Bugging law 'threat to civil rights'

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New legislation being drawn up by the Government to give police a legal right to plant bugging devices could infringe civil liberties, it was claimed yesterday.

Liberty, the campaign group, warned that establishing the use of bugging in law could encourage the practice of covert surveillance. The concern comes as it emerged that the Government is preparing a Bill which will allow police to enter suspects' homes and plant surveillance devices.

Senior police officers stepped up demand for new legislation after the Security Services Bill, which becomes law later this year, was passed by Parliament. It will allow MI5, acting under the power of a warrant from the Home Secretary, to legally break into homes, search them, copy documents, plant listening devices and cameras and leave without the owners being aware they are under surveillance.

The Association of Chief Police Officers felt that the police required similar legislation to formalise their position on bugging and had asked the Home Office to look into the matter, a spokesman said last night.

Yesterday it emerged that Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, plans to introduce a Bill in November which would give police similar surveillance rights to MI5.

John Wadham, director of Liberty, warned that legalising bugging could encourage police to resort to covert tactics more often. "We are concerned that it will be increased and there will be inadequate controls on the use of such bugs," he said yesterday. "We would want to see a system whereby the police had to get authority from a judge before they can plant such devices in the same way they have to apply for a search warrant to enter premises."

A spokesman for Acpo said it was criminals who infringed people's liberty not police. "Curtailing people's rights and freedoms is what criminals do," he said. "The legislation is not drafted yet, but when it is I think many people's fears will prove to be unfounded." The system would increase the accountability of the police and show they had nothing to hide.

Proposals being considered to safeguard civil liberties are believed to include the requirement for a warrant signed by the Home Secretary or for the approval of two judges.

Under the 1985 Interception of Communications Act, authorisation is currently required from the Home Secretary in order to tap a telephone. Evidence gathered in this way is not, however, admissible as evidence in court. It remains unclear whether evidence gathered from covert surveillance under the provisions of the new Bill would be admissible or not.

Police have been able to carry out covert break-ins in the past because entering a house without intent to steal or cause damage is not a crime, although they have been open to civil actions for trespass.

Evidence gathered in this way was crucial to the private prosecution brought by the parents of Stephen Lawrence, the black teenager who was stabbed to death. The case later collapsed for other reasons.