MPs in emergency debate as police consider phone hack probe

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The Independent Online

An emergency Commons debate has been called to examine newspaper phone hacking, it was announced today amid fresh pressure on Downing Street communications chief Andy Coulson.

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg warned Labour not to "second guess" police inquiries into fresh allegations over the affair as he stood in for David Cameron at question time.

He said Mr Coulson denied any knowledge of the practice when he was editor of the News of the World and said it was "for the police alone" to decide if a new investigation was required.

But immediately after the weekly session, Speaker John Bercow said he had accepted a request from Labour former minister Chris Bryant - whose mobile phone was hacked - for a debate tomorrow.

Mr Clegg, who stepped in when the PM flew to France after his father suffered a stroke while on holiday, was tackled on the explosive issue by former justice secretary Jack Straw.

Mr Coulson always denied any knowledge of the illegal eavesdropping, for which the NotW's ex-royal editor Clive Goodman and a private detective were jailed in 2007.

But one of his former reporters, Sean Hoare, reignited the row last week by publicly claiming his boss had been aware of the activities.

Senior Scotland Yard Yard officer John Yates indicated yesterday he was likely to speak to Mr Coulson as he considers whether to reopen the police probe.

And former NotW reporter Ross Hall - named in a previous inquiry as the man who transcribed hacked voicemail messages - said he would testify to a new probe launched by a Commons committee.

Downing Street has insisted Mr Coulson's position is not under threat and said he has the full backing of the Prime Minister.

Repeatedly pressed by Mr Straw to say whether he personally believed Mr Coulson's denial of any involvement, the DPM said the Number 10 communications chief's denial "speaks for itself".

"Phone hacking is a very serious offence indeed. It is an outrageous invasion of privacy and it is right that two individuals were convicted and imprisoned," he told MPs.

"As for Mr Coulson, he has made it very, very clear that he took responsibility for something of which he had no knowledge at the News of the World and he refutes all the allegations that have been made to the contrary. That statement speaks for itself.

"It is now for the police, and the police alone, to decide whether new evidence has come to light which needs to be investigated."

Senior Liberal Democrats were highly critical of the former NotW editor before joining the Tories in Government - Chris Huhne then publicly suggesting he was either complicit or incompetent.

"Do you expect us to believe that the only person who knew nothing about phone hacking at News of the World was the editor - the very man who the Prime Minister has brought into the heart of the Government?" Mr Straw asked as he highlighted the now Energy Secretary's criticism of Mr Coulson.

"Mr Huhne and I are in complete agreement that if new evidence has come to light the police - and that is what I want and that is what I expect - will now actively look to see whether that evidence is worthy of further investigation. That is what the police are there for," Mr Clegg retorted.

And he told MPs the first person to call Mr Coulson to commiserate on his resignation was Labour former prime minister Gordon Brown.

"He told him not to worry, that he had done the honourable thing and that he knew he would go on to do a worthwhile job," Mr Clegg said to laughter from the Government benches.

Mr Bryant has been a leading critic of the police handling of the phone hacking allegations - accusing officers of failing to act despite his phone provider confirming that his mobile had been "interfered with".

His name was among those found in material related to the private investigator - and he had called on Mr Bercow to intervene, saying MPs' security was the responsibility of the Speaker and Serjeant at Arms.

The ex-minister has also asked Scotland Yard to inform all MPs whose names - like his - were among those found in material from the private investigator examined as part of the first investigation.

In tomorrow's emergency debate, MPs will be asked to refer the matter to the cross-party Commons Standards and Privileges Committee - chaired by Tory ex-cabinet minister Sir Malcolm Rifkind.