It was not a good day yesterday for Parliament to discuss an MPâ€™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 MPâ€™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 peopleâ€™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 â€“ often government â€“ 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.