Arrest Of Parliament Member Brews British Tempest

Arrest of Parliament Member Brews British Tempest

The New York Times
Published: December 1, 2008

LONDON Until last week, many in Britain would have had trouble identifying Damian Green a quiet, mild-mannered, 52-year-old Conservative member of Parliament who is his partys chief immigration spokesman much less imagining him as the central figure in a storm over the sovereignty of Parliament that has led to accusations of Stalinist behavior by the government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Scotland Yards counterterrorism squad arrested Damian Green and raided his offices and home.

But Mr. Green has been front-page news in British newspapers since Scotland Yards counterterrorism squad arrested him last Thursday, held him for nine hours at a London police station and raided his House of Commons office and west London apartment, as well as his constituency office and home at Ashford, in rural Kent. British constitutional experts say no other Parliament member in recent memory, much less a member of the shadow cabinet like Mr. Green, has been treated so harshly.

During the raids, 20 officers from what is officially known as Scotland Yards special operations unit, whose principal responsibility is counterterrorism, took Mr. Greens fingerprints and a DNA sample, seized his cellphone and BlackBerry, and froze his parliamentary e-mail account.

They also carried off computers, documents and personal letters exchanged by Mr. Green and his wife, Alicia, when they were dating 30 years ago.

Nobody at Scotland Yard has suggested that Mr. Green is a terrorist.

Rather, his offense, if any, seems to have centered on his relationship with a civil servant in the Home Office, Britains Interior Ministry, who is said to have offered himself to the Conservatives last year as a whistle-blower on immigration and other politically sensitive issues, passing on documents and letters from the office of the home secretary, Jacqui Smith.

The civil servant, Christopher Galley, a 26-year-old assistant private secretary in Ms. Smiths office, who was also arrested on Thursday, helped Mr. Green become a trenchant critic of the Labor governments immigration policies, one of Britains most volatile issues. The Conservatives, leading Labor in opinion polls, say they will make an issue of Labors failure to stem the tide of illegal immigrants arriving in Britain every year and the strains on health, education and other public services in a general election Mr. Brown must call before June 2010.

Conservative Party officials have said that it was Mr. Galley who told Mr. Green that the Home Office was covering up information that showed that 5,000 illegal immigrants had somehow passed vetting for work as security guards in Britain, and that one of them was working as a guard at the Home Office itself. The disclosures caused a public furor when Mr. Green raised them in the House of Commons last November.

The Conservatives have said that Mr. Galleys leaks also included a list earlier this year of 50 Labor members of Parliament who were expected to vote against a controversial government bill to extend to 42 days the time in which terrorism suspects could be detained before being charged. This fall, Mr. Galley passed on a letter Ms. Smith wrote to Mr. Brown warning of a surge in crime as a result of the deepening economic recession, the Conservatives said.

They have cited these disclosures as evidence that Mr. Galleys whistle-blowing dealt with political issues, not matters of national security. Boris Johnson, the maverick Conservative who is mayor of London, said after Mr. Greens arrest that it was hard to believe on the day when terrorists have gone on the rampage in India antiterror police in Britain have apparently targeted an elected member of Parliament for no greater crime than receiving leaked documents.

More broadly, critics say, Mr. Greens plight has highlighted the range of potentially arbitrary powers available to the government and the police in Britain. Although Britain prides itself on being the mother of all democracies and the fount of 18th century liberal ideas that underpin freedoms around the world, civil libertarians fear that the modern British state has become increasingly invasive of personal liberties, particularly in the use of modern technologies like the closed-circuit television cameras that are a ubiquitous feature of British city life.

For the moment, though, the issue for critics is the sovereignty of Parliament and its ability to hold the government accountable, features of the British political system that evolved over centuries. Michael Howard, a former Conservative Party leader, has compared Mr. Greens arrest with the moment in 1642 when King Charles I burst into the House of Commons demanding the arrest of five of its members. This is the sort of thing that led to the start of the civil war, Mr. Howard said.

Scotland Yard has said Mr. Green, who was released on bail on Thursday night, along with Mr. Galley, remains under investigation on suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office, a centuries-old charge most often used against corruption. Scotland Yard officers were quoted on Monday as saying that Mr. Green was suspected of grooming Mr. Galley as a whistle-blower. But Conservative spokesmen have said Mr. Galley, whose first contact with the Conservatives was in the form of a job application in 2007, was not paid, directed or induced in any way.

Meanwhile, the political storm has continued to grow. Ms. Smith, the home secretary, whose ministry oversees police actions in Britain, has said that while she knew Scotland Yard was conducting an inquiry into the leak of secret Home Office information, the police did not tell her in advance that they were planning to arrest a Conservative politician. Mr. Brown and other ministers have also said they had no prior knowledge of the arrest plans.

In a BBC television interview on Sunday, Ms. Smith refused to apologize for Mr. Greens arrest. The police investigation that uncovered the relationship between Mr. Green and Mr. Galley, she said, was aimed at ending a systematic series of leaks from a department dealing with highly confidential government information. In my book, Stalinism and a police state happen when ministers direct and interfere with specific investigations that the police are carrying out, she said.

The governments account has been that the decision to move against Mr. Green was made by Scotland Yard, and that the Commons raid was approved by Jill Pay, the Commons sergeant-at-arms, who is responsible for parliamentary security. But the explanations did not carry weight with the three main opposition parties and at least one member of the Brown cabinet. Weve got to be sure that whilst M.P.s are not above the law, they are able to get on with their job without unwarranted interference, said Harriet Harman, the minister who oversees government legislative business in the Commons.

A Commons committee has said that it will investigate the affair, and officials at 10 Downing Street, mirroring growing government alarm over the political damage it has sustained, have said Mr. Brown thinks a wider public inquiry may be necessary into civil servants leaks to politicians. Mr. Greens arrest has prompted Conservatives to recall Mr. Browns habit of boasting, as a rising opposition figure before Labors election victory in 1997, that he had a mole in the civil service who gave him much of the information he used to embarrass the Conservative government in the Commons.