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House of Commons

Wednesday 3 December 2008

The House met at twenty- five minutes past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

message to attend her majesty

Message from Her Majesty delivered by the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod.

The Speaker, with the House, went up to attend Her Majesty; on their return, the Speaker suspended the sitting.

Speaker’s Statement

2.32 pm

Mr. Speaker: I wish to make a statement to the House about the arrest and entry into the offices of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) last Thursday, 27 November, which raises a subject of grave concern to all Members of the House.

In the past few days there has been much pressure on me to make public comment about these matters, but I felt that it was right and fitting that I should make no comment until Parliament reconvenes, because it is this House and this House alone that I serve, as well as being accountable for the actions of its Officers. I should emphasise from the start that it is not for me to comment on the allegations that have been made against the hon. Member or on the disposal of those allegations in the judicial process.

I should also remind the House, as stated in chapter 7 of “Erskine May,” that parliamentary privilege has never prevented the operation of the criminal law. [Interruption.] Order. The Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in its authoritative report in 1999 said that the precincts of the House are not and should not be

There is therefore no special restriction on the police searching the parliamentary precincts in the course of a criminal proceeding—nor has there ever been.

On Wednesday last, the Metropolitan police informed the Serjeant at Arms that an arrest was contemplated, but did not disclose the identity of the Member. I was told in the strictest confidence by her that a Member might be arrested and charged, but no further details were given to me. I was told that they might be forthcoming the next morning.

At 7 am on Thursday, police called upon the Serjeant at Arms and explained the background to the case, and disclosed to the Serjeant the identity of the Member. The Serjeant at Arms called me, told me the Member’s name and said that a search might take place of his offices in the House. I was not told that the police did not have a warrant. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Order. I have been told that the police did not explain, as they are required to do, that the Serjeant was not obliged to consent, or that a warrant could have been insisted upon. [ Interruption. ] Order. Let me make the statement. I regret that a consent form was then signed by the Serjeant at Arms, without consulting the Clerk of the House.

I must make it clear to the House— [ Interruption. ] Order. I must make it clear to the House that I was not asked the question of whether consent should be given, or whether a warrant should have been insisted on. I did not personally authorise the search. It was later that evening that I was told that the search had gone ahead only on the basis of a consent form. I further regret that I was formally told by the police only yesterday, by letter from Assistant Commissioner Robert Quick, that the hon. Member was arrested on 27 November on suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in public office and on suspicion of aiding and abetting misconduct in public office.

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I have reviewed the handling of this matter. From now on, a warrant will always be required when a search—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Order. If the hon. Gentleman will let me finish—I have waited for four days. Some have been able to go on television; I have not had that luxury. I have not been able to speak to the media. A warrant will always be required when a search of a Member’s office, or access to a Member’s parliamentary papers, is sought. Every case must be referred for my personal decision, as it is my responsibility. All this will be made clear in a protocol issued under my name to all hon. Members.

Lastly, I have decided, myself, to refer the matter of the seizure by police of material belonging to the hon. Member for Ashford to a Committee of seven senior and experienced Members, nominated by me, to report as soon as possible. I expect the motion necessary to establish this Committee to be tabled by the Government for debate on Monday. I also expect a report of the Committee to be debated by this House as soon as possible thereafter.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I thank you for your statement, thank you for the debate and welcome your decision to set up the Committee. You, Sir, will readily appreciate the outrage that was felt on both sides of the House about the attack on the ability of one of its Members to do the job he was sent here to do—to represent his constituents and to hold the Government to account.

You will be aware, of course, that what happened last Thursday was not simply a search of his premises, serious though that was, but the removal of his computers containing his constituency casework, the removal of his mobile telephone and the disconnection of the telephones at his constituency home. This attack was entirely without precedent, and is—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am very reluctant to interrupt a right hon. and learned Member, especially a former Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, but those things can come up in the debate on Monday. [Interruption.] May I help the right hon. and learned Gentleman? Obviously, when any hon. Member is in any difficulty, I feel that it is my duty to try to help as best I can. With regard to the computer equipment being removed, when I discovered that, I instructed the Serjeant at Arms to ensure that the police had that equipment back in the office on Monday to allow the hon. Member concerned to function properly as a Member of Parliament. Please remember that this is a point of order and not a debate.

Mr. Howard: Well, Sir, may I ask about the debate? Will you make it clear that any Member who takes part in that debate will be free to question the conduct in this deplorable affair of Ministers, of civil servants and of the House authorities?

Mr. Speaker: It is up to the Government to table the motion. I do not have powers to table the motion. [Interruption.] Order. I only have the powers that this House has given me. It is up to the Government to table the motion, and I have made that clear. The terms of
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the motion will determine the nature of the debate. That is the best that I can say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman at the moment.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. I want to take a point of order from Sir Ming Campbell.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): Mr. Speaker, you were right to acknowledge that there is a serious issue at stake here, which is why I would like to ask whether you are in a position to be more specific about the remit and the powers of the Committee that you have proposed. Surely it will be right for that Committee to keep account of the fact that none of us is above the law, but that that principle applies to the police as much as to any of us. What you have said about the absence of a warrant raises a number of very significant questions for the Committee, and I am pleased to hear you say that you intend to produce, by your own hand, a suitable protocol. However, the law includes not just the criminal law but the rights, duties and privileges of all Members of this House, as evidenced by the constitution under which we serve. Will you give the House an assurance, so far as you can, that the membership of that Committee will be such that it will be entitled to have access to information from every source—Government, Opposition if necessary, police, and indeed Officers of the House of Commons?

Mr. Speaker: Let me say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I will seek to allow a situation whereby that Committee, which I have set up, will have as much power as I can possibly allow. I thank him for raising that matter—and I take it that that was an application to join the Committee.

John Reid (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): This is not an application, Mr. Speaker, but can you assure us that, during the considerations of that Committee, as well as during the debate that is to surround these issues, which are grave issues and raise concerns on both sides of the House, four principles, not one principle, will be discussed? The first, of course, is the rights and privileges of Members of Parliament, but the second is the principle that, outside those particular rights and privileges, we are all, as citizens of this country, subject to the law as well.

Thirdly, whether or not Ministers should have been consulted, the principle of the independent operation of the police should be reasserted, as indeed it was during the investigations into the previous Prime Minister and his staff. [ Interruption. ] Some of those points would carry a little more weight if they had been raised during that period.

Finally, the principle of the political neutrality of the civil service will also be— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call the hon. Member for Ashford, Damian Green.

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): Thank you for your statement, Mr. Speaker, and for granting the debate. I also thank the hon. Members in all parts of the House and the very many members of the public who expressed
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support for me over the weekend. May I make it absolutely clear that I believe that Members of Parliament are not above the law? Those who have the real power in this country—Ministers, senior civil servants and the police—are not beyond the law or beyond scrutiny, either. An MP endangering national security would be a disgrace; an MP exposing embarrassing facts about Home Office policy that Ministers are hiding is doing a job in the public interest. The day when exposing facts that Ministers would prefer to keep hidden becomes a crime will be a bad day for democracy in this country.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Speaker: I am sure that Mr. MacShane has a proper point of order.

Mr. MacShane: Further to those points of order, Mr. Speaker. First, there is widespread concern across the House about everything that has happened. Secondly, thank you for saying from the Chair that from now on, a properly executed warrant must be presented to you, and it will be your decision whether the police come into the House of Commons for any reason—we can debate the extent of parliamentary privilege later. Thirdly, as a former Minister, a systematic breach of confidence in a Minister’s office destroys confidence in democratic government, especially when it involves collusion with one of the Opposition parties. That, too, must be discussed.

Mr. Speaker: Order. This is not the first time that hon. Members have used points of order to seek a mini debate, and that is what this is fast turning into—but I will take the points of order, because I am aware of the anger in the Chamber.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): Thank you for your statement, Mr. Speaker, but may I press you a little bit further? You have directed the Executive to draft the motion, but many of us are concerned that they are party to the whole issue that took place with the arrest of my hon. Friend— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I cannot hear the right hon. Gentleman speak.

Mr. Duncan Smith: My concern is that the motion may well be drafted in such a way as to limit the scope of the debate. I wonder whether, through your office, you will direct the Executive to listen to all representations made from both sides of the House.

Mr. Speaker: I say to the right hon. Gentleman that the motion will be amendable. [ Interruption. ] Order. Mr. Penning, when I am trying to address a right hon. Gentleman, it is not helpful when you throw in your tuppence-worth. Try to be quiet. The motion will be amendable. I have given more than a hint about the type of motion that I want the Government to lay down.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I can well appreciate your frustration at having to wait for four days, but you were absolutely right to make your comments to the House, as you have done, which we appreciate. All that you have said makes me all the more convinced that what
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took place—the raid and the arrest of the hon. Gentleman —was totally without justification. There was a breach of parliamentary convention, and I would like to see those responsible—the most senior police officers involved—come to the Bar of the House and explain their conduct. That would be quite apart from the Committee that you have suggested should be set up by the House. We need an explanation—and we need it promptly—of why the police acted as they did. [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Mr. Hogg.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you be kind enough to confirm that the police are not above the law? What has happened here is that they have entered this House without a warrant. They failed to tell the Serjeant at Arms that she could refuse that entry. That is a scandal, and the police have behaved deplorably. Could you advise the House, Mr. Speaker, about what powers we have to call those senior police officers to account for what is a scandal?

Mr. Speaker: The right hon. and learned Gentleman clearly read my statement that the police did not convey to the Serjeant the fact that she would have had an opportunity to refuse the document of request to search. It was not a search warrant. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is a learned lawyer and Queen’s counsel, and will know that they also had an obligation to say that a warrant could be demanded. They did not do that and they were wrong, and that is why I put that in my statement.

Let me say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that that is why I am seeking seven experienced parliamentarians to look into this matter. I have already said to the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) that I hope and pray that their powers will be very strong indeed.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I thank you for your statement. I listened to it carefully, and I wonder whether I can ask this question about what is not clear: at what time was the Clerk of the House of Commons—the chief executive of the House—or the Clerk Assistant informed, and when did they speak to you? Were they available?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has been in the House long enough to know that he cannot question my statement. We will leave it at that.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Mr. Speaker, I think that there has been a general welcome in the House for the mechanism that you have suggested for dealing with a very grave and serious matter that goes far beyond party. It is about whether constituents and others can communicate with Members of Parliament safe in the knowledge that the information will be held in confidence, and for the use for which they have directed it.

However, the procedure that you have outlined differs in one respect from the procedure that would have been used if it had been entirely and only a matter of privilege. A Standards and Privileges Committee report gives the
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House an opportunity to vote quite specifically on what measures should be taken. Are you satisfied that following the procedure that you have described, the House will have an opportunity—as a whole, and with the full support of the House—to say to its officers, “We direct and will support you in the robust defence of the right of constituents to communicate with Members”? The House as a whole needs to say that if these important rights are to be protected.

Mr. Speaker: Those are matters on which the Committee will report back to the House.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am not going to continue taking points of order all day. I make that clear. Mr. Levitt.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Notwithstanding the details of this particular case, would it be in order for you to reassert on behalf of the House the right of Ministers to expect 100 per cent. loyalty and discretion from their staff, and to say that we are proud of the professional and independent civil servants— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I will take an intervention from Sir Patrick, and then I will go on to the business of the day.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Mr. Speaker, in thanking you for your statement, could I ask you whether it is your intention that the debate on Monday will be a full day’s debate? Could you give the House some idea of when you expect the Committee of seven to report?

Mr. Speaker: May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that this is a matter for the Government? [Interruption.] Order. This is a matter for the Government. I shall call Mr. George Howarth, and then I will close this business and move on.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Given that next Monday’s debate has within it the potential to be used to prejudice any future prosecution, would you, Mr. Speaker, give consideration to issuing some guidance as to the terms in which the motion that is laid down should be debated?

Mr. Speaker: I just do my best on a daily basis to give guidance.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: I am sorry, but I am not taking any more points of order. [ Interruption. ] Order. There will be no more points of order on the matter.

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