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House of Lords Hansard
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Leveson Part 2: Sunday Times
07 March 2018
Volume 789

Statement

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My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to an Urgent Question in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“This morning we saw reports in the media of a potential fraud and data protection breach by a former private investigator. The allegations are of behaviour that appears totally unacceptable and potentially criminal. Investigation is therefore a matter for the police and the House will understand that there is only so far I can go in discussing the specific details and allegations. More broadly, some people have already formed the conclusion that this revelation should require us to change policy on press regulation. Policy, of course, should always be based on all available information.

It is worth noting that the activity described apparently stopped around 2010, before the establishment of the Leveson inquiry. Indeed, it was precisely because of cases such as this that the Leveson inquiry was set up. This sort of behaviour was covered by the terms of reference of that inquiry, and Mr Ford’s activities were raised as part of the inquiry.

As we discussed in the House last week, and then again on Monday, there have been three detailed police investigations. A wide range of offences were examined and more than 40 people were convicted, and many went to prison. Today’s revelations, if proven, are clearly already covered by the law, and appear to be in contravention of Section 55 of the Data Protection Act 1998. As described, they would also appear to be in contravention of the new Data Protection Bill currently before this House.

What is more, the fact that this activity stopped in 2010 underlines the point that the world has changed. Practices such as these have been investigated, and newspapers today are in a very different position from when these alleged offences took place. This view is in fact strengthened by today’s example because the behaviour we have discovered today took place before the Leveson inquiry, and existing law is in place to deal with it. Criminal behaviour should be dealt with by the police and the courts, and anyone who has committed a criminal offence should face the full force of the law.

The future of a vibrant, free and independent press matters to us all. We are committed to protecting it. We want to see the highest of standards. We must face the challenges of today to ensure that Britain has high-quality journalism and a high-quality discourse to underpin our democracy for the years to come”.

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My Lords, the shocking revelations in the media and some of the press earlier today about allegations of blagging commissioned by the Sunday Times are, in the words of the Secretary of State,

“totally unacceptable and potentially criminal”,

and the right thing is for them to be investigated by the police. However, the key issue is that the Secretary of State has refused to reconsider the decision to close the Leveson inquiry. Let us be clear: this decision was not supported by the vast majority of those who responded to the public consultation and it was strongly opposed by the chair of the inquiry, Sir Brian Leveson, whose letter is available in the Library.

I say again to the Government that letting down the victims of this type of press activity is breaking all the promises they were given, and is a disgrace. In light of this, I wonder if Minister can explain why it is not in the public interest to complete the Leveson inquiry, given that, far from being an isolated event from a previous age, today’s revelations confirm that phone hacking and other criminal behaviour was more widespread and affected a wider range of individuals than was disclosed in the written evidence given to part 1 of the inquiry, and that some of the oral evidence given to the inquiry was, at the very least, incomplete, so that, in Sir Brian’s words, it,

“remains unclear exactly how widespread these and similar practices have been throughout the print media”.

It may be that this sort of behaviour has ceased but it is in the public interest to be certain about that. Neither Leveson part 1 nor the civil or criminal trials have provided definitive answers about who did what to whom. Sir Brian suggests that the public interest would be served only by,

“a detailed, reasoned report which covers the whole of the available evidence”.

While there is much about the new press regulator—IPSO—that can be welcomed, the Secretary of State indicated in the other place today that more needs to be done in terms of IPSO’s as yet untested low-cost arbitration system, and in relation to the way apologies and retractions are dealt with. It is surely in the public interest to get this right so that victims of press intrusion can actually get the redress they so patently have not had in the past. Although included in the original terms of reference, there has been no proper investigation of failures of corporate governance and management at News International and other newspapers.

On how to go forward, we currently have two press regulation models, and that is clearly unsustainable. Voluntary self-regulation may well be the right approach, but it will not work unless there is public confidence, particularly when so much has been revealed about wrongdoing, including the events occurring after the publication of the first Leveson report.

When he announced last week that he was dropping the Leveson inquiry, the Culture Secretary said that he was doing do so because he felt the public interest lay in looking forward. I still believe that there is more that unites us on this than divides us. We all want a review of the future of quality journalism and for there to be an assessment of what is required to sustain that for the benefit of our democracy and polity. Where we differ is that we think that the public interest demands that the new inquiry should start with an examination of the recent history, culture and practice of the press, police and politicians. The Government clearly want to draw a veil over that. They should be very careful, particularly when they think they are acting in the public interest.

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My Lords, the Government have to take decisions about what is proportionate, appropriate and in the public interest. Our analysis is that the terms of reference for part 2 have already largely been met and that the cost and time of part 2 would be disproportionate and not in the public interest.

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My Lords, one of the things we did not have last Thursday when the noble and learned Lord made his Statement was Sir Brian Leveson’s letter. In both Houses, an impression was given that Sir Brian basically accepted what was going along. Through Hansard I urge every Member of this House to go to the House of Lords Library and look at the letter, which is a devastating, six-page indictment of what this Government have done. He makes it very clear that he wanted to go on with it. He does not accept that IPSO is up and running so wonderfully. He points out examples, such as the Manchester terrorist outrage reported by the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, where there was intrusive press behaviour, and in the letter he quotes recent worrying police and media collusion. He also challenges the Government about cost. It is a devastating indictment. Does the Minister think that the way the Government have handled this is any way in the spirit of the Inquiries Act 2005 which requires consultation with the chairman as a safeguard so that no Government will cut and run from an inquiry? That is exactly what this Government have done. Will he again consider a more constructive response to what was said by the Official Opposition? We were getting this right when we were working together. It has gone badly wrong since the Government have started cutting their own deals with the press barons.

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My Lords, of course since the 2005 Act we have to consult the chairman of an inquiry, and that is exactly what we did. Thereafter we had to make a judgment about the way forward. Newspapers today are in a very different position from when the phone hacking scandal occurred back in 2011. The events just reported relate to a period between 1995 and 2010. We have seen significant reforms to press regulation, and we have discussed that before in this House. It is our considered opinion and judgment that it is not appropriate or proportionate to proceed with part 2 of the inquiry.

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My Lords, as an active victim of telephone hacking, I was shocked to hear a private investigator working for the Sunday Times announce that he was sent on fishing expeditions to look at what information there was about me and the whole Labour Cabinet and that in his investigations he conducted illegal acts. That is shocking and totally unacceptable and it is why Lord Justice Leveson has made it clear that he wants to see the inquiry continue. Since the Government continue to take the view that they will not proceed with part 2 or implement Section 40, can the Minister confirm that the House will have legislation before it to make the changes which the Government have talked about? That would presumably mean that we would be allowed to have a vote on the very issue of whether we agree with the Government’s conclusion against the unanimous view of both Houses on having such an inquiry. If that is to be the case on such legislation, would it be useful to have Lord Justice Leveson look at this incident of blagging with the Sunday Times and Mr John Ford so that we could be informed when we have the debate in this House on whether we agree with the Government’s objective to close down a second inquiry or Section 40?

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My Lords, the conduct of John Ford is indicative of criminal conduct. That will be a matter for investigation by the police and, in due course, upon their report, in appropriate terms, consideration of prosecution with the law in place being sufficient to address it in that way. I am sure the noble Lord will agree that in cases where we see reports of such conduct, it is not for us to prejudge them but to approach them in a calm, considered and coherent way. As regards the proposal to repeal Section 40, as indicated before, it is the Government’s intention to bring forward legislation on that point at an appropriate time.

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My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend may be able to clarify something which has slightly puzzled me about the Statement. The second paragraph states:

“this sort of behaviour was covered by the terms of reference of that inquiry”—

that is the Leveson inquiry—

“and Mr Ford’s activities were raised as part of the inquiry”.

Then the penultimate paragraph states:

“This view is in fact strengthened by today’s example because the behaviour we have discovered today took place before the Leveson inquiry, and existing law is in place to deal with it”.

It seems to me that if the behaviour has been discovered today, it cannot have been in front of the Leveson inquiry. I would like clarification of exactly what is meant here.

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My Lords, my understanding is that some of the allegations attributed to Mr John Ford were known of at the time of the Leveson inquiry and it is in that context that the Statement was made. As to the scope of the inquiry at the time, there are aspects of part 1 that touched upon this, but the terms of reference of the inquiry have also been partly met through the police investigations which took place.

Sitting suspended.