FIRST Minister Nicola Sturgeon has known about allegations of Police Scotland illegally spying on journalists’ sources for nearly five months.

An SNP Government spokesman said she learned of the claims in the “summer”, but the administration did not comment at the time because a watchdog was investigating the breaches.

Her silence has been criticised by Opposition MSPs, while Holyrood’s Justice Committee meets today to discuss a potential inquiry into the spying scandal.

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Since March, police forces have been required to obtain judicial approval before using surveillance powers to flush out journalists’ confidential sources.

However, the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office (IOCCO) – which monitors the use of spying legislation – ruled last week that Police Scotland had broken the new rule five times.

The illegal spying was described by the IOCCO as “reckless” and adversely impacted four individuals.

BACKGROUND: HOW POLICE SCOTLAND BROKE THE LAW

The unlawful snooping related to a newspaper report into the original police probe into the murder of sex worker Emma Caldwell.

In April, a Sunday tabloid newspaper exposed flaws in the police investigation and the force’s Counter Corruption Unit (CCU) responded by illegally trying to access the phone records of serving and former officers they suspected of being sources.

One of the former officers, Gerry Gallacher, has said he will take the force to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT).

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Picture: Murdered sex worker Emma Caldwell

 

The spotlight has shifted to Ms Sturgeon, whose Government refused to confirm or deny the claims amid months of speculation.

Asked yesterday when the First Minister first heard the allegations of Police Scotland breaching the new rules before the claims surfaced in the media, a Scottish Government spokesman said: “The First Minister first learned of these allegations over the summer.

"IOCCO made clear it would be wholly inappropriate for it to make public the identity of the two police forces while its investigation was on-going and set out the reasons for this, and we have been consistent in our position that the correct thing to do was to allow IOCCO to carry out its investigation unhindered.”

It is understood Ms Sturgeon became aware of the claims in early July - before the IOCCO issued its first report which stated that two unnamed forces had broken the rules.

The spokesman added: “On learning of the allegations, the Scottish Government contacted Police Scotland to seek reassurance that they would comply with the IOCCO investigation and take any necessary actions that may result."

By contrast, when claims emerged in July that surveillance agency GCHQ had changed the rules to allow eavesdropping on MSPs, the First Minister immediately went public and wrote to the Prime Minister.

Although the Government and the single force knew about the claims for months, Scottish Police Authority board members were kept in the dark.

The Justice Committee, which does not have an SNP majority, could summon Ministers and senior police officers to Parliament if an inquiry is agreed.

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Picture: Pearson

Labour Justice spokesman Graeme Pearson said: "This situation has been handled by the First Minister who has worked hard to bury bad news for months whilst preparing the spin. She seems to be more interested in protecting her government than dealing with this very serious matter of unlawful police bugging. This issue must be resolved before our police service falls into disrepute."

Scottish Conservative justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell said:

“It’s a basic democratic right for journalists to be able to go about their work without the threat of being spied upon.
“Given the First Minister knew about this back in the summer, it should have been brought before parliament much sooner than this.
“This is a Scottish Government that was elected on its squeaky clean reputation, but time after time we are seeing transparency and accountability come up as an issue, and this instance is no different.”