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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 900-919)


14 DECEMBER 2009

  Q900  Ann Coffey: But that was because of your concern about a series of leaks, not in this particular incident.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Remember, we did not know at that point where this would go.

  Q901  Sir Alan Beith: But that raises an interesting question: Mr Galley was identified in the scoping exercise on 31 October, and on 15 November, it was decided that he could not remain at work, yet it was not until around 25 November that the process which led to the search of Mr Green's office was cranked into action, and at that stage, of course, the impression was given to some in the House, including Mr Speaker, that a major counter-terrorism investigation was going on. Surely between 31 October, probably before it, and that date, some assessment had been made of Mr Galley's access, and of the particular materials that were under discussion.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Well, I was not involved in that at all. That was a matter for the police.

  Q902  Sir Alan Beith: Are you surprised that the police did not come to you at some point within that period, or to Mr Wright, and say, "Well, we are not getting anywhere on the national security aspects, we are quite interested in investigating whether there was an offence of misconduct in public office about the procuring of leaks from the department", which is actually what they said at one stage to the authorities in the House they were doing, but a wholly different matter from an Official Secrets Act leak. Is it not surprising that they did not come to you at some point?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: I can be clear that if they had come to me, and they made clear there was no national security part, and they were talking about the offence you have talked about, I would have said firstly go and talk to the Crown Prosecution Service, because personally I would be very, very surprised if there is anything there, and secondly, if it is only these areas that do not involve national security, my indication would be you are probably wise to consider halting the investigation.

  Q903  Sir Alan Beith: Really, the ball would have been back in your court then for a Civil Service investigation.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Absolutely, which is where it ended up, which is exactly right, and the Civil Service disciplinary procedure took place.

  Mr Hannigan: I think the new protocol does build in a process by which the police could do that in future cases. It is very difficult, under the old system, for the police to have any contact with civil servants during an investigation.

  Q904  Sir Alan Beith: Just to clarify a bit of language you used earlier, because it did worry me, in response to an earlier question from Mr Howard, you seemed to imply that damaging the conduct of Government business was a category which embraced breaches of the Official Secrets Act. Although you can use that as a use of language, there is a quite clear distinction between the two concepts. The revision of the Official Secrets Act itself is based on the principle that you draw a clear distinction between the protection of information which must be protected for national security and the various other kinds of leaking and disclosing which may be damaging in various ways but are not within that protective order.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Absolutely, and we very clearly understand that rewrite of the Official Secrets Act.

  Q905  Sir Alan Beith: So your earlier response might have been more felicitously phrased to reflect that distinction?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: If I gave the wrong impression, I apologise.

  Q906  Ms Hewitt: I just want to come back to this earlier point: in your opening statement, I think, Sir Gus, I remember you saying that you and Sir David Normington discussed and then agreed that you would call in the police. You did so because of the concern about the national security implications of the earlier set of leaks, and you used a phrase, something along the lines of "there might have been criminal offences committed". You had the Official Secrets Act in mind at that point, not misconduct in public office?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: No, certainly not misconduct in public office, because to the best of my knowledge, that had never been used before, for this sort of issue.

  Q907  Ms Hewitt: Was it suggested by the police to the Cabinet Office before the terms of reference were agreed, or was it that at that point, there was still a lack of clarity about what if any criminal offences might have been committed, and that is why the first point of the terms of reference was to assess whether any criminal offences had been committed?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Exactly, it was simply about assessing whether any had taken place, so it was not a question of what charges might be brought at that point.

  Q908  Ms Hewitt: So there was no reference to misconduct in public office at that point?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: That is right.

  Q909  Ann Coffey: Maybe it is something we should ask Mr Quick when he comes: if there had not been this offence of misconduct in public office, this catch-all thing which the police had been investigating, what would they have been investigating?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Well, they were investigating possible Official Secrets Act.

  Q910  Ann Coffey: At what point do you think that would have then led them to arrest Damian Green and search his offices?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Well, I presume, if they had had some serious evidence suggesting a breach of the Official Secrets Act. Well, exactly. The person who would be guilty of the breach of the Official Secrets Act would be the leaker.

  Q911  Sir Alan Beith: The receiver could be guilty, could he not?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: The receiver could be, indeed, yes, but we did not know what evidence they had. So I am afraid you will have to ask the police about that.

  Ann Coffey: We will do.

  Q912  Mr Howard: Just one more question, Sir Gus, on the letter from Mr Wright, which specifically refers to you. You have talked about the previous occasions in which the police had been asked to investigate; was this the first time that you yourself had got personally involved?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Yes, in that what we had was a situation where they wanted to look not just at an individual matter but across the whole pattern of these leaks, which might have gone across a number of departments, so it was felt to be important enough to involve the Cabinet Secretary.

  Q913  Mr Howard: So you have a series of leaks which you say involved a breach of national security, and then a series of leaks which do not involve a breach of national security, and it is at that point that you get involved?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Because they thought that the latter group might have given us some real insight into the source of the former group, the source or sources.

  Q914  Chairman: For Mr Galley to have access to material described as secret, what degree of vetting would he have been required to undergo?

  Mr Hannigan: SC, as it is commonly called, which is security clearance vetting.

  Q915  Chairman: Had he been promoted into a position at which he had access to secret material?

  Mr Hannigan: That I do not know, I am afraid.

  Q916  Chairman: As a civil servant rises and becomes closer to more sensitive material, is there a procedure for vetting at each of those stages of promotion?

  Mr Hannigan: Yes, vetting is tied to the post and the job, the requirements of the job, so particularly as he had been involved in private offices, it is normal for people in ministerial private offices to have SC at least.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: I would stress, it is not related to grade. As I am sure all the Ministers in this room would agree, you may well have relatively junior people having access to—

  Q917  Chairman: Because they are in the private office, where everything may be discussed?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Absolutely. They have access to it as well.

  Q918  Chairman: Is there anything you want to add, Sir Gus?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: No, thank you.

  Q919  Chairman: Mr Hannigan?

  Mr Hannigan: No, thank you.

  Chairman: We are very grateful to both of you, thank you very much.

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