Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
O'DONNELL KCB AND
14 DECEMBER 2009
Q815 Chairman: Good afternoon, Sir Gus
and Mr Hannigan, thank you very much for coming to give evidence.
I think perhaps if you would for the record identify yourselves,
I should be grateful.
Sir Gus O'Donnell: Certainly,
Gus O'Donnell, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service.
Mr Hannigan: I am Robert Hannigan,
Head of the Intelligence, Security and Resilience Group in the
Q816 Chairman: I think you are aware
of the terms of reference of this Committee, which are based upon
resolution of the House of Commons, and you understand the issues
with which we are concerned are the circumstances leading up to
and indeed the fact of the arrest and the search of Mr Damian
Green's office here in the House of Commons. Just a couple of
preliminary matters, Sir Gus: certain letters have been referred
to in the course of evidence so far written by Mr Wright, who
was, I think, a member of the Cabinet Office at the time he wrote
those letters. I understand that you as the head of that office
take responsibility for these letters, and you are able to answer
any questions which the Committee may have in relation to them.
Sir Gus O'Donnell: I am indeed.
If it would help the Committee, I could say a few words at the
start, which I think would cover the kinds of issues, having read
through the transcripts of evidence you have already had.
Q817 Chairman: That may help indeed
to focus our attention, but perhaps I might just begin, and I
think this may lead into your short statement: what sort of guidance
do you have to give as head of the Civil Service on the distinction
between threats to national security and government embarrassment
arising out of information reaching the public domain which a
government would prefer to have kept private?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: Well, it is
very clear, when we look at police investigations, we are talking
about the former, national security issues, not about embarrassment.
If I called in the police for questions about embarrassment, they
would not have a lot of time to do anything else, so it is about
Q818 Chairman: I take it that would
lead quite naturally into the opening statement that you wanted
Sir Gus O'Donnell: Indeed, thank
you. I think, as you rightly said, the area where I can be of
most assistance to the Committee concerns the decision to call
in the police. This was a joint decision by me and the Permanent
Secretary of the Home Office following discussions between Cabinet
Office and Home Office officials, and after consultation with
the police. But let me make it clear that as Cabinet Secretary,
I take responsibility for the actions of my staff. I profited
from considering the evidence given to you by Damian Green, he
cites a phrase from the letter sent from the Cabinet Office to
the Metropolitan Police that reads, "We are in no doubt there
has been considerable damage to national security already as a
result of these leaks." I believe this is at the heart of
concerns about the Cabinet Office's role in this episode. Now
I would like to address this directly. There are two key points:
first, the pattern of leaks emerging from late 2007 was very similar
to that which we had seen over a sustained period from 2005 to
2007. The earlier period, which included up to 40 leaks potentially
from the Home Office involved some leaks of highly sensitive material
of importance to national security. Second, we did not, at the
time that we contacted the police, know the identity of the source
of the leaks. As a result, when we wrote on 8 October, we knew
only that a pattern of leaks had re-emerged which was very similar
to that which had already done considerable damage to national
security. The letter from which Mr Green quoted was therefore
correct in identifying that there had been damage to national
security from these leaks. We were inviting the police to look
at this matter, and establish whether or not offences had been
committed. The investigation was not successful in discovering
the source of the national security leaks. I remain concerned
about this. It did discover that a civil servant who had been
trusted with access to sensitive information had leaked material.
Let me be clear that as the head of the Home Civil Service, I
strongly support the principles set out in the Civil Service Code
that create the framework within which civil servants can raise
concerns, including where necessary directly with the independent
Civil Service Commissioners. But, as has been documented in the
O'Connor report, the concerns here were not about the conduct
of official business, but about procuring personal benefit, in
this case employment, from the leaking of official material. In
my view, Mr Galley's actions violated the core Civil Service values
of honesty, objectivity, integrity and impartiality. Lastly, I
would like to address the relationship between the Cabinet Office
and the Metropolitan Police. We approached the police as a complainant,
on behalf of the Government, in a case where we believed criminal
activity might have taken place. We held discussions with the
police in order to provide them with the details of the background
to the leaks, including those of national security information,
and including our suspicions of the Home Office as the source
of these. We did not determine the conduct of the investigation,
nor were we consulted by the police on the decisions to make arrests.
I hope these remarks are useful, and I look forward to answering
Q819 Chairman: Let me see if I understand
that. Am I right to understand that you remain concerned about
the possibility of someone leaking in relation to issues which
affect national security, irrespective of what one might call
the Galley/Green episode?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: Most certainly.
For example, a member of the Opposition said on the BBC after
that event, on 28 November, "Our job when this information
comes to us is to make a judgment, is it in the public interest
that this should be known publicly or not? In about half the cases,
we decide not, because we think there are reasons, perhaps of
national security, or military or terrorism reasons, not to put
things in the public domain". So it is about half the material.
That is very worrying, and I remain worried, as I said in my statement.