Howard retreat on new police powers

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The Independent Online
The Government has been forced to retreat over controversial proposals on police surveillance operations. Home Office ministers began making changes last night to the Police Bill, hoping to avert an almost certain defeat in the House of Lords next Monday.

The move came after Labour, which had originally backed plans by the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, to allow extensive surveillance without a warrant, changed its stance in the face of fierce protests from the legal profession. If the Mr Howard had not backed down his team would have been exposed to a hostile alliance of opposition peers and law lords.

Last night, an amicable resolution again looked more likely, even though the moves did not appear to be enough to satisfy the Bar Council, one of the leading critics of the Government's plans.

Amendments due to be tabled today will ensure that the security commissioner who oversees the surveillance operations is notified of them by police as soon as is practically possible, The Independent understands. They will also allow the commissioner to quash applications even where there have been no complaints.

Changes which had already been tabled last night will also provide extra protection for professionals such as lawyers and journalists who keep confidential files. The Prime Minister would decide how many commissioners should be appointed - the Bill had provided for only one but Labour wants at least three.

Labour's changes go further than those tabled by the Government, and there may still be a tight vote on the issue in the Lords on Monday. The opposition party wants the commissioners to give prior consent for all surveillance operations unless time makes it impossible.

The party also wants lawyers, journalists and doctors to be protected from surveillance unless there is evidence that they are involved in criminal activity, while the Government is content simply that the commissioner should see any plans within 48 hours. It also wants a tighter definition of the "serious crime" which can trigger a covert police operation.

Last night, the shadow Home Secretary, Jack Straw, said he was not ready to comment on the Government's proposals until he had seen them. Although civil liberties should be protected, crime must be tackled effectively, he said. "This kind of surveillance is necessary if the public are to be protected from ruthless criminals. Our amendments, if accepted, will ensure that the police have the powers which they need."

However, the chairman of the Bar Council, Robert Owen QC, said he did not believe the Government's changes went far enough. He has argued that surveillance operations should be approved in advance. He believes that any of the six presiding judges on court circuits should be authorised to agree to such moves.

He predicted that the issues would still be hotly debated in the House of Lords. "This does not seem to meet the fundamental points about prior authorisation and the full protection of legal professional privilege," he said.

Yesterday, Lord Alexander, a Tory peer and former chairman of the Bar Council, also criticised the Government's plans, which he said would entitle the police to "bug and burgle" private property. "We do not live in a police state. All our instincts make it unlikely that we shall ever do so. But this new power is one step down the slippery path. It is a blatant executive inroad into our freedoms," he said.