Police admit they knew Milly Dowler was hacked

Surrey force says it knew in 2002 that the News of the World had accessed phone messages

Surrey Police last night admitted for the first time it did know that the mobile phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler was hacked by the News of the World in the early stages of the investigation into the teenager's disappearance.

Following an investigation by The Independent which established that the force failed to take action against the Sunday newspaper despite being made aware of the hacking, Chief Constable Mark Rowley said the title had phoned the police operation room in April 2002 and disclosed that it had accessed her voicemail.

In a letter to the Home Affairs Select Committee, Mr Rowley said officers had "focused on retrieving any evidence the NOTW had that could assist in the investigation into Milly Dowler's disappearance", as that was the priority.

But the chief constable confirmed that no criminal investigation was launched into how the News International title obtained the information it provided and that Surrey Police "neither arrested nor charged anyone" in connection with the hacking.

An inquiry is now being conducted into why the force failed to pursue the NOTW, Mr Rowley said.

In a further significant admission, Surrey Police said it appeared the force had also failed to pass the information it held about the hacking of Milly's Nokia mobile phone to the Metropolitan Police during its heavily criticised original investigation into voicemail interception by the NOTW in 2006.

Keith Vaz, the committee's chairman, said: "Had Surrey Police acted in 2002, it may have prevented the culture of hacking becoming endemic at News of the World. This was a serious omission. The committee will be investigating further the reasons why Surrey Police did not follow up on this evidence."

The Surrey force's disclosure comes after The Independent last week revealed that senior Surrey Police detectives leading the Dowler investigation met on at least two occasions with NOTW journalists and were shown evidence that the paper held information taken from the voicemails of the murdered schoolgirl.

In response to repeated questions over a two-month period from The Independent, Surrey Police refused to confirm that it was aware of the phone hacking, saying it was prevented from discussing the allegations because of Scotland Yard's phone-hacking inquiry and an investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

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