I’m not a fan of Damian Green. I’m not a fan of the Conservative Party. But something appears to have gone horribly wrong, and the Metropolitan Police (as ever) are in the thick of it:
The shadow immigration minister was arrested last night on suspicion of “conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office and aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office” and released on police bail after nine hours in custody.
The 52-year-old’s arrest follows a mole hunt in the Home Office, ordered by senior civil servants in the department after a series of embarrassing stories appeared in the press over the past year.
A Home Office staff member was arrested last week in connection with the investigation, and it is understood Mr Green’s arrest stems from that.
The Guardian has further details:
MPs have been particularly alarmed by the manner of Green’s arrest. The police seized his phone and his computer, giving them access to text messages and emails going back for months and years respectively. The search of Green’s office at Westminster was also said to be conducted in an “aggressive” manner. One MP who spoke to the officers involved was told: “You are at a site of crime scene.”
Green himself says:
“I emphatically deny I have done anything wrong.
“I have many times made public information that the Government wanted to keep secret – information that the public has a right to know.
“In a democracy, opposition politicians have a duty to hold the Government to account. I was elected to the House of Commons precisely to do that and I certainly intend to continue doing so.”
So what was it that he made public by these leaks from the Home Office?
The leaks thought to be at the centre of the investigation include:
- The November 2007 revelation that the home secretary knew the Security Industry Authority had granted licences to 5,000 illegal workers, but decided not to publicise it.
- The February 2008 news that an illegal immigrant had been employed as a cleaner in the House of Commons.
- A whips’ list of potential Labour rebels in the vote on plans to increase the pre-charge terror detention limit to 42 days.
- A letter from the home secretary warning that a recession could lead to a rise in crime.
So in other words politically highly volatile information, yet not information related in any way to national security. Michael White of the Guardian argues:
Tony Benn told Radio 4’s World at One that the police action may be a “contempt of parliament” by virtue of interfering with Damian Green doing his job as an MP. As such, Green’s rights protect us all. I don’t always agree with TB, but do on this occasion. He was “doing his job”, as I put it.
Matthew Parris of the Times:
The common law offence of “aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office” sets such a ridiculously low hurdle that thousands of my colleagues in the newspaper industry, many MPs, most Opposition spokesmen, and innumerable helpfully indiscreet police officers would be behind bars if every offence was investigated and prosecuted.
So if this was ‘business as usual’ why arrest him, particularly considering it was an extraordinary event to have his office at the Houses of Parliament searched?
Backbenchers demanded an explanation of the role played by Jill Pay, the Serjeant at Arms in charge of Commons security, and Michael Martin, the Commons Speaker. The Tory MP for Lancaster and Wyre, Ben Wallace, wrote to Ms Pay: “The House of Commons and Palace of Westminster has in place certain safeguards to protect [members] from the excesses of the executive. It is most distressing, therefore, to find out that the House authorities allowed a search to take place.”
The Tories argue it was a politically motivated attack on Green (considering what he leaked), but I’m not sure I agree. If New Labour is so incompetent as not to be able to present its own policies coherently, it’s highly unlikely they could undertake a highly intricate, formal political plot with the Met. I buy Matthew Parris’ argument that in the wake of the cash-for-honours scandal, that it was more likely impossible for Pay and Martin to resist the Met, for fear of how that might have appeared politically.
Alan Travis offers a suggestion as to the motivation for the arrest:
The nature of the offence – conspiracy to commit misconduct in public life – may suggest police suspect the junior civil servant arrested last week deliberately accessed documents to leak them.
In other words most whistleblowers find the material they leak accidentally or in the normal course of their jobs, and feel compelled on moral grounds to publicise what they find. Whilst there have been significant such cases which have been politically motivated, they have invariably collapsed. The difference here is the suggestion of premeditation by the whistleblower, and what the follow-on implications might be for his relationship with Green if true. However:
Green insisted that he had not procured the documents and a Tory official said: “There was no financial or any other inducement.” The Tories expressed astonishment at the conduct of the police, who notified Cameron moments before they entered parliament to search Green’s office.
Did his wife and daughter have to be subjected to police abuse for that? Did he have to be held for seven hours before even being questioned for that? Did the Met have to disregard parliamentary privilege for that? He was arrested by nine counter-terrorism officers who believed he was breaking a little-known and barely used common law (as Matthew Parris points out earlier) by publishing leaked Home Office documents which weren’t security-related or even classified. Given the dangerous precedent this sets, couldn’t they have just asked?!
Given his political duty as an opposition front bench MP I find it staggering that he could have been arrested, and my personal reaction is the opposite of Boris Johnson’s – this is exactly how the Metropolitan Police behaves – without a care for the impact or appropriacy of their behaviour:
At one point the police tried to take computer files from her (his wife, barrister Alicia Green) work which she prevented them from doing as they are legally privileged documents.
She said she found it “particularly unpleasant” that the officer took love letters Mr Green and her had sent each other when at university and dating.
They have been given such a free rein that they think they can get away with anything. That Green should be able to exercise parliamentary privilege from the excesses of the state means nothing to them and Philip Johnston points out:
Receiving information from officials who feel the government is covering something up is commonplace and has been for centuries.
If Gordon Brown and Jacqui Smith are telling the truth, then it’s somewhat shocking for neither of them to be upholding the parliamentary principles which the Met have so wantonly trampled on. But how likely is it that this statement by Sir David Normington, the Home Office civil servant who initiated the police action to quell the leaks, is true?
“Yesterday (Thursday), I was informed by the Metropolitan Police at about 1.45pm that a search was about to be conducted of the home and offices of a member of the Opposition front bench. I was subsequently told that an arrest had been made.
“Ministers were not involved in the decision to seek police assistance or in the subsequent investigation and were only told of the arrest after it had occurred.”
But David Cameron and Mayor Boris Johnson were told before it had occurred. If no government minister really was told, why not ? Everyone has egg on their face. I agree wholeheartedly with former minister Dennis MacShane, who said:
“To send a squad of counter terrorist officers to arrest an MP shows the growing police contempt for Parliament and democratic politics,” he said.
“The police now believe that MPs are so reduced in public status that they are fair game for over-excited officers to order dawn raids, arrests and searches of confidential files held by MPs or those who work for them.
“I am not sure this is good for British democracy.”
It isn’t. Someone has to rein in the Metropolitan Police, and fast. But given that Jacqui Smith is standing by the Met’s operational independence – invariably cowardly about them, even now – it doesn’t look likely to be her.