Phone hacking row prompts law review

By Ian Dunt

The law concerning tapping into or hacking mobile phones will be the subject of a review by the home affairs select committee.

The announcement of the review followed evidence from assistant commissioner John Yates, who answered questions on the phone hacking row engulfing the News of the World and Scotland Yard this morning.

During his testimony, Mr Yates admitted that the law around phone hacking required a very high burden of proof and that this had impacted on the investigation.

“The evidence of assistant commissioner John Yates today raised a number questions of importance about the law on phone hacking, the way the police deal with such breaches of the law and the manner in which victims are informed of those breaches,” said committee chairman Keith Vaz.

“I hope that this inquiry will clarify all these important areas.”

The committee will now look at the definition of the offences relating to unauthorised tapping or hacking in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) and the ease of prosecuting such offences.

It will also investigate how the police respond to alleged breaches of the law, “especially the treatment of those whose communications have been intercepted”.

The specific mention of the treatment of alleged victims suggests the committee is largely sympathetic to the claims of some MPs, including former Foreign Office minister Chris Bryant, who claim their phones were hacked but that the police have done nothing to help them establish the facts.

Mr Bryant said he had written to all MPs suggesting that they all write to the Met asking for clarification as to whether they were targeted.

“John Yates made clear in his evidence today that he does not see it as his or the Met’s responsibility to make all individuals aware of attempts made to invade their privacy,” he said.

“He in effect, seems to be saying that we as MPs, celebrities and other public figures will have to conduct our own investigations to get to the bottom of how pervasive these practices were.”

The committee will also look into what the police can do to control such offences.

The decision of the home affairs committee to investigate the matter further raises the possibility of the story running on longer than anyone in Downing Street, Scotland Yard, or the News of the World would like.

Home secretary Theresa May has insisted it is an operational matter for the police. Today Mr Yates confirmed that he would speak to Andy Coulson, current director of communications in Downing Street and former editor of the News of the World.

But the announcement of the inquiry drags the issue back into the political sphere, and prevents it from becoming solely a police matter.

It could also force several key figures to appear in public to answer questions on the matter, thereby raising the prospect of ongoing coverage just when the key players were hoping it would die down.