Police officers involved in the Home Office ‘leaks’ investigation which led to the arrest of the Conservative MP Damian Green were yesterday criticised by the authors of two separate reports into the inquiry.
Denis O’Connor, the Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, said that the Metropolitan Police allowed the inquiry to go too far because they were worried about the political ramifications if they halted it.
While a report by Sir Ian Johnston, the former head of the British Transport Police, said that the arrest of Mr Green, the shadow immigration minister, was “not proportionate” and that the Tory MP, who was arrested at his home in Kent, could simply have been arrested by appointment at a pre-arranged meeting.
The investigation was launched in October 2008 after the Cabinet Office sent a letter to Scotland Yard’s SO15 Counter Terrorism Command raising concerns that a civil servant in the Home Office had been leaking confidential documents.
The letter, which was copied to MI5, said: “We are in no doubt that there has been considerable damage to national security already as a result of some of these leaks, and we are concerned that the potential for future damage is significant.”
In fact, the leaks, which were being provided to Mr Green by Christopher Galley, a civil servant in the Home Office’s immigration department, related to stories which were appearing in the media about apparent cover-ups of immigration scandals and were merely embarrassing rather than potentially damaging to the security of the country.
In his heavily-redacted report Sir Ian wrote: “I recognise the significant political context in which the leaks occurred and the professional anxiety they caused within the Civil Service.
“However, I regard the leaks for which Galley can be clearly held responsible in law, as amounting to ’embarrassment matters’ for Government. I do not think, from the material presented to me, that the leaks in themselves are likely to undermine Government’s effectiveness.”
The arrest of Mr Green and subsequent police searches of his home and Commons office last november provoked outrage among MPs. He was held for nine hours at Paddington Green police station but in April this year the Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer said neither man would face prosecution. He said the damage to the Home Office was not excessive and the material was of legitimate public interest.
Yesterday Mr O’Connor said that, although the investigation was started in good faith, it should have perhaps been stopped when it became clear that the leaks were of no threat to national security.
But he added, the political climate of policing at the time, including the enforced departure of Sir Ian Blair by the Mayor Boris Johnson, could have contributed to some decisions made in the investigation of Mr Green.
He said: “I have been an Assistant Commissioner and a Chief Constable and I have said yes and no. When in the full gaze if everybody and when political influence is involved, people get very nervous about saying no. Police feared they would be damned if they did and damned if they didn’t because of the politics around them and they worried about how things might play out.
“You have to look at how charged this was. The Commissioner (Sir Ian Blair) was standing down and it was a super-heated environment where they (the police) were concerned about any decisions they made being misconstrued. The Blair thing was going on and there was continuing debate about politics in policing. They wanted to, at all costs. not appear to be partial. These people were acting with good intentions but good intentions are not enough when the stakes are high.”
Sir Ian’s report was written after a request by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and it examines steps taken during the early part of the inquiry. Mr O’Connor’s report looks at how things should be done in a similar situation in the future. He concludes that the police should only investigate the most serious leaks, ones that concern national security, and the rest should be left for government departments to pursue themselves.
Speaking after reports were released, Mr Green said his arrest was “disgraceful” and said that the reports revealed that the excuse of “national security” to arrest him was entirely bogus.
He said: “The police were misled about the security risks by a senior official in the Cabinet Office, which is itself very disturbing. Then the police themselves used covert recordings to bug my conversations with officers, which is only legal in terrorist arrests. The more we find out about my arrest the more disgraceful it looks.
“Once the authorities received the Johnston report in December it must have been obvious that no successful prosecution could be mounted. Why did I have to wait another four months to be cleared? The O'Connor report is a sensible attempt to change things in the future. These reports expose serious problems at the heart of the Government and in the Metropolitan Police.
“These need to be addressed urgently so that no one else, whether in public life or not, is treated in the same inept and bullying way.”
Scotland Yard said it had “learned lessons” over the inquiry.