UK

MPs launch a new inquiry into mobile phone hacking

John Yates before the Home Affairs Select Committee
Image caption Met Police Assistant Commissioner John Yates spoke to the Home Affairs Select Committee

An influential committee of MPs will conduct a new inquiry into the unauthorised hacking of mobile phones.

It comes amid fresh allegations that journalists at the News of the World hacked into voicemail messages of public figures.

The Home Affairs Select Committee will examine the laws on phone hacking and how police respond to complaints.

MPs announced the inquiry following evidence from a senior police officer about the News of the World claims.

Met Police Assistant Commissioner John Yates told the committee officers would interview former News of the World reporter Sean Hoare who has alleged that his then editor, Andy Coulson, asked him to hack phones.

Mr Yates said he might talk to Mr Coulson, now head of communications at Downing Street, but only after speaking to Mr Hoare.

Mr Coulson, who has the support of Downing Street, has denied the allegations and said he would be "happy to voluntarily meet" police over the latest claims. Mr Hoare's claims have also been denied by News International, which owns the NotW.

The BBC understands the committee agreed to carry out an investigation into phone hacking that would be pursued in writing only, rather than deciding on an inquiry that would call witnesses to give evidence in public.

Labour MP Keith Vaz, the committee's chair, said: "The evidence of Assistant Commissioner John Yates raised a number questions of importance about the law on phone hacking, the way the police deal with such breaches of the law and the manner in which victims are informed of those breaches.

"I hope this inquiry will clarify all these important areas."

Potential targets

Mr Hoare and other former journalists told the New York Times the practice of phone hacking was far more extensive than the newspaper acknowledged when police first investigated the case.

Mr Yates told the committee the police would be speaking to Mr Hoare "in the near future".

Image caption Andy Coulson told MPs last year that he did not "use or condone" phone tapping

And when asked about Mr Coulson, he replied: "I imagine we will be seeing Mr Coulson in some capacity."

Mr Yates has already said the Met was considering the new material and would consult with prosecutors whether to reopen its investigation into the NotW.

The assistant commissioner told the committee the New York Times was "not prepared to help" by passing over their evidence, but the Met had written again asking them to waive their "journalistic privilege".

The police have been criticised for failing to inform those people whose voicemail Pin numbers were discovered during the initial investigation, which saw a News of the World journalist and a private investigator jailed.

He told MPs 91 to 120 people might have been potential targets but he was reluctant to discuss who was on the list.

However he said the former Deputy PM Lord Prescott, who believes he was targeted, was not one of them.

The police found evidence of crimes being committed in no more than 12 cases, he said, and those people had been contacted by officers or mobile phone service providers.

Mr Yates warned MPs it was a "dangerous assumption" to believe individuals named on the list were victims of eavesdropping.

Phone hacking was very narrowly defined in legislation and "very, very difficult to prove", he said, adding that obtaining a Pin number without the owner's permission was not in itself a crime.

Acting Labour leader Harriet Harman has written to Met Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson asking him to alert any of the party's MPs "if their name, phone number or Pin number" appeared on the list.

Police decision

The first police investigation led to the News of the World's royal editor, Clive Goodman, being jailed in 2007 for conspiracy to access phone messages left for royal aides.

Goodman, along with private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who was jailed for six months for the same charge, used mobile phone numbers and secret codes used by network operators to hack into the voicemails to see if there was any information of interest.

Mr Coulson quit as editor after Goodman was jailed for hacking, and when he appeared before MPs in 2009 he said he did not "condone or use" phone hacking.

Last year, the Guardian newspaper claimed News of the World journalists were involved in widespread phone hacking of several thousand celebrities, sports stars and politicians.

Several Labour MPs, who believe their phones have been hacked, are leading the calls for the investigation to be reopened but Home Secretary Theresa May said that was a decision for the police.

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