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Operation Miser

Volume 498: debated on Wednesday 28 October 2009

1. What assessment she has made of the findings of Sir Ian Johnston’s review of the investigation of leaks from the Home Department under Operation Miser which relate to the actions of her Department. (295973)

I welcome Ian Johnston’s report and the wider report published on the same day by Chief Inspector Dennis O’Connor. We have looked very carefully at both reports, and my Department will shortly send new guidance on managing information to Departments and adopt the chief inspector’s protocol for future consideration of police involvement in leak investigations, which recognises the high threshold required for police involvement.

The police inspectorate’s report has savaged the role of the Cabinet Office in calling the Metropolitan police to arrest my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green). Will the Minister place the current guidelines and protocol in the Library so that we can review the failings of the existing rules?

Both reports reflect very fairly the state of events that led to the police involvement—a series of leaks, some of which gave rise to concern about national security. I would say to the hon. Gentleman that it is very easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to reach a different judgment. I have made it clear in my answer that the lessons of the O’Connor and Johnston reports will be applied in full, and I will certainly consult the Cabinet Secretary about the release of the information that the hon. Gentleman seeks.

The Minister says that there was some concern about national security, but Sir Ian Johnston’s report makes it absolutely clear that these leaks were only matters of “embarrassment” that were

“not…likely to undermine government’s effectiveness.”

So why did a Cabinet Office director write to counter-terrorism asserting that there was

“considerable damage to national security”

from these stories and that

“the potential for future damage is significant”?

Did the Cabinet Secretary, the Prime Minister or Ministers know about this letter before it was sent, and was there any political pressure on civil servants to shut down those embarrassing stories?

Neither report from Chief Inspector O’Connor nor from Sir Ian Johnston makes any claim that the Cabinet Office exaggerated national security claims; the right hon. Gentleman should be absolutely clear about that. He will also know that there was no ministerial involvement in the decision to involve the police.

But the report says explicitly that these were only matters of embarrassment that were not likely to undermine Government effectiveness. On 31 October, the Cabinet Office demanded a scoping exercise that then went into detail about the involvement of “members of the Conservative party”. Does the Minister think it right that counter-terrorism officers were misled and used, in effect, to try to intimidate and suppress parliamentary opposition? Given that the Prime Minister himself made his political career as a conduit for a flood of civil service leaks, should he have been arrested when he was a shadow Minister?

Let me deal with the substantive point that the right hon. Gentleman makes. I reiterate that neither report drew the conclusion that the Cabinet Office had over-reacted. His judgment is made with the benefit of retrospection and of the two reports having been carried out, as well as with the benefit of hindsight. The important step now is that the recommendations of the report are implemented, as they will be.