Phone Hacking — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:06 pm on 18th January 2012.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Conservative 3:06 pm, 18th January 2012

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is the latest police estimate of the number of individuals whose phones have been hacked by newspapers, and how many arrests have been made.

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley The Minister of State, Home Department

My Lords, the latest estimates by the Metropolitan Police Service indicate that there may be about 800 likely victims of phone hacking. There have been 17 arrests as a result of the continuing police investigation.

Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Conservative

My Lords, we obviously do not know how many people will be charged, but we do now have a very good picture of how widespread phone hacking was. Is it not clear that the phone hackers and those who employed them believed that their power put them above the law? Given that, is not one of the lessons of this whole scandal that we should never again allow one proprietor or one company to own a disproportionate amount of the British media?

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley The Minister of State, Home Department

My Lords, I am not going to comment on the last point made by my noble friend, but no doubt the House and others will have listened to that. The police have spoken to about 1,800 people, of whom, as I said, 800 are likely victims. Whether charges will result from those 17 arrests is something on which I cannot comment.

Photo of Lord Prescott Lord Prescott Labour

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the appalling level of these arrests and prosecutions reflects badly on the British press and was made possible only by the use of no-win no-cost litigation by those who were complainants, including me. Why are this Government in their legislation on legal aid quite prepared to meet the unanimous demands of the press that we reduce their costs in such situations and yet increase the costs of individual complainants and reduce their access to no-win no-cost litigation? Can he assure the House that those he has mentioned as having been arrested, including the Prime Minister's former adviser, Mr Coulson, played no part in changing the policy of the previous Government, who rejected the request from the media?

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley The Minister of State, Home Department

My Lords, I can agree with the noble Lord that this has not been the finest moment for the British press. His remarks about no win no fee go wider than the Question on the Order Paper, but that is a matter that we will obviously have to take into account. On the broader issue of phone hacking, phone hacking is obviously illegal, but we must await the outcome of the Leveson inquiry before we make any final decisions in this matter.

Photo of Lord Tebbit Lord Tebbit Conservative

My Lords, would it not be in the public interest for the press to publish, however they gained knowledge of it, activities by a Minister, in his working time and in his office, which were quite clearly contrary to all standards of decency and the Government's own code of conduct for Ministers?

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley The Minister of State, Home Department

My Lords, what the press publish is a matter for the press and not for us, but I note what my noble friend has to say about the activities of some people in the past. I repeat that we feel that we should wait until the inquiry being conducted by Lord Justice Leveson has been concluded.

Photo of Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Liberal Democrat

Does the Minister agree with the editor of Private Eye, who said at the Leveson inquiry yesterday that we do not need new laws to govern the press, that phone hacking, paying the police for evidence and being in contempt of court contravene existing laws, and that we need proper and vigorous enforcement of them?

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley The Minister of State, Home Department

My noble friend makes a very good point. All the matters she referred to are against the law, and we should always be very loath to pass new laws purely because we see a problem happening when there are existing laws that serve that purpose very well. The important matter is to make sure there is proper enforcement.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Shadow Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales)

My Lords, why was the Minister so reluctant to comment on that part of the question asked by his noble friend Lord Fowler about concentration of press ownership? I thought the Minister belonged to a Government who were showing some concern about the wilder excesses of capitalism. Is not excessive concentration of press ownership a clear illustration of that?

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley The Minister of State, Home Department

My Lords, I think some of the concentration of press ownership happened during the Government of whom the noble Lord was such a distinguished member in former years. I do not think it would be appropriate, as I said, to comment in advance of the inquiry that will be concluded in due course, in his time, by Lord Justice Leveson.

Photo of Lord Elystan-Morgan Lord Elystan-Morgan Crossbench

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House, in general terms, whether systems of state security dedicated to the surveillance of communications worldwide can cast any light at all on the question of phone hacking? If that is the case, subject to proper safeguards, can such information can be relayed to the Leveson inquiry?

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley The Minister of State, Home Department

My Lords, I am not sure I can assist the noble Lord on that latter point. I can say that my understanding is that it is relatively easy to hack into texts and voicemails on individuals' mobiles but very difficult to get into live calls on a mobile, which is something that only possibly the security services and others would be able to do. These things are possible but are much harder. In the main, we are talking about hacking into texts and voicemails.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Labour

Perhaps the noble Lord can help me in my ignorance. Can he say whether the Leveson inquiry's terms of remit cover the subject that was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, about the concentration of media ownership? If not, can he say what the Government will do about it?

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley The Minister of State, Home Department

My Lords, the terms of reference for Lord Justice Leveson were set very wide indeed and it will be for Lord Justice Leveson to produce his report in due course. The timing of that report is obviously a matter for Lord Justice Leveson.

Photo of Lord Inglewood Lord Inglewood Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee

Does my noble friend the Minister know whether the inquiries that the police made before the arrests that he described in response to my noble friend Lord Fowler's Question have been completed? If not, is there an anticipated timetable for completion?

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley The Minister of State, Home Department

Operation Weeting, which is one of the police investigations into the matter, is ongoing. As I made clear, there have been 17 arrests so far. There might be more in due course.

Photo of Lord Hamilton of Epsom Lord Hamilton of Epsom Conservative

Is my noble friend not concerned that the source of these telephone numbers in the beginning may have been the police themselves, who sold the numbers to the press?

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley The Minister of State, Home Department

My Lords, that obviously is a concern and is one of the matters that was considered in the report from Dame Elizabeth Filkin, which was published on 4 January this year. We expect the police service as a whole to study the recommendations of that report, and various other reports including that from HMIC, and draw the appropriate conclusions.

Photo of The Bishop of Chichester The Bishop of Chichester Bishop

My Lords, I appreciate that the question about the implications of the present Bill on legal aid was not in the original Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, but it seems a reasonable extension of it. Although I would not want to politicise the thing in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, did, it does seem there is a question about disproportionate power. It is not so much about the concentration of the power of capitalism as the concentration of power against the relative powerlessness of the individual. That does seem to be a legitimate extension of this and I would be grateful if the Minister could reflect on that.

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley The Minister of State, Home Department

My Lords, I did not think that the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, politicised this question unnecessarily and, similarly, I do not think that the right reverend Prelate has politicised it. However, I do think that does go beyond the Question on the Order Paper.