What did Keir Starmer do as DPP?

Boris Johnson renews Jimmy Savile ’conspiracy theory’ in ’baseless’ attack on Labour leader

Keir Starmer
(Image credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Keir Starmer’s past has come under scrutiny this week after Boris Johnson dredged up an old claim that when the Labour leader was the director of public prosecutions (DPP) he “failed to prosecute Jimmy Savile”, the serial paedophile.

The prime minister first made the comment on Monday in the House of Commons and had initially refused to back down.

This was despite the fact that “the conspiracy theory, which has spread online in recent years, has been found to be baseless”, said The Times.

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Starmer told Sky News even Tory MPs knew that Johnson was “going so low with that slur” because he “doesn’t understand what honesty and integrity means”. Indeed, Johnson’s head of policy Munira Mirza resigned on Thursday over the widely debunked accusations.

The Times said the PM was trying to “deflect criticism about Downing Street parties”, but in doing so has drawn renewed attention to Starmer’s legal career.

Not an ‘obvious choice’

Starmer was DPP from 2008 to 2013 after working as a defence barrister, specialising in human rights.

As a “leftwing lawyer” and “principled opponent of state power”, he was not an “obvious choice” to lead the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and this was “borne out by some of his decisions”, reflected David Renton, a fellow barrister, in The Guardian in 2020.

Appointed DPP under a Labour government, Starmer then spent half his time in office under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.

Since turning to politics himself and becoming MP for Holborn and St Pancras in 2015, Starmer has found that critics on the left and right have “sought to weaponise” his record as DPP to “undermine his progressive credentials”, said Patrick Maguire in The New Statesman.

Although his supporters “insist it is not fair to paint Starmer as culpable for individual decisions, he has nonetheless been blamed”, often “inaccurately”, for the outcome of high-profile criminal cases, Maguire said.

Controversial cases

Starmer has previously admitted that one of his most difficult decisions as DPP was in relation to the death of Ian Tomlinson, the newspaper vendor struck by police officer Simon Harwood during protests in London in 2009, reported the Financial Times.

The CPS initially decided not to charge Harwood after a pathologist found that Tomlinson had died of natural causes, but changed its mind after an inquest gave the verdict of unlawful killing two years later. Harwood was subsequently acquitted of manslaughter but dismissed from the police force for gross misconduct.

A separate decision not to prosecute anyone over the death of in 2005 of Jean Charles de Menezes, shot by police who mistook him for a suicide bomber, was also met with anger. The victim’s family took the case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but the decision was upheld.

From riots to expenses

In a speech on Thursday, Starmer boasted that he “prosecuted MPs over their expenses”. He also ordered the courts to stay open 24/7 for emergency sessions after the London riots of 2011, defended the Human Rights Act against Tory proposals to repeal it and launched plans to crack down on female genital mutilation, although the first successful prosecution did not come until 2019.

Other decisions made by the CPS under Starmer “were perfectly consistent with the preferences of the British right”, argued James A Smith in The Independent. At one point, he “mimicked the stigmatising rhetoric of George Osborne, introducing new guidelines for prosecutors of ‘benefit cheats’”, wrote Smith.

On Tuesday, Justice Secretary Dominic Raab claimed that the conviction rate for rape and sexual offences fell between 2008 and 2013 when Starmer was DPP, but Channel 4’s Fact Check noted that there are “conflicting figures”.

Ministry of Justice data, comparing overall convictions to prosecutions in each calendar year, supported Raab’s claim. But CPS statistics, which run between financial years and track convictions and prosecutions relating to the same case, “tell the opposite story”, said the site.

Savile slur

Reuters was among the fact-checking services to dispute the claim that Starmer was directly involved in failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile, when it gained traction after his election as Labour leader. It was only after the TV presenter’s death in 2011 that it emerged he was one of Britain’s most prolific sex offenders.

In 2007 and 2008, Surrey Police had investigated four complaints that Savile had sexually assaulted young girls and he was interviewed under caution. However, no arrest was made nor prosecution brought as the victims were not prepared to support police action.

“The suggestion of a link between the handling of the cases and Starmer is baseless,” said Reuters. While he was head of the CPS, he was not the reviewing lawyer for the case and later commissioned a review into the decision. Alison Levitt QC, who completed the review, was however “critical of how the case had been handled”, said The Telegraph.

Nevertheless, Andrew Pierce at the Daily Mail questioned the “faux outrage” over Johnson’s comments this week. “Since Starmer ultimately ran the public body that made the decision not to charge Savile,” he concluded, “the Prime Minister’s claim, however incendiary, seems hard to dispute.”

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