It is hard to recall a recent event in parliament which has produced more comment and outrage than the detention and questioning by the police of Conservative immigration spokesperson Damian Green, and the searching of his Westminster office for evidence of malfeasance and a possible national security breach under a provision of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.
MPs and commentators left, right and centre have been united in their belief that these events constitute a serious undermining of the sovereign role of the House of Commons as an elected assembly, the work of a member or minister in “the normal course of duty”, and the ‘privileged’ relationship between MPs and their constituents – including their ability to receive confidential documents from members of the public and make statements in the House without fear of prosecution.
The protection of parliamentary privilege is extremely important, not least in a culture where government can be high-handed and libel laws that benefit the powerful are spiralling out of control. But this does not mean that parliamentarians can be above the law when it comes, for example, to forcing others to act illegally or to abusing privilege for gain.
The facts in the current case are far from determined and will take some time to emerge. It also appears that only three of four required warrants was submitted, but the investigation convened by the Speaker will not meet until the New Year, and will not act until after a criminal prosecution has been processed.
In the case of Mr Green, scrutiny from all angles is intense. If the police or anyone else acted wrongly, there is little chance of a precedent for abuse being set. Indeed, some are suggesting that the eager search for scapegoats may lead in a rather different direction, that of virtual immunity. This is not the intention of privilege, though the overriding desire to maintain freedom of operation for elected representatives is surely correct. But is that what is really at stake here? Others are more cynical about this.
There are many reasons to fear that Britain is becoming too much of a security state. Detention without trial, the suspension of habeas corpus, catchall terror legislation, DNA collection (recently limited by Europe), extraordinary rendition, 24/7 surveillance, database breaches and ID cards are among the major issues of concern. But many of these arise from legislation approved by parliament in recent years, endorsed and voted upon by the same elected representatives who have been indulging in wildly exaggerated rhetoric about the threat to their own freedoms portended, they believe, in the treatment of Mr Green.
Why this particular furore? First, the life of politicians and journalists now relies almost routinely on receiving and commenting on ‘leaks’, the secreting of confidential documents directly or indirectly pertaining to government activity. The culture is seen as being under threat. The antidote to a system where leaking has become the norm is surely more open government, more democratic accountability and better Freedom of Information, not arrests and searches – though in Mr Green’s case it is important to keep recalling that the investigation alleges possible criminal malpractice, an important distinction.
Second, as legal commentator and human rights advocate Marcel Berlins pointed out in The Guardian last week, it is easy for the media to generate an “avalanche of excess” over events in parliament and in London, but it is rather more difficult and less editorially convenient “to seek out far worse injustices that are occurring every day, all over the country, to unknown people.”
That includes the treatment of people seeking refuge or asylum in Britain, when they are regarded as guilty until proven innocent, herded into detention centres, and subjected to the kind of raids and arrests far removed from Mr Green’s genteel treatment. Yet few showed concern when the immigration minister recently attacked lawyers, charities and church groups helping asylum applicants gain basic justice.
Phil Woolas even criticised the legal system for daring to uphold a case that had to go to six appeals before justice was done – with the claimant finally being allowed to remain safely in Britain. A more logical deduction from the outcome here (one I would echo from personal experience of involvement in such cases) is that the system was stacked against the claimant and failed him, not that he was wrong to go on seeking redress. The biblical story of the ‘importunate widow’ comes to mind.
For Mr Woolas, however, the priority appears to be gaining political kudos for a ‘tough’ stance on migration, not ensuring that right is done. But hold on a minute. A Minister of the Crown showing blatant disrespect for the verdict of the law? You might imagine this would excite some calls for an apology, at the very least. But in contrast to the Damian Green saga the silence from Westminster has been deafening.
Some of the most genuinely corrupting influences in public life come not from legislation or the operation of the law, but from the attitude of lofty unconcern demonstrated by those who have a lot of power and have no real idea about how that power feels when you have virtually none.
The true test of justice and democratic accountability is how it treats the most vulnerable. But in some quarters the greatest outrage seems to be reserved for those instances when people in power finally taste what it can be like to be on the ‘wrong end’ of the system.
In short, the issues at stake in the Damian Green saga are not without significance and should be monitored closely - raising again questions about a Bill of Rights and a written constitution. But the hysteria surrounding them may tell us that we are losing a sense of true proportion and context - that far greater threats and injustices may be happening under our noses.
An abbreviated version of this article will appear in the December 2008 issue of Third Way, the Christian social and cultural comment magazine. http://www.thirdwaymagazine.com/
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com and his website is at http://www.simonbarrow.net. The latest book he has edited, Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change is published by Shoving Leopard.