Halford triumphs over workplace phone bugs

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The Independent Online
Merseyside Police illegally tapped the office telephone of their former assistant chief constable Alison Halford during her sex-discrimination battle with the force, the European Court of Human Rights ruled yesterday. The important ruling establishes a new right of privacy for employees and will force the Government to review Britain's phone-tapping laws.

The judges awarded compensation of pounds 10,000 to Ms Halford, once the highest- ranking female police officer in Britain, who launched a sex-discrimination complaint in 1990 after claiming that she had been passed over for promotion nine times. The complaint developed into a bitter struggle with Merseyside's Chief Constable, Sir James Sharples, and some members of the police authority.

The Government conceded it was likely that Merseyside Police had intercepted calls at her office at Merseyside Police Headquarters, probably with the primary aim of gathering material to defend the complaint.

The Strasbourg judges, including the representative for the United Kingdom, unanimously ruled that articles 8 and 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights were violated by the tapping of the calls, for which Ms Halford had no effective remedy. Ms Halford had had a "reasonable expectation" of privacy in making and receiving phone calls in her office and she had not been warned that her telephone might be bugged.

Ms Halford told a press conference she had called in a BT engineer when her phones began "tinkling". "He could not find any reason for it. Then quite suddenly something seemed to dawn on him and he said it must have been a loose wire under the floorboards. The office was very modern though, and had concrete floors."

Her solicitor, Robin Makin, said: "The principle has been established that an improper invasion of her privacy occurred. It will have tremendous implications."

In a letter to Ms Halford's then MP, David Alton, the Home Office said that eavesdropping by the Merseyside Police on their own internal telephone system fell outside the scope of the 1985 Interception of Communications Act and would not require a warrant.

A Home Office spokeswoman said that Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, was "looking carefully at whether or not any changes are needed to the law".

The judges awarded Ms Halford pounds 600 towards personal expenses incurred in bringing the case to Strasbourg and pounds 25,000 of pounds 142,875 she had claimed in legal costs and expenses. They rejected a second claim that the phone at her home at Caldy, Merseyside, had been tapped.

The discrimination case was settled in 1992 when Ms Halford took ill- health retirement with ex gratia payments of pounds 15,000. In December 1990 she had been suspended from duty following disciplinary allegations which included swimming in a pool in her underwear. The suspension was later lifted but she was re-suspended pending a further disciplinary investigation.

She claimed during the Strasbourg proceedings that some members of Merseyside Police Authority launched a "campaign" against her in response to her discrimination complaint. This took the form of leaks to the press, the bringing of disciplinary proceedings against her and the interception of her calls.

John Wadham, director of the human rights organisation Liberty, said: "Very senior police officers were spying on one of their own employees whilst she was fighting a sex-discrimination claim against them. The case establishes a clear right to privacy for employees, and the Government will now need to draft legislation to protect this right."

When Ms Halford launched her discrimination complaint she was the highest- ranking policewoman in Britain. Now, 12 of 230 at chief officer rank (chief constables, their deputies and assistants and Metropolitan Police commanders) are women, including two chief constables.

Ms Halford said at the press conference that she was "extremely delighted" by the ruling. "When it comes to tapping phones in this country the law as it stands indicates that you must be a terrorist, a subversive or a threat to the public. Bringing an equality action did not put me into that category ... I believe in the right circumstances that it is right and proper for police to protect us from wrongdoing and that could include phone tapping. I feel sad, though, that a chief constable I have enjoyed an excellent working relationship with behaved in this dishonourable manner."

Sir James said: "No agency can ever confirm or deny such matters because to do so would undermine the effectiveness of the technique."