Letter: Bugging: we cannot simply trust police

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The Independent Online
Sir: The letter from the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) and others (15 January) tells us we need not be concerned about the powers to be given to them by the Police Bill. Liberty takes a different view.

He argues that surveillance and bugging have been going on for a long time and the Bill does not provide for new tactics. That this procedure has been used although it is of dubious legality and often unlawful is an interesting confession. Whilst it is true that the police service has been concerned about the lawfulness of this practice, these qualms have, at least publicly, only been recently expressed. If the police have been prepared to bend the rules in the past, does that not confirm that we are right to be concerned about new powers being abused in the future?

I do not believe chief constables will, as a matter of course, seek to listen in to conversations between clients and lawyers, but it is wrong in principle for police officers, even chief constables, to have the power to authorise such surveillance. The suggestion by Acpo that police officers should be able to take the very sensitive decision to listen in to discussions between lawyers and clients in the middle of a criminal trial if, to quote the Bill, the officer "thinks it is necessary" because of suspected jury- fixing, makes me even more alarmed than I was before I read this letter.

The other concern that Acpo tries to dispel relates to the surveillance of protesters. The Bill allows bugging and burgling only in respect of the prevention or detection of serious crime. However the definition of serious crime includes "conduct by a large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose". Since the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act some forms of trespass now constitute criminal offences, and surveillance of those involved in road protests will be made lawful by this Bill.

Judges already have a role in deciding whether sensitive material held by doctors, journalists and priests can be searched by the police and this system can easily be extended to deal with bugging. It may be necessary to ensure that judges are available outside court hours, but systems already exist for judges to deal with injunctions and other urgent matters.

The current protections force us to trust the integrity and good sense of the police. I know that they will very often get it right, but there are too many examples of police officers getting it wrong, and these powers are too important for us to rely on that trust so completely.




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