If it can happen to Damian Green, what hope for the rest of us?

December 03, 2008 4:13 PM

The Speaker's statement today about the raiding of Damian Green MP's office by police contained some truly shocking revelations. Uppermost is the fact that apparently the Met anti-terrorism officers involved did not even have a warrant to search the office, and that they failed to fulfil their legal obligation to make that clear to Parliamentary officials.


This makes the scandal even more outrageous than it was before. The heavy implication of Speaker Martin's comments is that the police effectively duped Commons officials into giving their consent to the raid by not mentioning the fact that it was optional.


The officials involved - including the Speaker himself - are far from blameless here. They should never have just rolled over and played dead when approached about such a controversial constitutional issue. However, the fact that the police acted in this way is disgraceful and extremely worrying.


If an Opposition frontbencher can be subjected to this kind of treatment, and if the confidentiality of his constituents can be violated so severely, what hope is there for the rest of us?


As I mentioned, this is a constitutionally crucial issue that affects the heart of the democratic system, but it is also vitally important to the process of accountability. If you have had a problem with your local police force (perhaps they have raided your office and searched your emails without a warrant, to give a surely fantastical example) and your complaint has been dismissed, ignored or buried somewhere, who can you now go to to obtain justice and redress?


Before last week, you could feel sure that by writing to or emailing your Member of Parliament you would find a listening ear who would take it up without further interference from the police. Now, though, that is clearly not the case. Anyone in Damian Green's constituency who has complained about the police to him must now be feeling deeply insecure and undermined.


The same goes for other leakers. It is clearly in the interests of good democracy that if something is being covered up that ought to be known to the public, honourable public servants might leak it. Indeed, there is a defence of public interest acknowledged explicitly in the law on leaks (tellingly, the "offence" Green and his source have been arrested under does not happen to allow such a defence).


Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of this particular case, other leaks that might have been undeniably in the public interest will undoubtedly have been deterred by the heavy handed approach taken in the Green case. In that light, the approach that has been taken here looks a lot more like intimidation using the criminal justice system, designed to put off other potential leakers to the benefit of the Government and the detriment of democracy.


We should all be very worried by what has gone on here, particularly after Michael Martin's latest confessions. The fact that the public, the media and MPs are so incensed is a good sign that the issue is being treated with the seriousness it deserves. It is sad to note, though, that despite the bin snoopers, the boom of CCTV, the growth of the DNA database, the development of ID cards, the abuse of anti-terror laws by councils, council spy cameras hidden on public streets, the erosion of trial by jury and a hundred other violations of freedom in this country, it has taken an attack on their own personal offices and rights to get the majority of MPs up in arms. Now they are on-side, though, let us hope they take all our freedoms far more seriously.

The Speaker's statement today about the raiding of Damian Green MP's office by police contained some truly shocking revelations. Uppermost is the fact that apparently the Met anti-terrorism officers involved did not even have a warrant to search the office, and that they failed to fulfil their legal obligation to make that clear to Parliamentary officials.


This makes the scandal even more outrageous than it was before. The heavy implication of Speaker Martin's comments is that the police effectively duped Commons officials into giving their consent to the raid by not mentioning the fact that it was optional.


The officials involved - including the Speaker himself - are far from blameless here. They should never have just rolled over and played dead when approached about such a controversial constitutional issue. However, the fact that the police acted in this way is disgraceful and extremely worrying.


If an Opposition frontbencher can be subjected to this kind of treatment, and if the confidentiality of his constituents can be violated so severely, what hope is there for the rest of us?


As I mentioned, this is a constitutionally crucial issue that affects the heart of the democratic system, but it is also vitally important to the process of accountability. If you have had a problem with your local police force (perhaps they have raided your office and searched your emails without a warrant, to give a surely fantastical example) and your complaint has been dismissed, ignored or buried somewhere, who can you now go to to obtain justice and redress?


Before last week, you could feel sure that by writing to or emailing your Member of Parliament you would find a listening ear who would take it up without further interference from the police. Now, though, that is clearly not the case. Anyone in Damian Green's constituency who has complained about the police to him must now be feeling deeply insecure and undermined.


The same goes for other leakers. It is clearly in the interests of good democracy that if something is being covered up that ought to be known to the public, honourable public servants might leak it. Indeed, there is a defence of public interest acknowledged explicitly in the law on leaks (tellingly, the "offence" Green and his source have been arrested under does not happen to allow such a defence).


Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of this particular case, other leaks that might have been undeniably in the public interest will undoubtedly have been deterred by the heavy handed approach taken in the Green case. In that light, the approach that has been taken here looks a lot more like intimidation using the criminal justice system, designed to put off other potential leakers to the benefit of the Government and the detriment of democracy.


We should all be very worried by what has gone on here, particularly after Michael Martin's latest confessions. The fact that the public, the media and MPs are so incensed is a good sign that the issue is being treated with the seriousness it deserves. It is sad to note, though, that despite the bin snoopers, the boom of CCTV, the growth of the DNA database, the development of ID cards, the abuse of anti-terror laws by councils, council spy cameras hidden on public streets, the erosion of trial by jury and a hundred other violations of freedom in this country, it has taken an attack on their own personal offices and rights to get the majority of MPs up in arms. Now they are on-side, though, let us hope they take all our freedoms far more seriously.

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