We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Phone Hacking — Private Notice Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 5th July 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Chair, HIV and AIDS Committee in the United Kingdom 3:08 pm, 5th July 2011

To ask Her Majesty's Government, in view of the public concern over phone hacking following the latest reports, whether they will immediately undertake to set up an independent inquiry once criminal proceedings are complete.

Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Chair, HIV and AIDS Committee in the United Kingdom

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice.

Photo of Baroness Browning Baroness Browning Minister of State (Home Office)

My Lords, once again our thoughts are with the Dowler family. As the Prime Minister said, these allegations are truly dreadful and the police should pursue their investigations wherever they lead them.

A police investigation into allegations of phone hacking is currently under way. It is important that the investigation is allowed to proceed and that the conclusions be made public. A number of parliamentary inquiries and other reviews are also under way, and a number of individual cases are currently before the courts. This represents a broad span of activity across several aspects of this issue and the Government believe it most appropriate to consider the outcome of the police investigations and these various inquiries before deciding whether any further steps are necessary.

Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Chair, HIV and AIDS Committee in the United Kingdom

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for the reply, but I urge her to go further. I declare an interest in that I was once a journalist, but my view of the press is that newspapers are there to expose injustice and abuse of power, not to illegally intrude into the private lives of the public.

Is my noble friend aware that since January of this year I have asked four Questions on the Floor of this House on phone hacking? Steadily, month by month, the revelations have become more and more serious, with today's revelation about Milly Dowler almost beyond belief and certainly beyond contempt. Are we not now confronted with one of the biggest scandals affecting the press in living memory and with clear evidence that a deliberate conspiracy has taken place against the public? Will she therefore recognise that this is not a matter of party politics but of protecting the public, and that the only way that that can be done successfully is by an eventual independent inquiry looking at all the evidence? Why cannot the Government commit themselves to that today?

Photo of Baroness Browning Baroness Browning Minister of State (Home Office)

My Lords, I can understand my noble friend's concern, and the concern of the House as a whole, at what is a truly shocking matter. This morning the Home Secretary, appearing before the Home Affairs Select Committee in another place, described what has happened, with the new information that has been received, as shocking and disgusting. She reiterated today that we must await the outcome of the police investigation, but she stated that, if these allegations are found to be true, there will need to be new avenues to explore.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, we support the call of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for an independent inquiry. The latest disturbing allegations about phone hacking will only have strengthened the feeling that parts of our national newspaper industry regard themselves as being above the law and having no need to fear any action from the Press Complaints Commission. The Minister's reply to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, will just not do. How many more potential phone- hacking scandals have to be unearthed, and how many more denials that they knew what was going on by editors and News International top executives do there have to be, before this Government recognise the failings of previous investigations-by the police, by News International and by the Press Complaints Commission -and act? Will the Government set up an independent inquiry into phone hacking and the culture and practices of at least part of the national newspaper industry that have allowed these things to happen?

Photo of Baroness Browning Baroness Browning Minister of State (Home Office)

My Lords, as noble Lords will know, this matter is subject now to a robust investigation by the Metropolitan Police. The MPS has provided a public update and made it clear that it can say no more at this stage. Surrey Police, which is responsible for the Milly Dowler investigation, is also making no comment. Accordingly, this remains an ongoing operational matter for the police on which Ministers can neither interfere nor comment in any substantive way. The proper course is for the investigation and the independent review of previous evidence to be allowed to proceed without interference.

Photo of Lord Prescott Lord Prescott Labour

My Lords, the hacking of Milly Dowler's mobile is, so far, the latest and most obscene action of this company of the Murdoch press. Will the Minister confirm that it is still the Government's view that these criminal acts are irrelevant to Murdoch's purchase of BSkyB? Is the Minister also aware that the regulator Ofcom has a duty and a statutory responsibility to investigate matters of privacy? Have the Government asked Ofcom for its advice on that matter before they come to a decision on BSkyB?

Photo of Baroness Browning Baroness Browning Minister of State (Home Office)

My Lords, I have every sympathy for the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, who I believe is himself a victim of this phone-tapping scandal. Phone tapping or hacking is illegal and is not a matter that the Government regard lightly. It is an offence for a person intentionally to intercept without lawful authority any communication in the course of its transmission. That applies equally to the media. The noble Lord asked me about the decision that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport has to make about BSkyB. The House will be aware that the Secretary of State in that department has to follow guidelines as already set out in law. He will follow those guidelines in making his decision.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Liberal Democrat

My noble friend the Minister is obviously doing everything that she can to try and help the House, but might she consider the very serious situation in which there has been a considerable loss of trust both in police inquiries and in the work of the Press Complaints Commission? In that situation, would the Minister agree that we need a more fundamental look at the whole situation that now confronts us-one in which the media feel that, to some extent, they do not have to abide by the normal rules of civic behaviour in our society? Therefore, should we not very seriously consider the proposal of my noble friend Lord Fowler, given that such an independent complaints committee might recover trust from the public in making recommendations about what should be done?

Photo of Baroness Browning Baroness Browning Minister of State (Home Office)

I fully understand why my noble friend raises the issue of trust, because from the beginning these matters have been conducted in ways which have given the public great concern. If I may, let me quote to my noble friend the words of Sir Paul Stephenson, given that the Met is now conducting a very robust and vigorous investigation, whose conclusions, once made, will be ones on which I believe we can rely. Sir Paul Stephenson has said that questions should be asked once the criminal inquiry and any judicial process have been concluded. As I mentioned, the police investigation is ongoing and it is a matter for that inquiry and that investigation to conclude. At that point, Sir Paul Stephenson said, questions should be asked. I can assure the House that we will consider the outcome of police investigations as well as other inquiries that are under way. I am not saying to the House today that we will not have an inquiry, but while police investigations are under way I cannot be pressed on that.

Photo of Lord Fellowes Lord Fellowes Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, at the end of this episode, it would be a good thing for the Press Complaints Commission either to be given statutory powers or to be wound up?

Photo of Baroness Browning Baroness Browning Minister of State (Home Office)

My Lords, I am aware that the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission has expressed her grave concerns today that the News of the World lied in giving evidence. She was extremely angry that the Press Complaints Commission had been misled. That is a very serious matter, and I am sure that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will want to take account of her views on that matter and what has happened with the Press Complaints Commission.

Photo of The Bishop of Manchester The Bishop of Manchester Bishop

My Lords, it seems to me that two issues are germane to this debate. One is the tragic matter of Milly Dowler and, clearly, the judicial inquiry has to be pursued in that direction and the police allowed to do what they are meant to do. The second issue seems to me to be a much deeper one and also a matter of some urgency for this House to address once the particular inquiries relating to Milly Dowler are over. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, referred to what I believe are some serious underlying ethical issues about this whole matter that this House must address and as soon as possible. I hope that the Minister, while clearly having to make the point about the present inquiries, will give a more robust response to what has been said in all quarters of this House this afternoon about the need for the deeper issues to be addressed.

Photo of Baroness Browning Baroness Browning Minister of State (Home Office)

I thank the right reverend Prelate for the way he couched his question. He clearly understands from my replies that I cannot engage the House today in a full debate on this, because we are waiting for these investigations and legal outcomes to be made public, but I have no doubt that once they are in the public domain, we shall return to this subject with much vigour.