Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Police v Parliament

From a non-partisan perspective it was easy to sympathise with Conservative MP Damian Green following his arrest for receiving leaked information which was embarrassing to the Labour Government - Mr Green had not obviously done anything that politicians of other parties hadn't done, the process to which he was subject seemed heavy-handed and the use of anti-terror police encouraged accusations of politicisation and of a police state.

However, some of the rather frenzied reaction to the arrest has similarly smacked of partisanship. For example, repeated false claims that the enquiry was being conducted under legislation aimed at terrorists. Or old video footage of Gordon Brown disseminating leaked information, as if the possession per se of such information by the now Prime Minister when in opposition means that Mr Green should be exonerated.

Moreover, some of the details released since news of the arrest broke suggest that this is not a simple case of an MP passively receiving leaked documents. In particular, yesterday's Times reported that the leaker is an ex-Tory council candidate and that it's alleged Mr Green was 'grooming' him as part of a long-standing and systematic arrangement, hence talk of a charge of "aiding and abetting misconduct in public office".

That said, the process still looks authoritarian. But while it's important that official malpractice and dishonesty is exposed, on the other hand the proper conduct of government would descend into farce if nothing at all was sacred as regards confidentiality, which in particular would expose the ruling administration to undermining by malicious and partisan public servants.

Of course, the main focus of the law should be on government employees rather than Members of Parliament, but much of the criticism of the arrest in effect claims that the latter should be above the law. For example, it's argued that the public will not trust MPs with sensitive information if they think that police and other law enforcement agencies may gain access to that information during an enquiry. But while it's right that Parliamentarians should have special privileges, to make this absolute would be a negation of democracy.

Likewise, Conservative claims that the police are being used to pursue a political agenda seem absurd in view of the policing strategy during the miners' strike of 1984-85, not to mention past prosecutions of civil service whistleblowers.

While Mr Green's treatment has rightly raised cross-party concern, much of the reaction - such as comparisons with events leading up to the English Civil War - amount to little more than hysterical partisanship, and many MPs would barely bat an eyelid at similar treatment meted out to a member of the public.

It's unfortunate that the reputation of the police is unlikely to be enhanced by this episode, irrespective of its outcome, and the overreaction by many politicians is unlikely to endear them to an already cynical public, who resent their special privileges, particularly when there's evidence of abuse.

Of course, Mr Green is innocent until proved guilty, but it's unlikely that the police enquiry would have got to this stage without some evidence of wrongdoing, its cack-handedness notwithstanding. Justice should be allowed to take its course without the self-evidently political posturing.

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