Fury of police chief in ‘perverse’ suspension by ex-Calendar presenter

Neil Rhodes
Neil Rhodes
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A POLICE chief who was wrongly suspended over the way he handled a race discrimination claim today blasted the action as “entirely unnecessary” after a High Court judge ruled he could return to work immediately.

Lincolnshire Police’s Temporary Chief Constable Neil Rhodes said he looked forward to returning to the force after he was “unlawfully” suspended by the county’s Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC), former Yorkshire TV presenter Alan Hardwick, in February.

A High Court judge in Manchester today ruled the decision was “irrational and perverse” and quashed Mr Rhodes’ suspension, which the officer of 27 years said has taken a huge toll on him and his family.

Taxpayers will foot the bill for the two-day hearing, Mr Hardwick, a former Calendar presenter, said, although he had “no idea” how much the case has cost the public.

The PCC had claimed Mr Rhodes helped a senior Muslim lawyer from another force play on his ethnicity to pursue damages after leaving his role, despite knowing the claim was a “contrivance”.

The police chief, who has strenuously denied any wrongdoing, was assisting West Yorkshire Police lawyer Afzal Hussain through a voluntary “peer support” scheme after he was dismissed from the force after 17 years, the court heard.

Mr Rhodes was suspended following a telephone conversation between him and Fraser Sampson, the chief executive and solicitor to the PCC for West Yorkshire, the court heard.

The chief constable said he was calling to “broker a sensible and reasonable resolution” to Mr Hussain’s grievance by getting all parties around the table.

But the Lincolnshire PCC claimed that, during the conversation, Mr Rhodes indicated race was being used as “a lever”, which amounted to him helping push a discrimination claim he knew was unsubstantiated.

It said his suspension until matters were resolved was in the public interest.

However, at the end of the hearing at Manchester Civil Justice Centre, Judge Justice Stuart-Smith ruled that Mr Hardwick had interpreted Mr Rhodes’ comments during the phone call in a negative way, when other positive inferences could have been drawn.

Mr Justice Stuart-Smith said the commissioner also failed to take into account Mr Rhodes’ unblemished and exceptional 27-year record as a police officer, which was “essential in any fair assessment”.

He also said the argument that it was in the public interest to suspend Mr Rhodes would be compromised by the “inadequate and unjustifiable assessment of the state of the case as it stood before him”.

Mr Justice Stuart-Smith added: “In the result, I am convinced that the decision taken by Mr Hardwick to suspend Mr Rhodes can only be described as irrational and perverse.

“I therefore quash the decision. In doing so I repeat that the court cannot and does not attempt to prejudice or predict the outcome of any investigation that may take place.

“This judgment is solely a ruling on the legality of the decisions to suspend and maintain the suspension.”

Mr Justice Stuart-Smith ordered the costs of the case be met by the PCC, which will be passed on to taxpayers.

Speaking outside court after the hearing, Mr Rhodes said: “I’m very pleased with the decision of the judge today who has declared my suspension irrational and perverse and therefore unlawful.

“I will return to work now and continue to serve Lincolnshire Police with the personal and professional integrity that I believe I have displayed over the past 27 years.

“I would very much like to thank the huge number of people in the Lincolnshire Police and ordinary members of the public for their messages of support which number several hundred.

“I’m really grateful to them and I want to get back to work right now to repay their faith in me.

“The last few weeks have taken a very heavy toll on me and particularly on my family.”

Mr Rhodes added: “The judgment today has demonstrated this was entirely unnecessary as the PCC’s concerns should have been resolved professionally and with proper investigation.

“I now look forward to a mature and constructive discussion with the commissioner about our future working relationship.”

An investigation into Mr Rhodes’ handling of the discrimination claim is currently being carried out by an independent force.

His contract as temporary chief constable, which began last year, runs until Monday.

When it expires he is expected to revert to his previous position as the force’s deputy chief constable.

Also speaking after the hearing, Mr Hardwick said he was “disappointed” by the verdict, which he said has raised serious questions about the role of police and crime commissioners.

Mr Hardwick said he was “concerned about is the effect this may have on other police and crime commissioners.

“There’s more guidance needed. It would appear that if police and crime commissioners make any decision at all they are going to have to be looking over their shoulder because this decision was made by a judge.

“Is it right that someone who is elected into a position has his decision overturned by a judge?”

Mr Hardwick said he was “acting on behalf of the people of Lincolnshire” and has not yet decided whether he will appeal the decision.

One of the key powers handed to PCCs, who replaced existing police authorities in 41 force areas across England and Wales, was the ability to hire and fire chief constables.

The £100,000-a-year role also came with responsibilities for setting force budgets.

However, just 15.1% of registered voters took part in the November 2012 PCC election - the lowest recorded level of participation at a peacetime non-local government election in Britain.

A series of damning reports have criticised the election process, including the Electoral Commission, which found that just one in five people was able to make a proper choice when voting for their PCC.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: “It is for PCCs to make decisions around appointing, suspending and removing chief constables.

“The PCC will wish to consider the court’s judgment. We understand that an investigation is still ongoing and it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.”