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Friday, November 28, 2008

An abuse of process

It is noticeable that whenever the Government seeks to introduce an anti-terror measure or something that will reduce our liberties in the so-called 'national interest', we are reassured that checks and balances will be put in place so as to avoid new powers being abused. Either Parliament itself will oversee the process, or Ministers or we are told that we can trust the Police to be responsible.

There is something very British about such assurances. Instinctively we think of ourselves as the good guys who respect and practice fair play. Accordingly we place our trust in the Government and the authorities to uphold our values and our rights. In reality neither can be relied on to do 'their duty' in this regard with the consequence that detailed and time-consuming scrutiny is needed to ensure that the rights of ordinary citizens are upheld. What is worrying is the number of times these brakes on the abuse of power fail.

When the Police start to undermine the constitutional rights of MPs we know that things have got out of control. Liberal Democrat MP, John Hemming on his blog suggests that whistleblowing to MPs is implicitly protected as part of the 1688 Bill of Rights, however that has not stopped a senior Conservative MP being arrested for doing his job by publishing important government information in the public interest.

This government does not seem to care what rights it tramples in pursuit of its agenda. We are told that the Prime Minister was not aware of the intended arrest of Damien Green and yet the Mayor of London was, leading one to question whether it was authorised at a high ministerial level and if not why not? When were Ministers told? We need to know.

It is a fact too that other long-established rights have been ignored by this government through actions such as the bugging of conversations between a lawyer and client and the bugging of an MP in discussion with his constituent.

What added insult to injury in the arrest of Damien Green was the involvement of anti-terrorist police. It seems that any abuse can now be justified by the terrorist threat. If this is the case then the terrorists really have succeeded in destroying our democracy.

Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesperson, Chris Huhne pinpoints the problem with the Damien Green arrest when he says: "Receiving information from Government departments in the public interest and publicising it is a key part of any MP's role. This is the most worrying development for many years, with the potential to shift power even more conclusively from Parliament to the Government. It is also extraordinary considering Gordon Brown himself as Shadow Chancellor received and publicised many leaked official documents. It seems that either the law needs to be changed, or the police have overstepped the mark."

Perhaps Mr. Huhne should go further and put this incident in context as one of a systematic series of events in which power has been abused by the government and their agencies. Goodness only knows how they will proceed once they have a national database and ID cards to help them.
We are told that the Prime Minister was not aware of the intended arrest of Damien Green
We know that Blair told lies to the public and to parliament. What indication have we been given that there has been a change with Brown's accession?

There are a few important facts that don't appear to be reflected in your post:

* The Met has explicitly said that Ministers were not involved. They said the decision was taken "solely by the MPS without any ministerial knowledge or approval".

* Damian Green was not arrested under anti-terrorism legislation. He was arrested under a common-law offence which has been around as long as our "historic liberties" have.

* The suggestion that Mr Green was arrested by "anti-terrorism police" seems to be a deliberately inflammatory characterisation. It seems they were special branch, who are responsible for a host of other offences, not just terrorism.

None of this seeks to justify Mr Green's arrest. It was heavy-handed, and will hopefully kick off a much-needed debate about Britain's excessive secrecy laws.

But at the same time, let's keep things in perspective and not fling around unsubstantiated allegations of government involvement and hysterical declarations of the death of democracy.
I find it amazing that Boris Johnson knew in advance of this forthcoming arrest; yet Gordon Brown didn't.

I'm afraid this is the way policing is going to be conducted from now on.
I accept your points Matthew though some of the matters you take issue with me on were based on media reports. I think though that the involvement of government in this must be subject to greater scrutiny. If they really were not briefed in advance then why were David Cameron and Boris Johnson? It seems strange that the Met would proceed without at least briefing the Home Secretary and remember that there is a difference between the Home Secretary authorising an action and having knowledge of it. A lot more information needs to come out about this arrest. As for the charge of abusing public office that is just absurd and sets a very dangerous precedent if used in this way. I really do not think that it is hysterical to suggest that democracy is under attack by this action.

The only point I disputed that was based on media reports was about the involvement of anti-terrorist officers.

Cases involving the Official Secrets Act have traditionally been investigated by Special Branch - mainly because of the potential national security angle of some OSA cases. Special Branch was merged with Counter Terrorist Command in 2006, and with it responsibility for the OSA. That is not an assault on democracy, it is a product of a bureaucratic division of labour.

I agree with you that it is undemocratic to start arresting MPs for doing their jobs. But the issue here is the Official Secrets Act and the culture of secrecy in British government. It really isn't helpful to try and turn this into a debate about anti-terrorism legislation. That's why I think you are being hysterical by talking about terrorists "succeeding".

I believe I'm right in saying that the first Official Secrets Act was passed by a Liberal government. I hope that this case will result in supporters of all parties campaigning to reform it.
if an MP can be arrested for just doing his job then we are living in a police state its as simple as that!

I expect a few more MPs (Lib Dem MPs) will find themselves under arrest once it becomes mandatory to carry an ID card.

I, like a number of people I know won't be carrying such a card - sorry, HM Government better start building some more gaols.

G. Lewis
Ogmore Lib Dems

Matthew is essentially right and I have to say that when I saw Nick Clegg on Sky it looked bad and we looked badly informed when he started banging on about anti-terror legislation. Lest we get on to addressing whether any of these 'nuggets' was actually even in the public interest.

I think it's probably true that ministers didnt know but Cameron and Johnson obviously did; maybe even enough to get out their cameras to make a home movie of the whole show.

Boris Johnson knew because of his position vis a vie the Met; a position Brown doesnt have and there was no need to tell Smith precisely because it was a common law offence.

I think when the dust settles we will be discussing things very much along the lines suggested by Matthew...
well one by product of the advent of the all seater sports stadia is that at least we'll all be able to sit down after they come for us mate

Matthew said:

But the issue here is the Official Secrets Act and the culture of secrecy in British government

No it isn't. Green wasn't arrested under the Official Secrets Act.

Green was arrested under a piece of legislation that might have just easily been applied to Gordon Brown in the past.

He was arrested to allow the police to search his home and office without applying to a magistrate for a search warrant.

The use of the particular legisaltion in this arrest has been described by legal experts as unusual and a diminishment of our democracy.

That estimation seems correct to me. This action was disgraceful.
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