News International told lies and prevaricated in a concerted attempt to thwart Scotland Yard's investigations into phone hacking, two of the country's most senior police officers told Parliament yesterday.
In bruising exchanges with MPs, police chiefs were attacked for incompetence in failing to examine the mountain of evidence seized from the disgraced private investigator Glenn Mulcaire that showed the staggering, industrial extent of phone hacking by the News of the World.
But the former deputy assistant commissioner Peter Clarke, who conducted the original inquiry in 2006, insisted that he had been thwarted by the company's efforts to obstruct the investigation. He told the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee that he had pursued his inquiry as far as he could through correspondence with the NOTW's lawyers.
But he said: "This is a major global organisation with access to the best legal advice, in my view deliberately trying to thwart a police investigation."
Mr Clarke added: "If at any time News International had offered some meaningful co-operation instead of prevarication and what we now know to be lies, we would not be here today."
Assistant Commissioner John Yates, who concluded two years ago that there was no evidence of widespread hacking after a review lasting eight hours – despite 11,000 pages of documents which suggested the contrary – protested that the NOTW "appears to have failed to co-operate in the way that we now know they should have with the relevant police inquiries up until January of this year".
He said: "They have only recently supplied information and evidence that would clearly have had a significant impact on the decisions that I took in 2009 had it been provided to us."
Following Mr Yates' appearance in front of the inquiry, the former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown called on him to resign, saying: "This is a man employed for judgment and it is plain by his own admission that he has made a very serious error of judgment."
Mr Clarke, who was the country's chief counter-terror officer, admitted his officers failed to carry out an "exhaustive examination" of the 11,000 documents seized from Mulcaire, which contained the private contact details of hundreds of people. He said: "I can't be sure all the material was read."
He argued that his team was under pressure at the time the hacking allegations first surfaced, investigating 70 suspected terrorist operations following the London bombings of 7 July 2005.
Mr Yates decided in January 2009 not to reopen the haccking investigation following a brief re-examination of fresh claims in newspapers – a decision he admitted yesterday was "poor".
He repeatedly argued that the claims appeared at the time to contain no new evidence, although he conceded he had obtained no revised legal advice.
Labour MP Stephen McCabe remarked that he did not "seem like the dogged determined sleuth everyone would have expected".
Mr Yates, who said he was "99 per cent sure" his own phone had been hacked, acknowledged it was likely that some officers in the force accepted cash from journalists. He told the committee's chairman, Keith Vaz, that he had not offered to step down: "If you're suggesting I should resign for what the News of the World has done and my very small part in it, I think that's probably unfair."
At the end of his evidence Mr Vaz delivered an extraordinary rebuke to Mr Yates, telling him that the committee found his evidence "unconvincing". Mr Vaz said: "There are more questions to be asked about what happened when you conducted this review. So you may well be hearing from us again. Please do not regard this as an end of the matter."
The former Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Andy Hayman, who was in ultimate charge of the 2006 inquiry, was accused of being a "dodgy geezer". He said he had made no secret of holding private dinners with News of the World journalists while the inquiry was underway, but said that the meetings were "businesslike".
Testimony: How police chiefs past and present answered to Parliament
"I do not doubt that if we do not get this right it [confidence] will continue to be damaged"
Sue Akers, Met deputy assistant commissioner, leading current hacking inquiry
"It's a matter of great concern that the News of the World appears to have failed to co-operate in the way that we now know they should have" John Yates, Met assistant commissioner
"If at any time News International had offered meaningful co-operation instead of lies, we would not be here today... Would you expect criminals to co-operate with the police? Of course you don't... This is a major global organisation with access to the best legal advice, in my view deliberately trying to thwart a police investigation"
Peter Clarke, former Met deputy assistant commissioner
"When you look back now, this is absolutely awful, the people that are going through the pain the second time around as victims – just appalling"
Andy Hayman, former Met assistant commissioner, led the first hacking inquiry in 2006
"I remember being told of an inquiry in 2006 that concerned hacking... It wasn't a major issue at the time"
Sir Ian Blair, former Met commissioner