Skip to main content

Mobile Communications (Interception)

Volume 524: debated on Thursday 10 March 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Duddridge.)

I believe that, in accordance with Parliament-speak, this Adjournment debate has been entitled something like “The Interception of Mobile Telephony”, but in case anybody is in any doubt, it is about phone hacking. [Interruption.] That term covers a multitude of sins: tapping a telephone call or line; hacking into a phone’s operating system to access e-mails, text messages, contact details or— [Interruption.]

Order. I am very sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. The Adjournment debate is now taking place. If Members wish to have private conversations, they can do so in the Lobby. I would be very grateful if they would not do so in the Chamber.

You are very naughty boys.

As I was saying, the term phone hacking includes hacking into a phone’s operating system to access e-mails, text messages, contact details or a record of mobile internet searches, and the interception of mobile phone messages either before or after the person for whom they were intended has accessed them. These are not just sins, of course; they are offences under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Computer Misuse Act 1990.

There are other dark arts: ringing an office and pretending to have to deliver a parcel to someone’s home address and thereby fraudulently getting the home address; ringing a phone call centre and pretending to be a client so as to get a personal identification number to be able later to listen to, or change, somebody’s messages; and blagging a doctor’s receptionist into giving highly personal information about an appointment or medication or other treatment. Interestingly, one expert concluded only two days ago that roughly 60% of doctors’ surgeries in England are completely incapable of protecting patients’ privacy in this kind of situation.

All those dark arts were part of the systematic modus operandi of the News of the World for a sustained period. Evidence already in the public domain shows that that period extended at least from 2003 to 2006, when Andy Coulson was the editor of the newspaper. Recent evidence also suggests that it continued long after Coulson had left, and that between June 2009 and March 2010 a News of the World journalist called Dan Evans was accessing or attempting to access the phone messages of Kelly Hoppen. I believe that the practice started earlier than 2003; I believe it started in 2002, under the editorship of the then Rebekah Wade, now Rebekah Brooks, and I believe that evidence will very soon prove that to be the case. I find it absolutely extraordinary that Rebekah Brooks has, thus far, refused point blank to appear before the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. I very much hope that in future deliberations that Committee will insist, if necessary by a motion of this House, that she be forced to appear before it.

This activity was not confined to the News of the World alone. I understand that there is now clear evidence that at least one journalist at The Sunday Times was also involved. For a long time, though, News International tried to maintain that just one rogue reporter at the News of the World was involved: Clive Goodman, the royal correspondent. News International could not explain why a royal correspondent would have been interested in the messages of the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) or Sienna Miller, as they are not notable members of the royal family, but it was assisted in its argument by the Metropolitan police. Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman, who was formerly in charge of the investigation, said that there were “perhaps a handful” of hacking victims, and his successor, John Yates, maintained time and again that there were very few victims. Indeed, as late as late last year several possible victims were told directly by the Metropolitan police that there was “little or no” evidence of hacking in their case.

Of course we now know that to be completely and utterly untrue. Indeed, the head of the new investigation, appointed this January, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, has said explicitly that

“this has now proved to be false, and represents an important and immediate new line of inquiry.”

The allegation that there were only “perhaps a handful” of hacking victims is countered by the fact that I could name—I am not going to do so today—at least eight Members of the House of Commons who have been informed directly by the Metropolitan police that not only were they a person of interest to Mr Mulcaire, but there may have been interception of their messages.

There are very serious issues here. On the face of it, at least, the relationship between the Metropolitan police and the News of the World is remarkably and, I would argue, dangerously close. The former editor of The Sun and the News of the World, Rebekah Brooks, has openly confessed that she has paid police officers for information—in other words, bribed the police—and there has been no investigation whatever. Andy Hayman, who once led the News of the World investigation at the Metropolitan police, has ended up on the News International payroll. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner and other senior Met officers dined with senior executives at the News of the World both while the investigation was ongoing and when there were calls that the investigation be reopened. Indeed, Sir Paul Stephenson met Neil Wallis of the News of the World in September 2006, only a month after counter-terrorism officers arrested Mulcaire and Goodman. There were 12 other private dinners and social engagements, including an invitation for Sir Paul to attend the News Corporation summer party. And in 2009, Deputy Commissioner John Yates had dinner with the editor of the News of the World, Colin Myler, just when he was refusing calls for the investigation to be reopened. That was at best ill-advised; at worst, fairly or unfairly, it smacks of collusion.

One day there will have to be a full investigation into why the Met’s original investigation was so cursory. Was it laziness that meant people simply could not be bothered to wade through the material gathered from Glenn Mulcaire in 2006? Was it because of the closeness of senior officers to the newspaper? Was it just too ready an acceptance of News International’s word, or did the News of the World have something on some of the people involved in the investigation? Or was it a mistaken understanding of the law, deliberate or accidental?

That takes me to the evidence that John Yates gave to the Select Committee on Home Affairs in September 2010, in which he said that

“hacking is defined in a very prescriptive way by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and it’s very, very prescriptive and it’s very difficult to prove…There are very few offences that we are able to actually prove that have been hacked. That is, intercepting the voicemail prior to the owner of that voicemail intercepting it him or herself.”

That point at the end is very important:

“intercepting the voicemail prior to the owner of that voicemail intercepting it him or herself.”

On that basis—and only on that basis—Yates asserted that there were really only eight to 12 victims.

It has now emerged, however, that never at any stage during the prosecution of Goodman and Mulcaire did anybody from the Crown Prosecution Service advise the Metropolitan police that the law should be interpreted in such a way, and never at any stage in the prosecution was that interpretation relied on. Indeed, the Director of Public Prosecutions said in his evidence:

“First, the prosecution did not in its charges or presentation of the facts attach any legal significance to the distinction between messages which had been listened to and messages which had not. Secondly, the prosecution not having made the distinction, the defence did not raise any legal arguments in respect of the issue, and pleaded guilty.”

Furthermore, I understand that on 1 October last year a team from the CPS held a meeting with a team from the Metropolitan police and formally warned them it was wrong to claim such an interpretation. Scotland Yard, therefore, has known for more than five months that the evidence given by Yates to the two Select Committees was misleading—not on a minor point, but on the most substantial point of all, as it is directly linked to the question of how many victims there are in the affair and whether there should or should not be a further investigation or a reopening of the investigation. Indeed, that was the very reason—and the only reason—why the Metropolitan police refused point blank to reopen the case until January of this year.

Let me be clear. I am delighted that the Met has reopened the investigation. I am glad that additional information has now been gathered from other sources, but what still astounds and infuriates me is that in many cases the Met already had all the information it needed—reams and reams of notes taken by Mr Mulcaire with 91 personal identification numbers, copious invoices, pages devoted to individual targets with thousands of linked phone numbers, many of them garnered illicitly, and quite often the name of a commissioning journalist or executive. Indeed, some of us have been shown the material that was gathered from Mr Mulcaire in 2006, which has been sitting in the Metropolitan police’s vaults ever since, that relates directly to us.

In other words, the Met had many of the dots—it just failed or refused to join them up. Let us take one example. On 2 September 2009, Mike Hall, former MP for Weaver Vale, directly asked Mr Yates,

“was John Prescott’s phone actually tapped or not?”

Yates answered:

“No. As I said on the day, there is no evidence it was.’

Yates also told the Home Affairs Committee on 7 September 2010—just a few months ago—that Lord Prescott

“has never been hacked to my knowledge and there is no evidence that he has.”

Yet now Lord Prescott has been told that that evidence exists and always has existed. We now know that the evidence given to the Committee was completely disingenuous.

Yates misled the Committee, whether deliberately or inadvertently. He used an argument that had never been relied on by the CPS or by his own officers so as to suggest that the number of victims was minuscule, whereas in fact we know and he knew that the number of potential victims is and was substantial. What was lacking was not possible avenues of investigation, but the will to pursue them.

What is depressing is how closely all that accords with the line spun by News International. When the Chairman of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport Committee asked Les Hinton:

“You carried out a full, rigorous internal inquiry, and you are absolutely convinced that Clive Goodman was the only person who knew what was going on?”,

Les Hinton replied:

“Yes, we have and I believe he was the only person”.

There simply has not been a full or rigorous investigation. I do not know why, although I could speculate, but I hope that one day we shall all know.

There is also the matter of the mobile phone companies, each of which has operated a slightly different system regarding mobile phone messages. There is clear evidence that in some cases rogue staff members sold information to investigators and reporters. In other cases, companies spotted that a client’s phone had been compromised but failed to notify the client. Indeed, one Select Committee report noted that Vodafone sometimes notified people, O2 mostly notified people but Orange never did. When I asked Orange yesterday whether it would notify a client if their phone was hacked into now, it said it did not know. However, I understand that today it believes that in certain circumstances it might notify a client. I believe that in every such circumstance the client should be notified when there has been a problem. All that suggests a rather slapdash approach towards the security of mobile telephony.

This has been a many layered scandal, but at the heart of the issue is the rationale behind the whole modus operandi at the News of the World and other newspapers. As one police officer put it to me, the newspapers involved deliberately sought to harass, intimidate and bully people for their own commercial interests. In the pursuit of their victims they were reckless about the innocent bystanders whose personal messages were intercepted, transcribed and relayed to others.

Almost as bad as the original illegal activity—only the tip of which we have yet seen—has been the cover-up. Other Members and former Members of the House have said they were warned off pushing the issue in the House and in Select Committees. When I raised the question of parliamentary privilege in the House last September, my friends were told by a senior figure allied to Rupert Murdoch and a former executive of News International to warn me that it would not be forgotten. What is truly shameful is the fact that the full extent of all this is coming to light now only because individuals have taken private civil actions, often at great expense, against the News of the World, News International or the Metropolitan police.

I praise the investigation that has now begun and I trust that the deputy assistant commissioner will follow where the evidence leads. I only wish that her predecessor had done the same. I suspect that even hardened cynics will be shocked when they know the full extent of the operation that went on, but I praise those who have taken courageous action in the courts, especially Sienna Miller and Kelly Hoppen.

There are many unanswered questions. Why was it left to the News of the World to do its own internal investigation and, in particular, why did the News of the World rather than the Metropolitan police impound Ian Edmondson’s computer? How did e-mails relating to Ian Edmondson that were not available a year ago suddenly become available once he was implicated in Mulcaire’s papers relating to Siena Miller, which the Met had had in its possession for at least four years? Why were key figures at the News of the World, including Neville Thurlbeck, not interviewed by the police? Why did the Met choose a narrow, false interpretation of the law on interception? How many journalists commissioned Glenn Mulcaire’s illegal activity? How many senior executives at News International were aware of what was going on on their watch? Were Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson, Les Hinton and Neil Wallis aware? For four years now, the argument from the Met and the News of the World has been consistent: there was just one rogue reporter, there were very few victims, it is very difficult to prove anything and every avenue of investigation was pursued. Every shred of that argument is now in tatters.

I fully understand that there will be people who think none of this matters, and that it is just a storm in a metropolitan teacup, but the freedom of the press is far too important and was won too hard to be sullied by such illegal activity. Investigative journalism is so important in uncovering malfeasance that it is vital readers know that the stories they read are properly, reliably and legally sourced.

In the end this is about who runs Britain. Are the press above the law or subject to it? Is the law there to protect the press or to pursue every avenue of investigation? In time, I suspect we shall see that this has been a full-blown, copper-bottomed scandal.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing the debate. He has a keen personal interest in the issues raised, as he has highlighted; indeed, I am aware that many Members share that interest.

The issue of phone hacking is undoubtedly one that Members on both sides of the House regard as extremely important. As well as the original investigation by the Metropolitan police, which resulted in the prosecution and conviction of Clive Goodman, the royal editor of the News of the World, and a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, there has been a separate review by the Metropolitan police, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Crown Prosecution Service. The matter has previously been the subject of consideration by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. It is also the subject of current inquiries by both the Home Affairs Committee and the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

Such a degree of interest is understandable. The Government fully agree that the prospect of journalists, or anyone else, unlawfully hacking into and listening to people’s private conversations is an extremely serious matter that needs to be treated accordingly. In its plainest terms phone hacking is unlawful and should not occur. Any interception of communications is a very serious invasion of privacy. No activity of that nature would ever be taken lightly by the state itself.

Interception is of course a potentially powerful tool for combating terrorism and serious crime, but the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which governs lawful interception and its oversight, allows only a very small number of intelligence and law enforcement agencies to apply for warrants to undertake such steps. The warrants can be issued only by the Secretary of State and for very limited purposes, including preventing or detecting serious crime and the interests of national security.

The checks and balances that have been established underline how serious a step it is to contemplate interfering with private communications, even when such action is designed to protect the public and prevent harm or detect wrongdoing. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary devotes a great deal of her time to scrutinising warrant applications under RIPA for the security services and police to interfere with the communications of serious criminals and terrorists.

There is no place for indiscriminate and unauthorised interception. Such activity, which includes the so-called hacking of voice messages, is an offence under RIPA and carries a penalty of two years’ imprisonment. In addition, and of growing relevance as technology advances, the Computer Misuse Act 1990 created other offences relating to the unauthorised accessing of data. They include unauthorised access to a computer to look at information, for which the penalty is up to two years’ imprisonment, and accessing a computer in order to commit other crimes, such as stealing data, for which the penalty is up to five years’ imprisonment.

Personal data are also protected under the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998, and unlawfully obtaining personal data is also an offence under that Act. There can thus be no doubt that the intention of Parliament is that an individual’s personal and private data should be properly protected.

When there is reason to suspect that any of the provisions protecting personal data may have been breached, it is quite rightly a matter for the police to consider and investigate. Police investigations are operational matters, and it is for the relevant police force to decide whether and how best to approach any such investigation, in consultation as necessary with the Crown Prosecution Service.

It has been suggested that the original investigation by the Metropolitan police was inadequate, but I remind the House that the investigation did result in the prosecution and conviction of two individuals. In dealing with that investigation, the police worked closely with the Crown Prosecution Service to determine the best approach to the case and prosecution. Those decisions were subsequently reviewed. The police made it clear that the investigation was technical and complex. They also undertook to consider any fresh information and evidence that might shed any new light on the case. As the Director of Public Prosecutions made clear in December 2010, for a prosecution to be taken forward it is necessary for there to be credible evidence and individuals prepared to testify to it.

Fresh information has recently been made available to the police and a new investigation is under way, as the House is well aware. It is important that that investigation be allowed to proceed without hindrance. It would not be appropriate for me to speculate or comment on the details at this stage, but the Metropolitan police have made it clear that it is to be a thorough and most robust investigation. It is being carried out by a fresh team within the Metropolitan police. The officer in charge, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, released a statement on 9 February, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, in which she made it clear that the Metropolitan police were

“determined to ensure that we conduct a robust and thorough investigation which will follow the evidence trail to its conclusion.”

I have full confidence in Sue Akers because everything I have seen shows that she is doing the job that should have been done previously, and I do not underestimate the difficulty of that job. The Minister said—it is an argument that has been adduced by others, and Mr Yates in particular—that new evidence has been provided, but that is not actually true. The only reason there was new evidence in relation to Ian Edmondson is that the papers relating to Sienna Miller, which mentioned Mr Edmondson, were finally wrested from the hands of the police by Sienna Miller in a civil court case. That is the scandal.

All those issues relating to the investigation will undoubtedly be examined by Sue Akers and the Metropolitan police as part of their ongoing investigation. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Director of Public Prosecutions has also instigated an independent review of all the original evidence held by the Metropolitan police, including that not originally given to the Crown Prosecution Service in connection with the original case.

That review will consider whether there is any material that could form evidence in any future criminal prosecution. It is important that the police are able to focus fully on this new investigation and pursue any new avenues of inquiry as necessary. The most appropriate course is therefore to await the outcome of the investigation, rather than speculating further at this stage on particular aspects.

I am sure that the whole House will agree that a free press is a fundamental hallmark of our democracy, but that does not mean that the media are above the law—they are bound by it in precisely the same way as any other individual. Any breaches of that law are punishable through the courts in the normal way. With freedom comes responsibility. The press have their own set of guidelines set out in the press code of practice, which contains a clause forbidding the acquisition and publication of material by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or e-mails. The media must adhere to those standards of conduct. I would also say that the defence of activity being in the public interest is not the same as what may interest the public.

The media’s conduct in relation to the code of practice is overseen and enforced by the Press Complaints Commission. The commission is independent from the newspaper industry, with commission members appointed by an independent appointments commission and with an in-built majority of lay members. It is also, rightly, independent of the Government. We of course recognise that these arrangements and the industry’s system of self-regulation are not perfect and are sometimes breached. However, overall we believe that the PCC acts as an effective check on the industry and in reinforcing the standards expected.

The PCC recently announced that it has set up a working group to look at new evidence as it becomes known, and it is examining its own role and actions in relation to the issue as it has unfolded. The committee will comprise the two lay commissioners who joined most recently, in 2010, both of whom are experts in relevant legal fields: Ian Walden, professor of information and communications law at Queen Mary, university of London; and Julie Spence, a former chief constable of Cambridgeshire police. There will be one editorial commissioner, John McLellan, the editor of The Scotsman.

Despite some undoubted lapses in the standards that we expect of the media according to the principles of its own code, overall we believe that further regulation of the industry is neither necessary nor appropriate. We will, however, continue to keep the issue under review.

On the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the mobile phone companies, mobile network operators offer a range of advice and services on keeping personal details secure at all times. Some send an automatic message if a PIN number is incorrectly entered, or they may suspend services until the legitimate owner of the account authenticates their identity. The Information Commissioner has been working with service providers to consider the safeguards available, and he will include advice on that in his next set of guidance.

As I said at the outset, I recognise that the matter continues to command a great deal of interest. That is why it is already under detailed scrutiny. In addition to the current police investigation, the Director of Public Prosecutions has instigated a review by Alison Levitt, QC, of all available evidence—not just that passed to the Crown Prosecution Service in connection with the original prosecutions. She has been asked to take a robust approach to assessing the evidence, advising whether the Metropolitan Police Service should carry out any further investigation or whether any prosecutions can be brought. She will also advise on the new investigation.

The Home Affairs Committee is conducting an inquiry into phone hacking, as is the Standards and Privileges Committee, and, as I have said, the Press Complaints Commission has announced its own review of the emerging information. As the hon. Gentleman noted, other cases are being brought by individuals who believe that they might have been subject to hacking, and they are currently before the courts. Each process has its own proper procedures for looking into the detail of the allegations and its own course to run.

The Government and the whole country take the issue of phone hacking extremely seriously: the intrusion of privacy, the attempt illegally to use private conversations for financial gain and the compromising of individual rights—we consider all those abhorrent. Although two individuals have already been convicted and jailed in relation to the case, it is possible that as a result of the new police investigation others will be prosecuted.

I remind the House that the Government have no involvement in decisions to charge or to prosecute individuals, and I am sure the whole House will agree that, in a free society, that is entirely right and proper. The right course of action for the Government is to await the outcome of the new police investigation, and that is exactly what we will do.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.