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Newspapers (Surveillance Methods)

Volume 495: debated on Thursday 9 July 2009

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the steps he is taking to look into the actions of the police, the prosecutors and the Information Commissioner in respect of the use by newspapers of illegal surveillance methods.

I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the hon. Gentleman’s question. I should first of all inform the House that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is today in Manchester at the Association of Chief Police Officers conference and is therefore unable to respond to the question himself.

The original allegations date back to 2006, following which, as the House will be aware, there were convictions. However, serious allegations have appeared in the newspapers this morning, which clearly go much wider than the original case. That is why I have spoken this morning to the assistant commissioner, specialist operations, John Yates, and why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has spoken to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner within the last hour. The Metropolitan police are urgently considering these allegations and will be making a statement this afternoon.

It would be wrong for me in any way to pre-empt that statement as this is first and foremost an operational matter for the Metropolitan police. However, I give an undertaking to the House that I will report back following the considerations by the Metropolitan police, when I can do so.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he accept that I am not relaxed, that I do not think the House is relaxed, and that neither are the public relaxed in any way about fears not only of surveillance by the Government, but now of surveillance by newspapers and their agents? Will he further accept that we all want to see healthy, responsible investigative journalism, especially in respect of public figures who wield power, but that it must be within the law and seen to be within the law, and it would be extremely toxic for our democracy if vested interests were seen to be able to in some way buy their way out of the criminal justice system? I would be grateful if the Minister kept the House informed of the actions he is taking.

As I have said, the allegations that have been made are serious and deserve examination, and the Metropolitan police will this afternoon be examining them. I will report back to the House in due course. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the law itself: unlawful interception is an offence under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. Where an individual intentionally intercepts a communication without lawful authority, that is punishable with a fine or a prison sentence of up to two years. He will also know that in the case considered two years ago, punishments were given. I will have to reflect on what the Metropolitan police are looking at this afternoon, and as I have said, I will report back to the House in due course.

There is no doubt that the story that appeared in this morning’s newspaper raised questions. We rightly cherish the freedom of the press in this country, but it is vital that that freedom is not abused. Journalists do, of course, need to be able to pursue stories that are in the public interest and to do their job free from interference, but they are also obliged both to obey the law and to conform to the Press Complaints Commission code, which sets the standards for their industry.

I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation about the Metropolitan police statement that is due later today, and for assuring the House he will bring back further reports in due course. Does he agree that it is important that everyone in this House gives a measured response on these issues and that we leave it to the police to decide whether there is any new information that warrants further action?

With due respect to the hon. Gentleman, it is not for me to give the reflections of the House as a whole; individual Members will make their judgments and give their views in due course. I have simply said to the House that these are serious allegations that need examining, and the Metropolitan police will examine them. I have spoken to the Metropolitan police this morning, as has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We await their investigation and examination, which is ongoing as we speak. They will be making a statement shortly—this afternoon—and I shall report back in due course on its implications. I can do no more, because investigating these issues is an operational matter for the police.

Of course everyone in this House will want to see investigations in the public interest, but investigations should not be undertaken merely to titillate the interests of the public. The public have a right to protection against illegal intrusion into their privacy, whether by the state or by private bodies such as newspapers. If, as is reported, more than 1,000 phone taps took place, it beggars belief that this involved just one journalist or that senior executives did not know what was happening—indeed, the allegation is clearly that senior executives on this newspaper did know. I welcome what the Minister has said, but does he not agree that it is extraordinary that the Leader of the Opposition, who wants to be a Prime Minister, employs Andy Coulson who, at best, was responsible for a newspaper that was out of control and, at worst, was personally implicated in criminal activity? The exact parallel is surely with Damian McBride. If the Prime Minister was right to sack him, should not the Leader of the Opposition sack Andy Coulson?

As I have said, the allegations relate to criminal offences and the police are examining those matters as we speak. The hon. Gentleman will know that there is legislation providing for a criminal offence to cover the allegations that have been made. I hope that he will accept that I can only respond in that way at this moment.

The Minister will recall that in evidence to my Select Committee’s inquiry into what happened to the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), senior officers of the Metropolitan police told us that as a matter of practice whenever an investigation involved a high-profile person, politicians, including the Home Secretary and other politicians, and the Metropolitan Police Authority, were informed. Will the Minister confirm that no Minister has ever been informed of any of these allegations until last night?

My understanding is that the Metropolitan police and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, like me, discovered these allegations on the production of the newspapers overnight and this morning.

The Minister will be aware that the fact that a private investigator had intercepted the telephone calls of a large number of people was well known at the time. He will also be aware that the chairman of News International gave a categoric assurance to my Select Committee that no other journalist, beyond Clive Goodman, had any involvement in or knowledge of that matter. Can the Minister say whether he is aware of any evidence to contradict that statement? When my Select Committee reopens its inquiry, as it has decided to do, will he ask the Metropolitan police to provide us with any information that they have that is relevant to this case?

The allegations came to light today, we are examining them with the Metropolitan police and I obviously concur with what the hon. Gentleman has said.

I hope that, again, my hon. Friend will recognise that those are allegations, the Metropolitan police will examine them and I will report back following their investigation.

The Minister cannot brush aside as an operational responsibility something for which the Home Secretary has responsibility. The allegation in The Guardian is that none of the many hundreds of people whose communications appear to have been intercepted were notified by the police that they were the victim of a crime. That is a matter for the Home Secretary, so can the Minister give an answer on that point?

Again, the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that these allegations have come to light this morning. We are examining them, as are the Metropolitan police, and I will report back to the House on the outcome of those examinations when I have an opportunity to do so. I cannot give him any comment today on the allegations, given where we are on the time scale since they became public.

Given the existence of the Wilson doctrine, may we have an assurance that no one involved in the surveillance of politicians has been given a parliamentary pass?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has confirmed the Wilson doctrine. We will have to look at the issues and the investigations. I cannot give my hon. Friend an answer on the point now, but it will be a matter for the police investigation, and if there are responsibilities for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, we will examine that.

Since the Leader of the House is on the Treasury Bench, and since she has a responsibility to the House as a whole, may we have an undertaking that consideration will be given to whether any breach of privilege arises on this occasion?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware that business questions follow these proceedings. My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House has indicated that she will consider those representations and will respond shortly.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) is right that this issue raises profound questions that go to the heart of our democracy. Even though Statutory Instrument No. 1677 gives greater resources to the Information Commissioner, may we be assured that he will have sufficient resources to undertake his part of what will be a difficult investigation?

As of this morning, my colleagues and I have not had an opportunity to speak to the Information Commissioner or the Crown Prosecution Service, which was mentioned in the original question from the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). We will examine those issues shortly.

It was my understanding that the inquiry into the bugging of the members of the royal family hinged on an inside employee of British Telecom giving out the numbers for celebrities and members of the royal household. Could the Minister give us some assurance that he is taking steps to ensure that telephone providers adhere to their data protection obligations so that we are all protected, as are other people?

Again, as with the serious allegations that have been made today, any such activity would constitute a potential criminal offence and would be investigated accordingly.

I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, and the Minister will agree that this is an extremely serious matter and that there are many avenues that the House and its Committees may wish to explore. For example, do Mr. Coulson and his employer, the Leader of the Opposition, stand by the comments that the former made to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in March 2003 that it is acceptable to make cash payments to police officers for private information? Why on earth did the Metropolitan police not properly investigate and prosecute those who were working for Mr. Coulson, who tapped the phones of Cabinet Ministers, Members of Parliament and other public figures?

I am afraid that I will sound repetitive, but the allegations that my hon. Friend makes are ones that the Metropolitan police are examining as we speak, as part of their efforts to uncover the truth of the matter. It is not for me to comment on those operational matters.

Many serious issues are raised by the allegations, and in Northern Ireland we are familiar with questions about phone tapping. However, in every case—unless, obviously, it was a police operation—the target of such surveillance was notified. May we have an assurance from the Minister that the issue of why people were not notified that they were being surveyed will come before the House and that a full explanation will be given?

I am confident that that is precisely the sort of issue on which we will reflect once we have discussed this matter further.

These allegations have serious implications for national security. If Cabinet members and the Deputy Prime Minister had their phones tapped, what did the Metropolitan police know? Were they aware of this, and if so, why did they not tell the Deputy Prime Minister and other senior Cabinet Ministers?

Again, the Metropolitan police commissioner and assistant commissioner are examining the issue at the moment to try to get to the truth of what occurred and the impact of those allegations. I await this afternoon’s statement with interest.

Are the Government satisfied with the measures that are in place to prevent illegal access to the police national computer? If, in the light of these allegations, they are not satisfied, what will they do about that?

I am confident that we have security of the police national computer. As with intercept information, there are offences that would involve potential criminal action in the event of activity being undertaken in that field.

Has the Minister noticed the relaxed attitude of Opposition Front Benchers in relation to this matter, which contrasts with the indignation that they showed when the police interfered and intervened in the office of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green)? Is it because they have something to hide, and is it because they are trying to hide Mr. Andy Coulson, who should be getting the sack?

My hon. Friend makes his points in his usual inimitable style, and I am sure the House will have noted them.

The allegations are that the phone tapping and hacking were widespread and that the people who were on the receiving end were not notified. Will the Minister now assure the House that those people who have been the subject of hacking or tapping will now be notified of the fact that they have been a victim?

Again, I think that the first duty of the Metropolitan police is to examine the issue. That is going on at the moment. There will be opportunities to look at some of the other consequences in due course and, as I have said, I will report back to the House on the matters flowing from this allegation today.

Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will remind the Metropolitan police and the Information Commissioner that the defence of “in the public interest” relates to something that is in the interest of the public body and not something that satisfies the curiosity of the public?

My hon. Friend has made a valid point. I am trying, given that we might have cases of criminal activity as a result of the investigation into these allegations, not to comment too much on these issues.

Whatever the operational decisions made by the Metropolitan police, will the Minister tell us what the Government’s policy is on informing people that they have been the subject of illegal surveillance? Is it the Government’s view that the principle should always be that those people should be notified? As a first step, will he tell us in his statement later this evening how many Members of Parliament and Ministers, according to the information held by the Met, were targeted as a result of the operation?

Again, I will report back to the House on these matters at an appropriate time. It might not be today, but we will look back on those issues in due course and I shall respond when the opportunity arises.

My right hon. Friend should be playing for England, so straight is his bat this morning. At 7 o’clock this morning, I saw a hunched figure with a suit-bag and a mobile phone crossing Speaker’s Yard. It was Mr. Andy Coulson. I thought that he was on the way out, having been fired. This is not now about him; it is about the judgment of the Leader of the Opposition in keeping him with a Commons pass. For the House of Commons—

Order. A number of other Members are standing whom I would like to try to get in. I must ask the right hon. Gentleman for a question.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is not a matter for a Metropolitan police statement this afternoon, and that the House of Commons must decide to set up its own inquiry to hear evidence under oath from all concerned—from the employees of this foreign national, who so instructed them, and from the police officers—to get to the bottom of this matter?

If the House of Commons wishes to look at those matters, that will be a matter for you, Mr. Speaker, and for the Leader of the House.

It seemed that the Minister was saying earlier that the Metropolitan police heard about these allegations only in the newspaper today. However, the Metropolitan police decided not to proceed. Who in the Metropolitan police decided not to take this matter further? Was it the last commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, or the deputy commissioner, or was the decision made lower down the food chain?

Again, the purpose of the Metropolitan police’s examination of this issue following my discussions with Mr. John Yates and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s discussions with the commissioner is to establish the facts. These allegations appeared overnight and this morning and they are now being investigated.

It is quite clear from the revelations in the newspapers this morning that there are also questions about the role of the Press Complaints Commission, which seems to have failed completely in its duty to protect the public and properly investigate this matter. Criminal activity was clearly involved in what it was investigating, but it failed to ask questions of the appropriate people to get the right answers. Will my right hon. Friend continue to investigate that issue, too?

I will draw those comments to the notice of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who has responsibility for these issues.

May I return to the very serious allegation about illicit accessing of the police national computer? It is one of the more serious aspects of the matter. Will the Minister use this opportunity to re-examine the measures in place to make sure that the integrity of the PNC is maintained?

Self-evidently, the integrity of the PNC is a matter of high importance for the Government. We will take all steps to ensure that it remains secure. In the light of the allegations, I shall be looking at whether further steps need to be taken.

Given Mr. Coulson’s dubious reputation, none of us on this side of the House can feel comfortable while he is around to wander the corridors here. While he is under suspicion, can we not at least take his pass away from him?

In response to an earlier question, the Minister said that the offence could be punishable by a fine or imprisonment. Some cases of hacking are not punishable by imprisonment. I believe that, in 2007, the Prime Minister was considering expanding the application of imprisonment for offences such as hacking into the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, but dropped the proposal after receiving a delegation from News International. Will the Minister look at the matter again to make sure that such hacking is an imprisonable offence?

I am not aware of the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman has outlined. As he knows, offences without lawful authority under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 are punishable with a fine or a prison sentence of up to two years. That penalty was delivered in the case of two years ago.