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4 Dec 2008 : Column 131

Ms Harman: Obviously, we want to make sure that there is absolute patient safety in the national health service, the private sector and independent treatment centres, and I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): While sharing the fury felt by colleagues in all parts of the House about the House’s own issue, may I bring our attention back to the 100,000 workers in ports today, many of whom face redundancy? The woefully inadequate concession by the Government on the ridiculous, huge back-rating demand that has been put on hundreds of small businesses still leaves the directors in a position where they will be breaking the law if they continue to trade for more than another few weeks. May we have an early debate on this matter?

Ms Harman: We will have a debate on the economy on 15 December, at the conclusion of the debate on the Queen’s Speech, and the hon. Gentleman can, no doubt, raise those matters then.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Yesterday’s statement revealed that the police had been in possession of the computer of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) for four days, and they will therefore have been able to access the parliamentary information and e-mail system that contains files of constituency records held by all of us, including e-mails we may have exchanged with my hon. Friend, possibly on complaints against the police including named police officers. Has the Leader of the House urgently taken steps before next week’s debate to retrieve any such information so that we can restore the confidentiality and integrity of exchanges between us and our constituents, and will she not shuffle off responsibility about this on to unnamed House officials and instead start to stand up herself for the rights of this House, Back Benchers and those whom we represent?

Ms Harman: Yesterday, Mr. Speaker addressed the question of the return of the seized material, and Members can rest assured that I will stand up for all the four principles—not just one, but all four—in respect of all parts of the House in this matter.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I am sure that, like every other assiduous constituency MP, the Leader of the House has during the course of her parliamentary career frequently given absolute assurances to constituents who impart sensitive personal information to her that what they say will be covered as if it were the secrets of the confessional. In the light of recent developments, what advice can she give to Members as to what we should say to constituents who urge us to treat what they are about to impart to us with total confidentiality?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman will know that, as was said by Members yesterday, we are not above the law; subject to the proper procedures and processes, we are subject to the criminal law.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that the statement on Equitable Life will be an oral statement and that, given its importance, it will be given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and
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can she tell the House what considerations led her to produce a motion that was inconsistent with Mr. Speaker’s statement yesterday?

Ms Harman: The details of the statement on Equitable Life will come forth in due course and, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, before Christmas. I would expect it to be an oral statement. The hon. Gentleman adds to the complaints across the House about the motion I have tabled to facilitate a proper debate in this House; he, like other Members, can amend it if he so chooses.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) asked the Leader of the House whether the police had access to information pertaining not just to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), but to other Members on the House’s IT systems. The Leader of the House tried to shuffle that responsibility off on to unnamed people, but she is a member of the House of Commons Commission, and she is therefore a member of the House authorities; and she is the only one whom we can bring to the Dispatch Box to answer questions. Members will want to know that their information is secure. A breach of that would be a breach of the Data Protection Act, which in itself would be a criminal offence. The Leader of House must take this matter seriously, and be able to answer, if not now then in the debate on Monday.

Ms Harman: Both the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who asked that question, and I are members of the Members Estimate Committee and the House of Commons Commission, and we are available to discuss any matter with the Speaker and advise him on any matter. Mr. Speaker has already made comments in his statement about the return of the computers.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): May we have a debate on sentencing? On Saturday 29 November, a judge sent somebody to prison for six weeks for theft, yet, unbelievably and directly as a result of the early release scheme, the same offender came before the same judge three days later, on Tuesday 2 December, and was again charged with theft. Is it not a scandal that somebody can be sent to prison for six weeks by a judge and be out of prison within a few days, because of the early release scheme, free to commit the same offence? Should not the criminal justice system be focusing on sorting out this kind of scandal, rather than on a Member of Parliament going about his legitimate business?

Ms Harman: There will be a debate on justice and home affairs after the Home Secretary’s statement today.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I listened very carefully to your statement, Mr. Speaker, and I was very encouraged by the fact that we are going to have a debate on Monday. We have learned, however, that it is to be a three-hour debate, so what will happen is that the Front-Bench spokespeople and senior Back Benchers will speak, but junior Back Benchers will not have an opportunity to do so. I fully support your efforts, Mr. Speaker—unlike some Members of this House.
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Would the Leader of the House please explain why the debate will be a truncated one, rather than a full day’s debate?

Ms Harman: I tabled a motion to allow for three hours’ debate. This was discussed in points of order yesterday and it has been discussed for the best part of 50 minutes today. I know that hon. Members will want to make speeches and put forward proposals, and the opportunity for debate will be on Monday.

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Government Information (Unauthorised Release)

11.21 am

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the current police investigation into the unauthorised release of government information. As has been widely recognised across the House, some very important principles are at stake in this matter: that nobody should be above the law; that the police should have the operational independence to conduct their investigations without fear or favour; that Members of this House should be able to do their work and be able to hold the Government to account; and that the impartiality of the civil service should be protected. Members of this House will, of course, understand our obligation not to prejudice an ongoing police investigation, but I shall be as helpful as I can in my statement.

On 8 October 2008, following consultations with the Home Office, the Cabinet Office requested the assistance of the Metropolitan Police Service in investigating a series of leaks. That request was made by the Cabinet Office, as it has ultimate responsibility for the security and integrity of the working of government. No Cabinet Office Minister was involved in the decision. The request followed a number of internal Home Office leak inquiries, which had not identified the source of the leaks. There was concern that an individual—or individuals—in the Home Office who had access to sensitive material was prepared to leak that information.

Faced with what appeared to be the systematic leaking of classified information over a sustained period, given the damage that that was doing to the effective conduct of Government business and because of the sensitive issues, including national security, that the Home Office deals with, I agreed with the view of Sir David Normington, my Department’s permanent secretary, that it was essential to request police assistance in identifying the source of those leaks. The sustained level of leaking that had already taken place clearly suggested that this could go on, would escalate, and that more information of greater sensitivity could potentially leak. [Interruption.]

Since the request for police assistance was made— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Allow the Home Secretary to speak. The subject is important.

Jacqui Smith: Since the request for police assistance was made, the Home Office has co-operated fully with the police investigation. A full list of relevant leaks, including those involving highly classified material, was passed to the police for their consideration.

As acting commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson set out in his statement yesterday, after initial inquiries the Crown Prosecution Service was consulted. The police officers involved were satisfied that they had reasonable grounds to make an arrest of a junior Home Office civil servant. On 17 November, I was informed by Sir David Normington that an arrest of a Home Office civil servant was likely in the next few days. On 19 November, the Home Office civil servant was arrested on suspicion of misconduct in public office. On 27 November, the police arrested the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian
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Green) on suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office and aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office.

As the statement issued by Sir David Normington on 28 November made clear, he was informed by the police at about 1.45 pm on 27 November that a search was about to be conducted of the home and offices of a member of the Opposition Front Bench. Sir David was subsequently told that an arrest had been made. This was the first time that anybody in the Home Office was informed that a Member of this House was the subject of the police investigation. I have made it clear that neither I nor any other Government Minister knew until after the arrest of the hon. Member that he—or any other hon. Member—was the subject of a police investigation or was to be arrested. I hope that those who have asserted the contrary will now withdraw their claims.

Let me be clear that even if I had been informed, I believe it would have been wholly inappropriate for me to seek to intervene in the operational decisions being taken by the police. I will not do that and I should not do that. On 1 December, I spoke to the acting commissioner to reassure myself that the investigation was being pursued diligently, sensitively and in a proportionate manner—[Hon. Members: “Sensitively?”] Sir Paul informed me— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Jacqui Smith: Sir Paul informed me of his intention to set up a review of the handling of the case to date, which I welcomed. The following day he announced that Chief Constable Ian Johnston would conduct that review. In that telephone call with Sir Paul I expressed my support for the operational independence of the police from political intervention—as I have done previously, as I have done since, and as I will continue to do.

Nobody in the House should doubt the sensitivity of the investigation or the importance of the issues involved. I welcome your statement yesterday, Mr. Speaker, and your decision to set up a Committee of seven Members of this House. Your statement also set out the circumstances in which the police asked for and gained consent to search the parliamentary office of the hon. Member for Ashford. I spoke to Sir Paul Stephenson yesterday evening to seek his clarification of those events. Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick has subsequently written to me to set out his understanding of the obligations the Met were under and his account of the steps they took. I am placing a copy of that letter in the Library. Sir Paul also assured me that Ian Johnston’s review will cover those issues.

I wholeheartedly support the right of every hon. Member to do their job, to hold the Government to account, and to make available information that is in the public interest, but the systematic leaking of government information raises issues that strike at the heart of our system of governance. Such activity is not about merely creating political embarrassment, for me or for any other Minister. Such activity threatens the respected role of the civil service in supporting our democracy in a politically impartial, honest and professional manner, and it drives a coach and horses through the civil service code, which states that civil servants should act

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All of us, on both sides of the House, have a right to expect that our vital role should be protected, and we have a responsibility, too, to respect the law and uphold the proper workings of the civil service. I would be surprised—and indeed dismayed—if any hon. Member thought that that was not the case.

I commend my statement to the House.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I thank the Home Secretary for previous sight of her statement. The issues at stake are indeed very serious. They involve basic ministerial oversight over counter-terrorism police operations against a Member of this House which were heavy-handed and incompetent at best, and at worst an unwarranted assault on our democracy— [ Interruption. ] Let us be equally clear what is not at stake. We can all agree that MPs are not above the law, and that the police have no place in politics. Nor does this have anything to do with national security. There is not the slightest evidence of that, and Her Majesty’s Opposition— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I now call for silence for the Opposition spokesman.

Mr. Grieve: There is not the slightest evidence of that and Her Majesty’s Opposition take the integrity of official secrets as seriously as the Government, despite attempts by Government spokesmen to smear and spin to the contrary.

The Home Secretary has regularly briefed me and my predecessor on matters of national security. Can she name one occasion when she has raised any concern that her confidence has not been kept? Can she now confirm that no known leaks from her Department relating to national security involve my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green)?

This episode has nothing to do with national security and everything to do with political embarrassment. Nor is it about confidentiality in the workplace, matters for which employment law provides a perfectly adequate remedy. If there have been 20 leaks or more, as the Government are briefing, the problem extends well beyond any facts relevant to my hon. Friend. It heralds a systematic breakdown in trust between officials and Ministers, arising from the Home Secretary’s willingness to conceal failings in her own Department on matters of manifest public interest.

The Home Office initiated the leak inquiry and knew that Opposition Members had commented on four disclosures reported in the media. Is it the case that for eight days after the arrest of Mr. Galley, the police were investigating my hon. Friend, but the Home Secretary had not the faintest idea about it? If she was cut out of the loop, was the Minister for the Cabinet Office or any other Minister or official there informed by the police that a Member of Parliament was the target of their investigation? If the Cabinet Office was kept updated, why was not the Home Secretary? Why was the Cabinet Office not kept updated if it had initiated the investigation?
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Were counter-terrorism police operating without any Home Office ministerial notification, oversight or accountability from start to finish?

The Home Secretary has stated— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Grieve: The Home Secretary has stated that she was unaware at any point before the arrest that any Member of this House was part of the police investigation. Can she clarify some details? What was the exact remit of the investigation requested by the Cabinet Office of the police? Was it strictly confined to a request to investigate the commission of a criminal offence, and will she now put a copy of the written referrals from the Cabinet Office to the police in the Library so that we can study them? When did she or her officials receive updates on the police investigation? Who provided them and what did they cover? Did she at no point ask who the subjects of the investigation were, because it is clear that in the early stages of the investigation she was kept informed? Did she ask any questions at all?

Does the Home Secretary still cling to her utterly flawed defence that there is nothing she could have said or done in advance of the arrest even if she had been aware? She undermined that implausible excuse on Tuesday by seeking assurances from the acting Metropolitan Police Commissioner that the investigation was being pursued diligently, sensitively and proportionately. If she can ask those basic questions after the arrest of my hon. Friend, why did she not ask questions before? She could have asked whether police had asked to interview my hon. Friend on a voluntary basis. She could have asked whether the deployment of more than 20 counter-terrorism officers to arrest a Member, search his offices, search Parliament and seize documents, phones and computers was proportionate and necessary. She could have asked whether the Director of Public Prosecutions had been consulted.

Did the police try to obtain a warrant to search the House of Commons office from a magistrate before they came to see the Serjeant at Arms, and if so, were they refused? Were the police acting in compliance with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and its codes? I have to say that the letter from Mr. Quick on the subject is a masterpiece of obfuscation. Does the Home Secretary agree with him, or with you, Mr. Speaker, in your statement, that no proper statement of rights to refuse entry was given to the Serjeant at Arms beforehand? I am afraid that I have to say that Mr. Quick’s letter and your statement, Mr. Speaker, are incompatible.

Of course Home Secretaries make statements about police operations. The right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) did so immediately after the 7/7 attacks, as did the Home Secretary herself after the Glasgow and Haymarket attacks. Based on her own practice, does she now accept that this can be done without prejudicing an investigation, and should be done in serious cases to maintain public confidence?

Finally, seeing what is now emerging, does the Home Secretary regret her wilful ignorance in this whole affair and the decision to wash her hands of the basic responsibilities that come with her office? Who is in charge of the police, if she is not?

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