Telephone Hacking — Question
11:06 am

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Lord Fowler (Conservative)

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the evidence of telephone hacking by newspapers, and what action they propose to take.

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, the task of assessing evidence of potentially unlawful activity is a matter for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. The Metropolitan Police, as noble Lords will be well aware today, is currently conducting an investigation into allegations of telephone hacking and it would be inappropriate to comment or speculate on any particular aspects of that active investigation pending its outcome.

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Lord Fowler (Conservative)

My Lords, leaving aside the two arrests yesterday, is it not already clear that there has been a total abuse of power involving some parts of the press in this area? Have we not also seen a five-year delay in investigation, a public dispute now taking place between the DPP and the Metropolitan Police, and the utter failure of any system to prevent such wrongdoing? Will the noble Lord give an assurance that, once criminal proceedings are complete, there will be an independent inquiry into what has happened and how scandals of this kind can be prevented?

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, on reading the newspapers this morning, I wondered whether the noble Lord has the power of the curse of Gnome, given that every time he puts down a Question in this House something moves in the investigation. He raises some broad questions about the future relationship between the press and politics and it is fair to say that we will need to return to those questions once current investigations are complete. The relationship between the press and the Government rests on the idea that a free press in a democracy is free but should be responsible-just as bankers in a free market ask for light regulation, with the expectation that they will also behave responsibly. Newspapers, like bankers, have not always been as responsible in relation to their obligations as they might have been in recent years.

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Lord Prescott (Labour)

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that on 3 March I asked the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, whether the Government would delay the decision on the acquisition of BSkyB by the Murdoch press until all these investigations and inquiries had been completed. In her supplementary reply, the noble Baroness said:

"The phone-hacking allegations are very serious, but they are matters for the criminal courts ... They have no bearing on the separate matter of media plurality and a decision on the merger".

Is the noble Lord aware of the decision yesterday, following the imprisonment of two employees of the Murdoch press, to arrest two senior employees of the Murdoch press? We learnt yesterday that, in the parliamentary committee in the other place, conflicting evidence was given by the Director of Public Prosecutions and Mr Yates, who was in charge of the original inquiry. Is the Minister also aware that Ms Rebekah Brooks gave evidence as the chief executive of the Murdoch press and said that it paid the police for information-an admission of a criminal act? Are the Government aware, in making the decision on BSkyB, that it would be totally unacceptable for a company that is actively involved at all levels in criminal acts to be given control of BSkyB? Will they now delay the decision until all these investigations have been completed?

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I am well aware of the strong feelings that many people have about the broader issues involved in this matter. The noble Lord raised the issue of payments to the police. Clearly they would have been illegal and I know that some have now been admitted. Of course it is necessary for the police to have a close relationship with the media, because the media can help to solve crimes, but payments for information are clearly illegal. I should add that the two senior journalists arrested yesterday have been bailed.

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Lord Cormack (Conservative)

My Lords, do not these very regrettable events underline the need for a statutory Press Complaints Commission?

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, that is very much one of the larger issues that it would be appropriate for the sort of general inquiry for which the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, is calling to look at once the current investigations are complete.

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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Labour)

My Lords, does the noble Lord not agree that it would give a great deal of reassurance if the Government were to say today that they would be prepared to commission an independent inquiry? If they were to do so, would that inquiry look into the appropriateness of social contacts between the police force and certain members of a newspaper publishing empire? Would it also look at the appropriateness of senior police officers, after retirement, ending up on the payroll of those certain newspaper publishers?

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I am happy to give the assurance that I will take the strength of feeling of this House back to senior Ministers. We are all aware of the complexities of this case. This is something with which the previous Government had to deal, as well as this Government. There are many aspects of concern to people in this House, the other place and more widely.

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Lord Elystan-Morgan (Crossbench)

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether at any stage during this inquiry Assistant Commissioner Yates sought the advice of the Director of Public Prosecutions with regard to the interpretation of the criminal offence? If so, when, and what was the nature of the advice given?

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I think that it would be inappropriate to comment on issues that may indeed be subject to some concern of the courts.

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Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, my question covers a slightly different angle. Moves to regulate the private investigation industry began in 2001. Ten years on, the Security Industry Authority, set up under the Act, has yet to implement a licensing framework for that industry. Can the Minister tell us why we have been waiting so long for this to happen?

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, that is another question that arises from the broadest aspect of this inquiry. I shall take that question, too, back to Ministers and, if necessary, write to the noble Baroness with a more informed reply.

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Lord Tebbit (Conservative)

My Lords, will the noble Lord be very careful in his use of the words "responsible" and "irresponsible" in relation to the press? Of course, the press and the media generally must be held responsible for any unlawful acts, but there is no more reason for the press to be responsible in its comments than there is for politicians to be responsible in theirs. Daily, even in this House, we hear irresponsible comment, so we should be a little bit careful before we condemn the press.

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, the question of who is careful in condemning whom is something that perhaps the press also needs to think about. With regard to the right of privacy for politicians, celebrities and others, which I know is a contentious issue at present, I had in my notes an interesting distinction between the concept of public interest, which is in the PCC code of conduct, and the question of what may be thought by newspaper editors to interest the public. Those concepts are not in any way the same.