British MPs call for overhaul of surveillance laws

LONDON (AFP) - British surveillance laws are flawed and must be overhauled to stop police accessing the phone records of journalists, a group of lawmakers said in a report on Saturday.

Police officers routinely fail to note the professions of people whose communications data has been accessed, according to the report by the Home Affairs Select Committee, a cross-party group that oversees the Home Office.

This raised concern for professions such as journalists who speak to whistleblowers and lawyers who require confidentiality in their communications with clients, it said.

The criticism of the surveillance law, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), comes after it emerged that British police had secretly accessed journalists' phone and email records in investigations.

"Using RIPA to access telephone records of journalists is wrong and this practice must cease," said MP Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee.

"The inevitable consequence is that this deters whistleblowers from coming forward."

"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 committee called for a consultation to change RIPA to include special provisions for privileged information such as journalists' sources.

An inquiry into the use of the surveillance powers was launched by watchdog the Interception of Communications Commissioner's Office earlier this year after reports that police used RIPA to access journalists' email and phone records.

In response to the report, immigration and security minister James Brokenshire said that safeguards were already in place against the abuse of surveillance powers by police.

"A free press is fundamental to a free society and the government is determined that nothing is done which puts that at risk," Brokenshire said.

The government has been working "to strengthen the relevant code to ensure extra consideration should be given to a communications data request involving those in sensitive professions, such as journalists," he added.