Carry on bugging?

It was not a good day yesterday for Parliament to discuss an MP’s right to avoid the bugging of conversations that is now such a common characteristic of our enfeebled democracy. I listened to the exchanges but held my silence. There was so much I wanted to say, but so little that could be said in the form of a question to Jack Straw who had kicked the whole subject into touch by claiming he knew nothing on Saturday and still knew very little, two days on.

I thought we paid Ministers large salaries, gave them official cars and a growing army of officials so they could make decisions, keep us informed and answer when things went wrong. All he had to do on finding out an MP’s conversations appear to have been bugged was to ring the Governor of the Prison concerned and asked 1. Had the MP been bugged? 2. Who had required and authorised the bugging?

Armed with this information he could have told Parliament, and told us whether he was happy with this state of affairs or not. If he thought it a good idea to bug an MP in such circumstances then he should tell the House and change the policy accordingly. If he thought it a bad idea he should find out how it had happened and tell us how he intends to stop it happening again.

I am all in favour of bugging people who are suspected of terrorism. We need to know more of their networks and intercept more of their plans. It is the best way of making us more secure. I am not in favour of bugging many other people for a whole series of more minor offences, as local authorities are now empowered to do. That is all part of the surveillance society which Labour has built up with its fleet of speed cameras and other devices.

There are some important issues over the confidentiality of various people’s conversations with suspected criminals or proven criminals. I would be interested to hear views on when if ever the confidentiality of certain conversations should be broken. Let us examine the cases of four different groups who claim to offer confidentiality, and then consider whether there are things they might hear that they should pass on regardless.

1. The journalist. The journalist will rightly claim he or she needs to offer the promise of confidentiality to sources in order to find out things that are in the public interest to reveal, which authority – often government – wishes to conceal. Of course they should usually be protected by their own conduct and by their editors.

2. The MPs will claim that they need to offer confidentiality to people who wish to share with the MP private information about themselves so the MP can pursue their case with government. Someone may need an MP to represent their case to the Tax or benefit Authorities, or to the Health Service. People naturally want reassurance that the personal details of their income, circumstances or illnesses will not be made public.

3. The priest in the confessional will wish to assure the communicant that their secrets are safe with him. Who would want to confess a sin if the priest then broadcast it to the local community?

4. The lawyer acting for a defendant in a criminal trial will want to assure his or her client that anything they say is privileged. Under our combative system of justice the defence has a duty to put the best possible case for anyone pleading not guilty, whatever else they may have been told by their client.

.However, if any of the above learned during the course of their interviews of a planned terrorist attack which could cause huge harm and loss of life, should they not pass the information on to the authorities so they could collect more evidence on the conspirators and act in time to prevent the outrage? What should a journalist do if he or she learns of lesser offences committed by their source? What should the priest?

The doctrine of full confidentiality and privilege has already been changed for professional advisers. Lawyers and accountants advising individuals and companies on civil cases and on their tax and contractual affairs now have a duty to report their clients to the authorities if they come to suspect them of money laundering or fraud. Should further changes be made in law to qualify the confidentiality of these relationships? Whatever is done, it important that people coming to such a confidential discussion should know in advance if there are limits to that confidence. MPs are employed to change the law where necessary, and to help constituents to pursue cases against government where government has been unfair, incompetent or worse. MPs are not employed to condone or cover up crime: nor do I know of any MP who has done so.

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9 Comments

  1. newmania
    Posted February 5, 2008 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Bugging MP`s would lead to a UK Watergate . It should never be allowed . Your point on Straws inability to answer is devastating.

  2. Serf
    Posted February 5, 2008 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Well all Labour MP's deserves to be bugged, even though on principal I think that such technology should be sparingly used.

    These are the people who are trying to turn the country into a Big Brother society. As they keep telling us, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.

  3. Cliff
    Posted February 5, 2008 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    I believe that the only question that needs to be asked is who released the information in the first place. In my view, a breach of the official secrets act. I wonder if any charges will follow.

    Ministers did not need to authorise the alleged bugging, this needed to be authorised by a senior police officer.
    What happens if the security services are investigating a senior minister and another senior minister has to authorise it?
    If a minister was given power to authorise or not, surveillance measures, then our independent police force could potentially be even further politicised. The Minister may decide not to authorise eavesdropping on his Right Honourable Friends. For example, should police be investigating matters relating to such matters as cash for honours/questions or expenses etc. could we the public, honestly say that, we would trust a Minister to do the right thing, putting the needs of the country or it

  4. APL
    Posted February 5, 2008 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    JR: "Jack Straw who had kicked the whole subject into touch by claiming he knew nothing on Saturday and still knew very little, two days on."

    One is led to conclude, Straw knew but does not want to let on he knew.

    (sentence left out -ed)
    Reply: He may not have known originally, but the curious question is why didn't he find out?

  5. mikestallard
    Posted February 5, 2008 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    I have often been in the position of a Vicar who is entrusted with secrets. You don't tell, whatever is said to you. You can, of course, reason with the person. But you must not grass. If you do, then that is your last ever piece of work at confidential level. You can always keep your peace when things are brought up.
    "A bishop is never so Godlike as when he is silent."
    The State has absolutely no business interfering here. It is not God.

    Having said that, I would be really hurt is a school, say, gave my daughter of 12 years contraceptive advice or did a secret abortion. Wouldn't you?

    When you were a minister, surely, it was only the Communists who did bugging, wasn't it?

  6. Peter Drew
    Posted February 5, 2008 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    As far as the priest is concerned the answer to your question is pretty simple. It is not logically possible to confess a sin one is going to commit, because confession requires repentance and you can't repent in advance of something you intend to do.

    Consequently if someone "confesses" a future crime, he is abusing the confessional and not, in fact, making a confession at all; thus the secret of the confessional does not apply.

    Reply: The sin might be a crime already partially or wholly committed.

  7. Chuck Unsworth
    Posted February 5, 2008 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    It's clear that there is much more to float to the surface on this matter. But Straw is doing his best – from an untenable position – to manage the political fall-out. Entertaining, though, that the MP involved is, apparently, a staunch supporter of anti-terrorist legislation.

    The standard procedure for this Government is to immediately launch investigations and inquiries – both of which are the established tools for polical delay and obfuscation. As always it will be interesting to see who is chosen to lead the inquiry or any investigation. However, and given that there are no major developments, it's unlikely that we'll see any results for many months. So Straw has been politically effective.

  8. Steven_L
    Posted February 6, 2008 at 12:25 am | Permalink

    I'm not sure local authorities are actually allowed to intercept the content of your communications as 'bugging' would imply, just to obtain billing and subsriber data.

    In other words if you reply to an advert offering a waste disposal service, and subsequently a load of your rubbish is found to have been fly-tipped, the council can require the phone companies to disclose the name and address the phone number on the advert is registered to.

  9. apl
    Posted February 6, 2008 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    JR:

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    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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