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Right Of Privacy

Volume 740: debated on Wednesday 8 February 1967

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10.17 a.m.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to protect a person from any unreasonable and serious interference with his seclusion of himself, his family or his property from the public.
The purpose of my Bill is to give a right of action in the civil courts for damages for any unreasonable and serious invasion of privacy. Hon. Members may be surprised that this is necessary at this time in the development of our English legal system, since they may have been misled by the adage that an Englishman's home is his castle. But they will have noticed that even those who live in castles often have occasion to complain about interference with their privacy by long-range photographers, and it is even more true that in a humbler station of life there are many who have had occasion in the past, and in the recent past, to complain of increasing invasion of their privacy from many people and in many ways.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that everyone has the right to the protection of the law against arbitrary interference with his privacy. The curious thing is that our English legal system has never given an explicit right to privacy. It is true that the subject is covered partly by the law of trespass, the law of nuisance, the law of defamation, and I suppose it could be said by the law relating to patents and copyright. But this is only a partial solution to this difficult problem. It touches only the fringe, and there ought to be in the law a right to be left alone if one wishes to be left alone.

This right has already been accepted by most of the States in the United States. It has been accepted by Canada, South Africa, and several continental countries. The history of its development is rather interesting and rewarding. It started in about 1890, when a certain Mrs. Samuel Warren, a lady in Boston, was giving a reception for her daughter's wedding. Because of the activities of some of the yellow Press she was incensed by the accounts given of that wedding. She got on to her husband about it. It so happened that he was a distinguished legal academic, and that his great friend was Louis Brandeis, who was then Dean of Harvard Law School. Between them they wrote an article which was, perhaps, the most successful piece of legal academic writing. They insisted that there was a right to privacy in American common law. It was some years before the courts accepted this, but eventually they did accept that there was such a right.

That right has been developed ever since, the most recent example being Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy's use of it to see that her personal grief was not displayed for the interest and prurient curiosity of millions in William Manchester's book. The moral is obvious; if I am to get anywhere with this Bill I should secure the support of Mrs. Harold Wilson and Mrs. Roy Jenkins.

There have been valient efforts to establish this right. Professor Winfield, in his book on tort, started the agitation about 30 years ago, and it has since been taken up by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning. The only attempt ever to express this right in statutory form was by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, in another place in 1961, when, by an overwhelming vote, a Second Reading was given to his Bill relating to intrusion by the Press into personal privacy. The Bill was severely criticised by the Press at the time as an attack upon its liberty; indeed, it is possible that it could be misinterpreted in that way.

In my view, that Bill was too limited, because it appeared that it was an attack on only one kind of invasion of privacy and also because in recent times there have been many occasions when different kinds of invasion of privacy have occurred which would not have been covered by such legislation. It is necessary that legislation in this respect should cover the latest developments, and my Bill therefore establishes a general principle which the courts could act upon and which would enable them to decide in a concrete way whether there had been an invasion of privacy.

I would define an invasion of privacy as any unreasonable and serious interference with the seclusion of a person himself, his family, or his property from the public. Because of some of the publicity about my Bill hon. Members could be forgiven for thinking that I am bringing in more Bills than the Prime Minister. It has been reported that I am bringing in a Bill about doorstep salesmen; that I am bringing in a Bill about telephone tapping; that I am bringing in a Bill about industrial espionage—

—and a Bill about Press intrusion.

My Bill covers all these subjects. It would establish a general right, which could be interpreted by the courts in certain situations. The right would be restricted by reasonable defences. We all remember the scenes at the hospital when the late Aneurin Bevan was recovering from an illness, and we would all agree that that was an unnecessary invasion of his privacy by some elements of the Press.

I am aware that the Press say that matters have improved since then, especially as a result of the setting up of the Press Council. That is undoubtedly true, but there are still lamentable lapses from good taste on the part of some members of the Press. Only last year, when two Vietnamese children were brought to East Grinstead Hospital for plastic surgery, some members of the Press tried to get into the hospital to try to photograph them, although the children were disfigured.

It was unnecessary, from the point of view of the public interest, that Mrs. Donald Campbell should have heard the news of the death of her husband in the full glare of television cameras and publicity. It is unnecessary that inquiry agents should resort to the use of bugging devices and tape recording in hotel bedrooms to obtain evidence of adultery, or use party lines to listen to the telephone conversations of co-respondents. The large extension of telephone tapping which has come to light in recent months is unnecessary and undesirable.

Perhaps the most important element of the Bill is the protection it affords against forms of industrial espionage, which have become all too common in recent months.

The most poignant scene in "Nineteen Eighty-Four" was when Winston Smith retired from all the mechanical devices that had been established to invade his privacy to a little neglected wood, only to find later on that even there bugging devices had been installed. In a civilised community, where we are living on top of each other, there must be an area of life which an individual has the right to keep to himself. The Bill will protect that right.

10.28 a.m.

I agree in principle with the need for the protection of individual privacy. Nevertheless, provision should also be made for the protection of the Press in carrying out its duty—

Order. We cannot discuss Amendments to the Bill, as the hon. Member proposes. He must oppose the Bill.

I would feel inclined to oppose the Bill on the ground that if the Bill is not framed sensibly there is a danger that the Press will be penalised. The Press should be protected in carrying out its duty of telling the truth—

I am not trying to obstruct the hon. Member, but he must make a speech opposing the Bill. He can oppose it for the reasons that he is beginning to adumbrate.

Perhaps I should declare an interest in the matter, Mr. Speaker, since I am concerned with the Press. In view of what you say, I withdraw my opposition to the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Alexander W. Lyon, Mr. Peter Archer, Mr. Arthur Davidson, Mr. Edward Lyons, Mr. Clegg, and Mr. Lubbock, and Mr. Ben Whitaker.

Right Of Privacy

Bill to protect a person from any unreasonable and serious interference with his seclusion of himself, his family or his property from the public, presented accordingly and read the First time; to be read a Second time upon Friday, 16th June and to be printed. [Bill 181.]