By Ted Jeory
BRIBES for people spying on their neighbours could be paid by councils under sinister new proposals from the Government.
Housing benefit officials, environmental health squads, trading standards officers and even private security firms would be allowed to offer cash for information about people suspected of committing relatively low-level crimes under legislation going through Parliament, the Sunday Express has discovered.
Jack Straw’s Justice Ministry has demanded that town halls be exempt from a Bribery Bill aimed at stamping out corruption in public office and commercial life. His officials have quietly inserted a new clause into the bill. It would give council officials the same powers to bribe as MI5, MI6, the Armed Forces and the police.
The Government’s plan has dismayed Britain’s most senior lawyers.
Former Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay and ex-Attorney Generals Sir Nicholas Lyell and Sir Patrick Mayhew are among those who believe that left unaltered, the bill “jeopardises the constitutional principle of the rule of law”.
They are concerned it would give too much power to councils already zealously snooping under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. The row intensified as peers scrutinised the latest draft of the bill in the House of Lords last week.
It would create new offences of bribing and being bribed, and would permit action against organisations that fail to prevent workers from bribing on their behalf. Its most controversial element is in Clause 12, which lists a range of officials that would be exempt from prosecution under special circumstances.
When first drafted, the exemptions applied only to domestic intelligence services and only if authorised by the Secretary of State.
Peers are furious that not only has the Government ignored their recommendations but has also added a raft of other organisations it believes should be immune from prosecution.
Because the revised Clause 12 extends immunity to any “law enforcement agency”, peers argue that includes soldiers on active service, police and immigration and council officials. Even the requirement for a minister to authorise the bribe has been dropped, they pointed out.
Tory peer Lord Henley said: “It includes not just the police but all law enforcement agencies and those acting on their behalf. Other organisations covered include HM Revenue and Customs, the UK Border Agency, local authority trading standards and environmental health officers.
Justice Minister Lord Bach said the exemptions could only be applied for the detection of “serious crimes”. He told peers: “I must emphasise in the strongest possible terms the importance that the Government attach to Clause 12.
“We do not seek to hide the fact that certain arms of the state may need to offer financial or other inducement that may amount to a bribe.”