Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has expressed alarm over revelations that hacking went far beyond the media and was routinely used by lawyers and private companies to obtain sensitive information about rivals.
The Independent disclosed last week that police officers knew for years that private investigators employed by other blue-chip industries besides newspapers routinely hired criminals to hack, blag and steal private information on members of the public.
Lord Justice Leveson, who conducted an inquiry into media ethics, was sent a report by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) detailing the extent of the unlawful practices, but refused to act on it.
The Home Secretary told MPs she recognised the disquiet in the Commons about hacking and found the new disclosures “very worrying”.
She was responding to a question from the senior Tory MP John Whittingdale, chairman of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. Mr Whittingdale asked her: “Could you say whether they got it right to tell Lord Justice Leveson about that, but not to pursue any action against those who had committed criminal offences?”
Ms May said decisions about prosecutions were a matter for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. But she added that she recognised the “degree of concern”.
“The question of phone hacking has been a matter that has caused disquiet in this House for some time,” she told MPs. “But the suggestion it could have been more widespread is of course equally worrying.”
Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, believes the evidence was withheld from Parliament during a previous inquiry into private investigators.
Last night, he wrote to Sir Ian Andrews, the chairman of Soca, highlighting The Independent’s revelations and ordering a “full, unredacted” version of the report to be delivered to the committee by Thursday.
He said: “If the allegations about the scale of hacking among private companies are true, this is a very serious matter indeed.
“I intend to write to all the companies suspected of this practice to establish just how widespread it is.”
Among the practices revealed by the confidential Soca report were live telephone interceptions, computer hacking, police corruption and obtaining itemised phone bills.
Lord Justice Leveson is facing questions over why he failed to highlight the allegations of misbehaviour during his inquiry.
Police investigations included in the Soca report found private investigators employed by a raft of clients including law firms, insurance companies, wealthy individuals and local councils.