DPP takes on Clarke over phone-tap evidence

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Indy Politics

Charles Clarke's refusal to allow the use of phone-tap evidence against terrorist suspects has put him at odds with Britain's most senior prosecutor. Opposition parties and human rights groups have backed the use of surveillance material in court as an alternative to the Home Secretary's plans for "control orders", under which people could face house arrest.

Ken Macdonald, the Director of Public Prosecutions, says in an interview today that he sees no reason why evidence from telephone intercepts should not be admissible in trials.

He tells the New Statesman that his foreign counterparts have advised him bringing in such a measure would be a signal that British courts were serious about fighting terrorism and organised crime. His views flatly contradict Mr Clarke, who has ruled out permitting such material in court on the grounds that it could jeopardise security operations. A spokeswoman for Mr Macdonald said: "Intercept evidence is allowed in most other jurisdictions. He does think that would help."

Britain is the only country in the West, apart from Ireland, that does not accept the use of such material in courts and supporters of the idea maintain that the practical problems can be overcome.

The Tories and the Liberal Democrats will move amendments next week to the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill to allow intercept material in prosecutions. They argue that sensitive material can first be assessed by security-cleared judges before it can be submitted to court.

The amendments will be opposed by the Government. Mr Clarke told the Commons last week a review of covertly gathered evidence had concluded its use would not necessarily enable the prosecution of terrorist suspects. He said: "It provides only part of the intelligence against individuals, and sometimes a small part. It does not stand alone. Some of the material we have in these cases is inadmissible, and other material, while technically admissible, could not be adduced without compromising national security, damaging relationships with foreign powers or intelligence agencies, or putting the lives of sources at risk."

He has also argued the fast-changing nature of technology made it difficult to draw up guidelines for use of intercept.

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "We're glad Ken Macdonald agrees with us and believes phone-tap evidence should be admissible in court. It would be a vital weapon in the process of bringing suspected terrorists to trial."

Robert Marshall-Andrews QC, the Labour MP for Medway, said: "I have never understood the aversion to this idea. Courts are well used to dealing with sensitive material."

Mr Clarke faces an uphill struggle to win over some ministers and many of his backbenchers to the concept of control orders. He has been warned of a Labour rebellion.