Home office minister David Hanson today answered emergency questions in the House of Commons about the News of the World phone tap allegations.
He said “serious allegations” had been made in the Guardian today but would not pre-empt a statement expected later today by the Metropolitan Police.
The Guardian today claimed that News Group Newspapers, which publishes titles including the News of the World, has paid out more than £1m to settle cases that threatened to reveal evidence of its journalists’ alleged involvement in telephone hacking.
MPs from all three parties including former deputy prime minister John Prescott and Cabinet minister Tessa Jowell were among the targets of the alleged phone taps, The Guardian said.
Liberal Democrat Evan Harris (Oxford W and Abingdon), who had demanded the emergency statement, said: “I’m not relaxed. I don’t think the House is relaxed, nor is the public relaxed, in any way about not only fears of surveillance by the Government but now of surveillance by newspapers and their agents.
“We all want to see healthy, responsible investigative journalism – especially of public figures who wield power – but that must be within the law….
“It will be extremely toxic for our democracy if vested interests are seen to be able to buy their way out, in some way, of the criminal justice system.”
Hanson said the allegations were serious and deserved examination by the Met.
He said unlawful interception was an offence punishable by a fine or a prison sentence of up to two years.
“I will have to reflect on what the Metropolitan Police look at this afternoon and report back in due course.”
Former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned after royal editor Clive Goodman was sentenced to four months in prison in January 2007 for plotting to hack into telephone messages belonging to royal aides.
He is now employed as Tory leader David Cameron’s director of communications, prompting questions from Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs about his suitability for the role.
Shadow home secretary Chris Grayling was greeted with mocking laughter as he said: “There is no doubt that the stories that have appeared in this morning’s newspaper raise questions.
“We rightly cherish the freedom of the press in this country but it is vital that freedom is not abused.”
He asked: “Do you agree with me that it is important that everyone in this House gives a measured response over this issue and leaves it to the police to decide whether there is any new information which warrants further action?”
Hanson told him: “With due respect to you, it is not for me to give the reflections of the House as a whole.
“Individual members will make their judgments and their views in due course.”
These were “serious allegations” which needed to be examined by the police.
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said it was “extraordinary” that Cameron should have employed Mr Coulson and compared the revelations to the email scandal which led to the Prime Minister’s spin doctor Damian McBride leaving office.
He said: “If, as reported, there were more than 1,000 phones were tapped it beggars belief that this was just one journalist or that senior executives did not know.
“The allegation is very clear that senior executives on this newspaper did know.”
He added: “It is extraordinary that the Leader of the Opposition, who wants to be a prime minister, employs Andy Coulson who at best was responsible for a newspaper that was out of control and at worst was personally implicated in criminal activity.
“The exact parallel is surely with Damian McBride. The Prime Minister was right to sack Damian McBride.
“Should the Leader of the Opposition now sack Andy Coulson?”
Hanson did not answer the question, saying: “The allegations relate to criminal offences.”
Keith Vaz, Labour chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said that when senior Met officers gave evidence about the arrest of senior Tory Damian Green they told the committee that “as a matter of practice” whenever there was an investigation involving a high profile person the Home Secretary was informed.
“Will you confirm that no minister has ever been informed of any of these allegations until last night?”
Hanson said: “My understanding is both the Metropolitan Police and myself and the Home Secretary discovered these allegations on the production of the newspapers overnight and this morning.”
Tory John Whittingdale, chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, said he would reopen his investigation into the phone tapping allegations.
He asked the minister: “The fact that a private investigator had intercepted the telephone calls of a wide number of people was well known at the time.
“But you will also be aware that the chairman of News International gave a categoric assurance to my select committee that no other journalists beyond Clive Goodman had any involvement or knowledge in that matter.
“Can you say whether you are aware of any evidence to contradict that statement?
“When my select committee reopens this inquiry, as we have decided to do, will you ask the Metropolitan Police to provide us with any information that they have relevant to this case?”
Hanson said he concurred with what Whittingdale had said.
Labour former minister Tom Watson said: “Should elected leaders be relaxed about a spin doctor responsible for bugging the heir to the throne?”
Hanson refused to answer, saying a police investigation was under way.
Former shadow home secretary David Davis demanded to know why alleged victims of the phone taps were not informed.
“The minister cannot brush aside as an operational responsibility something for which the Home Secretary has responsibility, and that is the allegation in The Guardian that of the many hundreds of people who appear to have been intercepted none were notified by the police that they were the victim of a crime.
“That is a matter for the Home Secretary, can you give an answer to that, please?”
Hanson again replied that the allegations had only just come to light and were being examined by the Met.
Labour’s Emily Thornberry (Islington S and Finsbury) asked Mr Hanson: “Could you give me an assurance that no one involved in the surveillance of politicians has been given a parliamentary pass?”
Hanson said the Prime Minister had confirmed the Wilson Doctrine, which prohibits the bugging of MPs, was still in operation.
He told Thornberry: “We will have to look at the issues, look at the investigations.
“I cannot give you any answers on those points now.”
More details soon…