§ 11.4 a.m.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Robert Carr)
I am glad that we have the opportunity today to consider the Report of the Committee on Privacy under the distinguished chairmanship of Sir Kenneth Younger. Anybody who has studied the report will recognise that it is very thorough and comprehensive study, and I am sure that it will be the wish of the whole House that I should thank Sir Kenneth Younger and all the members of the committee for the most valuable work that they have done. I am glad to be able to look across the House at one of the committee members—the hon. Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon)—and at least thank one of them personally today.
As the House knows, the committee was given very extensive terms of reference, because its remit was:To consider whether legislation is needed to give further protection to theprivacy of individuals and companies against intrusions from other individuals and companies. Although the terms of reference were very extensive, the committee's view was confined to the private sector. The decision to make this limitation was made by the last Government, but it was confirmed by the present Government. I do not propose now to reopen the argument on the merits of that decision.
When the report was published, my predecessor as Home Secretary gave an undertaking that the views of interested 1956 parties and organisations would be taken into account before the Government announced their own conclusions. We now want to take into account the views of the House. The matter has already received debate in another place. We shall then after that prepare a White Paper covering the Younger Committee's findings and also those of a separate parallel review by officials into the privacy of personal information held on Government computers. It is my hope that that White Paper will be published later this year.
What I propose to do in this debate is to give the House the Government's provisional views on those recommendations which call for Government action and also to say something about what private bodies are doing in response to the Committee's recommendations. This latter matter is an important one, because about half of all the Younger Committee's recommendations call for action by persons or organisations outside Government and are matters on which the Government themselves cannot directly act. Although that is so, we have regarded it as part of our job in Government to urge all these non-governmental bodies to give rapid and serious consideration to the recommendations which affect them.
So I assure the House that we have not just said, "All these matters are for private bodies. We need not think about them." We have thought about them and we have urged—some might say "chivvied"—the private bodies concerned to get on with their consideration of the recommendations and to take them seriously. I shall have something to say about that. By and large the bodies concerned have indeed done what we would like them to do in getting on with their look at the committee's recommendations.
Before I get down to the detail it is worth saying something about the subject of the report—because privacy is important. It is something which at different times we all need and its presence or absence is a useful measure of the quality of life in our society. A society which attaches importance to privacy is almost by definition a society which also attaches importance to the individual generally. The converse of that would undoubtedly be true.
1957 There has been considerable concern about the matter of privacy in recent years and it was undoubtedly right to have the whole matter looked into comprehensively in this way. Therefore, perhaps it is worth making a general point about the report which is an encouraging one, namely, that after looking into this matter as it has the com-thought to be very serious or to be one mittee did not find a situation which it which was fast deteriorating. The committee pointed to several ways in which privacy could be threatened but it has not suggested that a great deal of injury was in fact occurring.
Moreover, it was common ground in the committee that the existing law provides for effective protection for some kinds of intrusion into privacy than perhaps is generally recognised. It is important that what is available should be drawn to people's attention, because it is often the case that there are remedies which have become forgotten and are generally unknown to people who might benefit from them.
It is probably true that members of the committee differed only in their views of how the acknowledged gap should be filled, and here only on one major issue. A central issue—perhaps the central issue—in the report and the only one on which the committee was divided is the question whether there should be a general legal right of privacy. The committee recognised that even if all its specific recommendations were implemented there would remain some forms of intrusion of privacy, notably by journalists and prying neighbours, against which the individual would have no specific remedy.
The committee decided by a majority of 14 to two not to recommend the general right. One of the minority of two was the hon. Member for York, and I have no doubt, Mr. Speaker, that if he catches your eye later in the debate we shall hear the important point of view of that minority argued. It is a great advantage to us to have in the House one of the members who took that view to argue the case. The majority of 14 to two recommended against such a general right, and their reasons are set out at some length in the report. I shall 1958 refer to them briefly in order to make my points.
First, the majority thought that their specific proposals for voluntary action as well as for new laws were sufficient to give adequate protection where it was most needed. The first argument was that this was not really needed. Secondly, they argued that the introduction of such a law might put at risk the right of freedom of speech and communication which they regarded as equally important as the right of privacy.
Inevitably the issue becomes a conflict between the right of the individual to keep his affairs private and the right of others to speak or write of them freely, and particularly to speak and write things which are true and arguably of public importance.
Thirdly, the majority of the committee thought that it would be inappropriate, and even dangerous, to give what must be a very wide discretion to the courts to adjudicate between an individual's right to privacy, which could be defined only in general terms, and the claims of "public interest" which certainly would be advanced by the person about whose activities complaint was made.
The defence of the public interest is, of course, contained in every one of the Bills on this subject which have sought to introduce a general remedy. But how practical is it and what new dangers may it carry? In those areas of the law in which the courts are already accustomed to take a view of the public interest, their judicial function is circumscribed in a way which could not be the case in a privacy action. This is true, for example, in actions for defamation or breach of confidence where in each case the court has some factual basis for its decision and where the function of the court is, therefore, both less difficult and less controversial.
As I have said, all but two members of the committee thought that it would be unwise to extend this kind of uncertainty into a new branch of the law unless there were compelling evidence of a substantial wrong for which a remedy must be found even at risk to other important values. But they found that such evidence was—I quote—"conspicuously lacking".
1959 In considering this question the Government have naturally looked at the experience of other countries. But we feel that the evidence is inconclusive and to some extent distorted by the fact of our different legal tradition. Unlike many other countries, we do not have a written constitution, and the creation of general rights is not the way in which our law has traditionally sought to protect fundamental human freedoms. Freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, the right of free assembly are not in any way guaranteed by statute in this country. But I do not think that the history of our country compared with that of others has shown that these freedoms are less secure for these omisions. Indeed, whether it be because of some peculiar characteristic, some peculiar nature in our people in these islands, or whether it be because of the unusual nature of our constitution—the lack of a written constitution, the lack of a formal statement of these rights—whatever the reasons may be, I think our freedom in these matters is accepted not only by ourselves, but by most other countries as one of the characteristics of Britain.
Moreover, it is not obvious that the citizens of those countries which do have a general right of privacy in their civil codes live in practice in an atmosphere in which privacy is held in more respect than it is here. So the Government believe that the views of the majority of the Younger Committee do carry conviction and should be accepted on this general and central issue.
I want to emphasise strongly that in accepting the Younger Committee's conclusions on this central point we are not insensitive to the anxiety and annoyance which particular forms of intrusion into privacy can cause. It is simply that we believe, along with the majority of the Younger Committee, that the better approach and an adequate approach is to look for specific measures to deal with particular problems.
One such problem which we want to look at is the harassment and pestering to which people may be subjected, perhaps by the Press or radio or television, for information either on their personal affairs or for other reasons such as sheer curiosity about a celebrity. The Government, therefore, intend to give a further 1960 examination to whether the law can or should put some curb on such activities. But in saying that we want to give it further examination, I want to make it absolutely clear that the Government, at this stage at least, are not making a commitment to legislate because it is far from easy to see where and how one could justify the intervention of the criminal law and at what point to draw the line.
Of course, there are some forms of harassment, such as intrusion into private grief, which I think everybody would condemn. But ought it to be unlawful, for example, to mob a pop star who may thrive on such activities, or, for example, to harass, within the law as it now stands, the house agent or the travel agent who has shut up shop after taking his customers' deposits?
The Younger Committee looked at these matters in relation to journalism but found itself, as the House will find in paragraph 187 of the report, unableto devise any satisfactory yardstick by which to judge, in cases of doubt, whether the importance of a public story should override the privacy of the people and personal information involved …Thus, it is only too clear that one would have to be very careful before employing the criminal law to safeguard people against harassment in order to take account both of the needs and purposes of a free Press and of our long-standing right of peaceful and legitimate protest against organisations or individuals—a right which unfortunately can sometimes be enjoyed only at the expense of the privacy of others.
Indeed, we come in this subject, as we did when debating the Franks Committee's Report a fortnight ago, against conflicting interests both of which we want to serve and in both areas of which we can never find a wholly right objective point on which to stand, and on which we can only hope to strike a reasonable balance in the particular circumstances of the time in which we live. I simply do not believe that in these matters, whether in the subject matter of the Franks Committee's Report or in the subject matter of the Younger Committee's Report, there is some absolute objective truth, some absolute objective right point. All we can do at any given moment is to try to strike a balance between these inevitable conflicts of interest. All I can 1961 say is that we are looking at these difficult questions with an open mind, and we shall wish to hear the views of hon. Members before attempting to reach a conclusion on them.
I have spoken of that matter at some length because I wanted to leave the House with the knowledge that, while rejecting the general right of privacy, along with the majority of the Younger Committee, we thought that it was worth considering whether there might be scope for legislation—not, I think, mentioned in general terms in the Younger Report—for some more limited protection against harassment and pestering. But, having said that we want to look at it because we think we ought to do so, I thought it right immediately to draw the attention of the House to many of the pitfalls in going along even that more limited road. I look forward to hearing what hon. Members have to say about it.
There is, however, one area of the existing law which the Younger Committee as a whole felt was probably capable of affording more protection to privacy than has been generally recognised, namely, the law relating to breach of confidence. The Government agree with this view, and with the Younger Committee's conclusion that it would be unsatisfactory to allow this branch of the law to continue to develop in haphazard form from the judgments of the courts in particular cases.
We were, therefore, happy to accept the Committee's recommendation that this law should be referred to the two Law Commissions, for England and Wales and for Scotland, with a view to its clarification and statement in statutory form. These references to the Law Commissions have already been made. At the same time, the commissions have been asked for their views on the related recommendation that there should be a new tort of disclosure or use of information unlawfully obtained. We have thus set in hand the necessary reviews in those fields by the Law Commissions.
I come now to the question of surreptitious surveillance, and the Younger Committee's recommendations about bugging devices and the like. As I have 1962 said, the Government's approach to the protection of privacy by the law is to seek to identify those threats to privacy which are so extensive or offensive as to call for some criminal or civil sanction. Certain recent events have inevitably intensified concern about the use of devices which enable one person to spy upon another.
First, I remind the House of what the Younger Committee recommended. The recommendations were not confined to bugging devices but extended generally to technical devices which Younger defined as "electronic and optical extensions of the human senses". The committee proposed—this is paragraph 563—that there should be a criminal offence of surreptitious surveillance in which there would be two main ingredients: first, the circumstances would have to be such that the person being watched or observed would be justified in believing that he had protected himself or his possessions from such intrusion; and second, there would have to be the use of a technical device with the intention of making that conscious protection ineffective. The committee proposed also that overt surveillance by device should be the basis of a new right of civil action. It made proposals here, therefore, in both the criminal and the civil law.
The Government have given a great deal of thought to these proposals, and we shall certainly want to hear the views of the House today before we come to a final conclusion on them. However, I say at once that the Government's present view is sympathetic towards the broad intentions of the Younger Committee in this respect.
I well realise that people's concern is about not only the present misuse of such devices, the extent of which may or may not be exaggerated, but perhaps even more, especially in the light of technological progress, about possible developments of their use in the future.
It is no use pretending that legislation on this subject would be easy or that there would not be a price to pay. The House needs no reminding that newspapers have used tape recorders and have bugged premises to secure evidence of corrupt or unsavoury practices. I think that we can all recall examples over the years which we believed to be for the 1963 public good and other examples which we believed were an intrusion into privacy without sufficient reason for the public good. Once again, we come up against the difficult and fundamental problem of balance.
There will be those who think such methods unfair, and others, no doubt, who would think them fully justified in the public interest. Whatever side one takes in the argument, we cannot, I think, expect the law to discriminate in the private sector between such activities and surveillance for less worthy purposes.
There would also, as I have said, be no little difficulty in defining the offence or tort. I shall not rehearse all the difficulties now, but I remind the House that "device" in the Younger Committee's terms would include everything from, say, laser beams capable, it is suggested of reflecting vibrations off a window pane for the purpose of picking up conversation in a room to the common or garden pair of binoculars. We should have to consider very carefully whether the law ought, indeed, to extend to the bird watcher who happens to allow his binoculars to stray to the activities of a courting couple. Should that be included or should it not?
I think that that example may serve to indicate another potential difficulty: how would a jury determine when there was, as required by the Younger Committee's proposal, a set of circumstances in which the persons observed were justified in believing themselves to be in private and, therefore, protected from surveillance?
The criminal law ought to be as precise as possible, and we should have to ask ourselves in drafting any legislation whether it was good enough to leave it to a jury to determine whether a person could claim the protection of the criminal law if he was, say, on a secluded beach or in his own garden, or, in relation to bugging, in a public restaurant. We shall have to give careful thought to these and lots of other matters before we can be clear whether, and if so in what form, legislation can be brought before the House.
The House should not, I feel, overlook the many practical difficulties and complications of framing legislation on lines to meet the recommendations of the 1964 Younger Committee without at the same time infringing important liberties. I cannot, therefore, commit myself today to the letter of the Younger proposals, but I hope that I have shown that the Government are sympathetic to their spirit. We want to hear the views of hon. Members, and we want to find, if we can, a course which we can adopt which enshrines a reasonable balance in the circumstances of modern society between the need for privacy, on the one hand, and the need of the public interest, on the other.
I come now to another matter of importance—to the majority of people, I imagine, of more importance in practice—though less fundamental than the one I have just been talking about, namely, the activities of credit reference bureaux and the like. The committee made two recommendations about credit reference bureaux on which the Government have already announced that they will be taking action. It recommended, first, that an individual should have a legally enforceable right of access to the information held about him in such an agency, and second, that the activities of credit rating agencies should be kept under review by whatever machinery or organisation was established to protect the consumer following the Crowther Report on Consumer Credit.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs has already announced—on 11th May, I think it was—that he proposes to include in the consumer credit legislation now being prepared a power to license credit bureaux and to attach to the issue of licences to such bureaux conditions such as provision of a right of access for an individual to the information held about him. The House will have to judge the adequacy of this when the Bill comes before it. Although I have not given any fresh news about it today, I thought it appropriate to confirm that the Government accepted these recommendations and would be seeking to enshrine them in legislation.
§ Mr. Leslie Huckfield (Nuneaton)
As the right hon. Gentleman knows the licensing of such bureaux and the right of access to them by the individual were central provisions in my Control of Personal Information Bill. In most of 1965 the discussions about my Bill it emerged that the individual about whom records were being kept should be told that those records existed because in the majority of cases he would not otherwise know.
§ Mr. Carr
I take the point. We shall have to discuss this when the appropriate legislation comes forward. I hope that there will be legislation before the House on which these concrete points may be taken up. However, I shall draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the points raised by the hon. Member.
My right hon. Friend also said that he would make provision to give effect to the second of the Younger Committee's recommendations which I mentioned a few moments ago.
I come now to the related field of harassment of people by debt-collecting agencies. Paragraph 278 of the Younger Report drew attention to certain practices adopted by these agencies to put pressure on debtors. The committee noted that Section 40 of the Administration of Justice Act afforded adequate protection against such practices in England and Wales and recommended that this protection should be extended to Scotland. This recommendation is acceptable in principle to the Government, and legislation will be introduced when a suitable opportunity occurs. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has already brought the recommendation to the attention of the Scottish Law Commission which is currently examining the law of diligence—which I as an Englishman am told means the method of enforcement of court decrees for debt.
It is also the Government's intention to include in the credit legislation already mentioned the licensing of debt-collecting agencies which will be obliged to conform to a code of business conduct.
The Younger Committee recommended that private detectives should be licensed, with the object of excluding those who were not fit and proper persons. It did not think it practicable to control professional standards or behaviour, and a private detective would get a licence even if he were known to be incompetent. While the Government agree with the object behind this recommendation, we doubt whether the scheme proposed is 1966 the best way or an effective way to achieve it. As the committee remarked, the essence of a private detective's work is the invasion of privacy. What it proposes would therefore amount to a positive licence to pry. The public might also inevitably be misled, although the Younger Committee made clear that it was not proposing this sort of protection, into believing that the fact that a person possesses a licence implies some special status, competence or power.
We believe that to be a serious drawback and it is a matter to which chief officers of police attach great importance. The licensing body would have to rely on the police for information about convictions of private detectives, the disclosure of which has itself important privacy implications. We have therefore been considering whether there is an alternative method which would achieve the committee's objectives without the drawbacks, and we believe that it means starting the other way round. We have in mind not a scheme of licensing but a scheme of disqualification. A person would be disqualified from acting as a private detective if he had been convicted of an offence involving dishonesty, violence or intrusion into privacy or if he had been given a custodial sentence. It would be essential to ensure that those thereby disqualified were aware of this, for instance by requiring anyone who wished to practise as a private detective to notify the police before starting to act in that capacity so that the police could check.
§ Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)
Will the Home Secretary tell us what he means when he says that they would be disqualified if convicted of an offence involving intrusion into privacy? What offence would they have committed if we are not to create that offence?
§ Mr. Carr
I think that the hon. Member has bowled me a googly which has penetrated my defences. I think I should not have said "intrusion of privacy". I stand corrected by the hon. Gentleman, who is very sharp this morning. It augurs well for his innings later this afternoon.
We believe that in this way we should remove from practice those persons who are not fit and proper to act as detectives without giving anyone a positive licence 1967 which might misleadingly create the impression that a person was positively certified as being suitable or was specially empowered to make an inquiry.
Further consultation is needed before we can reach firm conclusions. I know that the alternative scheme I have outlined needs to be defined in more detail or perhaps, in view of the hon. Member's intervention, in less detail in some respects. We have already consulted the chief officers of police, because they would be closely concerned in the operation of either scheme. Their general view is that, if there is to be legislation, disqualification would be preferable to licensing. I should appreciate hearing hon. Members' views on our proposal.
§ Mr. Norman Fowler (Nottingham, South)
I have a Private Member's Bill on this subject. Will my right hon. Friend consider extending this disqualification system to cover the whole of the private security industry since similar issues are involved in it?
§ Mr. Carr
We should wish to consider the point raised by my hon. Friend. It is important and I agree that it is related.
I now turn to the question of employer-employee relationships. The Younger Committee thought that certain detailed aspects of privacy such as intrusive questionnaires and interviews, the content and provision of references, and the confidentiality of staff records arising in the context of employment warranted special mention in the Code of Industrial Relations Practice. All of this except the use of shop-floor informers, which comes into a different and more general category, are covered in principle by paragraph 31(iii) of the code. But my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment has considered how best to supplement the code's basic guidance by more specific advice on these matters. He has recently authorised the preparation of a series of detailed advisory papers to support the code on particular aspects of industrial relations. Work has already started on one about personnel selection policies and practice and it will take account of this recommendation and should be out early next year.
I next deal with computers, a subject in which it is sometimes difficult to separate myth from reality. The Younger 1968 Committee said that of all the forms of invasion of privacy studied in evidence to it, that involving the use or misuse of computers had been the least supported in concrete terms. That will perhaps surprise many people. The committee concluded thatthe computer as used in the private sector is not at present a threat to privacy.Nevertheless it recognised the possibility that such a threat might become a reality at some time in the future, and so it concluded that there was no case for the introduction of detailed controls, for example the introduction of a registration or licensing systems, but it made various other recommendations.
The committee suggested, first, the voluntary adoption by computer users of 10 principles or guidelines which it thought should apply to the handling of personal information on computers; secondly, that each organisation handling computerised personal information should examine the idea of appointing a responsible person to ensure that those principles were observed; thirdly, that the Government should legislate to provide machinery in the form of an independent standing commission to keep developments in this area under review, to receive complaints about invasions of privacy and, in the light of its findings, to make recommendations for legislative or other safeguards. Finally, it proposed that the Government should, in the light of its report and the concurrent review by officials of the use of computerised personal information stores by Government Departments, consider the possibility of including the public sector within the purview of the proposed standing commission.
The Government propose to publish their conclusions on the subject of computers and privacy in a White Paper later this year. In preparing that White Paper we wish to take account of the views expressed by hon. Members today and in other ways over the next few weeks and the next month or two. The White Paper will include an account of the public reaction to the Younger recommendations and of further inquiries of computer users and experts undertaken on our behalf since the report. The substance of the inter-departmental review of privacy in relation to Government computers will also be included in the White Paper. In preparing the White 1969 Paper we shall take account of the Younger Committee's conclusions to which I have just referred, in relation to both private sector and public sector computers, and give our views on the need for further safeguards to protect privacy in both areas.
The White Paper will be a substantial document. It will cover local authorities, the National Health Service and nationalised industries, which were outside the terms of both the Younger Committee and the interdepartmental review. A good deal of consultation and discussion must take place before we can produce the White Paper. Therefore, although I regret it, I ask the House to believe that it is inevitable that it is not yet published and that I cannot today state our conclusions on this important matter.
As there has been a good deal of attention directed at what goes on in Government computers, and as there may be suspicion in some quarters that publication is being held up because we have something to hide, I should like to say that personal information stored on Government computers is at least as secure as comparable information held on manual systems previously used by the Government. Methods of computer security are kept under review. The Younger principles, perhaps better described as a statement of good practice, already largely underlie the use of computerised personal registers in Government Departments. But all that will be set out in the White Paper, which we shall publish as quickly as possible, and then the House will have to judge and comment on what we say.
Finally, I should like to say something about what the private sector is doing on the report—not, I hasten to assure the House, in every field covered, because I should then talk for a very long time, but particularly in relation to the media. I begin with the Press, a subject very much in our minds at present, although I shall not comment on particular complaints now before the Press Council.
The committee received more complaints about activities of the Press than about any other aspect of the subject. But I should put the matter into perspec- 1970 tive by recording that there were only about 29 complaints in all. The committee concluded that there was no clear evidence that the Press was in the forefront of most people's minds as a threat to privacy. It rejected the idea of laws to control those activities of the Press which might interfere with the privacy of individuals and accordingly considered a way other than legislation to foster what it called a "right sense of responsibility."
The committee concluded that the best answer might lie in a strengthened Press Council. To that end it made a number of recommendations for changes in the composition and procedures of the Press Council which, with one exception, have been accepted in full by the Press Council. The lay membership of the council is being increase, not—this is the one exception—to the level of half, as the committee recommended, but to one-third, which means 10 out of a membership of 30. That doubles the previous number of independent members.
What is important is that the Press Council has agreed that its Complaints Committee, which is the part of its machinery most concerned with the behaviour of journalists, is to have half of its membership made up of persons not connected with the Press.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)
What is the precise sanction to enforce the Press Council's decisions?
§ Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, West)
Did the Press Council give any reasons why it should want only one third of its membership, rather than half, made up of lay members?
§ Mr. Carr
Perhaps I may be allowed to ask my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State to expand on that a little later. The Press Council is a body with its own rights and is independent. I believe that by doubling its independent membership, and above all ensuring that half of the membership of the complains committee is independent, it has gone a long way.
1971 As the Younger Committee suggested, the council has agreed that the additional lay members should be selected by an independent appointments commission, and that commission has already been set up under Lord Redcliffe-Maud and the members appointed. Therefore, although the council has not accepted that one point. I believe that it has gone a very long way.
We also welcome the fact that the council will produce a booklet, which has not been done before, setting out guidance for journalists on privacy issues. This code of practice idea is one which we have found practical in the context of our sort of society. We should all welcome this prompt and wholehearted reaction by the Press Council.
§ Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)
Has the Press Council said whether, if the guidance it gives is abused, that would automatically be accepted as a complaint and a censure passed on the newspaper involved?
§ Mr. Carr
I should like to consider that a little further We must see how these things work out.
It is clear that the Press Council is receptive to public opinion and to views expressed in the House. Perhaps we could secure views on the matter, and if there is need for further representations to the council we can make them.
§ Mr. Jasper More (Ludlow)
I should be out of order in quoting them, but the House might find it of assistance to refer to columns 127 and 128 of the OFFICIAL REPORT of the debate in the other place on 6th June, when the subject was dealt with at some length by Lord Pearce, Chairman of the Press Council.
§ Mr. Carr
I agree with my hon. Friend. I should have remembered that I had a copy of the OFFICIAL REPORT for that date with me, on the cover of which I had annotated those columns, because what Lord Pearce said was interesting and constructive.
I turn to the subject of broadcasting. The committee made a number of recommendations to the BBC and the ITA, now the IBA, for comparatively minor changes in the arrangements for the consideration of complaints. The BBC has told us that it accepts the 1972 recommendations that the procedure for the submission of complaints should be amended, and has also said that it would be receptive to proposals for widening the experience of its complaints commission. The BBC at first rejected the recommendation that the powers of the commission should be extended to cover complaints about alleged invasions of privacy during the preparation of programmes, whether or not the material was subsequently broadcast, but my right hon. Friend the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications has asked the governors to reconsider their position on that recommendation, and they have agreed to do so. I have not yet had the result of that reconsideration.
The IBA has agreed in principle to publish the Complaints Review Board's adjudications unless there are legal or similar objections. The authority will bear in mind the Younger Committee's recommendations about extending the review board's procedure to commercial radio when the methods for dealing with local complaints about local radio have been determined. I believe that the authority wants to be forthcoming. In the early days of local commercial radio it is too soon to know exactly what it should do.
There must also be considered the reactions of a number of other important professions and organisations such as magistrates, the medical profession, universities and banks. I cannot find time to mention their reactions without making my already long speech unduly long. My hon. and learned Friend will deal with those matters when he replies. I felt, at the expense of trespassing unduly on the time of the House, that at the beginning of the debate the House would want a fairly wide review of the Government's reactions to all the important matters affecting not only themselves but particularly the media. I thought that it would be advantageous to give such a review at the beginning of the debate.
To sum up, I assure the House that the Government recognise that there is public concern as well as interest about privacy. I hope the House will feel that the Government have already given careful consideration to the committee's recommendations. I hope it will be 1973 accepted that the Government have already taken action of a fairly specific kind.
I hope it will be felt that we are considering sympathetically rather than obstructively many of the committee's other main recommendations. Of course, as I have already made clear, some of those recommendations raise a number of difficult issues not simply or even mainly for the Government but for this House and for the proper judgment of the balance between privacy and public interest. The Government want to hear the views of the House, not only today but by hon. Members writing or coming to see me or my officials in future. We shall pay great attention to what they say before we publish the White Paper later in the year.
§ 11.52 a.m.
§ Mrs. Shirley Williams (Hitchin)
All hon. Members will be grateful to the Secretary of State for the Home Department for his comprehensive review of the matters raised in the Younger Report. All of us will want to share in the congratulations which he gave to members of that committee for producing a well-argued and clear report. I suppose it is true that in any sphere in which the House does not normally legislate—we are now effectively pioneering in a new sphere—there are bound to be strongly-held differences of opinion. I suspect that those differences will be shared between Members of the same party on both sides of the House.
Without doubt grave difficulties arise. None of us would want to prevent the Press functioning as a major investigator of issues which need to be investigated on behalf of society. On the other hand, many of us share the concern expressed by the Younger Committee about intrusion into privacy.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the relatively small number of complaints which have been received and not simply complaints about the Press. I am not sure how far the number of complaints is typical of the degree of public concern about the issue. The questionnaire showed that people regard privacy as a significant social problem. Of those who gave evidence, it is notable that a number of people who have been involved in 1974 some of the most famous cases involving intrusions of privacy—I shall mention only one, the famous case of the Daily Telegraph and its report on the third heart transplant donor in Britain—did not protest to the committee. We must bear in mind the extent to which ordinary people do not regard giving evidence to a committee on privacy as a natural thing to do.
I suspect it is also true that those who we must protect—namely, private individuals with no role in public life—would not normally think of giving evidence to a Government committee. It is our responsibility to protect that substantial majority of the population.
Concern about this matter has arisen because of a widespread technological revolution. Several aspects can be mentioned. There is the speed of access and the capacity of storage of computers. That is an area in which most of us recognise that we are still anything but experts. Secondly, there are the great technical strides which have been made in devices capable of watching, listening and tracing human beings. We are bound to say that the use of such devices can be beneficial—for instance, radioactive tracer materials can be used for the investigation of medical complaints. However, their use can be abused. We face once again a massive technological revolution which we in our wisdom have to try to use for good and not evil.
Further, there has been a massive increase in surveillance techniques and the use of surveys as a method of gaining information. It is reasonable that the right hon. Gentleman did not refer to that matter because it was not dealt with by the Younger Committee. But there has since been an interesting working party set up by the social and community research bodies concerned with how we might protect privacy when faced with survey research.
Finally, there has been the immense spread of credit. There has been a rapid increase year by year even since the Younger Committee was set up in May 1970. The spread of credit has been a means of replacing normal cash transactions over a wide range of business and commerce.
Each of the technological changes which I have mentioned has thrown up 1975 problems which the House is not used to coping with and about which there has not been the opportunity of adequate public discussion. However, there is great interest in the matter and there has been a growing number of reports, quite apart from Younger, of considerable significance. The report of Justice in 1970 was a thoroughly argued report on the whole area of privacy. The report of the Society of Labour Lawyers was an extremely thorough report. A report is now being prepared by the British Computer Society about safeguards and standards in setting up computers. Other reports have been prepared by different bodies and each in turn has been reflected by the great interest in the House in the last few years.
More and more Private Bills have been introduced by Members on both sides of the House. Bills have been introduced, for example, by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. Brian Walden), my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield), my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon), who will address the House later, the former hon. Member for Rushcliffe, Mr. Gardner, the former hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth, Lord Boyle, who is a prominent member of another place, and even the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, who is now Leader of the House of Lords. They have all in recent years attempted in one way or another to present controls to Parliament concerned with confidentiality and the private individual.
It is also worth underlining that the Government have subscribed to two major declarations on the right to privacy. I refer to the United Nations Covenant on Human Rights and to the European Convention of Human Rights, Article 8, which sets out clearly:Everyone has the right to respect of his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.To that statement Her Majesty's Government are a signatory.
Against that background, I was pleased to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that we can expect a White Paper this year. He will be aware that his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Barnet (Mr. Maudling), gave an indication in a statement which he made to the House in 1976 July 1972 that there would be a White Paper in a very short time. Indeed, the Minister of State said in his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton regarding the Control of Personal Information Bill that a study of the use of computers by the Government had already been completedand will shortly be in the hands of the Home Secretary.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st April 1972; Vol. 835, c. 1008.]All that was a year ago, and it is a year since the Younger Committee reported. I say that not to berate the Government but merely to indicate that the matter is of some urgency and I trust that we shall not have a further delay of similar length.
I should like to refer to a recent instance. There are clear reasons for public disquiet in the case of the Ace Detective Agency on 10th July, in which a number of private detectives pleaded guilty to the misuse of their functions as private detectives. They admitted that they had falsified evidence in divorce cases. More seriously, they admitted that they had obtained Government information improperly and that this information had come from the Inland Revenue, of which one who pleaded guilty was a former staff member, and also from the criminal records office of New Scotland Yard, another private detective being a former policeman.
The Younger Report deals with cases up to 1972 and it is disturbing that even now, 18 months after the Prime Minister set up an inquiry into the safeguarding of Government information, further cases can be coming forward in which Government information has been misused in this way. I want to say something later about the security of Government information, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.
I want first to deal with some, not all, recommendations of the Younger Committee, commenting on one or two with which the right hon. Gentleman dealt. He referred to the recommendation for the licensing of private detective agencies. My hon. Friend the Member for York raised the very important point that it is not clear on what basis disqualification would take place. I can see the difficulties of licensing and the unwillingness of, no doubt, chief constables to be in any 1977 way associated with what might look like a stamp of approval for a private detective agency. One understands that objection.
We do, however, have the licensing of bodies to which the Government may not usually give the stamp of approval—for example, gaming and the running of casinos and clubs. The licensing of such organisations and bodies has always been accepted in this country as not to be generally taken as being a sign of moral approval by the Home Secretary of every gaming club which has a licence. I would feel sorry for any Home Secretary if he might be accused of such a thing. I therefore find it difficult to see why licensing as such should be regarded as in some sense moral approval, although I take the point that any licensing would have to be clearly distinguished in such a way that no one could pass himself off as a police officer. But sometimes this has happened in the past even without any system of licensing, so that that does not seem to be a final objection.
There is something undoubtedly strange about the fact that private detective agencies can be run without any check of the conduct, previous criminal record, activities or behaviour of those responsible for them, although they are in many cases intruding into the privacy of individuals, not of public people. Even such bodies as the Association of British Private Investigators and the Association of British Detectives have called over and over again for the laying down of a code of professional conduct that would be binding upon those entering such work. It is work in which a small minority face temptations to criminal activity, above all blackmail, because of the information to which they become privy.
Secondly, there is the question of the controls over information supplied to such private bodies as credit agencies, banks and insurance companies. We welcome the promise made by the Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs in what he had to say about access to the records of individuals by credit agencies. I looked up the reply which he gave to the Question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins) on 11th May 1973, and I ask the Minister of State whether that answer 1978 implied a general principle of right of access to information held by private bodies or was restricted purely to credit agencies. The Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs gave the simple answer "We accept the principle" and then referred to the Younger Report but he did not qualify it by saying that his answer referred only to credit agencies.
This is important because of two other questions which arise. The first is the kind of information which insurance companies may obtain with regard to private individuals. The point has been made that one major insurance agency was holding medical records in a way open to fairly general access, and this is something about which individuals might well feel disturbed. I therefore ask whether the Government have held any discussions with insurance companies about access to records held by them.
I ask the same question about the banks. The Secretary of State will recall the rather disturbing conclusions of a study made by The Guardian in which, among other things, it was able to obtain in a short space of time complete financial profiles of members of its staff—the unfortunate news editor was, I think, the particular guinea pig in the experiment. It was able to obtain the information within 48 hours because of the willingness of banks to provide information about people's bank balances and their financial situation to unauthorised people telephoning for that purpose. There have been further instances since and it would be nice to know that the Government were asking the banks to consider the recommendations of the Younger Committee in this respect.
The question of data banks lies close to the heart of my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton and he will no doubt wish to pursue it if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker. It is true that private data banks and, one is bound to say, Government data banks in certain respects have sold information for commercial purposes—for example to provide address lists for purposes other than that for which the information was originally obtained. A considerable question therefore arises, especially if the Government are not prepared to accept the recommendation of the Control of Information Bill put forward by my hon. Friend. It is the question of what sort 1979 of access there is to data, what controls there are for its use for a purpose other than that for which it was obtained and, finally, whether this can be treated as part of the goodwill of a company if it comes to be liquidated. At present, such information is treated as part of the goodwill and can be sold without controls of any kind.
Finally in relation to the private sector, I want to refer to the control over surveys, on which Professor Donnison and his working party have produced some extremely interesting information. Have the Government given consideration to the recommendation by the working party for a code of practice and the possible extension of the Younger proposals for a standing commission in this area as well? Survey research has become an essential prop to many Government policies, not least in the social services and urban renewal, for example, and we could see some souring of the public response, which is at present good, if there were a feeling that information given either to public or to private surveys was being used once again for purposes other than that for which it was intended.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the matter of the Government's study of the safety of records kept on computers by the Government. He said that their safety was as great as that of manual records. But can this view be wholly shared by the House? In the last three years there has been a massive computerisation of individual data held on computer records by the Government. I shall refer to only a few examples.
There has been the setting up of the police computer with its national recording of criminal offences. There has been the setting up of data banks by regional hospital boards throughout the country. The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) will be aware that doctors in his area have flatly refused to co-operate in this matter because they fear that the confidentiality of medical records may be in doubt. There has also been the setting up of the central vehicle licensing computer at Swansea and the computerisation of records concerning civil servants—the so-called prism system. I do not doubt in many cases the advantages which will flow from more rapid and better storage 1980 of information, but I am profoundly concerned about some recent developments and I shall mention them briefly.
Under the Income Tax Management Act 1964 Inland Revenue records are meant to be revealed only for the purposes of the duties of Inland Revenue officers, yet we already know from an answer that the Home Secretary gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) that such information is now available for the purposes of tracing illegal immigrants. In his reply the right hon. Gentleman said that this was only with the taxpayer's prior consent. I hope he can assure the House that that is so. I am not clear that that was so in all cases prior to his answer to that Question.
A second instance lies in the use of social service records for various purposes, including the tracing of illegal immigrants and some recent disturbing searches regarding cohabitation by people seeking social service benefits. The wide extension of means testing indicates that we must be more concerned with the confidentiality of social service records than we have been in the past.
A third example, which I have already mentioned, concerns health records. I should like to make it absolutely clear to the House that the linkage of health records between regional hospital boards to create what is, in effect, a nationally-linked system of medical records is being done without any question of the consent of the patients being sought. It needs only a moment's imagination to realise, if one could link up medical records with employment records in such a way as to reveal, for instance, past treatment for psychiatric illnesses or venereal disease, how widely we are extending the power over individuals in a way that frankly I find exceedingly disturbing.
One journalist put it to me in this way. He said that it was necessary for somebody to break into the office of Mr. Daniel Ellsberg, a psychiatrist, to get hold of his medical records, but it appeared as though in two years' time such data would be available in England within five seconds. That may be putting it strongly, but there are some disturbing features in this sphere.
Finally, I want to mention again the new earnings survey by the Department 1981 of the Employment. It requests the most precise details about earnings, overtime and job description in a way which will clearly enable individuals in small firms to be identified. Anybody who has seen the questionnaire, as I have, will notice how narrow the job description is. I am satisfied, as are many firms, that it will be quite impossible to protect the confidentiality of the individual employee. That survey is also being undertaken without any question of the consent of employees being required by employers.
There it is. I shall be grateful if the Minister of State, when he replies, will say something reassuring or tell us what he expects from the committee that is looking into the confidentiality of individual records in the Government's possession.
Perhaps I may give an instance of good practice for the Government. One of the encouraging points about the prism system—I am glad that the hon. Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Kenneth Baker), the Parliamentary Secretary to the Civil Service Department, is here to talk about the matter—is that any civil servant is entitled to a print-out of his own record. In addition, access is highly controlled. Individuals cannot have access to information which is not immediately relevant to the inquiries they are making. I beg the House to consider this matter. Surely the safeguards that we have written in for civil servants concerning computer records are also a just desert of citizens who are not civil servants. We must press for an assurance from the Government that safeguards in this sphere will be at least as complete as they are for civil servants.
Lastly, I come to the broad general principle that the Home Secretary so rightly raised at the beginning of his remarks. I refer to the whole question of the balance between a general right of privacy and the rights of the Press and others to investigate matters which they believe to be of importance to society. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman was right to indicate that this was one of the most difficult balances to know how to strike.
It is only right that I should put to the House what is increasingly my individual view. It is not yet an official statement on the part of the Opposition be- 1982 cause, like the Home Secretary, we think that there must be room for more debate and discussion before reaching a final conclusion.
I do not think we can divorce this debate entirely from our debate two weeks ago on the Franks Report. If we could shift the balance of the right of newspapers to information when pursuing matters in the public interest a little further towards those matters which lie in the public sector and a little further away from those which are distressing to private individuals, I believe that we would have served the needs of our society well. I hope that the Home Secretary will rapidly do what he suggested in this matter.
In other words, if we could have some narrowing of the scope of official secrets—I suggest a radical narrowing of the scope—combined with some protection for privacy, and I am increasingly persuaded that there is an argument for a general right of privacy, I believe that we would have shifted the whole ground of investigation by newspapers on to that area which is above all in the interest of the public. I am also persuaded that no general right of privacy could be conceded without an absolute defence of public interest for newspapers, for the BBC and for television, because investigative journalism is a crucial part of the safeguards that we need in our type of society.
Our obligations do not end there. Perhaps I may make a rather touching quotation from the play "Paracelsus" by Robert Browning:… let there be an end,A privacy, an obscure nook for me.I want to be forgotten even by God.I suspect that some of those whose privacy has been most rudely invaded in recent years so strongly felt that that they were not prepared to put their cases even to the Younger Committee.
§ 12.19 p.m.
§ Mr. Jasper More (Ludlow)
The House is greatly indebted to the Younger Committee for the enormous labours which produced the report, to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for the extremely broad and detailed survey he has given us this morning and, not least, to the hon. Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) who has made 1983 the extremely balanced contribution which we have just heard.
In the light of the concern expressed in the opening paragraphs of the Younger Report at the refusal of two successive predecessors of my right hon. Friend to include the public sector in the scope of its review, I think the House will be particularly grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he said about the forthcoming White Paper and what it is intended it shall cover.
I was a humble and not very assiduous member of the Justice Committee which considered this matter before the Younger Committee was appointed. I found myself, perhaps regrettably, less in agreement with the recommendations of the Justice Committee than with those of the Younger Committee, thereby differing from the hon. Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon). My view was based on two principles: first, as the hon. Lady the Member for Hitchin said, on the undesirability of too much secrecy; and, secondly, on the more technical difficulty of having too much in the way of general principles incorporated into our English law.
Out of the wide field covered by the Younger Committee I want to direct my remarks to one small sector of it, and that is the question of spying, snooping, surveillance and technical devices. The Younger Committee made a number of recommendations in paragraphs 53 onwards relating to technical surveillance devices, and particularly for the protection of those who were justified in believing that they had protected themselves from surveillance.
This problem is at least 2,500 years old. It arose in the Apocrypha in the story of Susanna. She was in her private garden and she was clearly under the impression that she was protected from surveillance, because she said to her maids:Bring me soap and olive oil, and shut the garden doors that I can batheand they did as she bade them and shut the garden doors. The trouble was that they had not seen the elders because they were hiding, apparently in the rhododendron bushes.
§ Mr. Alexander W. Lyon
The hon. Gentleman says that that is the earliest example of the invasion of privacy, but 1984 perhaps he has forgotten Bathsheba and all the trouble that caused.
§ Mr. More
I have never been certain about dates in the Old Testament, and I am not willing to dispute them with the hon. Gentleman.
We know the disgraceful sequence of blackmail which ensued on the part of the elders—the trouble then was apparently the older generation, not the younger one—and how the situation was saved by the prophet Daniel and his brilliant cross-examination of the two elders separately from one another.
The two things I want to emphasise from the experience of Susanna relate to the question of trespass and the recent advances in technical devices. This debate is about privacy, but if Susanna had had available English law she could have brought an action for trespass. When we talk about privacy, we must realise that to a large extent this is tied up with the law of trespass, and it is a matter of some regret the Younger Committee did not deal a little more with the present law on trespass, because this must be the foundation of a good deal on which we want to build if there is ever to be a law on privacy.
Private people in our society come up against appalling difficulties in the whole business of the law of trespass. As a Member of Parliament with rural constituents, I constantly have farmers asking what they can do to deal with one problem in particular. A farmer says "I have a field just off the main road which is apparently rather attractive. People like to drive out on Sundays and bring their cars into my field, have a picnic there, and leave behind all their bottles and tins. What can I do?" The only answer I can give is that he should find them and sue them for trespass. But that is not a helpful answer, and I am reduced to saying that it would be better to put up a notice saying that it is dangerous to feed the snakes.
That is a fairly old device, but it emphasises the fact that the real remedy for trespass is almost useless, and when one sees in fields that time-honoured notice "Trespassers will be prosecuted", in the context of what we are discussing today it brings home the fact that if there is ever to be a law on privacy it ought not to provide a 1985 purely civil remedy but should provide also for some criminal reinforcement for it.
The Younger Committee, in paragraph 537, paid a lot of attention to bugging and technical devices. Its conclusion seems to be that, on the whole, it is not possible to have any effective control over these technical instruments themselves, largely because so many of them can be used for innocent purposes and it is only their misuse which gives rise to criticism.
I should like to think that that matter could be considered again, perhaps in a more limited and technical sphere, because, even from the limited evidence that we had on this subject in the Justice Committee, I cannot help thinking that there are now a considerable number of technical devices which cannot conceivably be said to have anything but an undesirable use intended for them. I should like to think that some technical committee might look into this matter and at least ban a number of the more objectionable instruments that can only be used for the purposes that we all want to prevent.
§ 12.26 p.m.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)
I agree with the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) that the House owes a debt of gratitude to the members of the Younger Committee who laboured for two years in dealing with a difficult problem. I agree, too, that the House is indebted to the Home Secretary for his detailed speech and for the consideration that he has given to many of the committee's recommendations. I am sure that some of those recommendations will evoke almost unanimous approval.
My hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon), who I am sure the House will agree has rendered valuable service on this issue, summarised the matter extremely well in his excellent minority report when he said that the restatement of the law of breach of confidence to give it coherence and publicity, the creation of a new crime and a new tort of unlawful surveillance by devices that would do much to inhibit the growth of what we call bugging, and the creation of a new tort of publication of information obtained by unlawful means, would give teeth to the existing law.
1986 A number of recommendations are extremely helpful from an administrative point of view. I do not want to comment upon them in detail but to deal, instead, with only one matter. I am extremely disappointed at the failure of the Younger Committee to recommend a new tort dealing with a general right to privacy. I want to deal with that in a little detail and to argue the case for it. What my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) said in her excellent speech is most important in illustrating how important it is to have this tort of a general right to privacy.
When my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) announced that a committee would be set up to consider this matter, he specifically said that he considered there was a need for a law on privacy. Indeed, the Younger Committee said in paragraph 107 of its report:it is surely beyond dispute that a free and democratic society can exist only if its citizens are able to count on a substantial area of privacy in their family and personal affairs and in the various group activities which make up their working and leisure hours. Unlimited interference in these spheres by public authorities is one principal reason given for rejecting the totalitarian state; but interference by private interests must also be kept within bounds, especially as modern organisation and technology increase their power to ride roughshod over individual rights and interests".This country is a party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Covenant on Political and Civil Rights and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. All these recognise a general right of privacy. Article 12 of the Universal Declaration and Article 17 of the UN Covenant specifically provide:No one shall he subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence nor to attacks upon his honour or reputation.andEveryone is entitled to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.Yet, despite our adherence to those principles, we have not established a law giving a general right to privacy which would put those principles into effect.
Mr. Ross, in his minority report—he is of course a lawyer and is able to deal with the matter from a legal point of view—quoted Lord Denning, the 1987 Master of the Rolls, as saying in a discussion on Lord Mancroft's Bill in another place:if the law … does not give the right of privacy, the sooner this kind of Bill gives it the better."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords; Vol. 229, c. 640.]France, Germany and the United States have been given this law. Why then do we not have it? What are the objections?
I appreciate what the Secretary of State said about the differences between this country and other countries, and the fact that we do not have a written constitution, but many of our laws have grown up, and there is no reason why a law of privacy should not grow up.
What are the objections? In paragraph 113, the report says:For the purposes of our enquiry, what we can conclude from the information put before us is that privacy is a basic need, essential to the development and maintenance both of a free society and of a mature and stable individual personality, but that it is not possible to state in general terms how much or how little privacy is necessary. The need varies in time, place and as between individuals.Accepting this, why do the variations mean that it is not possible to have a law which can be applied properly in all cases?
It is said that a general right would introduce uncertainties into our law. But I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to mark the width of the definition of the tort of negligence as set out in Halsbury's Laws of England. I take it in a general way from that put:Negligence is a specific tort and in any given circumstances is a failure to exercise that care which the circumstances demand. What amounts to negligence depends on the facts of each particular case, and the categories of negligence are never closed.Or take the width of the definition of nuisance. It is said not to be capable of exact definition, butA common law nuisance is one which, apart from statute, violates the principles which the common law lays down for the protection of the public and of individuals in the exercise and enjoyment of their rights.I could quote also the definition of trespass, however unsatisfactory its results may have been. Reference to these torts shows that there is no reason why a general law of privacy could not be applied on the merits of each case.
1988 In the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. Walden) and adapted from the Bill drafted by Justice, one reads:Any substantial and unreasonable infringement of a right of privacy" is made actionable. "Right of privacy" is defined as meaning " … the right of any person to be protected from intrusion upon himself, his home, his family, his relationships … with others, his property and his business affairs, including intrusion by—and so on.
- (a) spying, prying, watching or besetting;
- (b) the unauthorised overhearing or recording of spoken words;
- (c) the unauthorised making of visual images;
- (d) the unauthorised reading or copying of documents;
- (e) the unauthorised use or disclosure of confidential information …
- (f) the unauthorised appropriation of his name, identity";
I do not know why the Press appear to have taken such strong objection to a law of privacy or why the Younger Committee seems to have attached so much importance to their objection. We have recently seen—I will not go into detail, any more than other hon. Members did—how outrageously certain organs of the Press have invaded privacy.
There is a Press Council and some suggestions about it could be very valuable, but what sanctions does it have? A responsible editor will no doubt publish its findings, but there is no compulsion. Other organs of the Press—some of them, of course, yellow rags—will not do so. Some, I think, have refused to do so. I should have thought that although the Press Council was a useful body, it is an ineffective protection of individual members of the public.
I believe in free speech as strongly as anyone, and do not think that it would be prejudiced by a law of privacy. The Bill drafted by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, All Saints gave ample defences. It said:where the infringement was constituted by the publication of any words or visual images,it would be a defence thatthere were reasonable grounds for the belief that such publication was in the public interest".1989 So in suitable cases, there would be a defence of privileges, as there is in actions for defamation. Why then is the freedom of the Press affected in any way?
There is room for defining a tort of invasion of privacy. As I have shown, I hope conclusively, the width of definitions of torts like negligence, nuisance and trespass proves that there is nothing in the argument that a tort of invasion of privacy would lead to uncertainties in the law. It is also said that there are few cases and no evidence of any substantial wrong requiring to be righted, but, as we all know, there are many glaring invasions of privacy. As my hon. Friend said, the Press only last week quoted examples from the courts of the disgraceful methods adopted by inquiry agents to invade privacy.
Even if the number is small, surely that is no reason for not prescribing a remedy for an obvious wrong. As in the tort of negligence and others, we are well accustomed to considering the circumstances and deciding whether a wrong has been committed. Judges and juries do it every day. There is no reason why they should not do it in this respect.
§ Mr. R. Carr
The hon. and learned Gentleman has particularly mentioned other countries which have this right. Does he believe that, in practice, there is evidence that Frenchmen, Germans and so on are better protected from the sort of intrusion that worries him by their right of privacy than they would be by our system?
§ Mr. Weitzman
I do not think that it matters whether we are better protected. I do not know. We cannot judge. There may be many cases. We have an excellent law, for which I have every respect. It is the best law in the world. But it is still capable of improvement. We can make it all the better. Perhaps our law is very much better than that of other countries. But if one can show instances, as one can, in which our law, excellent as it is, can still be improved, let us do that. The right hon. Gentleman has not dealt with the argument that I have put forward, which justifies the inclusion of a tort for invading the right of privacy.
I was very glad to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that there is to be a White 1990 Paper and a consideration, presumably in relation to that and other things, and conclusions about the question of privacy affecting public corporations, Government Departments and so on. I regret that the committee's terms of reference did not extend to local authorities, public corporations and Government Departments. These are domains in which there may well be real examples of intrusions into privacy. I remind the House again of the words of paragraph 107 of the report:Unlimited interference in these spheres by public authorities is one principal reason given for rejecting the totalitarian state.The right hon. Gentleman is apparently rejecting the idea of this new tort, I am sorry that he has said that. I hope that he will give it further consideration, and that when considering the report the Government will not only look at the views contained in it but will consider again the views of Justice and the National Council for Civil Liberties and the Bills that have been put forward by a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House and the support which they received.
There are very strong feelings about this matter. In view of the right hon. Gentleman's intervention, I emphasise that, however excellent our law is, we should take the opportunity to improve it. If the case is made for the institution of a tort of this kind, which will be of assistance, I ask the right hon. Gentleman to see that the Government consider this again and decide to adopt the recommendations put forward, rightly and properly, in my view, in the two minority reports.
§ 12.44 p.m.
§ Mr. Richard Hornby (Tonbridge)
I welcome the opportunity of saying how much I enjoyed serving as a member of the Younger Committee under the chairmanship of Sir Kenneth Younger, a former Member of the House. He was always rigorous in his examination of the problems that the committee had before it, and always patient and anxious to make the work of the committee agreeable. The House owes him a considerable debt.
The Committee was extremely well served by members of the Department of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.
1991 The first question that the committee had to consider was its terms of reference. I echo the points that have been made in expressing the disquiet that many members of the committee felt at the start of its operation that the public sector was without those terms of reference. In some circumstances there may be good reasons for that, but it is a dangerous precedent, which should be avoided wherever possible, of seeing the biggest brother of all left out on one side of the fence while all other private activities are considered by such a body.
However, I hope that I am right in feeling that those anxieties are somewhat mollified by what my right hon. Friend said today and the assurance given to the committee at the start of its work that any legislation or recommendations proposed would be examined with regard to the effects on the public sector no less than on the private sector.
I do not intend to make a long speech. As a member of the committee and a signatory of the majority report, I have had my say, and it is for others to comment on what we have done and on the difference of views, to take one point, expressed by myself and others, on the one hand, and by the hon. Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon) on the other hand.
If there are any anxieties that we did not sufficiently consider the value of a general right of privacy, it is no fault of the hon. Member for York. I assure hon. Members that he used all of his legal and forensic skills to try to persuade us of the wisdom of the course that he has set out in his minority report.
We are addressing our minds to three questions. First, is there justifiable and substantial anxiety in the volume of complaint concerning privacy? Secondly, has the Younger Report gone far enough, and do its specific recommendations make good sense as protection for the public and in its search for adequate privacy? Thirdly, would a general right of privacy be a better remedy? Perhaps I should say, more exactly, would it be a better additional remedy and protection? The hon. Member for York subscribed to those specific remedies but felt that they did not go far enough and wished to add the general right in addition.
With regard to the general cause for concern, is it justifiable and substantial?
1992 Certainly my feeling was that it is justifiable, because the concept of privacy is a fundamental concept to man in society, and particularly to man in a highly industrialised, technological and crowded society such as ours. It is a subject of increasing importance, though sometimes the tempo of concern seems to vary, dependent no doubt on a particular news item or case that arises. From the evidence we received, it was hard to deduce that the degree of concern was growing in people's minds, although I think that particular incidents had aroused an increased degree of anxiety.
The total volume of concern was not large, either as expressed in the number of individual pieces of evidence that we received or, though we had a good response from them, in the response that we received from organised bodies of one kind or another.
The committee also recognised—this is fundamental to the view that it took—that while privacy is seen to be an exceedingly important matter for man in society, it is not a subject that can be viewed on its own. We do not live in isolation—though too many of our people live in unwanted loneliness. We live in society. What one man does affects another. What one man does to another ought sometimes, for the public and the general good, to be scrutinised and commented upon very thoroughly. There is, therefore, alongside the need for privacy, the need for truth to be identified and for truth to circulate. It is important in anything that we do in defence of privacy that we should not impede unduly the process whereby truth can out and can circulate.
Does the report and its recommendations go far enough, then? As a signatory of the majority view, I naturally came to the conclusion that I preferred the pragmatic approach—the item by item approach outlined in the report—to the general right view advanced by the hon. Member for York. I took that view, first, because uppermost in my mind was the need to strike a balance between the needs for information to circulate on the one hand, and the needs of privacy, on the other; and, secondly, because I thought that substantial safeguards could be given by the pragmatic remedies we came to in the end. We believe that these 1993 are substantial and numerous and not to be lightly set aside.
§ Mr. Hornby
That was the next point I was coming to. That is a form of pragmatism, but in defence of the view we have advanced in the report I have argued that the method we have proposed is both likely to be swifter and more certain of its interpretation, particularly in the early years. Pragmatism can emerge by case law. It will take time. It will particularly take time in a matter which is the subject of such subjective interpretation as privacy is. What is one man's privacy is not necessarily another's. What is one judge's interpretation of privacy is not necessarily another's.
I agree that these matters can be remedied or that some degree of certainty can emerge over a period of time, but it would take time and meanwhile I believe that more certain and substantial remedies could be provided by the course we have pursued.
§ Mr. Weitzman
If the hon. Gentleman agrees in that way, why does he not recognise that in addition to the remedies suggested in the report there could have been the certainty of a law?
§ Mr. Hornby
I propose to take up that point at the conclusion of my speech. One of my anxieties about the general right is that it would be a slow remedy and in its early years it would be an uncertain one, not least because no one, including the Younger Committee, has arrived at any satisfactory and sure definition of what is meant by privacy.
Thirdly—here I come to the mass media—I believe that it would substantially inhibit the activities of a free Press. This is a fundamental matter.
In some previous attempts to legislate in this field it has been suggested—I think it was Lord Mancroft's Bill—that the Press should be exempt from such proposals. It is a fundamentally bad principle that one should set aside one law for the Press or for the broadcasting 1994 authorities and another for others. There is sufficient and proper suspicion and criticism between Parliament and the Press, and so it should always be, the one of the other, the proper interplay fit very strong suspicion the one of the other, about what they are getting up to and why, and to have one law for one section and another law for everyone else would be a wholly bad practice.
Coming on to the question of the mass media, I do not think that any hon. Member underestimates the importance of a free Press as a bastion of a free society. I emphasise, while saying that this is a subject of importance and was widely debated in the committee and in comments on its report, that the volume of comment on privacy aspects as affecting the Press and broadcasters was not large. I believe that only 65 cases of privacy were referred to the Press Council between 1952 and the establishment of the Younger Committee in 1970.
The aspects of the problem that cause concern about the mass media are twofold. They are the means of obtaining information, on the one hand, and the printing, publishing or broadcasting of information that is thought to be of public interest or in the public interest—they are not necessarily the same thing—and, on the other hand, the views of individuals who feel aggrieved because they believe that what is thought by the broadcasters or by the Press to be of public interest or in the public interest is a matter of purely private interest and should be treated as such.
The question is whether the defences provided for the individual citizen by the existence of the Press Council and the Independent Broadcasting Authority for the independent broadcasters and the Governors of the BBC and the Programmes Complaints Commission are adequate.
I will deal first with the Press Council. I believe that if one is sufficiently concerned for a free Press a self-disciplining body in this field is preferable to any other. For all its inadequacies. I therefore prefer the Press Council. There is a certain smugness about the Press Council and its members and editors who like to pay tribute to it when it suits their convenience and to tuck away their adverse comments when 1995 it does not in a rather small column at the bottom of an insignificant page. There is a certain smugness about the remedies and the defences that the Press Council provides. There has been an apparent deliberate slowness to react to criticism by previous Royal Commission Reports—for instance, those of the Ross Commission and the Shawcross Commission.
Nevertheless, because of the difficulties in providing watchdogs or supervisors from other quarters, I would prefer that we should continue to badger, criticise and bully the Press Council with our comments, if we think that it is not living up to its own purported reputation, than that we should seek other courses.
The Press Council's not going as far as the latest suggestion in the Younger Committee of a 50–50 representation of Press and laymen is absolutely in line with the Press's previous reaction to other criticism. However, if one is staking one's faith in self-discipline, then self-discipline is brought to the very edge of the meaning of the word if one goes to 50–50 membership—and the council has a point there. I believe that if the council wants to be seen to be doing justice to public complaints, they should go that far.
§ Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)
The fact is that the Press Council has gone that far, for the complaints committee is on a 50–50 basis.
§ Mr. Hornby
That is a correct statement of fact. It is important that the Press Council should go that far. I would prefer it if it went that far as to the full membership of the council, because it is hard to believe that the viewpoint of the industry and the special needs of understanding it cannot be maintained by a 50 per cent. membership having an identity of professional status against the laymen who might be appointed.
As to the broadcasters, the volume of complaint has more often than not been about taste than about privacy. The Younger Committee received only six complaints about privacy and they all concerned the BBC. My concern with the BBC was whether the codes of practice which are laid down within that organisation are sufficiently observed. We 1996 received strong reassurances on this point from the Director-General of the BBC, but I think it is important when relying on internal codes to remember that staffs often change and that a repetition of those cedes and directives is an important matter.
§ Mr. Hornby
I will give my hon. Friend my own view on this matter of a broadcasting council. It is this. One can go a long way too far in putting tier upon tier of supervisors over a particular body. We have the statutory IBA. There are the Governors of the BBC and they have appointed their complaints commission. It seems to me that, having appointed people statutorily to do a particular job, they should be trusted to do that job or be dismissed. To put one tier on top of another is not the right way to do it. It simply debilitates the bodies. If things have gone wrong in the BBC it is because the Governors of the BBC have become too much identified with the management of the BBC and are too little seen to be responsive to the views of the public. However, that is getting too near to another subject, although it is relevant to this one.
It is for those reasons that I basically support the views expressed in the report for the treatment of the mass media. There are nevertheless still very real anxieties. It is one thing for the Press Council and editors to take a responsible line. It is quite another for a reporter earning his daily bread. If I may be forgiven a personal reminiscence, I once went to seek a job on a national newspaper a long time ago. A question that I was asked by the person interviewing me was, "Suppose I send you out on a story. It will not be so long before you run into some friend of yours. It may be someone you know who is in trouble. You may have to go to see a widow, or a co-respondent. What are you going to send back to me?" That is where the rub comes for the journalist. That is where the foot-in-the-door idea comes. What is of public interest is a matter of professional judgment. It may be a matter of slaking 1997 curiosity. It may be a matter of commercial self-interest. Why did Mr. Rupert Murdoch republish the Keeler memoirs? I wonder. Was it a matter of public interest? Was it commercial self-interest? These matters are important. Neverthless, in spite of these things, I believe it is right to leave a free Press to defend its own ethics.
I should like to refer to one other matter, with which the right hon. Lady the Member for Hitchin dealt. In listening to the evidence before us I found the practices of the banks very strange indeed—the fact that they said that they would know how many inquiries about an individual customer had been made in the course of a year, and that if I rang up and asked how many had been made about me they would say, "Yes, we know how many but we will not tell you."
It is important that customers should know what are the standing instructions of the banks with regard to references. Of course, it is equally important in a credit society that references can be properly obtained. There is need for clarification there.
These measures put forward by the Younger Committee should be adopted as soon as it is in the Government's power to do so and as soon as possible by other bodies.
There remains an area of anxiety and a feeling that citizens may be too little protected. I would prefer to give these pragmatic measures a fair chance. If public opinion feels as time passes that it is insufficiently protected, the general right idea is a position of last resort. It should not be resorted to unless these measures have been proved to be inadequate.
§ 1.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Maurice Edelman (Coventry, North)
As a Member for the city of Godiva, I have an interest in the subject of Peeping Toms in our society. It was shortly after Peeping Tom was smitten that a law was introduced, the Justice of the Peace Act 1361, which prevented similar misbehaviour.
We live in the age of Watergate and of investigatory journalism of the Washington Post and The Sunday Times. We live also in an age when all sorts of 1998 new electronic devices have been developed which are capable of intruding into our privacy. Therefore, it is appropriate that there should be this examination of techniques of intrusion and also some sort of inquiry as that in which the Younger Committee has engaged, in order to establish whether we should have greater means of defending our privacy.
The debate so far, which has been far-reaching, introduced in a most comprehensive and masterly way by the Home Secretary, has revolved around the question whether there should be a general right of privacy or whether we can settle for what the hon. Member for Tonbridge (Mr. Hornby) called pragmatic methods of dealing with invasions of privacy as and when they occur with the existing instruments to hand, whether they are the law as it is today or whether it is done through specific professional associations concerned with codes of conduct which will prevent the grosser abuses which all of us reprehend.
My hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon) has consistently urged that there should be a general right of privacy, the creation of a new tort and eventually presumably the building up of a system of case law which would be adequate to deal with modern intrusions into privacy. I read his minority report very carefully but I must say that he lost me when I came to the paragraph supporting the recommendations made by the Younger Committee which read:Like the Highway Code and the Ten Commandments they would be improved by a legal deterrent.I could not help feeling that it was a little presumptuous of him to improve on the Ten Commandments! As I am sure my hon. Friend knows, in the State of New York adultery is still a crime, and until recently the penalty for adultery was death. That law is still on the statute book, but it fell into desuetude because it could not be applied. Therefore, if my hon. Friend intends to seek to introduce wide-ranging new—I will not say rights, but legislation which in the event may be as inapplicable and as unenforceable as some of the obscenity laws, then, far from preserving privacy, he will cause confusion and prevent those abuses of privacy which we all deplore from being adequately contained.
1999 In the Younger Report there is a very interesting exordium dealing with the philosophy of privacy. The question of definition is certainly one which will come up time and again. Even in urging that there should be a general right of privacy my hon. Friend is begging the question to some extent because one has to know exactly what privacy means. Is privacy the right to be left alone? I am sure that anyone examining that definition closely would not accept it. Privacy, if it has to be defined, is, surely, the right not to be interfered with when one is engaged on one's lawful occasions. Then, if one has that broad definition, one has to relate it to the means for the protection of one's privacy, whether by the law or by the social climate which condemns inappropriate intrusion.
What is happening today in our country is not that the State is assuming powers or abusively intruding into our privacy, although there are opportunities for such actions, as has already been said. The danger today does not come from the State itself. The menace is not the Big Brother of "1984"; it is all sorts of little brothers—the private inquiry agent, the newspaper which attempts to invade the privacy of the individual in a way which most of us would not approve, and so on.
I say that as a journalist, and I declare my interest in this matter as a journalist, because I think that the great problem in relation to journalism is to see how we can ensure that the new type of campaigning, investigative or exposure journalism—call it what one will—does not behave in ways offensive to the right of privacy as I have defined it, namely, the right to go about one's private lawful occasions without inappropriate interference.
The danger arises, I believe, in the way in which the individual may be faced by the great power of the Press. The power of the Press is assembled in the hands of a large number of private investigators, people who use all the techniques of private investigation and who in that way are capable of doing great mischief to the rights of the individual.
I was glad that the Home Secretary emphasised that laws already exist for the protection of privacy, but that in many cases they have not been invoked 2000 even by those who have been injured through the invasion of their privacy. I shall return to that in a minute.
I attach importance also—the Younger Committee stressed this—to the professional associations concerned not only with the protection of their members but with the maintenance of a code of conduct to uphold the standards of their profession. I think it right that they should be strengthened in their activities. It is right that the Press Council should exercise its function of protecting the privacy and the rights of individuals, and if it is necessary to that end to reconstruct the council, enlarging the number of lay members, so be it.
I do not, however, regard that as enough in itself. I should like to see the Press Council voluntarily assert a rule which is already adopted in France. If someone feels that he has been injured and he appeals to the Press Council, and if then the Press Council condemns the newspaper which injured the aggrieved party, the statement of condemnation should be published by that newspaper as prominently as was the attack on the individual. I regard the prominence given by the newspaper to its apology, or to the condemnation, as of vital importance. The idea of it being tucked away in some remote corner, in 6-point type, as has happened in the past, is plainly not adequate. That is merely raising one's hat to the letter of the agreement without respecting its spirit.
In relation to investigative journalism, I entirely accept what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams), that the function of a newspaper is to remedy injustice where it has information that injustice exists. It is an admirable continuation of a historic tradition of the Press that newsmen should campaign to remedy ills which they see, whether these are abuses by powerful interests or by individuals.
There is nevertheless a great danger here. Just as there is great danger in trial by television, so there is great danger in trial by the Press. The Press can afford to take large chances, for example, the chance of being sued for libel, because, quite apart from its insurance cover, it has great resources at its command. An individual traduced by a newspaper, on the other hand, may be afraid. He may be reluctant to enlarge the area 2001 of defamation, he may be reluctant to undertake the expense, even if he can afford it, to challenge a powerful newspaper, or he may not want to be involved in a protracted dispute which could ultimately be to his detriment.
If an investigative or exposure Press gees out of its way to attack an individual or a group of individuals who may not have the capacity, the courage or the endurance to reply to it, then, for precisely the same reason as arises when people are reluctant to go to law when they feel themselves libelled, the Press may be capable of abusing its powers.
I wish to draw attention now to an abuse which took place a few years ago and which has, I believe, proved to be a most sinister development in the history of investigative journalism. I do not wish unduly to argue from the particular to the general, but I must refer to this case because it encapsulates the principle and it has already become the precedent for all sorts of abuse which are taking place to this very day.
I refer to the occasion when The Times "bugged" two policemen who were subsequently convicted on charges of corruption and conspiracy. The House will recall the circumstances. Tape recordings were made of the conversations of the two policemen with a convicted criminal who in turn was acting in collusion with two reporters from The Times who had a radio receiver by means of which they were able to record the conversations.
In order to balance that preamble, I should add that on 27th June one of Her Majesty's judges congratulated those journalists on their enterprise. It was reported in The Times under the head,Judge says two reporters of The Times rendered great service in police case".This is what the learned judge said in the Court of Appeal:It is clearly outside our province to make any observations regarding newspaper investigations in general. But, equally clearly, it would be churlish were we to fail to make mention of the great public service rendered by these two reporters.It was, it would appear, mainly their intrepidity and skill which laid bare a hideous cancer which, if unchecked, could have done even greater and incalculable damage to law 2002 enforcement. It accordingly seems to us only right that we should pay them tribute, and that we do now."
§ Mr. Edelman
I must say, without disputing the ruling of the learned judge, that I am somewhat surprised that he should have made that obiter dictum, and I am surprised also that my hon. Friend should applaud it.
§ Mr. Edelman
I say that because, whatever the guilt subsequently established of the policemen concerned, it was a grave invasion of their rights as citizens, guilty though they proved to be, that The Times, in collusion with a convicted criminal, should have set up that apparatus in order to trap two persons in relation to whom, as far as could be told up to that point, nothing had been proved and nothing had been invoked in respect of the police. The appeal judge's tribute to the intrepidity and skill of the journalists opened the doors to investigatory techniques of a most dubious kind.
§ Mr. R. C. Mitchell
Will my hon. Friend suggest how these policemen would have been brought to justice and how the whole case would have been exposed had The Times not done what it did?
§ Mr. Edelman
I believe that the function of The Times should have been to go to the Commissioner of Police or, failing that, to the Home Secretary to bring such evidence or at least such charges as had been laid to the attention of these people so that they could act. If they had felt compelled to act it would have been appropriate for them to have done so in this way.
§ Mr. Raison
If the hon. Member is extending the notion of privacy, and if one starts talking about people's performance of their public duties, surely privacy implies the private lives of people. This 2003 case had nothing to do with the private lives of these policemen. It was their public lives and their public duties, and surely that is a different concept.
§ Mr. Edelman
Perhaps I may develop the hon. Member's point a little further. In acting in this way The Times itself behaved in a criminal manner. At the time that this bugging took place I asked on 8th December 1969 of the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications in what circumstances a licence was issued to The Times for the use of a radio receiver for the purpose of receiving communications from an individual using a private transmitter. The reply he gave was that no licence was issued. On 19th December I asked him again why he allowed The Times to use without a licence a radio receiver for the purposes of receiving communications from an individual using a private transmitter. He replied,I did not allow any such action as is alleged and it would not be proper for me to comment further at this stage."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th December 1969; Vol. 793, c. 463.]The reason that he felt it not appropriate to comment was that the matter had become the subject of criminal proceedings so that. in the event, the offence committed by The Times could not be further explored simply because the matter had presumably become sub judice What was not sub judice was the action The Times itself, and I remain astonished that at that time the Minister did not act in accordance with the Wireless and Telegraphy Act 1949 in order to charge The Times or its agents with abusive behaviour in relation to the policemen, who at the time were simply ordinary citizens.
§ Mr. Ted Leadbitter (The Hartlepools)
Does my hon. Friend agree that if we now extend the principle and adopt the same methods towards all public figures, including Members of Parliament, this would involve serious implications?
§ Mr. Edelman
I am obliged to my hon. Friend, but I put the converse of his argument. If this sort of behaviour is applied to Members of Parliament or to policemen who are servants of the State, the danger is that it might be applied much more widely to citizens who have no public capacity. In other words, an 2004 ugly and squalid precedent was produced by The Times when it behaved in this way.
The bugging operation by The Times was a disagreeable precedent for the photographing and bugging of Lord Lambton—
§ Mr. Edelman
If The Times had a dirty tricks department there was no reason why others newspapers, too, should not themselves have their own dirty tricks department. Why should not other newspapers in the cause of the public interest, as they might claim, and in the cause of a healthy circulation, use the same techniques and methods which The Times has now received the encomium of the appeal judge for so using? We hear Mr. Harold Evans and Mr. Rees-Mogg setting themselves up as the guardians of public morality. No doubt they may be remembered either as guardians of public morality or as representatives of the Cheka which said that its function was to be the flaming sword of the people with, no doubt, Mr. Rees Mogg and Mr. Harold Evans as the Felix Dzherzhinsky of Fleet Street.
I hope that out of this debate there will come a condemnation of this form of behaviour and the use of these sophisticated techniques for the invasion of privacy of the ordinary citizen. If newspapers of the high standard of The Times and The Sunday Times can use these methods, they set an example of which everyone must disapprove. I do not believe that a public right, a general right of privacy, would in any sense have altered the situation.
I support entirely what the Home Secretary said when he expressed himself in favour of using the existing law in order pragmatically to protect and defend the privacy of the individual. In the long run a good society depends not upon multiplying laws but upon the application of those laws which are accepted by the consensus of society. The defence of privacy does not lie in making new laws. It lies in creating and in establishing healthy principles of social communication, which are the ultimate defence of the citizen.
§ 1.27 p.m.
§ Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)
Like the hon. Member for Coventry, North (Mr. Edelman) I am a journalist and I am also an adviser to a magazine publishing company, and I therefore have an interest to declare.
It has been suggested that today's debate might well have been amalgamated with the debate which took place two weeks ago on the Official Secrets Acts. I am sure we are right to have separate debates not merely because there is a great deal to say about these topics but because they are by their nature about fundamentally different issues. On official secrets the important thing, from my point of view, is to extend the public's right to know, and although I was unable to attend the debate on the topic I was a little disappointed with the Home Secretary's approach to this issue.
With the topic of privacy we are concerned obviously with the protection of the individual, which is a very different matter. I need not add to what has already been said about the importance of privacy in a modern society. At risk of introducing the first party political note in the debate, my view of Conservative philosophy is one which leads me to believe that it embodies the notion of privacy at least as rigorously as the Labour Party does.
Both topics have one thing in common, however, and that is the importance of not legislating in a way which will prevent the Press and the television from doing the job of getting at awkward facts. Whatever the abuses we have seen from the Press and television, they can almost invariably be offset by comparable examples of things that have been unearthed by the Press by use of means which may sometimes seem unethical—I disagree with the hon. Member for Coventry, North about The Times—but which have nevertheless been to the overall public benefit.
My right hon. Friend was right to endorse the conclusion of the Younger Committee which was expressed in paragraph 187 of its report when it said:We conclude that, because it is impossible to devise any satisfactory yardstick by which to judge, in cases of doubt, whether the importance of a public story should override the 2006 privacy of the people and personal information involved, the decision on this point can be made only in the light of the circumstances of each case.I am sure that was the right decision. Nothing I have heard in the debate is dissuading me from it.
One might even go so far as to say that the investigation by The Guardian into banks was a breach of privacy by The Guardian which might well have been outlawed if we had had a general law of privacy. It would be held that it was trying to act in the public interest, but I suspect that a definition of the public interest would be remarkably difficult to achieve, that when an investigation came up with the right answer, a significant answer, it would be able to say that it was in the public interest, but that when it did not come up with that sort of answer people would say that it was not in the public interest. There would be cases in which at the beginning of an inquiry one could not know whether one would end up with something in the public interest.
§ Mr. Brian Walden (Birmingham, All Saints)
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's way of putting that. I notice that yet again he lays no stress on means. Does not he draw any distinction between, for example, the Washington Post journalists in the Watergate investigation, who did not bug, sniperscope and record, and The Times journalists in the policemen case? In the hon. Gentleman's mind are they exactly the same thing, on all fours?
§ Mr. Raison
That is a fair point. I draw a distinction, but I find it difficult to draw absolute distinctions. One of the merits of the approach which the committee and the Press Council have adopted is that neither has gone in for general principles. Both have said "Let's judge cases on their merits". I believe that that is the right approach.
Although in a sense I am an interested party, I believe that the Press Council has over the years done a pretty good job. It has definitely and clearly raised the standards of the Press in a number of important ways. We have heard that there were not all that many complaints, perhaps surprisingly few, against the Press and the working of the Press Council. Mr. D. M. Ross, who made 2007 some rather sharp criticisms of the Press Council in his minority report, failed to substantiate what he said.
Above all, I believe that there is a great deal to be said for the principle of self-regulation, rather than having people from outside imposed as arbiters, in the way in which a profession conducts itself. I know that journalists easily become very pompous about the Press as a profession, a fault that we share with other professions. Perhaps we are worse. I do not think that the Press is wholly a true profession in the way some of the other more highly-organised professions are. But it is a fair point to make that the medical profession by and large regulates itself. I know that there has been discussion about the General Medical Council in these respects. The Bar Council, which represents the profession of Mr. Ross, has been very rigorous in the belief that the Bar should regulate its own profession.
If one accepts the notion of self-regulation one is at least embarking on a course which is liable to raise standards and to get a commitment by the profession concerned to high standards, whereas if it is necessary to bring in a large number of outsiders one is obviously saying that one does not trust that profession—in this case the Press. One is also doing something which will make it less likely that the Press will in itself become more responsible, as I maintain it is, however imperfectly.
§ Mr. Alexander W. Lyon
I interrupt the hon. Gentleman only because he touches on a very significant point. There is a marked difference between the professions he mentions and journalism in that all the other professions he mentions are closed professions, where exclusion can be imposed by the governing body if there is a breach of ethics. That is not true of journalism. It is that difficulty of policing the activities of journalism, particularly when there is such a premium on getting a good story, that makes it difficult to believe in the self-regulating powers of the Press Council.
§ Mr. Raison
I acknowledge that there are radical differences between the Press and some of the other professions, but it is right to try to work towards some- 2008 thing closer to a generally professional condition. There are the same arguments in other fields. There are semi-professions, such as teaching, social work and so on.
I believe it is right to start from the principle that we want the Press to become more and more responsible, and that the best way of doing that is for the Press itself to make these important decisions rather than have them imposed upon it.
I reinforce one point made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary when he replied to the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. David Weitzman), who talked about the notion of the general law of privacy which the hon. Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon) supports. The hon. and learned Gentleman made the comparison with those countries where that sort of general law prevailed. But it would be interesting to compare the way in which the British Press treated the nude photographs of Jackie Onassis with the way in which they were treated in the French, American and German Press. I should be very surprised if we came out worse than those countries. Anyone who looks at the French or German Press regularly has to acknowledge that their standards are in no sense higher than ours. I think that they are a good deal lower. I do not think that practical experience shows that having a general law of privacy brings about that which is claimed for it.
I turn to a completely different topic, that of medical records. I share the regret expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge (Mr. Hornby) in his very interesting speech that the inquiry was confined to the private sector. However, there was a chapter on medicine, Chapter 13, and Chapter 20 on computers has a bearing on the matter. Therefore, I was very pleased to hear my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary say that in the White Paper that we are to have later questions relating to the National Health Service will be considered by the Government in the same sort of terms, the same sort of context, as these other questions of privacy in the private sector.
In paragraph 362, in the chapter on medicine, the committee said that it had 2009 had to bear in mind the limitations imposed by its terms of reference, adding:Nevertheless we would hope that the medical profession as a whole will note what we say where they think it concerns them.I certainly hope that the medical profession as a whole will be able to pick up the problem that I am about to summarise. In paragraph 363 the committee says:In our survey of public attitudes to privacy 51 per cent. of the sample said they would object to details of their medical history being available to anyone who wanted to know, and 49 per cent. said they would not. Seven people (less than 1 per cent.) spontaneously, and a further two on prompting, said that their privacy had been invaded in connection with medical matters.What I want to talk about was referred to briefly by the hon. Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams). I am not arguing that abuses are being committed in this respect, but we have an unsatisfactory situation. I am referring to the scheme for hospital activity analysis which was initiated by the Department of Health and Social Security, and in particular to the variation on it operated by the Oxford Regional Hospital Board.
The story goes back to 1969, when the Department issued a circular on the development of hospital activity analysis. I understand that the point was not to build up individual case histories but to build up statistical material from which it would be possible to draw general and no doubt very valuable conclusions, which is a very wise thing. At that stage hospitals were asked to introduce a form and the doctors in my constituency, under the Royal Buckinghamshire and St. John's Hospital Management Committee—although they had not then actually emerged—accepted that.
In 1970 the board notified hospital management committees that it proposed to extend its experimental scheme of record linkage to all hospitals in the Oxford region for the purpose of collecting the data which was already required by the Department. The Department did not ask for identifying details on the form on which the information was to be provided, but the Oxford record linkage study required very full patient identifying details to be included on the form. At that point the doctors in 2010 Aylesbury took exception. Later in 1970 the Department introduced a new form which was called HMR 1 Psychiatric. Instructions were given for the form to be completed with full identifying details of every in-patient admitted to mental hospitals. The forms had to be sent to the Department of Health and Social Security at Fleetwood for inclusion in the national psychiatric computer file.
At the same time the Oxford Regional Hospital Board decided to commence the psychiatric information system and asked for the HMR I Psychiatric forms to be sent to the DHSS via the board. That would enable the diagnosis and treatment of every psychiatric in-patient in the region to be recorded centrally together with their names and all identifying particulars. In other words, there was a move from a request for material which could be lumped together and used for analytical purposes to a kind of general and very full record of the history of the patients. The details asked for, and asked for particularly of psychiatric patients, included matters which inevitably go very wide—for example, whether the patient had been referred as a result of criminal activities and whether drug taking came into the patient's history.
There is no doubt that the forms went into enormous detail and gave a full record of things which most hon. Members, assuming that they qualified for them, would be very unhappy to make public. The medical advisory committee of the Aylesbury hospitals decided that, until Parliament had enacted legal safeguards to protect the right of patients against wrongful or unauthorised disclosure of computer medical records, it would withhold identifying details from record forms sent to the national psychiatric information service. The Aylesbury doctors said that they would not send in identifying details.
The reaction of the DHSS was to say that it could not accept the forms without identifying particulars. After a while it told the hospital management committee that it had adjusted its system to allow the Aylesbury forms to be slotted into the computer without identification. It has confirmed that the omission of identifying details has not caused any real difficulties to the system although there are certain complications.
2011 I believe that the Aylesbury doctors were absolutely right to take that stand. They were right because they considered that it was wrong for them to transmit details about individuals without the consent or knowledge of those individuals. Secondly, it is a breach of the notion of medical confidentiality if that kind of detail can be put on centralised records without stringent safeguards to prevent such matters being released elsewhere.
I am not saying that there is evidence that information has come out of the computer which should not have come cut. The Aylesbury doctors are saying that they believe that the details of the scheme must be made known to the public both to encourage the discussion which is needed to arrive at the right solution and to ensure that patients know what is happening. They say that there should be a form of consent for patients to sign to indicate whether they are agreeable to specific data being forwarded for the purpose of medical research and record keeping.
Further, the Aylesbury doctors say that the question of data storage in computers should be placed within a proper legal framework created by Parliament, which should define individual rights, lay down proper controls and clarify abuses and penalties. They say that, until there is a system which makes the position clear, anyone who releases details in an unauthorised way is liable to be subject to penalties with which they may not feel able to co-operate.
I very much hope that the White Paper and the Government's examination of privacy will pay great attention to an issue which raises important principles and which is symptomatic of a number of comparable problems.
§ Mr. Speaker
I make no criticism of the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) or other previous speakers but there are half-a-dozen hon. Members who wish to speak, which means that speeches will have to be rather shorter.
§ 1.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Brian Walden (Birmingham, All Saints)
The hon. Member for Tonbridge (Mr. Hornby) handled very well a problem of which I am also aware. The hon. Gentleman sat on the Younger Committee, but he indicated that he would not 2012 weary the House by going through the report point by point and stating his conclusions on certain matters. This is a subject in which I have a great interest, but I do not want to do that either. It is disrespectful to the House to lay down obiter dicta where one stands on particular sections of the report. It is also tedious to do so.
The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department as good as invited us to have a little chat with him about privacy in what I thought was an excellent speech, as was the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams). Both Front Benches appeared to be aware of the difficulties involved and wanted the guidance of the House. I do not know whether the guidance which I can give is any better on this subject than that of my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon). I agree with the minority report which my hon. Friend contributed to the Younger Committee.
I shall take some of the more general issues and possibly one of the more controversial issues and briefly examine them. Although everyone says that the great problem is the growth of technological development—I said it myself when I introduced the Right of Privacy Bill, 1970, which led to the Younger Committee—further consideration has led me to think that there is another problem specific to this country which will be even more important than worldwide technological developments. Over the next 20 years I believe that Britain will become a much more open society That may be thoroughly bad news for the Government. I do not mean the present Government but any future Government.
Many of the things which a Government can get away with now will not be possible or allowable for them to get away with during the next 10 or 20 years. There will be substantial changes. There will be much greater demand for information. Unfortunately when I look at the society which most epitomises the wide-open system—namely. the United States—I notice the concomitant of lack of respect, as I regard it, for private life and for private concerns. It is a good point made by those who do not approve of privacy legislation that its existence 2013 in the United States does not appear to have prevented what I as an Englishman regard as abuse.
I do not want to be misunderstood. I do not wish it to be thought that I am attacking Americans. The reverse is the case. I have always enjoyed staying and living in the United States. However, Americans have strange ideas about privacy. Hon. Members will know that even to go away and spend an evening by oneself is regarded by many Americans as a sign that a person is exceedingly unhappy and needs to be entertained at the earliest possible opportunity by having large numbers of people present who can share their experiences. That may not be unconnected with the American irreverence of authority and the refusal of America to allow authorities to keep secrets.
America has the most investigative Press in the world. That Press wishes to produce the most pieces of information on the widest possible range of subjects. I find myself in the philosophic dilemma of being at war within myself as to things which I want to see happen. I want a more open society. I think that British society at present is almost intolerable in terms of its secrecy, especially the secrecy of the parties which leads to abuse after abuse. At the same time I do not want to see British society surrender traditional standards of privacy. That is another good point which is made by those who do not wish to see any extension of privacy legislation. Such people are right to say that it is difficult to strike an objective definition of privacy which would operate for all societies at a given time or for all societies at all times. That is important. One to a very considerable extent is guided by the situation of one's own society and the nature of what is regarded at that particular time as being acceptable and unacceptable.
The Home Secretary was right to indicate that any conclusions that might be arrived at at this stage will be provisional. They will be provisional because, I suspect, public opinion, as I indicated earlier, will change on these matters and undoubtedly that is something which has in itself an objective significance. We must pay attention to it.
2014 If there were a universal clamour—which there is not—from the British people saying that they were affronted by intrusions into privacy, I should argue that it would be the duty of the House of Commons to do something about it and the duty of the Government to enable the House to do something about it. Sooner or later, something like that might happen. It may not—we cannot know. I take the point that one must not speak of privacy as if one were using a word on which everyone universally agreed as to its meaning and scope. I gladly concede that point.
However, I want to take up a number of comments in the report. First, I hope that the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) will not think that I was terse with him when I interrupted. I did not mean to be. But I think that he is on a false point. I think this because of a very strong opinion which I hold. I know that he does not share it and that his opinion is as good as mine.
My belief is that there can be no justified bugging, sniperscoping or recording for any purpose whatever, except possibly—and I say "possibly" because on this issue I am a radical—for the defence of the State, and I am suspicious even of that.
I venture a prediction. If President Nixon has any chance at all of getting out of his present difficulties with a shred of honour, he will leap upon the national security defence of what he did, even though large numbers of people regard that defence as being entirely bogus. I thought that that was the danger of what the hon. Member for Aylesbury was saying. He was coming close to saying that it matters not what are the means, provided that the ends eventually turn out to be justifiable.
Let me put it vulgarly. If some bent "coppers" are nicked and sent down, that attitude is that we must not scrutinise too carefully how it was they were discovered as being bent in the first place. I regard that attitude as utterly dangerous. The means are crucial. It is fair to ask why. Is this a peculiar peccadillo of mine or is there some objective reason for believing that the means are crucial?
I think that there is. I deliberately cited Watergate and the investigations which took place by journalists, and I 2015 contrast it with the other case mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North (Mr. Edelman). The Watergate journalists were scrupulous at all times to say to everyone they interviewed that they were journalists, to take notes and nothing else—no recordings—and to do nothing whatever to spoil the investigation by using the very methods of investigation they were aiming to unmask and reveal. Their wisdom is now apparent. It has been almost impossible to attack the Washington Post and the New York Times in their handling of the case in the way which could have been resorted to had they used dubious methods.
By using the old-fashioned techniques which the editor of The Sunday Times finds depressingly outré, these men managed to get the story of the century. If one can get a story of that significance and importance, one that could shake the most powerful Government in the world in that way, people would have to work a long time to convince me that one needs to have a bug in one's boutonniere, to have recording devices and aids and a sniperscope on top of a building to take photographs. Such methods if permitted in one case will dribble across the entire board. That is their danger. They are too readily available.
Practically anybody can now operate a bug. They are far too small to be detectable in the overwhelming majority of cases. They are relatively cheap. If it is to be even suspected that the question asked will be, "Did you produce a justifiable public result in catching someone doing something that he should not have been doing?", rather than, "What were you doing using this bug and this photographic equipment in the first place?", if the emphasis is switched to the former rather than the latter, we shall never stop the abuse.
I strongly urge that bugging and all related activities should be made a criminal offence and that no private individual for any reason whatever should be allowed even to possess these devices. That is the length to which I would go. Unless he has some professional reason, he should not be allowed to possess let alone use these devices.
If we do not take these steps we shall reproduce the horrors we have seen in 2016 the United States—for example, even advertisements in children's magazines for devices which can be used for "Peeping Tom" activities of the sort my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North was talking about. That is something in our society which we should stop. On that I am an extremist. I believe in taking the most radical course against bugging and all related activities.
On other aspects, I confess that my mind is not too clearly made up, because the balance of the debate—except perhaps for my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney North (Mr. Weitzman)—has rather gone against a general right to privacy embodied and enshrined in law. I want to put one argument that has not been brought out clearly so far.
My hon. and learned Friend asked what sanction the Press Council has. I ask a different question. Even supposing that it had a sanction, what redress would the injured party get? That is what concerns me. I think that if anyone, a newspaper or anyone else, intrudes into a man's privacy in a way which seriously damages him, he should receive recompense. There is no reason why in this respect there should be any difference in regard to negligence.
I am not qualified to go into it because I am not a lawyer, but I thought that my hon. and learned Friend made a very good point. It always seems to me that if negligence can be judged case by case and damages awarded against the negligent, why not in cases with regard to privacy? It is admirable that there should be a body such as the Press Council which, if its complaints committee does a good job—as I am sure it tries to do—can censure newspapers which have infracted against these standards, but that will not recompense the injured party except in the satisfaction of seeing a rebuke given. I do not want a rebuke. I want them to compensate for what they have done.
In all matters concerning open Government my sympathy is entirely with the Press. Politicians and Governments are at fault. I express surprise at how obtuse the Press can be regarding privacy. The overwhelming majority of instrusions do not relate in the least to the public interest. They may be in the prurient 2017 sense of public interest. I cannot help thinking that the hon. Member for Ton-bridge was right when he said that it is more likely to be commercial self-interest that dictates what is done.
Sanctimonious editorials turn up every so often, sometimes confusing together all sorts of different things—objection to the law of contempt, in which I think the Press is absolutely right, and that should be changed, the Official Secrets Act, and so on, which I think should be changed—and muddling that in with privacy and portraying newspapers as weak defenceless outsiders who are being persecuted by the powerful and prevented from doing things. Nevertheless, the truth is that most intrusions come from extremely powerful newspaper groups which harass ordinary citizens and probe and pry into their lives to produce the kind of copy that will cheer up jaded palates on Sunday mornings. Those are the worst cases of intrusion and almost never can one do anything about them.
A constituent of mine was seriously affected in that way. I went to the newspaper concerned, but it was quite hopeless. I must be frank. I was regarded as being naive beyond words. The attitude was: "Come on. You know what Sunday journalism is all about. You know what we print this stuff for. Do not be such a fool." No matter what the Press Council, Mr. Harold Evans or Mr. Rees-Mogg may say, that will always be the situation until newspapers think that they are likely to suffer serious disadvantage in the courts by so doing.
It is nonsense to suggest that there is a desire to restrict the freedom of the Press. I am for the Press finding out a lot more about what goes on in both national and local government. I do not wish to see major scandals covered up or the public interest not canvassed widely in the Press. I am not particularly worried about prominent people who get themselves publicity in newspapers, even if it is not their fault that they get it. Though I am on their side and the newspapers are often wrong to deal with the issue in the way they do, to some extent by coming into public life or being in the public eye such people have already sacrificed a degree of privacy. But I object to people who have no desire what- 2018 soever to appear in the public eye being dragged there for commercial profit. It is humbug for the Press to suggest that it does not do this and to give assurances for the future that it will not do it. I think that the abuse will go on until the House takes some action to stop it.
You rightly warned, Mr. Speaker, that many hon. Members wanted to participate in the debate. I could say a great deal more, but I will not do so.
If I make so much talk about the Press, if I keep bringing up the Press in this matter, it is not because I regard it as the greatest intruder of privacy. I said that when I introduced the original Bill I believe it is the fault of the Press that it comes to the forefront in these discussions. All along its attitude to privacy has been almost entirely one of self-interest.
It has refused to accept the idea that there should be a law for privacy because it believes that it might marginally affect its interest in terms of exposure. Seldom has an issue been worse discussed or discussed at a lower level in the Press than that of privacy. None of the suggestions which I should like to have seen made by the Press, which could be made, has been made, obviously because editors feel that it is the thin end of the wedge. To some extent I do not blame them. They do not really trust this House. They certainly do not trust Governments. They do not believe that there will be more open Government, and I cannot blame them for feeling like that.
I have never regarded this as an issue that greatly affects the Press. It is its actions, its statements, and its absolute determination to obstruct privacy legislation at every stage that has pushed it into major prominence, has pushed back the sensible recommendation about private detectives and the sensible discussions about bugging devices, and so on—for example, the important matters brought out by my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin, reinforced by the hon. Member for Aylesbury, regarding medical records, and what is to happen to computer information and data banks which are matters of such interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield). These are vital matters affecting privacy.
2019 The Press regards privacy legislation as such a serious attack on the way that it conducts its affairs that it makes itself the major bone of contention in this matter. That is unfortunate. If I thought for a moment that any privacy legislation would have the impact on the Press that it claims, I should despair for the way that the British Press was conducted. In a sense, the biggest give away of all would be to claim that it was enormously restricted in its activities because of the legislation suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for York in his minority report.
I should be astonished that so narrow a view of a crucial subject could be taken by what is, all in all, one of the best means of communication in the entire Western world. I agree with the comment about the French and German Press compared with the British Press. Privacy legislation has become an obsession with the Press. It has become a fear that it cannot remove from its mind. It sees in it all kinds of insidious side products which probably would not arise and which certainly the framers of such legislation never contemplated in their discussions.
I should like to see this subject come away from a narrow regard of "foot in the door" journalism to a much wider exposition of what in any case is likely to happen in society and to require a legal remedy from this House no matter what is said in this debate at this time.
§ 2.8 p.m.
§ Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)
It is fortunate that one should be able to agree with almost the entire content not only of the speech by the hon. Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. Brian Walden) but of the majority of speeches that have been made in the debate. It is not in the least surprising, because the vein that has run through all the speeches, whether implicit or explicit, is that the debate is about democracy, and no such debate could take place in a totalitarian State. We are concerned with trying to find a balance between the public interest on the one hand and private rights on the other, because private rights do not exist in totalitarian States.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) was concerned 2020 with the public's right to know. I want to concentrate on the right of the confidentiality and privacy of individuals. I had the harrowing experience a few years ago of being involved in some of the events referred to by the hon. Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) relating to heart transplants. I have personal experience of the grief, the distress, the bewilderment and the confusion of some people—either donors or receivers of heart transplants—who have been concerned about harassment from either broadcasting or newspaper interests as a result of hospital inquiries that have been made by the Press. I have firsthand experience of how bewildering and grief-making this intrusion into their privacy can be when, as was claimed by the newspapers concerned, this was said to be done in the public interest.
I never agreed with the findings of the Press Council on the question of intrusion over the heart transplant matters that was referred to it. However, I do not think that that matters so much as the fact that there is machinery which investigated those issues, and it is on that narrow point that I want to make a strong plea.
Those who want to protect the privacy of the individual and his right to a confidential life and exchanges of a confidential nature are not making an attack on the Press as such. The dilemma lies in finding the right balance to protect the individual without in any way destroying or removing from the Press the right to inquire, and to do so with the utmost freedom.
In that respect I propose to make a passing reference to the Lord Lambton affair. I do not intend to deal with the rights and wrongs of the Press action. That is still being investigated by the Press Council. But one point that emerges, and which should make one pause for thought, is that the Press had the opportunity of employing certain methods which, if they had been employed by the police or the security services, would have led to an outcry not only in the House but within the Press itself.
We do not permit the police to tap telephones, except with the authority of the Home Secretary himself. The security services are no doubt controlled by the 2021 Prime Minister, who accepts responsibility for what they do. It is tolerable that in extreme cases authority is given to the police and the security services to do things because, ultimately, through the Ministers responsible to it this House has some control over what is done, but no such ultimate control is available to this House over the activities of the Press when it uses methods such as those employed in the Lambton affair.
That is the worrying side of the problem. We should not lightly permit the Press to use certain methods which we do not allow the police to use. We are told that in the Lambton case the police had to make their observations from outside the premises occupied by Norma Levy.
The question that arises from all this is not so much what is or is not permissible but who is to sanction and control what happens. I believe that the plea that has been made for a statutory right to privacy has a great deal to recommend it, but that is not the answer that we should arrive at in the first instance. That should be the fall-back position that we should adopt in the end rather than start with at the outset. I say that even though I found myself very much in agreement with the hon. Member for All Saints when he talked about the ordinary individual being able to get damages for intrusion into his privacy. I believe that before any such recompense is even contemplated by the courts it should be necessary to prove some form of extreme distress and damage, and not merely an academic infringement of rights.
The answer in the first instance is that the Press should be self-regulating and self-restraining, and that is why the right way of proceeding over the Lambton affair was for the Press Council to consider it. Only after the Press Council has shown that it is incapable of restraining newspapers in their conduct should we even begin to contemplate passing legislation that would have that effect.
The Press Council has an enormous responsibility, but there is one point that should be made about its proceedings. The Press Council is, in effect, a consumer body for the protection of consumers as much as a body for regulating and repre- 2022 senting the Press. There is a movement in all consumer bodies not merely to act after complaints have been made but also to take the initiative. Until recently there had been only two cases in which the Press Council had moved without a complaint first being made. One was over the photographs published by a newspaper showing the Queen in bed, and the other was over the Keeler memoirs. I was delighted when for the third time the Press Council moved of its own volition over the Lambton affair.
The Press Council ought to be far more prepared than it is to move without complaints being made and I welcome particularly the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that guidelines are to be issued to journalists about how they should behave over matters of privacy. I hope that, if there are any infringements of those guidelines, the Press Council will not be slow to move without complaints being made but will take action if it has reason to believe that they have been flouted.
I make the plea that in the first instance we should ensure that the Press remains self-regulating by a judicious amount of self-restraint, and that only if there is abundant evidence that it is failing in that respect should we fall back upon the processes of law. Equally, however, we should be mindful of the fact that a great imbalance exists at present with regard to the privacy of individuals and that it behoves us, in a democratic society, to ensure that the balance is restored.
§ 2.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Leslie Huckfield (Nuneaton)
I do not want to concentrate upon some of the more philosophical realms into which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. Brian Walden) entered or upon some of the legal definitions which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) discused.
As is well known, in the two Bills I have introduced into the House I have tried to concentrate on the rather more specific matter of the control of personal information. Certain international definitions are laid down by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and also by the International Court at The Hague. Most of those include the 2023 need to safeguard the privacy of family, friends and correspondents, but there are definitions which go much wider than that.
My concern centres around the need of the individual, despite the fact that we live in a well-organised community, occasionally to opt out of it to an extent to which I believe he has some right to govern. I am concerned about the right of the individual to obtain some kind of anonymity and above all the right, to a certain extent at any rate, to be left alone.
Although we as individuals take the decision to live in an organised community and consequently sacrifice some of our rights—and those in public life sacrifice more of those rights than do others—and although society is organised, particularly in this country where we are proud to have a Welfare State, some of the rights to which I have referred should still obtain.
The central failure in the Younger Committee's Report is the failure to recognise that information today is power. It is the failure to recognise that the gathering of information is the acquisition of power. My hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams), who has just returned to the Front Bench, was absolutely right to lay great stress on the technological momentum which was being acquired in the computer industry.
Those of us with some knowledge of advances in the state of the computer art recently have noted that, because systems are being built up in this country on a national basis and, apart from that, because computer technology is becoming ever more cheap, not only do we run the risk of starting off with national systems—unlike America, where things have developed in a rather more piecemeal way—but also, because we start off on a national basis and slightly later, we will be able to obtain the benefits of microcircuitry and many of the advantages of cheaper computers on which America and countries which have computerised before us have missed out.
I am glad, therefore, that my hon. Friend referred to the national police computer, with its 800 terminals. I wonder which policemen will have access to those terminals. I am glad she said that those 800 terminals will directly 2024 access the central Vehicle Licensing Centre at Swansea. That means automatically that the 13 million vehicle registrations and all the driving licences in this country will automatically be accessed by over 800 police terminals. That is a pretty big access system.
Then one considers the kind of things that the Home Secretary's former Department, the Department of Employment, is now putting on computer in the way of jobs and job vacancies and the potentialities of individuals. Then there are all the other Government Departments, particularly Health and Social Security and the Inland Revenue, which are "going computer" in a big way.
If we thought in the past that we could overlook an old parking fine because the Government's records were not sufficiently comprehensive to track us down, we can now forget it. Once the whole thing goes on computer at Swansea, we have only to commit a parking offence in any part of the country and automatically, because of the potential of these systems, we can be tracked down. I am not against using computers for law enforcement—they can help in many ways—but we should be wary of some of the results of such a system.
The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) has been hitting exactly the right points about doctors and the Oxford Regional Hospital Board. It has always seemed to me crazy that Birmingham Regional Hospital Board, of which I was a member, could go into great depth in explaining what the computer could do for the nurses, doctors and patients but that I had only to mention access controls and audit trails and the simplest of controls to find that the officials did not even know what I was talking about. So some of the people who are going into computers have not thought of these basic safeguards.
My hon. Friend mentioned that, in integrating these computer systems, it is possible not only to create a value judgment system on individuals—which individuals are above the norm, which are below it and which are not fulfilling the norm—but also to produce a computer profile which is even more real and in many ways more frightening than the individual personality itself. With the capability for integration between the national Government computer systems 2025 and the local government computer systems, we are now able to build up, or we will certainly very soon have the capability of building up, computer profiles more real than the individuals themselves.
There is, I think, a decreasing order of scruples in this business. I hope that the computers in Government Departments to which the right hon. Gentleman referred will have some code of practice and that the computer systems employed by banks and insurance companies will also have some kind of code. I am not altogether happy about the computer systems employed by the United Association for the Protection of Trade, with possible computerised files, or the capability of going computer on something like 15 million of us. Nor am I happy about the 10 million which British Debt Services will soon be puttting on computer, and I am certainly not happy about the behaviour of companies like Tracing Services Limited. Unless we put safeguards on these systems now, the whole thing will get much more expensive.
One of the revelations of the Younger Report is the ICL evidence that if one employed safeguards on systems ab initio the total cost was only about 5 per cent. of the system, but that if safeguards were applied as an afterthought to an operating system the costs could be 25 per cent. of the total system. In other words, if we want to get in on the rather more unscrupulous sector of the industry—the credit rating agencies, which do not have codies of practice—we must act now before they put their systems in; otherwise they will come bleating to this House that it is far too expensive.
What concerns me is not just the information that goes into the computer—there is a well known saying in the computer industry, "Garbage in, garbage out"—but the methods employed to collect the information. I have put down many Questions about the market research procedures employed.
This was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin when she described how the Government themselves have been acquiring information in a so-called voluntary way. I can only say that, when the Treasury was getting information in a voluntary way about incomes last year, many of my constituents who 2026 had not filled in the form the first time had four more forms come through the door as though to say "You have to complete it or else you are in trouble."
Then there are all the activities of the mail order firms, which send us all kinds of literature, some obnoxious, some pornographic, through the post. We are entering into the kind of society in which Chief Ironside seems to operate. I do net know how many hon. Members have watched Ironside recently, but the facility with which he manages to tap telephones, obtain records and go into people's accounts and their life histories as a normal run-of-the-mill way of operating frightens me. I hope that not too many policemen in this country aspire to emulate Chief Ironside.
I am bound to refer to some of the methods of getting this information that have been employed even in this House. I do not know whether many hon. Members have been pestered by a study called "Decision Makers in Industrial Societies", conducted by Professor Donald Seering from the Department of Government at the University of Essex. I have told him several times that I was busy, but matters have got to the stage at which it seemed that, every time I went out into the Central Lobby, someone from the Department of Government at the University of Essex was waiting, almost believing that he had some prescriptive right to take up what could have been a fair amount of my time in answering all sorts of their questions on so-called decision makers in industrial societies. So it is even reaching the doors of this House.
Some mark has been made on the Government Front Bench. I am glad to see that the Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs has announced his intention to introduce legislation to allow individuals to have the right to see their own files. This is most important, but equally important—this is the point I have made to the right hon. and learned Gentleman—is the right of an individual to know that a file on him exists at all.
Often, the first time that a person knows that information is being kept on him is when he goes into a shop and is told that he cannot have credit. If the individual is to be left to find out in that way—many of us know from constituency 2027 cases that this is normally the way in which he finds out—we should extend the kind of proposals that the Government have in mind not only to include control over access to that information, not only to include the right of the individual to see his own file—and, I hope, a right of print-out—but, I hope, also some means whereby the individual will be able in the course of doing things to know that some files on him are being maintained.
In my Control of Personal Information Bill, I thought, with the National Council for Civil Liberties, that more rigorous enforcement mechanism was necessary over the vast sources of information than merely having a register. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Civil Service Department, the hon. Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Kenneth Baker), in his Private Member's Bill, thought that a register was sufficient. I have always thought that one has to have not only a licensing system but also an inspectorate to follow up things in the field. Otherwise the enforcement of any kind of regulations would be very difficult.
As I have said, we must concentrate more on the specifics. But it was most interesting to see the Younger Committee's summing up on parts of my Bill. When the committee went into the question of how we shall monitor the thing efficiently, after taking advice from its experts on the provisions for enforcement by an inspectorate under my Bill, it came to this conclusion:But this provision is only of use if information of the kind described would be reasonably likely to enable the Tribunal to know that certain degrees of control were in fact being applied by the 'data bank' concerned. The expert advice we have been given is that it would not. So the potential weakness of both Bills"—also the Bill of the Parliamentary Secretary—is that they make provision for methods of control that would be unworkable.If the Younger Committee thinks that those measures of control will be unworkable, I cannot see why we bother at all. This seems to be one of the conclusions to which Younger is coming. There is enough evidence available already to show that if we have some kind of licensing system and enforcement mech- 2028 anism we can have an efficient and an effective tracing of what is happening.
I am concentrating specifically on the point that I have always tried to make. The Home Secretary says that people are not all that concerned. But the most important point to emerge in the public attitude surveys that Younger conducted was that where people saw themselves affected—for example, by nosey neighbours—and where they saw their personal information being recorded on a central computer, about 85 per cent.—in one case 87 per cent.—of those interviewed thought that this was a very important matter. People talk of privacy in the abstract sense, and until it affects them they do not think it so important. But when people see themselves being affected, by nosey neighbours and so on, they believe that these things are important.
I take, for example, the case of the Vehicle and General Insurance Company. When it collapsed it simply sold all its records, including medical information, to, I think, the London and Edinburgh Insurance Company. People were very annoyed about that. During the miners' strike, the miners could not understand how the local social security offices in many constituenies had got hold of the complete income tax profiles, telling them the kind of rebates that the men were entitled to receive. When people are presented with a situation in which they can see themselves being involved, they are concerned.
Finally, I recognise, like my hon. Friends, that we may be moving a little towards the total information society. We are certainly moving towards the cashless society. Although I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will consider the proposal along the lines of my Bill, he does not have to repeat my Bill in detail. I still hope that he will agree that we must have some kind of licensing system for all major stores of information, public or private. I hope also that the Home Secretary will consider some kind of licensing of computer personnel and some means of enforcement. But, above all, we must have far more regularised procedures so that the constituents of the hon. Member for Aylesbury and my constituents who find that they cannot get credit, and everyone about whom information is being stored in some capacity, can be 2029 told about it. If that is explained to people and if the ramifications of what is being done are explained, they will accept it much more gracefully.
To safeguard our computer systems now will cost us 5 per cent. To safeguard them later will cost 25 per cent.
§ 2.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman Fowler (Nottingham, South)
I share one thing with the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huck-field), and that is an addiction to Chief Ironside. Also, as a journalist, I am very tempted to join in the general debate upon journalistic standards. But I wish to be extremely brief and to raise one point about the report—private detectives.
There was a case this week which emphasised the serious dangers in this matter. In that case a private detective, a Mr. Merken, was fined £2,000 at the Old Bailey and given a two-year suspended gaol sentence for arranging divorces on false evidence. The case was given a great deal of coverage in the newspapers. I do not need to go into it in any more detail apart from saying that it was undoubtedly serious and disturbing.
The same private detective was also convicted in October 1972 of conspiring to obtain confidential information and corruption involving industrial espionage. He was then fined £1,500 at Lincoln Assizes. Yet in spite of that conviction, he was permitted to return to his old occupation, the occupation which he had abused and in the course of which he had been convicted.
That case shows the defects of the whole system relating to private detectives. At present there is nothing to prevent a man with a criminal record from becoming a private detective. Indeed, police evidence to the committee suggested that ex-criminals and men with criminal associations were working as private detectives in Britain. In short, the present position is absolutely wide open to rogues. I cannot believe that this position can in any way be in the public interest.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said that he is considering introducing some kind of disqualification system here. But he also said that he did 2030 not favour a licensing system, as proposed in the report. Certainly my right hon. Friend's announcement is a distinct improvement on the present totally uncontrolled situation. But I know that he would expect us to consider the details of a disqualification system before pronouncing final judgment upon it. Everything in it would depend very much upon the details.
As I tried to say in my intervention earlier, it is also extremely important that if this kind of check is to be produced, it should, first, be effective, and secondly, it should be extended to the private security industry generally, because there very similar issues are involved.
It would be wrong and anomalous if there were a disqualification for private detectives when men with criminal records were still allowed to operate as security guards and as fitters of security equipment, thus gaining access to homes and business premises.
My right hon. Friend has ruled out the introduction of a licensing system on the ground, as I understand it, of police fears that if such a system were introduced it would be interpreted as giving some kind of licence to pry. That argument might be applied to private detectives but, for the security industry generally, by which I mean the guarding industry and the security equipment industry, the argument does not apply. We want, as policy, to encourage crime prevention there and to encourage the use of the private security industry. It is my hope, therefore, on the same argument, that my right hon. Friend will consider, whatever he does about private detectives, at least introducing a licensing system for the security industry generally.
§ 2.40 p.m.
§ Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Sutton)
In the time I have been in the House I have tended to support practically every form of liberal change in attitude and legislative practice. I say that initially because I am in some disagreement, probably more of timing than about eventual change, with my hon. Friends the Members for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) and for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon), in that I am not convinced that the time is opportune, nor indeed do I hope that it will be forced on us, to introduce a general law on privacy.
2031 I say that for a number of reasons. I will deal primarily with the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. Brian Walden). He dealt at great length and with tremendous passion with the whole question of technical surveillance. I support everything he said. I do not think that there can be exceptions. We must take the firm and definite line that, regardless of the ends, this is a means which we are not prepared to support.
It is because the Younger Commission comes out, as I understand it, clearly on those lines that I am a little sceptical about using that argument, as my hon. Friend in some parts of his speech tended to use it, to go on to argue that we need a general law of privacy. There is little doubt that the technical means of surveillance—bugging—should be banned. I uphold the strictures that have been used about the ways in which these devices can be used for, once that dam is opened, there is no restraint.
I turn to the central question of a general law of privacy. My hon. Friend the Member for All Saints stressed his belief that we shall move towards a more open society. I share that belief and welcome the approach. My hon. Friend shares my commitment to our becoming a less secretive society. He wishes to ensure that the right of privacy is maintained. I share his view.
Equally, however, we must face the fact that myself and other hon. Members, particularly hon. Members on this side, are advocating in many areas an extension of community politics—an emphasis on the community. We must face the fact that the community and reduced privacy in some ways go hand in hand. On a philosophical basis I am against legislating for human behaviour. I wish to roll back the frontiers of legislation as they affect human behaviour. Therefore, any legislation which impacts on human behaviour I tend to regard with great specticism and criticism. I was very sceptical of the legislation on industrial behaviour. However, I was convinced that it was right to legislate against racial discrimination, but the case had to be made our formidably that legislation would help in that area. I am not persuaded at present that to legislate on privacy would help.
2032 We must examine the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for York in his Minority Report. He says:It is much better to set out the principles on which the courts can act and leave them to develop the law as need requires. Most of our common law was created in this way and, provided the principles are clear, the courts are well able to undertake the task… But the problem of privacy is one of balancing conflicting freedoms, which raises issues well understood by British judges and they already have some experience in matters relating to privacy.My hon. Friend has a greater respect for the legal processes and the development of law in Britain than I have. I was surprised that, though my hon. Friend is critical of the Press Council, he seemed to believe that the professional organisations such as the Law Society, the Bar Council and the General Medical Council are somehow good examples of self-regulation. At any rate that is how I interpreted my hon. Friend's interruption, though I may be doing him an injustice. My hon. Friend said that those bodies can force somebody out of his profession.
I come under the surveillance of the General Medical Council. I am bitterly critical of it. I am critical of the Law Society. What I see of the Bar Council does not imbue me with enthusiasm. I think that the Press Council is an appalling organisation.
I am not committed to the principle of self-regulation. In matters which affect the public, the public good and the public interest, the public have the right to be represented. I believe that the Press Council should have on its overall membership a majority of lay members. This is a matter of fundamental importance.
I am not very impressed by the fact that the council's investigatory arm will have a majority of laymen. I am rather against a surfeit of committees. I take the point made in the debate that the responsibility for the BBC lies with the Governors of the BBC and the responsibility for the Independent Broadcasting Authority lies with the appointees to the board. I am not keen on pushing responsibilities off on to somebody else.
In many of our arguments about whether to introduce a general law we must consider the question of the Press Council. It is not good enough for the 2033 council to decide who will be its members, nor is the present way acceptable in which the Chairman of the Press Council is selected. It is not adequate to put the choice of independent members off on to Lord Redcliffe-Maud.
If we believe in democracy, it is time that we said in this House that the decisions as to who sits on these boards to represent the consumer and the public interest should be made here. The responsibility should be either with the responsible Minister or, in matters of extreme delicacy, with the Prime Minister. The Press will not like it, and there will be arguments. We have already heard enough from the Press about this. They should believe with us that democratic representatives should have a right to a say in the membership of the Press Council.
My hon. Friend the Member for All Saints raised the critical problem that the Press Council can make its judgments but there is no redress for the person who is wronged. If the Press attaches so much importance to the Press Council and to not having a general law, why cannot the newspapers which, after all, are fairly wealthy organisations, also set up a compensation fund so that when there has been disgraceful conduct and considerable grief and anguish caused, there can be some form of compensatory payments? This would tend to introduce a self-disciplinary element within the Press, in that those newspapers which were most commonly offending against the code of conduct of the Press would come under some stricture from other members of the Press which were in effect contributing to whatever damages were paid out.
The effect of the Press Council needs to be greatly strengthened. I hope that the Minister in replying will indicate what has been the Press Council's attitude to the other recommendations of the Younger Committee that the judgments of the council relating to any specific case should be accorded the same prominence and placed in the same position in the newspaper as the original comment. The Younger Committee said "wherever possible". I believe that the decisions of the Press Council should always be placed in exactly the same 2034 position and occupy exactly the same amount of space as the original offending article.
The problem of privacy is very acute. I could talk about medical records, computerisation, surveillance and the whole new technology. There is, however, a danger, particularly perhaps with hon. Members on this side, of immediately calling in aid the legislative lever. The reflect reaction is, "Let us legislate". I am not convinced that this is the way to overcome many of these problems. I find it somewhat paradoxical that many of those with whom I disagree today have argued in previous cases for rolling back the legislative framework.
We want to be very careful before proceeding to enact an overall blunderbuss law which has connotations for me somewhat similar to Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act. I thought that the recommendations regarding new legislation emanating from the Franks Commission were given slightly too great a welcome by my hon. Friends. As I say, we want to be rather more careful about legislation, for the consequences of legislation as it is interpreted by the courts and added to by successive case law by judges do not bring great confidence to me.
One of the areas which need reform more urgently than anywhere else is in the selection of judges. The small, narrow section of the community from which the judges are chosen is in strong need of reform. We may find that these measures proposed by the Younger Committee cumulatively do not have the effect which we wish them to have. We may have to introduce legislation on a broader base. But that time is not yet. Even if it were the time, it would be with reluctance that I would legislate for human behaviour.
§ 2.50 p.m.
§ Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Itchen)
Like the debate a fortnight ago on the Franks Committee, this is about where we draw a line—in this case where we draw the line between the natural desire of everyone for privacy, and, on the other hand, the public interest.
Everyone condemns Press intrusion. I want to concentrate particularly on the Press, although I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, All 2035 Saints (Mr. Brian Walden) that it is not necessarily here where the greatest danger to privacy lies. There are other places where the danger is much greater.
Everyone condemns intrusion into private grief by some newspapers. One condemns the taking of photographs, by means of a telescopic lens, of prominent lady politicians sunbathing in the seclusion of their country estates. Obviously, everyone condemns this sort of thing. Nevertheless, there is a difference between the ordinary person and the public figure. When one decides to become a public figure one gives up in some way a little of one's right to privacy. We as politicians are public figures. We like the Press to print the things which are in our favour. We like them to say what wonderful things we have been saying in the House of Commons, or what wonderful things we have done in our constituencies. We like to use the Press for our own propaganda. We should not be too worried, therefore, if occasionally the Press gets hold of a story which is to our disadvantage and prints that as well. The public figure who uses the information media for his own purposes should not complain if occasionally he gets one bowled back at him. Those of us in public life have given up some right to privacy which other people may have.
My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North (Mr. Edelman) talked about investigatory journalism. I want to refer to one or two cases where, in the last 10 years, but for the Press, people would not have been brought to justice. In April 1963 The People exposed the widespread bribery in the football world, and in January 1965 10 footballers were sent to prison for this. In July 1967 the Daily Mail exposed Dr. John Petro, who was supplying drugs in London, and in October 1968 Dr. Petro was struck off. In 1969 we had the case of bribery and corruption amongst London detectives, and later two Scotland Yard detectives were sentenced. In August 1967 the News of the World revealed the cruelty to aged patients in State hospitals. The file was handed to the Ministry of Health. In 1969 a committee of inquiry was set up. It found that some patients had been ill-treated at Ely, and the then Secretary of State for Wales announced a tightening up in procedure.
2036 In July 1970 the News of the World exposed the abortion racket. In March 1971 a certain doctor who was said to have taken part in the ugly cut-throat competition for his share in the abortion trade was struck off the register. For a time following that, the harassment of and touting for girls at airports almost ceased. In September 1972 the same newspaper exposed property speculators, revealing that developers had bought up semi-derelict houses and, after modernising them with the help of grants, sold them at large profits. In June 1973 local councils were given powers by this House to make profiteers pay back some of those improvement grants. Then there was the exposure in several newspapers of the cruel trade in the export of live animals. In February 1973 the Government banned the export of all live sheep and lambs; and this House last night expressed its views against the wishes of the Government, and I hope the Government will now ban the export of all live animals.
§ Mr. Gorst
I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not want to get the matter out of perspective. He is recounting some of the successes of the Press. Against that, what we never hear about are those occasions when the Press has either hounded or harassed people who have been totally innocent, and this has had nothing to do with the public interest. We never hear about those cases.
§ Mr. Mitchell
That is why I said at the beginning of my remarks that everyone would condemn the sort of behaviour which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. The tenor of this debate has been fairly critical of the Press, and I thought it only right to put the other side of the picture and to mention some of the successes. I have several other examples which I could quote if necessary. I am convinced that the people concerned would not have been brought to justice, certainly not so quickly, had the Press not investigated and printed these stories and had the Press been afraid of some law.
§ Mr. Edelman
Would my hon. Friend allow me? He has referred to certain observations that I made about the investigatory function of the Press. He has now given a catalogue of the successes which the Press has achieved by exposure journalism. I believe that exposure journalism is a perfectly valid function of the Press, and indeed is desirable. But what I and others criticise is the technique and the means which the Press uses in this connection which constitute an abuse and an invasion of privacy.
§ Mr. Mitchell
I observe the distinction made by my hon. Friend. I would not go so far as he does because in some cases the result probably would not have been achieved without using certain techniques to which my hon. Friend objects. One can argue—it is a philosophical question—whether it is better that some people should go free than that these devices should be used, and I think that I should take a slightly different line on that from the one expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for All Saints.
One aspect of the suggested general law of privacy which worries me has not yet been mentioned. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen) in not being so much enamoured of our legal system as, perhaps, is my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon). Our legal system is still heavily biased in favour of those who have money. Case after case can be cited to show that. If one is strong and has money one can get redress in the courts. Those without such resources cannot.
The aspect of a general law of privacy which concerns me is that it would be accompanied by the usual injunction procedures and so on. If a newspaper wanted to print a story about a powerful person, that powerful person could go to The court to ask for an injunction, with the possibility of appeal thereafter, holding the thing up so that, by the time the courts had finally dealt with it, the story would have gone, and probably all the witnesses would have gone abroad. That is what worries me when there is talk of bringing in the law. The injunction procedure can be used by the better off in that way.
2038 I should prefer to see the whole matter dealt with by a strengthening of the Press Council. I go further than some of my hon. Friends do here. In my view, it should have a majority—not just equality—of lay membership.
§ 3.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Ted Leadbitter (The Hartlepools)
The trouble in this debate is that it is difficult to get hold of the problem and say precisely what it is. The Younger Committee had difficulty as others have had before and as yet others will in future, in defining what privacy is. The layman might readily say it means what is private to him, but that will not do for our function in Parliament, which inevitably leads us to consider the implications and consequences of assertions of that kind.
There are, none the less, identifiable forms of social conduct which, in the vast majority of cases, can be said not to be acceptable to reasonable men and women. I come now to a case in point to illustrate what I mean, since, when it is difficult to settle definitions, by addressing oneself to particular cases one can set the format, as it were, of what our approach should be to the conduct we adopt one towards another. Some of our nationalised industries use debt-collecting agencies, and I am by no means happy about what goes on. As a Socialist, after many years during which my party has propounded the merits of nationalisation, I can only say that we still have a great deal to learn about what the nationalised industries should be doing for the country and for themselves. We who talk of our desire to see a fair society, are distressed to find creeping into our nationalised bodies a managerial or arbitrary approach to the affairs with which they are charged which is completely foreign to the hopes and aspirations of those of us who have promoted their existence.
One such debt-collecting agency employed by the gas board wrote to a constituent of mine asking for the payment of certain arrears to the board. It threatened my constituent that, if the money was not paid in a certain time, his name would be given to the bank. It threatened that all those offering the credit facilities which would normally be available to my constituent would be 2039 notified and, in effect, my constituent would be black-listed. Third, it threatened prosecution measures—in other words, "We shall take you to court".
A matter of that kind raises important questions for the House. In legal terms, what right has a debt-collecting agency to act on behalf of a nationalised industry? To put it another way, what right has a nationalised industry to pay public money to a private firm, which is not licensed in any way, to do for it what it has the power to do for itself?
If someone owes money to a nationalised industry and the money is not forthcoming, when capacity to pay exists, a nationalised industry has the normal procedures available to take the recalcitrant to court. Why, then, should it employ a debt-collecting agency? Why should a person be threatened with public exposure? Why should such a person as my constituent be denied the normal facilities of his fellow men for the purpose of meeting his family needs?
To be fair, I must say that the gas board, since this case was brought to its attention, has dispensed with the services of this debt-collecting agency, but, so it says, only for the time being. It has also apologised to my constituent because it did not know that he did not owe it any money. But this raises another question. The board has much of its business computerised, and herein lies one of the great problems: would my constituent have been placed in this position if the proper checks and balances had been brought into play?
To what extent is this kind of conduct spread across the United Kingdom? How many people are affected? I will leave that aspect, because I have demonstrated that there is an identifiable area in which people can have their private affairs discussed, quite apart from the general vagueness of any definition of the generality of privacy.
Yesterday, we debated the police and crime. We must all agree that the police have a remarkably responsible job to do and that crime and violence must be attacked. But there are many disturbing instances of individuals having been approached by the police in their homes, without warrant, and being molested and 2040 harassed, in my view, without the proper protection of the rights which are available to them and which are exercised by those who have the requisite knowledge. But the generality of people are not aware of these rights and are often awe stricken or frightened and have reactions which may be misinterpreted. Their physical welfare is for a moment put in danger and a great deal of mental distress is caused. There should be a general inquiry, and certainly advice should be given to the police that behaviour of this kind, which is an extension of the problem of privacy, should be brought to an end.
I hope that when we come to the general question of privacy, we will accept at least one golden rule—that if Parliament cannot legislate, if we do not have, as I believe we do not, the legalistic finesse to do for society what society in so many instances should do for itself, the conduct of the leaders of society, management, opinion formulators and parliamentarians, must bring about the right kind of attitude within society.
It is right to address ourselves to some of the details that we have mentioned—I have referred to but a few—but the general backcloth of the British character is best left in the hands of the British people, who will respond adequately to leadership and the opinions that come from the leadership if that leadership is sound and reliable.
§ 3.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)
This has been an interesting and serious discussion of a vital problem. If I may say a word of self-congratulation of this Chamber, where we are so often criticised in comparison with the other place, I think that it was considerably superior to the discussion on the subject in the other place. We have had a wide-ranging subject debate exploratory of people's opinions.
I am reassured about that in speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, because I must confess a consuming interest in the whole subject. It goes back to my early days as a law student when I was diligently reading Professor Winfield on tort and found that there was an inchoate tort of invasion of privacy that had never been properly expressed in English law, though the beginnings were 2041 attempted in the 19th century. He thought it necessary that we should move towards clarifying that tort, and it has been my desire ever since to try to clarify it.
When I entered the House in 1966, almost the first thing I did was to put down for a Ten-Minute Bill on the subject, which I was able to introduce in February 1967. I think that it was the first time the matter had ever been discussed here, though Lord Mancroft had raised it in the other place in 1961. It would be impossible for me, even if speaking officially on behalf of the Opposition, to divorce that kind of interest from the considerations of party policy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) made clear, however, there is no decided Opposion view as yet on what I consider to he the crucial issue in the whole debate.
There has never been any doubt in the mind of anyone who has taken part in the debate that there is a problem, which was outlined by the Younger Committee. The question is, how do we tackle the problem? In essence there are two ways. We can isolate the privacy situation in which there is a difficulty and try to deal with that ad hoc, which is what the Younger Committee did, or we can take the course which I recommended in the minority report. I shall come to the balance of opinion in the committee later, but I do not think that I was entirely isolated.
It may be said that privacy is one problem, the problem of where a man's private life is his own, where he can decide the matters that should be commented upon, and where it is not his own because the public interest requires that other people should be allowed to have cognisance of what is going on. That principle applies to every privacy situation that we considered in the course of the Younger Committee's two year's deliberations.
I strongly criticise the attitude taken by the majority of the committee—that there are different problems capable of different solutions. I shall come to the reasons why I think that that approach is deficient in a number of respects.
I return to that fateful day, which the hon. Member for Tonbridge (Mr. Hornby) will remember, when we all met 2042 as a committee to consider our report at a weekend conference. We decided to take on the Saturday a review of each ad hoc situation and see whether there was anything we could do about it. On the Sunday we came to the general question of the right of privacy. As we discussed the matter, we did what transpired in the report: we made recommendations which in the end added up to the body of the report. It was felt by the majority on the Sunday morning that that was not enough. It is right to put on record that the balance was much narrower than appears from the final report. The balance was about 10 to six against the general right of privacy. In the end some people did not feel like pushing the matter to a minority report.
That indicated that the concept is not by any means as isolated as would appear from the division in the report or even from the division in the House today. The comments which have been made about the report since it was published last year might lead us to expect that the Press would be overwhelmingly sympathetic to the approach taken by the committee as it let out the Press. But if we look at the other journals which have commented on the report—principally the legal journals—we see that the comment overwhelmingly has been against the majority recommendations and in favour of the minority report.
Some hon. Members may have the cynical thought that lawyers have an interest just as the Press has an interest. That is true. It is suggested that the law cannot operate a law of privacy because it is too difficult to do so. It is said that there are problems of definition and balance which cannot be assumed by the law. It is interesting that the balance of legal opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of doing so even though the kind of problems which have been thrown up today by some hon. Members are recognised.
I do not say that all lawyers take my view about the problem. That would not be true. There were lawyers on the committee who took a different approach, but the overwhelming opinion of the profession was that privacy legislation could be operated. In the end, why was it that such delightful people, as the chairman of the committee and the hon. Member for 2043 Tonbridge and others of my hon. Friends took a different view? In the end the question was not whether we would be able to define privacy but how much we value privacy.
We hold this debate today not because Sir Kenneth Younger and my colleagues reported last year but because a few weeks ago we were landed with a notorious case of intrusion into privacy which hit at our very body. Finally we had to come to terms with what we should do about the problem.
I was interested in the speech of the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) because he came to a view which was sympathetic to my attitude to the problem. He had been involved in a case himself in which he had felt the human emotion of a person whose privacy had been intruded upon. I was particularly interested when my hon. Friend the Member for the Hartlepools (Mr. Leadbitter) referred to a person whose privacy was intruded upon by debt collectors for one of the nationalised industries. It is only when we have suffered as a result of intrusion into privacy that we can begin to think that there is a problem which must be tackled by a method which will be effective.
It is a fact that, until we hear or are involved in a heart-rending case of intrusion into privacy on our doorsteps, we cannot make the issue as important in our priorities as perhaps it should be. That is not the attitude of the general public. The general public were questioned about this matter by the research organisation which carried out the questionnaire, which is included with the Younger Committee's report. It is interesting to see that in the analysis of the public attitude it ranks a number of issues—it calls them social issues—on which the public express their interest in having something done. These are, first, the protection of people's privacy; second, the improving of race relations; third, the protection of freedom of speech; fourth, protecting the freedom of the Press; fifth, the giving of equal rights to women; sixth, the improving of prison conditions; and seventh, the ensuring of fair treatment for gipsies.
According to the public, privacy was well ahead of the next item on race relations in order of importance. Protect- 2044 ing the freedom of the Press came well down the list and the giving of equal rights to women, which has caused so much concern in this Session of Parliament, was even further down. The public therefore regard this as an important issue and they place a higher value on it than did some hon. Members today and some of the people who discussed it in the Younger Committee.
When I first came to discuss this problem six years ago, I thought that it would be possible to get a law on privacy in about five years. I failed because I failed to apprehend the concern of the Press about this issue. I knew that the Press would be concerned, because one of the issues that immediately arises is the freedom of communication of the truth. In 1961 Lord Mancroft first raised the matter in the House of Lords. He introduced a Bill designed simply to control the media. It arose out of the activities of gossip columnists, and I think that hon. Members were concerned to find that the House of Lords gave it a Second Reading. In 1967 I felt, as I feel now, exactly in line with the sentiments of the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) that there cannot be one law for the Press and one law for the rest of us.
There is no such thing as the freedom of the Press. There is the freedom of all of us to comment about the truth, and that freedom is shared by every individual in our community. It is expressed frequently by the Press only because it is its stock in trade. Equally, there should be no special obligation upon the Press which is not upon the rest of us. It seemed to me right to devise a law which met all privacy situations in a way which was fair to all the interests involved, including the Press. Therefore, in seeking to devise a tort I suggested that there should be a prima facie action wherever there was unreasonable intrusion into privacy. It would then be upon the intruder to justify any defence. I think that is still the best way of dealing with the matter, although I am prepared to discuss any alternatives which can be devised.
In the course of our discussions in the Younger Committee we discussed how to put the burden of public interest upon the plaintiff so that he would have to show that it was in the public interest that he 2045 should bring an action. That might be one way of doing it. What was certain, however, from the beginning and what has always been my point of view is that the Press must be protected to do its legitimate job in the public interest. I therefore take exception to what my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. R. C. Mitchell) and some others have suggested.
I do not want to stop the Press ferreting out scandals in the public interest, but I want to preserve a balance and I do not take any particular side on some of the issues that my hon. Friend produced. I have my own view, as we all have, about whether it was right in an important incident such as that concerning The Times for newspapers to conduct themselves as The Times did. That, however, is not my concern. My concern is that in any privacy situation there are at least two parties, the intruder and the person intruded upon. The balance between their freedoms—the freedom to intrude and the freedom to protect one's privacy—comes into conflict when that situation arises.
Who resolves the conflict? At the moment it is the intruder because he decides how far he will go, except that the person who is intruded upon has some power to restrict the intruder's right to get beyond his defences. But, subject to that, it is the intruder who decides.
So, for instance, in the case of Lord Lambton, was it right that the News of the World should have installed those cameras in Norma Levy's bedroom?
§ Mr. Edelman
I am obliged to my hon. Friend, because this is relevant. The question is not what was decided by the newspaper editor, but the means he used to procure that information—in other words, the technique of intrusion into privacy that he employed. Are there not even today laws which should have inhibited or prohibited such means from being used?
§ Mr. Lyon
I will come to that point later, because it is an issue that I want to raise.
As to whether it should have been the editor of the News of the World, Lord Lambton or Mrs. Levy who decided that there ought to be intrusion, there are possibilities of at least two answers, and two answers have been given. In determining what happened the result was decided by the intruder—the editor of the News of the World. I do not regard that as right. I think there ought to be some method, some balancing mechanism, that allows the public to take a view of what is right in a grey area or difficult case like that.
I have views about the rightness of the Lord Lambton case, but for my purpose they do not matter. No matter what view is taken, in the end one side, and one side alone, determined whether there would be intrusion. If there had been the right to go to court there would have been the possibility of Lord Lambton putting his case, the News of the World putting its case, and the public, through the jury which is our method in a civilised society, trying to make a determination.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin referred to injunctions and delay. That is part of the problem of going to law. However, one of the virtues of my approach is the build-up of a line of authorative case law which tells people in that kind of privacy situation what they can and cannot do and what is or is not likely to happen. In some cases it will be absolutely obvious.
I will give the House an example of such a case as the Press constantly claims that either these are cases where the public interest is clearly proven or they are just accidental mistakes. I take it from 2047 the Sunday Express of two Or three weeks ago.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), who has given me permission to use this example, was named in the gossip column of the Sunday Express concerning a story about his daughter who had separated from her husband. Partly to assuage her grief and also to raise funds, she decided to work for a large store in the centre of London. One of her friends was connected with a reporter on the Sunday Express and he found out about this situation. He went to see her and she told him that it was a private matter. He then went to the store manager. He did not know that she was the daughter of a Labour Member of Parliament because she had given her married name, and he had no idea that she was related to someone who was comparatively rich. He decided that it was none of his business and that the Press should not have the story.
The man from the Press then went to see my right hon. Friend who told him that it was a private matter on which he did not want to comment and which he did not think was the concern of the Press. This young man told my right hon. Friend, as he had been told on a previous occasion about 20 years ago when a similar story had arisen in relation to his money, that he understood his feelings but that he had to have the story. He said that he must go on with the story. because it was important to the editor, and it was his job to get it.
There must be some mechanism to correct the imbalance that exists in the fact that the intruder himself decides the issue. He may have a commercial reason for deciding in his own favour, and that may overcome any humanitarian instincts of sympathy for the victim. For that reason, the Press Council is an inadequate barrier.
The hon. Member for Hendon, North said, in connection with the complaint over Lord Lambton, that he was glad that the Press Council had decided to look into the matter without first having received a complaint. The hon. Gentleman went on to say that the same thing happened in the Keeler case. The fact is that I complained in that case, but the Press Council disregarded it and went on 2048 to consider the case as if it were a de novo investigation, yet ten years later, in almost identical circumstances, the same newspaper went to the lengths of putting people into a room to take surreptitious photographs. It does not seem that a rebuke from the Press Council has any chiding effect upon the Press.
§ Mr. Lyon
No. It has not been the subject of complaint because my right hon. Friend knows that there is no earthly good in complaining. It will do no good. The Press Council will probably take the view that I have taken about it, namely, that complaining will not do any good to my right hon. Friend or to his daughter. The only good will come when the Press feels that it cannot risk cases such as that because there is no public interest, and that will happen only when such action is a breach of the law.
I listened with great interest to what was said by my hon. Friends the Members for Coventry, North (Mr. Edelman) and All Saints (Mr. Walden). I do not take the view that surreptitious devices are so inherently wrong that they should be banned on every occasion. I subscribed to the recommendation in the report because that was the overwhelming view of the committee, but I find considerable difficulty in accepting the proposition—and I think that the Home Secretary did, too—that the use of binoculars and telescope lenses on cameras, which are fairly acceptable forms of intrusion for legitimate purposes, should come under the ban. I do not think that one would want to restrict freedom to use those things.
There are two possibilities. One is to say that the intrusion may be legitimate and therefore it is necessary to provide a public interest defence. The other is to say, and thus agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Coventry, North and All Saints, that the means never justify the end, and therefore they must always be banned. I cannot go quite that far. It seems to me that there is no difference between News of the World photographers standing behind a screen in Norma Levy's bedroom and taking photographs, and News of the World reporters standing behind that screen and writing up their report for the paper. Both raise 2049 the same principle—that a man thought that he had privacy in the bedroom and he had not. Whether it was right or wrong seems to me to have no relevance to the way in which they acquired their information about it. I am not so frightened by modern technological developments that I would rule them out of court immediately.
I understand the remark of my hon. Friend the Member for All Saints about the difference between the investigating of the Watergate scandal and the approach of papers on this side of the Atlantic. Watergate raises in as good a form as can be found the point that I am trying to make—that, in the end, the protection of privacy and the problem of that protection is a question of the value that is put upon it rather than upon the difficulties inherent in devising the protection.
In the Watergate case, poor George McGovern went around the United States last year declaiming in every speech that Richard Nixon had planned a break-in of the Democratic National Convention. People replied, "Is that not what all you politicians do?" The matter had no effect on the campaign. Nothing material to the major charge has come out since then, either from the investigations of the Washington Post or from those of my old friend Judge Ervine.
The truth of the matter is that we knew the basic structure of the allegation last year. We have found many more details that in themselves are pretty revolting, but last year the basic allegation was known and, so far as I was concerned, was accepted. What was different, what raised the whole issue to a new plane, was when the burglars were brought into court and, after a long case in which no one took much interest, Judge Sirica, in giving his verdict, said, "This is a very serious matter." Unlike the public in the United States or the rest of the Western world, he said, "This cannot be casually passed over as the kind of thing that all politicians do. You will go to prison for a maximum of 20 years." Then, by Jove, the conspirators woke up. Then they began to spill the beans.
It was not the efforts of the Washington Post reporters but the fact that one 2050 of the conspirators decided to tell all that put the affair on the map. What caused Congress at last to take such an interest in it and to decide on a full investigation was that a judge had said that the matter deserved a 20-year sentence and that the Attorney-General of the United States, the President, and his chief assistants might all be implicated in a very serious criminal case.
If we only had in this country a case of invasion of privacy which left in the minds of all who heard it such a feeling of revulsion that they felt that something had to be done, then we would get an answer which was much more effective than anything suggested by the Younger Committee and which in the end safeguarded the privacy not just of public figures—that is not what I am primarily interested in—but of the little men, like the man I recorded in my minority report, or like the case which was brought to the attention of the Press Council by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) and which I recorded in my article in the Sunday Times.
These are the people I want to protect, and they will not be protected by anything that we recommended in the Younger Report. In the end, they will be protected only if we have a full-blooded law of privacy which can protect them in the way I have described and which still safeguards the freedom of expression of the truth that the Press want.
When that comes, the law will change. Until it comes, I have great doubts whether either party has sufficient courage to take on the Press when an election might be pending and to decide that, despite the hysterical outbursts from the Press and despite the defences that I would be prepared to give them, they would then be able to legislate on this topic.
§ 3.40 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Mark Carlisle)
I join the hon. Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon) in saying that undoubtedly this has been a most welcome debate. It has been a debate of a very high standard, a standard certainly maintained by the remarkable speech of power which we have just heard from the hon. Member 2051 for York, which has made a major contribution.
I repeat the thanks which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary expressed to Sir Kenneth Younger and to the members of his committee for their work, particularly to the hon. Member for York and to my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge (Mr. Hornby), both of whom have spoken in the debate.
In a way it is indicative that those two Members of the House should have come down on opposite sides of what one might call the central issue and the central theme that has run through the debate—whether there should be a general right of privacy.
One of the most interesting things about the debate has been the benefit of listening to the case so powerfully argued on both sides. On the side of the right of privacy, together with the hon. Member for York was his hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. Brian Walden) and the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman). Against that we heard a very powerfully argued case by the hon. Member for Coventry, North (Mr. Edelman), my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison), my hon. Friend the Member for Ton-bridge and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen), and other hon. Members. The debate has shown up the degree of difference that there can be on this issue and has very much mirrored the differences that occurred in the Younger Committee.
Many questions have been raised. In the short time at my disposal I shall try to answer some of them. I repeat what my right hon. Friend has said. This is a "take note" debate. The Government were anxious to hear the views of the House. We shall take those views into account in the White Paper which we hope to produce before the end of the year. I shall try to deal with one or two aspects of the Younger Report so far as it relates to private bodies, rather than the recommendations which relate to the Government. Before doing that, however, I want to make a few remarks on the general issue of the right of privacy.
As my right hon. Friend said, the Government accept the argument of the 2052 majority. That argument has been supported by the majority of speakers in the debate, from both sides.. The case for a general right of privacy has not been made. It Is, as my hon. Friend the Member for. Tonbridge said, a very difficult question of where one strikes the balance between the rights of privacy on one side and the right of freedom of expression, free speech and free discussion, on the other side.
Taking one argument on each side, of the two arguments that impressed me most the first was the argument used by the hon. Member for All Saints and referred to in the minority report of the hon. Member for York—the argument that it gives to the individual a remedy which is otherwise unavailable. That is a powerful argument in its favour.
The arguments that are strongest against are, first, the practical argument that in those countries that have such a general right of privacy it does not in practice appear to have provided a greater privacy for the individual than that which exists in this country. The second argument I believe, is that it is alien to the general approach to law in this country, where we do not have a written constitution with defined written rights but we accept such things as the general right to free speech and the general right of the individual to have his own private life, and we act with legislation where we see abuses of what we accept as general underlying principles of our democratic way of life. I do not think that the Younger Committee showed any such evidence of abuse as to justify a radical change of the type the hon. Member for York recommends.
Having said that generally, I turn quickly to those parts of the report which my right hon. Friend said I would deal with. They deal with four aspects—the recommendations affecting magistrates, the medical profession, the universities and the banks. The banks is the main one I want to deal with, but I will say a few words about the others first.
The House may remember that the Younger Committee recommended that, where magistrates' courts are advised that the public revelation of an offender's identity might involve a risk of severe mental disturbance to him or members of his family, they should in those cases 2053 be ready to ask the Press not to publish the offender's identity.
The Magistrates' Association has considered that recommendation but comes to the view that it does not consider that any responsibility to approach the Press in such circumstances should be laid upon magistrates, because the association believes—it is a powerful argument—in the right of the Press save in exceptional circumstances to report all legal proceedings carried on in public and it considers that the courts should do no more than bring the attention of the Press to any request that might be put forward for avoiding publicity.
As for the medical profession, there was a recommendation for promulgating a contractual clause for company doctors' records. In its annual report published this year the Council of the British Medical Association pointed out that the association has never promulgated model contractual clauses for an industrial medical officer's contract but that, in the light of the Younger recommendation, it has decided to include a new paragraph in an amended version of the booklet "The Doctor in Industry" which makes clear the association's view that a person's medical records maintained by an industrial medical officer are his own confidential records to which no other person should have access without his consent and that of the worker involved.
An aspect which has been raised by the hon. Lady the Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) and my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge is the recommendation affecting banks. The committee made two recommendations addressed to the banks. It recommended, first, that the banks should urgently consider whether their arrangements for ensuring the confidentiality of their clients' accounts were adequate to protect themselves and their customers against improper inquiries.
The committee recommended, secondly, that banks should make clear to all customers, existing or prospective, the existence and manner of operation of their reference system and that they should give to them—the customers—the opportunity either to grant a standing authority for the provision of references or to require the banks to seek their consent on every occasion. I assure the hon.
2054 Lady that these recommendations were drawn to the attention of the banks by the Treasury.
I am told that the Younger Committee's remarks about the confidentiality of clients' accounts received immediate attention at a specially convened meeting on behalf of the Committee of London Clearing Bankers. That committee says that the banks have always been, and will continue to be, deeply conscious of their duty in this respect. It points out that the Younger Committee recognised thatno security system can be completely foolproofbut it emphasised that banks continue to exercise the utmost vigilance in protecting the confidentiality of their clients' affairs; and it says that the importance of this aspect is regularly stressed to their staff.
On bank references, representatives of the clearing banks told the Treasury that the system had evolved over many years. They say that it is so designed that those wishing to initiate inquiries must do so through their own bankers or through certain trade organisations of high repute. It is the banks' view that these initial precautions minimise the risk of improper inquiries. The banks point out that they provide the service as a direct response to public demand. They noted that the Younger Committee doubtedwhether there was any widespread abuse of the bank reference systemand that the committee had received no complaints about bank reference practices. The banks say that they have given the whole question the most careful thought and that they remain of the opinion that it would be contrary to the wishes of the customers to change the system.
I must emphasise that the Younger Committee addressed those recommendations to the banks and not to the Government, and that the views which I have expressed now are the views which the banks themselves have expressed. I fully recognise that this is a subject on which there is room for differing views and about which some anxiety has been expressed on both sides of the House. In the light of what has been said today and of what I have reported to the House, we will certainly consider whether 2055 it would be right for the Government to discuss the matter further with the banks.
May I turn as quickly as possible to some of the individual points which were raised. The hon. Lady the Member for Hitchin raised the question of the delay in the presentation of the White Paper. She was reasonable in what she said. It is true, as I announced, that the report of the Government's working party was in the hands of the Government as early as April last year. The hon. Lady will remember from my right hon. Friend's speech that the White Paper, when it is introduced, will deal not only with the control of information in Government computers but also with the subject of information held by local authorities, by the National Health Service and by nationalised industries. So there has been a great deal more work to do.
I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury that I note what he said about the doctors in his area. I can assure him that the National Health Service is one of the subjects which will be covered in the White Paper. It will be a major document setting out the Government's conclusions and it will certainly take into account the views that have been expressed today.
I think that the wider use of computers, as the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) is always reminding us, brings wider problems. We must recognise that the advent of computers for the storage and handling of personal information has introduced new confidentiality problems. We must recognise and respect the understandable concern of many people about the technical potential of the computer for assembling and processing large quantities of information. We can and we certainly should, as a Government, demonstrate that all reasonable precautions are taken to keep private information private and that the computer in many ways contributes to rather than endangers this objective.
The proposed White Paper will undoubtedly go some way towards achieving this aim but we recognise that it is a continuing task both to keep security arrangements under review and to maintain public confidence in the use of computers for the storage and handling of personal information.
2056 Dealing with the other specific point raised by the hon. Lady with regard to private detectives, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Fowler) is no longer present but I noticed with interest what he said. I do not think the hon. Lady's analogy between private detectives and gaming clubs is completely apt. The concern with the licensing of private detectives is that they could be in a position of holding themselves out to the public as having some greater power in making inquiries into other people's lives than have other individuals.
The hon. Lady specifically asked me about the answer given by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs on credit agencies. The answer to her question is "No". My right hon. and learned Friend was speaking solely in the context of credit agencies. Of course, the principle to which he referred may have wider application. This will be considered in the particular contexts as they arise, as it is being considered at the moment with regard to credit agencies.
The hon. Lady asked also about the earnings survey. She will probably remember that this started in 1968, when she was, I think, at the Department of Employment.
§ Mr. Carlisle
The inquiry is conducted under the Statistics of Trade Act 1947, which means that the information is used only for statistical purposes and must in no circumstances be disclosed without the written consent of the employer concerned. Although the forms which are sent out show the name of the employees concerned, they appear on a tear-off slip. It is necessary for the names to appear to enable the sample to be identified, but the names can be torn off before the form is sent back so that anyone who handles the form thereafter will not see them. Moreover, all forms are kept under lock and key when not in use, and neither the names nor the addresses of employer or employee are transcribed on to the punched cards or magnetic tapes used for statistical processing.
2057 I am told that there has not been a single case of breach of confidentiality in the sense of disclosure to third parties since the survey began in 1968, but I note the hon. Lady's concern on the matter.
I turn next to the hon. Lady's question about disclosure of information held by the Inland Revenue. I confirm that no information is ever given on the matters about which she asked save with the consent of the taxpayer. In relation to immigration, I am told that, if someone claims to be bringing people into the country as dependants and there is any doubt as to their being dependants, only if there is written consent given by the man making that claim that the matter may be checked with the Inland Revenue to ascertain whether he has disclosed them as dependent in previous years is that ever done.
The hon. Member for Coventry, North and his hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton directed special attention to the Press Council. Lord Pearce made clear in the other place that there is now a 50 per cent. lay presence on the complaints council. The reason why there is only one-third lay membership on the rest of the Press Council is that it deals with wider matters going beyond the complaints which are referred to the complaints council. For the complaints council, the Younger recommendation for 50 per cent. lay membership has been carried out.
I note what hon. Members have said, and I am sure that both the newspapers and the Press Council will note their comments on the Younger Committee's recommendation that any condemnation by the Press Council should be as prominently displayed as was the orginal article condemned.
Having listened to the debate, I still believe that there is much in the argument—I realise that this comes back to the general point—that the Press should impose its own self-discipline. Perhaps I am somewhat biased in my way, as the hon. Member for Coventry, North is not, with his background, since I come from a profession which believes in self-discipline.
As regards bugging devices, I am sure that the matter is not quite so black and 2058 white, so to speak, as the hon. Member for All Saints seemed to suggest. I confirm what the hon. Member for York said, and I remind the House of the practical difficulties to which my right hon. Friend referred.
This has been an interesting debate, which will be of great value to the Government in deciding the form of the White Paper which they will later present.