COMMITTEE CALLS FOR CHANGE IN WAY POLICE HANDLE POLITICALLY SENSITIVE CASES
New protocols required in wake of case of search and arrest of MP
The police should adopt a new protocol setting out the exceptional circumstances under which any politician should be kept informed of developments in an ongoing police operation, says the Home Affairs Committee in a report released today, Thursday 16 April 2009.
The Committee says that in such politically sensitive cases all decisions made may be subject to question and interpretation and in such circumstances it concludes that it would "be sensible not to keep politicians informed during police operations".
The Committee noted that the Standards Committees of the Greater London Authority and Metropolitan Police Authority found that the Mayor of London Boris Johnson had not breached their code of conduct, but some of his actions were unwise, and his motives could have been misinterpreted.
The Committee also received evidence that the Home Secretary and other Ministers were not informed of the search or arrest of Damian Green MP until after it had taken place.
The police investigations were led by Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick, who resigned last week over unrelated issues surrounding a separate terrorism investigation. In evidence to the committee, AC Quick admitted that "our attempts to soften the impact of our operational decisions made the operation more unwieldy than it might otherwise have been."
In its inquiry - the only active Parliamentary inquiry into the circumstances surrounding a series of suspected leaks of sensitive material from the Home Office and the resulting search of the offices and arrest of Mr Green - the Committee wished to investigate specifically the starting point for the police inquiries, and the wider conduct of the investigation by the police. The Committee attempted to discover all the contacts made between the key players in the case: the police, the CPS, the Leader of the Opposition, Government officials and Ministers and the Chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority Boris Johnson, who is also Mayor of London.
The Committee expresses concerns about some of the circumstances surrounding the involvement of the police in the investigations. It says that leaks are corrosive and cannot be condoned, but that growing frustration in the Home Office and Cabinet Office about the leaks may have led officials to give an exaggerated impression of the damage done by them, and that it was "unhelpful to give the police the impression that the Home Office leaker(s) had already caused considerable damage to national security". The Committee recommends that the Cabinet office review its guidance on leak inquiries so that the police are called in only when there is clear evidence that a criminal offence under the Official Secrets Act has been committed.
The Committee welcomed the decision of the Home Secretary to hold a wide ranging review of the circumstances surrounding this case and considers that this review which will be conducted once any court cases resulting from it have finished, should cover the approach within Government, the procedures adopted by the police, and all the issues addressed in the Committee's report.
The Committee called on the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to publish as soon as practicable the report by Ian Johnson into these circumstances so that lessons may be drawn from this case more widely.
Chairman of the Committee Rt Hon Keith Vaz MP said:
This case has raised a series of serious questions about the way such extraordinary and politically sensitive cases are dealt with, and exposed what is perhaps a lack of readiness or preparation in such circumstances.
It is regrettable that there should have been any misunderstanding over the issue of consent to search Parliamentary premises, and we hope the Protocol issued by the Speaker in the wake of this operation is one of the lessons learned that will help the police and all parties determine the right processes to follow. We also welcome the Home Secretary's review.
Although we understand that the police were anxious to operate discreetly, some of their efforts may actually have complicated the situation. 24 police officers, and a number of strategy groups, including some of the most senior police officers in the country were involved in the investigation, strategy, arrest of Mr Green and searching of his office. Despite this they even had to ring the Leader of the Opposition to ask for his help in locating Mr Green who was eventually found in Kent. This owed more to the 'Keystone Kops' than 'Softy Softly'.
Once a police operation is under way politicians should only be informed of operational matters in exceptional circumstances or their actions may be open to misinterpretation. They should treat the information they receive as strictly confidential. These exceptional circumstances should be the subject of a new protocol."