Justice questions in the Commons have been dominated by the Damian Green affair, and whether the offence of misconduct in public office should be a criminal or disciplinary matter.
James Duddridge began the session by asking whether it was appropriate that a law enacted in 1783 was being used against a civil servant who had leaked information that “embarrassed” the government.
Jack Straw, Secretary of State for Justice, responded that such laws were continually refined and redefined. He noted that the specific offence of misconduct in public office had been looked at recently in both 1979 and 2004.
Responding to questioning from Andrew MacKay, Straw said he had asked his department to provide figures of how many civil servants had been arrested under the offence, how many have been charged, and how many have been convicted.
Desmond Swayne said the offence was “elastic” and asked whether it needed further statutory clarification.
Straw said that the bar for criminal investigation and prosecution was set “very high”. He noted that a joint committee on the draft Bill on corruption had decided against that, and pointed out that Nick Herbert Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, sat on that committee.
Peter Lilley said that given that it was the intention of the government when passing the Freedom of Information Act that the disclosure of non-national security information be treated as a disciplinary matter not a criminal matter, did the current situation not show that criminal law had been brought back into the issue.
David Howarth echoed these comments, arguing that the central point was the relationship between misconduct, leaks in the civil service, and national security. He asked that since there was no risk to national security in this case, why a criminal investigation was being pursued.
Straw responded by saying that it would be “odd” to never involve criminal law in such a case of persistent misconduct.
Herbert said the whole purpose of restricting criminal law to leaks that relate to national security was to allow lower level offences to be treated as disciplinary offences.
He said that leaks that revealed Home Office “incompetence” did not damage national security, and that it was “typical” of the government to confuse party interests with the interests of the country.
Straw repeated he felt it would be inappropriate to comment on an ongoing investigation. He pointed out again the joint committee report that decided against statutory clarification of the offence.
Alan Beith asked whether it should be up to a High Court judge to issue warrants for searches of parliamentary offices. He wondered how such proposals could be carried forward if the proposed Speaker's committee was not to meet until the conclusion of any police investigation.
Straw suggested that he would be “astonished” if amendments dealing with that issue were not attached to the proposed Policing, Justice, or Coroners Bills.
10 December 2008