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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 September 2005, 16:14 GMT 17:14 UK
UK could ring changes on phone taps
Rory MacLean
By Rory MacLean
BBC home affairs correspondent

Charles Clarke
The home secretary is listening to the arguments on phone tap use
British Home Secretary Charles Clarke wants to use the UK's presidency of the EU to push forward an agenda he believes will help combat terrorism and serious and organised crime.

He thinks that a practical and pragmatic approach to co-operation is the only way to deal with the problems facing Britain and the other countries.

And he suggests the EU as an institution needs to address these issues if it is to retain the support of its populations. In particular, Mr Clarke wants to see a consistent approach on a number of issues.

One of those is the retention of mobile phone call records.

Bill details

These records show who was called, what time, and the location of both the caller and the person who was called, but they do not give any details of what was said.

The records exist as part of the mobile phone companies' billing system, and in Britain the companies retain the records for varying periods of up to 12 months.

Mr Clarke would like to see that extended to three years and for all EU countries to retain the information to allow the authorities to discover contacts during investigations.

However, while the home secretary is pushing Britain's European partners to move on this issue, he is under pressure in return on the issue of using recordings of telephone conversations as evidence in British courts.

Phone tap evidence generated in the UK cannot be used in British courts at present.


There has been strong resistance to the idea from the British intelligence services, on the basis that scrutiny in courts of this evidence might reveal operational details.

But now the Security Service, MI5, has let it be known that on balance it is in favour of the use of telephone intercept evidence if the practical details can be sorted out.

British Police Officers have been examining the Netherlands' system to see if it provides a model for the use of telephone intercept evidence in court.

Man using mobile phone
Calls can be recorded but the tapes are not admissible in court
The Dutch have been using telephone tap evidence since the 1970s - anyone who is suspected of having committed a crime punishable with four or more years in prison can be the subject of a telephone intercept.

Once Dutch police officers have a warrant from a judge they tell the telephone service providers to divert all calls via a central intercept centre.

The calls are recorded digitally and the police computer can store as many as 10 million calls.

The scale of that can be seen from that fact that the Netherlands has a population of 15 million.


Robert Van Bosbeek, the Dutch police commissioner in charge of this operation, stresses that ordinary police officers are not allowed access to the area where the recordings are made in order to preserve the integrity of the recordings.

All calls are recorded so that they can also provide material for the defence.

However, there are some concerns from the Dutch data protection authorities about the recording of calls between lawyers and their clients.

A decision is taken after the event as to whether the contents of the call should be regarded as privileged and the recording destroyed.

Jacob Kohnstamm, president of the country's data protection agency, believes the decision about the contents of the tape should not be made by people directly connected with a police investigating team.

The Police Superintendents' Association, which has been examining the Dutch system, will call on the home secretary at its annual conference later this month to change the law to allow intercept evidence to be used as evidence in British courts.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair has previously supported the idea - and speaking on Wednesday, the home secretary said that he was looking at the balance of advantages in taking this step.

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