HC Deb 21 June 1990 vol 174 cc1125-34 4.10 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Waddington)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the report of the committee on privacy and related matters, which is published today.

I should like, first of all, to pay tribute to the committee and its distinguished chairman, Mr. David Calcutt QC, who have produced a meticulous and carefully argued report on a complex and sensitive subject, and within the very tight timetable set by the Government.

Hon. Members will recall that the committee was set up in April last year in response to widespread concern about invasions of privacy by the press, much of which was expressed in the debates on two private Members' Bills which were then before the House.

The Government warmly welcome the general approach which the committee has taken in its report on the delicate issue of balancing privacy for the individual against the maintenance of freedom of expression) The committee asserts that, in general, freedom of expression should take precedence over protection of privacy and that where such protection is necessary it is best provided through specific, targeted remedies. It rejects the introduction of a statutory right of reply and concludes that the case for a statutory tort of infringement of privacy has not so far been made out.

The committee was rightly concerned about physical intrusion by the press, particularly in the light of the very serious incident earlier this year when reporters invaded the hospital bedroom of the actor Gorden Kaye. The report recommends three new criminal offences: of trespass on private property to obtain personal information for publication; of planting a surveillance device on private property to secure information for publication; and of taking a photograph, or recording the voice, of someone on private property for publication and with the intention that he should be identifiable. All three offences would be subject to defences of public right to know, for example when done to expose crime or other wrongdoing, and of lawful authority.

The Government are attracted by those recommendations, which offer the possibility of an immediate remedy against the worst excesses of the press. We accept them in principle. Careful thought will need to be given to the detailed formulation of the offences and the precise scope of any defence. I shall report to the House about those matters later in the year. We shall also consider whether these proposals might be appropriate for introduction in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The report also recommends extending in England and Wales the present restrictions on reporting criminal proceedings by giving the court power in certain curcumstances to prohibit the publication of the name and address of any person against whom an offence is alleged to have been committed and extending the present anonymity of rape victims to victims of other sexual offences. I welcome those proposals, which fit well with measures we are already taking to improve the treatment of victims. We shall give further consideration to them, with special reference to the balance to be struck between the rights of victims and the presumption that criminal proceedings should take place in public.

The central recommendations of the report concern the regulation of the press. The committee reviewed recent progress by the industry and the Press Council in improving the current system of self-regulation, but concluded that the process has not gone far enough. It recommends that the press should be given 12 months to establish a new non-statutory press complaints commission, modelled on the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, which would be responsible specifically for the adjudication of complaints.

It would operate under a more comprehensive code of practice than has been used up to now for guidance to both press and public as to what is unacceptable press behaviour, and its 12 members would be independently selected by a special appointments commission. The committee recommends that if the rulings of the press complaints commission are flouted by an individual publication, it should be placed on a statutory basis. If the press do not proceed to set up the commission, or if it is set up but there is a more general breakdown in enforcement of its decisions, the committee recommends the establishment of a publicly funded statutory tribunal with more far-reaching powers.

The Government recognise that the industry has made some attempt in the past year to respond to the public concern about press abuses, and I pay tribute to the determined efforts of the chairman of the Press Council to modernise and make more effective the existing system of self-regulation, In the view of the Calcutt committee, however, the reforms have not gone far enough, the two distinct functions of defending the freedom of the press and adjudicating on complaints of press malpractice sit uneasily together, and only an independent body can effectively carry out that second task.

The Government are aware, of course, that the press are not alone responsible among the media for unwarranted breaches of privacy, and that similar concerns have been expressed in the past about broadcasting. They believe that the establishment of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission has been an effective response to that concern and has provided useful redress to individuals unfairly treated in broadcast programmes. They therefore accept the central recommendation of the committee that the press should be given 12 months to establish a press complaints commission on the lines proposed.

This is positively the last chance for the industry to establish an effective non-statutory system of regulation, and I strongly hope that it will seize the opportunity that the committee has given it. If a non-statutory commission is established, the Government will review its performance after 18 months of operation to determine whether a statutory underpinning is required. If no steps are taken to set up such a commission, the Government, albeit with some regret, will proceed to establish a statutory framework, taking account of the committee's recommendations.

It is now up to the press to take up the challenge that the committee has presented to it. I am confident that the response will be a positive one.

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

I begin by offering our congratulations to Mr. Calcutt and to his committee on the production of what I regard as an historic report. We give an unqualified welcome to its positive proposals and shall happily co-operate in their implementation.

The report is based on the principle that private individuals have a right to maintain their privacy. Sometimes, public figures may have to accept the consequences of their status—although I share the view expressed in the report that the kind of treatment endured by Mr. Gorden Kaye was intolerable and in future must be prohibited, But private citizens are entitled to absolute protection against intruders, and the report at least shows the way in which that protection can be provided.

May I specifically offer our support to paragraph 14.38, where it is proposed that the press should be given "one final chance" to prove that voluntary regulation can be made to work, However, may I also make it clear that acceptance of that judgment requires parallel support for paragraph 16.1—the insistence that if the press fail to demonstrate that non-statutory self-regulation can be made to work effectively…a statutory system…should be introduced. We endorse that, and I hope that the Home Secretary will make it clear that he also endorses the Calcutt test of how the success of self-regulation can be measured.

A single maverick paper ignoring the proposed new code of conduct would, in Calcutt's estimation, justify the introduction of statutory regulations, Will the Home Secretary confirm that he shares and endorses that view?

A code of statutory regulation with funds levied from the industry, but determined by the Government, and a statutory system of regulation would be introduced, including powers to impose penalties, which in our view must be large enough to act as a deterrent, We cannot have the situation in which newspapers gladly pay a small fine because the story that the fine has created improves the circulation enough to make the fine worth paying.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, although the Calcutt committee does not favour a statutory right of reply, it proposes that the new press commission might require the publication of a correction and an apology in a prescribed form? Some of us believe that the distinction between that remedy and the right of reply is purely semantic, We are prepared to see that variation on the theme examined and initially put into operation.

May I offer the Home Secretary our support for the specific changes in the law which Calcutt recommends: taking a photograph or recording the voice of an individual who is on private property, which could become a criminal offence, except in carefully defined circumstances; and legal restriction on the identification of minors and victims of sexual assault, as is now provided for rape victims.

The Home Secretary said in his statement that in the recent past the British press had begun to take action against unacceptable intrusion, That is certainly the cae with some newspapers, but others have endorsed a voluntary code of conduct and then flouted it within days of their editors signing the document, Other newspapers have refused to accept the recommendations—indeed have derided the recommendations—of the voluntary Press Council, which they regarded as the proper protection against intrusion.

The Home Secretary expressed the belief that newspapers will respond to this one last chance, I have my doubts, That is why the second major implication and recommendation of Calcutt—the introduction of statutory regulations by an official body—is absolutely essential if the year of grace is ignored and if the press do not mend their ways.

All right hon. and hon. Members should be determined to defend the freedom of the press: freedom against Government, freedom against powerful corporations and freedom against corruption, I certainly do not want to see the curtailment of legitimate investigative journalism, but I also believe in another freedom: the right of individuals to live in privacy and peace, The Calcutt report strikes a proper balance between the two objectives, and I hope that both sides of the House can work together to bring those two objectives about.

Mr. Waddington

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his general welcome to a valuable report, It is right to say that the committee starts off by saying that freedom of publication is an important principle and that there is an inherent contradiction between the freedom to publish and the right to privacy, One has to make choice at the outset whether one puts the right to privacy or the freedom to publish first in the list, The committee comes down on the latter side: it says that one starts with the principle of freedom to publish, but one then looks at the protections which have to be granted to ensure that privacy is properly protected when it should be protected and to set out protections for individuals against some of the grossest abuses which have occurred.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for welcoming the clear statement by the Calcutt committee that this is one last chance for the press, That is not really an idle threat, because Calcutt goes on to set out quite plainly what further steps should be taken in certain eventualities, I shall make those successive steps clear to the House.

First of all, the press is told that they must set up a press complaints commission as a non-statutory body, That non-statutory body will have the power to recommend an apology and the nature and form of a reply or correction, including where it has to be published in the paper, There no longer has to be any waiver of legal rights as a requirement before the matter is looked into by the press complaints commission.

If maverick publications decline to respect the authority of the press complaints commission, the right hon. Gentleman is entirely right that that triggers off the next step. Calcutt recommends that, in those circumstances, the press complaints commission should be put on a statutory basis, and we have accepted that recommendation. Once the commission is put on a statutory basis, it will have the power to require a response to inquiries about complaints, to publish adjudications and to recommend payment of compensation.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

What sanctions?

Mr. Waddington

The hon. Gentleman had better wait a moment; then he will hear the whole story.

If the press do not set up the commission or if there is a serious breakdown of the whole system of regulation, a press complaints tribunal should be set up, with a judge and two assessors. That body would have the power to award compensation and to restrain publications in breach of the code of practice by injunction. Nobody would suggest that such a tribunal would not have very potent powers indeed. However, the Government will look at the performance of the press and the operation of the press complaints commission over a period and then return to the House.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order, I must remind the House again of what I said earlier. We have a very important debate today with a guillotine falling at 7 o'clock. I shall allow questions to continue until 10 to 5. I hope that hon. Members will bear in mind that no doubt we shall be discussing the matter over the next 12 months. Therefore, I ask for brief and single questions please.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that time and again the press have been given a chance to put their house in order and time and again sections of the press have wilfully flouted that requirement? Therefore, is not the giving of this last chance unduly generous to the press and unduly unprotective to the liberty of the individual? Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that if the defence of the public right to know is too widely drawn, it will provide no further protection for the individual? Will my right hon. and learned Friend kindly give urgent consideration to making the press complaints commission statutory from the start, as is the Broadcasting Complaints Commission?

Mr. Waddington

When my hon. and learned Friend has had time to read the report, I do not think that he will reach the conclusion that the public right to know will be so built up as to negative the protections to which I have referred. The defences to the criminal offences that have been suggested are limited indeed, There would be a defence if the act were done for the purpose of preventing, detecting or exposing the commission of any crime or other seriously anti-social behaviour, for the protection of public health or safety or under any lawful authority. If my hon. and learned Friend looks at appendix Q to the report, he will see how much tougher the proposed code is than the code that is currently supposed to be operated by the Press Council.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

I recognise the need to ensure that the presumption of an individual's right to privacy is strengthened and that it is displaced only by a genuine and direct public interest, but will the Home Secretary carefully reconsider the proposals to set up three specific new crimes in the light of previous representations from the police and other law reform bodies that the creation of a law of criminal trespass would be difficult to achieve in practice? Who will appoint the appointments commission? Who will be eligible to sit on it, and if the procedure is to become statutory, how would those rules change? The first object of the Press Council, as stated in its charter, is to ensure the protection of press freedom, If it is not possible for that to be done while protecting the individual by adjudicating complaints, who will be entrusted with the first object of the Press Council—the protection of press freedom?

Mr. Waddington

I do not see why the two functions need to be in the same hands. It is perfectly logical that the press should set up a body which propagandises in the interests of press freedom, and, as I made abundantly plain, nobody doubts the importance of the freedom to publish. The committee suggests that, in the eyes of the public, it somehow blunts the edge of a body that is supposed to be set up in the interests of those who suffer from invasion of privacy for it to have an entirely contradictory function. The argument that is normally advanced against a law of criminal trespass is that the police might become involved in domestic disputes and disputes between neighbours.

I am not arguing for or against such a law, which in any event would go far wider than necessary to protect people from press intrusion. That does not enter into the argument at all. The fact that there might be an argument for an offence of criminal trespass does not advance discussion on whether there should be specific offences to deal with intrusion by the press in order to obtain information for purposes of publication. It is suggested that an appointments commission should decide the membership of the press complaints commission. It has been suggested—it has been put forward not powerfully but as a possibility—that the Lord Chancellor may appoint members of the appointments commission.

Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)

I welcome all the recommendations in the report, but I have misgivings about the central proposition on which it is based. Does my right hon. and learned Friend take the view that freedom of expression should take precedence over protection of privacy, which is what the committee says? If so, does he not share my misgivings? The party to which we both belong has for a long time taken the view that the individual is more important than the collective concept. Does he find it difficult to reconcile the committee's recommendation with that article of faith?

Mr. Waddington

Quite frankly, I am not terribly interested in what is, at the end of the day, a somewhat academic argument. Either we start off by saying that there is a general freedom to publish and decide to what extent it should be qualified, or we start with the general principle of privacy and decide to what extent it should be qualified. Academic arguments of that kind do not take us very far. I am a pragmatist: I look at abuses and reach a conclusion as to whether the Calcutt proposals are likely to meet the abuses. I believe that the Calcutt proposals are likely to meet the abuses.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Is the Home Secretary aware that the tabloids will laugh at today's announcement and will not take a blind bit of notice of it, simply because there will be no sanctions? What is the use of having a code of conduct, rather like the highway code, if we cannot take away the driving licence? The press barons of today have more power than medieval barons had in the middle ages. That is why we introduced laws to protect people against them. The report offers no right of reply, no tribunal and no independent ombudsman. There is nothing, apart from the derisory £500 compensation, which is worth paying to get the story. The press barons of today will totally ignore the report.

Mr. Waddington

The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong when he says that the report offers no tribunal. At the end of the road is the threat of a tribunal, headed by a judge with two assessors. It would have the power to impose sanctions; there would be the power to award compensation and the power, by means of an injunction, to restrain publication that was in breach of the code of practice. I do not know how anybody can argue that that is not a potent remedy.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that a few years ago I dropped a small pebble in the pool on this subject and therefore have a significant interest in it? Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, in the non-academic way in which he put it, the real point is that there have been serious invasions of privacy? In the circulation war, there is a considerable incentive for people to try to make money out of invasions of privacy. Given the recommendations in the committee's report, ought not we to ensure that the people who are to run the new independent press complaints commission have the power to award compensation to victims? That would be the acid test. Should not they be prepared to put their money where their mouth is?

Mr. Waddington

It is suggested that, if we reached the stage of setting up a statutory press complaints commission, there would be the power to recommend the payment of compensation. That meets my hon. Friend's point. I congratulate him on the Bill that he introduced a few years ago. Calcutt has not come to the conclusion that it is entirely impracticable to create a tort of infringement of privacy. He just says that he believes that the other remedies put forward could achieve the same result and that if they did not do so, it would be right to reconsider whether there should be a new tort.

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

I welcome a great deal of what is contained in the report. It fully justifies the concern that was shown on all sides of the House, which led to the great support that was given to two private Members' Bills, The report does not provide for a statutory right of reply but states that the press must set up a commission that in effect provides for a statutory right of reply and for due prominence to be given to published apologies in a way that is not possible now. It accepts all the criticisms that have been made of the Press Council.

Will the Home Secretary consider recommending that, when the press complaints commission is set up, it should have the power to award compensation? What is wrong now is that there is access for the rich to the law courts but no redress whatsoever for those who cannot gain access to the law courts. I should welcome an assurance from the Home Secretary on that point.

Mr. Waddington

I think that we should stick to the framework recommended by Calcutt. He makes it absolutely plain that a further step would have to be taken if the lesson was not learnt by the organs of the press about whom complaints have often been made. I congratulate the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) on his work on his Right of Reply Bill. Calcutt's conclusion has been expressed faithfully by the hon. Member. Calcutt has concluded that it is not necessary to go for the right of reply if the press complaints commission can recommend publication of a correction and apology and if those further sanctions are available in the event of the press not reacting in an appropriate manner to that last chance.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

May I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to incorporate those eminently sensible suggestions and recommendations into a Bill for the next Session? Will he promise that one last chance really is one last chance and that there will be no fudging at the end of the day? Do the recommendations cover all the press and not just the national press?

Mr. Waddington

Clearly the recommendations cover all the press, including magazines, I have already said that we accept Calcutt's recommendations that, in the events spelt out by Calcutt, we would move from the non-statutory press complaints commission to the statutory press complaints commission, which would then have the powers that I have outlined.

With regard to the criminal offences, I have said that we accept the recommendations in principle, but must consider the precise wording of the offences and what would be appropriate defences to them, When we have carried out proper study along those lines and we think that it is right to go ahead, we will seek the first opportunity to do so.

Mr. John D, Taylor (Strangford)

Does the Secretary of State recognise that we on the Ulster Unionist Bench share the concern about the excesses of the press? However, I am glad to say that such allegations do not apply to the press in Northern Ireland and I am particularly pleased to say that as a publisher of several newspapers in the Province.

However, the allegations have been made against national newspapers, but national newspapers are not restricted to England and Wales: they circulate equally in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Therefore, I am amazed that the Secretary of State expressed some doubt about whether any proposal should also apply to Northern Ireland and Scotland. Does he recognise the inconsistency that a journalist working for a national newspaper based in London would be working under one set of guidelines, but the same journalist working for the same newspaper based in the Belfast office would be operating under different guidelines unless the new proposals apply to the entire United Kingdom?

Mr. Waddington

I said: We shall also consider whether these proposals might be appropriate for introduction in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I used those cautionary words because the law in Scotland is rather different in many respects from the law in England and Wales. I do not think that I was being unreasonable when I suggested that we should study those differences in law before concluding that the same changes should be made throughout the United Kingdom.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

My right hon. and learned Friend sounds distinctly tougher than Calcutt reads. I find it puzzling that, in recommendation 11.14, the press are urged to set the record straight whenever practicable. One wonders when it would not be practicable to set a record straight. The recommendation continues: Where the facts are disputed it would generally be appropriate for the newspaper to publish instead a reasonable letter from the individual or organisation concerned. Why only "generally appropriate"? I accept the code of conduct, but I thought that the qualification, "whenever practicable" weakened the recommendations and that the report sounded a lot better in the words of my right hon. and learned Friend than they read.

Mr. Waddington

Yes, but in that part of the report, Calcutt was setting out the arguments against a right of reply Bill. One of the arguments against such a Bill was the difficulty of ascertaining from a speedy and informal procedure whether there was a factual inaccuracy which should be corrected. If my hon. Friend reads the report carefully, she will find that that is all argumentation about whether it is right to have a specific right of reply. She must then consider the general arguments that are advanced, as they were in the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington).

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

May I declare my interest as a member of the Calcutt committee and thank both Front-Bench spokesmen for their positive responses to our recommendations?

Is the Secretary of State aware that the committee saw a long succession of prominent proprietors and editors who came before us to repent of past sins and to assure us that they had all now turned over a new leaf? Unfortunately, we were well aware of the fact that every inquiry into the press over the past 40 years has heard the same pleas and has been persuaded to grant one last chance. That is why we included in great detail the outline of our statutory framework if self-regulation does not work, When the Secretary of State meets the press to discuss those matters, will he make it absolutely crystal clear that this is the end of the road and that, if they do not put their house in order, statutory regulation will follow and they will have absolutely no one to blame but themselves?

Mr. Waddington

I do not think that I even need to see the press. They can read what I have said today, and that is the message that I am putting over, I thank the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) for his service on the committee. He is entirely right. Various people gave evidence to the committee and they all said that there had been a sudden reform and that they had seen the light on the road to Damascus. However, Calcutt begged to differ and wondered whether it was likely that such a reform would come about so speedily.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

My right hon. and learned Friend has produced through the Calcutt inquiry a well-balanced report which shows on the one hand that we need to improve the standards of journalism, and on the other to protect the individual. Does he agree that the press have not got off, as the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) suggested, without any sanction? Does he agree that they will face the offences which will protect the individual? Does he accept that it is appropriate to give a free press one last chance to put their house in order?

Mr. Waddington

I do not think that many hon. Members would agree with the assessment of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) or with his experience. Indeed, his right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) did not take that attitude. He was satisfied that the approach suggested by Calcutt was right and that the recommendations have teeth.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Are not we entitled to be pessimistic, bearing in mind that, while those matters were under discussion recently in the House, and while the committee was sitting, the tabloid press have been getting worse, in particular the Sunday press with their trashy stories and the rest? Bearing in mind that the Calcutt report states that one of the main reasons why the Press Council has been a failure is the "lack of effective sanctions", is not it absolutely clear that until there are proper statutory regulations, and until some of the worst offenders—and I have in mind the Sunday tabloids—are dealt with, we will get no improvement? Are not we entitled to believe that, as others have said, as there has been no improvement over the past 40 years, unless real action is taken there is no chance of progress in the next 40 years?

Mr. Waddington

This was a very eminent committee and it has produced a very cogent report, which I invite all hon. Members to read closely, However, I do not believe for a moment that anyone who reads it is likely to conclude that it is a let-off for the press, that the consequences of Calcutt are nil and that things are going to be allowed to continue exactly as they are, I have already spelt out how we can move to a statutory body as a result of the triggers that are spelt out clearly in the report.

Mr. David Sumberg (Bury, South)

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, especially the proposal for anonymity for victims of sex offenders. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the present system, with the Press Council having to act as judge, jury, prosecuting counsel and defending counsel, is entirely unsatisfactory and that decent, honourable and reputable journalists, who are the vast majority, have nothing to fear from the proposals?

Mr. Waddington

No journalist of integrity has anything to fear from these recommendations.

Mr. Hattersley

The Home Secretary will have noticed that what scepticism there is about the report and his reaction to it concerns whether the one last chance will be taken and whether the Government will then move to the statutory remedies which should follow the one last chance, Would it help to concentrate minds if the Government held an early debate on a motion making clear that the statutory remedy will be applied if the one last chance is not taken? If such a motion were put down, there would be overwhelming support for it in the House.

Mr. Waddington

I have said that, if the events spelt out by Calcutt take place, the Government will move to set up a statutory press complaints commission. I will certainly talk to the business managers, and they will read what has just been said. I am not reluctant to have a debate—indeed, I am happy to have one, as it is an interesting, long and detailed report. In exchanges of questions and answers such as this, we cannot hope to touch all the ground.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order, I am sorry that I have been unable to call all the hon. Members concerned, I have noted the comments of the Home Secretary, and I am sure that the hon. Members who have not been called will receive some precedence in that debate.