The futures of Commons Speaker Michael Martin, his top official and a senior police officer are in question after MPs learnt that detectives raided Tory MP Damian Green's office without a search warrant.
Police investigating Mr Green's links with a Home Office mole relied on written permission from Jill Pay, the Serjeant-at-Arms, to search files and confiscate computer equipment belonging to the shadow immigration minister.
Amid accusations that the police broke the law and that the Commons authorities blundered, ministers admitted the chances of Mr Green being prosecuted were fading fast. Fury over the matter forced Mr Martin to make an emergency statement to MPs before the start of the debate on the Queen's Speech yesterday.
Harriet Harman, the deputy Labour leader, last night repeatedly refused to express her full confidence in either the Speaker or the Serjeant-at-Arms. She told BBC2's Newsnight: "I'm not saying I have full confidence in anything or anybody."
The row dominated exchanges between Gordon Brown and the Tory leader, David Cameron, who accused the Prime Minister of lacking the courage to condemn the raid.
Mr Martin attempted to point the finger of blame at the Metropolitan Police and Ms Pay, who is in charge of Commons security. But Mr Martin, Speaker for eight years, also admitted he failed to ask about the legality of the planned raid. To gasps, he disclosed that police did not have a warrant to search the Tory MP's offices.
"I have been told that the police did not explain, as they are required to do, that the Serjeant was not obliged to consent or that a warrant could have been insisted upon. I regret that a consent form was then signed by the Serjeant-at-Arms without consulting the Clerk of the House. I must make it clear to the House I was not asked the question of whether consent should have been given or whether a warrant should have been insisted on. I did not personally authorise the search."
Mr Martin promised that police will never again be allowed enter an MP's office or examine parliamentary papers or computer files without a warrant and the Speaker's approval. He announced a Commons debate next Monday on the case and that he was setting up a committee of seven MPs to examine it.
Mr Martin's public rebuke for Ms Pay, who was forced sit in the Chamber to listen to his eight-minute statement, is a shattering blow to her credibility. A former civil servant, she became the first female Serjeant-at-Arms in January.
The Metropolitan Police, whose inquiry was headed by Assistant Commissioner Robert Quick, was also thrown on the defensive by the Speaker's attack on detectives for failing to provide full information to Ms Pay over the raid's legality. Although officers obtained warrants for the raids on Mr Green's constituency office and home and his London home, Scotland Yard insisted the Serjeant's approval was adequate for entering his Commons office. A spokesman said his Westminster office was entered under a "separate procedure". He insisted officers had "written authority to conduct a consensual search".
But Geoffrey Robertson, the prominent QC, said: "It was an unlawful search and Mr Green should be able to obtain substantial damages from the Metropolitan Police."
Ministers privately believe there is scant chance of charges sticking that Mr Green incited his Home Office contact, Christopher Galley, to leak secret papers. One said yesterday: "There is no chance of a jury convicting him and the police and the prosecutors must know that. I bet the thing is dropped pretty quickly." A second minister said: "The likelihood of charges is fading by the day. Damian Green has won in the court of public opinion.
Mr Martin also faced renewed questions over his failure to intervene in the raid. One Tory frontbencher said: "His explanation was pretty unconvincing."
Writing on his blog last night, Douglas Carswell, the Tory MP for Harwich, said of the Speaker's statement: "Ludicrous. Utterly indefensible performance. He blames Serjeant-at-Arms for not telling him. He blames police for not having a warrant, or telling him. His failure, no one else's."
Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, will address the Commons today on the issues raised by the arrest on suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in public office. She has already said she did not order the police probe and had no notice of it.
The Speaker's statement
This is an edited version of Michael Martin's statement in the Commons yesterday
'I wish to make a statement about the arrest and entry into the offices of Damian Green last Thursday, 27 November, which raises a subject of grave concern to all Members.
In the past few days there has been much pressure on me to make public comment about these matters, but I felt that it was right and fitting I should make no comment until Parliament reconvenes, because it is this House and this House alone that I serve, as well as being accountable for the actions of its Officers. I should emphasise from the start that it is not for me to comment on the allegations that have been made against Mr Green or on the disposal of those allegations in the judicial process.
On Wednesday last, the Metropolitan Police informed the Serjeant-at-Arms that an arrest was contemplated, but did not disclose the identity of the Member. I was told in the strictest confidence by her that a Member might be arrested and charged, but no further details were given to me. I was told that they might be forthcoming the next morning.
At 7am on Thursday, police called upon the Serjeant-at-Arms and explained the background to the case, and disclosed to the Serjeant the identity of the Member. The Serjeant-at-Arms called me, told me the Member's name and said that a search might take place of his offices in the House. I was not told that the police did not have a warrant. I have been told that the police did not explain, as they are required to do, that the Serjeant was not obliged to consent, or that a warrant could have been insisted upon. I regret that a consent form was then signed by the Serjeant-at-Arms, without consulting the Clerk of the House.
I must make it clear to the House that I was not asked the question of whether consent should be given, or whether a warrant should have been insisted on. I did not personally authorise the search. It was later that evening that I was told that the search had gone ahead only on the basis of a consent form. I further regret that I was formally told by the police only yesterday, by letter from Assistant Commissioner Robert Quick, that the Hon Member was arrested on 27 November on suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in public office and on suspicion of aiding and abetting misconduct in public office.
I have reviewed the handling of this matter. From now on, a warrant will always be required when a search of a Member's office, or access to a Member's parliamentary papers, is sought. Every case must be referred for my personal decision, as it is my responsibility. All this will be made clear in a protocol issued under my name.
Lastly, I have decided, myself, to refer the matter of the seizure by police of material belonging to Mr Green to a committee of seven senior and experienced Members, nominated by me, to report as soon as possible. I expect the motion necessary to establish this committee to be tabled by the Government for debate on Monday.
The unanswered questions
Jill Pay, Serjeant-at-Arms
*Why did she not ask the police more questions about the legalposition over warrants?
*Why did she fail to consult the Clerk of House before allowing the search?
Asst Commissioner Robert Quick, Metropolitan Police
*Why did he not obtain a search warrant?
*Why did he not explain to the Serjeant-at-Arms that she couldinsist on a warrant?
*Why did it take Mr Quick five days to inform the Speaker of Damian Green's arrest?
*Were his tactics approved by Acting Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson?
Michael Martin, the Speaker
*Why did he not ask for furtherdetails when he was first told about the planned arrest of an MP?
*Why did he not inquire about a warrant when he was later warned about an imminent raid?
*Why has he not insisted before yesterday that all such cases be referred to him personally?