Richard Bacon MP: The Speaker has let us down in something of incalculable importance
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.