Police question Speaker's account of Damian Green affair

Officer in charge of Home Office leaks investigation insists police told serjeant at arms they had no warrant

Michael Martin, the Commons Speaker, faced mounting pressure today as the assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police questioned his version of events prior to the police raid on the parliamentary office of Damian Green.

In one of the most serious developments in the row yet, Bob Quick, the officer in charge of the Home Office leaks investigation, insisted that police had made clear to Jill Pay, the serjeant at arms, that they had no powers to enter the Palace of Westminster without the consent of the house authorities.

The development came as the Tories claimed an inquiry into the debacle had been kicked into the long grass, and the prime minister was forced to rally to Martin's defence after two senior ministers refused to give the speaker a ringing endorsement.

Quick's claim contradicts Martin's assertion in his Commons statement yesterday that police failed to inform Pay that she was not obliged to sign the consent form allowing them access to parliament as they did not have a search warrant.

"I have been told that the police did not explain, as they are required to do, that the serjeant was not obliged to consent or that a warrant could have been insisted on," Martin told MPs yesterday.

However, in a letter to Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, Quick insisted that officers informed Pay of the legal position under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.

"The officers explained the nature of the investigation and the purpose of the search and were satisfied that the serjeant at arms understood that police had no power to search in the absence of a warrant and therefore could only do so with her written consent or that of the Speaker," he wrote.

"Prior to giving written legal consent, the serjeant at arms told the officers that she would seek legal advice."

In his statement yesterday, Martin said Pay signed the consent form without consulting the clerk of the house, Michael Jack.

Quick said the officers had initially briefed Pay on the investigation last Wednesday, the day before Green was arrested and detained for nine hours while his home and office were searched.

The following day she signed a standard police search form and handed officers a letter consenting to the search.

In a Commons statement today, Smith strongly defended the decision by officials to call in the police while again insisting she had no prior knowledge that Green was under investigation or was about to be arrested.

"Even if I had been informed, I believe it would have been wholly inappropriate for me to seek to intervene in the operational decisions being taken by the police," she said.

The formal request for the police to investigate was made by the Cabinet Office - which is responsible for Whitehall security - following consultations with senior Home Office officials.

Smith said a series of internal Home Office inquiries had failed to identify the source of what appeared to be "the systematic leaking of classified information over a sustained period of time".

There had been particular concerns because of "the sensitive issues, including national security" that the Home Office dealt with.

"The sustained level of leaking that had already taken place clearly suggested that this could go on, would escalate, and that more information of greater sensitivity could potentially leak," she said.

Dominic Grieve, the shadow home secretary, accused Smith of seeking to "wash her hands" of her basic responsibilities.

"This episode has nothing to do with national security and everything to do with political embarrassment," he said.

"It heralds a systematic breakdown in trust between officials and ministers arising from the home secretary's willingness to conceal failings in her department on matters of manifest public interest."

The formal request for the police investigation was made on October 8. Prior to the arrest of Green, a junior Home Office official, Chris Galley, was arrested on November 19.

The inquiry is thought to be looking at a number of leaks, including the disclosure that 5,000 illegal immigrants were working as security guards and bouncers and a letter from Smith to Brown warning that the recession would spark a rise in crime.

The prime minister's spokesman came to Martin's defence today, insisting: "The prime minister believes we should support the Speaker's decision to review the rules so that MPs can continue to do their job while ensuring that no one is above the law."

The spokesman also confirmed Tory claims that the committee of seven senior MPs being set up to investigate the whole affair was unlikely to start work for months.

"What we need to recognise is that we need to balance the ... desire for an investigation by the committee into this with the requirement not to interfere in an ongoing police investigation," he said.

The spokesman said the government had taken "legal advice" on the timing of the committee's inquiry, which would form the basis of the motion to be considered by the Commons on Monday.

Theresa May, the shadow leader of the Commons, said that this bore "no resemblance to the immediate and speedy inquiry" MPs were promised yesterday.

Martin's position was been further undermined last night when Harriet Harman, leader of the Commons, repeatedly declined to express confidence in the Speaker or the serjeant at arms.

"I am not saying I have full confidence in anything or anybody; I'm just telling you what the procedures are," she told BBC2's Newsnight.

Margaret Beckett, the housing minister, today also refused to endorse the Speaker, insisting it was not for the government to either back or criticise him.

"It is not for the government to pronounce on the Speaker; the Speaker is elected by the house."

She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme it was "unfortunate" that many people were looking for someone to blame other than the person accused of doing something wrong.

"It didn't sound to me yesterday like this was all the Speaker's fault, or all the serjeant at arms's fault. It sounded like a singularly unfortunate set of events.

"I don't blame Harriet for not wanting to be put in the position whereby she is somehow taking responsibility which is not hers."

Pressed to say whether she thought Martin was doing a good job, Beckett added: "I thought he handled things yesterday with dignity in very, very difficult circumstances."

Amid fury among MPs about the whole episode, one Tory MP, Richard Bacon, last night openly called on Martin to quit, accusing him of having "failed in his fundamental duty".


Deborah Summers, politics editor

The GuardianTramp

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