Six things we’ve learnt from Sue Akers at the Leveson Inquiry

We've found out that News International withdrew co-operation with the police, and the sheer size of the challenge facing the Met, says Hacked Off's Thais Portilho-Shrimpton.

After all the moving evidence from victims, the countless “I can’t recalls” from senior newspapers executives and politicians, and the explosive revelations involving top political figures, the Leveson inquiry found its second wind -- just as it is about to finish taking evidence.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, the woman in charge of all investigations into phone hacking and criminality allegedly perpetrated by journalists, dropped a few bombshells during her third (and seemingly not last) session of oral evidence to Lord Justice Leveson. 

Her evidence was part of the closing submissions to the inquiry, after which Leveson will write his recommendations.

Here are six things we have learnt from DAC Akers during today’s hearing:

1. Alleged criminality spread further than News International

DAC Akers told Leveson today that Operation Elveden, which is looking into payments to police officers and public officials, had evidence that Trinity Mirror, Express and Star Newspapers, as well as News International journalists, have allegedly paid a prison officer some £35,000 for stories between April 2010 and June 2011.

Although there has been evidence of unethical behaviour in more than one title and more than one newspaper group before, there had never been evidence made public of alleged criminality anywhere other than the Sun, the News of The World, and The Times (the NightJack case).

This is an important development – it was believed thus far that most evidence of alleged unlawful behaviour by other newspaper groups was restricted to Operation Motorman files, as breaches of the Data Protection Act. This appears to indicate it went further.

2.  The scale of phone-hacking

Out of the 11,000 pages of private investigator Glenn Mulcaire’s notes, Operation Weeting has managed to identify, according to DAC Akers, a total of 4,775 potential victims. Of these potential victims, 2,615 were notified, with 702 individuals likely to have actually had their voicemails intercepted. Not all victims whose numbers and personal details appear on Mulcaire’s notes have necessarily had their phones hacked. The figure for likely victims was 1,081, but the Met Police was unable to contact all of them.

We’ve learnt last week during a preliminary hearing that, so far, 417 have started civil action against News International over phone-hacking, out of which a total of 100 are expected to go ahead with High Court action against the newspaper publisher.

3. There's a Himalayan quantity of email data to investigate

The scale of Operation Tuleta, examining alleged computer hacking and breaches of privacy, has been revealed to be somewhat overwhelming. There are 101 individual claims relating to the investigations being carried out by the Met into phone hacking, computer hacking, and improper access to medical, banking and other personal records. The police are currently analysing eight to 12 terabytes of data kept in 70 devices.

We have no idea, yet, whether Tom Watson MP was right that email hacking will reveal malpractice on the scale of phone-hacking – the answer is within the mountain of data still to be analysed by the police.

4.  Data could have been downloaded from stolen phones

According to Akers, NI's Managing Standards Committee (an internal investigations team set up by Rupert Murdoch to look into News International titles) handed over data that appears to have been downloaded from stolen mobile phones.

This is a fresh line of inquiry. The data seems to have been obtained some time in late 2010, and the phones seemed to have had their security codes broken so that data could be accessed and downloaded. The mobile phones were obtained in Manchester and South-West London, said Akers.

5.  There have been dozens of arrests through Operations Weeting, Elveden, and Tuleta

To date, 15 current and former journalists have been arrested and interviewed by Operation Weeting, in connection with phone hacking. Thirteen of them have had their files passed on to the Crown Prosecution Service and will learn if they face phone-hacking charges tomorrow.

Forty-one people were arrested under Operation Elveden - 23 current or former journalists, four police officers, nine current or former public officials and five other people who allegedly acted as conduits for payments.

Finally, Operation Elveden arrested six people, under the Computer Misuse Act or on suspicion of handling stolen goods, who are currently on police bail.

6.  News International have refused to co-operate with the police

NI's Managing Standards Committee has had a controversial existence so far. It was set up to help Operations Weeting, Elveden and Tuleta, by providing material obtained via internal investigations, but its members have been accused by former News International journalists of doing the unacceptable: handing over hacks’ sources to the police amidst the evidence of alleged wrongdoing collected from emails, etc.

Akers told the inquiry that Will Lewis and Simon Greenberg, members of the committee, are no longer attended regular meetings with the Met. She said the MSC stopped disclosing information to the police from the middle of May until June 13.

She praised the committee for providing a lot of evidence of “suspected criminality” to the Met, but said that there had been a “change in the nature of cooperation” between the MSC and police, following the arrests of Sun journalists earlier this year.

Thais Portilho-Shrimpton is a campaign co-ordinator for Hacked Off. She tweets: @Selkie

Sue Akers of the Met gave evidence at the Leveson Inquiry. Photo: Getty

Thais Portilho-Shrimpton is Hacked Off's campaign co-ordinator. She tweets: @selkie

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.