A not so tall story
There might be rather more to the Kawczynski story than I originally thought.
On Wednesday night (21 January 2009) I reported on Newsnight on the extraordinary intervention when the Conservative MP for Shrewsbury & Atcham, Daniel Kawczynski (who, incidentally, claims to be the tallest MP in history!) dramatically raised a point of order in the House.
He complained that a police officer had visited his Commons office, without a warrant, as part of a criminal investigation, and, much to his "shame" he had ended up handing over to the police an item of constituency correspondence. The police were looking into a series of threatening letters which had been sent to various MPs, including the Schools Secretary Ed Balls, with a Shrewsbury postmark.
Superficially there seemed to be some parallels with the Damian Green affair before Christmas. But, as I pointed out on Newsnight on Wednesday, Mr Kawczynski was not arrested and his office was not searched. What's more, the Metropolitan Police told Newsnight that the officer's visit had been by prior appointment, and by his own admission in the Commons chamber the MP handed the letter over voluntarily.
And the Conservative high command on Wednesday was pretty dismissive of the whole affair, making it clear they did not intend to pursue the matter, and that it was a non-story. They seemed to think he had over-reacted, and told him not to talk to the media.
On Thursday the Speaker Michael Martin rebuked Mr Kawczynski for "rushing" to make his point of order before he got his "facts together", and he warned MPs:
"I would only ask that honourable members, before they rush to point of orders and before they make statements that can reflect badly on professional people who are doing a decent job of work, that the best thing they can do is to sit and wait for a while and get the facts together."
The Speaker continued: "the honourable gentleman's approach would have been perhaps different if he'd have given himself a breather and thought about what was going on."
The reaction to the story has been pretty unanimous - that Mr Kawczynski is a rather eccentric though amiable figure, and grossly over-reacted. (Some have used stronger and more abusive language).
I now wonder, however, whether the media, the Speaker and The Conservative Party have been unfair to him, and whether there were indeed quite important principles at stake. Worse than that, did the police abuse their position?
Mr Kawczynski has sent me two statements (see below) made by members of his staff, a 22-year researcher and a young intern. These statements explain how, without Mr Kawczynski's knowledge, a plain clothes policewoman got the agreement of the MP's staff to come and visit his office. She wanted to compare handwriting and to see if the Shrewsbury MP had received any letters from the person who was threatening other politicians.
Mr Kawczynski's intern did indeed discover a letter with similar handwriting, but when the policewoman asked to take it away, the intern and the MP's researcher both expressed doubts about the propriety of doing so without the MP's say-so. The staff members both suggest that before the MP returned to his office, the policewoman tried to coerce his staff into handing the letter over by saying that legally the police would be able to seize it anyway.
According to the Mr Kawczynski's researcher Jack Colson:
"... the Police officer announced that she would have to seize the letter. I told her that it would have to wait until the morning as I was not able to contact Daniel. I explained that the letter is not mine and belongs to Daniel, and also contained potentially highly confidential and personal information. At this point the Police officer explained to me that "regardless of your cooperation" she had the right to seize the letter as evidence."
The intern Helen Roberts recalls:
"Jack said that he could not allow the paper out of the office without Daniel's permission to which the police officer informed us that she could legally seize the document right then but that she would not out of courtesy."
Eventually, when Mr Kawczynski turned up, he agreed to give the letter to the policewoman, though he soon expressed regrets about doing so in his point-of-order to the House.
The statements by the two staff members are worrying. If the two accounts are right, it seems astonishing following the Green affair that a policewoman should have used such methods to try and persuade two very young and inexperienced members of the MP's staff to hand over the letter, without a warrant and without first consulting the MP himself. The fact it was a police officer based at the Commons, rather than an ordinary member of the Met Police (as in the Green affair), makes it worse, as one would expect Westminster police officers to be aware of the Parliamentary privilege which applies to MPs' correspondence.
Fortunately, Michael Martin announced yesterday that in future any police officer who wants to approach an MP as part of an investigation will first have to go through the House authorities.
But Mr Kawczynski is still unhappy. On Thursday night he said:
"Telephoning an intern to ask if they could come around immediately to show my staff some handwriting samples does not constitute making an appointment with me; stating to junior staff in my absence that if correspondence was not provided voluntarily, they had the power to seize it, was also unacceptable."
Ok, it's not the biggest scandal in politics, but I do think Mr Kawczynski has good cause to feel aggrieved.
STATEMENT BY JACK COLSON, PARLIAMENTARY RESEARCHER TO DANIEL KAWCZYNSKI MP MADE AT 10PM, 21 JANUARY 2009
At about quarter to six on Wednesday evening I received a phone call from a woman who identified herself as a member of the Parliament based plain clothes Police team - I do not recall her name. She explained that there had been a number of potentially threatening handwritten letters sent to members of Parliament from an address with a postcode within the constituency. She told me that the letters had contained white powder, and had been handwritten in 'backwards handwriting' - as though they had written using a mirror. She said that she would like to come and show me the letters to see if I recognised the handwriting to this and I agreed.
Less than five minutes later she arrived. The police officer showed me the letters, and I told her that I did not recognise the handwriting, and then showed her part of a letter from the only constituent of Daniel's who consistently sends strange handwritten letters in. On seeing that this was not the writing, Helen Roberts one of Daniel's interns s aid that she thought she recognised the handwriting. She then pulled a letter from a file and showed it to the police officer - ensuring that she only showed the handwritten address so as not to reveal the sender's confidential content.
At this point the Police officer announced that she would have to seize the letter. I told her that it would have to wait until the morning as I was not able to contact Daniel. I explained that the letter is not mine and belongs to Daniel, and also contained potentially highly confidential and personal information. At this point the Police officer explained to me that "regardless of your cooperation" she had the right to seize the letter as evidence.
I explained that this was not acceptable, folded the letter up into my pocket and rushed off to try to find Daniel. I went upstairs to outside the Chamber, and asked one of the ushers if he was in the Chamber.
After going in the Usher came back and told me that he was. At this point I passed a note to Daniel via an usher explaining that I urgently needed to see him outside the chamber. I did not mention the fact that there was a police officer in the office. About 20 minutes later I was told by one of the ushers that Daniel had made his speech - on equitable life - and left the chamber. I then received a call from Daniel's intern, Helen, explaining that Daniel was downstairs and that I needed to get down there.
I went downstairs and saw Daniel in the office, talking with the police officer. She explained the situation, and also explained that she was able to seize the letter regardless of cooperation. At this point Daniel asked me to hand her the letter, although he was plainly very unhappy about having to do so. He then left and went to vote in a division that was being called.
STATEMENT BY HELEN ROBERTS MADE AT 10PM, 21 JANUARY 2009
On Wednesday 21st January at approximately 5.45pm Jack Colson, the Researcher for Daniel Kawczynski MP was called by a member of the police from Parliament. Jack told me that she asked if she could come down to the office and ask us if she could look at some documents for her and see if we could identify the writing.
When she (Doreen) arrived about 5-10 minutes later she brought down a copy of an envelope which was addressed Ed Balls MP. Along with this there were three additional pieces of paper which had Gordon Brown, Harriet Harman and Ed Balls name written backwards.
She informed Jack and myself that these had been screened by police security in Parliament and that white powder had been found in the envelopes. She informed me that the white powder was salt. The letters came from Shrewsbury (which is Daniel's constituency) and they wondered if we recognised the writing.
I did recognise the writing and found an original letter from a constituent who had very similar writing. The police officer said she wanted to send the letter to a handwriting specialist for comparison.
Jack said that he could not allow the paper out of the office without Daniel's permission to which the police officer informed us that she could legally seize the document right then but that she would not out of courtesy.
Jack went to find Daniel who was in the House to ask his permission. I continued to look for more documents from the specific constituent. I informed Doreen that we had several hundred 'Post Office Cards' sent by constituents over the past few months and that we might be able to recognise the writing from one of those. She asked me if she could take them and I said that she would have to ask Jack who would need to seek permission from Daniel.
Daniel was called down to the office from the House and met with the police officer. Copies were made of the letter from the constituent and also the police officer gave us copies of the envelope and the MP's names written backwards. The original letter from the constituent was taken by Doreen and I was asked, as the individual who found the letter, to come and make a statement to the police explaining what happened. I made this statement. Doreen asked me to send a copy of the handwriting to the constituency office and ask them to look through their records to see if there was any more correspondence from the constituent. I was once again asked by Doreen if it would be possible to go thorough the post office cards and I reiterated that she would have to ask Jack who would need to seek permission from Daniel. She asked if I could have a look myself. Also, we were asked to keep an eye out for similar handwriting and to keep the envelope if another letter comes, to keep the envelope and inform parliamentary police.
Daniel came down to the office and has the card with the contact details of Doreen, the copy of the constituents letter and the copies of the envelope which was addressed Ed Balls MP and the three additional pieces of paper which had Gordon Brown, Harriet Harman and Ed Balls name written backwards.