains innocent until proven guilty of all allegations, which stand unproven till tested, and anyone who chooses to, should report the story in a way that does not risk prejudicing any potential hearing in the future.