David Cameron insisted police and ministers had “serious questions” to answer today after one of his frontbench spokesmen was arrested over Home Office leaks.
The Tory leader hit out after shadow immigration minister Damian Green was held in custody for nine hours last night as part of a Scotland Yard investigation.
Green’s arrest follows the launch of a molehunt in the Home Office, ordered by senior civil servants in the department after a series of embarrassing stories appeared in the press over the past year. It is understood that ministers played no part in initiating the investigation.
The stories are understood to have included the disclosure that 5,000 illegal immigrants were working as security guards and bouncers; news that an illegal immigrant was employed as a cleaner in the House of Commons; a whip’s list of potential Labour rebels against 42-day detention for terror suspects; and a letter from Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to Mr Brown warning that the recession would spark a rise in crime.
Cameron said: “I think there are some serious questions that have to be answered. If they wanted to talk to Damian Green, why not pick up the telephone and ask to talk to him?”
Mr Cameron raised concerns that at least nine counter-terrorism officers had been deployed to detain Green and search his house and Commons office.
“The police have to answer questions,” he said. “Frankly, Government ministers have got questions to answer as well.”
Green, 52, MP for Ashford, expressed fury early today after he was questioned in connection with a series of confidential Home Office papers which have found their way into the public domain recently.
He was released on unconditional bail shortly before midnight without charge, but must return to face further questioning in February.
Speaking to reporters outside the House of Commons at about 12.45am today, he said: “I was astonished to have spent more than nine hours today under arrest for doing my job.
“I emphatically deny I have done anything wrong.
“I have many times made public information that the Government wanted to keep secret – information that the public has a right to know.
“In a democracy, opposition politicians have a duty to hold the Government to account. I was elected to the House of Commons precisely to do that and I certainly intend to continue doing so.”
Downing Street and Labour have strongly denied that either Prime Minister Gordon Brown or other ministers had prior knowledge that the arrest was taking place.
The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) released a statement last night insisting that the decision to arrest Green at his home in Kent and transport him to Belgravia police station in central London for questioning was taken “solely by the MPS without any ministerial knowledge or approval”.
Senior Tory sources have branded the operation “Stalinesque”, and suggested police must have received authorisation from the very top of the Government.
Mayor of London Boris Johnson said he was informed of police plans in advance and voiced “grave” concerns to acting Met Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson, warning him that he did not regard it as “commonsense policing”.
Former shadow home secretary David Davis insisted the action was “somewhere between an astonishing error in judgment through to judicial intimidation”.
Davis, who quit the Tory front bench to campaign against the Government’s erosion of civil liberties, said Mr Green had only been “doing his job”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “None of this put in any way national intelligence, national security, or international relations at risk – yet we end up with a situation that is in some way reminiscent of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, with an opposition spokesman being arrested for nine hours.
“It is extraordinary, frankly.”
Davis said he found it “hard to believe” that ministers were not told that Mr Green was about to be arrested.
“I cannot believe it,” Davis said. “Why were they not told?”
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne described the move as “the most worrying development for many years”.
“Receiving information from government departments in the public interest and publicising it is a key part of any MP’s role,” he said.
“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.”
A Home Office official was arrested in connection with the inquiry after police were called in by the Cabinet Office last week, and it is understood that the decision to question Green stemmed from that arrest.
Scotland Yard said that a 52-year-old man had been arrested “on suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office and aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office”.
Following his arrest at his home near Ashford, Mr Green’s office in the House of Commons, his constituency office and his homes in London and Kent were searched by police, believed to include up to nine anti-terror officers.
In order to search his Commons office, police would have had to obtain the consent of the Serjeant at Arms.
Green, who denies any wrong-doing, has received Cameron’s full support and remains in his post.
Senior Tory sources questioned the timing of the arrest, the day after Parliament rose for a brief recess ahead of the Queen’s Speech. Had MPs been present in large numbers, points of order are likely to have been raised in the chamber and the search of the office may have been less easy to complete.
A spokesman for 10 Downing Street said: “This is a matter for the police.
“The Prime Minister had no prior knowledge of the arrest of Mr Green and was only informed after the event.”
The Home Office said only: “We can confirm that a Home Office official was arrested last week in connection with an inquiry into alleged leaked documents.”
A Labour Party spokesman said: “It is clear from Government statements that ministers had no prior knowledge of this arrest.
“This is entirely a matter for the police.”
Conservative Johnson made no attempt to hide his anger in a statement released by his office shortly before midnight.
A spokesman said that Johnson, who chairs the Metropolitan Police Authority, had expressed “grave concern” in trenchant terms ahead of the arrest.
“The mayor finds it hard to believe that on the day when terrorists have gone on the rampage in India that anti-terror police in Britain have apparently targeted an elected representative of Parliament for no greater crime than allegedly receiving leaked documents,” said the spokesman.
Green’s opposite number in government, immigration minister Phil Woolas, insisted he had found out about the action from the media last night.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I can assure you that ministers had no knowledge about this whatsoever.”
But he appeared to backtrack later by admitting he could not say that categorically.
“I can only say I had no knowledge. As far as I am aware, no ministers had any knowledge.”
Woolas repeatedly stressed that the arrest had been for “conspiracy” to commit misconduct in a public office.
“The wise thing to do for everyone, especially commentators, is to wait and see what is happening.”
Following a speech on the economy to think-tank the Policy Exchange in central London, Mr Cameron said it seemed “extraordinary” that the Government could not be held to account by the opposition.
It was a “worrying stage in our democracy” where shadow ministers could not release information in the national interest.
Cameron said: “If this had happened in the 1930s, Churchill would have been arrested.”
He confirmed Green would remain in his position on the front bench.
He said: “Damian Green has done a good job as my shadow immigration minister and will go on doing a good job as my shadow immigration minister.”
Asked who was informed of Green’s arrest, Cameron said: “Clearly the Speaker of the House was informed. I was informed seconds before Damian Green’s office was entered by police officers.
“I believe the mayor of London was told.”
He added: “Government ministers must be able to explain what they knew and whether they thought it was appropriate.”