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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 880-899)


14 DECEMBER 2009

  Q880  Mr Howard: He did indeed, but that was the term that he originally used.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: And withdrew.

  Q881  Mr Howard: It would be most improper, would it not, for there to be any negotiation between the Government and the police about the scope of a criminal investigation?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: It is entirely for the police to decide on the scope of the investigation, but they wanted us to agree the terms of reference of their inquiry.

  Q882  Mr Howard: If it is entirely for the police to decide the scope of the investigation, why did Mr Wright write his second letter in which he said, "I confirm the scope of the investigation"?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Because they had said to us, "This is the scope that we have decided upon, we would like you to write to us—it was at their request that we wrote that letter—to say that you agree with that scope". It is a slightly odd way of doing things, but that is what they asked us to do.

  Q883  Mr Howard: At whose request?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: The police's request.

  Q884  Mr Howard: Whose request?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: I do not know exactly, but it came from the police, I could find out exactly who it was.

  Q885  Mr Howard: I suppose Mr Wright could tell us.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: It will be recorded, we can give you the exact name.

  Q886  Mr Howard: It would be recorded?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: I would have thought so.

  Q887  Mr Howard: That second letter of Mr Wright was described, if my recollection is correct, by Mr Johnston who gave evidence from the police as a letter which was unwise and which made him uneasy.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Well, this was a letter that was requested by the police. We talked to them about it. They wanted to be clear that they had set out a scope and terms of reference, and were we happy with that?

  Q888  Mr Howard: Was Mr Quick present at that meeting?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: I think he is giving evidence after me, is he not?

  Q889  Mr Howard: Yes, I am asking you so that I might know in advance of his giving evidence.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: I honestly do not know who was at that meeting—oh, it was with Cressida Dick.

  Mr Hannigan: To whom the letter was sent.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: So I would expect he would not have been, if Cressida Dick was there, but obviously he can answer.[1]

  Q890  Mr Henderson: Looking to the future, Sir Gus, we have heard that there are some circumstances where once the department or the Cabinet Office have looked at a particular issue, they would decide it is an internal matter and should be dealt with in disciplinary proceedings. We know at the other extreme that when a preliminary investigation takes place, that it could be a breach of the Official Secrets Act. We know in this case the suggestion was that there might be an offence of misconduct in public office, I think it is described as—

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: That is what the police decided—

  Q891  Mr Henderson: The police decided, but these are options. Looking to the future, do you think that there is a need for some lesser offence which would protect public information which was somewhere between an internal investigation with internal disciplinary consequences and this more serious offence of misconduct in public office? Would that protect the integrity of the department in a more effective way, and at the same time protect the rights of individuals to whistle blow where it was appropriate in accordance with the regulations; do you think that is necessary, is the current law adequate or not?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: I think the current law certainly has its issues for us, in terms of that misconduct in public affairs is, as you say—

  Mr Henderson: A 20-year sentence, possibly.

  Q892  Chairman: Technically life.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Life, exactly. I think the key for us will be to make sure our internal procedures are good and improve the use of internal investigators. Then when it comes to it, as you say, there will be a clear case where there is an Official Secrets Act violation, there will be clear cases which come nowhere near that, where it is a Civil Service internal matter. When it comes to the others, I would say those are difficult cases for us, and I do not know what the answer is. I am loath to say that you could solve those problems by another piece of legislation. There are probably members of this Committee who will be better able to judge, looking at the former Home Secretaries around the place, as to whether a legislative answer is the best answer. I am just not sure, is the honest truth.

  Q893  Chairman: Sir Gus, could I take you back to Mr Wright's letter, which—

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: The first one?

  Q894  Chairman: Yes, the one that bears the date 8 September but we know is 8 October. As I understand your earlier evidence, there had been a series of leaks which had raised questions of national security, and some of these had been investigated, and then there came the leaks which one might loosely describe as the Galley/Green leaks. If one looks at the opening sentence of that letter, he says: "I am writing to ask you whether you will consider agreeing to an investigation into a series of leaks, probably originating in the Home Office, which is causing considerable concern to the Cabinet Secretary." That sentence implies that this is the first time the police have been invited to consider these matters, rather than that there have been previous leaks which have also been the subject of investigation.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: This is an investigation into a series of leaks. This is the first time, if you like, putting them all together, because we are starting to think that it is possible that these leaks that we are getting of embarrassing material might actually be related to the previous national security leaks, so we might have a new way in. The point is our previous investigations into those national security leaks did not get anywhere. So I was thinking, was there something new here? Was this going to give us some evidence, taking the whole pattern of these leaks together, that might lead us to person or persons previously unknown?

  Q895  Chairman: But the police had been involved in some of the previous—

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: From the individual ones.

  Q896  Ann Coffey: As I understand it, when the police were investigating this offence of misconduct in public office, it was already clear that they were not investigating a breach of the Official Secrets Act. That was not what they were investigating, was it? I am not clear.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: I have no idea. We put to the police everything that had gone out, then they go off. I had no idea—

  Q897  Ann Coffey: So they decided that they were going to prosecute under—

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: No, the reason I find that slightly surprising is if you talk to the DPP about the kind of standards of evidence you would need to get a judgment in such a case, that is—so it seems to me very odd, so I think it very unlikely that that offence will be one that is used very much for this sort of subject.

  Q898  Ann Coffey: But it can be used for accumulating evidence clearly. I mean, given that there is this offence, a lot of civil servants could be prosecuted or investigated for misconduct in public life, and indeed Members of Parliament, enabling their offices to be searched, and in the process of that, something might be found, which might be interesting to a leak inquiry or something.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: It is possible, but like I say, I would think that you would need a pretty high threshold to want to get the police involved in an investigation.

  Q899  Ann Coffey: But they were involved in this investigation.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Yes, because there were a number of national security issues involved.

1   Note by witness: The Cabinet Secretary inadvertently gave an answer at Q889 to an earlier question (Q884). DAC Dick requested the letter. The Metropolitan Police's appointed Senior Investigating Officer attended the meeting. Back

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