Gibraltar’s government accused of trying to interfere in corruption inquiry

Gibraltar’s government has been accused of political interference as it prepares to pass laws allowing it to halt public inquires, less than a month before an inquiry into alleged corruption at the highest levels of the British overseas territory’s administration is due to begin.

The hearing concerns claims by Gibraltar’s former police commissioner Ian McGrail that he was pressed into early retirement after seeking to execute a search warrant against someone who had a close relationship with Gibraltar’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo.

Last week, ahead of the start of the inquiry on 8 April, the government published a bill granting it powers to suspend or end a public inquiry. It is being rushed through this week, bypassing the normal six-week post-publication wait before it is debated.

Publication of the bill came just before the inquiry chair, Sir Peter Openshaw, a retired judge of the high court of England and Wales, announced that the investigations would include whether 19 current or former police officers who have filed witness statements containing negative evidence against McGrail “were offered incentives in exchange for the giving of the evidence to the inquiry”.

The proceedings have already seen UK police called in to investigate a data breach, which delayed the start of the inquiry, and Picardo and other members of government threatening to sue McGrail’s London-based leading human rights lawyers, Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC and Adam Wagner, for defamation.

Daniel Bruce, the chief executive of Transparency International UK, said: “Proceedings are due to start in earnest this April, which include hearing serious allegations of corruption that reach the highest level of office in this British overseas territory.

“Any attempt to fetter the independence of the inquiry, obstruct its timely progress, or unduly influence witnesses would severely undermine confidence in the quality of Gibraltar’s governance. Due process must take its course without fear or favour.”

Transparency International also questioned the government’s explanation that it was merely copying the UK Inquiries Act, given that it had failed to do so previously (the act was passed in 2005).

Picardo and the government deny the allegations made against them by McGrail with respect to his retirement, and the administration said it “has no intention to use the power to stop or delay the current inquiry into the retirement of Ian McGrail”.

It added: “The government considers that it is appropriate to make these amendments now in order to ensure that the processes and procedures for the current McGrail inquiry, and all future inquiries, enjoy a clear statutory footing in more modern legislation that reflects the well-established, tried and tested law and practice in the UK. The government does not consider that this creates any reason for concern at all.”

McGrail’s legal team said the government “has still not explained why this legislation is being passed using urgent procedures, less than four weeks before the final hearing, what aspect of the current inquiry’s procedure is deficient, or why these changes are needed if Sir Peter Openshaw has not expressed any reservations about the current inquiries law in the two years since he was commissioned”.

They added: “We remain concerned that the new legislation grants the government, a core participant in the inquiry, significant new powers to restrict the commissioner’s work, without any obvious benefit to the inquiry process.”