Monday, June 18, 2012

Why won't Scottish Government say if phones were hacked?

Scotland's top civil servant Sir Peter Housden is unlikely to have Willie Rennie on his Christmas card list, particularly as the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader has complained about him so many times.

Even so, Sir Peter's non committal reply to Willie Rennie's legitimate concerns over whether Scottish Government phones had been hacked by newspapers is astonishing. If they hadn't been, why on earth not say so?

His assertion that

Operation Rubicon is an ongoing investigation in which, for operational reasons, disclosure of information has been highly restricted. Even the fact of whether Scottish Government telephones have been hacked has the potential to compromise the investigation.
seems a bit weird to me. The logical conclusion is that if my house was burgled, then me writing just the fact that I'd been burgled on here would compromise a police investigation? I really don't get that. And if that's the case, has former Sunday Times journalist and now aide to Alex Salmond Joan McAlpine already compromised the investigation by revealing in her Daily Record column that her phone may have been hacked?  I don't really see how, frankly.

Liberal Democrats believe in Government being as open and transparent as possible. Things shouldn't be kept secret unless there is a very good reason. Willie Rennie had this to say in response to Sir Peter Housden's letter:

It seems clear to me that Scottish Government phones have been hacked. Sir Peter could easily have told me that the Scottish Government had not become a victim. Telling me nothing had happened would not have jeopardised any police investigation - but he didn't.
If the phones have been hacked it may have had a serious impact on national security or commercial confidentiality.
Parliament is perfectly capable of handling such information without compromising any police investigation. In fact Parliament has a responsibility and duty if such a breach has occurred.
Others, including an MSP, have been open about being hacked. Sir Peter needs to explain why the Government can't be open too. Sir Peter said he could not give me a full answer as it may undermine Operation Rubicon. Yet those who have revealed that they have been phone hacked have not been accused of undermining the inquiry.
Sir Peter Housden should come clean about whether Scottish Government phones have been hacked. There is no reason not to. After all, Alex Salmond was able to tell the Leveson Inquiry last week that he hadn't been hacked. Why the secrecy? And, why, especially, if no phones were hacked, can he just not say so?

For information, the correspondence between Willie Rennie and Sir Peter Housden is published in full below.

From Willie to Sir Peter Housden:

Dear Sir Peter,

I am writing to ask whether any Scottish Government phones have been subject to phone hacking. The First Minister has so far failed to answer questions directed to him in the Scottish Parliament about whether his own phone was hacked, arguing that he will not disclose this information until he appears at the Leveson inquiry.

I believe that refusing to answer such questions shows contempt for the Scottish Parliament to which he is accountable as First Minister. Nevertheless, whether or not the First Minister chooses to answer questions about his own phone, I believe that the Scottish people have a right to know now whether their Scottish Government has been subject to phone hacking.

There are potentially serious implications should Scottish Government phones have been hacked as ministers and senior officials could have received messages concerning matters of national security or emergency planning. There is therefore a wider interest in whether this information has been kept safe.

I’d be grateful if you could disclose whether any official Scottish Government phones have been hacked. If official phones have been compromised, has the government taken steps to mitigate any damage that could potentially have been caused?

I understand that Strathclyde Police is currently investigating allegations of phone hacking in Scotland and I am also writing to them with the same question. What discussion have you had with officers leading Operation Rubicon to ascertain whether the Scottish Government has been subject to phone hacking?

I look forward to receiving your response.

Yours sincerely,

Willie Rennie MSP, Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats

Sir Peter's reply:

13 June 2012

I refer to your letter of 18 May, received on 21 May, asking whether Scottish Government
telephones have been subject to phone hacking.

As I think you understand there is an over-riding need not to compromise the work of the
Leveson Inquiry. Lord Justice Leveson made it explicit in a public address on 15 May that a
public debate on the subject matter of a witness's evidence may make it make it difficult or
even impossible for the Inquiry to take evidence from that witness in a fair and impartial

In addition the question of whether any Scottish Government telephones have been hacked
falls squarely within the remit of Operation Rubicon. You will I think be aware that the remit
of Operation Rubicon is (i) to examine aspects of the evidence presented during the Tommy
Sheridan perjury trial and (ii) to examine specific claims of phone hacking and breaches of
data protection in Scotland. Operation Rubicon is an ongoing investigation in which, for
operational reasons, disclosure of information has been highly restricted. Even the fact of
whether Scottish Government telephones have been hacked has the potential to
compromise the investigation.

Further, the disclosure of that information, together with the public debate that disclosure
might engender, might allow persons subsequently charged with any offences arising out of
the police investigation to argue that pre-trial publicity has prejudiced their right to a fair trial.
You will appreciate that in these circumstances I am unable to provide you with the
information you seek.

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