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Criminal Trials: Intercept Evidence

Volume 812: debated on Wednesday 9 June 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have, if any, to change the law or practice on the use of intercept evidence in criminal trials.

My Lords, I first apologise to the Lord Speaker because I stood while he was standing—we are all grappling with masks and other things at the moment.

We continue to assess whether the conclusions of the comprehensive review of 2014, which of course the noble Lord, Lord Beith, oversaw, remain valid. It is not possible to find a practical way to allow the use of intercept evidence in court. The Government will keep this position under review.

My Lords, hundreds of arrests have been made because of the French police’s hacking of the EncroChat system used by criminal gangs, and more as a result of criminal use of the ANOM communication system, which was secretly controlled by the FBI. A recent Court of Appeal judgment means that much of this material could be used in evidence in UK courts. Does that not make the conclusion of the review to which the Minister referred now seem a little dated? The context has significantly changed, some of the obstacles that we foresaw in being able to make the change have been overcome, and maybe it is time to look again at it.

My Lords, this is quite a complex area. The information was obtained using an equipment interference warrant rather than an intercept warrant, and there are checks and balances within the criminal justice system to ensure that one route is not used in order to facilitate another outcome. We remain of the view that the review undertaken by the noble Lord is still valid.

My Lords, since intercept evidence is allowed in virtually every EU and common-law country, will the Government seek the advice of the Intelligence and Security Committee so that Parliament can decide, following the publication of its advice, the weight of the objections of the security services and inconsistencies where such evidence is allowed, in other countries, prisons and bugs?

We have done several reviews on this issue, including, obviously, that of the noble Lord, Lord Beith, back in 2014. We keep these matters under review, but for the time being we share the noble Lord’s conclusion.

My Lords, surely there must be some circumstances where intercept evidence could be used without compromising operational integrity, such as those mentioned by my noble friend Lord Beith. How many individuals could have been prosecuted if intercept evidence had been allowed instead of them being subjected to terrorism prevention and investigation measures, or TPIMs, at considerable additional cost—both financial and to the reputation of British justice?

My Lords, the question of how many individuals could have been prosecuted is very difficult to answer, given that the evidence was not used. I do not know if there are figures that I can give to the noble Lord. I want to make the point that we do not actually have an objection in principle to the use of intercept material as evidence, and we have tried to find a practical way to allow the use of intercept evidence in court. As I said, though, successive reviews have found that it is just not possible.

My Lords, when I was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, something that I proposed had the unexpected effect, unknown to me, of affecting the way in which the security services carried out surveillance. I was therefore given a briefing on the different ways in which they did these things, some of which were well-known to me and the public but others were not. Surely it would be possible to allow the security services to decide which methods they are going to reveal where they are using techniques that we do not want criminals to know about.

As I have said to other noble Lords, the costs and risks of using intercept as evidence are disproportionate to the potential benefits, and therefore we have not proceeded to intercept as an evidence model. However, we are not closed to the idea and will keep the position under review, and I totally acknowledge what my noble friend has said.

My Lords, the extraordinary success of Operation Trojan Shield has netted thousands of criminals in a hundred different countries, but is the Minister convinced that this country will be able to get the same level of successful prosecution as a result of that operation? Can she tell us quite why it is that intercept evidence that is deemed to be stored should be acceptable whereas intercept evidence that is in transmission is not?

The noble Baroness asks a very interesting question, which I am sure we will have debates on in the months and years to come, about the difference between the two. Fundamentally, there is a huge amount of other evidence that one would need to consider for an intercept warrant that makes it prohibitively costly, and therefore we just do not use it.

My Lords, following the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, in the EncroChat case the Court of Appeal analysed the distinction between intercept evidence where actual transmission has been intercepted and evidence that has been stored and harvested following transmission. That distinction is arcane and inconsistent. Can the Minister explain the difference in principle? Since we agree on the need for a warrant system to authorise the use of intercept evidence, should we not legislate for one consistent requirement for warrants to intercept actual transmission and warrants to harvest intercept evidence post transmission?

We would need a few hours to have that discussion so, thankfully, given that the Lord Speaker’s direction is to keep my answers brief, I will not go into that. As I have said, there are checks and balances within the criminal justice system, as the noble Lord well knows, that safeguard one route from being used in order to achieve another.

It has come to the attention of a few Members of this House that MI5 keeps files on them. If the police or security services chose to intercept our communications, would anyone in Parliament have the power to authorise or not authorise that?

I thank the noble Baroness for giving me notice of the fact that she was going to raise this issue; it is not really part of this Question, but that never stops her. As I said, we do not use intercept warrants as court evidence. In terms of who would authorise what, the Home Office would authorise its various agencies, the Foreign Office its agencies and the Northern Ireland Office its agencies, so it would be for those Secretaries of State to authorise those warrants.

My Lords, the interception of telephone calls or voicemails is normally an egregious breach of personal privacy, and some tabloids have paid the penalty for that. I declare an interest as a victim of hacking. However, that is different from law enforcement using intercept methods, properly regulated by the UK police and security authorities. Does the Minister agree that such techniques are essential to facilitate the gathering of essential evidence, as exemplified, as has been mentioned, by the FBI sting yesterday using the ANOM app, leading to over 800 arrests worldwide, and that, provided that it is used and regulated properly by the law, it is a legitimate tool protecting our citizens from organised and violent criminals?

That is a very good question to end on. The noble Lord raises the huge benefit of what the NCA has achieved through operations like Venetic. I will read out the figures: 746 individuals arrested and £54 million, 77 firearms and over 2 tonnes of drugs seized. That is an incredible achievement that goes towards keeping our citizens safe.