HC Deb 27 October 2003 vol 412 cc12-3
8. Vera Baird (Redcar)

What plans he has to make the products of telephone taps admissible evidence in criminal trials. [134165]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins)

There are no plans to do so at present, although the House will be aware from previous debates that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has this matter under review.

Vera Baird

I am grateful for that answer. It is usually said that phone tap material cannot be admitted in court because of operational secrecy, but it is admitted in almost every other jurisdiction without apparent damage being done. Indeed, some British-based international criminals have been convicted here because the foreign end of their operation was tapped and the foreign taps were put into evidence here. In a recent case in Cleveland—my own police authority—there simply was no other evidence. Although the phone taps were somewhere between strong and conclusive, the case collapsed. We are trying to bear down on crime, so should not proper use be made of this valuable material?

Paul Goggins

My hon. and learned Friend, as ever, makes an interesting point, and it is one of those that the review to which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has referred will be taking into account. As she mentioned, the United States and most European Union countries already admit such evidence in the way that she suggests, but the balanced judgment that the review must make is whether telephone taps, if we allowed them to be used as evidence, would produce a better outcome than the current system. Of course, the current system uncovers essential evidence that leads to prosecutions and, even more importantly, the prevention of serious crime. All those issues will be weighed in the balance in the review, which will report in due course.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

While I welcome the balance that the Minister is bringing to the issue, will he weigh in that balance the case of Major Milos Stankovic, whose career in the British armed services was seriously harmed by, I understand, American intelligence intercepts that were wilfully misunderstood? That led to his career being ruined when all he was doing was carrying out his proper duties as directed by the general for whom he was working for the United Nations in Serbia. That is a good example of the dangers of relying on such intercepts. Will the Minister bear that in mind during the review?

Paul Goggins

It is kind of the hon. Gentleman to show concern for somebody whose career allegedly was seriously damaged. The experience that he outlines to the House is of course the kind that will be taken into account by the review.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda)

The Minister seems to have already answered his own question about whether the review will provide a change. In the light of the publication of Rio Ferdinand's telephone bills on the front page of many newspapers last weekend, may I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that there is strong security around the process of phone tapping? Will he also consider the issue of how text messages as well as telephone conversations are made admissible in court?

Paul Goggins

Again, all this will be taken into account by the review. It is important that we consider the role of text messages, which are a form of telephone communication. They will also be taken into account by the review, although bringing Rio Ferdinand into these considerations is probably slightly wide of the mark. However, you have not ruled so, Mr. Speaker, and I shall conclude there.