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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 860-879)


14 DECEMBER 2009

  Q860  Chairman: Supposing there was discussion in a government department about the nationalisation of a major industry, and that information was leaked, then someone who had advance notice of that might well be in a position to sell his or her shares in advance of the announcement, and thereby avoid sustaining a loss; is that the kind of thing that you have in mind?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: More specifically, if you knew exactly something that was very market sensitive, then you could operate in the markets and make a lot of money.

  Mr Howard: I shall forebear from commenting on leaks of precisely that kind which appear to have been Government authorised which have taken place in recent months.

  Q861  Chairman: You have never had to call in the police to investigate the Government though.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: I was thinking of things which are much more specific, to do with statistics.

  Q862  Mr Howard: Let me just try and understand the procedures which you followed, because as I have pointed out and you have agreed, normally it is the responsibility of individual departments to investigate these matters. Then it says: "In extenuating circumstances—and I do not really understand the use of the word extenuating, but still—DSI [the Directorate of Security and Intelligence] may convene a case conference in order to establish a proposed course of action, and if necessary, provide co-ordination of any damage assessment in maintaining an oversight role. In serious cases of cross-departmental and persistent leaking—which I assume is what you thought was happening here—DSI will bring together departments, relevant individuals, the police, Treasury solicitors, and in cases of suspected espionage or terrorism, the security service." Was such a case conference established in this case?

  Mr Hannigan: There were a number of informal meetings but not a formal case conference in this case. There were a number of informal meetings between Cabinet Office staff and the Metropolitan Police which I know Mr McDowall talked about in his evidence to the Committee at some length.

  Q863  Mr Howard: Why not? If the guidance had been followed, there would have been a case conference, would there not?

  Mr Hannigan: I think it is a matter of judgment. As you say, it is extenuating circumstances; not every case needs a case conference. It may be where there is only one department involved essentially here, plus Cabinet Office, it is not necessary to have something that is formally called a large case conference, maybe just three people sitting down. The difference is very, very marginal, I think.

  Q864  Mr Howard: But the Cabinet Office effectively took over the investigation or the responsibility for this investigation, did it not?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Well, throughout this, I was talking to David Normington, and we decided that we would call in Cabinet Office investigators, and that is what happened, and then later moved on to the police.

  Q865  Mr Howard: Well, it was the Cabinet Office that contacted the police.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Yes.

  Q866  Mr Howard: Not the Home Office.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: No, but as I said in my opening statement, I discussed this with David Normington, and we had agreed that I would call it in, because remember, you are looking at something where we genuinely do not know where this is going to go, so we start off in the Home Office, but it could easily have gone elsewhere. There could have been other departments involved, it could have been the Cabinet Office involved as well, so it was important, I think, that the Cabinet Office called this into the Home Office, and then it would have had the authority of the Cabinet Office to go to other departments if necessary, or agencies or wherever.

  Q867  Mr Howard: Let me ask you about Mr Wright's involvement if I may. You have referred to the sentence in his letter which was wrongly dated 8 September, when it should have been 8 October, which refers to "damage national security". He goes on to say: "The risk of leaking is having an impact on the efficient and effective conduct of Government business, affecting the ability of ministers and senior officials to have full and frank discussions on sensitive matters and undermining necessary trust." That is not a consideration which should lead to a police investigation, is it?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: But the first part did, so this was in addition.

  Q868  Mr Howard: But it should not have been there, should it?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Why not?

  Q869  Mr Howard: Because it is no part of the duties of the police to investigate matters which might have an impact on the efficient and effective conduct of Government business.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Well, I think it is just qualifying the sentence which is above, which makes it clear that the reason for this is we are concerned about considerable damage to national security.

  Q870  Mr Howard: But I am suggesting to you that the sentence that I have quoted is an illegitimate reason, Sir Gus. It may or may not be reasonable to investigate matters where you say there has been damage to national security, it is wrong to suggest that the police should investigate matters which have an impact on the efficient and effective conduct of Government business.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: The first sentence is making clear that there is a very strong case for the police to get involved, because of the considerable damage to national security. It is then explaining that the risk of leaking is also having other effects. It is just an explanatory statement.

  Q871  Mr Howard: No, the police do not need to have anything explained to them.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: I wish.

  Q872  Mr Howard: If you are asking for something to be investigated because it is a breach of national security, that should be enough.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Yes, but you can always explain other things that are going on—

  Q873  Sir Alan Beith: With what intention?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Let me explain. The reason that we were keen that we had some possible route into the national security leaks that we had had over a number of years, that we had not been able to get hold of, was that suddenly we got something here which admittedly was not a national security issue, but was related to ministers, which might as a starting point lead us into the other material.

  Q874  Mr Howard: There is nothing in the letter to that effect, is there?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: What it is saying is that there is a risk of this having an impact on ministers, but that that, if you like, is the impact of the latest information—if you look at the later letter that Chris Wright sends, he says as a starting point, in terms of looking at the material that—it was, I think, a letter where we had some views that we might be able—because it had a very small distribution, that we might get some real leads from it, which was the Whips' thing, that that might lead us into a source which might go further and get us into the things we were really interested in.

  Q875  Mr Howard: I will come to his second letter, but there is nothing remotely like that in this letter, and the sentence that I am asking you about in this letter is the sentence which suggests very clearly that the police ought to investigate this matter because it is having an impact on the efficient and effective conduct of Government business.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: It is saying that that is the implication of what has been going on, but it is very clear, I think the language is explicit, "We are in no doubt there has been considerable damage to national security". That is the point of it.

  Q876  Mr Howard: Just look at the letter: " ... we are concerned that the potential for future damage is significant", and then it does not go on to talk about the potential for national security, it goes on to talk about the impact on the efficient and effective conduct of Government business.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: I think that obviously includes an issue—the efficient and effective conduct of Government business; if you are not sure that secret and national security issues are going to be kept safely and not leak, then that will affect the efficient conduct of Government business.

  Q877  Mr Howard: You would accept, would you not, that it would be improper to suggest that the police should carry out an investigation because something was having an impact on the efficient and effective conduct of Government business?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: As I have said, if I were having to investigate every single case where there have been leaks which affected the conduct of Government business, then we would have an enormous number of such investigations.

  Q878  Mr Howard: Now following that letter, we know that there was a meeting, we do not know exactly who was there, and I hope you can enlighten us, but there was a meeting between Mr Wright, we presume, and some senior police officers. Can you tell us exactly who was there?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: That is the second meeting that took place on 22 September, I do not have the exact list of who was at that meeting. Do you?

  Mr Hannigan: I do not. We can come back on that.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: We can give you that, but I was not involved in that, it was Chris Wright and I guess officials from the Met.

  Q879  Mr Howard: At that meeting, discussions took place which were originally described by Mr McDowall, who gave evidence to us, as a negotiation between the police and Mr Wright as to the scope of the investigation.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: And if I remember rightly, in exactly the same hearings, he then withdrew that term.

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