Major blow to plans for for intercept evidence

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The Independent Online

Plans to allow juries to hear evidence of phone taps and other covert intelligence have suffered a major blow after a Government report found the proposals to be unworkable.

The findings published today will be welcomed by senior figures in MI5, MI6 and GCHQ who are known to have privately warned about the dangers of changing the law to lift the blanket ban on using intercept intelligence in order to bring criminal prosecutions against terrorists and serious criminals. Of principal concern is the potential threat to security operations if the secret techniques used by the intelligence and security agencies are made public. The Whitehall review included a series of mock trials using real intercept material from current investigations into drugs and money laundering to test the proposed model. Results from these tests showed that defence would be able to use the law to request disclosure of a range of intercept material which would compromise future investigations by disclosing how the state uses intercepts to fight crime and terrorism.

But the review also found that the storing and organising of all phone tap and email traffic recorded by police and MI5 would require "electronic warehouses" and cost billions.

Last night senior laws and human rights groups doubted whether these obstacles would ever be overcome.

Lord Carlile, the Government's independent reviewer of terror legislation, told The Independent: "I think it depends on a considerable development of technological capacity to search a huge volume of spoken material. I remain in favour in principle, but the practicalities and some legal issues are against it."

Eric Metcalfe, director of human rights policy at Justice, said: "Intercept evidence may not be a magic bullet, but it isn't rocket science either. It is well past time that this evidence was made admissible in UK courts."

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said: "If Australia and the United States can both use intercept evidence in court without the world coming to an end, it cannot be beyond the realms of British ingenuity to do the same.”

Home Secretary Alan Johnson said the findings of the report were "disappointing" but reaffirmed the Government's intention to find a way to allow intercept as evidence in court.