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Westminster watch

Simon Barrow

Simon BarrowIt's hard to recall a recent event in Parliament which has produced more comment, and outrage than the detention and questioning by the police of the Conservative immigration spokesperson Damian Green, and the searching of his Westminster office for evidence of malfeasance or national security breach.

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, the work of a member or minister in 'the normal course of duty', and the privileged relationship between MPs and their constituents.

Others are more cynical. The protection of parliamentary privilege is very important, but this does not mean that parliamentarians can be above the law. In the case of Mr Green, scrutiny is intense. If the police or anyone else acted wrongly, there is little chance of a precedent for abuse being set. Indeed, the eager search for scapegoats may lead in a rather different direction, that of immunity.

There are many reasons to fear that Britain is becoming too much of a security state. Detention without trial, the suspension of habeas corpus, extraordinary rendition, 24/7 surveillance and ID cards are among the issues of concern. But many of these arise from legislation voted upon by the same elected representatives who have been indulging in wildly exaggerated rhetoric about the threat to their own freedoms.

Why this furore? First, the life of politicians and journalists now relies almost routinely on 'leaks', the secreting of confidential documents directly or indirectly pertaining to government activity. The culture is under threat. The antidote is surely more open government and better freedom of information, not arrests and searches - though in Green's case it seems that the investigation concerned possible criminal malpractice, an important distinction.

Second, as legal commentator and advocate Marcel Berlins points out, it is easy for the media to generate an 'avalanche of excess' over events in parliament and in London, but it is 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 asylum, 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 and charities helping asylum applicants gain 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.

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 least. But the silence from Westminster has been deafening.