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House of Commons

Monday 15 December 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Unauthorised Disclosures

1. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When officials from her Department will next meet Cabinet Office officials to discuss measures to reduce the number of unauthorised disclosures of information from her Department. [242963]

3. Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): On how many occasions there have been breaches of security involving the unauthorised disclosure of information from her Department since 2000. [242966]

6. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): What steps she is taking to prevent the unauthorised disclosure of restricted and confidential information from her Department. [242970]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): The Home Office and the Cabinet Office take all breaches of security very seriously. Unauthorised disclosures are both a breach of security and a breach of the civil service code. Home Office and Cabinet Office officials hold regular meetings to discuss these matters. We follow all Government rules and procedures to prevent unauthorised disclosures of restricted and confidential information from Departments and we pursue unauthorised disclosures. I am advised that there have been 43 investigations into alleged unauthorised disclosures of information from the Home Office since 2000.

Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful to the Home Secretary for that reply. Is she aware that there is a growing consensus that the police handling of the arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) was disproportionate? Furthermore, it is now apparent that the search of his offices here did not comply with Police and Criminal Evidence Act guidelines. Is she aware that concerns about those two matters have been expressed by the acting commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, by her permanent secretary in his evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs and by the Leader of the House? Does the Home Secretary share those concerns?

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Jacqui Smith: I am not clear that the assertion that the hon. Gentleman makes—that those concerns have been raised by the people whom he identifies—is correct, because in each case, those people have been scrupulous about not commenting on ongoing police investigations, as I will be.

Mr. Turner: Can the Home Secretary explain when a leak of information becomes a criminal investigation? When are the police involved?

Jacqui Smith: In this case, the police were involved because of the systematic nature of the leaking, the concern that numerous leak investigations had not succeeded in finding the perpetrator and, as was spelt out in the Cabinet Office letter to the Metropolitan police, particular concerns about the sensitivity of information that a potential leaker may have had access to.

Mr. Swayne: The 1988 White Paper said:

When Lord Hurd presented the Bill to the House, he said:

Why has that changed under Labour?

Jacqui Smith: As I have just outlined to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), the decision to refer the investigation to the police was made by my permanent secretary and the Cabinet Secretary. The reasons are spelt out in the letter from the Cabinet Office to the police, which is now available in the Libraries of both Houses. Whether criminal charges are laid is of course a matter for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Home Secretary not find this situation rather ironic? Here we are, on almost exactly the 23rd anniversary of the climax of the Westland affair, when the Tory Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was leaking furiously against the Secretary of State for Defence, Lord Heseltine, as he now is. Is she as unsurprised as I am that a party that had more leaks than a Rhondda vegetable show when it was in government should be actively soliciting leaks when it is in opposition, in the disgraceful way that we have seen over recent months?

Jacqui Smith: Well, as I have said before, one of the things that hon. Members in all parts of the House—and certainly any hon. Member whose ambition it is to form part of a Government at any time in the future—should be wary about is undermining the impartiality of the British civil service as laid down in the civil service code, for which Governments of all persuasions have had reason to be grateful and by which the people of this country set quite a lot of store.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): The former shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), has said on the record that 50 per cent. of the material that he receives from moles
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cannot be put into the public domain because it is too sensitive in terms of national security. Does the Home Secretary agree that there is an obligation on the former shadow Home Secretary to return that material to the relevant Departments?

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend makes an important point. There has been a suggestion throughout the whole of this case that, somehow or other, pieces of information relating to national security never get leaked, but as my hon. Friend pointed out, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden, the former shadow Home Secretary, said:

to release information

In other words, the right hon. Gentleman has in his possession information that has come to him that has national security, the military or terrorism associated with it. I wonder whether he passed it on to his successor, the current shadow Home Secretary, and whether he, in turn, believes that the right thing to do might be to return it to the authorities from which it came.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I want one thing cleared up. The Home Secretary has not yet explained to the House how—on 4 December, I think—there was a difference between what she reported to the House as the reasons for the arrest of the hon. Member for Ashford and what he had received in the documentation from the Metropolitan police. That lack of precision does not increase one’s confidence in the veracity of the Metropolitan police. Will she explain to the House this afternoon why the Metropolitan police gave her duff information, and tell us what she has done about it?

Jacqui Smith: I took it up, as I said I would, immediately with the Metropolitan police. They confirmed that the terms of the arrest were accurate, and I communicated that to the hon. Member for Ashford.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): The Home Secretary has made it very clear that she was not informed of the arrests in relation to those leaks prior to the arrests taking place. Will she tell us whether she gave any instructions, written or verbal, to anyone in the Home Office or the Metropolitan police that she should not be informed if arrests were going to take place in respect of that matter?

Jacqui Smith: No, I did not—as I made clear when I made my statement the other day.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Has the Home Secretary read the report by the Standards and Privileges Committee of two Sessions ago on the working of the sub judice rule? Does she accept that, in cases such as this where there is an ongoing investigation, the Committee makes it clear that Parliament has always treated that rule with discretion? It has always been a matter for the Speaker in the Chamber, and for individual Committee Chairmen in Committees, to decide how to operate it.

Jacqui Smith: I have not read the specific report to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I am sure that he will share my view that, whether inside or outside the
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House, the operational independence of the police force is important. It is also important, as he says, that we all exercise considerable discretion over ensuring that we do not prejudice police investigations.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I think the way in which the hon. Member for Ashford was treated by the police was disgraceful and if it turns out that my right hon. Friend had in fact been informed of the police action before it took place—something that she has denied—she would have to resign. Correspondingly, the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) has said to my right hon. Friend, in terms, that she lied when saying that she had not been informed in advance. Does she agree that, if it is proved that she had not been told in advance, the hon. and learned Gentleman should resign?

Jacqui Smith: I have asked the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and others to withdraw the allegations and assertions that they have made against me. It is up to them whether they choose to do the right thing.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): There is a good deal of concern about the use of the offence of misconduct in public office in the case of Christopher Galley and the hon. Member for Ashford, particularly given the policy decision to ensure that, from 1989, the only cases in which criminal investigations are appropriate are those that involve national security. How many police investigations of Government complaints referring to misconduct in public office have there been in the past year—or two years or whatever is appropriate—and how many prosecutions and convictions have there been? Is this offence being used to intimidate civil servants, rather than to bring them to justice?

Jacqui Smith: There have been several investigations, and several charges laid on the basis of misconduct in public life. I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the specific numbers. The offence has been looked at relatively recently in a case in front of the High Court.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): Is not one of the reasons why there are so many unauthorised disclosures from the Home Office the fact that the Department sets an example by engaging in authorised leaking when it suits the Home Secretary’s political purpose? In that context, did she authorise the leak last week of the partial and selective knife crime statistics, in breach of the Government’s own rules and against the protests of the UK statistics authority? Or was that all down to the Cabinet Office and Downing street?

Jacqui Smith: There are plenty of arguments about the definition of a leak, but I hardly think that issuing a press release counts as a leak.

I am sorry that we were, I think, too quick off the mark with the publication of one number in relation to the progress that had been made in tackling knife crime, but I commend the police and their crime-fighting partners on the impact that they are already making through the tackling knives action programme, as spelt out by the other statistics produced last week.

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Mr. Grieve: I note that the Home Secretary has not answered the question. Nor has she apologised to the House for this gross and deliberate breach of its own rules. Sir Michael Scholar said that the decision to release the spun propaganda was “corrosive of public trust”. If the Home Secretary was involved, why should she be trusted in future on the basis of what she says? Can she please explain? If she was not involved, does that not show yet again that she is not in charge of her Department and that, in fact, she is incapable of discharging her responsibilities properly?

Jacqui Smith: Sir Michael Scholar did not use the words “spun propaganda”. He pointed out that one figure used last week had been issued prematurely. If the hon. and learned Gentleman had been listening, he would have heard me say the words ”I am sorry”: sorry that we had pre-empted the publication of that specific number. However, I hope that he will join me in recognising the considerable progress that has been made—I think that this is the most important issue—in helping to ensure that 17 per cent. fewer young people are subject to serious knife offences, that of the 10,000 extra searches being conducted each month fewer are now finding young people carrying knives, that 179 more offenders are now in prison for weapons offences, and that on average those offenders are receiving almost 40 per cent. longer sentences. That constitutes progress in keeping young people safe on our streets, which I think is the top priority for most of the British public.

Zimbabwean Asylum Seekers

2. Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): What the Government's policy is on holding Zimbabwean asylum seekers in immigration detention. [242964]

The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas): The UK Border Agency only detains Zimbabwean nationals who have committed crimes within the United Kingdom, who are subject to deportation action, and who have been assessed as unsuitable for release owing to their being a threat to the public and/or likely to abscond. Anyone detained under immigration powers has his or her detention regularly reviewed, and can apply for release on bail to the independent Asylum and Immigration Tribunal.

Greg Mulholland: As I am sure all Members know, according to reports from Zimbabwe, the situation is worse than ever, with oppression, political violence, beatings as an everyday occurrence, corruption and, now, the added plight of those affected by the cholera epidemic. In the light of the tribunal’s decision two weeks ago—or, rather, the Government’s response that they would not challenge it—will the Minister tell me what will happen to the other 7,500 cases? Have those people some hope now, and will he examine their situation again?

Mr. Woolas: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I think that the whole House will share his sentiments about the situation in Zimbabwe. He referred to the country court judgment. It states that each case can be considered individually, and indeed that must be done. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree, not all those presenting themselves as Zimbabwean turn out to be Zimbabwean on examination. That is why we must examine each case properly, within the rules.

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Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): In the light of the recent judgment on an Eritrean asylum seeker, will my hon. Friend consider the position of Zimbabweans and others who cannot be returned at this moment but who are not allowed to work?

Mr. Woolas: I hear what my hon. Friend says. When someone cannot be returned through no fault of his or her own, having exhausted all appeal rights, it is our policy for that person to receive section 4 support from the United Kingdom Government. The overall number of people with whom we are having to deal has fallen, but that support is there.

David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): What additional steps has the Minister taken in case the situation in Zimbabwe deteriorates dramatically and he is faced with a massive number of people trying to get into this country? What are the Government doing about that?

Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. There are also British nationals in Zimbabwe, and there is the ever-present danger of more people trying to get into our country illegally. That is why, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates, we review all the procedures not just in that part of the world, but in other countries and other circumstances.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): The Minister said in response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) that Zimbabweans who are here and who it is intended will return but cannot currently be returned are eligible for section 4 support. However, the case to which the Minister referred suggested that, in respect of Eritrea, where people cannot be returned and have no source of support, they should be allowed to earn their own support. When will the Minister allow trapped Zimbabweans to work to earn the money to get themselves and their families a decent Christmas?

Mr. Woolas: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her points on this important matter. The case to which she refers concerned a gentleman from Eritrea, and the judgment in that case was very specific, looking at the amount of time that had been spent in this country. Having said that, it is not the Government’s policy to provide for blanket exceptions for the good reason that we must look at each case on its merits.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The Minister knows that there is a widespread view held by Members in all parts of the House—it is not a party view—that it is nonsense to require people who cannot go back, and who are qualified and could be further qualified, not to work while they are here when that will not lead to any permanent right to be here, but will give them a chance to improve their skills. Will the Minister be straightforward with the House and confirm that the Government are reviewing this matter, and will he tell us when the review will be concluded and whether he will make the intelligent, sympathetic and widely welcome decision to change the policy?

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