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Phone Tapping

Volume 515: debated on Monday 6 September 2010

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the Metropolitan police investigation into phone hacking by the News of the World newspaper.

In December 2005, the Metropolitan police began an investigation focusing on alleged security breaches within telephone networks after concerns were raised by members of the royal household at Clarence house. That investigation resulted in the prosecution and conviction of the News of the World royal editor, Clive Goodman, in 2007 for unlawfully intercepting the phone messages of staff in the royal household. A private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, was also convicted and jailed for intercepting the phones of a number of people.

That investigation has already been reviewed by the Metropolitan police, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Crown Prosecution Service, who all concluded that the investigation was proper and appropriate. The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport also previously examined the scope and nature of the police investigation, and the previous Government updated the House on these matters in July 2009 and took no further action. Hon. Members will be aware that there have recently been allegations connected to that investigation in The New York Times.

Any police investigation is an operational matter in which Ministers have no role. I understand that the original investigation was complex and was informed by high-level legal advice. As a result of that investigation, as I have said, two individuals were successfully prosecuted. The police have made it clear that during the investigation there was early and regular consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service, so that the lines of inquiry followed were likely to produce the best evidence. The CPS had full access to all the evidence gathered, and the final indictment appropriately represented the criminality uncovered. The Metropolitan police have indicated that if there is further evidence, they will look at it. That is the right course of action, and it is right for the Government to await the outcome.

Claim No. 1: there is no new evidence; there is. Claim No. 2: people were cleared by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee; they were not. Claim No. 3: a single, rogue reporter was responsible; he was not—the inquiry heard that a second News of the World reporter, Ross Hall, transcribed illegally hacked phone messages. He has not been interviewed by the police. He sent the now notorious e-mail to News of the World chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck, reporter No. 3, who has not been interviewed by the police. Last week, former News of the World reporter Sean Hoare testified that when he worked for the paper his bosses instructed him to hack into phones. He has not been interviewed by the police.

A fifth reporter, Sharon Marshall, confirmed to The New York Times that she witnessed phone hacking while working for the News of the World. As far as we know, she has not been interviewed by the police. Last week, News International confirmed that a sixth reporter has been suspended for alleged phone hacking. As far as we know, he has not been interviewed by the police.

John Yates said that he had interviewed many reporters. Well, who? How many people were on Mulcaire’s target lists? How many were notified that their name was on the lists? How many phone numbers, PINs and suspected computer passwords were on the lists? What other personal and private information was recovered? Most importantly, who decided, according to what criteria and on whose authority, which victims were investigated and which were not, and who was notified?

Can the Home Secretary confirm that former Prime Minister Tony Blair has formally asked Scotland Yard whether his phone was hacked into? The integrity of our democracy is under scrutiny around the world; the Home Secretary must not join the conspiracy to make it a laughing stock.

I say two things to the hon. Gentleman. First, he says that there is new evidence. As far as I can see, allegations have been made in a newspaper. The Metropolitan police have made it clear that if there is fresh evidence, they will consider it. Secondly, as Home Secretary I consider it appropriate that the Government take the view that it is for the Metropolitan police to decide what is the right course of action on an operational matter. As I said in response to the urgent question, it is appropriate for this Government to wait for the outcome.

As the Home Secretary indicated, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee spent a considerable time examining this matter in the previous Parliament. We reported our conclusions to the House and we stand by them. We certainly found it very difficult to believe that Clive Goodman was the only member of the News of the World newsroom who was aware that phone hacking had been carried out by Glenn Mulcaire, but we found no evidence to suggest that the then editor knew of it. If there is credible new evidence, that would obviously be a matter for the police, but perhaps the Home Secretary could give an assurance that the Select Committee will be informed of the outcome of any investigation.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. It is helpful of him to put before the House what happened in the Select Committee inquiry on the matter. As I have said, it is for the Metropolitan police to consider fresh evidence, if any comes forward, and I am sure that the Select Committee will be kept informed of any developments.

Mr Justice Gross said in the case of Mulcaire and Goodman that it was not about press freedom, but about a

“grave, inexcusable and illegal invasion of privacy.”

Last year, I was assured that the Metropolitan Police Service had not received any allegations in respect of other News of the World journalists. I was also told that the Metropolitan police had taken all proper steps to ensure that where there was evidence of phone tapping, or any suspicion of it, the individuals concerned would be informed.

The Home Secretary will be aware of the claims by The New York Times to have spoken to over a dozen former News of the World reporters, and to at least one of its former editors, who say that phone tapping was pervasive. Furthermore the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), a very distinguished Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said:

“There was simply no enthusiasm among Scotland Yard to go beyond the cases involving Mulcaire and Goodman. To start exposing widespread tawdry practices in that newsroom was a heavy stone that they didn’t want to try to lift.”

Does the Home Secretary agree that this stone has to be lifted, and that she must subject the actions of the Metropolitan police in this case to greater scrutiny in the light of this allegation and the new revelations from The New York Times? The original investigation, we are told, uncovered 2,978 mobile phone numbers of potential victims and 91 PIN codes. Can the right hon. Lady ascertain how many of the people concerned have now been informed?

When I was Home Secretary dealing with this case, there was nobody anywhere in Government who was implicated. Now there is. The Home Secretary and the Deputy Prime Minister have lectured the House many times about their perception of the surveillance state created by the previous Government. It appears that they may have their very own expert on the matter in charge of Government communications. Can she assure me that Andy Coulson will not be involved in any way in the Government’s response to the latest allegations? Does she agree with her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, who told Parliament last year that

“it is extraordinary that the Leader of the Opposition, who wants to be a Prime Minister, employs Andy Coulson who, at best, was responsible for a newspaper that was out of control and, at worst, was personally implicated in criminal activity”?

“The exact parallel”,

said the right hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne),

“is surely with Damian McBride. If the Prime Minister was right to sack him, should not the Leader of the Opposition sack Andy Coulson?”—[Official Report, 9 July 2009; Vol. 495, c. 1132.]

I agree with those sentiments expressed by the right hon. Lady’s Cabinet colleague—does she?

I will take first the issue that the shadow Home Secretary raised about the number of people involved who may or may not have had telephone calls intercepted. Assistant Commissioner Yates made it clear in his interview on the “Today” programme this morning that there are—[Interruption.] Labour Members may tut, but Assistant Commissioner Yates was interviewed on the matter this morning and made it clear that there is often a misunderstanding between somebody’s name appearing on a list and that person assuming that they have therefore had their phone intercepted. He made it clear—[Interruption.]

Order. The House must exercise a degree of self-restraint. I am trying to help the House by facilitating an exchange on this important matter. The responses of the Home Secretary must be heard.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I can quote from that interview, where Assistant Commissioner Yates said:

“There’s a misunderstanding here which suggests just because your name features in a private investigator’s files, you have been hacked.”

He went on to explain that that was not the case.

The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) also raised the issue in relation to Mr Coulson. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) has made clear, when the Culture, Media and Sport Committee investigated the matter, it concluded:

“We have seen no evidence that”

the then editor

“Andy Coulson, knew.”

That was the decision taken by the Select Committee of the House.

As the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle said, he looked at the issue last year. He looked at what had happened and the way it had been handled, and he said that he was reassured.

As a member of the Select Committee, I recall that we had evidence that hundreds of people who are the victims in the matter appeared on lists. They would like to know whether information was illegally gathered from them, and the Metropolitan police will not tell them. Secondly, they would like to know what information was illegally gathered and with whom that information was shared. Surely the only way of getting to the bottom of this is a proper judicial inquiry so that people are compelled to give evidence and they give that evidence on oath.

I say to my hon. Friend that the matter has been investigated by the Metropolitan police, who did so in very close co-operation with the Crown Prosecution Service and with leading counsel. The matter has also been looked at by the Select Committee of the House. The findings of that Select Committee are clear. The findings of the Metropolitan police at the time that they investigated the matter and then looked again at it last July are also clear. Two individuals were prosecuted as a result of that investigation. The Metropolitan police have made it clear that if fresh evidence is there, they will look at that fresh evidence.

Does the Home Secretary agree that, in circumstances in which Members of this House may not have their telephone communications intercepted by the police or the security service, it would be totally unacceptable for their communications to be intercepted unlawfully by newspapers? Does she accept, on the evidence of what has been said in the House this afternoon, that there has been a distinct lack of zeal on the part of the Metropolitan police in looking into these accusations?

Far from that, the Metropolitan police investigated these matters when they were first raised. The matter was considered again in July 2009, when the then Policing Minister, on behalf of the then Home Secretary, who was absent from the House that day, came to the House in response to an urgent question and, as a result of that, indicated that the Labour Government were taking no further action in relation to the matter.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the shadow Home Secretary let the cat out of the bag by showing that this is a rather thinly veiled attempt to try to make as much political capital as possible instead of actually trying to get to the bottom of what happened? Everything that we have heard today has been thoroughly covered in the Select Committee report; there is absolutely nothing new. We took up the concerns about the Metropolitan police’s investigation at the time, when Assistant Commissioner Yates said, regarding the failure to conduct wider interviews during our Select Committee hearings:

“perhaps in 2006 it ought to have been done; I do not know, but in 2009 that is going to take us absolutely nowhere.”

Can my right hon. Friend ensure that we do not waste any more time and effort on trying to make political capital out of flogging an old horse?

My hon. Friend has referred to the Select Committee report’s findings on this matter, to which I and others have also referred. As for his initial observations about the reasons behind this issue, I simply say that those who are watching will see the nature of and manner in which some of the points are being raised by Labour Members of Parliament.

The trouble is that the police have not investigated even where there is new information and new evidence. Last summer, I wrote to the Metropolitan police and asked whether, to their knowledge, from the material that they had gained from Mr Mulcaire, I was a person of interest to him. They replied that I was, and they suggested that I ring my mobile company, which then informed me that my phone had indeed been interfered with. I told the police this months ago; they have done absolutely nothing about it.

I say in all seriousness to the Home Secretary that there may well be dozens of right hon. and hon. Members whose phones have been intercepted—several people on the Government Front Bench at the moment, as well as those on the Opposition Benches. Surely the least that she could do is write to the Metropolitan police to ask them to notify every single right hon. and hon. Member who was a subject of that investigation of the fact that they were involved, and then they can choose whether to investigate further.

At the time of the investigation, the Metropolitan police made it clear that those people whose phones they believed had been intercepted were contacted by members of the Metropolitan police. The hon. Gentleman has had an exchange with them on this matter. I come back to the point that I made earlier: the police have said on many occasions that if fresh evidence were to come forward they would look at it. It is not for the Government to look at that evidence; it is for the Government to await the outcome of any such investigation should that arise.

In terms of what the Metropolitan police have and have not said, can my right hon. Friend confirm that they have now made it clear, on the record, that the press department of the Metropolitan police in no way interfered with the handling of this case?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. Last year, when Home Secretary, the shadow Home Secretary looked at the issue and the then Government were absolutely clear that there was no need to take any further action in relation to the investigation by the Metropolitan police.

The Home Secretary has repeatedly prayed in aid the Select Committee report in support of her decision not to take any further action. I have been a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and have experience of how Select Committees can go only so far. When judicial reviews are then conducted, however, all sorts of evidence suddenly comes out to which Select Committees simply have no access. I urge the Home Secretary not to take comfort from the Select Committee but to make further inquiries and force the Metropolitan police at least to take some serious action rather than hiding behind procedure.

As I indicated earlier, such operational matters about whether to investigate particular individuals are for the police. We should jealously guard the operational independence of the police. I say to the hon. Lady, and to any other right hon. or hon. Members on the Labour Benches who think that I as Home Secretary should take it upon myself to tell members of the police force who they should or should not investigate, that that is a very slippery slope down which neither I nor this Government intend to go.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the straightforward fact is that the Metropolitan police can investigate, the Crown Prosecution Service can advise that there should be a charge, and prosecuting counsel can draft an indictment only if there is supporting evidence? Does not this all turn on a simple point? If The New York Times or any individuals believe that they have new evidence, is it not simply a matter of their making that evidence available for the Metropolitan police to investigate and allowing the police to get on with their job?

A very valid point has been made. It has been made clear that if evidence comes forward, the Metropolitan police will look into it. I understand that on its website The New York Times is saying that it will not make new evidence available to the police.

If this Government claim to be whiter than white, why did the top spinner at No. 10 Downing street learn his trade in the phone-tapping News of the World run by Murdoch? If this murky affair rumbles on, will the Prime Minister come and make a statement about relieving Coulson of his job?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to remarks that I made earlier. I simply observe that although he uses the phrase “whiter than white”, it was his Government, if my memory serves me correctly, who claimed to be whiter than white.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) seems to have forgotten about the existence of Alastair Campbell.

Has my right hon. Friend been given any indication at all about why people have suddenly come forward now to give evidence to The New York Times, given that they did not see fit to come forward at the time to give evidence to the police?

I have seen no explanation of why the issue has suddenly come forward in The New York Times at this particular time. However, as I have repeated, if evidence is available, the police have made it clear that they will investigate it. I have also said in response to another hon. Member that I understand that The New York Times is making it clear that it will not be bringing forward new evidence.

Can the Home Secretary tell the House what meetings or conversations the Mayor of London has had with the Metropolitan police in relation to this matter?

Conversations held by the Mayor of London are a matter not for the Government but for the Mayor.

Given the seriousness of these new allegations, many in this House and across the country will be surprised that the Home Secretary has not even shown a degree of concern about potential shortcomings in the police investigation. Is she really entirely satisfied that everything is as it should have been, or is she determined not to have a view?

This matter was looked into. It was looked into last year by the hon. Gentleman’s right hon. Friend, the then Home Secretary. The then Government decided that no further action should be taken.

Has the right hon. Lady any knowledge of how many of the 91 PIN codes involved were default numbers and how many were people’s own selected numbers? If she does have that, the issue is much more serious than has been indicated thus far. Default PINs can be obtained from the manufacturer, but others take sophisticated technology to obtain and only a very large operation could achieve that.

I will make the point that I made earlier. We are faced with a situation in which a number of allegations have been made in The New York Times. The Metropolitan police have made it clear that if fresh evidence is brought forward they will investigate it. As far as the Government are concerned, I believe it is appropriate for us to await the outcome.

Has the Home Secretary had a chance to read the report published this May by the Information Commissioner on the unlawful and widespread trade in confidential personal information, and does she agree with the Information Commissioner that there should now be a custodial sentence of up to two years in respect of the offences in question?

The hon. Gentleman raises an issue about sentencing, which of course is in the remit of the Secretary of State for Justice rather than the Home Department. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, a review of sentencing is taking place, and I am sure that if he wishes to make representations to that review they will be welcomed.

As a long-serving member of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, I am proud of the fact that under the previous Chair and the current respected Chair, we have worked as a team irrespective of party political views. I am delighted that I have colleagues who are taking advantage of the political aspect of this matter, but may I ask the Home Secretary to ensure that she is not tempted to go on the defensive? This issue is much more important than party politics, and it has to be tackled for the sake of our democracy. I hope that she will do that.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman heard the response that I gave to the question that the Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee asked about its being kept informed of any developments. However, it is important that as Home Secretary I am absolutely clear about where the division of action lies between the Government—a political party—and the operational independence of the Metropolitan police or indeed any other police force in this country.

The Home Secretary referred earlier to the comments of Assistant Commissioner Yates on the Radio 4 programme this morning. The assistant commissioner also made it clear that the police have relationships with journalists, in this case from the News of the World. Can the Home Secretary tell me who polices that relationship and how we know whether there is any self-interest in the lack of progress on this matter? I appreciate that the Government will not want to get into that, but should the Independent Police Complaints Commission be asked to examine that relationship to ensure that nothing interferes with police matters and with justice being seen to be done?

The hon. Lady refers to a lack of progress on this matter, but the position is absolutely clear. The use of phone interception by a journalist at the News of the World was investigated, two individuals were prosecuted as a result of that investigation and the matter was looked at again in July 2009. The Metropolitan police looked very closely at the investigation in conjunction with the Crown Prosecution Service and counsel, and in July 2009 the previous Government examined the matter and decided that no further action should be taken. As regards a lack of progress today, the police have made it absolutely clear that if fresh evidence is available, they will look at it.

As a telecommunications engineer, I have helped build such networks, so I am aware of their security gaps. That is why I am concerned that the Home Secretary does not seem to recognise the implications of the matter for everyone in the country. Such cyber-criminality could be an increasing part of all our lives, and if the police do not have the will to pursue each and every case, it is up to her to give them the tools and incentive to do so.

As I hoped I had made clear in response to several questions, the police have made it clear that if fresh evidence is introduced, they will look at it in relation to the case. The implicit suggestion—that somehow the police do not have the tools to examine cybercrime—is not appropriate to the matter that we are considering.

Does the Secretary of State recall that the Mayor of London intervened in the case of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) when he received information from the Home Office? Surely, when the Secretary of State is told by an hon. Member that a phone company has told him that his phone line was compromised, but that the police had not notified him of that, she cannot be confident that the Metropolitan police have notified everybody who was subject to tapping. Surely she has a duty, on behalf of all those individuals, and for natural justice, to meet the Metropolitan police to ensure that everyone on that list is contacted and can go back and check with their phone companies.

The issue of contacting people who were on the list, and of whether their phones had been intercepted, was raised when the initial investigation took place and, I believe, in evidence that was given to the Select Committee and to the interviewer this morning by Assistant Commissioner Yates. The implication from several Opposition Members is that the Metropolitan police somehow failed in their duty on the matter, but they investigated the issue, people were prosecuted and they have made it clear that they will look into any further evidence that comes forward.

Last year, an elderly BBC journalist made a statement in a magazine that he had assisted in the death of a partner some years previously. The police investigated that statement. Now, several journalists and at least one Member of the House have made new statements, yet we are told that there is no new evidence. At what point will the Watergate scandal that is encompassing British politics be investigated?

I suggest that the hon. Lady listen a little more carefully to what I have said, which is absolutely clear. I have said that, if fresh evidence is brought forward—

The hon. Lady says that fresh evidence has been brought forward. Allegations have been made in The New York Times, which has made it clear that it will not make any evidence available to the police.