July 12, 2011 8:26 pm

MPs grill police on hacking probe

Politicians lined up to throw accusations of incompetence, unsuitable friendships and even corruption at the police on Tuesday as they questioned three of the country’s most senior police officers, including the two who led the original 2006 inquiry into phone hacking.

In a highly-charged appearance before the Commons home affairs committee, Assistant Commissioner John Yates blamed Rupert Murdoch’s News International for obstructing that inquiry and his colleagues also accused NI of lying to detectives and deliberately withholding evidence.

Mr Yates admitted he spent only eight hours reviewing the 2006 hacking investigation before deciding not to reopen it in 2009 after The Guardian had reported there was a systemic culture of illegality at the News of the World. He conceded that there had been “an element” of doing the bare minimum of work when making the decision.

Mr Yates strongly denied allegations in the New York Times that he had been put under pressure not to investigate hacking because of fears that the Sunday tabloid would publish details about his personal life.

“I categorically state that was not the case to each and every one of you. I think it’s despicable, I think it’s cowardly,’’ he told MPs.

Mr Yates denied ever receiving payments from journalists for information, but admitted it was “highly probable’’ that some Met officers did.

Keith Vaz, committee chairman, described Mr Yates’ evidence as “unconvincing”, adding that he should expect to be called back for questioning.

One of the officers, retired Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman, grew visibly angry when an MP asked him if he had ever accepted payments from NI or any other journalists. “I can’t believe you even asked me that,” he exclaimed. “Well, lots of people did,” the MP replied.

Mr Hayman, who ran the original police investigation, also came under fire after protesting that he did nothing wrong in accepting a role as a columnist for The Times, one of the News of the World’s stablemates, after leaving the police.

Retired Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke, who had day to day control of Operation Caryatid, the original inquiry, was ridiculed by MPs when he said that the newspaper group had been unco-operative.

When they asked if he expected criminals to co-operate, Mr Clarke responded: “This is slightly different, and I don’t mean to be flippant, from someone who’s taking the lead off the church roof.

“This is a major global organisation with access to the best legal advice, in my view deliberately trying to thwart a police investigation.”

But MPs offered a far easier ride to Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, who is leading the new inquiry, Operation Weeting. She urged journalists and others sitting on information to come forward.

Ms Akers said even the new management of NI had not been helping as much as she hoped, referring to a statement that Scotland Yard had issued on Monday saying that the newspaper group was leaking information from the inquiry in a deliberate attempt to undermine it.

Ms Akers said that so far, only 173 of almost 4,000 potential targets of the News of the World’s phone-hacking had been contacted by police. That disclosure opens the prospect of a dramatic increase in the number of victims who could seek compensation from News International.

Mark Lewis – a solicitor for several victims, including the family of Milly Dowler, the 13-year-old murdered in Surrey in 2002 – said: “I am sure there will be hundreds more civil claims.

“What is astonishing is that in 2006 the police said there were a handful of victims and only five or six needed to be notified. There needs to be a larger inquiry. People who have suffered do not even know at this stage. They are finding out as stories emerge.”

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