Richard Bacon is Conservative MP for South Norfolk and a Member of the Public Accounts Committee. In this piece he contends that "a string of resignations" may be necessary to rectify the attack on Parliamentary sovereignty that last week’s raid on Damian Green’s Commons office represented.
The arrest of Damian Green is a catastrophe. It raises exceptionally serious questions about the behaviour of the police, the actions of both ministers and senior civil servants in the Home Office and the conduct of the Speaker of the House of Commons.
The right to oppose the government of the day is vastly more important than which political party happens to hold office. It is the cardinal fact which defines us as a free country.
If Damian Green were suspected of murdering someone, there would be no objection to gathering evidence where ever necessary. But this is not the case. He is an effective Opposition politician who has exposed facts which the government finds embarrassing and which the public has a right to know.
Ministers say they were kept in the dark about Green’s arrest. This is barely credible but if it is true then what were civil servants up to? Sir David Normington, the permanent under-secretary at the Home Office, is in the firing line because he should not have triggered the police investigation. And the police – in the person of Sir Paul Stephenson, the acting head of the Met Police – should have refused Normington’s request, telling him that leaks of unclassified documents were not a matter for the police.
Neither seems to have understood that we don’t do political arrests in
this country and that the legitimate job of the Opposition – paid for
by taxpayers – is to annoy the government and hold it to account. The
fact that civil servants thought ministers being annoyed was a reason
to call in the police is bad enough. The fact that the police should
think that ministers and senior civil servants being annoyed was enough
to warrant police action is truly alarming. Stephenson has shown that
he lacks sound judgement.
What is worst of all – profoundly shocking – is that the police should
search an MP’s office looking for material given to that MP by civil
servants. In common with other MPs, I have been sent material by civil
servants which it was in the public interest for everyone to know
about. As a member of the public accounts committee, I was sent a
dossier in 2006 by a civil servant who was distressed that foreign
workers were abusing the tax credit system to buy homes abroad. The
insider sent me documentary evidence that immigrants from eastern
Europe were coming to the UK, taking low-paid jobs and then applying
for tax credits. Once the claim had been set up, the fraudsters were
returning to their home country but the tax credit payments continued
to be paid into their bank accounts. They then used the money to buy
property in eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the experienced anti-fraud teams
in HM Revenue and Customs who could have helped the situation were
being made redundant to meet government efficiency targets.
I passed on the material to the National Audit Office for investigation
but I would not have tolerated the police snooping around my office
looking for it, which would have exposed the civil servant in
question. It is paramount that MPs can hold information without
fearing a knock on the door from the police.
What is truly surprising in this episode is that the Speaker of the
House of Commons allowed the search of an MP’s office to take place. I
cannot accept that this was the correct decision. It leaves me
wondering how I can have any confidence that the Speaker would defend
my right as a Member of Parliament to hold sensitive information
without the fear of a police raid.
If the Speaker knew about the proposed raid and gave clearance for it,
he made a dreadful mistake. If he didn’t know about the raid until it
was too late to stop it, then he still failed to defend the rights of
MPs. I have a sinking feeling that the Speaker has let us down in
something of incalculable importance and that it is now hard to see
what he is there for.
We have to know how this happened: exactly who gave permission for the
raid on Damian Green’s office at Westminster? The police would not
have taken this action without permission.
The only certain fact is that the raid occurred. It seems unlikely
that the granting of permission for a police raid would have been the
unaided decision of the Serjeant-at-Arms, Jill Pay. She is a servant
of the Speaker and would not have had authority to give permission
without consulting either the Speaker or the Clerk of the House.
The position of the Clerk of the House, Malcolm Jack, is central.
Either the Clerk of the House was consulted and he advised that the
raid should be permitted; or he was consulted and he advised that it
was not permissible but he was ignored; or he was not consulted. If he
was not consulted this would beg two questions: Why not? And why hasn’t
he said so?
The basic premise must be that the Clerk of the House would have been
consulted by the Speaker. If this is the case, then either the Speaker
went against the advice of the Clerk of the House, which is difficult
to believe, or the Clerk of the House advised that the raid was
permissible. The logic of the position is that the Clerk of the House
was consulted and advised that the raid was acceptable. And it
wasn’t. So his position may be in doubt.
The Leader of the House of Commons, Harriet Harman, appears to
understand the magnitude of what has happened. Senior Labour Party
figures such as David Blunkett and others have also expressed their
disquiet. Our political system can only operate if there is agreement
between the parties on certain fundamentals. One of these is that
those in government do not use the resources of the State to harry and
intimidate their opponents.
The Sessional Orders which the Speaker will read out on Wednesday at
the State Opening of Parliament refer to the “undoubted rights and
privileges” of MPs. This means something. It is of course true that so
long as the government commands a majority in the Commons it should get
its business after due debate. But on Wednesday, before we debate the
Queen’s Speech – which is after all just one legislative programme of
one particular government – we will need to debate something of much
more fundamental and lasting importance, which is the rights of MPs and
Parliament in our State.
We are not a free people by accident. It is the result of choices and
hard work and lives given in sacrifice. This whole business makes me
suspect that the ruling elite are losing respect for those in whose
interest they are meant to be functioning.
A parliamentary colleague has been arrested for doing his job. Making
this right and protecting our Parliament transcends everything else.
There may be the need for a string of resignations. It is imperative
that these events do not set a precedent but rather that they define
the point at which those responsible finally understand that they have
gone too far and that they must pay the price for having done so.