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MPs demand investigation into unlawful police action

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Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Comment Today’s revelation that the police raid on the offices of Damian Green, MP, had been carried out without a full warrant may yet return to haunt the police officers who authorised it.

Critics of the police are asking whether this was simple oversight, or part of a broader pattern of police setting out to ignore restraints placed by parliament on their behaviour.

A few cases reported on over the last few months give a flavour of what has been going on. In a raid on the premises of former computer forensics expert Jim Bates in September, police insisted on removing documents that both he and his solicitor claimed were directly related to an ongoing criminal trial, and therefore “privileged”.

Section 7.2 of PACE Code B (pdf), which governs police search and seizure, states: "No item may be seized which an officer has reasonable grounds for believing to be subject to legal privilege, as defined in PACE, section 10, other than under the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, Part 2."

Another seriously murky episode involved police bugging conversations between Tooting MP Sadiq Khan and one of his constituents in prison awaiting extradition for terror offences. Sir Christopher Rose investigated, and while he dished out a mild slap on the wrist to the police, he also left many questions unanswered. His report (pdf) concluded, bizarrely, that the Wilson Doctrine, established in the 1970s, forbade the security services from bugging MPs where the authorisation of the Home Secretary was needed. However, it did not prohibit bugging of MPs where only the authorisation of senior police officers was required.

Despite this, both the report and the Home Secretary did re-affirm the right of constituents to confidential dealings with their MP.

Last week, Sally Murrer, a journalist for the Milton Keynes Citizen, was finally exonerated from charges of receiving leaked information. The police brought their case on the basis that she was "aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office" – the same reason for their investigation last week of Tory MP Damian Green. Again, the court found that the police had over-stepped the mark by bugging where they had no right to do so.

So are these cases wholly unconnected, or do they start to cast a slightly different light on the events of last week? In his statement to the Commons, Speaker Michael Martin revealed that the police had turned up to search the office of Damian Green, MP, without a warrant. The Serjeant-at-Arms of the Palace of Westminster, provided a written authority for the police action, although she had the right, like anyone else in the UK, to refuse them entry. The speaker's statement confirmed the police did not raise this right at the time, as they are obliged to.

The lack of a warrant was confirmed in a statement by acting commissioner for the Met, Sir Paul Stephenson.

Whether this was oversight or convenient omission on the part of the police, the end result of the search appears to be that they departed with large amounts of privileged information. In their wake they left behind a series of questions about the role and powers of the police in the 21st century, which are unlikely to be answered any time soon.

The immediate questions arising from last week’s raid will probably go to a Commons Select Committee of seven wise men and women. The exact remit of this committee will be established by a government motion, to be put before the House of Commons next Monday. No sooner had the Speaker announced this than a number of MPs were on their feet suggesting, in the politest of parliamentary terms, that they smelled a rat.

Several MPs were adamant that if evidence existed of the police having acted illegally, they should be brought to book. No one should be above the law, and that applied as much to police as to MPs.

Longer term, the plods may come to regret this raid. Those defending the police action - most notably Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and Prime Minister Gordon Brown - have spoken about the need for "operational independence". Sir Paul Stephenson talks about investigations needing to go "wherever the evidence takes them".

If that is the future direction of policing, then there will be no 'no-go areas'. There would be no such thing as "privilege" or confidentiality, and cases detailed above suggest that police thinking is already headed in this direction.

The problem for the police is that the next government may well not be Labour. The Tories are not just "the party of Law and Order", but also the "Toffs'" party, and not as in awe of the police as New Labour. Over the last decade, it has been the Tories who have tended to be more critical of police requests for added powers – and this action is likely only to reinforce their scepticism. ®

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