Government Information — Statement

– in the House of Lords at 12:12 pm on 4th December 2008.

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Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Security and Counter-terrorism) 12:12 pm, 4th December 2008

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary entitled, "Investigation into unauthorised release of Government information". The Statement is as follows.

"With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the current police investigation into the unauthorised release of government information.

As has been widely recognised across the House, there are some very important principles at stake in this matter: that no one should be above the law; that the police should have the operational independence to conduct their investigations without fear or favour; that Members of this House should be able to do their work and be able to hold the Government to account; and that the impartiality of the Civil Service should be protected. Members of this House will, of course, understand our obligation not to prejudice an ongoing police investigation, but I will be as helpful as I can in my Statement.

On 8 October 2008, following consultation with the Home Office, the Cabinet Office requested the assistance of the Metropolitan Police Service in investigating a series of leaks. The request was made by the Cabinet Office as it has ultimate responsibility for the security and integrity of the working of government. No Cabinet Office Minister was involved in the decision.

The request followed a number of internal Home Office leak inquiries which had not identified the source of the leaks. There was concern that an individual, or individuals, in the Home Office with access to sensitive material were prepared to leak that information.

Faced with what appeared to be the systematic leaking of classified information over a sustained period, given the damage that it was doing to the effective conduct of government business and because of the sensitive issues, including national security, that the Home Office deals with, I agreed with the view of Sir David Normington, my department's Permanent Secretary, that it was essential to request police assistance in identifying the source of the leaks.

The sustained level of leaking that had already taken place clearly suggested that it could go on, would escalate, and that more information of greater sensitivity could leak. Since the request for police assistance was made, the Home Office has co-operated fully with the police investigation. A full list of relevant leaks, including those involving highly classified material, was passed to the police for their consideration.

As Acting Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, set out in his statement yesterday, after initial inquiries the Crown Prosecution Service was consulted. The police officers involved were satisfied that they had reasonable grounds to make an arrest of a junior Home Office civil servant.

On 17 November, I was informed by Sir David Normington that an arrest of a Home Office civil servant was likely in the next few days. On 19 November, the Home Office civil servant was arrested on suspicion of misconduct in public office. On 27 November, the police arrested the honourable Member for Ashford on suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office and aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office.

As the statement issued by Sir David Normington on 28 November made clear, he was informed by the police at about 1.45 pm on 27 November that a search was about to be conducted of the home and offices of a member of the Opposition Front Bench. Sir David was subsequently told that an arrest had been made. This was the first time that anyone in the Home Office was informed that a Member of this House was the subject of the police investigation.

I have made it clear that neither I nor any other government Minister knew until after the arrest of the honourable Member that he, or any other honourable Member, was the subject of a police investigation or was to be arrested. I hope that those who have asserted the contrary will now withdraw their claims. Let me be clear: even if I had been informed, I believe it would have been wholly inappropriate for me to seek to intervene in the operational decisions being taken by the police. I will not do that, and I should not do that.

On 1 December, I spoke to the Acting Commissioner to reassure myself that the investigation was being pursued diligently, sensitively and in a proportionate manner. Sir Paul informed me of his intention to set up a review of the handling of the case to date, which I welcomed. The following day he announced that Chief Constable Ian Johnston would conduct this review. In that telephone call with Sir Paul—as I have done previously, as I have done since, and as I will continue to do—I expressed my support for the operational independence of the police from political intervention.

No one in this House should doubt the sensitivity of that investigation, or the importance of the issues involved. I welcome your Statement yesterday, Mr Speaker, and your decision to set up a committee of seven Members of this House. Mr Speaker, your Statement also set out the circumstances in which the police asked for and gained consent to search the honourable Member for Ashford's parliamentary office. I spoke to Sir Paul Stephenson yesterday evening to seek his clarification of those events. Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick has subsequently written to me, setting out his understanding of the obligations that the Met were under and his account of the steps they took. I am placing a copy of that letter in the Library. Sir Paul also assured me that Ian Johnston's review will cover these issues.

I wholeheartedly support the right of every honourable Member to do their job, to hold the Government to account, and to make available information that is in the public interest, but the systematic leaking of government information raises issues that strike at the very heart of our system of governance. Such activity is not about merely creating political embarrassment, for myself or for any other Minister. Such activity threatens the respected role of the Civil Service in supporting our democracy in a politically impartial, honest and professional manner, and it drives a coach and horses through the Civil Service Code, which states that civil servants should act,

"in a way which deserves and retains the confidence of Ministers, while at the same time ensuring that you will be able to establish the same relationship with those whom you may be required to serve in some future Government".

All of us, on both sides of the House, have a right to expect that our vital role should be protected. We have a responsibility, too, to respect the law and uphold the proper workings of the Civil Service. I would be surprised—and indeed dismayed—if any honourable Member thought this was not the case.

I commend my Statement to the House".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Shadow Minister, Home Affairs 12:18 pm, 4th December 2008

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Home Secretary's Statement. It has taken a little while for her to make one, in the light of the inglorious events that have taken place in the name of her department, but I suppose that it is better to have one late than never.

I do not think that anybody would disagree with the four principles that the Home Secretary has identified. We heartily endorse her view that the police have no place in politics. It might be thought that this was a matter that largely affected only the other place—and, of course, it does, in that it was a Member of Parliament who found himself the subject of a police search on his office in the parliamentary estate as well as having his home and constituency premises done over. However, what happens in the other place is as relevant in this House, as both Houses are part of this bicameral Parliament and, therefore, should be subject to the same procedures and practices, one for the other. Therefore, this House is not a disinterested bystander.

The approach of those in authority in the other place to the prospect of an elected Member of Parliament's office being taken over, not just by the Metropolitan Police, but by the counterterrorism police to boot, should surely have raised the most enormous concern. Should the immediate reaction not have been that a decision as to whether the police should be permitted to do this was wholly outside the authority of any but the most senior legal and administrative brains of either House?

Can the Minister tell us what advice was taken either by the Speaker or the Serjeant at Arms from the highest legal sources, which are available to us in Parliament, as to the propriety of this raid? What details were given by the police to the House authorities to justify their seeking to take this unprecedented action? Why was a warrant, at least, not demanded before entry was permitted? We know that it was not. Do we know whether the police even had a warrant when they entered the honourable Member for Ashford's home and constituency office? Do we know whether the police went to a magistrate to seek such authority? If so, were they refused, or did they simply act on their own? Do we know what information was given to the Crown Prosecution Service, if it was consulted, about the offences of the honourable Member? Did anybody think to ask by whose authority the police were acting, or is it now a sine qua non that if unusual inquiries are being made they can take place if the counterterrorism police are involved? Will this be the fig leaf which covers other actions?

The Minister is a Minister for counterterrorism. Could I ask him directly whether he believes that the involvement of the counterterrorism police in this action could be justified as part of their duties to protect the state from acts of extreme violence? Does the Minister know what aspect of the allegations made against my honourable friend could even remotely have been construed as posing a threat to this country, particularly as the Prime Minister told the House of Commons that the action against the honourable Member for Ashford concerned a matter of "national security"? Really, my Lords?

Does the Minister agree that the procedures followed in another place failed lamentably to uphold the independence of Parliament? Volumes of words of disbelief as to these events have been said and written in the past few days, but no light has been shed on this aspect. Perhaps the Minister can do so now.

These investigations started with the Home Office. It was known that opposition Members had commented on four—it was just four—disclosures reported in the media. The Minister will remember that at least one of those, the employment of illegal immigrants by the security industry, resulted in a Statement by the Home Secretary, which we also considered in this place. It was clearly a matter of public interest and clearly did not undermine the security of the country, but it was obviously of considerable embarrassment to the Government and probably inconvenient to the Home Office. However, causing inconvenience is not a breach of security or beyond the duties of a Member of Parliament. Indeed, one might say that the duty of Members in opposition, both this party and the Liberal Democrats, is to do precisely that: to cause the Government inconvenience, particularly when they are trying to hide things that they do not want other people to know.

Does the noble Lord understand the disastrous impression of our democracy that the arrest of an opposition spokesman has on this country's reputation, and the fact that the Prime Minister was five times unable to condemn the seizure of the office of a Member of Parliament without a warrant on the parliamentary estate?

Parliamentary privilege should not be abused but nor should it be wilfully discarded. We are as much at risk in this House now as those in the other place are. Indeed, Members of your Lordships' House may have had confidential communications seized with the honourable Member for Ashford's correspondence, if you had been dealing with him on any particular matter. So it is imperative that this matter is now examined by the committee set up by the Speaker in the other place, which we hope will have full access to everyone involved in the affair.

This House will not be content simply to follow whatever arrangements are put in place there to close the stable door. The Committee for Privileges, on which noble and learned Lords are represented, must review the protection of the rights of Members of your Lordships' House. Yesterday the Leader of the House said that she had called for a report. We expect that report to be full and thorough.

Parliament has been brought into disrepute by the cack-handed handling of this matter. It must be resolved quickly now so that its reputation as a place of high principle is not dented further by the Government who lead it.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Home Affairs 12:26 pm, 4th December 2008

My Lords, we on these Benches do not think that anyone should be above the law—not MPs, not Members of your Lordships' House, not civil servants. We do not, however, yet know what the situation is. We have heard about a leaking of classified information which threatens national security, and that would of course be very serious, but the Statement also speaks about sensitive information, including information about national security. It is not at all clear whether that means information which should be kept secret or information which should be in the public domain but is embarrassing. It is not clear whether we are talking about a crime or an embarrassment.

The Statement also talks about there being evidence of damage to the effective conduct of government business. That may be so. As the dust settles, however, we on these Benches will be looking again equally at all the evidence showing that the failure to allow the Opposition to conduct their business effectively—by, for example, not answering questions properly, fully or in a timely manner—can lead to the neutering of effective opposition. Indeed, in the previous Session I had to write to the Leader of the House asking for her assistance to ensure timely answers to Questions. She was very helpful and did her best in the circumstances, but that is only one example. If the Opposition's ability to hold the Executive to account is weakened, Parliament's role will fall into question.

The line between whistleblowing and civil servants breaking the law should be very clear. The Statement describes misconduct in public office as the offence. That is a very wide. My noble friend Lord McNally reminded the House yesterday that we on these Benches have repeatedly called for a Civil Service Bill. This episode simply underlines the urgent need for such legislation and the need to properly protect whistleblowers, who can play a vital role in the life of a democracy.

As the Minister will know, we on these Benches are also hugely concerned about the misuse of counterterrorism powers. This is yet another example of a case in which the police have too lightly turned to these powers. The Minister will also be aware of several other instances which we cited in earlier debates where we questioned the use of counterterrorism measures to deal with other matters. It is a theme to which we shall return time and again, not only in reply to the gracious Speech but in discussing all the statutory instruments that will flood out of the most recent counterterrorism legislation.

Of course we welcome the review by Chief Constable Ian Johnston; I am sure that it will be helpful in clearing up various matters. As for the roles of the Speaker and the Serjeant at Arms, I do not think that it is a matter for this House to comment on until we have had at least the report from the committee in another place. However, we very much welcome both the comments that the Leader of this House made yesterday and the statement that the report on the position of this House and its Members will be completed as soon as possible. That is very helpful because the role of this House is no less of an issue. The Government are held more rigorously to account here—partly because we can discuss Bills in much greater detail, as we have no guillotine, and partly because we can still defeat the Government in the Division Lobbies.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Security and Counter-terrorism) 12:31 pm, 4th December 2008

My Lords, first, the Statement was made by my right honourable friend in the other place at the first available opportunity. Obviously, events transpired over the period during which Parliament had prorogued and before the Queen's Speech. It is therefore unfair to say that there has been rather a long delay; the Statement is in fact very prompt, bearing in mind all those parameters.

I am glad to say that I was certainly totally unaware that this matter was going on or was about to happen, which perhaps shows that I should be more aware of what is happening around me. What has struck me in the course of all of this is that I have never heard so many people—the media and everyone—saying so much about something about which they do not know any of the facts at all. We do not know the facts because there is an ongoing police investigation; I am certainly not aware of all the current details.

The other thing that I need to knock on the head, because it is talked about so often, is this issue of the use of counterterrorist police. It is just not the case, as was made clear by acting Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson. Historically, Special Branch would always have investigated these things. Over a period of more than 20 years in Whitehall, I have been aware of Special Branch officers going into departments and investigating things. Special Branch has now been amalgamated with the counterterrorist police; they are now all part of the Counter Terrorism Command. That was done to rationalise and for cost-effectiveness.

The normal Special Branch police who would have investigated this have done so. They are not counterterrorist police. They are not investigating on the basis of counterterrorism but under part of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. It might appear to be a counterterrorism issue because of what they are called; maybe we should call them by another name. However, that is where Special Branch has gone. It is in that group, but it is absolutely not a counterterrorist issue. It is important to realise that, because it is talked about continually as part of the "surveillance society" issue and all that sort of thing.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, asked for the detail of what actions had been taken by the Speaker. I am not aware of those, and I must be wary because that is a matter for the Speaker. It is important that we in the Lords do not answer on behalf of the other place. However, importantly, I have spoken to Black Rod and he has told me that, if the police arrived here, he would stop them on the boundaries of this place. He would then talk to the Lord Speaker, the Clerk of Parliaments and perhaps the Leader of the House, and take advice before allowing anything to happen. That is what would happen in this House; it is not appropriate for us to tell the other place what it should say.

On the details of the warrants, the best thing would probably be to look at Assistant Commissioner Quick's response to the Home Secretary, which has been put in the Library of the House. A warrant is not needed to search a parliamentary office, but there is a lot of detail in there as to exactly why that is the case. Other warrants were issued for other premises, but the detail is all in that response. It is best to read that, because when the Serjeant at Arms gave permission, and so on, is quite complicated. Rather than go into that detail here, it would be well worth noble Lords reading that interesting document.

On who is running the inquiry itself, it is the Metropolitan Police Service. It was called in by the Cabinet Office, which had overall responsibility

Let us be clear. This man—who has now been in the papers, so I think I can name him—Christopher Galley, had been three years at the Home Office. For two and a half years there had been continual, systematic leaks of documents; he said that in his own statement. Clearly, the Home Office and the Cabinet Office were very concerned about this. It is not how one should do business, and not something that one can put up with. The Cabinet Office was therefore asked to look into it by our Permanent Secretary in the Home Office, Sir David Normington. The Cabinet Office said, "Right, we think this is so serious that we should call in the police". The Metropolitan Police Service was called in and started doing its checks. It is absolutely appropriate that it should do so.

There has been a lot of talk about specific national security issues. Overall, one must be extremely careful. There are a number of highly sensitive things in our department. Most of them are well protected; for example, in my outer office, only those who are specially cleared for such things can access them. However, if you have someone who works in various private offices, we all know that one can somehow, sometimes, get a view of something. The Metropolitan Police were absolutely right in looking at the worst-case scenario, looking at all the leaks and thinking that there had been so many that there was a possible risk.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said that this issue gives a disastrous impression to the world. Again, we must be careful when we have a lack of knowledge of these things. The Metropolitan Police Service knows more about this than I do, and I cannot talk about it in any detail—I would not expect to know the detail. If the police service believes that what it is doing is absolutely right in operational terms, it should do that. We must be careful in making certain comments about these things before actually seeing the outcomes. It is right that the Prime Minister should be careful about making judgments on whether things were right or not, because it is an ongoing investigation. He has to be careful not to make a statement at this stage.

I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that it is the duty of Parliament to hold the Government to account. I think that that is done rather well in this Chamber at times. That is a healthy thing and rather good; I could not agree more. However, I go back to the point that the systematic leak of documents that was going on undermines the whole basis of government and the Civil Service itself. It is appalling. It is not just a bit of whistle-blowing. Any of us could understand someone breaking the rules, and going out and offering up an item that they felt was fundamental to our nation. However, systematically to give out information over two and a half years is a completely different thing.

I am afraid that I cannot talk in more detail on the investigation. My right honourable friend made her Statement as quickly as she could. I hope that it has made things as clear as is possible at this stage. I cannot really make judgments about what happened in the other place but I hope, having spoken to Black Rod about it, that I have given a clear account of what would happen in the Lords.

Photo of Lord Lloyd of Berwick Lord Lloyd of Berwick Chair, Ecclesiastical Committee (Joint Committee), Chair, Ecclesiastical Committee (Joint Committee) 12:38 pm, 4th December 2008

My Lords, I can be brief. The noble Lord referred to the phrase in the Statement about systematic leaking over a number of years of government material. Was any of the material so leaked "sensitive", in the sense in which we all understand the word? Was the material in any sense a threat to national security?

What other reason would there have been for supposing that sensitive material might be leaked in the future? If there was any such reason, surely the sensible course would have been to ensure that the person responsible for the leaks did not have access to sensitive material? It ought not to be beyond the bounds of possibility for the Home Office to make that happen.

Under what provision of the law was Damian Green arrested? Was there any application for a warrant to search his house? I put on one side the question of searching his office in the House of Commons. Was any warrant applied for, or was there any thought of applying for one, before his house was investigated? Did the Crown Prosecution Service give any advice to the police on whether they could search his house without a warrant? I am repeating questions already asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, but I should like answers.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Security and Counter-terrorism)

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord talked about keeping someone separated from sensitive areas so that he could not have access to them. Of course, we did not know who was doing this. We knew that there had been a whole series of leaks going on over a long period. We did not know who was doing that or where they were coming from. That is why, as I say, the Permanent Secretary went to the Cabinet Office to discover that. The Metropolitan Police Service investigation is now highlighting what documents were released by this person. We do not know exactly what he has sent out. As a result of the investigation, we will know whether any of it was of a sensitive nature. As I say, we do not know that. People have highlighted one or two issues but, as I say, this has been going on over a prolonged period and involves a huge amount of information. So, we do not know and will not know until the MPS investigation is completed.

As regards the warrants, I refer the noble and learned Lord to the letter from Assistant Commissioner Quick, which I believe sets out that warrants were applied for in respect of other places but not for Parliament. However, all the detail is laid out in the letter, which is in the Library of the House.

Photo of Lord Jopling Lord Jopling Conservative

My Lords, the Minister has told us, in what appeared to be very carefully drafted words, that the police involvement was instigated by the Cabinet Office. He went on to say that no Minister in the Cabinet Office was informed of it at that time. But can he give us an absolute assurance that at that time, and shortly afterwards, no other Minister in the Government was informed, and if he does not know that, will he make a statement on it as soon as possible?

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Security and Counter-terrorism)

My Lords, to the best of my knowledge, no other Minister was aware of this, apart from the Home Secretary, and she informed the Prime Minister when the arrest was being made, which I think was on the 19th. She was the only one who was aware that these investigations were going on. However, I will check that and get back to the noble Lord in writing.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour

My Lords, I declare an interest as I represented civil servants for 20 years, for the last eight of which as general secretary of the First Division Association. I pressed very hard for the introduction of a Civil Service Code. That code was introduced by the party opposite shortly before it left office in 1997. I express concern—and ask my noble friend whether he agrees with me—that it now seems to dismiss that code so very lightly. The code is there for a very good reason. In dealing with standards of behaviour, it says unequivocally to civil servants:

"You must not ... disclose official information without authority".

It does not say, "You must not disclose sensitive official information" or "You must disclose information you may think impinges upon security", but "You must not do it". It goes on to say:

"You must serve the Government, whatever its political persuasion, to the best of your ability in a way which maintains political impartiality and is in line with the requirements of this Code, no matter what your own political beliefs are".

That is an enormously important point. It goes on to say:

"You must not act in a way that is determined by party political considerations, or use official resources for party political purposes".

This code maintains Ministers' confidence that what they say or the material they may have in their office will not be handed out by civil servants. I hope that the party opposite will say that it believes that—because what the noble Baroness said implied that she did not believe it—and I ask my noble friend to confirm his belief in the code. I hope that he will do so.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

My Lords, I intervene because I have been severely traduced by the noble Baroness opposite. I did not make any implication at all about the Civil Service. The complaints that we have made here were largely about the arrest of a Member of Parliament.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour

My Lords, I say to the noble Baroness that she—

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council (Privy Council Office)

My Lords, I listened carefully to both contributions. I understand that the noble Baroness feels that she has been severely traduced. I think that my noble friend was talking in much more general terms about comments which had been made by the party opposite and not by the noble Baroness.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Security and Counter-terrorism)

My Lords, I agree absolutely with my noble friend Lady Symons as regards the Civil Service Code. It is an excellent document, introduced by the party opposite. I agree entirely that the code is good and sound. I find it hard to believe—and therefore I don't believe it—that the party opposite does not believe that it is a good code. We should be in no doubt that the civil servants in the Home Office to whom I have talked feel severely let down by this person. They think that he has really let the Civil Service down. They are shocked because they feel that what has happened is so wrong. I feel the same. My father was a career civil servant and ended up as a senior civil servant. This goes against all the things that I knew he believed in as regards how civil servants should act. The code says very clearly that civil servants must not misuse their official position and that their personal and political views must not determine anything. That is absolutely right. As I say, it is a very good code. I am sure that it was broken by this young man, Christopher Galley, for whatever reason. At the moment he is suspended on full pay, and one needs to think what will happen to him. It is extremely unfortunate.

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative

My Lords, I am not able to speak for my party, but I personally am entirely in favour of the Civil Service Code. It seems to me the only basis upon which Ministers and civil servants can interact. However, it is not a criminal code. The criminal code introduced in this area was the Official Secrets Act, and that also was passed through Parliament. Having regard to the fact that the Official Secrets Act criminalises certain activities as regards disclosing confidential government information, does that area also remain covered by a common law offence that has been mentioned in connection with this inquiry? I do not know whether the Government have taken a view on this; if not, they probably ought to. Certainly, they have the highest legal advice available to them, if it is required. The question is not whether a breach of the Civil Service Code is misbehaviour—that is absolutely clear to me—but whether it is criminal conduct of a kind that justifies police action. That is a separate question. Does the common law offence that has been mentioned—and which the Statement mentions—also operate in the same area as the Official Secrets Act?

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Security and Counter-terrorism)

My Lords, clearly, the charging and the charges that are being put together are being done on the advice of the Crown Prosecution Service and are not a matter for government. I do not want to get too involved in what those charges should be. We have to step back from this. I am afraid that I am not able to answer in detail the point about the common law linkage and the charge of criminal conduct mentioned in the Statement, and how that relates to the counterterrorism one. If I may, I shall get back to the noble and learned Lord on that in writing. As I say, this is a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service, which was consulted and talked to very early on in the Metropolitan Police Service investigation. That is exactly how these things should go forward.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Labour

My Lords, I do not want to comment on the police action because, as my noble friend said, we do not yet have the information on that. Does my noble friend agree with my assessment of the original problem, which is the nature of the leak? This House has many former Ministers, indeed very many former senior Ministers in it. All of us have had private offices; they have been family, in which there is complete loyalty and safe space. As I understand it, the young man involved was an APS, possibly a diary secretary, probably the most junior of the junior people in a private office. Therefore there could be no issue of whistle blowing, because above him would have been the Private Secretary of the office, above that the Private Secretary of the Secretary of State and above that the Permanent Secretary. That is the route for whistle blowing that we all want to honour and respect. Instead, what appears to have been going on is systematic leaking.

As a former Minister, I wonder how I would feel if someone in my private office had been leaking to the shadow opposition spokesman with the apparent encouragement of that shadow spokesman—I have no knowledge of whether that was the case. How would the other former Ministers in the Chamber feel about that betrayal of loyalty and safe space, which is at the heart of the private office?

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Lord Speaker

My Lords, before the Minister answers, perhaps it would assist the House if I remind it of the terms of the Companion on dealing with Statements. It states:

"Ministerial statements are made for the information of the House, and although brief comments and questions from all quarters of the House are allowed, statements should not be made the occasion for an immediate debate".

I thought it might be helpful to remind the House of that on this occasion.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Security and Counter-terrorism)

My Lords, I have great sympathy with the comments of my noble friend. I have had a number of private offices as well, and her view of that aspect of trust is extremely important. There is a procedure for whistle blowing, through the line management and through the Civil Service Commissioner. It is clearly laid out how that can be done. I have been in a situation where a civil servant in one of the organisations that I was in did it that way, it worked, and it did not have any repercussions on that person. My noble friend is absolutely right that this is an issue of trust, and this has been a systematic and long-term release of information. I cannot make any comment about relationships with anyone else. That is part of the ongoing police investigation.

One has to be interested that this young man entered the Civil Service, I think, from Oxbridge, going in at a very low post, and almost his entire time in the Civil Service he has been leaking information. That is highly regrettable and very bad for the Civil Service. It has really upset civil servants in the Home Office and probably more generally.

Photo of Lord Butler of Brockwell Lord Butler of Brockwell Crossbench

My Lords, I endorse what has been said about the obligations of civil servants to protect the confidences of the Government and of the state. Will the Minister confirm that, although the Cabinet Office and the Home Office may refer a matter to the police, it is at the discretion of the police and the prosecuting authorities whether they undertake an investigation? It is not a matter either for the Civil Service or for a politician. Does the fact that action was taken under suspicion of misconduct in public office rather than under the Official Secrets Act suggest that at that time the police had no prima facie evidence of the compromise of documents relating to national security?

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Security and Counter-terrorism)

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Butler, is absolutely right that it is up to the Metropolitan Police Service and the Crown Prosecution Service to put together a charge, and it has nothing whatever to do with Ministers. Regarding the second question, again, because this is an ongoing investigation, I cannot give a clear answer to that. I am rather constrained as to what I can say.

Photo of Lord Lawson of Blaby Lord Lawson of Blaby Conservative

My Lords, since the noble Baronesses opposite have mentioned former Ministers, perhaps I may say that both of them have completely missed the point, and the Minister is in danger of missing the point. Of course, except in the most extreme circumstances, leaks are completely unacceptable.

I have experience of this as Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1985, my Budget Statement was leaked in extenso to Mr Hamish McRae of the Guardian. That was market-sensitive information that had considerable adverse consequences. I spoke to the Permanent Secretary, who suggested that the police should be brought in and there should be a police inquiry. I said, "If you think so, that is fine", and the police were brought in. There was no question of public interest at all behind the leak, because the whole contents were to be made public 24 hours later. The police investigated, and they did not find the miscreant.

It never occurred to me or my Permanent Secretary that there should be any attempt to get at or even prosecute Mr Hamish McRae of the Guardian. The question was to find out who was leaking and to take any necessary steps against him. What was the purpose behind the police arrest of Mr Damian Green and behind the search of his offices? That had nothing to do with it. What was the purpose of that, other than intimidation of the most disreputable kind?

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Security and Counter-terrorism)

My Lords, far from me missing the point, I am afraid that the noble Lord is missing the point. Ministers do not prosecute. The MPS is investigating this and, presumably, in its investigation it went down a route where it felt that it was important to find data that was held by the honourable Damian Green. It has done that; Ministers have had nothing to do with this. Ministers have kept their hands off this, because it is the operational duty of the Metropolitan Police Service to do that. It was first raised by the Permanent Secretary in the Home Office with the Cabinet Office, because there had been systematic leaks over a prolonged period and there were very real concerns. You cannot run and govern things—you cannot run an organisation—if someone is releasing documents day after day. Therefore, the Cabinet Office decided to call in the Metropolitan Police, and it took over with an investigation. It has been totally up to the police where it has gone. It would be improper for us to intervene in that.

Photo of Lord Elystan-Morgan Lord Elystan-Morgan Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this case brings together a bundle of constitutional principles of massive worth and significance, but that they do not all point in the same direction? There is the question of the independence of Members of both Houses of Parliament. There is the question of the right of a department to privacy. There is the question of the independence of the police. There is the question of the sanctity of private papers of Members of Parliament and their offices. Indeed, there is the question of the letter of the law. None of those is of absolute sovereignty but must be looked at in apposition to all the others and to all the circumstances of the case.

With the indulgence of the House, I shall make one further point. Was not the conduct of Mr Boris Johnson utterly reprehensible? The chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority commented on an operational matter, which is something that no member of a police authority should ever consider doing.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Security and Counter-terrorism)

My Lords, the noble Lord points out the sheer complexity of this, in his normal eloquent fashion, and he is absolutely right. On the second issue, I was more than rather surprised about what the Mayor of London has done. That was wrong, and that is partly why I am being so reticent and careful in what I am saying, because I do not want to be guilty of doing exactly the same thing. It was ill judged and not a very clever thing to do.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, is there not a clear distinction between a leak by a civil servant on an issue of conscience and induced, systematic leaking by a civil servant?