Justice Secretary admits prison staff listened in on MPs phone calls

Chris Grayling tells Commons that calls between MPs and prisoners were tapped

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The Independent Online

Prison staff have secretly recorded and listened into confidential telephone calls between more than 30 MPs and prisoners, Chris Grayling disclosed today.

The Justice Secretary apologised for the covert tapping of MPs’ phones over six years between 2006 and 2012 and announced an urgent investigation into the invasion of privacy. He also said a handful of private calls between inmates and their lawyers had also been monitored.

Mr Grayling disclosed the extent of the practice, which breaches rules over the interception of communications, in an emergency statement to the Commons.

The most recent tapping, which took place in 2012, affected a call between a prisoner and the office of the Lib Dem minister Simon Hughes, who is now Mr Grayling’s deputy at the Ministry of Justice.

Mr Hughes said: “I am angry. I am also absolutely clear we need to take action to prevent it happening, which is what has been done as quickly as humanly possible by the department responsible."

He added: “I am very concerned that we continue to uphold civil liberties.”

Several calls to the office of the senior Labour MP Jack Straw were also recorded when he was the Justice Secretary.

Mr Grayling said the National Offender Management Service had “identified 32 current members of this House whose calls or those for their offices appear to have been both recorded and listened to”.

In 18 cases, the recording happened by accident as the prisoner forgot to register the number being rung as confidential. In another 15 the number was identified correctly, but the conversation was still recorded because of a “potential failure in the administrative process”, Mr Grayling said.

He told the Commons: “I have as yet seen no evidence that information was passed on to anyone else. I don’t believe this was part of a concerted attempt to monitor – it was simply part of the routine checking of this process to make sure nothing untoward was going on.”

He said the tapping had taken place between 2006 and 2012 when the system was tightened up.

Mr Grayling said an inquiry would be undertaken by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick.

He will first report by the end of the month to ensure safeguards to stop calls being recorded or listened to are in place before publishing a full assessment of the facts in early 2015.

The shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan, said the revelations were “truly shocking” and “a very serious breach of confidentiality involving MPs and their constituents”.

He said: “It is important we get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible, find out the extent to which it was taking place, and put in place a system that prevents a repeat in the future."

Mr Khan said questions remained over whether privately run prisons were involved, how many prisons were involved and how many former MPs had their phone calls listened to.

Juliet Lyon, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “This is not a breach of protocol - it is a fundamental breach of democratic rights and justice.”

All conversations by prisoners are liable to recorded, but there are exemptions for calls on legal issues, including contacts with their constituency MPs.