Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
We come now to the emergency debate on phone hacking at the News of the World. The House will observe that in light of the level of interest, I have, at this stage, imposed a seven-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions which is scheduled to take effect after the contributions from the Front Bench—from the Minister and the shadow Minister—and obviously after the opening contribution of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). I simply make the point that that limit will be reviewable depending upon the length of early contributions to the debate.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of whether there should be a public inquiry into the phone hacking at the News of the World; and the conduct of the Metropolitan Police Service between 2006 and 2011.
At 8.50 am tomorrow, it will be six years since the London bombings, which saw 52 people murdered and 700 injured. Today we hear that the police are investigating whether the mobile phones of several of those who lost family members in those attacks were hacked by the News of the World. One such family member spoke—very movingly, I thought—on the “Today” programme this morning. Another has been in touch with me and there may be several others. In addition, I am told that the police are looking not just at Milly Dowler’s phone and the phones of the families of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, but at the case of Madeleine McCann and of 15-year-old Danielle Jones, who was abducted and murdered in Essex in 2001 by her uncle, Stuart Campbell.
The charge sheet is even longer, unfortunately. I am told that the News of the World also hacked the phones of police officers, including those investigating the still unsolved murder of Daniel Morgan. This is particularly worrying considering the collapse of the long-delayed trial of the private investigator, Jonathan Rees, who also worked for newspapers, earlier this year. Scandalously, it also seems that the News of the World targeted some of those police officers who were, at various times, in charge of the investigation into the News of the World itself. We can only speculate, Mr Speaker, on why they would want to do that.
These are not just the amoral actions of some lone private investigator tied to a rogue News of the World reporter; they are the immoral and almost certainly criminal deeds of an organisation that was appallingly led and had completely lost sight of any idea of decency or shared humanity. The private voicemail messages of victims of crime should never, ever have become a commodity to be traded between journalists and private investigators for a cheap story and a quick sale, and I know that the vast majority of journalists in this country would agree with that.
If we want to understand the complete moral failure here, we need only listen to the words of Mr Glenn Mulcaire himself:
“Working for the News of the World was never easy. There was relentless pressure. There was a constant demand for results. I knew what we did pushed the limits ethically. But, at the time, I didn’t understand that I had broken the law at all”.
To be honest, the ethics are the big issue here, just as much as whether the law was broken. The journalists and the private investigators should be ashamed of what happened. But so, too, should those who ran the newspaper. It is simply no excuse to say they did not know what was going on. Managerial and executive negligence is tantamount to complicity in this case. I believe that if Rebekah Brooks had a single shred of decency, she would now resign. God knows, if a Minister were in the spotlight at the moment, she would be demanding their head on a plate.
Let me be clear, though. The News of the World is not the only magician practising the dark arts. In 2006, the Information Commissioner produced a devastating report, “What price privacy now?”, which detailed literally hundreds—in fact, thousands—of dubious or criminal acts by journalists or agents of national newspapers: illegally obtaining driving licence details, illegal criminal records or vehicle registration searches, telephone reverse traces and mobile telephone conversions. He listed 1,218 instances at the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday alone, 802 at The People and—I say sadly as a Labour Member—681 at the Daily Mirror. Earlier this year, the new Information Commissioner revealed that many patients’ records held by the NHS are far from secure from the prying eyes of journalists. That is the most private information possible about members of the public.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that I share with him—indeed, I have debated it with him across the Floor of the House—an appreciation of the Information Commissioner’s excellent report, “What price privacy now?”? Does he also agree that, regardless of party politics, it is shameful that the Government of the day did not take action when that report was published in the first place?
I will come on later to make some remarks, with which I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree, about how we have all failed in this process. I believe that the whole political system has failed in this. I take my own share of the blame for that. I asked Rebekah Wade questions about this a long time ago, but in the end the whole of the political system in this country did not take action. Now is our chance to do so.
I am not keen to give way too often, as I am aware that many others want to speak.
This issue is not just about what went on at the News of the World; it is also about the behaviour of the Metropolitan police. In the course of the limited investigation of 2006, which led to the conviction of Glenn Mulcaire and Clive Goodman, the police secured a vast amount of information. They could have—and, I believe, should have—interrogated that information so that it became evidence. They could have approached all those affected. They could have contacted the mobile phone companies to ensure their customers were better protected. Unfortunately, they did none of those things.
My hon. Friend may recall that as Police Minister at the time, I answered an urgent question on 9 July 2009, and put down a written ministerial statement on 14 July and again on 21 July in good faith. Included in one of the ministerial statements was this comment made by the Metropolitan police:
“The Metropolitan Police has also confirmed that it does not consider that there is anything else substantive in relation to additional evidence or information that would justify it re-opening the original investigation.”—[Official Report, 14 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 11WS.]
Uncomfortable though that might be for the police—and, possibly, for myself and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), who was Home Secretary at the time—does that not justify having an investigation of the police performance at that time?
It pains me to say this as well, but the honest truth is that a lot of lies have been told to a lot of people. When police officers tell lies or at least half-truths to Ministers of the Crown so that Parliament ends up being misled, I think it amounts to a major constitutional issue for us to face. I hope that there will end up being a full investigation into that element and that we will come to the truth, but at the moment what hangs around is a very dirty smell. We need the Metropolitan police to be trusted—not just in London but across the whole of the United Kingdom. That is why we need to fight on this issue.
Did the reason that nothing happened have anything to do with the closeness between the Metropolitan police and the News of the World? After all, we know for a fact that Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman, who was in charge of the investigation into the News of the World, now works for News International. We know that senior officers were wined and dined by senior News of the World executives at the very time, and occasionally on the very day, when they were making key decisions about whether any further investigation should proceed against that organisation. And we know that the News of the World paid police officers for information.
I say that categorically because, on 11 March 2003, in the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, I asked Rebekah Wade, as she then was—Rebekah Brooks, as she now is—whether she had paid police officers for information. She said:
“We have paid the police for information in the past.”
“And will you do it in the future?”
She replied: “It depends.” Andy Coulson, who was sitting next to her, said:
“We operate within the code and within the law and if there is a clear public interest then we will.”
“It is illegal for police officers to receive payments.”
Mr Coulson said:
“No. I just said, within the law.”
I do not believe that it is possible to pay police officers “within the law.” That is suborning police officers, it is corruption, and it should stop.
In April this year, Rebekah Brooks was asked by the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs to clarify exactly what she had meant. She replied:
“As can be seen from the transcript, I was responding to a specific line of questioning on how newspapers get information. My intention was simply to comment generally on the widely-held belief that payments had been made in the past to police officers. If, in doing so, I gave the impression that I had knowledge of any specific cases, I can assure you that this was not my intention.”
[Laughter.] I see that the Attorney-General himself is smiling.
Even more worryingly, as we discovered only last night, News International has handed over copies of documents that appear to show that former editor Andy Coulson authorised a series of payments to police officers running into tens of thousands of pounds. That is News International saying, “Yeah but no but yeah but…” . The truth is, however, that News International was doing it, and cannot be allowed to get away with it. I know that the News of the World seems to be hanging Andy Coulson out to dry, but surely the buck stops at the top, and that is the chief executive.
As I shall try to prove in my next few remarks, I think that that is absolutely essential. My hope is that people who committed criminality at the News of the World will end up going to prison. The last thing I want is for the debate, or any inquiry, to hamper the police investigation or any possible prosecution. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about that.
I will not, if Members do not mind. Many others wish to speak.
I know that there are those who argue that there cannot be a public inquiry during an ongoing investigation—and I noted the Prime Minister’s earlier comments, when he seemed to vacillate in relation to when that process could or could not start—but I think they are wrong. Indeed, I consider it vital for the police investigation to be supplemented by a public inquiry. First, some of the issues that need to be addressed may not be criminal, but they do strike at the heart of what an ethical code for the media should look like in this country. Secondly, although I have confidence in the officers who are conducting the Weeting investigation, I fear that the rug could be pulled from under their feet at any moment, and there is no certainty about when their investigations will be completed. By the time they are done, many of those involved may have left the scene or, more worryingly, shredded the evidence—or, of course, discovered selective amnesia.
That is why it is vital that an inquiry be set up as soon as possible and as soon as practicable, led by a judge with full powers to summon witnesses who must give evidence under oath. Of course the inquiry should not sit in public until the investigations are complete—I hope that that answers the question asked by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith)—but an astute judge can easily manage the relationship between a police investigation and an inquiry, prepare evidence, and secure witnesses without compromising any criminal investigation or prosecution.
I am confident that the Prime Minister agrees with that. After all—as was mentioned earlier—a year ago today he announced an inquiry, to be led by Sir Peter Gibson, into allegations of the torture of detainees. He appointed two other members to it, and said that he hoped it would start by the end of last year and be completed within a year. Indeed, he expressly pointed out that he was setting up the inquiry despite the fact that criminal investigations were still ongoing. My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), the former Lord Chancellor—and Foreign Secretary, and holder of many other posts besides—has received a letter about the Gibson inquiry which makes the position very clear. It states:
“The Inquiry has not yet started as we are still awaiting the conclusion of two related police investigations into the Security Service and SIS.”
None the less, says the letter, “preparatory matters” are in hand. That is precisely what I believe should happen in this case.
The inquiry into the torture allegations, led by Sir Peter Gibson—himself a former senior judge—has already been able to do a huge amount of work in private, so that if and when the police investigations and any proceedings that follow it are completed, the public part of the inquiry can start immediately.
The hon. Gentleman has taken the wind out of my sails in one respect. I was going to agree with him that it was possible to set up an inquiry. However, I am sure he will appreciate that it becomes extremely difficult for an inquiry to take any evidence while criminal proceedings may still be taking place. That is obviously one reason why the Gibson inquiry has not yet begun its work, which it was hoped would start at the end of last year. I certainly note the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the possibility of setting up an inquiry, but it may not make much progress until the criminal investigations are over.
I am grateful to the Attorney-General for the way in which he has expressed himself. That is, in fact, a big concession. I think it important for us to make progress, not least because I think that the police themselves would like the sword of Damocles to hang over their necks, so that they know they must proceed and proceed apace. Also, when it comes to an inquiry—especially in this case—they sometimes have to look through the historiography of all the different documentation, and it is important to ensure that that is garnered now, privately.
I see no reason—other than a lack of will, or fear of what it might unveil—for the Government not to set up an inquiry, establish its terms of reference, and appoint its membership immediately.
I am extremely sympathetic to the position adopted by the hon. Gentleman, but an inquiry of the kind that he suggests would necessarily require any individual whose interest was affected by it to be legally represented, and any such individual would have to be advised that he or she need not answer any question that might incriminate him or her. Were criminal proceedings to be completed, there would be no such opportunity for witnesses to refuse to answer questions.
I accept the tone of the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s remarks, but I think that we have hesitated for too long. It is not that I want to rush to summary justice, but I do want to ensure that justice ends up being done. Documents could be seized now, and material could be tied down. Of course, many elements of the form that the inquiry would take need to be hammered out, and I suggest that the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition could have fruitful discussions to ensure that that is possible.
I also believe that we need a public inquiry because Parliament—which has conducted its own Select Committee inquiries under the excellent chairmanship of the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz)—has been systematically lied to throughout the process. The list of lies is, I am afraid, endless.
News International claimed that the phone hacking only started in 2004, but we now know for certain of instances relating to 2003 and 2002. News International claimed that it had run a full internal investigation. It is patently clear that if it did, it hid stuff from the police, and that otherwise it did not. News International claimed that it had always helped the police, but only private civil cases pursued by some brave individuals have forced its hand.
The police claimed that they had notified all the victims, and that specifically named people were not victims. We now know that not all the victims were contacted, and that some people who had expressly been told that they were not victims were victims. I think that even Assistant Commissioner John Yates now accepts that he has misled Parliament because he briefed The Independent on Sunday that he was furious at the “inadequate” and “unprofessional” research of those beneath him with the result that some of his public statements at the time were at odds with what has subsequently emerged. I am sorry, but leadership does not involve the leader being rude about their staff; it involves them taking responsibility for what they say to Parliament, and if they have misled Parliament, they should resign.
My hon. Friend was an excellent witness when he came and gave evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs. However, the point is this: if a witness refuses to appear, it is very difficult to start the process of getting them before a Select Committee. A wider inquiry would have more powers than even a Select Committee.
That is my next sentence.
Many people out in the wider world may not care much whether Parliament is lied to—although I think we should—but this House came into existence to hold what was then the sole power in the land, the Crown and then the Government, to account. Where we now fail often, and sometimes miserably, is in holding the other powers in the land to account. We must do that properly from now on, and this is one such instance. We politicians have colluded for far too long with the media: we rely on them, we seek their favour, and we live and we die politically because of what they write and what they show, and sometimes that means we lack the courage or the spine to stand up when wrong has occurred.
We have let the Press Complaints Commission delude us into thinking that it is genuinely independent and has a bite that everybody is frightened of. Sometimes, we may even have fallen for the threats that have been made when we have spoken out. I know of several Members who have led this debate who have received threats.
We have let one man have far too great a sway over our national life. At least Berlusconi lives in Italy, but Murdoch is not resident in this country; he does not pay tax here and has never appeared before a Select Committee of this House. No other country would allow one man to garner four national newspapers, to be the second largest broadcaster, and to have a monopoly on sports rights and first-view movies. America, the home of the aggressive entrepreneur, does not allow that, and we should not.
Of course the proposed takeover of BSkyB should be put on ice while the police investigation is ongoing. The executive and non-executive directors have completely failed in their legal duty to tackle criminality in the company in question, and it must surely be in doubt, at least, whether some of them are fit and proper people to run a media company.
There are many other questions. Who is paying Glenn Mulcaire’s legal fees now? Is News International paying them? Was Clive Goodman paid off handsomely when he came out of prison? What did Rebekah Wade, Andy Coulson and Les Hinton know, and when did they know it? Why has so much material suddenly appeared in News International’s archives? I do not want to be partisan but there is one remaining question: did the Prime Minister ever ask Andy Coulson what really went on at the News of the World before he appointed him to work, on the taxpayers’ bill, at No. 10 Downing street?
I hope that those who broke the law at the News of the World and those who covered it up will be brought to justice. I hope the Metropolitan police’s now tarnished reputation will be restored. I hope the victims, especially the ordinary members of the public who were targeted, will get justice as well. I hope we will all get to know the truth, but even more importantly than all of this, I hope that the British media, who for so long have had a worldwide renown for craftsmanship, for tough intelligence and for robust investigative journalism, will rediscover their true vocation: to bring the truth to light truthfully, honestly, and legally. None of that will happen until we establish the whole unvarnished truth, and that, I believe, needs a public inquiry, and it needs it now.
First, may I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on having secured this debate and thank him, on behalf of the House and on my own behalf, for his courage in raising these matters today? I am absolutely sure that the whole House shares his anxiety, shock and concern about the allegations that have arisen over the last couple of days in relation to phone hacking, just as we share his concern over the past allegations of phone hacking and many of the other matters he raised in his powerful speech.
The suggestion that has now emerged that the phones of Milly Dowler and some of the victims of the 7 July bombings were hacked into must fill any right-thinking person with revulsion, but I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for the fact that, by virtue of being a Minister of the Crown, I am of necessity rather more circumscribed in what I can say at this Dispatch Box than he is in initiating this debate. I must, of necessity, be quite brief, because many of the issues he raised are of a rather delicate nature in view of the fact that criminal investigations are taking place. I shall come back to that in a moment.
Phone hacking is a serious crime and, as the House will be aware, the courts have previously imposed custodial sentences in two cases where it has occurred. The current police investigation is following further evidence, and the most recent allegations, to which we have referred, are being considered as part of that investigation.
It is precisely because of the gravity of the allegations now being made that the Prime Minister announced only a short time ago that there would be a fully independent public inquiry, or set of inquiries, into these matters, but that must not jeopardise any criminal investigation. It is therefore likely that much of the work of the inquiry will be able to start only once the police investigation and any prosecutions that might result from it are concluded. I say that while being mindful of the comments that have been made in the debate that it may be possible to move forward in some areas but not in others. Nevertheless, the burning desire of many people to see finality in this matter and truth to be revealed may take some time because of that, as I am sure the House will appreciate.
In the meantime, however, the Government will do all they can to progress matters further, such as by consulting on appropriate terms of reference, the composition of an inquiry, and whether there should be one inquiry or more than one. The House must bear in mind the fact that there are some very different issues to be considered here. The hon. Gentleman has raised issues about the conduct of the police, for example, and there are also issues about the conduct of the media. There will therefore doubtless be questions as to whether the consideration of these issues can best be merged into one inquiry or should be addressed separately. I merely highlight that point. There is an intention for there to be proper consultation on how to proceed.
The situation now appears to be that News International is investigating News International and the Metropolitan police are investigating the Metropolitan police. For public confidence, is there not a case to be made for at least some kind of independent supervision, perhaps by a different police force, into the Metropolitan police investigation, so that we can be satisfied that we really are getting to the heart of this matter? I have great confidence in the Met, but they will inevitably know some of the characters involved, so having another police force taking a view would be very helpful.
As the right hon. Lady knows, there are mechanisms for inquiries into the conduct of the police to be referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission and for the IPCC to bring in outside police officers to investigate. As for the News of the World, how it wishes to co-operate with the police in their inquiries is entirely a matter for the News of the World itself. I would not therefore quite join her in saying that the News of the World is investigating itself. My understanding is that the News of the World has appointed independent counsel to try to provide—[Interruption.] No, I am sorry, but what the News of the World chooses to do is a matter for it.
The inquiry that is taking place is a criminal investigation conducted by the police into serious criminal allegations. The question as to how that is responded to by any organisation or individual is a matter for them. I draw neither assurance nor reassurance from the manner in which they choose to do it.
The Guardian has alleged today that News International knew of the existence of e-mails detailing payments to the police some time ago. If that is the case, will the Attorney-General tell the House whether Mr Coulson was aware of the existence of those e-mails before he resigned as the Prime Minister’s spokesman? If so, did he consult the Prime Minister or any other Minister?
May I respectfully say to the hon. Lady that I am not sure that in my capacity as the Queens’s Attorney-General that is a question to which I would necessarily have the immediate answer? What I can say to her is that a series of criminal investigations are taking place, along with wider inquiry, and the Government are committed, as I have just indicated, to there being an inquiry into the matter. I am sorry to disappoint her but, in any event, I do not think that this is a question that I am in a position to answer.
Those assurances were received from News International and were independently validated and referred to Ofcom. May I say to the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) that we have to have a little care here? The process by which such a takeover is done follows what is a quasi-judicial procedure, as he is aware. Therefore, in those circumstances, my right hon. Friend’s options in terms of what he had to do were quite severely circumscribed. If the hon. Gentleman feels that that was not properly conducted, I suggest that he raise that with my right hon. Friend directly.
Would the Attorney-General not accept that now that the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport is in possession of information relating to the behaviour of News Corp which he could not possibly have been in possession of at the time he made his original decision, it must be open to him, as a matter of law, to reconsider his original decision and make the reference that is now sought?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman said, in the middle of a quasi-judicial process, that the assurances have satisfied the Culture Secretary, so why is he in the middle of a consultation process, where he is not meant to have made his mind up yet and is still meant to be open-minded about whether to refer this to the Competition Commission? If the assurances have satisfied him, the consultation is a mockery.
My right hon. Friend said that he was minded to accept the assurances. He is sitting next to me so he is in a position to note the strong views that the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) have expressed, and I have no doubt that there will be opportunities for him to respond in due course.
The Prime Minister made reference, very correctly, in his answers at Prime Minister’s questions this afternoon to due process. It is clear that he was absolutely correct in making that point. Given that there is clear evidence of serious criminality on the part of some people at News International, would not due process also now include, in any event and without necessarily referring this to the Competition Commission, calling a pause pending further evidence?
My hon. Friend makes a perfectly reasonable point. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be in a position to note his comments and reflect carefully on whether the situation has changed in such a fashion. However, I come back to my original point, which was that Ministers of the Crown have to be rather careful about simply changing decisions on the hoof, in view of the fact that they are under legal obligations in respect of the way they take those decisions. With great respect to those who have intervened, whose interventions I am happy to field, the nub of this debate is phone hacking and not, at this stage, the takeover policies of the Government.
I believe that the Attorney-General is right when, as he has done so far, he confines the argument to the question of competition. But do not the Government, as the overall regulating authority, retain a discretion in relation to the management of this industry throughout the United Kingdom? Does not that discretion, for example, allow the Government to give consideration as to whether the directors of any company have been fulfilling their public obligations?
I have no doubt at all that my right hon. and learned Friend is correct in what he says, and those are matters that can be borne in mind by the Government in reviewing the process of this takeover bid and, indeed, the competition laws underlying it.
On the payment of police, which is now in the public domain as a result of the release of the e-mails last night, have there been any discussions between the Home Secretary and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner about this issue? Is everyone absolutely clear that the payment of police officers is a criminal offence?
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I think that nobody in this House, or anywhere else, is in any doubt that payments to police officers—unless they are payments made in relation to a police officer who may have some separate employment, as happens sometimes—in respect of their duties from some extraneous source is illegal. I await any Member of this House who might tell me about a circumstance to the contrary but, at the moment, I cannot think of one.
It is a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. Does the Attorney-General agree that there are real issues not only about poor behaviour by the media, but about public trust in the police? Does he also agree that we have to be sure that the police will investigate people regardless of how powerful they may be and what the consequences may be, and regardless of whether they have been taking illegal payments from them? That is a serious issue and it does need an inquiry.
If that situation were not occurring in this country, the rule of law would be undermined, so I can assure my hon. Friend that if there was any suggestion that differential rules were being applied because some people are powerful and some are weak, that would be a very serious matter.
Drawing on his legal knowledge, will the Attorney-General confirm that were News International, with its record of the wrongdoing that it has admitted so far, to apply to run a minicab firm in London, it would not receive a licence? If these are not fit and proper people to run a minicab firm, how can they be a fit and proper outfit to take over a monopoly of a whole television channel?
As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, the question of whether any organisation is a fit and proper person to own a broadcasting licence is a matter for Ofcom, and not the Secretary of State, under section 3 of the Broadcasting Act 1990. Indeed, the Secretary of State would not be allowed to get involved in that matter.
On the previous occasions these matters were debated in the House, there were many concerns that constitutional issues and issues of privilege arose from the potential hacking of MPs’ telephones. Since that time, the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges has considered this issue and produced its 14th report. In framing the inquiries suggested today, would it be possible to take account of the recommendations of that report, which suggest some ways of clarifying this quite difficult situation?
The Attorney-General is absolutely right to say that it is not a matter for the Secretary of State but for Ofcom to decide whether somebody is a fit and proper person, but the whole point is that Ofcom can have no chance to do so unless there is a pause in the Secretary of State’s decision. We need a pause so that Ofcom can come to a conclusion at the end of the police investigation.
It is a matter that I am very happy to go away and check, but I think the hon. Gentleman might be mistaken. I think that in fact Ofcom could intervene at any stage if it were to conclude that somebody was not a fit and proper person to hold a broadcasting licence. As these matters can be complex and I would not wish in any way to mislead the House, I would be happy to go away and check that point and to write to the hon. Gentleman about it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and that confirms what I already thought. Of course, that will not prevent me from going away and triple-checking the matter before I write to the hon. Member for Rhondda about it.
I am conscious that I ought to make progress and I want to allow time for debate. Because of my rather limited ability to comment on many of the allegations made, I was going to remind the House of some of the history of this matter. The House will be aware that these problems originated in November 2005 when the Metropolitan police were contacted by the royal household with concerns that voicemails relating to members of the royal family had been intercepted—
The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that he knows all this. He might know all of it, but it is worth reminding the House of some of the salient facts of the inquiry if we are to have an informed debate. I apologise to him if he feels that it is otiose.
In those circumstances, the arrests of Glenn Mulcaire and Clive Goodman took place in August 2006 for unlawful interception of phone messages. Searching Mulcaire’s business premises, police uncovered further evidence of interception relating to a number of other individuals not related to the royal household. As the hon. Member for Rhondda, if not the House, will be aware, Mulcaire and Goodman pleaded guilty— Goodman only to the charges relating to the royal family and Mulcaire to five further counts relating to individuals in the public eye—and were sentenced in January 2007 to four months and six months in prison respectively. It is worth bearing in mind that although I know of the hon. Gentleman’s interest in the matter, after January 2007 matters remained essentially quiet until July 2009, when the media reported fresh allegations relating to further cases of phone hacking.
The Crown Prosecution Service reviewed the material provided to it by the police in order to satisfy itself that appropriate actions had been taken in respect of the material. The CPS was satisfied that the prosecution approach to charging and prosecution was proper and that it would not be appropriate to reopen the cases against Mr Goodman and Mr Mulcaire. It also concluded that any new information should be reported to the police for further investigation.
It has been reported in the news this afternoon that the former Director of Public Prosecutions, the noble Lord Macdonald, has been appointed by News International to advise it on its dealings with the police at this time. Does the Attorney-General think that that is appropriate, and has he any thoughts from the Government on that development?
As I am not sure that what the right hon. Gentleman says is correct, I am not minded to comment on it. My understanding of the matter was that Lord Macdonald had been appointed by News of the World to help with the disclosure process to the police. That is a matter for Lord Macdonald in accordance with the professional code of conduct of the Bar. [Interruption.] I can assure the House that I do not think the notes I have just received are necessarily of particular help to me in answering the right hon. Gentleman’s question. He raises a perfectly legitimate point, but without knowing—which I do not—the circumstances in which Lord Macdonald might or might not be involved with advising News of the World in this matter, I do not think it is appropriate for me to comment further.
Will the Attorney-General give me an assurance that he will look into this matter when he leaves the Chamber today? I, as the then Police Minister, made comments in good faith on 14 July of that year about the DPP’s approach to the case. It is important that there should be clarity on all issues when we consider such matters.
I entirely agree with what the right hon. Gentleman says and I am happy to go away and consider it. As I have said, a lawyer’s involvement in any matter must ultimately be reconciled with the professional code of conduct and the question of whether any conflict of interest exists. Beyond that, I shall write to the right hon. Gentleman when I have had an opportunity to consider the matter.
Before we were diverted by the subject of Lord Macdonald, I was mentioning the fact that the media reported fresh allegations in 2009. In November 2010, the Metropolitan police approached the CPS for advice about the prospects of bringing further charges. Owing to the non-co-operation of witnesses and the lack of further evidence, however, criminal charges could not be brought. The Metropolitan police asked the News of the World for any new material in January of this year.
Following developments in the civil courts, the CPS then agreed to review everything the Metropolitan police have in their possession to ascertain whether there was any material that could form evidence in any future criminal prosecution for phone hacking. On 26 January this year, in view of the seriousness of the allegations and the fresh information that had come to light, the Metropolitan police announced a new investigation. That investigation, Operation Weeting, is led by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers of the specialist crime directorate, which is an entirely different unit within the Metropolitan police from that which carried out the original investigation in 2006.
The Metropolitan police now have 45 experienced police officers working on the case, which illustrates how seriously they are taking this new investigation. It is precisely because of the new investigation that new information is progressively coming to light that is the subject on which the debate requested by the hon. Member for Rhondda has been based. As the Prime Minister has said, the police must be allowed to pursue their criminal investigation in the most vigorous way they can to get to the truth. I simply say to the House that that is one reason why Ministers will not be making pronouncements in detail on some of the matters that the hon. Member for Rhondda has raised.
It is right to point out, as the hon. Gentleman has done, that quite a large number of inquiries have been taking place. We have a CPS review, we have the police pursuing their investigations, we have had a number of activities by the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges and we have also had work done by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. I hope that the House may derive from all that some reassurance that the issues surrounding these allegations are being taken very seriously. I take them very seriously and it is essential that no stone should be left unturned in ensuring that anyone who is guilty of any criminal offence is brought to justice and that the public are provided, at the end of day, with the truth about has happened and about the lessons needed to ensure that there is no repetition in future.
May I ask the Attorney-General a simple question? Why did it take so long for these issues to be taken seriously?
May I make a couple of remarks? This Government have been in office since May 2010 and these matters clearly originated some time prior to that. Moreover, I simply point out that the issues reviving in the way they have date back to just before Christmas. The world is not a perfect place, but I note the rather fair comment that the hon. Member for Rhondda made in opening the debate. The House may need to be judgmental about itself in a number of ways, but I rather doubt that it should be selective in how it passes those judgments. In those circumstances, I am satisfied that the Government have acted properly in the past few months in responding to the way this story has developed. I am also satisfied, and I hope the House is satisfied, that the Prime Minister has responded properly to the latest allegations that have emerged today.
The Attorney-General is telling the House that we must await the outcome of the inquiries into these allegations, and I absolutely accept that, but if that is the case why are the Government going ahead with allowing News Corp to take over BSkyB when there are allegations of serious wrongdoing and criminality against it? Surely the Government should wait for the outcome of the inquiries before they proceed.
At the risk of repeating what I said earlier, the takeover process is a legal one and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport will, I have no doubt, receive legal advice about the proper way to conduct that process. I also have no doubt that he is listening and will listen to the representations being made today and the anxieties being expressed on the matter. Beyond that it would not be proper for me to go.
The hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) said that Ofcom can intervene at any point with regard to the fit-and-proper-person test, but will the Attorney-General give guidance on whether, in applying that test, Ofcom should take into account the ongoing allegations about phone hacking? If it cannot take those allegations into account, will he give guidance on how it should regard the phone hacking issue?
The Attorney-General says that the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport will no doubt receive legal advice, but does he agree that his right hon. Friend is not bound by that legal advice and that as the Secretary of State he has the right, in his quasi-judicial position, to make his own decisions? There is a book about this if the Attorney-General wants to read it.
In the interests of preventing this from happening again, I should like to know whether the Attorney-General shares my concern that the editors code contains no demand for people to know the basis on which information that has been bought has been obtained or to ensure that it has not been obtained through criminal acts.
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point that can no doubt be looked at by editors and by the Press Complaints Commission.
I wish to conclude simply by saying that these allegations are very grave. In my role as Attorney-General, I have the rather curious title of “guardian of the public interest”, and I have absolutely no doubt that the public interest will be served only if these matters are fully inquired into and if those who have committed or are alleged to have committed criminal offences and are seen to have a prima facie case against them are brought to justice. That will require some forbearance on the part of the House in its desire to see a conclusion to this matter and I ask the House to bear that in mind. With that, I simply reiterate my thanks to the hon. Member for Rhondda for the manner in which he presented the debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing today’s very serious debate and on his forensic analysis of the problems and the work that he and others in Parliament have done to pursue this issue with vigour. The whole House will want to pay tribute to their work and determination.
The events of the past few days have sent shockwaves across the nation. With every hour that passes we hear more deeply disturbing allegations such as the claims that private investigators paid by the News of the World hacked into the phone of the missing 13-year-old Milly Dowler and erased some of her messages in the search for a story, thereby giving her parents false hope. There are also claims that other bereaved parents, including the Chapman family, Sara Payne and Graham Foulkes, were similarly targeted. We will not know the truth behind each of those allegations until the criminal investigation is complete, and of course we in this House must not prejudice the investigations or any potential trials that must take place, but we can say, very loudly and clearly, that the very idea of targeting victims and their families in their darkest hour is shameful, sickening and cruel.
This is not just about invasion of privacy: it is about the violation of victims and their families at a time when we know that there are doubts about the way in which our society and our justice system more widely treat victims and their families. That is why people across the country are rightly angry and want answers. For a start, this means that the current Met criminal investigation needs to be forensic and furious in the pursuit of truth. People want to know the truth about what happened. They want to know how it could have been allowed to happen in modern newspapers and stay hidden for so long. They want to know how this could have been tolerated and how people could have turned a blind eye. They want to know whether journalists interfered with or put at risk criminal investigations, how victims and their families could ever have been so appallingly treated and, of course, why these allegations were not sufficiently investigated at an earlier stage.
May I make to the right hon. Lady the same point as I made to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)? The 2006 report of the Information Commissioner was quite clearly a harbinger of what was going on, but no one in the Government—or, indeed, in the House—appeared to pay any attention to it. Surely, the lesson is that this rot has been in the system for a very long time, and it is terrible that the House did nothing about it.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say those words to all Members of the House, and to all members of this and former Governments, too. I have talked to Opposition Members, who have made it clear that the inquiry for which we are calling must look at all historical issues. He is right that there were warning signs. As I did at the beginning of my speech, I pay tribute to the fact that some parliamentarians picked this up, but we all need to look at what is happening and why too many people turned a blind eye to the problem, or did not focus on the sheer horror of what was happening for too long.
Let us be clear about the current criminal investigation. We have seen some vigour and rigour in recent months, which must continue, as the investigation needs to look into the heart of the darkness. Where criminal activity has been committed, it must pursue robust prosecutions and deliver justice too. We must not jeopardise those investigations with what we say in this debate or with the details of any inquiry. It is for the police and the courts to determine the veracity of the allegations, but it is for Parliament to make sure that they can do so, that they are doing so, and to address the wider issues.
Now that we know that members of the public have been targeted, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential that they receive special support? If they require legal aid, the Lord Chancellor should ensure that they receive it.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, because many people who might be troubled might not be in the position of some individuals who have pursued civil actions to seek legal advice. It is important that that is looked at urgently, both by the Ministry of Justice and by the Attorney-General.
We need to know urgently whether the actions of journalists and private investigators have interfered with police investigations, not just in the cases of Milly Dowler and of Daniel Morgan but in other cases, too. Alongside the Met inquiry, in advance of the wider public inquiry, we ask the Attorney-General, the CPS and chief constables to review other high-profile cases across the country that have provoked media attention. It is important that people are reassured that those investigations have not been interfered with, or are told whether further criminal investigations need to take place in a wider range of cases than those that are being pursued by the Met.
I shall put the same point to my right hon. Friend as I put to the Attorney-General. The Met is investigating previous unsatisfactory investigations by the Metropolitan police, so, despite our confidence in the investigators, does she agree that if the public are to share our confidence independent police forces should perhaps supervise some of the investigations?
I want to come on to the police investigation. The investigation to which the Attorney-General referred is not looking at what happened in the first investigation—it is pursuing criminal investigations. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is a further question about what happened in that first investigation, and who needs to look at that and undertake a searching inquiry into the nature of the problems that arose. There is a role, for example, for the Independent Police Complaints Commission to make sure that there is a proper, independent investigation.
Members on both sides of the House agree that there are wider issues at stake and that there is a case for a full public inquiry. There are wider questions about the culture that could allow the alleged events at the News of the World to take place and to be tolerated; about wider media practices and ethical conduct; and about the effectiveness of the current Press Complaints Commission arrangements. Members on both sides of the House have a responsibility to safeguard the right of our media to report freely on all aspects of society, to hold Members of Parliament to account, and to scrutinise in detail the work that we do in the public interest. The vast majority of journalists and editors are committed to maintaining the highest ethical standards, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) said, alongside freedom comes responsibility.
Press self-regulation is important, but the press must make it work. In January, the editor of the Financial Times accused the Press Complaints Commission of being
“supine at best in its response to the hacking scandal.”
The PCC’s record on investigating phone hacking has indeed been one of failure.
The right hon. Lady is quite right—a free press is the cornerstone of democracy, but democracy relies on the press being accountable. The system of regulation has failed utterly. Is it not time for a new one, and will she support that proposal?
That was the point I was making. The existing PCC arrangements have not delivered. The press should try to make self-regulation work, and that issue should be dealt with as part of the inquiry, because it is important to restore public confidence across the country in the way in which the media operate, in their independence and in their trustworthiness.
There are questions, too, for the police. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson stated yesterday:
“It is inevitable...that questions will be asked about the parameters of the original investigation but also more widely about the regulatory role of the Press Complaints Commission and others.”
He is right, and there are three questions to answer. First, were payments made by the media to individual officers—which is clearly illegal and corrupt? Secondly, was there a wider relationship between the newspapers and police? Thirdly, why did the first investigation not reach the truth and uncover what was happening?
I spoke to the commissioner today. He told me that he believes that a public inquiry is not only inevitable but it is the right thing to do. He said that the police should be held to account. It is important for the inquiry to cover those issues. Ministers should reflect on the specialist role that police officers, the IPCC and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary will play in ensuring a proper investigation.
Did the Metropolitan Police Commissioner indicate whether he had made a referral to the IPCC, or has that not happened yet?
As I understand it from my conversation with the commissioner this morning, the Met has indeed made a referral to the IPCC about the allegations that police officers received payments. That has been discussed with the IPCC, whose conclusion—again, as I understand it from my conversation this morning—is that the current investigation by the Met should continue, but it is keeping that under review. It is important that we have that independent investigation. There is a wider question about safeguards in the system on which we will want to reflect, given that individual investigations may go awry or may not reach the conclusions that they need to reach. I do not think that that role will be fulfilled by the police and crime commissioners proposed by the Government, because that would create greater risks in such cases in future.
The police do vital and excellent work, solving crimes, bringing offenders to justice, and supporting families of murder victims and others. It is important that that work is not undermined or discredited as the result of any lack of transparency over the phone-hacking revelations. We must recognise that any areas where things have gone wrong must be put right.
Before turning to the case for the public inquiry and what it should consider, may I respond briefly to the points made by the Attorney-General about whether a referral should be made to the Competition Commission? He will know that we have continually called for such a referral, as we believe that it is the right thing to do. I hope that the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, who is in the Chamber, and the Attorney-General will reflect carefully on the points that have been made by Members on both sides of the House about the flexibility within the law to look at the issue again, and recognise the importance of the need, for which we have argued from the beginning, for referral to the Competition Commission. I would simply say that judgments must be fair, but it is also important that they are seen to be fair and that the public have confidence in them.
The Prime Minister agreed today that there should be an inquiry or inquiries into these issues. At the end of the Attorney-General’s speech, he referred to a number of inquiries that were already under way and tried to give us some assurance that that meant that these matters were being taken seriously. He knows, however, that the number of inquiries that have taken place or are taking place now gives no such reassurance. Quite the opposite is true because so many inquiries have not got to the truth in the past. Whether those were inquiries by the PCC or by parliamentary Committees, they were not able to get to the bottom of the truth about what had been happening.
I understand the right hon. Lady’s point, but I think she slightly misunderstood the point I was making. I was referring not just to that, but to the Prime Minister’s statement today. There is a full appreciation, which has grown over time, that this is a serious issue—[Interruption.] Steps have been taken to try to deal with it. I have to say to the Leader of the Opposition that if his Government had been troubled when they were in office, they could have taken steps between 2006 and 2010 to do something about this. Throughout my comments today I avoided making any criticism of the way the previous Government acted, and I think his remarks from a sedentary position are entirely uncalled for.
I respect the spirit in which the Attorney-General made his speech, but warn him against any complacency about the number of inquiries solving the issue. The key is whether the overall public inquiry that looks into the matter has sufficient powers and the right remit and can truly get to the heart of what has been happening.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and the Home Affairs Committee have been conducting inquiries they, by their nature and the nature of the Select Committee system, monitor Departments. What is needed is an over-arching inquiry. I have discussed informally with the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee the possibility of setting up a joint inquiry between our two Committees, but that will not be enough. There needs to be something that covers all bases dealing with this very important subject.
My right hon. Friend is exactly right. His Committee has done some extremely important work in pursuing these issues and will, I know, continue to do so.
It is important that the inquiry has the power not only to compel witnesses, but to get to the heart of the information, get detailed answers and examine a range of interconnecting issues that are at stake. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has set out some of the areas that we believe the inquiry must cover—for example, the unlawful practices, including phone hacking, that appear to have been prevalent in sections of the newspaper industry, the ethical conduct and standards of the industry, the nature of robust and credible regulation, and the relationship between the police and the newspaper industry.
We have asked the Government to decide now the nature and scope of the inquiry and to choose now who should take that forward to get the team established in place as soon as is practical, without waiting for criminal proceedings to be complete, as the Gibson inquiry has done. I welcomed the Government’s agreement that it is possible to consider whether elements can be examined in advance of the criminal investigation being completed. Nobody wants to put that criminal investigation at risk, but equally it seems at first sight that some elements could be investigated and explored at an earlier stage, rather than having to wait until the end of the process. We need to know which Minister will be in charge of those discussions and considerations.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that whatever happens in the next few days, including the potential resignation of the chief executive of News International, nothing can undermine the need for a public inquiry? We must have that inquiry, whatever happens.
My hon. Friend is right, because of the wide ranging nature of the issue and the importance of restoring confidence. It is important that we know which Minister will be in charge of making those decisions and setting up the inquiry. We had assumed that it would be the Home Secretary or the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. There is clearly a question about whether the latter is able to do that alongside his other responsibilities on the wider issues in relation to the Competition Commission.
The Attorney-General needs to consider the Prime Minister’s role. The Prime Minister’s judgment has already been called into question by his appointment of Andy Coulson as his media adviser, despite the fact that there had long been allegations of illegal practices and wrongdoing at the News of the World on his watch. Today it is alleged that e-mails expose direct payments from the News of the World to the police that were known about by Andy Coulson. There are also claims circulating today that Andy Coulson was told about or knew about these e-mails and that this is why he resigned in January. If so, that is extremely serious.
The e-mails were passed to the Metropolitan police only on 20 June, even though the inquiry and the full co-operation of News International had supposedly started on 26 January. Was Andy Coulson aware of this, and did he tell the Prime Minister or anyone else in No. 10 about those e-mails? If he did, it would mean that the Prime Minister and members of the Government were aware of the information before the Metropolitan police. It is important that the Prime Minister provides some immediate answers in response to this question.
The Attorney-General and the Cabinet Secretary should advise whether the Prime Minister should now remove himself from any decision making about the public inquiry. It is clear that the conduct of one of the Prime Minister’s employees and colleagues is a substantive issue not just for the criminal investigation but for the wider inquiry. The inquiry needs to be impartial and to inspire confidence. It cannot be compromised by any perception of partiality in its establishment by the Ministers who are in charge of the decisions.
This inquiry is so important because it goes to the heart of our democracy and our society. The inquiry is not about a row between Parliament and the media, or Parliament and the police; quite the reverse. It is exactly because the media—the fourth estate— play such a vital role in our democracy that they must be accountable, with clear and ethical standards. It is exactly because independent, impartial policing is so essential to our democracy that the police must be accountable and transparent if things go wrong. It is the result of work in Parliament and by parliamentarians that we have secured the principle of a public inquiry now.
Parliament must press further, not just to seek truth, not just to restore the effectiveness and credibility of parts of the newspaper industry, not just to get justice, but to say on behalf of everyone in this country, “We will not stand for the shameful and cruel practices that we have seen. We will stand as a Parliament against these shocking practices. It is not the kind of country we want to be. We will stand on the side of those—especially the crime victims and their families—who should never have found themselves dragged into this terrible debate today. We must make sure this never happens again.”
I rise to speak in the debate with considerable sadness. I am a passionate believer in the freedom of the press, but like other freedoms, that freedom must be exercised within the rule of law. Many of us here were appalled when we discovered, in the course of the expenses scandal, what a small number of Members of the House had done. They were rightly prosecuted and several have now gone to prison, but that scandal tainted all of us. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) referred to the fact that journalists throughout the country are equally appalled at the revelations that have come out about the activities of some members of their profession, and they too feel that they have been tainted by them.
The latest revelations mark a low point in the saga of phone hacking, but I fear they do not mark the end point. There are likely to be further revelations still to come. The matter was first looked at by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in early 2007, following the conviction of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire. At that time I asked the chairman of News International, 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?”
Mr Hinton replied:
“Yes, we have and believe he was the only person, but that investigation, under the new editor, continues.”
The Committee produced a report which stated:
“We note the assurances of the Chairman of News International that Mr Goodman was acting wholly without authorisation and that Mr Coulson had no knowledge of what was going on.”
In July 2009 The Guardian reported that News International had paid Gordon Taylor and two others more than £1 million because their phones had been hacked, which led the Committee to believe that we might have been misled. We therefore decided to reopen our inquiry. Early in those inquiries The Guardian produced two pieces of evidence: one was the so-called “for Neville” e-mail, which contained the transcripts of 35 voicemail messages between Gordon Taylor and his legal adviser; the other was a contract between Glenn Mulcaire, under a false name, and Greg Miskiw, a senior executive at the News of the World. We felt strongly that both pieces of evidence suggested that Clive Goodman was not the rogue reporter that we had been told about.
The Committee took evidence from Tom Crone, the legal manager of News Group Newspapers, Colin Myler, the editor of the News of the World, Stuart Kuttner, the newspaper’s managing editor, and Andy Coulson, its former editor. We asked whether Rebekah Brooks would appear before us, but she said she had had no involvement with the News of the World when the phone hacking was taking place, which was the case, as she was editor of The Sun at the time. We asked Neville Thurlbeck to appear but were told that doing so would reveal what he looked like, and so compromise his position as an investigative reporter. We asked that Ross Hindley, the junior reporter who had transcribed the voicemail intercepts, should appear, but were told that he could not come because he was in Peru. We were told that there had been a thorough investigation by outside solicitors and that no evidence had been unearthed to suggest that phone hacking had been any more widespread.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one important issue that a public inquiry will have to navigate is the fact that no one so far has been cross-examined in either a criminal or a civil court, as settlements have been reached in all the civil cases? Indeed, in the Gordon Taylor case the court ordered the files to be sealed, and Sienna Miller is the latest victim of phone hacking to settle. As a result, we have not yet got to the bottom of this.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman—indeed, I can call him my hon. Friend, as a fellow member of the Select Committee. I think that an inquiry should be able to investigate any documents that are relevant to this matter.
During the Committee’s inquiry I again spoke with Mr Crone, the legal manager, and asked:
“As far as you know, no information regarding those other individuals ever reached the News of the World?”
“I have seen no evidence of that.”
Mr Coulson said in evidence that during his editorship he
“never condoned the use of ’phone hacking and nor do I have any recollection of incidences where ’phone hacking took place. My instructions to the staff were clear: we did not use subterfuge of any kind unless there was a clear public interest in doing so; they were to work within the PCC Code at all times.”
The Committee stated in its report:
“Evidence we have seen makes it inconceivable that no-one else at the News of the World, bar Clive Goodman, knew about the phone-hacking…The newspaper’s enquiries were far from ‘full’ or ‘rigorous’, as we—and the PCC—had been assured. Throughout our inquiry, too, we have been struck by the collective amnesia afflicting witnesses from the News of the World.”
Since that time there have been a stream of revelations, and it has become increasingly clear that phone hacking was widespread and involved a large number of people. Most of that evidence, certainly in the early stages, came from the material seized by the police from Glenn Mulcaire, which they were required to divulge only when the civil cases came to court and they were asked to do so by the solicitors acting on behalf of the people bringing civil cases. The key point is that almost every piece of evidence we are now learning about has been in the possession of the police since 2006. That raises very serious questions about why it was not pursued, and why we were told repeatedly that the evidence did not exist, and why the police assured us that there was no evidence to suggest that the investigation should go any further.
All phone hacking is wrong and illegal, but there is no question but that the revelations that the phone of Milly Dowler was hacked, if that was the case, represent a new low, as do the subsequent revelations about the victims of the 7 July bombings and their families, and other murdered children. The truth of these matters is still not wholly clear and there is an ongoing police investigation, which nothing must be allowed to impede. We need to know whether the allegations are true—and if they are, who commissioned those phone hacks and who else knew about it.
There is a swirl of rumour about who might or might not have had their phones hacked, and there are also rumours about other newspapers. I must say that I suspect that, just as Clive Goodman was not a rogue reporter, so the News of the World was not a rogue newspaper. We need to get to the full facts. There needs to be a full inquiry, and the police, the Press Complaints Commission and the press as a whole need to be held to account.
News International’s decision to throw Andy Coulson to the wolves last night was an attempt to divert us from an even bigger wrong: that company was systematically, ruthlessly, and without conscience or morality, interfering with the phones of victims of murder, cruelly deceiving their families and impeding the search for justice. Glenn Mulcaire has accepted some share of responsibility for this moral sickness, but the editor in charge of him refuses to take responsibility. Indeed, far from accepting blame, she has—amazingly—put herself in charge of the investigation into the wrongdoing; the chief suspect has become the chief investigator.
I, like many Members of the House, have run an organisation. Sometimes in organisations things go wrong and there are faults that might not be the fault of the person running it—but it is certainly their responsibility, and responsibility goes right to the top. Rebekah Brooks is responsible for what has happened. If she does not resign, the person above her should understand that it is his responsibility to—
I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman, and thank him for his brave contribution. I believe that Rebekah Brooks was not only responsible for wrongdoing, but knew about it. The evidence in the paper that she edited contradicts her statements that she knew nothing about unlawful behaviour. Take the edition that she edited on 14 April 2002, which reveals that the News of the World had information from Milly Dowler’s phone. In other words, they knew about the messages on her phone. They wrote that there was
“left a message on her voicemail after the 13-year-old vanished at 4pm on March 21. On march 27th, six days after Milly went missing in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, the employment agency appears to have phoned her mobile.”
It was a central part of the paper’s story that it had evidence from a telephone—evidence that it could get only from breaking into that phone at the time. The story that Rebekah Brooks was far from the Dowler events is simply not believable when her own newspaper wrote about the information that it had gained from that phone.
I want to inform the House of further evidence that suggests that Rebekah Brooks knew of the unlawful tactics of the News of the World as early as 2002, despite all her denials yesterday.
Rebekah Brooks was present at a meeting with Scotland Yard when police officers pursuing a murder investigation provided her with evidence that her newspaper was interfering with the pursuit of justice. They gave her the name of another senior executive at News International, Alex Marunchak. At the meeting, which included Dick Fedorcio of the Metropolitan police, she was told that News of the World staff were guilty of interference and party to using unlawful means to attempt to discredit a police officer and his wife.
Rebekah Brooks was told of actions by people whom she paid to expose and discredit David Cook and his wife Jackie Haines, so that Mr Cook would be prevented from completing an investigation into a murder. News International was paying people to interfere with police officers and was doing so on behalf of known criminals. We know now that News International had entered the criminal underworld.
Rebekah Brooks cannot deny being present at that meeting when the actions of people whom she paid were exposed. She cannot deny now being warned that under her auspices unlawful tactics were used for the purpose of interfering with the pursuit of justice. She cannot deny that one of her staff, Alex Marunchak, was named and involved. She cannot deny either that she was told by the police that her own paper was using unlawful tactics, in that case to help one of her lawbreaking investigators. This, in my view, shows that her culpability goes beyond taking the blame as head of the organisation; it is about direct knowledge of unlawful behaviour. Was Mr Marunchak dismissed? No. He was promoted.
Twenty-two years ago, my city warned anyone who would listen that scurrilous rags such as The Sun were out of control, after it printed blatant lies about the Hillsborough disaster. News International lied to the country in 1989, and it still seems to be lying to the country now. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should ensure that it does not take 22 years to put right this latest wrong?
My hon. Friend will be aware that there are people currently serving prison sentences in this country, none more so than Tommy Sheridan, the former MSP. That successful prosecution was based on evidence from Andrew Coulson, but it now seems that the jury did not get all the e-mails that were pertinent to the case. If that is true, surely the appropriate authorities should revisit the case and ask Mr Coulson whether that evidence and that information were withheld intentionally.
I cannot answer my hon. Friend fully, because of the time restrictions. I will reveal more on the issue later in the week, except to say that I think the Sheridan trial was unsound and may need revisiting.
Families who trusted Rebekah Brooks when she said she felt their pain, families who have been cruelly let down by the intrusion into private grief and the callous exploitation of their suffering—anguished families, indeed—are now being tortured yet again by the knowledge that in the world of Rebekah Brooks no one can grieve in private, no one can cry their tears without surveillance, no one can talk to their friends without their private feelings becoming public property.
The whole board of News International is responsible for the company. Mr James Murdoch should be suspended from office while the police investigate what I believe is his personal authorisation to plan a cover-up of this scandal. Mr James Murdoch is the chairman. It is clear now that he personally, without board approval, authorised money to be paid by his company to silence people who had been hacked, and to cover up criminal behaviour within his organisation. That is nothing short of an attempt to pervert the course of justice.
There is now no escape for News International from the responsibility for systematically breaking the law, but there is also now no escape from the fact that it sought to pervert the course of justice.
I believe that the police should also ask Mr James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks whether they know of the attempted destruction of data at the HCL storage facility in Chennai, India. Mr James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks now have to accept their culpability, and they will have to face the full force of the law.
Their behaviour towards the most vulnerable, their knowledge of lawbreaking and their failure to act, their links with the criminal underworld and their attempt to cover up lawbreaking and to pay for people’s silence, tell the world all we need to know about their character—that they are not fit and proper persons to control any part of the media in this country.
I was asked in 2006 to collaborate with the first police inquiry, because I had been one of the victims of hacking. I collaborated and gave evidence, and I was very pleased that it resulted in the conviction of two people for clearly illegal activity. I am collaborating currently with the police in their second inquiry, which is of course ranging much more widely.
I have said this in the House before, but I am clear that from the beginning the issue has not been principally about whether politicians, the royal family or celebrities have had their phones hacked, but about whether ordinary members of the public have had their privacy invaded by people much more powerful than them. It has been about people who have not had the opportunity to speak for themselves or to command the airwaves in return.
I thought it bad enough that families, friends and constituents had had their information picked over, and I know from experience that it severely affected the career and health of one friend, but we now realise that it was much worse than that, because it has been about not just ordinary members of the public doing ordinary jobs, but people at their most vulnerable and traumatised. They have been exploited purely in the interests of a media story, so I, like every Member, join in the expressions of revulsion by the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and all colleagues. It is the most unacceptable of behaviour.
Given the acceptance that there should be inquiries, we should make clear the questions that we need the public inquiries to answer. If there is a robbery, three sorts of people are involved: the people who are visibly involved; the people who commission the robbery and benefit from the proceeds, although we never see them; and the people who know all about the robbery but try to pretend that they do not.
The inquiries and the police investigations must go to all those people, because it is no good picking off the small guys, the guys who are pushed out to do the jobs, when the decisions have been clearly taken by the big guys—or in this case, the big girls. We need to ensure, therefore, that we encourage the police to be absolutely ruthless in investigating everything that may have happened, and to give our full support to the new commissioner and his team now carrying out the inquiry.
There is an obvious second set of questions. The Metropolitan police did not do a good job in 2006, and they probably did not start back in 2002, when the issues appear to have come to light. When the investigation took place into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, institutional racism was discovered in the Met police. I am not alleging that there is institutional corruption in the Met police, but it has been widely known for years that there has been regular corruption on such issues in the Met police and in other police forces.
The very fact that the Information Commissioner produced a report in 2006, instancing how often and in how many papers such practices were going on, makes it absolutely clear that there has been an endemic problem in policing, with payments involving the police and people acting illegally in order to get stories, and with collaboration outside the public gaze. That is why I do not think it would be appropriate for another police service to investigate the Met, although I heard what the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) said in her intervention. There has to be an inquiry that is absolutely free of the police service, and is led by somebody who is entirely independent. In my view, that person has to be a judge. The inquiry must have the power to call all evidence and to require people to attend and answer questions, and it must be completely fearless.
I accept the argument that it may be possible for an inquiry to begin now with activities that will not compromise the police investigation. I am also absolutely clear that the police must be allowed to get on and complete their investigation, produce the evidence and go to the Crown Prosecution Service, so that charges can be brought and prosecutions made.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that although the public investigative processes that he is describing are absolutely necessary, we have a body that has the professional competence and capacity to investigate police actions? It is right that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner has today referred certain matters to that body.
Yes, that body exists and I do not cavil at its independence. However, given the extent of the clear corruption in this case, the length of time over which these practices have continued and the huge public interest, it is logical to have the sort of inquiry that was held on the Stephen Lawrence case and others, which goes beyond the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
Given what we have been told about the extent of the police and media connection, and about the way in which many stories appeared in the press with incredible speed the very next day, thanks to those tip-offs, does my right hon. Friend agree that the public will be satisfied with nothing less than what he is recommending?
Another issue is the future of the companies involved and their interrelationship. I have no criticism of the way in which the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport has carried out his inquiries into competition in the British media industry. However, as the shadow Home Secretary and others have implied, there is a separate issue, which is about “fit and proper persons”. That is to do with the regulation of the media. Ofcom, the regulator, is based in my constituency. The rules are clear and I have checked them with Ofcom today. Under section 3(3) of the Broadcasting Act 1990, Ofcom
“shall not grant a licence to any person unless they are satisfied that he is a fit and proper person to hold it; and…shall do all that they can to secure that, if they cease to be so satisfied in the case of any person holding a licence, that person does not remain the holder of the licence”.
Ofcom therefore has an ongoing duty to be satisfied that those at BSkyB are fit and proper persons to hold a broadcasting licence.
For the avoidance of doubt, I think it is appropriate for Ofcom to be formally requested to consider whether BSkyB is a company whose directors will be fit and proper people. As the local Member of Parliament for Ofcom, I intend to go through its door and make that request in person before the end of the week. It needs to know that this House, which owes the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) a great tribute for initiating this debate, wants that matter to be considered at the earliest possible opportunity.
Ofcom will, of course, not prejudge a criminal trial. It cannot come to a conclusion that somebody is guilty of an offence before they are found to be guilty. However, it has a statutory obligation to consider at any time who is appropriate to hold a broadcasting licence. The message from this House must be that we want it actively to consider that obligation. If it comes to the view that the future owners of BSkyB are inappropriate, it should rule accordingly, which would mean that the BSkyB merger could not go ahead.
I will not detain the House for long. I put my name down to speak because I believe that we need to persuade those on the Treasury Bench to have a public inquiry, and I wanted to give my perspective. The Attorney-General was his usual assured and eloquent self on that issue. He got into trouble on the two issues on which the Government have been wrong today. The Prime Minister was right to say that we would have public inquiries. He was right to put that in the plural, because we may need several inquiries. He was wrong to say that Rebekah Brooks should not resign—[Hon. Members: “He didn’t say that.”] No, he did not say that, but when Hansard is published tomorrow, people will be able to read between the lines. The Prime Minister is also wrong to go ahead with the takeover of BSkyB.
I am conscious of the points that the Attorney-General made. I was a Home Secretary in the previous Administration. In looking for a public inquiry, we have to explain to the House a little about the atmospherics when the previous Administration took decisions, and did not take decisions, relating to this case. I am conscious that of the four Home Secretaries between 2005 and 2010, I am the only one still in this House. I wish I could give an eloquent explanation of how brilliant I was as a Home Secretary that would give people an insight into why I did not act, but I cannot.
What I can say is that in July 2009, when the revelation was made about Gordon Taylor on the front page of The Guardian, we looked at the matter carefully. Like all good Secretaries of State, I got another Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), to answer the urgent question, while I did other things. There was not much that we could do beyond asking the Metropolitan Police Commissioner John Yates and others whether there was anything behind the story. The atmospherics—the public mood and the mood in Parliament—said that this was an obsession of one newspaper. While we are criticising the press, let us praise The Guardian for doggedly staying on this case, despite all the attempts to stop it. We might also mention The New York Times in dispatches. We were told that this was the obsession of one newspaper and a few Back-Benchers. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) for continuing to be irritants on this issue.
What was the view in the Home Office at the time? We looked seriously at whether to have an independent review of the Metropolitan police investigation. The hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) is right that although lots of things have happened since 2006, everything takes us back to the original inquiry led by Andy Hayman in 2005-06. All the information that is emerging was there at that time. We thought about getting Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to do an independent investigation. Incidentally, I was told at the time that this matter was outside the IPCC’s remit. That might not be the case now. My right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) is right to ask if it has a role to play. There was a view that we should wait for the Director of Public Prosecutions to report. It was Keir Starmer by that point, I believe, not Ken Macdonald. The DPP said that, on the information given to him by the police—those were the precise words used—there was no cause for any further investigation. We were all swimming around wondering whether we were receiving the correct information.
I shall quote something that my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn said in his written to statement to Parliament when he was Police Minister, after the fracas around the July 2009 incident. He stated:
“As mentioned in his statement on 9 July, Assistant Commissioner John Yates is ensuring that the Metropolitan Police Service has been diligent, reasonable and sensible, and taken all proper steps to ensure that where it has evidence that people have been the subject of any form of phone tapping (by Mr. Clive Goodman or Mr. Glen Mulcaire) or that there is any suspicion that they might have been; that they have been informed. The decision to inform individuals that they have been targeted for illegal interception of their phone communications is an operational matter for the police.”—[Official Report, 14 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 11WS.]
Clear statements were being made to us. Ministers will know that if the Home Office called in an independent investigator—HMIC or the IPCC—it would cause serious concern, because politicians would be interfering in an operational matter. For all those reasons, even though I and my good friend the former Police Minister may find some of the questions awkward, I believe that a public inquiry is the right way to go.
I have huge regard for the work of the Metropolitan police, but was it being evasive, dishonest or lethargic? I think it is one of those three.
Or was it being all three? The hon. Member for Maldon used a vivid phrase about rolling away a huge stone and looking under it. I believe that there was a certain lethargy with so much else going on, and an attitude of “We’ve got two people banged up. Do we need to go any further into this?” Because of the diligence of Members of Parliament—Back Benchers, not Front Benchers—and of some parts of the press in refusing to give up, we can now roll away the stone. Although what we find underneath will be uncomfortable, it will be good for this House and for our society to do so.
Order. In view of the level of interest in the debate, I am reducing the time limit for Back-Bench speeches to five minutes from now. I would simply add that Members will want to help each other, and they might wish to exercise a degree of self-restraint in either taking or making interventions.
May I start by picking up on a point that the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) made? He said that celebrities and Members of Parliament having their phones hacked into was bad enough. However, whenever a child goes missing or there is a death in suspicious circumstances, people up and down the land and parents in particular feel a sense of dread and great concern. To think that the allegations that are coming out now relate to such incidents is truly shocking, and that sense of shock is felt right across the House.
When we last debated the matter on 9 September last year, concern was expressed about the position of Members of Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman made a speech, as did the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who has been so dogged on the issue. The point they made was not that an MP is above anyone else, because of course they are not, but that we have ancient rights that are very important to democracy. We call them privilege, but they are really about having freedom of expression to come here and put our case for the people whom we represent without being impeded in that work. The fact that those rights might have been interfered with in the course of the scandal was why the issue was referred to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.
Of course, the Committee was in the position that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General described. We were not able to look into the detail of the allegations, because we did not want to prejudice what the police were doing any more than anybody else. However, we did look into the principle of how our rights are affected in the modern idiom. Our rights were put forward in 1688, I believe, in the Bill of Rights, which explained what we now call privilege. It was the following year, in 1689, that somebody started trying to interfere by intercepting our letters, so this is not a new problem.
However, the Committee considered whether we needed to do something to tackle the problem in the modern context. We came to the conclusion, first, that it was necessary for us to debate whether it is just parliamentary activities that should be covered by privilege, or whether it should also include constituency work. We also thought that there was now a case for a privileges Act that would set out what our privileges are and what they mean in the modern context.
I strongly support the setting up of inquiries, but let us not forget that it is important to tackle the issues set out in the Committee’s 14th report of this Session. I hope that it might be possible for the Government to bring forward a draft privileges Bill fairly soon, so that we can have important debates on a matter that affects the rights of the public in this country. They are perhaps misdescribed as privilege, because they are the rights of the people and are very important.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North East Hertfordshire (Oliver Heald), who raised the important point about the use of privilege in dealing with these matters. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) on how they have pursued this campaign. The former Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), was right that this has been a Back Bencher-led campaign. What was good about what the Prime Minister, the Attorney-General and my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary said is that now the Front Benchers are with the Bank Benchers in respect of trying to deal with this matter. I also pay tribute to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), and the work done by his Committee over the years.
The Select Committee on Home Affairs has conducted a separate inquiry, which has looked by and large at what the police have done. We conclude that inquiry on Tuesday, when our witnesses are Mr Andy Hayman, Sue Akers, the head of Operation Weeting, and Peter Clarke, who assisted Mr Hayman in the first inquiry. The Committee must be careful during its examination to ensure that we do not step on the substance of the police investigation, which is the one thing that we need to be concerned about in any public inquiry. I am in favour of a public inquiry, but it is important to frame the terms of reference in such a way that we do not impede the police investigation. That can be done—we are hoping to do it on Tuesday when we take evidence from the police officers concerned. Framing those terms of reference in that way will enable such a public inquiry to take place.
From the evidence that was given to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and the evidence that the Home Affairs Committee has received over the last few months, it is clear that much needs to be looked at. We have not really mentioned the mobile phone companies, but there was an interesting exchange between representatives of the big companies and members of the Home Affairs Committee. When we asked how those companies informed their clients that they had been hacked, we were told that there was no uniformity in their responses. Therefore, in my view, we need not wait until all the criminal matters have been dealt with before issuing guidance.
Similarly, the Attorney-General was very clear on the payment of police officers. I note from the exchange referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda that when Mr Coulson gave evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, he did not actually know that it was illegal to pay police officers—he felt that it was acceptable when the code of conduct allowed it to happen.
Yesterday I wrote to previous witnesses to the Home Affairs Committee inquiry simply to ask them whether, before we conclude on Tuesday, they stand by the evidence that they gave—that includes letters to Rebekah Brooks and to Assistant Commissioner John Yates, who gave important evidence on the question of whether he could accept the legal guidance given by the Director of Public Prosecutions. When we have that public inquiry, I hope that we look at the legal advice given by the DPP to the first inquiry, and how that differed from the advice given to the second inquiry.
I am glad that there appears to be a consensus—an acknowledgement by the Prime Minister that an inquiry should be set up, following the demands of Back Benchers and indeed the Leader of the Opposition—but I caution the House to be careful in those terms of reference, so that we do not prejudice the Operation Weeting investigation. In that way, we can get to the bottom of things, and those who have committed criminal offences can be charged and convicted, without the excuse that the matter was discussed in Parliament, or that they appeared before a public inquiry, and that their prosecutions are therefore not valid.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing this debate. The Dowler family are my constituents, and yesterday I spoke to their solicitor. I should add as well that Sara Payne, the mother of Sarah, also lives in my constituency. Allegations of hacking have been made in relation to both families, and the House will understand that there is a deep sense of outrage in the community, which has already been conveyed to me, and across the country at large.
I know that the Dowler family are deeply disturbed by the revelations of hacking at the time of their daughter’s disappearance and that they would like a public inquiry to get to the bottom of the allegations. Given the emerging allegations over recent days, the case for that inquiry is now irresistible, so I was reassured that the Prime Minister confirmed to the House today that the question is now how, not if, we have that inquiry. The hacking of phones for journalistic, and ultimately commercial, gain in the midst of a police inquiry of this nature is utterly reprehensible and heartless. In fact, it is unforgiveable.
It is imperative that we get to the bottom of what went on in the Dowler case, related cases and the much wider question of journalistic practice and its relationship to the police, which perhaps is one of the graver underlying issues in the whole business. For my part, I think that we need the truth accumulated patiently, not quickly, and certainly not just media snippets. Equally, I have to say that the relish with which the revelations have been greeted by some seeking to take on the Murdoch empire or engaging in political pot-shots strikes me as opportunistic to say the least. I urge all Members to ensure that we do not lose sight of the serious matters before us. The No.1 priority must be to allow the police investigation the freedom to conduct its inquiries rigorously and meticulously.
The House may recall that the maximum sentence for unlawful interception of communications is two years in prison under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. I understand that, coincidently, that is the same sentence as for the offence of perverting the course of justice. I am sure that hon. Members across the House will want the law to be applied independently, with maximum vigour and with full force, which is why I hope that all Members will refrain from saying, under the cloak of privilege or otherwise, anything that could prejudice any criminal prosecution.
My understanding is that launching a full inquiry now, as some have called for, would either risk prejudicing the criminal investigation or force the inquiry to be suspended immediately or in relatively short order—at least before it can get to the heart of the matter—pending the outcome of the police investigation. I might be corrected, but I recall that that was the reason the Public Administration Committee, under the chairmanship of the then Member for Cannock Chase, suspended its inquiry into cash for honours. I also recall that similar grounds were put forward by the previous Government in resisting calls for a public inquiry into the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, as requested by his family—because it might have interfered with either the health and safety prosecution against the Metropolitan police or the Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation that was going on at the same time.
That said, I am doubtful whether the criminal investigations or subsequent prosecutions—if that is where they lead—could shed enough light on the bigger picture and wider practice of what went on at the News of the World and the other newspapers or on the questions about the police response to the allegations at the time, particularly in relation to the Dowler case. Nevertheless, I have no intention of prejudging or second-guessing the outcome of those criminal investigations. That would be irresponsible. Given the risks of conducting a full inquiry at the same time, it appears inevitable now that we will have to wait for the outcome of the police investigation before any independent inquiry can properly get to the heart of the matter, the core of the business. In addition to the assurances already given to the House by the Attorney-General, I hope that Ministers will undertake to return here at that juncture so that the matter can then be properly considered by the House. I join colleagues in expressing the House’s determination and resolve to ensure that we get full answers to every one of the very serious questions that have emerged in recent days and weeks.
Let me start by congratulating and thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who has performed a great public service in the clear, precise and consistent way that he has pursued this issue, as has my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson). They have done us all a great favour, including this House.
The Attorney-General was right to tell the House that there are issues on which Ministers will say little in the short term. All the allegations need to be fully investigated and prosecutions should follow if the evidence substantiates them. We must do nothing in this House that would impede police investigations or the consequences being pursued. However, this issue goes far wider than that, as I am sure the Attorney-General would accept. It goes much wider than the faults or criminal activities of individuals, which is why a judicial or public inquiry needs to be established now. We need that assurance.
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s giving way, especially as I have been subject to an investigation by the police in connection with this matter. I wonder whether he could outline for us who he thinks would be of sufficient calibre to carry out such an investigation. Would they be an international figure or someone from the United Kingdom?
I do not have time to go into that adequately. What I would say is that we need a public inquiry with the capacity to get to the bottom of various issues. Therefore, it needs to be set up carefully and have appropriate powers, and not be the type of bureaucratic public inquiry that has sometimes got in the way of the truth emerging.
We have heard one of the investigators complaining about the relentless pressure of demands from the News of the World on investigators and journalists. I did not detect a great deal of sympathy in the House—I think I heard a bit of a groan, indicating a lack of sympathy—but pressure comes in two forms. One is the pressure to deliver—“You’re only as good as your next headline”—and the other is the general pressure of what is acceptable and expected in any profession, or the environment in which people do their work. It is important that both be addressed. At the heart of the matter are three issues. The first is the standard of journalism; and the second is the standard of governance in the press and the media. This could—indeed, should—be a watershed moment. In general, journalists want to be open and transparent and to do an honest job, but that is not easy all the time. I saw something of the power of the press pack as a young journalist in south Wales.
The Press Complaints Commission is well meaning but, frankly, it is a joke. The public and journalists deserve better. Its lack of influence and inability to change the environment or set standards lets down those who have earned a high reputation for themselves and for our better newspapers and media outlets. The Press Complaints Commission clearly has neither the will nor the capacity to change things, but we need to take care: statutory regulation of the press and media could endanger press independence, which would be a massive mistake. We need an independent body, but one that is robust and effective and has the powers to investigate and enforce. It would be a major step forward if such a body emerged from these events, as I hope will happen.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) told us that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner had referred the issue of possible payments to police officers to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, but the IPCC’s investigation needs to go a little wider. The Chair of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), pointed out that the information now coming into the public domain was in the possession of the police in 2006. I hope that the commissioner will refer that to the IPCC too. The Metropolitan police had also reported to Ministers. My right hon. Friends the Members for Delyn (Mr Hanson) and for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) had information on which they had to take their decisions, and so has the Select Committee on Home Affairs. Those issues relate to the conduct of the police and the activities of police officers and need to be looked at objectively. The IPCC should be asked to do that.
What the IPCC does should feed into the wider public inquiry; I do not think that the two are alternatives. The IPCC has the resources and the investigative capacities, and it has earned a reputation for being tough. It is therefore important that it should be able to ask the questions, “Did the police mislead Ministers and Parliament?”, “Did police receive money?”—that question has been referred to it already—and, “Did relationships distort investigations?” It is important that those questions should be forensically investigated as part of preparing the ground for the wider, transparent investigation that we need, as the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) said. I do not think that these are alternatives, but we need the forensic capacity of the IPPC to look into some of these issues.
The third issue is that we need clarity about the law. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, rightly said that the Committee had identified confusion about what the law says. That confusion should not exist. I refer specifically to the fact that John Yates told us that there were only a small number of victims, based on what he said was legal advice that the police would have to prove that messages had been intercepted and also listened to before being heard by the recipient. However, Kier Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, told us that that was not the advice given to detectives. Advice from prosecutors was at best provisional and did not limit the scope or extent of the criminal investigation—
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing this hugely important debate, which has already led to something of a breakthrough. The whole House should be grateful to him for his contribution.
I shall speak briefly but firmly in support of the motion. I was encouraged by the words of the Attorney-General earlier. This scandal has escalated dramatically. At first, it involved just the odd celebrity, and then a few members of their wider families. Then it emerged that members of staff employed by those celebrities had been hacked, some of whom lost their jobs because they were falsely accused of leaking information to the press. When absolutely pushed, the public said that they were uncomfortable with this news, but there was no outcry. That was because the many media commentators soothed them, saying, “It’s just celebrities. They know what they signed up for, and this is what it’s all about. It’s tittle-tattle.” We were told that the hacking was distasteful, but if we interfered with the press, we would never see any exposure of corruption, fraud or hypocrisy.
The hon. Gentleman has alluded to the continual drip, drip of further revelations. Given what has happened, does he agree that by this stage, anyone who has been hacked should at least be informed of that fact?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman 100%, and I suspect that everyone else does, too.
The revelations have continued, and in the past few days we have seen what appears to be almost a tsunami. We have heard the details involving the families of the tragic Soham girls, and the sickening details relating to Milly Dowler. I will not repeat them. We have also heard about the victims of 7/7. Those are all innocent people who never chose to be in the public limelight.
I suspect that, as the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) implied, this is the tip of the iceberg. We have no idea how big that iceberg is, which is why we need a full public inquiry. On its own, this scandal justifies such an inquiry. We have seen the abuse of position and power on an awesome scale. The blurred lines that we have allowed to exist for the press, to allow them to do what we need them to do, have been well and truly stretched. We have seen systemic abuse of almost unprecedented power. There is nothing noble in what those newspapers have been doing.
We cannot see this matter on its own, however, because the corporation has not acted on its own. Revelations last night, although they have yet to be proven, showed that a former editor provided authorisation for payments to the police. This demonstrates that the company was not acting on its own, and what can generously be described as a sloppy investigation by the police suggests that that collaboration ran very deep indeed. There can be few things more important to members of the public in this country than an ability to trust the police. Tragically, however, what began as a conspiracy theory is now looking less and less like a theory.
This does not even end with the police. As MPs, we depend on the media. We like to be liked by them; we need to be liked by them. We depend on the media, and that applies still more to Governments. It is an unavoidable observation that Parliament has behaved with extraordinary cowardice for many years, with a few very honourable exceptions, whom I shall identify. They are the hon. Members for Rhondda and for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) in particular, but they are not alone. Collectively, however, we have turned a blind eye. It is only with this latest sordid twist, the shameful behaviour of the News of the World in relation to Milly Dowler and the subsequent outpouring of public rage, that Parliament has finally found its—what is the correct term?—backbone, and taken a stand. Well, it is better late than never.
Rupert Murdoch is clearly a very talented business man and possibly even a genius, but his organisation has grown too powerful and it has abused its power. It has systematically corrupted the police and, in my view, has gelded this Parliament, to our shame.
I agree absolutely. It is not possible, as suggested earlier, to separate what we are talking about now from the proposed takeover. I think any separation would be entirely artificial. That deal needs to be put on hold by the Government until the dust has settled and we know where we stand. Anything less than that will be viewed as appalling by the public and will be met with a nod of disapproval. This is a crucial issue, so I hope to hear some more positive remarks about it in the wrap-up.
I have said what I came here to say and have only a few seconds left. This motion is hugely important. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Rhondda for this breakthrough and I hope the House will provide him with the support he deserves in pursuing this incredibly important agenda.
The whole country is rightly shocked at the revelations of what has been going on in our media, but today is not the time to go into details about who said what or did what at what time. Our role is to secure a full and open public inquiry. I note the acceptance of that by the Government Front-Bench team, but the issue now is when. We need to secure the available evidence to do a thorough job of investigating the issue now. The inquiry needs to be set up while the police investigations continue.
This debate is about what kind of country we want to be. A free press is an essential part of our democracy. It challenges us, exposes our weaknesses, sometimes helps to get our message across and keeps people informed of the arguments to help them to form a balanced opinion. However, the press has developed as Parliament has developed and there is a symbiotic relationship between politics and journalism. The issues we are debating here today really go to the heart of what kind of nation we want to be in the future.
We need to understand that what we are debating today has to do with how we treat weak and vulnerable people or the bereaved, and whether we stand up for people when they are under pressure or being unfairly treated, or whether we become part of a baying mob, egged on by the likes of the News of the World, eager for a kill just for the sheer excitement of it and heedless of the consequences for the victims and of whether what we are witnessing amounts to justice.
I do not believe that people want to live in that sort of country or feel that we have become such a country. The public do not share the values of the media people who have effectively brought this debate to the Floor of the House today. They do not share the values of those who have invaded the lives of innocent victims and bereaved families when they are grieving and at their most vulnerable.
I was not brought up in a country that stood by while others suffered. I always believed that the post-war Britain I grew up in was a country that stood up for fairness and perhaps for those who were not as strong as ourselves. I thought the country was populated by a heroic generation that was justifiably proud of what it had endured through the second world war and of the freedoms that had been won—not just for themselves but for the whole world. That was achieved by ordinary people doing extraordinary things for the greater good of everyone. It is these ordinary people we are defending today.
Who are the people who believe that they can trample over the lives of ordinary people and use them for their own ends or their own advancement? Should we allow ourselves to be seduced into accepting that the things these people dictate to us, claiming they are in our interest, are acceptable and should be allowed to happen?
I will not give way, if my hon. Friend does not mind.
I cannot go into the detail of specific cases, as others have done. What I will say, however—this is one of the points that I really wanted to make—is that I think there is a corporate responsibility. I applaud Ford for withdrawing its advertising from News Corporation. I also think that anyone who is not a fit and proper person to drive my old taxi should not be put in charge of a major news outlet.
Other organisations—Halifax, npower, T-Mobile and Orange—say that they are reconsidering their position, while Tesco and Virgin Media say that they will wait for the outcome of the police inquiry. That is not good enough. I say to people who may be purchasing goods from those organisations, or thinking of buying a new mobile phone, that they should not trade with companies that do not stand side by side with the ordinary person in the street who is outraged at what has gone on in News International.
Only if ordinary people make a stand will we stop these rich people—rich people who have invaded the lives of ordinary people in the street—making themselves even richer and even more powerful. Only by hurting them where it really matters—in their profits—will the ordinary person in the street influence their behaviour in the future.
As we have heard, the phone hacking scandal has been examined twice by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, of which I am a member. Our report published in July 2007 examined the self-regulation—or lack of it—of the press, partly in the light of the Goodman-Mulcaire revelations. It was claimed that the practice had been a one-off, but, even then, there was serious concern that the problem might be more widespread and that more investigation was needed.
The Press Complaints Commission had appeared toothless, while reports from the Information Commissioner in 2006 had hinted that illegal activity of all sorts was taking place, driven by the desire of tabloid newspapers—not just News International—to print sensational stories. Revelations in 2009 and 2010 forced us to look at the matter again. There was news that phone companies had positively identified a large number of probable and definite victims, information that Scotland Yard had refused to release and about which it was coy to the point of dissembling. It was becoming clear that Scotland Yard itself had not been handling the inquiry satisfactorily and that only the pursuit of the case by other media outlets was forcing any progress at all.
As the House knows, our inquiry concluded that we had not been told the truth. Our report stated:
“We strongly condemn this behaviour which reinforces the widely held impression that the press generally regard themselves as unaccountable and that News International in particular has sought to conceal the truth about what really occurred.”
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman heard yesterday’s interview on Radio 5 Live with my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), in which Stephen Abell, the director of the Press Complaints Commission, refused to accept any responsibility whatsoever for the behaviour of the press. I promoted a debate in the House on the self-regulation of the press. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that now is the time for a root-and-branch review of the commission?
I did not hear that interview, but when one considers the Press Complaints Commission, the phrase “chocolate teapot”, or indeed the phrase “fishnet condom”, comes to mind.
Our 2007 inquiry had elicited a response from News International that it had carried out a full inquiry itself and was satisfied that the Mulcaire-Goodman case was isolated. That was patently untrue. Our second inquiry encountered more obstacles: Goodman and Mulcaire refused to present evidence, as did Rebekah Brooks. More worrying were the attitude and answers of Scotland Yard.
I return to the point that I made to the Prime Minister today. We cannot have confidence in an investigation by the Metropolitan police; we can have confidence only in a full judicial inquiry with a judge who can take witnesses under oath, ask questions under oath, seek papers, and subpoena witnesses to appear. We desperately need that inquiry. Clearly, where there are allegations of criminal acts or there is the potential for collusion between suspects and the police, a more rigorous investigation is required than, sadly, a Select Committee can offer. It is also clear that we need to extend the scope beyond News International. Operation Motorman highlighted that the Daily Mail was trading most prolifically in illicit personal information, while the Daily Mirror, when under the auspices of Piers Morgan, is suspected of using voicemail interception to reveal Sven-Goran Eriksson’s affair with Ulrika Jonsson. Given that there are questions over Scotland Yard’s handling of the current case, it is essential that its actions are reviewed independently and that future action against suspected phone hackers does not remain solely the domain of the Met.
When the Culture, Media and Sport Committee looked at the first investigation under Andy Hayman, it found that there was the air of Inspector Clouseau about it, but as the subsequent investigation under John Yates progressed one almost got the impression that something far more sinister was at work. The revelations to date show that the police must have known far more than they let on, and that there is considerable scope for them to have misled Members of the House on several occasions.
Finally, let me say that I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for ensuring that we can hold this debate, and the whole House should be grateful to him for that as well.
May I add that Mr Speaker has done a great service to Parliament and the many victims and their families by allowing today’s debate?
Three years have now passed since we who serve on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee started our inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel. We undertook that inquiry because of the treatment the tabloid press meted out to the McCann family, and it took such a long time because we had to reopen the investigation into phone hacking, not for political reasons but for the integrity of this House as it was clear that we had been misled by News International. Last year, we did not believe its follow-up evidence either, and subsequent events have proved us right. As many people have said, the latest events are likely to prove to be the tip of the iceberg of cynicism, double standards, cover-up and law breaking over a long period by a publication that clearly felt itself to be above the law.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) made the point that the former Director of Public Prosecutions has now been taken on as a silk for News International, and that is indeed the case. He was DPP when Glenn Mulcaire was prosecuted. The Attorney-General said that that was a matter for his professional ethics, but surely this should have gone through the Cabinet Office as he was a senior public servant?
I entirely agree. The former DPP should be invited to examine not only his ethics and his conscience, but his record in this, because he is also culpable in the failure to get to the bottom of this affair.
Nothing should surprise us about the News of the World, but what did surprise us during our inquiry was the approach of the Metropolitan police and the evidence it gave to us. Our report was highly critical of the Met, but right up until the start of Operation Weeting in January there seemed to be a determination to limit the inquiry and close it down as quickly as possible. The concerns about that, and about the Metropolitan police’s links to a powerful Sunday tabloid, have long merited this independent inquiry that is going to be allowed today.
We must not lose sight of the fact that, despicable and unlawful as it is, phone hacking is just one clever ruse, and there is a further question any inquiry must address: was there a trade in information in return for payments or favours between the police and the News of the World that was not only unlawful or unethical, but was to the detriment of ordinary people—not just celebrities such as Sienna Miller, or politicians, but ordinary people who might be considered fair game by the News of the World, but whose well-being it is the police’s duty to protect? These questions alone constitute good grounds for an independent public inquiry.
Before the Prime Minister’s statement today, I was pondering whether we could rely on the News of the World, with its new spirit of thorough co-operation, to whistleblow on itself fully. I suggest the record rather suggests not. Indeed, following the publication of our report of February last year, News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks dismissed it, and News International issued a statement saying, with absolutely no hint of irony, that
“the reaction of the Committee to its failure to find any new evidence has been to make claims of ‘collective amnesia’, deliberate obfuscation and concealment of the truth.”
For good measure, it added, again with no irony, that
“certain members of this CMS Committee have repeatedly violated the public trust.”
Editor Colin Myler was more explicit. He singled out me and my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) in a full-page editorial:
“We’ll take no lessons in standards”.
“Sadly, the victims here are you, the public”.
That was very prescient of Mr Myler, but clearly not in the way he intended. That scathing, self-serving editorial ran to more than 1,100 words, whereas the eventual apology to victims in April this year ran to just 160 words. That would be comical if it were not so sad.
Much has been said about Rebekah Brooks, and I agree that her position is untenable. As for the editor of the News of the World—I will be charitable—Mr Myler has, by now, had so much wool pulled over his eyes that he clearly cannot find his own self-respect or his resignation; he is staying in post at the News of the World.
Could the Press Complaints Commission be trusted with an inquiry? Sadly, the answer is no. The PCC was lauded in that editorial, but this is how its chair, Baroness Buscombe, returned the compliment yesterday:
“There’s only so much we can do when people are lying to us.”
The PCC accepted none of our recommendations, including our suggestion for a new name—the press complaints and standards commission. The body commands little respect and it has a much-diminished chair. As for the police, Operation Weeting certainly seems to be more thorough, but beforehand there was little competition. It is time for a public inquiry, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has suggested.
Following the latest revelations there has been much talk of a “tipping point” for the press, but we have been at tipping points many times before—for example, with the McCann family—and nothing has changed. Above all, for the better of decent journalism in this country, all newspaper proprietors, not just Rupert Murdoch, must look themselves in the mirror and ask, “Do I like what I see?” and, “Do I care to change it?”
Yesterday, I momentarily hesitated before rising to support the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), but only because I was unfamiliar with the procedure—I did know that he was doing the right thing. I, too, congratulate him, and not only on bringing this debate to this House. I congratulate him also because I believe that a consensus is forming across this House, and that is to be welcomed.
I thought also yesterday that our newspapers had sunk to the darkest moment in their history, given the revelations about the tapping of Milly Dowler’s phone. It is important that we get the language right; we are talking about the theft of evidence, the destruction of evidence, the impeding of the investigation into the disappearance of a child and, as it turned out, a murder investigation. I might have misheard the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), but if I heard him correctly and he is right in what he was saying, all of that was known by the Metropolitan police back in 2002. For reasons that I cannot comprehend, no investigation was undertaken by the Metropolitan police at that time into what were undoubtedly extremely serious criminal offences. I am absolutely confident that this new inquiry will look into the dealings of the police, because the spotlight is rightly now not just on our newspapers; it is moving on to our police. What has been going on concerns me greatly.
Yesterday was also a bleak day for our newspapers, because we saw the Attorney-General prosecute two of them for contempt of court for their coverage of the arrest of a man in Bristol in relation to the murder of Jo Yeates. I wholeheartedly congratulate the Attorney-General on taking that prosecution, as it was a courageous move. The hon. Member for Rhondda talked about the need for politicians to be courageous and I absolutely agree. We must be not only courageous, but honest. I will be honest and say that I am not sure that I was as courageous as I should have been with my private Member’s Bill in February. That is because any politician treads exceptionally cautiously when they stand up in this place to criticise the press and ask for it to be curtailed. As the hon. Gentleman said, we know the possible consequences of making that sort of move.
Have not the words of Stanley Baldwin some 70 years ago, when he described the press as having
“power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”
been brought to bear by this most grotesque example that we have discussed today?
I concur absolutely, and I am sure that that sentiment is echoed across the House.
Such is my concern—I have been persuaded by much of what I have heard today—that I think there must now be a pause in the consideration of the matter that has been referred to and will be determined by Ofcom. I urge the Secretary of State to consider whether we should pause things, given what has happened.
In the time remaining, I want to return to the subject of my private Member’s Bill. I am not sure whether it falls within the remit of the public inquiry, but I hope that the Government will consider changing the law. I believe that the press has lost the moral plot and I say that with a heavy heart because before I went back to the Bar I trained as a journalist and worked as one for many years. I am proud to be a member of the National Union of Journalists and I was mother of the chapel at Central in Nottingham. I look on my brothers and sisters at a national level with, frankly, despair. It is important to remind ourselves that small local papers are very different from national papers—
I cannot hear the hon. Gentleman’s sedentary intervention, which is probably a good thing.
In all seriousness, it is right and fair to say that all of us know from our considerable experience that local papers act properly and responsibly. We all enjoy a perfectly proper relationship with them—a relationship that has not been enjoyed between other politicians and national newspapers, which is a situation that must change.
It comes down to this: if people did not buy these newspapers, we would not have this problem. Too many people have an insatiable appetite for gossip, trivia, scandal and the scum of life and that is why we have found ourselves in this position. If people did not buy such papers—I hope that on Sunday the News of the World will get its real punishment through a complete and total slump in its sales—we would effectively see the sort of regulation and change that we all want. There must be a huge cultural shift not only in how we deal with newspapers but in how they conduct themselves. They should act in a much better and more responsible manner in future.
I strongly support my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and, of course, the demand for a public inquiry, but I want to argue that its remit should perhaps be a little wider than the immediate phone hacking affair.
The central question concerns the governance of News International, the present chief executive of which, Rebekah Brooks, says that it is “inconceivable” that she knew about phone hacking—[Laughter.] That was her word. A former News of the World journalist, Paul McMullan, said in effect that it was inconceivable that she did not know, however. The idea that she will stay on, effectively to investigate herself, is simply surreal.
It was News International that paid out large sums of hush money to cover up evidence of criminality within the organisation and that, according to the PCC, lied to the regulator, yet that is the company seeking the right to become the most powerful media company that this country has ever seen. Based on the evidence that is already known—never mind that which is still due to come out from the other 11,000 pages of Glen Mulcaire’s notes—I cannot see how the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport can let that go through. After today and after this week, almost the whole country will be behind that view.
There are wider questions. The first concerns the media plurality that the Secretary of State likes to pray in aid to explain how hemmed in he is by statute. The answer to that question is that, as formulated, the system is antique and obsolete when faced with a behemoth such as the Murdoch empire. The combination of News Corporation and BSkyB will be in a position to distort or bend competition through cross-promotion, price bundling, preventing rivals from advertising and other distortions in the advertising market. The fact is that none of those issues, which are crucial to the question of competitiveness, was even considered by the Secretary of State. That is the decisive reason why he should reconsider.
I would love to give way to my right hon. Friend, but I am under instructions not to give way.
In particular, the idea cooked up by News International that putting Sky News into a separate company somehow preserves media plurality is utterly spurious. Newco, the company that will run Sky News, will be dependent on News Corporation for 85% of its revenues and for access to the market, and the safeguards for editorial independence are weak and of the kind that News International has repeatedly undermined before. Neither Ofcom nor the Office of Fair Trading regards this arrangement as a sustainable solution, the two-week consultation period was clearly inadequate, and the arrangement puts far too much power in the hands of the Secretary of State rather than independent regulators. Those are all very strong reasons why the Secretary of State has to look at this again, after a pause, which the whole House is asking for.
Lastly, I want to say something about the Press Complaints Commission, which is surely one of the most ineffective performers in the regulatory landscape. It played absolutely no role whatever in uncovering the phone hacking revelations; indeed, it far too readily dismissed The Guardian’s original warnings nearly two years ago. I really do think that the PCC has been so poor that the public inquiry should look again at the future of self-regulation after so many cautions, including David Mellor’s warning 20 years ago—
First, let me apologise to hon. Members who might wonder why I have been called, given that I left the Chamber earlier. I went to see the Third Reading of my private Member’s Bill in the other place; unfortunately, there seemed to be a mini-debate on Lords reform first.
I absolutely share hon. Members’ feelings of being appalled at the revelations and allegations being made today. Of course I extend my sympathy to the victims, including Beverli Rhodes, a 7/7 survivor whom people might have heard on LBC this morning saying that she was concerned that her phone had been hacked.
There are several issues to discuss, but I am afraid I might break the somewhat cosy consensus that has developed so far. There is no question but that the police investigation has been shown to be unsatisfactory, as we have seen from previous reports of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. However, there are some things we can do straight away. The whole business of dancing on the head of a pin regarding whether certain hacking is illegal could be dealt with by a simple change to clause 1 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. I have confidence that Deputy Assistant Commissioner Akers will make some progress with Operation Weeting, but I also understand that it might be appropriate to bring in an external force to help with that.
The hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) has brought in some new allegations about News International today. I agree that News International has not helped itself with its drip-drip feed of information and, perhaps, casual approach to investigation internally. I do not know whether the actions were deliberate or whether there were simply people there who were out of control. What I do know is that News Corp did finally react, and has brought in people to do an investigation, which is the right thing to do alongside the police inquiry.
I believe that a witch hunt against Rebekah Brooks is being developed. I do not hold a candle for her—I met her once last year at a Conservative party conference and I am sure that she has been at Labour party conferences before—but I am worried about this aspect. This is not the time to hold back evidence, and I hope that my hon. Friends will present evidence rather than simply say that Rebekah Brooks was the editor at the time. Let me give the analogy of a sales director I know of from my previous commercial experience who was pressurising his sales people to keep up with their quotas and find new business. He was not aware that two people were indulging in what could be called illegal practices—basically, bribing people—and it is right that we found that out, but I am not saying it was right for that sales director to be told they personally had to resign.
I cannot give way, because I know that other people want to speak.
I also recognise that Operation Motorman and Operation Glade took place. Indeed, Rebekah Brooks herself was told that her phone might have been hacked and that the Home Office and the police also tapped her phone—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] I am just saying that it happens to a number of people. What that reflects, as the Information Commissioner discussed in his report back in 2006, is that the problem was not unique to one news group. The multiple inquiries that we have, which I fully support, should look across the news industry, not solely at News International.
There is also a route within Parliament to address this. We have heard today about how Parliament did not react, but the Culture, Media and Sport Committee did. We also have an opportunity to address this issue through the privacy committee being set up to look at super-injunctions. We could extend its terms to address this, in addition to the public inquiry. Given the lack of confidence in previous Members of the House, perhaps it should have a majority of new Members.
Moving forward, I should like the police inquiry to be given as much resource as it needs to reach its conclusions very quickly. I want the public inquiries to be established and I should like the privacy committee to be enhanced. Finally, let me make one point about BSkyB. News International is not News Corp, Rebekah Brooks is not a director of News Corp or BSkyB, and I understand that she has no intention of ever being so.
Some years ago I was a questioned as a witness in the investigation in the “cash for honours” allegations, because I am a former staff member at No. 10 Downing street. Those allegations may have harmed the Labour party’s capacity to raise money, because people did not want to go near our party in case their reputation was trashed in the media. The allegations may have harmed our ability to win elections, thus resulting in our being in opposition, rather than in government. The police investigation, however, came to nothing. There were no prosecutions, no charges and no case that the Crown Prosecution Service thought worthy of prosecution.
During those investigations thousands of e-mails and notes were investigated, and dozens of people were interviewed. Those who were questioned—and in some cases arrested, although never charged—often found themselves in the newspapers immediately, as the twists and turns of the investigation leaked out. People were taken from their beds in the early hours of the morning and appeared immediately all over the newspapers, even though they were innocent of any crime.
It is absolutely right that the police should be tireless in their pursuit of truth and that no obstacle should stand in their way, but it is impossible not to draw a contrast between the zeal with which that ultimately fruitless investigation was pursued and the investigation into hacking by the News of the World—particularly in view of the fact that, as we have heard from the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), the Chair of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, most of the evidence that has emerged in recent days has been in the hands of the police since 2006. Why was the defence of one rogue operator believed for so long, as it has become clear that the practice was much more systematic? Why, after each new piece of information comes out, do we suddenly find that new e-mails are uncovered?
The affair focuses on the conduct of the News of the World and the victims of the practice of phone hacking, but the conduct of the newspaper—and perhaps of other newspapers that may be involved—is not the only question. Given the history of the issue, we must consider the question of who in this affair polices the police, and asks hard questions about the police investigation. That investigation may have been stepped up, but we need an inquiry to ask hard questions about the relationship between the police and the News of the World in particular—about payment for information and the trade in information and personal details. Whether it is an IPCC inquiry or the public inquiry for which we have called, those questions are part of the picture.
The Attorney-General rightly said that there must not be one law for the powerful and another for the non-powerful, but it is also true that there should not be one law for part of the powerful—the political world—and another law for another part of the powerful, which is the media world. All of us must be equal and subject to the law.
Any newspaper or other media outlet that interferes by hacking or any other means into people’s phones, e-mails or post, and any newspaper that interferes with police investigations to maximise profits and concoct more salacious headlines, is acting despicably and illegally, and inflicts more pain on victims. Any claim that it is acting in the public interest, or that it is all down to a single rogue operator, will be treated with the derision and scorn that it deserves. That newspaper should expect the full force of the law to bear down on it, and it should feel the heat as consumers and advertisers vote with their feet. I am pleased that that is exactly what is beginning to happen.
It is difficult to believe that those illegal activities, given their scale and the specific nature of the information that was being supplied to a newspaper—which could not, in my view, have been obtained legally—were restricted to one private investigator or one newspaper. It is hard to understand why the original police inquiry was so truncated. For those reasons there is agreement in the House today on the need for a wide inquiry or inquiries headed by a judge. The inquiries should look at which media used those illegal techniques, what can be done to address what is clearly a widespread cultural problem within the industry, and what changes to the law might be required.
We also need to tackle the Met and examine what went wrong with the original inquiry, where it appears that not only was every stone not turned over, but a whole rockery was left in place. Were payments made? Were investigations hindered as a result of other unacceptable activities? Those are just some of the matters that the judge and the Home Secretary—if that is who sets the terms of reference—will want the inquiry to examine. We will need to establish a clear time scale and the costings for the inquiry.
There are many other aspects that I wanted to touch on, but time is short. We are faced with a scandal of expanding proportions, including hacking, allegations of interference in police investigations, and claims that payments have been made to officers. To restore faith and trust in the police and the media, we must lock up the guilty, establish a statutory inquiry, shine a cleansing light on the culture of the media and, if necessary, of the police, and implement the reforms necessary to ensure that the privacy of victims and citizens is never intruded on again. It is clear from today’s debate that this is the will of the House, and we are committed to making it happen.
I extend my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing this emergency debate, and on his longstanding and tireless campaign to bring these issues to light, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson).
There have been many thoughtful, powerful, comprehensive and brave contributions from Members in all parts of the House today, including from a number of the victims and alleged victims of the phone hacking scandal, and from several Chairs of Select Committees who have been involved in investigating the matter. It is clear that all Members of the House hold a common view that the ongoing criminal investigation into phone hacking activity must take priority.
It is important to be clear that we on the Opposition Benches would not support any course of action that could or would put the hard work of the police and investigators, or any future criminal prosecutions, at risk. Our priority and focus must be on ensuring that justice is secured for people who have been victims of that crime. In considering this issue, it is of course important to reiterate that the increasingly shocking and distressing revelations in this scandal should by no means result in all journalists and newspapers, whether national or local, being tarred with the same brush. The incredibly important role played by the tireless campaigning of The Guardian on the issue has been mentioned. The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) paid tribute to the great work of local journalists too.
However, a criminal justice system that inspires public confidence and an independent, rigorously regulated media are two key planks of a functioning democracy, and it is clear that both of these have been damaged by this developing scandal. The allegations unfolding daily, and sometimes hourly, have thrown up many more issues than can be dealt with or resolved through criminal investigations and prosecutions alone. We are not alone in saying this. The Government should listen to the public and, as the shadow Home Secretary outlined earlier, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner himself. That is why we welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment today to hold a public inquiry, or inquiries, into the issues that have arisen as a result of this scandal.
I am afraid that I cannot, as time is very short.
As outlined earlier, given the potential conflicts of interest, we need reassurance about exactly what the Prime Minister’s role will be in this. I must also reference the widespread concerns expressed by Members across the House about News Corp’s takeover of BSkyB. I trust that the Attorney-General and the Culture Secretary will treat all these concerns with the seriousness they deserve and take action accordingly. Although the Attorney-General said that he was mindful of the comments that have been made during the course of the debate, we have not been reassured that positive steps to set up a full, independent, wide-ranging and transparent inquiry will be taken without delay.
Without jeopardising any criminal investigations or future prosecutions, the Government can begin the work of agreeing the nature and scope of the inquiry and who will take it forward before those criminal proceedings are complete. Criminal investigations into, and prosecutions for, phone hacking will certainly take months to reach a conclusion, and possibly years. If we are to start to rebuild the public’s confidence in our criminal justice system and the operation of our newspaper industry, the public and the victims of this dreadful crime need the reassurance of a public inquiry now.
We have had an important and overwhelmingly thoughtful debate on a subject of deep significance not only to the House, but to a huge number of people across the country. Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have, as is perfectly reasonable, expressed their disgust and outrage at the latest allegations we have heard over the past few days.
To hack into the phone messages of victims of murder and terrorism and their families will strike all right-thinking people as completely beyond the pale. As the Prime Minister has made clear, and as the Attorney-General stated at the start of the debate, the Government share the shock of the House and the nation. Our thoughts are with the families of those affected by this latest cruel twist in what has been for many of them an horrific ordeal. The Dowler family have gone through more in the last few weeks and years than any family should ever have to go through. The same is true of the families of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. Now, as we approach the sixth anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings, we hear that the families of the victims of our worst ever terrorist attack might also have had their phones hacked. The timing is a particularly terrible irony, as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said at the outset of the debate.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on behalf of the whole House not only on obtaining the debate, but on fighting for so many years on the issue. I congratulate him also on striking exactly the right tone in the debate; it is a matter on which the House needs to move forward as one. I also agree with the shadow Home Secretary’s point that one of the institutions that need to look at how they operate in this regard is the House of Commons, which must decide how best to deal with such difficult matters that not only give rise to complex issues of public policy, but require personal bravery on the part of individual Members by putting themselves and their reputations on the line. She made that point and it is exactly right.
It is not just the rich and famous whose lives may have been affected—although they, too, have basic rights to privacy and fair dealings—but the families of those who have suffered pain beyond what any of us can imagine have had their lives intruded on. The hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), who also deserves congratulations, provided new and powerful evidence about some of the things that have gone on. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) made the particularly important point that, although much of the debate has inevitably concentrated on News International, the subject is much wider and relates to other press groups and newspapers as well.
I also praise the honesty of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), the former Home Secretary, and the former Police Minister, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), in revealing that some of the untruths and cover-ups that they might have had to deal with meant that they either took decisions that in retrospect they might wish they had not taken, or, indeed, actively said things that misled the House. It is important that everyone accepts the honest tone in which such revelations have been made. I congratulate also my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), who made a powerful point about not endangering prosecutions.
I apologise, but I really do not have time.
Owing to the seriousness of the allegations and to the fresh information, the Metropolitan police service decided in January to open a new investigation, which many Members have mentioned. It is being led by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, and I should emphasise that it involves a completely separate unit in the Met from the one that carried out the original investigation in 2006. It is one of the largest ongoing police investigations, and it is precisely because of this new, thorough investigation that new evidence and information about what exactly went on is being obtained. The investigation has already led to five arrests, and it is entirely possible that there will be further arrests and, potentially, further prosecutions.
The Director of Public Prosecutions has announced that the Crown Prosecution Service will examine any evidence resulting from the Met investigation, and it has asked Alison Levitt QC, who has had no previous involvement in the case, to take a robust approach in deciding whether any prosecutions can be brought.
The Home Secretary spoke this morning to Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. He assured her that the current investigation is fully resourced and proceeding well; he told her that any allegations of inappropriate payments made to police officers by journalists is being fully and independently investigated in conjunction with the Independent Police Complaints Commission; and he assured the Home Secretary also that this matter will continue to be investigated through Operation Elveden, under the direction of Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, in partnership with the Met’s directorate of professional standards.
Of course, a number of cases may go before the courts, so it is important that we do not prejudge or prejudice potential future prosecutions. We must allow the current police investigation to get to the bottom of these terrible allegations and to discover the truth, but it is clear that, in the light of the step change in the seriousness of the allegations, we must have a public inquiry or inquiries into these matters.
Three hours having elapsed since the start of proceedings, the motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 24).