Leading Article: Inadmissible, and rightly so

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The Independent Online
SIR HUGH ANNESLEY, Chief Constable of the RUC, has waged a long campaign to persuade the Government to change the law in ways he believes would assist the fight against terrorism. One proposal is that information gathered by tapping telephones and other forms of surveillance should be admissible as evidence in court, subject to authorisation by a judge.

The Government has in the past resisted him, but Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, has reportedly been won over and is urging the change on the Home Secretary, who may introduce it for the whole country. If adopted, the measure would be part of a package designed to put pressure on the IRA following its inadequate response to the Downing Street Declaration.

The proposal raises two main questions. One is whether it would help to bring terrorists to justice. The other is whether it would so erode civil liberties that it should be opposed on principle. If there were strong evidence that it would curb terrorism, the principled case might have to give way, but so far there is little such evidence. RUC sources cite a double murder where they knew the culprit but could not proceed because phone-tap evidence was inadmissible. Even if genuine, one case is not sufficient to justify an important change in the law.

Common sense points in the same direction. Members of the IRA and Sinn Fein assume that their phones are tapped, so they normally avoid incriminating talk. Perhaps they are less alert to more modern methods of surveillance but they would soon wake up to them if they found the results being used in court. Any benefits would therefore be short-lived and the results probably counterproductive once they were revealed.

A democratic state must find a balance between order and freedom. In times of war and emergency it can legitimately take special powers. But these powers are temporary and tightly circumscribed. The Irish troubles can too easily be used to excuse a creeping erosion of civil liberties that then becomes difficult to reverse. Vigilance is particularly necessary since politicians, judges and police have recently so undermined public confidence in their use of existing powers.

Bringing evidence to court that has been acquired by surreptitious means would not in itself be a major threat to liberty, but it would put additional temptation in the way of the authorities to expand the dangerous twilight zone of surveillance. It would also be open to easy abuse, since tapes can be edited. The Government should continue to regard the idea with suspicion.