Justice secretary Michael Matheson has told MSPs he has “no idea” whether Police Scotland has monitored the activities of political activists and trade unionists.
Mr Matheson was answering questions in the Scottish Parliament yesterday about the force’s alleged use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to spy on journalists.
It has been claimed that Police Scotland’s counter corruption unit used the controversial legislation to identify a journalist’s source without judicial approval.
The Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office (IOCCO) is investigating two UK forces who breached guidelines introduced earlier this year, but has not named the forces involved.
Asked about a press report at the weekend that Police Scotland has breached the IOCCO’s guidelines on “multiple occasions”, Mr Matheson said it would be inappropriate to comment while the watchdog’s investigation is ongoing.
He added: “It’s extremely important that our press are able to operate freely.
“No individual should have their communications inappropriately accessed.”
The minister said the time frame of the investigation was “entirely a matter” for the watchdog.
“IOCCO is independent and I would expect them to report in due course,” he said.
Asked by Labour MSP Neil Findlay whether he believed Police Scotland or any of its predecessors had “monitored the activities” of activists, trade unionists or environmental campaigners, Mr Matheson said: “The answer is that I have no idea.”
Last month, investigative journalist Eamon O Connor claimed Police Scotland may have been monitoring his communications illegally.
Mr O Connor presented a BBC programme earlier this year examining the police investigation into the murder of Emma Caldwell in 2005.
He said a police source informed him he was being targeted. Police Scotland said it would not comment on individual cases.
The Ripa legislation allows the authorities to ask for the “who”, “when” and “where” of phone or e-mail communication, but not its content.
Since March, police forces have been required to obtain judicial approval before using the act to reveal journalists’ sources.
At the weekend, the Sunday Herald newspaper claimed Police Scotland’s covert investigations unit has breached the new code on “multiple” occasions in recent months.
The newspaper claimed the Scottish Government is aware of the breaches and has concerns about the unit.
There are now growing calls for the issue to be considered by the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee.
In a statement released last month, IOCCO said: “It would be wholly inappropriate for us to name the two police forces whilst we are still in the process investigating fully these matters.
“Our primary concerns are to ensure that our investigation process is not prejudiced, that the privacy of those individuals who may have been adversely affected is protected and, that those individuals are able to seek effective remedy. Careful consideration has also had to be given to the fact that criminal investigations and legal proceedings are invariably active and we are not yet in a position to consider the impact or potential wider consequences of naming.”
The watchdog yesterday declined to comment further.
A Police Scotland spokeswoman said: “IOCCO has clearly set out rationale for not identifying organisations in its report and therefore it would be inappropriate to comment further.”