Authorised telephone tapping at record level

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The Independent Online
TELEPHONE tapping and the interception of mail by police, Customs and the security services have reached an all-time high, according to official figures published yesterday.

Lord Bingham, appointed by the Government to monitor one of the state's more controversial and covert activities, said in his 1993 report that 1,005 telephone warrants were issued last year, compared with 492 in 1987. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, applied for 105 warrants to examine letters - more than three times the 1987 total.

In each case, said Lord Bingham, 'the figures are higher than they have ever been before'. He added: 'This would be a source of acute concern if it indicated that the statutory criteria were being less rigorously applied. I am satisfied that this is not so.'

He claimed that arrests and seizures had increased 'in a commendably high proportion, partly as a result of information obtained by means of interception'.

Bugging errors had been made. In one case, a wrong prefix number was given and the mistake was not spotted until after the warrant was issued. Incorrect dates had also been inserted in warrants, leading to hours of unauthorised listening. Similarly, Post Office records had not been updated leading to letters being improperly opened. 'It cannot realistically be hoped,' Lord Bingham said, 'that human errors of this kind can ever be wholly eliminated.'

A customer whose phone is subject to a 'fixed wire' tap may request a change in number. BT agrees and allocates a new number. The interception continues but at that point, the activity is unauthorised.

No warrant application was refused, although on one occasion a minister requested more information before making the order.

While the report gives the total of warrants, it does not give the number of lines tapped. Critics say that without publicising this sort of information, the monitoring process becomes meaningless and in reality MI5 is given a free hand. One expert has said that in 1992, 843 warrants were issued but 35,000 lines were tapped.

According to rules laid down by Harold Wilson, no MP's phone is supposed to be tapped and following the row about newspapers repeating the Princess of Wales's intimate conversations, the Government gave assurances last year that no member of the royal family has been bugged.