Alun Michael, the Home Office minister, said safeguards in a draft code of practice published yesterday would strike a balance between protecting the public from criminals and the need to protect civil liberties. The Liberal Democrats pledged to oppose the guidelines, insisting that bugging should only used as last resort.
Bugging by police or customs of homes, offices or hotel bedrooms - even where confidential information held by lawyers, doctors, counsellors or journalists might be affected - will get statutory backing once the code, which has been sent to 200 interested organisations, is approved when Parliament resumes. The system has been created by the 1997 Police Act, to replace current administrative rules on bugging, which have no legal backing.
The code says chief police or customs officers must seek authorisation from a commissioner - a retired or serving High Court judge - to conduct surveillance in these circumstances. The provision follows criticism of the last government's original proposals, which made no provision for any judicial approval or warranting, and of Labour for backing them. But in "urgent" cases officers will be able to go ahead without prior approval as long as they notify a commissioner "as soon as reasonably practicable."
Approval by a commissioner will likewise not be needed when the police bug lock-ups, garages and vehicles.
The Liberal Democrat home-affairs spokesman, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, said: "The appointment of commissioners to vet applications seems certain to be inadequate to cope with the demands of a round-the-clock police service."
The Association of Chief Police Officers welcomed the code, saying it would enable effective action to continue to be taken against serious and organised crime.
The Home Office is planning to appoint a chief commissioner, who will present an annual report to the Prime Minister, and three commissioners for England and Wales, one or two for Scotland and one for Northern Ireland.