One of the most curious lines to emerge yesterday was the suggestion that a senior civil servant had his phone hacked since the last election. Nick Raynsford, a former Labour minister, said in the Commons that there appeared to have been “disgraceful and illegal conduct close to the heart of government” – a strong claim indeed.
He told Mr Cameron:
“A year ago during the period when Mr Coulson was director of communications, the Cabinet Secretary was alerted to evidence of illegal phone hacking, covert surveillance and hostile media briefing directed against a senior official in the Government service.”
The prime minister said he would examine the allegations.
It was suggested that there was a face-to-face meeting between the anonymous official from the Department of Education and Sir Gus O’Donnell, cabinet secretary, where the mandarin discussed his concerns.
Last night the Cabinet Office said that there had been no such meeting.
As with any report of illegal activity, if such an accusation took place the Cabinet Secretary would have referred them immediately to the police. However, no allegations of illegal phone hacking or covert surveillance were raised with the Cabinet Secretary.
Now the Cabinet Office has told me that there was a meeting; but that hacking was “100 per cent” not raised by the civil servant. Instead the discussion was about negative media coverage affecting him, and his imminent appearance at a select committee.
Officials have been in touch with the former civil servant (he is now retired) since yesterday afternoon, and they insist that he accepts that hacking was not brought up at that meeting.
That still doesn’t answer Raynsford’s other claim, made outside Parliament, which is that Special Branch was called in to investigate the hacking claims and a tracer was put on the official’s phone. “As a result the phone hacking stopped soon after,” he told me. The Cabinet Office says it will come back to me on that particular issue.
Mr Raynsford is currently penning a letter to the prime minister demanding an urgent meeting with him to discuss the claims.
UPDATE: There has been an evening development on this story, with Sir Gus knocking down the claims of police finding evidence of hacking.