Sunday, November 30, 2008

Green fingered

I’d like to comment at some length on the propriety of the arrest of Damian Green, based on my detailed knowledge of the information the police acted on, what they found during their searches, the questions they asked him, the answers he gave, and the precise nature of his relationship with the civil servant in question.

Alas, I have no such detailed knowledge. So I’ll restrict myself to a few general thoughts.

Some elements of this story are lamentably predictable:

The laughable shrieks of ‘Stalinism’ and ‘police state’; the shocking revelation that police searches are unpleasant when conducted at the home of a well-connected Good Egg; friends of the arrested man protesting their bafflement that anyone could imagine he’d do any wrong; the lack of political savvy by the police; the apparent assumption among disgusted commentators that it’s the police’s primary task to have more political savvy; the eye-rolling near-certainty that the positions of the Labour and Tory leaderships would have been reversed had the latter been in power; and the declaration by Shami Chakrabarti that “It is always dangerous to speculate about ongoing investigations, but…”

More novel, and a potentially worrying precedent for any number of people, is the peculiarity of the Home Office permanent secretary’s calling in the police rather than investigating the leaks internally.

Paulie has some good points to make about this affair, in particular that there’s a relevant distinction not just between leaks that damage national security and those that cause political embarrassment, but also between leaks made on grounds of conscientious objection to ministerial secrecy and those made on grounds of being a de facto spy for the opposition.

Although I don’t agree that Parliamentary privilege should be quite as sacrosanct as he might like. As Vernon Bogdanor says:

MPs are subject to criminal law as much as the rest of us… Their parliamentary privilege only extends to speeches in the chamber, not their offices. If an MP were accused of theft and keeping stolen goods in his office at the House of Commons, should he be exempt from a police investigation?

Whether Green’s arrest was reasonable as part of an investigation depends utterly on the specifics of the case. I dunno those.

But I do agree that Parliament (particularly the elected half of it) must be sovereign, and that while of course nobody can be above the rule of law, the law itself must be subordinate to democracy. On this tension, I can’t improve on this comment from Owen Barder:

If MPs believe that the good functioning of democracy depends on more information being made available than is currently required and allowed by law, then they should change the law, not break it.
For the police to enforce the law, as passed by Parliament, is not an intrusion of police power into democracy. Enforcing the law is the job of the police; and if Parliament doesn’t like the law then they are in a peculiarly strong position to do something about it.

3 comments:

Lee Griffin said...

Re: Owen's comments. If only it was that easy eh? MPs can obviously just change the law when it's "right" to do so...their motions always reach the debate stage in parliament and they're never talked out of parliament and put to the back of the queue, effectively killing them.

Like with PR, this issue is one that opposition parties will complain about when they can't realistically change anything, then change nothing when in power as it is giving some of that power away.

Besides the point, it doesn't appear necessarily that any law has been broken here.

Owen Barder said...

Lee - It is parliament that determines whether they want to let a bill fail through lack of time. If a majority of MPs wish it, they can change the law.

It is not acceptable for MPs, (egged on by journalists) to say that because they believe the law does not permit the degree of openness that they believe is necessary for the exercise of proper oversight by parliament, that it is acceptable for civil servants or MPs to break the law. If they don't like the law, they should change it. And they should welcome, not denounce, the efforts of the police to enforce the laws that they themselves have passed.

(I agree that it it is not yet clear whether a law has been broken in this case. Presumably it is the purpose of the police investigation to establish this.)

tim f said...

If he hasn't broken any law, why is the defence of the Tories that he was "just doing his job"? Why not simply argue that he is innocent?!