Skip to main content

Newspapers: Surveillance Methods

Volume 712: debated on Thursday 9 July 2009


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism (Mr David Hanson), entitled, “Newspapers: Surveillance Methods”.

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

The original allegations date back to 2006, following which, as the House will be aware, there were convictions. However, serious allegations have appeared in the newspapers this morning, which clearly go much wider than the original case. That is why I have spoken this morning to the Assistant Commissioner Specialist operations, John Yates, and why my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has spoken to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner within the past hour. The Metropolitan Police are urgently considering these allegations and will be making a statement this afternoon. It would be wrong for me in any way to pre-empt that statement as this is first and foremost an operational matter for the Metropolitan Police. However, I give an undertaking to the House that I will report back following the considerations by the Metropolitan Police, when I can do so”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. The story that appeared in the Guardian this morning raises a number of important questions about the individual's right to privacy and how that right is protected.

All sides of your Lordships' House undoubtedly cherish and want to safeguard freedom of the press, but this freedom and the right of members of the press not to have their work interfered with and to pursue stories that are in the public interest also entails obligations and responsibilities. Journalists are obliged to obey the law and conform to the Press Complaints Commission's code of practice, which sets the standards expected of journalists in conducting their work.

There can be no justification for the use of illegal methods to secure a story. Understandably, there have been calls from those who might have been the victims of the reported illegal interception of mobile phones for an explanation of why they were not informed of the investigation and possible criminal wrongdoing—indeed, with a view to prosecution. As the Minister said, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police took prompt action and directed Assistant Commissioner John Yates to, as he put it, “establish the facts” about the allegations.

Since the Statement was made in the other place, the assistant commissioner has reported, about an hour ago. He said that contrary to the impression created by reports, hundreds, not thousands, of people had been potential victims of phone tapping. He also took the view that there was insufficient evidence in the majority of cases to prosecute. He made the important statement that no additional evidence was found to warrant further investigation. That is the police side. Mr John Yates emphasised that the Metropolitan Police were looking only at the interception of phones.

It would be wrong to think that the issues raised by the Guardians story or the report by the Metropolitan Police are particularly new, or indeed that they cover only the area that the police have just looked at. These issues have been going on for several years and extend more widely than the police’s investigation. In 2006, an investigation was conducted by the Information Commissioner. He found and exposed,

“an extensive illegal trade in confidential personal information”,


“evidence of a widespread and organised undercover market in confidential personal information”,

that contravened the Data Protection Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

This is about the right to privacy. In his report, What Price Privacy?, the Information Commissioner discovered that at least 305 journalists, to his personal knowledge—as a result of his investigation—had been involved in the illegal trade in confidential or personal information. He also established that the illegal activities were not limited to one newspaper or newspaper group but were happening across a large number of titles and newspaper groups. Even that is not the full story. The Information Commissioner noted that although,

“among the ultimate ‘buyers’ there are many journalists looking for a story”,

other cases have involved finance companies and local authorities wanting to trace debtors, estranged couples with one party seeking the details of another partner’s whereabouts, or criminals intent on fraud, witness or juror intimidation. He states that the industry of discovering information that should be personal and private extends into many walks of life for other purposes.

The reports today are obviously dominated by the allegations of interception of mobile phones, which constitutes only a portion of the market in illegal activity. The Information Commissioner’s report makes clear that government databases are also being sourced illegally. They include the DVLA database and the police national database. The private sector has also been targeted, with people accessing records of ex-directory numbers from phone companies to convert phone numbers into private addresses. It would be helpful to know whether the Minister is satisfied that the DVLA database and the police national database are now secure from such misuse.

The Information Commissioner did a thorough job in his report, but there are questions today about his role, because of reports that he has not made public all the extensive documentation relevant to his investigation. It would be helpful to know if the Minister is aware of whether the Information Commissioner will make any further statement about his inquiries.

There are also some longer-term institutional issues which we on these Benches think need to be addressed. There are questions about the action taken by—or perhaps, the inaction of—the Press Complaints Commission, which is a self-regulatory body for the industry. In his 2006 report, the Information Commissioner made a number of recommendations, including that the PCC amend its code of practice and issue warnings about the use of illegal methods. That did not happen. In this context, it is worth citing the view of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which stated in 2007:

“If the industry is not prepared to act unless a breach of the law is shown to have occurred already then the whole justification for self-regulation is seriously undermined”.

Is the Minister aware of any government plans to review the commissioner's role as a result?

We know that information is often sourced through the private investigation industry, members of which work loosely in chains that may include several intermediaries between the ultimate customer and the person who actually obtains the information, as was illustrated earlier. For that reason, the Information Commissioner criticised the laxity of the licensing regime of private investigators and made recommendations on the subject to the Security Industry Authority, the Association of British Investigators and the Office of Fair Trading, recommending that the licensing rules be tightened. Given that that was three years ago, can the Minister tell us how much progress has been made and how confident the Government are that those organisations are now on top of those issues?

Finally, there is one issue of a cultural nature. It is fair to say that there will always be attempts to acquire personal information through illegal means for purposes for which the information should not be spread and was not intended. Essentially, this is a cultural issue. It is imperative that those in possession of our personal information in both the public and private sectors behave as responsible custodians and are circumspect about requests for data.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and I am sorry that it has put him in a rather difficult position. Since the Statement was made, the Met has ruled out the need for any further investigation, which seems astonishing as it has had barely six hours to establish whether there was anything to investigate further. Six hours does not seem anything like an adequate amount of time to do that.

Is the Minister satisfied with the role of the police? The original investigation into the News of the World bugging scandal was carried out by the anti-terrorist police because of the security implications around the fact that royal phones had been bugged. Counter Terrorism Command, CO15, took the controversial decision not to inform the other public figures whose phones had been targeted. Why was that? Was that under the guise of counterterrorism and things that need to be kept secret, but that should not have been? What did the police tell the Director of Public Prosecutions at that time? What did he know about the volume of tapping that had been going on? Did he know and decide not to take action, or did they not tell him? The Met still faces a large number of questions about whether senior officers intervened not only in phone tapping but also, as the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, has pointed out, as regards the amount of illegal buying of data that has been going on. Were the police aware of that?

There could be about an hour’s worth of questions on this incident and on the roles of many individuals and institutions, including the role of the PCC. Sir Christopher Meyer was chair at the time of the Coulson debacle. The PCC’s subsequent report failed to uncover any substantial evidence. But the Information Commissioner, who was the only person to come out of this with any credibility, asked the PCC to issue a clear public statement warning journalists and editors of the very real risk of committing criminal offences. The PCC resisted doing that and just produced guidance which the Information Commissioner at the time found very disappointing.

Now I turn to the role of Parliament and this House. In 2008, during the passage of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, under Clause 75, we debated whether there should be a prison sentence of two years for people, including journalists, who were caught unlawfully obtaining personal data. But we also debated whether there should be a special defence for journalism and, if so, what that defence should be. During the passage of that Act, the legal manager of News International, Alastair Brett, e-mailed me and sought a meeting. News International was most concerned at the idea of the increased tariffs or diminished defences. Now we can see why. It put tremendous pressure on the Government to drop the idea of prison sentences for journalists being included in the Act. Was it actually the Prime Minister who instructed that that legislation be dropped?

At the end of the debate on that Act, the conclusion was that we would not include it in the Bill, but that it would be brought in by order if necessary. Will that order now be brought in urgently so that when those who have been organising these appalling systematic intrusions into people’s private lives have been on trial, they will get the punishment that they deserve, rather than a paltry fine? The fact that we did not pass this to go in the Bill seems a tremendous mistake now. That order needs to be brought in urgently. When the News International chairman, Les Hinton, was giving evidence to the Select Committee, he said that the phone hacking was a one-off case. If the Guardian evidence is to be believed, there is a lot of disdain for Parliament, and an immense amount of illegal action has been going on, which should result in a criminal record for a large number of people.

I can completely understand why Members on the Conservative Front Bench do not want to mention Mr Coulson. Undoubtedly, they feel contaminated by their association with him. There is no doubt that some of this custom and practice developed on his watch. No one could seriously believe that it suddenly developed overnight after he had left. For the sake of their credibility on privacy issues and law and order, I hope the Conservatives will join me in calling, at least, for the order to be enacted. I hope the Minister will confirm tonight that it will be enacted, so that when an investigation takes place—as it should and I hope he will press the police on this matter—and, eventually, when this comes to trial, there will be a proper punishment.

My Lords, I apologise for being overdressed but I have just come from a wonderful party, given by Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace, for the Fleet Air Arm on its 100th year, which I know the whole House will want to celebrate.

The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, quite rightly said that this action is quite unacceptable. The judge in the Goodman trial said that is not about press freedom: it has nothing to do with press freedom. We all believe in press freedom but this is a grave and serious invasion of privacy and data belonging to single individuals. That is exactly what it is. Under RIPA, it is against the law to intercept and take data in this way and the penalty can be up to two years’ imprisonment or a fine. One can already put people away for two years under RIPA. It has been a fast-moving scene today. I was first aware of this story when I listened to the “Today” programme this morning; that is probably the same for the Home Secretary and my right honourable friend David Hanson in the other place. Since then, this afternoon there was a statement by the assistant commissioner for specialist operations, John Yates, who is a highly experienced police officer. He is very clear in that statement that the original investigation was thorough and that the prosecution decisions, based on the available evidence, were fully considered by the CPS and leading counsel. I have no reason to second-guess that or the agency or counsel’s opinion.

However, he also said at the end of his statement:

“I need to make sure that we have been diligent, reasonable and sensible and informed anyone who may have been a victim of phone tapping”.

I did not hear him make the statement but I take that to mean that there is more work going on, and he is still looking at this in more detail. I do not believe that it was his final statement. I assume that that is correct but I will certainly check later to make sure that it is what is happening. There has also been a statement from the DPP. He has said that the CPS will look at this whole issue again. John Whittingdale, the head of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee is reopening the investigation. A number of people will be looking at this. I want to be very wary of making quick statements because I have learnt from bitter experience that, when something sudden and urgent happens, the worst thing possible is to make snap judgments and statements about it. We need to sit back and get all of this information to see exactly what happened and then take some balanced decisions.

I am afraid that I am not fully au fait with the Information Commissioner’s report of 2006. I will certainly make sure that I look at it and I know that the Government will look at it because these are extremely important issues. We would be silly to pretend that, over history, people have not tried to find out information about each other. There are ways of doing it that are probably acceptable and there are ways that are not. We must draw a clear line, realising that when they are not acceptable and allowable, we need to ensure that we are able to protect people. Indeed, for electronic data and so on, the recent cybersecurity strategy that we produced tries to achieve exactly that for the individual as well as for the nation, big industries and so on.

The noble Baroness made a very good point about government databases. I am not sure of the answer as regards the DVLA database but I shall get back to her in writing on that. The police national database is absolutely secure and is very well looked after. A lot of work has been done on that. Indeed, a lot of work has been done to tighten up databases. Let us not kid ourselves: we do not have a good record as regards looking after data. That applies not just to this Government but to our nation, companies and everyone. As I have said previously on the Floor of the House, we all need to get a lot better at this because data are where we are today and we must make sure that we look after them properly. As I say, I am happy as regards the police national database and will get back to the noble Baroness about the DVLA database.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Neville-Jones and Lady Miller, both referred to the Press Complaints Commission. Again, I am not exactly sure what was said about that at the time. This is part of what we will have to look at because it is all part of the totality of seeing where we go from here. Very serious issues have been raised which we absolutely need to bottom out.

I have touched on the fact that I think the Met will look at this further. That is what I assume from the Statement. I will check that and if I am wrong about it I will get back to the House on that issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, referred to the role of Parliament and imposing sentences on people who invade the privacy of others. I am afraid that I was not privy to the debate about the two-year sentence. As I say, there is a two-year penalty in RIPA.

My Lords, to clarify, the Data Protection Act is the relevant Act, given that lots of data have been bought and sold. The Government are supposed to introduce an order under the Data Protection Act.

My Lords, as I say, I am not up to speed on that. I shall look at it and get back to the noble Baroness because I am not aware that we are intending to move forward rapidly on that. When we have considered the impact of this matter we may change our view on that, but first we need to determine exactly what that impact is. No doubt if anything arises from further investigations of Mr Coulson by the Met, the DPP and the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, something will be done. Other than saying that, I do not wish to comment on that further. I hope that I have answered the questions that were asked.

My Lords, the Minister has long been a doughty defender of the liberties of the individual in this country. I thank him for repeating the Statement and for his further comments. However, I wish to take the matter a little further. He pointed out that there is a low level of awareness of the significantly more sophisticated methods now being employed by people in terms of data breaching and breaking into telephone and other communications systems. This is occurring on a scale that we certainly did not see a decade ago. As the Minister well knows, there is an increasing tendency for people to hack into security systems. Only yesterday there was a major hacking incident at the Pentagon and other US government agencies which have the most tightly secured databases. This suggests that we shall have to deal with this factor for a long time to come. A crucial aspect is that it cannot be dealt with simply on the basis of taking administrative decisions about tightening up data systems. At the end of the day a clear criminal sanction must be imposed by the courts to stop people committing these crimes.

Like many others in this House, I did much work in eastern Europe in the 1990s. I was most conscious of the astonishing way in which the Stasi in East Germany had used data that had been leaked to it—in some cases people had been compelled to give it—in order to blackmail and put pressure on people who were attempting to uphold the principles of democracy. At one point something like one in every 70 East Germans were recruited by the Stasi to spy on others or to get hold of sensitive, private data.

I do not wish to delay the House but I trust that we will take this matter very seriously. Extremely troubling allegations have been made in the Guardian and elsewhere in the past day or so. Given that there is likely to be no further opportunity for a Statement before the House rises at the end of this month, will the Government make clear what steps they and other institutions such as Parliament propose to take.

This is my final point, because I do not want to delay the House. What emerges so clearly from the information that we have received is the almost total failure of the institutions that we set up, particularly to protect the privacy of individuals and the security of data, to take this issue seriously. Those institutions include the Press Council, which should be ashamed of its failure to investigate some of the allegations that were made to it, and, sadly, our own media committees in another place, which do not seem to have taken these matters as seriously as they should have. Will the Minister agree to put some letter or statement in the Library to enable us to see what the Government intend to do about these very serious issues?

My Lords, I can assure the noble Baroness that we take this very seriously. The reason why I am not giving a knee-jerk initial reaction to everything is that I take the issue so seriously. We need to look at the full implications of all of this across the board and then think about how we should act. My right honourable friend Mr David Hanson in the other place gave an undertaking that he would report back following these considerations and presumably I will repeat a Statement here as a result of that. I imagine that that probably will not be before Parliament rises, but I do not know. If it is, clearly I will; if not, my right honourable friend has given an undertaking and it will happen.

As regards clear criminal responsibility, there are already certain criminal punishments for some aspects of these things. The noble Baroness is right to say that we perhaps need to look at this more broadly. Interestingly in the cybersecurity package that I have put in place, we will have people in CSOC looking at ethics and possible legislation, should that be considered necessary. The noble Baroness is absolutely right to say that people do not understand this; they do not understand their vulnerability. Even cards for various stores and so on give away a great deal of data about people. People do not think about or understand what they are doing sometimes when they provide data in that way.

The American situation is far worse, as I have said previously on the Floor of the House. The Americans are spending some $17 billion to try to get their systems in order. Part of the problem is that they were in this game well before us, so their computer systems were set up earlier and they have a huge number of portals—more than 8,000—into their government systems, which means that, actually, it is not that difficult to hack into them. That is why President Obama is intent on doing something. We are better placed, but—my goodness—we are not complacent. Our is much tighter and much better controlled and gives us a lot of protection, but we are by no means complacent. These are all very important issues, which we need to take ahead.

My Lords, my question will be very brief. Will all the victims be informed privately that they were targets of this illegal activity?

My Lords, that is an extremely good question. I think that they should all be told. It will be something that we will certainly pursue to see how the Metropolitan Police takes this forward. It is an operational matter, but instinctively it seems to me that people ought to know if this happened. I would be very unhappy to think that people were not being told, just because they were not quite sure of some of the detail of the information. I will pursue this but, in the final analysis, it is a matter for the Metropolitan Police Service.

My Lords, the point that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has just made is surely the most significant of all. There are victims here—people whose identity must be known to the police. If, as the noble Baroness said, the police say that hundreds, rather than thousands, have been affected, the police must know their identity. It must be right and proper for those people to be told that they have been part of this surveillance state. There must be civil remedies open to them through which they can pursue the matter through the courts if the police decline to.

My Lords, this is not a surveillance state—if I may get that comment in. This has nothing to do with the state. This is to do with private individuals breaking the law. We have very strict rules indeed governing our surveillance. However, I absolutely take the force of the argument. As I have said, I believe that we should inform people. Assistant Commissioner John Yates said that there was insufficient evidence to establish that tapping had been achieved and that, where there was evidence, people were contacted. In a sense, he is saying that if there was insufficient evidence, people were not told. If there is a suspicion that people were being tapped, I think that they should be told. This is an operational matter. I believe that they should be told and I shall be in a dialogue to see exactly how we proceed on this. I would jolly well like to know if some blighter was trying to do that to me. Even though there may not be sufficient evidence to take him to court, I should like to know if someone was trying to tap me. That is how we will go forward on this.

My Lords, can my noble friend clarify matters a little further? I am not clear whether the Metropolitan Police has said that it is or is not going to investigate. In the absence of further investigation by the Met, with the best will in the world, it is difficult to see what the CPS can do about it. I am really after an assurance that the matter will not rest here—this is too serious an issue. Either the reports in today’s papers were wrong—I do not believe that about the Guardian—or there is something seriously amiss. Those of us who believe in a healthy tradition of investigative journalism do not want to see that tradition sullied by what has been happening.

My Lords, as I pointed out at the end of the Statement, Assistant Commissioner John Yates said:

“No evidence has come to light since this case concluded so I think no need for more investigation”,

which I found slightly surprising. He then said:

“I need to make sure that we have been diligent, reasonable and sensible and informed anyone who may have been a victim of phone tapping”.

I take that to mean that he is looking into the matter more deeply. I shall ensure that my understanding is correct; if it is not, I will get back to the House. However, I believe that he needs to make sure of that and that the matter needs to be looked into further. I do not believe that that can be done in a matter of a few hours. These issues are too important to be skimmed over quickly; they need to be looked at thoroughly.

My Lords, does my noble friend realise that public concern about this issue will be a wake-up call, and that it is in the wake of what has happened in the House of Commons? Does he not think that there should be a full inquiry into the allegations which have been made and which the noble Baroness has tried to sweep under the carpet? Is it not a fact that the honour of Parliament is seriously involved here and that anything short of a full inquiry into these matters would be quite wrong?

My Lords, as I said, the DPP has the CPS looking at this. The Met is also still looking at it, as was made clear in the last sentence of the Statement, and we know that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee is considering it. I believe that we need to sit back and allow those considerations to take place and we can then see how we move forward from there. At the moment, I do not think that it is appropriate to establish something such as a full inquiry.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of whether either the police or the authorities will be making contact with the Guardian to ask it to give details of specific cases that it may be prepared to pass over?

My Lords, I am not aware of that but I am beginning to stray into operational matters which the Government should not push into at the moment. I think that we should sit back and let the proper authorities deal with this. We can then ask the right questions and prod where necessary to get the right answers.

My Lords, I have a small question among all these great issues. Can the Minister tell us whether I am right in concluding, sadly, that the only two ways of knowing whether you have been tapped are, first, if you find the contents of a private conversation in the public domain and, secondly, if you are informed by the Metropolitan Police that it has happened? Is there any other way?

My Lords, there may be a way of knowing whether you have been tapped but I do not think that I can say anything about it on the Floor of the House.

House adjourned at 6.59 pm.