The Damian Green affair: the questions we really need to ask

December 3, 2008 5:33 PM

This week, in one of those theatrical ceremonies Westminster does so well, the Queen's messenger Black Rod has the door to the House of Commons slammed in his face. The message from the Commons is that he shouldn't try any funny business like arresting MPs and put at risk hundreds of years of parliamentary freedom.

This year, the irony is that Tory MP Damian Green has already been arrested and his parliamentary office raided without a search warrant for his alleged involvement in the leaking of Home Office documents by civil servant Christopher Galley. No great state secrets were at stake, only politically embarrassing information about immigration. And the Speaker of the House of Commons, entrusted with guarding those parliamentary freedoms, apparently failed to do so.

The parallels with the case of GCHQ employee Katharine Gunn will not be lost on Cheltonians - including many who are expected to obey the Official Secrets Act and the Civil Service code, and do so without complaint.

Are civil liberties an issue? Yes. But is it a simple matter of civil liberties affronted? Not quite.

Complications begin with the fact that Mr Galley is a former Conservative candidate who leaked not into the public domain (like Ms Gunn) but only to his own political party. And he seems to have done so before using any of the proper internal procedures open to all civil servants when they discover uncomfortable facts.

And parliamentary privilege - freedom from prosecution - has only ever extended to what MPs say in the chamber of the House. It doesn't put us above the law.

But MPs, like doctors, lawyers, journalists and others, do hold in their files extremely sensitive information about people and institutions - including, from time to time, the police themselves. We should be protected from heavy-handed police action which threatens to undermine our work and might inhibit us from taking up important issues. Without such protection, we really are on the path towards a police state.

The questions that really need to be asked about the Damian Green affair are these:

• Have this government let us drift into a society where the police feel free to arrest and raid the offices not just of terrorist suspects but of largely law-abiding public servants when an interview would have done? Is the kind of personal and confidential information which British citizens sometimes share with MPs and others more at risk than any of us realised?

• What protection is there for those civil servants or others who want to expose genuine wrongs and is it clear enough to them when this protection kicks in and when, by contrast, they will simply be judged to have been making irresponsible mischief?

• And is it good enough for parliamentary freedoms to rest on a combination of woolly traditions and conventions and the judgement of whoever happens to be Speaker, or do we need the kind of written constitution and clearly defined Bill of Rights enjoyed in the USA and elsewhere?

The response to the Damian Green affair should be healthy scepticism about the motives of the Conservative politicians involved but also a clear determination to define our liberties much more clearly and defend them from governments who are getting too casual by far about traditional British freedoms.