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4 Dec 2008 : Column 138

Jacqui Smith: May I first draw the hon. and learned Gentleman’s attention to the public statement of Sir Paul Stephenson on the subject of whether counter-terrorism police officers—as he described them—were involved in the operation? As Sir Paul Stephenson makes clear, following the reorganisation in New Scotland Yard of the previous special branch and the previous counter-terror branch they are now working together under the heading of the counter-terrorism command. As he pointed out, it is not accurate to claim that they were counter-terror police officers; nor, as he has made quite clear, was this a counter-terror investigation.

The hon. and learned Gentleman asserted several times that “there is not the slightest evidence”. He does not know what evidence the police have. I do not know what evidence the police have—but I do know that it is wholly appropriate that the police should use their professional judgment to follow the evidence during the course of a police investigation without fear or favour. That comes to the heart of what appears to be a misunderstanding by the hon. and learned Gentleman and other Opposition Members about the difference between the operational independence of the police during an investigation and appropriate and important methods of accountability that, whether through the criminal justice system, the procedures set up by the House or the review that Sir Ian Johnston is carrying out, will appropriately report but will not interfere with the operational independence of the police. I made it completely clear in my statement that even if I had been informed about the investigation of a Member of this House I would have considered it wrong to intervene in that investigation. I am interested that the hon. and learned Gentleman does not seem to take the same view.

On the point about the subjects of the investigation and when I was informed, it seems sensible and obvious to me that I would have been informed about an investigation taking place within the Home Office and the potential arrest of a Home Office official, and I was. I was not informed about the investigation and potential arrest of a Member, and I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman—although he has not taken this opportunity—will remove his continued assertion that I am not telling the truth.

On the point about whether any other Minister asked for or received specific assurances, I believe that I have made it clear that no other Minister did.

Finally, I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman would have more ably demonstrated that he believes that all the principles that I outlined are important if he had expressed any concern whatsoever about the nature of leaking from Departments. The Home Office deals with some of the most sensitive issues across Government. I believe that for a potential future Home Secretary to be so unconcerned—cavalier—about the leaking of information from the Home Office is a serious issue for the security of that information, for the impartiality of the civil service and for the good governance of this country.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): I am concerned at the new principle that the Home Secretary appears to be setting out that the leaking of information from the Government is in all circumstances something to be deplored. The reality is that the House’s formal procedures for holding the Executive to account are so weak that
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the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) has described them from the Government Benches as like “heckling the steamroller”. In the circumstances where this Parliament is a constitutional poodle by comparison with other Parliaments in the western democratic world, it is essential that other means of having checks and balances are there.

The leaking of information has a long and honourable precedent. Let me, for example, cite the official in the Secret Intelligence Service, called Desmond Morton, who briefed the then Back Bencher, Sir Winston Churchill, about the gathering threat of German rearmament. That was an essential part of the pressure put on the appeasement Governments of the day to take account of the threat to national security. So even matters of national security may, it seems to me, be justified as leaks to hold the Government to account.

In this case, will the Home Secretary confirm that she was merely concerned about a potential breach of national security and that there were no actual breaches of national security? The elision in her answer was very clear to any Opposition Member, and she needs to clarify her position. She is also unclear in her statement whether Sir David Normington told her, after she was informed by the police, that there would be a search of the premises of an hon. Member and whether she was then concerned. If not, why not? Again, in her answer, she elides between the arrest and the search. Surely, if the police were informing her most senior official—I assume that her most senior official informed her—that, in fact, a search was impending, that should have been enough to ring alarm bells with the Home Secretary.

Does the Home Secretary agree at the very least that the police action in this matter should cause us, as a House, as a Parliament and as a legislature, to reopen the issue of taking away responsibility for the security of the House from the Serjeant at Arms, since a clear principle is at stake? Does she now agree that the muddle in which she has landed herself in this case should be clarified, not least with a parliamentary privileges Bill—as recommended by a cross-party Committee nearly 10 years ago—a civil service Bill to ensure that our civil service is as impartial as it should be, and is always protected from undue political pressure, and a Bill to restore protection for whistleblowers who act in the public interest? We need to bring back the protections for whistleblowers that the Government and their predecessor abolished.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman started off with an impassioned defence of leaking. I have argued—and I think that I have made it clear in my statement today—that I believe that the role of Members of this Parliament in using information that they gain access to, certainly in some of the circumstances to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, has happened, should happen and will continue to happen. That is an important element in the accountability of Government in this country. But it is also absolutely right that, if civil servants believe that the activity of their Government Department is unethical or improper, they should have a route through which they are able to take that issue up. That is why the Home Office has a clearly communicated whistleblower policy through which civil servants are able to raise issues of concern, including externally with the Civil Service Commissioner, and why this Government
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have put in place the Act covering the disclosure of public information referred to by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House, to give further protection to individuals in those circumstances.

In this case, however, we were concerned about a potential systematic series of leaks. The original leak inquiries—which took place when it was not clear who was responsible, or whether it was one person or more than one—did involve, in the reference from the Cabinet Office, issues that related to national security, as of course does the work of the Home Office. For the hon. Gentleman to phrase his question as to whether we were “merely” concerned about a possible leak of national security, represents an underestimation of the significance of our role in safeguarding the information that we deal with.

In relation to the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions about action between search and arrest, I was not informed about the search of the hon. Member’s office until after both the search and the arrest had taken place.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I thank the Home Secretary for her very full statement. Of course I accept that she was not informed of this circumstance until after it had occurred. The first telephone call appears to have been made to the Mayor of London, and the second to Sir David Normington. The Home Secretary was then informed. This is the second occasion on which she and the Mayor have taken a different view on the issue of policing in London and, in my view, this does not bode well for the imminent appointment of the next Metropolitan Police Commissioner. In respect of the two inquiries that have been set up so far—the Johnston inquiry and the inquiry that Mr. Speaker is setting up—and any other inquiries that Select Committees might want to set up, will my right hon. Friend give the House an undertaking that she, other Ministers and civil servants will be prepared to come and give evidence to those inquiries, and that there will be full co-operation so that all the facts of this matter can be brought before the House?

Jacqui Smith: I can certainly give my right hon. Friend an assurance that I will be perfectly willing, as I have been today, to give the fullest possible information—in a way, of course, that does not prejudice any investigation. I—and, I am sure, other Ministers—will be willing to give the fullest possible information. With respect to my right hon. Friend’s concerns about the appointment of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, may I put on record—I believe that the Mayor shares this view—that we understand that this is an appointment of vital importance both for London and for the national interest, and that we will work closely to make sure that we get the best candidate for that extremely important job.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): The Home Secretary has confirmed that she was the only Minister who authorised the involvement of what is usually called the special branch in the investigation of incidents of which she was the only victim and from which she had already suffered only political embarrassment. Can she tell the House whether she challenged or discussed that recommendation, and in particular what legal advice she sought about the matter being moved into the
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sphere of a criminal investigation? At what stage were the Law Officers asked for their opinion? At what stage was the Director of Public Prosecutions asked for his opinion? Did she obtain the advice of even Home Office lawyers?

Jacqui Smith: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is wrong. I did not authorise the investigation into the leaks and I did not say that I had. Completely appropriately, the Cabinet Office, which has responsibility—and, I suspect, probably did in his day as well—for the integrity of Government information, asked the police for assistance in the investigation, following a series of leak inquiries which had been inconclusive. I think that that was wholly appropriate. As I said in my statement, I agreed with the view of Sir David Normington that it was appropriate that the matter be referred to the Cabinet Office and that that then involved the police in the investigation. When there has been a process of internal leak inquiries and the use of external inquirers, and there is the serious issue of the systematic leaking of matters that could be extremely sensitive, it seems to me appropriate for Government to ask the police to help with those investigations. The only basis on which the police will carry out those investigations is if they suspect that a criminal investigation may be necessary.

John Reid (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): On the basis of the statement by the Home Secretary, I have no doubt at all about her integrity and truthfulness in this matter. It ill behoves Opposition Members to imply that there is a lack of either. I also accept the integrity and impartiality of the vast majority of civil servants who day in, day out serve Governments of all persuasions, despite their own personal opinions. That should be placed on the record. However, I would be wrong if I did not express some unease about two aspects of the matter. One is the fact that having been told—quite properly, in my view—that there was contact on this subject between one politician connected with the Metropolitan Police Service, the Mayor of London, and the person at the centre of the investigation, that must be looked at. Secondly, I am surprised, to say the least, that the Secretary of State for the Home Department was not informed that her opposite number, effectively, was about to be arrested. If I had been told after the event that that had been done, I cannot think that I would have remained as placid as she has in the circumstances. Notwithstanding the fact that she has said that even if she had been informed, she would not have acted differently, I do not think that we should take that as a ruling that someone in her position should never be informed. For my part, I would have wanted to be informed, and to express a view on the matter. I hope that she will look at those processes without prejudice.

Jacqui Smith: It is, of course, completely appropriate that the process of both the investigation and the information that was passed on should be part of questions and consideration after the police investigation. With respect to my right hon. Friend’s first point, I believe the Metropolitan Police Authority and certain Members have already questioned what the Mayor knew, whom he chose to share that information with and whom he chose to communicate it to. It seems wholly appropriate for them to do that. On the second point, about whether
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and when I should have been informed, it is a matter for the Metropolitan police as to the point at which I was informed. I have made clear the questions that I asked after being informed. On the subject of placidity—I think that sometimes it behoves Home Secretaries to deal calmly with issues that are of significance, such as the present matter.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): The Home Secretary may be interested to know that, following the Government’s example of using the criminal law to persecute Opposition politicians for being too effective, the States of Jersey have initiated a criminal investigation into Senator Stuart Syvret, which should cause grave concern because of the situation in Jersey. Has the Home Secretary had any advice as to which elements of leaked information were covered by the Freedom of Information Act and the fact that the civil servant would have had a duty to reveal that information? Does she find it a little odd that one faces a criminal investigation for revealing certain information that one has a duty to reveal?

Jacqui Smith: Although the hon. Gentleman’s point was very broad, covering a range of cases, I listened with interest. He made some important points, which I am sure people will want to return to, not least as part of the accounts that are being done here.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I entirely accept the integrity of my right hon. Friend. I do not question that in any way, and it is quite likely that the political points that the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) was trying to make were matters with which I would hardly agree. Does my right hon. Friend accept that no one has suggested for one moment that MPs are above the law? Of course we are not above the law, but is there not a distinction between that and our role as Members of Parliament carrying out our parliamentary duties and being able to do so without fear or favour? If that is undermined, parliamentary democracy is undermined.

Jacqui Smith: I agree with my hon. Friend that both the principle of the important and significant role of Members of Parliament and the principle that nobody is above the rule of law need to be upheld in the present situation.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): Did the Home Secretary at any time give any indication to officials that she did not want to be kept informed of the progress of the investigation?

Jacqui Smith: No.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): A little while ago I had a hand in getting the Prime Minister to reaffirm the Wilson doctrine, and he extended it to modern electronic surveillance. On the face of it, it would appear that the Wilson doctrine has been abrogated by the police in this case. Clearly, the e-mails of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) were looked at. I venture to suggest that he was listened in to, and that there has been access to all our e-mails. Can the Home Secretary tell us whether the Wilson doctrine has been abrogated? Will she place in the Library the reply that she sends to the letter that I sent her two days ago on that specific point?

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Jacqui Smith: I am sorry my hon. Friend has not received the reply to the letter, which I sent him yesterday and in which I made it clear that the Wilson doctrine as outlined by the Prime Minister has not been abrogated.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): On two of the occasions when I have talked to the commissioner or other senior police officers about operational matters, one shortly after the death of Stephen Lawrence and the other after the police had put an anti-terrorist team to search the home of Sergeant Gurpal Virdi, one of their own members, I did not find any objection from the police, and I did not think I was doing anything wrong, so I hope the Home Secretary will not be too delicate about discussing issues. It is a perfectly proper thing to do. Will she have a chance to read column 52 of yesterday’s Hansard, which shows the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change making a number of allegations and assertions about the civil servant involved, and tell the House whether she thinks that was proper, and whether it was prepared by someone on the Government Front Bench? Lastly, can she confirm that malfeasance in public office is not always a criminal offence?

Jacqui Smith: I have not read the passage to which the hon. Gentleman refers. The point about misconduct in public office is that it is potentially a criminal offence— [Interruption.] Well, that depends whether it has happened. As a common law offence, it is also a legitimate part of the criminal process of this country.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): When my right hon. Friend was considering these issues, did she take into account such precedents as the prosecution and imprisonment by the Conservative Government of a woman civil servant for handing over details of Michael Heseltine’s diary to The Guardian, and the prosecution of Clive Ponting, when the Conservatives wanted to imprison him but he was acquitted on a public interest defence—which they immediately abolished, so that nobody else could have a public interest defence? In considering these issues, will my right hon. Friend take into account the synthetic indignation of the Conservatives, who seek one law for a Tory Government’s iron heel and another law for a Labour Government?

Jacqui Smith: My right hon. Friend is right, of course. When we talk about disclosure of information from Government, we are in areas of the utmost controversy that go to the heart of the nature of our democratic system and to the heart of the nature of the role of the civil service in this country.

Although I did not consider those precedents in detail, I certainly thought about them and also about previous, extremely sensitive investigations into senior political figures. In some of those cases, I do not remember hearing the sort of outrage that we are hearing around this issue.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): If the issue was really a serious matter of national security, why were the arrests not carried out under the Official Secrets Act?

Jacqui Smith: The right hon. Gentleman is right that there have been circumstances under which issues of national security have resulted in the use of the Official
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Secrets Act. There have also been occasions on which the offence of misconduct in public office has been appropriate. Of course, there have not yet been any charges in this area and that is, of course, the responsibility of the police in terms of the evidence that they have. I made the point earlier to the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that neither he nor I—nor the right hon. Gentleman—have seen the evidence to make the appropriate decisions on the investigation, and, with the involvement of the Crown Prosecution Service, on the nature of any charges, which may or may not emerge.

Ms Patricia Hewitt (Leicester, West) (Lab): I believe that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and her permanent secretary have behaved absolutely appropriately on this occasion. May I bring her back to the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which was raised by an Opposition Member? Does she agree that that Act—which was introduced by this Government, of course—has fundamentally changed the situation? It makes available to the House, the public and the media an immense amount of information that would never have been made available under any previous Government, whether Conservative or Labour. Furthermore, under that Act we have an independent Information Commissioner whose job it is to hold the balance between the public interest in disclosure and the public interest in good government, including confidential advice to Ministers. In those circumstances, is it not— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The right hon. Lady has given me an opportunity to remind the House that there should be only one supplementary to the Home Secretary.

Jacqui Smith: My right hon. Friend makes a very important point about the willingness of the Government to put in place, quite rightly and legitimately, the appropriate ways for members of the public and Members of the House—and civil servants, when necessary—to make information publicly available. I am thinking of the Freedom of Information Act, the whistleblowing processes that I outlined and the legislation that we have put in place to support whistleblowers. Given that record, my right hon. Friend is right that as a Government we have proved ourselves to be more open than any previous Government—and, incidentally, more open than any proposals put forward by Opposition Members.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): Does the Home Secretary not accept that there is a vast difference between threatening to sack someone for breach of confidentiality and setting the criminal law attack dogs on them? Is she saying that because the Home Office deals with some matters of national security, any leak from the Home Office is now a criminal matter—even though we know that in this case no real matters of national security were at stake?

Jacqui Smith: Once again, I have to say that a Member is claiming a greater knowledge of the evidence than he can possibly have. When there has been systematic leaking and internal leak inquiries have not been able to discover its source, at a certain point I believe it appropriate to ask the police for their assistance in that investigation.

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