CONCERNS were raised last night over claims that Cleveland Police had used anti-terror laws to access phone records of three journalists from The Northern Echo, a solicitor, and police federation representatives, to hunt down a whistleblower.
The Police Federation - which represents rank-and-file police officers - confirmed it had complained to the police watchdog, the Independent Complaints Commission, about the alleged way the force had used the law to access phone records of six people in 2012.
One was a serving officer suspected of being a whistleblower and others were three Northern Echo journalists, the then-chair of the Cleveland Police Federation Steve Matthews, and a solicitor acting for the Federation.
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COMMENT: Crossing the line on privacy? Cleveland Police need to answer questions about whether they accessed our journalists' phone records.
The Federation is understood to be worried about the disproportionate use of the law, which "raised areas of serious concern".
The alleged application to intercept phone data was made under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), and was in part made to track down the source of a front-page story The Northern Echo ran in 2012, when it revealed an internal report at Cleveland Police had uncovered elements of institutional racism.
Stockton North MP Alex Cunningham pledged to raise the matter with Home Secretary Theresa May.
Mr Cunningham, a former journalist who started his career on the Echo's sister paper, the Darlington & Stockton Times, said: "I couldn't be more alarmed if these allegations turn out to be true.
"To target local journalists, compromising their ability to protect their sources is extremely serious, but to use special powers to run down a whistleblower because of allegations made against the local police service because they didn’t like what he or she had to say is disproportionate and questionable on many levels.
“I believe Cleveland Police have declined to confirm or deny these serious allegations so I intend to write to the Home Secretary to ask her whether these powers are meant to help the police carry out internal investigations to identify whistleblowers, or spy on journalists who have a role to act in the public interest.”
Cleveland Police said it used the act and guidance when deciding whether to use it to support "the investigation of criminal offences".
"Each year the Interception of Communication Commissioners Office examine our compliance with the Act," a statement said.
"We are aware that an individual has provided information to the Police Federation... through the local Federation Chairman, regarding their opinion of how Cleveland Police applies the law and guidance relating to (RIPA)."
In documents passed to The Northern Echo, the alleged RIPA application, made in 2012, lists the six people and their telephone numbers - one of which is wrong - and asks for permission to access data from the mobile phones from January to May 2012. It goes on to list phone data between an Echo reporter and two police officers, including Mr Matthews, who is now retired.
He said: "If it is true that Cleveland Police have used anti-terror legislation to snoop on the Police Federation then this is a disgraceful breach of the law.
"The targeting of RIPA against police federation representatives, instructed solicitors and journalists breaches fundamental human rights."
Peter Barron, editor of The Northern Echo, said: "These allegations are a matter of serious concern - that a police force should apparently go to these lengths to identify the source of a story which was clearly in the public interest.
"This is surely not what the legislation was intended to do and the fact that Cleveland Police will neither confirm nor deny the allegations adds to our concerns."
Redcar MP Anna Turley said: "This is a deeply worrying development which requires thorough investigation.
"The RIPA laws are there to be used in the interests of protecting national security and in the prevention or detection of crime, not to enable the police to pursue journalists or whistleblowers."
WHAT ARE THE RULES OF RIPA
THE Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 is supposed to regulate the powers of police and public bodies – such as councils – to carry out covert surveillance.
Politicians hailed it as a major weapon against terrorism and financial crime, but figures show that police have used its powers in a far more wide-ranging manner since it became law.
Government figures for 2013 show that 22,154 Ripa warrants were issued to police forces in the North.
Civil rights groups say Ripa is dangerous because it lacks oversight. Although the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 forced local authorities to apply to a magistrate if they wish to use Ripa, police forces are still allowed to sign off their own warrants without any external supervision.
The Act offers extensive powers, including wire taps, interception of mobile communications, monitoring of internet activity and undercover surveillance.
However, a warrant must be in the interests of national security “for the purpose of preventing or detecting serious crime and … safeguarding the economic well-being of the United Kingdom”.
In his 2013 annual report, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, Sir Anthony May, warned of “institutional overuse of powers” and said there was a worrying lack of transparency about what the warrants were being used for.
Police say Ripa is overwhelmingly a force for good.
In Cleveland, Ripa powers were used in an investigation which led to the area’s biggest-ever drugs bust. Codenamed Cobweb, the information obtained via covert surveillance allowed detectives to seize drugs worth more than £820,000 and a £127,966 cash pile.