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Phone Hacking

Volume 733: debated on Tuesday 6 December 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what estimate they have made of the number of people affected by newspaper phone hacking.

My Lords, the number affected is being assessed as part of the current investigation by the Metropolitan Police Service. At this stage, no final estimate has been made, but the Met recently reported that it has contacted more than 1,800 people, of whom around 600 are identified as victims or potential victims of phone hacking.

My Lords, even that figure of course understates the true position. Is my noble friend aware that the Metropolitan Police itself has now said that it has identified the names of 5,800 people in the notebooks of a private investigator who for six years was employed by the News of the World to hack into mobile phones? Is there not now conclusive evidence that some journalists have perverted the traditional role of the press—to expose injustice and wrongdoing—by a total determination to expose private lives? What is needed now is an effective and, above all, independent means to ensure that such abuses never happen again.

My Lords, my noble friend is right when he quotes the figure of 5,795 people who the police have said may—I stress, may—have had their phones hacked. The police stressed that at this stage they cannot give a figure, which is why I gave the other figure of 1,800 people who the police have identified as potential victims, and the 600 with whom they have been in contact. I note what my noble friend said about setting up some independent body as a result of these matters. At this stage, I cannot possibly comment and we must await the outcome of the inquiry by Lord Justice Leveson. When that happens, I am sure that we will act.

My Lords, when giving evidence recently to your Lordships’ Communications Committee inquiry on the future of investigative journalism, the Culture Secretary, Mr Jeremy Hunt, said that newspapers are likely to come under the auspices of a new regulatory body that is,

“better at enforcing standards of accuracy”,

than the Press Complaints Commission. Can the Minister confirm that this is now the policy of Her Majesty's Government?

My Lords, my right honourable friend was giving his view correctly to that committee, but I am sure, as the noble Lord is aware, that we cannot make any firm decisions—and it would be wrong to do so—until the Leveson inquiry has concluded. That is what we will do at the appropriate time.

My Lords, I do not, but if the noble Lord wishes to provide some information, I am sure that the Leveson inquiry would be grateful. Whether or not the noble Lord’s phone has been hacked, I cannot comment.

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that the abuse has not just involved hacking? I sit on the Commons and Lords Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions and heard what Hugh Grant said yesterday about the behaviour of the paparazzi. Is it not wrong that, as Sienna Miller told the Leveson inquiry, 10 burly men can pursue a young woman down a dark alley spitting and hurling abuse at her with impunity because they are carrying cameras?

My Lords, again my noble friend makes a very good point and was right to emphasise that this evidence was adduced to Lord Justice Leveson’s committee. No doubt he will consider that and, after that, the Government will—as I said earlier, and I repeat—consider any reports made by the inquiry, particularly where it seeks legislative changes by the Government.

My Lords, given the emerging evidence of the employment of private investigators by the press involved in phone hacking, can the Minister give us an idea of when the Government intend to license such people?

Again, my Lords, I would not want to take these matters further at this stage. I suspect that I shall repeat the same answer quite a few times during the course of this Question; we want to wait until Lord Justice Leveson has reported.

My Lords, the Minister has answered various points on numbers. How do people know if they are being hacked?

My Lords, that is a technical problem on which I am afraid I cannot assist my noble friend. I am sure that many people throughout the country, and no doubt many Members of this House, think that they may have been hacked. If they think that they have, I suggest that they let the police know and ask them to make appropriate inquiries.

My Lords, is the noble Lord stating that the Government have no interest in what is happening with any other newspapers unless individuals produce evidence themselves?

My Lords, that is nonsense. Of course we have an interest in these matters, but at this stage it is right and proper that the Government wait until Lord Justice Leveson has reported. In the mean time, if any noble Lords or others think that they are having problems and that there has been criminality, I suggest that they get in contact with the police.

My Lords, when the BBC acquires ex-directory phone numbers, does it have a responsibility to tell the subscribers of those numbers where it got the numbers from?

My Lords, the noble Lord is going slightly beyond the Question on the Order Paper, but I shall certainly make inquiries for him and write in due course.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the fact that the Government have set up the Leveson inquiry is proof positive that they recognise that the existing arrangements are inadequate for regulating the press and that something needs to be done to improve matters, the detail of which, as yet, is not clear?

My Lords, as evinced by the number of questions that my noble friend Lord Fowler and others have asked in this House, as well as by questions asked in another place and concerns raised elsewhere, there has been considerable concern about the degree of phone hacking. Quite rightly, the Government responded to that concern and set up the inquiry by Lord Justice Leveson. They will respond in due course.

My Lords, Maxton is the name. Why are this Government quite happy, as is Parliament and as previous Governments have been, to regulate television, radio and even the internet but are not prepared to undertake the statutory regulation of the print media?

My Lords, I repeat what I said earlier: we will consider the results of this report and make the appropriate response at that stage.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept the gravamen of the Justice report last month—a comprehensive report into hacking of all sorts—that this issue goes far, far wider than the press? Will the Government kindly consider reviewing the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to try to bring it up to date and make it effective?

My Lords, I always take notice of any report produced by a body such as Justice, and we will always keep the operation of RIPA 2000 under review. However, again, that will be a matter to be dealt with at the conclusion of this inquiry.