A special Commons committee chaired by Sir Ming Campbell is currently inquiring into the arrest of Damian Green MP last year, and search of his Parliamentary offices; and on Monday they heard evidence from the former Speaker, now Lord Martin. You can watch the full session here, and if you’re interested in this affair, you should.

I’ve long argued that the real scandal here was Jacqui Smith’s decision to involve the police in the first place, and the arrest of Damian Green; the business about the search, warrants and privilege was a storm in the Commons tearoom. Unfortunately, this committee seems still to be labouring under serious misunderstandings about PACE and search warrants, misunderstandings that will prolong its inquiry and make its report flawed, unless they are corrected. The sooner it obtains either legal advice, or independent evidence about the law governing police searches, the better. Ann Coffey’s question to the former Speaker – what was special about the Commons that led the police not to seek a search warrant, although they’d sought warrants in relation to other premises? – would then be answered. What was special was that the police having asked for consent to enter (the correct first step under the relevant PACE Code in such circumstances) and having been told they’d be given consent, there were no legal grounds on which a warrant could have been applied for or granted.

What’s most interesting about the session, though, is the unimpressive showing of the former Speaker, who is hesitant and vague in his answers, at times evasive, and whose answers are seldom satisfactory. Michael Howard for instance skewers him for having effectively misled Parliament in his statement following the search. It’s also quite clear Speaker Martin had no grip whatever on his staff, no appreciation of the sensitivity of the issues, and no feeling that he, as opposed to his staff, had any responsibility to take any action or ask any questions of anyone once he knew a search would be conducted. Worst of all, this supposedly kindly man reveals himself in his evidence as ready to criticise others severely (notably the Serjeant at Arms, the Clerk of the House and the police) although there is little evidence they did much wrong, and although his own failings were clearly more important.

For example: he severely criticises the Clerk, who first heard of the search when it was happening, for leaving the country following the search to go to his home in Portugal. Yet it was the Clerk – not Speaker Martin, who knew of the search the day before and had failed to tell the Clerk about it – who had instantly taken steps to satisfy himself that the search was lawful; and it was the Speaker, who knew about the planned search – not the Clerk, who didn’t – who chose to be absent from the House on a personal matter and outside the reach of easy communication on the day it was to be carried out. Lord Martin reveals himself in his evidence as a small man who, passive in the lead up to the search, now seeks to blame others for what happened.

He also accused the police of being sleekit in obtaining consent to enter the House. I think this is an outrageous thing to say, especially since Lord Martin surely must know that HM Inspectorate of Constabulary has found that the police acted properly in seeking consent as they did. In very clear evidence Lord Martin told the committee that the Clerk, on the Monday following the search, had told him the police had “bamboozled” and “tricked” the Serjeant at Arms. Yet the Speaker’s secretary, who attended the meeting, told the committee he remembered no such language being used. It’ll be interesting to see what the Clerk himself says.

No doubt there are things the police, the Clerk and the Serjeant at Arms could have done better, and I dare say the committee will find some fault all round. But the police were right to seek consent to enter, and once it was given, were right not to seek a warrant (which would have been denied because of the consent). The Serjeant at Arms was surely right to give consent to their entry, no one – notably not the Speaker – having raised the question whether there was or should be a warrant, or having suggested she should do anything other than cooperate. And the Clerk was surely right, having been entirely surprised by the search, to immediately take action to satisfy himself that it was legally proper – as it was – and to inform the Speaker.

The storm in the tearoom arose only because of the political sensitivities involved, and only because the Speaker failed to ask the right questions, seek the necessary advice and to take the action needed to deal with those sensitivities. When he finally realised the full significance of what was happening – after the Clerk phoned to tell him the search was being conducted properly – he asked the questions he should have asked 24 hours or so beforehand and got answers he didn’t like. His first instinct then was to blame others, and even, we now learn, apparently to mislead the House.

This evidence is the final proof that Martin was unfit for his office.

2009-11-04T14:23:17+00:00Tags: , , |