Taking liberties with information

FT | So much for parliamentary privilege: Damian Green, the frontbench Conservative MP for Ashford, was arrested this week and held for nine hours for his part in leaking official documents to the press. The police’s absurd over-reaction shows a lack of understanding of political sensitivities in relation to freedom of information.

The government is right to investigate leaks. Given the sensitivity of materials in the Home Office, police involvement can be appropriate. In this case, however, there were no security implications. The mole should simply have been subject to internal disciplinary procedures.

But the police force has, not for the first time, used political offences as a pretext for showing off. As with the “cash for honours” investigation into whether parties sold positions in the House of Lords to donors, the police have delighted in dramatic, empty gestures.

Mr Green was arrested on the common-law offence of suspicion of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office; among other things, this would require proving that the leaks he was involved with were damaging to the commonweal. Some of the exposés were trivial, some showed up ministerial incompetence. None was against the public interest. Revelations like Mr Green’s are what we demand of our official opposition politicians; they are self-evidently a public good.

Ministers adamantly deny knowing that Mr Green was going to be arrested for doing his job. Maybe so, but they must explain how an internal leak inquiry ended with arresting an MP for such a ridiculous offence. The Metropolitan Police Authority, the body to which the London police force answers, will need to ask tough questions about why this was allowed to happen. Boris Johnson, mayor of London, chairs the body and advised against the action. There must be genuine accountability for police forces.

Mr Green’s experience has also highlighted part of the common law that needs reform. Charges of the same offence were dropped only this week against a local journalist in Milton Keynes. Her offence had been to find out from a helpful policeman whether a local footballer would be charged with an offence. She escaped only because of protections offered by the European Human Rights Act.

Governments must be jealous of giving the police too much power and of vague, open-ended offences. Unaccountable police forces with such loosely defined prerogatives are a menace to liberty. But there is little reason to hope that this administration will recognise this. The draconian anti-terror legislation it has introduced alone has given the police so much power that it has been used to detain an elderly heckler at the Labour party conference, stop protests and, last month, to freeze the assets of Icelandic banks. The government must stop making free with civil liberties.