Police raid on whistleblower's home was 'total abuse of power'

Information Commissioner asked officers to search investigator's house before Leveson Inquiry testimony

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The Independent Online

The Information Commissioner asked police to raid the home of a whistleblower days before he was due to give damaging evidence about alleged failings by the watchdog to Lord Justice Leveson's public inquiry into media standards.

Christopher Graham wrote to David Whatton, Chief Constable of Cheshire Police, asking for a search to be carried out on the home of Alec Owens, a former special branch officer and former senior investigator at the Information Commissioner's Office. The raid was denounced last night as a "total misuse of resources and power".

Mr Owens had headed the ICO's Operation Motorman inquiry into the media's use of a private detective to obtain vast amounts of illicit personal data, and has claimed the organisation was afraid to investigate the national press.

Officers raided his Widnes home in November, 12 days before he was due to give evidence to Leveson. Mr Graham's predecessor, Richard Thomas, who had been criticised by Owens in an article published in The Independent in September, was due to attend the inquiry the day after Mr Owens.

They took a computer file detailing 17,000 transactions made between the private detective Steve Whittamore and reporters working for national newspapers, magazines and television companies. Whittamore was convicted in 2005 of illegally accessing personal data.

Last night, The Independent learnt that Cheshire Police has informed Owens that it will be taking no further action against him. The force said it had acted on a complaint by Mr Graham.

But Paul Farrelly MP, a member of the House of Commons Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which has taken evidence on Operation Motorman, said: "The knock on the door from police can only be interpreted as a counter-productive, cack-handed attempt to put the frighteners on before testimony in the public interest to the Leveson inquiry ... Given [the committee's] unsatisfactory experience with the ICO, nothing, frankly, would surprise me, but using the police in this way is a total misuse of resources and power."

At the time of the raid – which police said related to alleged breaches of the Data Protection Act – Mr Owens declined to hand over a copy of his Leveson statement and described the search as an act of "vindictiveness".

Appearing before the Leveson Inquiry, he gave evidence about thousands of searches conducted by Whittamore.

Questioning the validity of the search warrant last night, Mr Owens said that the police had no powers to investigate data protection matters and that the ICO should have been open in its actions. "They handed the matter to the police in the full knowledge I had a public defence interest for speaking out."

The ICO said it stood by its actions and that it referred the matter to Cheshire Police because "it would not be appropriate for us to investigate a former member of staff".