Letter from Westminster 12.12.08
I HAVE a confession to make. Many years ago, while a trainee solicitor working at the Crown Office in Edinburgh, I “leaked” to Jim Wallace the outrageous cost of the new curtains in the Lord Advocate’s office.
I can’t now remember what the figure was but I do recall that it was thousands rather than hundreds and, at a time when the Procurator Fiscal service was struggling to cope with a growing workload and a shrinking budget, it was causing some outrage among those in the know.
I can’t even remember what, if anything, Jim did with the figure. Not much, I suspect. In fact, as civil service leaks go it was pretty small beer.
This information was something which could have embarrassed my political masters but was not something which could have compromised police activity or any prosecution then being undertaken. Why should it not have been put into the public domain?
It was a good example of information which could be leaked only by someone who knew that there something to expose. The “leaking” of the information was not something which ever caused me any moral difficulty.
I had not thought much about this until I heard that Tory frontbench spokesman Damian Green had been arrested and questioned for nine hours as a consequence of his having received leaks of information from the Home Office. Debate of this then took up half a day’s business in the House of Commons on Monday.
Viewed from the outside, it must have looked bizarre. While the country sinks into recession, you might have asked, why are MPs spending so much time debating whether or not they should be above the law? In fact, I believe it was an important debate and one which needed to be had.
Should an MP who has received information stolen from a government department be treated differently from a private individual who has received a stolen television set? In fact, within certain limits, there are good reasons of public interest why they should. Governments hold great swathes of information which they would not want to enter the public domain because it would embarrass them – possibly because they are saying one thing and planning to do another. The release of that information can only be done by someone on the inside and there is clearly a public interest that it should be released.
In short, the business of leaks from government has an important part to play in our political system. What will be the consequence of the arrest of Damian Green and his mole being arrested and treated in this way?
I can see only one, namely that a lot of information which could usefully be made public will remain private. If not challenged, it will also be another step down the road towards a politically controlled police force. Recession or not, these things need to be debated.
Alastair Carmichael MP