Police Searches on the Parliamentary Estate - Committee on the Issue of Privilege Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 815-819)


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 Cabinet Office.

  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 national security.

  Q818  Chairman: I take it that would lead quite naturally into the opening statement that you wanted to make.

  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 your questions.

  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.

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