My ConservativeHome colleagues have already covered yesterday’s debate on the Damian Green affair. But such is its significance that it is worth recording contributions from other Tory MPs. (The motion was introduced by Harriet Harman, the Leader of the House of Commons.)
Shadow Home Secretary made a crucial point, albeit that Sir Gerald Kaufman didn’t accept it.
"Since the passage of the Official Secrets Act 1989, the leaking of material not concerning national security has ceased to be a criminal offence. On what basis, therefore, is a civil servant arrested for that, and on what conceivable basis is my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) arrested? If the right hon. Gentleman starts by asking himself that question—which relates to a gift to civil liberty from the last Conservative Government—he will start to conclude very quickly that the basis for the police’s erupting into this place and searching a Member of Parliament’s offices is shaky in the extreme. That is why he should be very concerned about what has happened, particularly because all the normal processes and protections that should have operated—including the consulting of the Director of Public Prosecutions—never occurred.
Sir Gerald Kaufman: What puzzles me, in view of that bout of rodomontade from the hon. and learned Gentleman, is why he says that Christopher Galley should be sacked, because Christopher Galley appears to have been doing something which is hugely praiseworthy."
Former Home Secretary and Leader of HM Opposition Michael Howard weighed in too:
“to investigate suspected criminal offences in relation to a substantial series of leaks from the Home Office potentially involving national security and the impeding of the efficient and effective conduct of government.”
I particularly want to draw the House’s attention to that last phrase. So far as I am aware, it has never been a criminal offence to impede the efficient and effective conduct of government and nor should it be. I do not think that the police should have been called into investigate on that basis, and they should not have agreed to do so.
I have written to Mr. Ian Johnston, the chief constable of the British Transport police who is carrying out an inquiry into the police’s handling of the matter, and asked him to consider this point in his inquiry. I have written to the Minister in charge at the Cabinet Office to ask who in the Cabinet Office called in the police on that extraordinary basis and whether the Minister authorised or knew of that action."
Former Shadow Home Secretary David Davis further established his status as a doughty defender of civil liberties:
"Everybody agrees that nobody is above the law—not Members of Parliament, the police or the Government. I will not spend long discussing the police; I just point out the coruscating comments made about them by Geoffrey Robertson QC last week, which the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) reiterated. As for Members of Parliament, I cannot find an example in the past century of a Member of Parliament who has escaped the law, or proper prosecution, as a result of privilege, and I do not expect that to change as a result of what we do today.
I come to the point made by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman); I am sorry to say that he is not present. [Hon. Members: “He’s over there.”] Good; he may want to pay attention, because he said something that is completely wrong. When talking about the sequence of events that led to today’s debate, he said that it was incumbent on police to arrest Galley for what most of us would view as a disciplinary offence. Frankly, I find that use of the offence of misconduct in public office very worrying. I received an e-mail today—perfectly legally—from a recently retired senior police officer, who said the following about misconduct in public office:
“This is a catch-all or fall-back, flavour of the month, supposed offence that the Met, Thames Valley and at least one other police force”
“They have used it to contrive allegations of criminal conduct against a large number of public servants. Overwhelmingly, those investigated have faced years of debilitating investigation that has damaged their lives as well as their careers and the lives of their families but have faced no criminal charges of any kind or, even, disciplinary charges related to the supposed misconduct investigated.
In the vary rare convictions for the supposed serious criminal offence, the sentences have been the lightest tap on the wrist and all costs have had to be met by the Crown.”
I do not know whether or not that is true, but I must tell the Leader of the House that the Government should look at this carefully. If our Government or, more accurately, our police authorities are using that law as a weapon of intimidation that almost never comes to fruition, the country should be ashamed of that."
Later, Mr Davis made another excellent point:
“The privilege of freedom of speech enjoyed by Members of Parliament is in truth the privilege of their constituents. It is secured to Members not for their personal benefit but to enable them to discharge the functions of their office without fear of prosecution, civil or criminal.”
Those are the words of the House of Commons Privileges Committee in 1939, ruling on the Duncan Sandys case. I remind the House that he was threatened with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act not simply because he had received highly sensitive information about military weaknesses in the country but because he refused to help the authorities to identify the source of the leak. The Privileges Committee ruled in his favour, and ruled that he could not be prosecuted."
Another former Tory Leader, Iain Duncan Smith, spoke too:
"As I said in an intervention, we are having a police inquiry into what went on and what was wrong, but why are the police allowed to carry on when they still might proceed against my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green)? The police can decide what was right and wrong, but this House cannot. Is there one rule for the police and another for us? We have said that we are not above the law, but neither are the police. The absurdity is in the idea that we in the House have no courage, yet the Government have no courage that this place can behave sensibly or that the men and women on this Committee can take a decision about the effects of a prosecution or a lack of one for my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford.
We are discussing the serious issue of whether an MP has any form of protection in going about their natural duties. It may be that many are suspicious of what my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford was up to. It may be, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said, that what he did was too persistent and too political. I do not know. But I do know that we cannot have a Member of Parliament, of whatever political colour or hue, being investigated under a criminal charge by the police as though what that Member was doing was somehow damaging to national security. That is an absurdity. Members of Parliament must be free to go about their job. I ask Labour Back Benchers to think about whether they would behave as they are behaving tonight if they were in opposition. They have a chance tonight to tell the Government that they do not have a say in this matter. When the Executive wish to have their way, Members should always behave as if they were in opposition."
Conservative MPs are genuinely outraged by what has gone on, but are expressing their anger in a controlled, intelligent manner.