6 Sep 2010

MPs call for new phone-hacking probe

The Home Secretary says it is up to the police to decide whether to probe new evidence about alleged phone-hacking by News of the World journalists, writes Political Editor Gary Gibbon.

Home Secretary Theresa May faced a heated series of exchanges with MPs after Commons speaker John Bercow approved an urgent question put by the former Labour minister Tom Watson.

Mrs May was repeatedly asked why the government will not intervene and order the Metropolitan police phone-hacking investigation to be reopened.

She told the Commons that it is up to the police to decide if the case should be reopened and was not a decision for the government to take.

She was also asked by Mr Watson to confirm if former prime minister Tony Blair’s communications had been intercepted.

Tom Watson urged the government not to join a “conspiracy” to undermine the “integrity of our democracy”.

Earlier the Metropolitan police said it would consider new claims of phone-hacking revealed last week by the New York Times. However the paper has said it will not hand over its evidence.

Would police want to begin a fresh investigation?
In the Commons, Theresa May echoed the words of Assistant Commissioner John Yates on BBC Radio 4 this morning, saying that the Met would now be looking into the New York Times' allegations, writes political editor Gary Gibbon.

But that probably won't get things very far. The NYT contains allegations, only one of them from someone currently wanting to be named. That is different from what the police class as "evidence": that would require some dates, incidents, specific names etc.

What those angry about all this needed to do was to get the police looking into the countless unchecked leads that sat in files they raided in 2006 in the home of private investigator John Mulcaire.

It seems increasingly clear that the police didn't want to go looking for evidence in most of these cases.

When Chris Bryant MP asked them if he was on the list last year, the police said he could easily find out if people had been trying to hack into his voicemail by calling his service provider.

One call and he'd heard it had happened at least four times with people trying to bluff their way into getting his pin number. That didn't take long. But it was time, energy, discomfort perhaps that the police didn't want to go through in 2006, 2009 or now. And as things stand the police don't intend to march off doing it now.
Read more at Gary Gibbon's blog

Former News of the World reporter, Sean Hoare, claimed Downing Street communications director Andy Coulson was aware of phone-hacking when he was in charge of the paper.

A spokesman for Mr Coulson stressed he had not been contacted by detectives, but said he would be happy to co-operate with any Scotland Yard inquiry.

“Andy Coulson has today told the Metropolitan Police that he is happy to voluntarily meet with them following allegations made by Sean Hoare.

“Mr Coulson emphatically denies these allegations. He has, however, offered to talk to officers if the need arises and would welcome the opportunity to give his view on Mr Hoare’s claims.”

The Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner John Yates said that the force would examine new material and consider further action if necessary.

All five candidates in the Labour leadership contest have called for a fresh inquiry into unconfirmed claims that News of the World reporters listened in to the voicemail messages of a long list of prominent figures, including politicians and celebrities.

Labour MP Chris Bryant told Channel 4 News he felt the police should have done more to investigate people like himself, who had discovered their messages had been targeted.

“It wasn’t that police got in touch with me to say that I was a person of interest to Mr (Glenn) Mulcaire, it was when I, on the off-chance wrote to the police to ask if I was involved I found out about it,” he said.

“I’m sure there are getting on for 3,000 if not more other individuals who are in exactly the same position, for whom none of the leads have been investigated at all”.

Investigation ‘not mishandled’
Mr Yates denied today that the case had been mishandled, and repeated that the Met would investigate any new evidence.

“We have always said that if any new material, new evidence, was produced we would consider it,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

Mr Yates said the force would focus the investigation “where we can get the best evidence and not go on a wild goose chase”.

He refused to speculate on how many people’s phones may have been hacked but stressed: “All I would say is we take our obligations regarding telling victims very seriously.

“There’s a misunderstanding here that suggests just because your name features in a private investigator’s files, your phone has been hacked.

“The fact that John Prescott’s name appears on an invoice does not mean his phone has been hacked. It means he is of interest to a private investigator. That’s what private investigators do.

“I believe there is no evidence that his phone has been hacked. I have made that very clear on a number of occasions.”

Asked if the original probe had been mishandled, Mr Yates said: “No. I absolutely don’t accept that. This was a very, very thorough inquiry. It resulted in the conviction of two people, it resulted in a very complex area of law being clarified and it sent an extremely strong deterrent to other people.”

Mr Coulson came under renewed pressure last week after former journalists told the New York Times that the practice of phone-hacking was far more extensive than the newspaper acknowledged at the time.

These claims have been rejected by the NOTW and Mr Coulson.

In his statement on Sunday, Mr Yates said: “Since further allegations in relation to phone-hacking first emerged in the Guardian in July 2009, the Metropolitan Police has been very clear about its position and made this public on a number of occasions.

“The newspaper produced no new evidence for us to consider reopening the case – a position endorsed separately by the Director of Public Prosecutions and leading counsel. We have always said that this position could change if new evidence was produced.

“The New York Times contacted the MPS (Metropolitan Police Service) about their investigation. Our stance remains as before.

“We have repeatedly asked them for any new material that they have for us to consider. We were never made aware of the material from Sean Hoare before the article’s publication.

“We have sought additional information from them and will consider this material, along with Sean Hoare’s recent BBC radio interview, and will consult the Crown Prosecution Service on how best to progress it.”

Mr Yates also repeated the Met’s assurance that there was “no evidence” that former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott’s phone was hacked.

Lord Prescott has threatened to take legal action to force police to release any documents relating to him which were seized during an investigation which in 2007 led to former Royal correspondent Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire being jailed.

But Mr Yates said the Met had already provided Lord Prescott with all the information relevant to him, and by law could not supply the actual documents unless ordered to do so by a court.

A senior Labour MP told Channel 4 News there is now enough evidence to re-open the Commons Select committee inquiry into the allegations.

Paul Farrelly, who sat on the culture, media and sport select committee of senior backbench MPs, which examined the phone-hacking allegations, said it was simply not true that no stone had been left unturned in the police investigation.

“I think the extra evidence that has been uncovered by the New York Times, including the willingness of certain people to come forward and say yes, we did this, but we did this under orders [means] it really is time now for the police to reopen their files and investigate properly,” he told Channel 4 News.