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Privy Council Review: Intercepts as Evidence

Volume 707: debated on Thursday 12 February 2009


My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement:

The Privy Council review of intercept as evidence was published on 30 January 2008.

In his Statement to the House of 6 February 2008 my right honourable friend the Prime Minister affirmed his commitment to the principle of using intercept as evidence and the case for doing so provided that national security could also be protected. He also agreed that the programme of work recommended by the report be taken forward, with the objective of legislation. At the same time, the Privy Council review itself acknowledged that, before legislation could be brought forward, further extensive work was required.

I am pleased to be able to report on progress. I am also having placed in the House Libraries copies of a progress report to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister on behalf of the Advisory Group of Privy Counsellors, comprising the right honourable Sir John Chilcot, the right honourable Sir Alan Beith MP, the right honourable Michael Howard QC MP, and my noble and learned friend the right honourable Lord Archer of Sandwell. I should like to express my thanks to the advisory group for its diligent and constructive support for this programme of work. I should also like to echo their praise for the “commitment and thoroughness with which the interception community has sought to address the issues”.

The Privy Council review rightly recognised that interception is of vital importance to public protection and national security. It also recognised that the issues raised by the potential use of intercept product in evidence are complex. This has proved to be the case, as the advisory group’s report makes clear. However, we have now reached the end of the programme’s first phase, with work to design in detail the model recommended by the Privy Council review now largely complete. Work is now in hand to flesh out the detailed guidance required in advance of testing the practicalities of the model.

However, it is clear that a number of key issues remain to be resolved if the objective of facilitating the prosecution of terrorist and other serious crime with the assistance of intercept as evidence is to be achieved. As the advisory group observes, there is an intrinsic tension between meeting legal needs and the operational requirements identified by the Privy Council review. It is also not yet clear whether the key safeguard of our being able to revert to the current regime should implementation fail would itself be legally sustainable.

The Government agree with the advisory group that “securing the intended increase in successful prosecutions while ensuring fairness of trials remains difficult and may not prove possible in most complex cases”. The Government agree on the importance of a further stage of work being taken forward urgently to test the viability of the model developed.

The Government’s intention remains to be in a position to bring forward legislation for use of intercept as evidence as soon as possible. However, they believe, given the importance of interception for national security, including the ability to prevent and disrupt serious crime and terrorism, that if the results indicate that there is no practical solution, they should be accepted. Equally, if it is necessary to take further time to iron out the detail of an apparently workable solution, we should do so rather than be driven by the legislative timetable.