In the past few days there has been much pressure on me to make public comment about these matters, but I felt that it was right and fitting that I should make no comment until Parliament reconvenes, because it is this House and this House alone that I serve, as well as being accountable for the actions of its Officers. I should emphasise from the start that it is not for me to comment on the allegations that have been made against the hon. Member or on the disposal of those allegations in the judicial process.
I should also remind the House, as stated in chapter 7 of "Erskine May," that parliamentary privilege has never prevented the operation of the criminal law. [Interruption.] Order. The Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in its authoritative report in 1999 said that the precincts of the House are not and should not be
"a haven from the law".
There is therefore no special restriction on the police searching the parliamentary precincts in the course of a criminal proceeding—nor has there ever been.
On Wednesday last, the Metropolitan police informed the Serjeant at Arms that an arrest was contemplated, but did not disclose the identity of the Member. I was told in the strictest confidence by her that a Member might be arrested and charged, but no further details were given to me. I was told that they might be forthcoming the next morning.
At 7 am on Thursday, police called upon the Serjeant at Arms and explained the background to the case, and disclosed to the Serjeant the identity of the Member. The Serjeant at Arms called me, told me the Member's name and said that a search might take place of his offices in the House. I was not told that the police did not have a warrant. [Hon. Members: "Ah!"] Order. I have been told that the police did not explain, as they are required to do, that the Serjeant was not obliged to consent, or that a warrant could have been insisted upon. [ Interruption. ] Order. Let me make the statement. I regret that a consent form was then signed by the Serjeant at Arms, without consulting the Clerk of the House.
I must make it clear to the House— [ Interruption. ] Order. I must make it clear to the House that I was not asked the question of whether consent should be given, or whether a warrant should have been insisted on. I did not personally authorise the search. It was later that evening that I was told that the search had gone ahead only on the basis of a consent form. I further regret that I was formally told by the police only yesterday, by letter from Assistant Commissioner Robert Quick, that the hon. Member was arrested on
I have reviewed the handling of this matter. From now on, a warrant will always be required when a search—[Hon. Members: "Oh!"] Order. If the hon. Gentleman will let me finish—I have waited for four days. Some have been able to go on television; I have not had that luxury. I have not been able to speak to the media. A warrant will always be required when a search of a Member's office, or access to a Member's parliamentary papers, is sought. Every case must be referred for my personal decision, as it is my responsibility. All this will be made clear in a protocol issued under my name to all hon. Members.
Lastly, I have decided, myself, to refer the matter of the seizure by police of material belonging to the hon. Member for Ashford to a Committee of seven senior and experienced Members, nominated by me, to report as soon as possible. I expect the motion necessary to establish this Committee to be tabled by the Government for debate on Monday. I also expect a report of the Committee to be debated by this House as soon as possible thereafter.