Pinter's fears on bugging rejected

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Chief police officers and senior Labour politicians have rejected criticism of the Government-sponsored Police Bill by playwright Harold Pinter and leading solicitors.

Mr Pinter protested that the Bill had had "no discernible opposition" from Labour, although it would legalise bugging of private property by the police.

Labour's support for the Bill, promoted by the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, was also criticised yesterday by solicitors' leaders in London because it could allow bugging of their offices to allow the police to eavesdrop on their clients.

There had been "hardly a whimper from Her Majesty's Opposition lest they be thought to be soft on crime," said Robert Roscoe, president, and other leading members of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association. "Until the general election we are in a very dangerous state of constitutional limbo, where the rights of the citizen are being sacrificed by both parties on the altar of political expediency," they said.

However, Alun Michael, Labour's home affairs spokesman, yesterday stood by the Bill and denied that the party was not opposing it to avoid appearing soft on crime. He accused the opponents of getting the wrong end of the stick about the legislation.

"Most of the comment about the Bill has been based on a false premise," Mr Michael said. "This activity has been going on the authorisation of a chief constable and the guidelines from the Home Office for many years. The first guidelines were issued in 1977 and published in 1982. We think it is a step forward to have this activity put on a statutory basis for the first time," he added.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) joined with Labour in demanding the measure to put bugging on a statutory footing.

Labour may seek safeguards for solicitors, but Acpo believes exemptions could provide a loophole for criminals to operate from solicitors' offices.