Home Affairs committee tells police: 'Stop using RIPA to access journalists' phone records'

The Home Affairs Select Committee has told police forces to stop secretly monitoring the phone records of journalists.

The Commons committee has published a report in the wake of the news that the Met Police spied on the phone records of The Sun to find the Plebgate whistleblowers.

And it also notes the fact that Kent/Essex Police viewed the phone records of journalists working for The Mail on Sunday as part of an investigation into allegations judge Constance Briscoe had misled the police.

Chairman of the committee Keith Vaz said: “RIPA is not fit for purpose.

"We were astonished that law enforcement agencies failed to routinely record the professions of individuals who have had their communications data accessed under the legislation.

“Using RIPA to access telephone records of journalists is wrong and this practice must cease. The inevitable consequence is that this deters whistleblowers from coming forward.

“The recording of information under RIPA is lamentably poor, and the whole process appears secretive and disorganised, without proper monitoring of what is being destroyed and what is being retained.”

The report notes that Freedom of Information Act requests by Press Gazette to every police force in the country about RIPA use against journalists have either been ignored or refused.

Vaz said: “We are concerned that the level of secrecy surrounding the use of RIPA allows investigating authorities to engage in acts which would be unacceptable in a democracy, with inadequate oversight.”

The Home Office has promised a review of the code of practice which Governs use of RIPA in the “autumn” but so far it has yet to appear.

Currently there are no protections in place under RIPA for communications between journalists and their sources.

Vaz said: “The Home Office has failed to publish its review within its own timetable, and not for the first time. It should hold a full public consultation on an amended RIPA Code of Practice, and any updated advice should contain special provisions for dealing with privileged information, such as journalistic material and material subject to legal privilege.

“It is vital that the Home Office use the current review of the RIPA Code to ensure that law enforcement agencies use their RIPA powers properly.”

The Press Gazette Save Our Sources petition, signed by more than 1,250 people, calls on a change in the rules to require police to obtain the approval of a judge before viewing journalists’ sources.

The National Union of Journalists has welcomed the report, but said it does not go far enough and called for judicial oversight of RIPA (rather than a continuation of the status quo where police can forces can approve their own requests for journalists’ telecoms records).

NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said:  "The use of RIPA to access journalistic material without any judicial oversight must not continue. It has a detrimental impact on reporting in the public interest and corrodes the trust between the press and public.

"Whistleblowers who come to the press must know they will be safe. If the authorities are able to get at the identities of these people, our jobs as journalists are over.

"The NUJ welcomes the Home Affairs Select Committee report and agrees that RIPA is not fit for purpose but we are urging political leaders and the Interception of Communications Commissioner to go further and agree there must be judicial oversight before journalists' records and data can be obtained by the police and other authorities."

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