Family members of the two Soham girls murdered by school caretaker Ian Huntley may have had their phone messages hacked by private investigator Glenn Mulcaire on the instructions of News of the World, an MP suggested yesterday.
The extraordinary claim about the Soham murders gives rise to new questions about the extent of the activities of Mr Mulcaire – who was jailed in 2007 for accessing voicemails on behalf of the NOTW – and other private investigators employed by the Sunday newspaper to access private information about public figures.
Kevin Wells, the father of Holly Wells, who was killed along with her classmate Jessica Chapman in August 2002, told The Independent last night: "The police are keeping us informed but we are maintaining a 'no comment' across the board."
Tom Watson, a former Labour Defence minister, said there was evidence that News International journalists had sought confidential information about other victims of crime from Steve Whittamore, a private detective who was convicted of accessing databases for several national newspaper groups. The Blue Book, a record of Mr Whittamore's searches compiled by the Information Commissioner's Office, shows he obtained the ex-directory phone number of the parents of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler for News International.
The new twist in the phone-hacking scandal came during an appearance before MPs by Acting Deputy Commissioner John Yates, who was seeking to rebut "serious allegations" that he and the Metropolitan Police had failed to fully investigate Mr Mulcaire and the NOTW prior to the launch of a new criminal inquiry in January this year. Pressing Mr Yates on the new investigation, Mr Watson said: "If it transpires from the review of the Mulcaire evidence that... Mulcaire was instructed to hack the phones of family members of the children that were killed at Soham, would that warrant an adequate use of police resources to investigate?"
Mr Yates, who is not involved in the new inquiry, told the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee that he was unaware of the claims about the Soham families but said he would expect any suggestion they appeared in Mr Mulcaire's files to be investigated. A spokeswoman for News International said last night: "We are not aware of any evidence to support this allegation."
The disappearance of Holly and Jessica, both 10, led to one of the most high-profile and intensely scrutinised police investigations of recent years, with scores of journalists descending on the Cambridgeshire town where they lived. The girls' decomposed bodies were found a fortnight after they were last seen while walking past Huntley's home to buy sweets.
The suggestion that the NOTW might have instructed Mr Mulcaire to obtain information from the mobile phones of the Wells and Chapman families came as Mr Yates said that "possible offences" might have been committed after Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International, admitted to MPs that payments had been made to police for information.
During her tenure as editor of The Sun, Ms Brooks told the media select committee in 2003: "We have paid the police for information in the past." Her comments were qualified by the former Downing Street press chief Andy Coulson, editor of NOTW at the time, who said they operated within the law. Mr Yates said it was illegal to pay for stories from the police, but said he could not decide on whether there were grounds for Ms Brooks to be investigated for her comments. "I am saying there are possible offences there," he said. "The decision on whether to launch an investigation is not for me."