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House of Lords Hansard
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Interception Of Postal Items
01 February 2001
Volume 621

3.11 p.m.

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asked Her Majesty's Government:

What bodies are entitled to intercept items carried by the Royal Mail; in what circumstances; and under what powers.

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My Lords, the powers to authorise the interception of communications are to be found in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. Under that Act, there are nine bodies which may seek authorisation to intercept items carried by the Royal Mail. These are the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service, Government Communications Headquarters, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the Metropolitan Police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Scottish police forces, Her Majesty's Customs and Excise and the Ministry of Defence.

The grounds on which a warrant can be granted are strictly limited. It can be done only when the interception is necessary for one of the three following purposes: first, in the interests of national security; secondly, for the prevention or detection of serious crime; and, thirdly, for the purpose of safeguarding the economic well-being of the United Kingdom.

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My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is he aware that on 20th January on the "Money Box" programme, the National Criminal Intelligence Service said that it had intercepted 10,000 letters from Nigeria concerning a financial scam asking people to move lots of money? Can he tell us exactly what is meant by "interception"? Can he further say what is the position about private mail, as a good deal of mail now comes via couriers and other means rather than via the Royal Mail?

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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the information given on that programme. I was not aware of it. Postal interception plays a very small part in interception operations. I am advised that out of 2,000 warrants issued in 1999, the latest year for which we have figures, just 130 authorised the interception of postal items. Interception is a vital intelligence gathering tool for law enforcement and national security purposes.

As to the noble Baroness's final point, the fact is that an interception warrant may be served on a person who provides a "postal service". A "postal service" is defined in the legislation as any service which assists in the distribution and delivery of postal items. A "postal item" is defined as any letter, postcard or other thing in writing as may be used by the sender for imparting information to the recipient. That covers private courier services as well as the Royal Mail.