MPs investigating the police’s response to the hacking affair yesterday derided the evidence of one of Scotland Yard’s most senior officers, fuelling calls for his resignation.
Assistant Commissioner John Yates, who was recalled to appear before the home affairs committee, faced 50 minutes of hostile questions over the force’s failings in the initial investigations into allegations of hacking at the News of the World.
Yates’s former colleagues Peter Clarke, previously the Met’s counter terror chief, and former assistant commisisoner Andy Hayman were also given a tough time by the committee which demanded answers on why the Met had for years failed to identify up to 4,000 victims.
The officers and ex-officers insisted their efforts had been thwarted by the failure of News International (NI) to divulge evidence – with one of them accusing the firm of telling “lies”.
Sue Akers, deputy assistant commissioner and head of the current investigation, which began in January this year, revealed to MPs that so far 170 victims and suspected victims had now been contacted by her team working through 3,870 names in evidence including the 11,000 pages of files from private investigator Glenn Mulcaire.
Those files were part of the evidence used in 2007 to convict the News of the World reporter Clive Goodman, and Mulcaire, who had hacked phones for the newspaper.
And yesterday Yates, first to appear before MPs, was under huge pressure to explain why, in July 2009, after the Guardian alleged there were thousands more victims of the illegal practice, he did not order a fresh investigation after being asked to review the case by the Met commissioner.
Yates, once strongly tipped as a future commissioner himself, admitted his examination of the case was limited to talking to the original senior investigating officer – and reviewing legal advice.
He apologised for his “poor” decision saying that given the new evidence from NI showing how widespread hacking and even bribing of police officers for information was, it was clear he had been wrong. Yates was forced to deny he had lied during a previous appearance before the committee and insisted all his evidence had been in “good faith”.
“It is a matter of great concern that, for whatever reason, the News of the World appears to have failed to co-operate in the way that we now know they should have with the relevant police inquiries up until January of this year,” Yates told the committee.
He told MPs he had not offered his resignation and insisted his role had been small and it would be wrong for him to suffer for the actions of NI.
The Met’s commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, responded later by abandoning plans to stay silent over the committee session and issued a statement backing Yates: “We need to give him credit for his courage and humility in acknowledging that if he knew then what he knows now, he would have taken different decisions.
“He currently undertakes one of the most difficult jobs in UK policing, and is doing an outstanding job leading our fight against terrorism. He has my full support and confidence.”
But Dee Doocey, the Liberal Democrat London Assembly policing spokesperson said Yates had to resign. “It is shameful that John Yates found time to have five lunches with the News of the World and News International, but after just a few hours decided there was no additional evidence to justify a further investigation into phone hacking”
The former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown also said Yates, with a reputation as the Yard’s troubleshooter, should go: “This is a man employed for judgment and it is plain by his own admission that he has made a very serious error of judgment.
During the hearing, MPs passed notes to the chair containing one-word descriptions of Yates’s evidence.
Some MPs wrote “evasive” but when Yates finished, committee chair Keith Vaz MP said he and his colleagues found his testimony “unconvincing” and he could be recalled.
Next in front of MPs was Peter Clarke, who oversaw the first investigation which began in 2005, who admitted that evidence recovered from Mulcaire had not been thoroughly gone through by his detectives. Thus they had failed to identify victims of the NoW hacking including the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, whose voicemail was accessed after she disappeared. Clarke said NI’s size and wealth to afford the best legal advice had been a factor in his investigation, which he said was also hampered by the law.
In his evidence, Clarke accused NI of “lies” over its claims it would co-operate with the first investigation which he said they had tried to thwart.
Clarke said he could not justify the resources that going through the 11,000 pages of files would have taken. In 2006, when Goodman and Mulcaire were arrested, he was overseeing 70 terrorism investigations and said he prioritised resources at operations to stop terrorist attacks.
Asked if he believed whether more than one News of the World journalist had been involved in hacking, Clarke said: “Not only was I suspicious, I was as certain as I could be they had something to hide.”
Clarke claimed NI lawyers carefully crafted letters, offering limited cooperation.
Clarke said: “This is a major global organisation with access to the best legal advice, in my view deliberately trying to thwart a police investigation.
“If at any time News International had offered some meaningful co-operation instead of prevarication and what we now know to be lies, we would not be here today.”
Former assistant commissioner Andy Hayman, in charge of the section that carried out the first flawed investigation, was called a “dodgy geezer” by one MP on the committee. He denied being corrupt, but was criticised for dining with NI executives while officers under his direct command were investigating the company for criminal offences.
Hayman, who left the Met in 2008 and took up a role as a coulmnist for the Times, said: “I was seen by the [Times] editor and deputy editor. I didn’t know them from Adam … I can absolutely say that any hint that I am in their back pocket is unfounded.” Any dinners were “businesslike” rather than “candle-lit affairs where state secrets were discussed”, he said.
News International declined to comment on Clarke’s accusations about their conduct. Akers’s evidence contained more problems for Yates. He claimed he had asked officers to enter the thousands of documents on an electronic database, but Akers said this had been bungled and her team had had to start again.
Yates said new evidence from NI led to the new inquiry, called Operation Weeting. Akers said this was true, but also that civil actions brought by people who felt let down by the lack of police investigation and who feared they had been hacked, had also been a factor.
Inside Scotland Yard there was anger at the treatment by MPs to senior officers and former officers. Despite Yates insisting he would not quit, he will continue to be under pressure and will likely face significant criticism from the MPs in their final report expected in several months.
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