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Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, in deploring what is a very wet and timid response to one of the major concerns of our modern society. To have such a response two-and-a-half years after the Calcutt Report is very disappointing indeed. For our part, we would have wanted the starting point for the Government to have been much more wide-reaching and imaginative. One really has to start with a freedom of information Act and the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into United Kingdom law, and then move on from there.
The Government are right to say, as the Statement says, that in every democracy there is a balance to be struck between the rights of individuals to personal privacy and the freedom of the press. We welcome what has been said in the Statement about the strengthening of the Press Complaints Commission. We on these Benches have recently proposed an independent media tribunal. We also welcome the proposals being made to the Press Complaints Commission for a newspaper compensation fund. It is now just two years since the party on these Benches, in the shape of my late noble friend Lord Bonham-Carter, Robert Maclennan, and myself, proposed to the Calcutt Committee in our
However, as the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, just put forward, we also proposed that legal provision should be introduced in terms of intrusion into personal privacy. We proposed that a carefully tailored civil offence of physical intrusion should be introduced to prevent the harassment of individuals by the media. It is right that peeping Toms, aggressive doorstepping and telephone harassment by the media should be regulated by law.
I find the descriptions in the Statement as regards the reasons for not making practical progress in the latter respect, after all the years and all the examinations, deeply disappointing. I suppose that all we can do is to seek some consolation. For those of us who are textual critics of Whitehall documents we must find comfort in the repeated phraseology of, "This is the Government's position at present"until we know whether the Press Complaints Commission puts its house more strongly in order. There are remarks at the end of the Statement that if the commission does not live up to the Government's expectations then:
Those of us who know about such matters must recognise, as indeed did the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, that those are the unmistakable marks of a department that wishes it had been able to go further but which has been defeated in Cabinet by Ministers who are determined in the run up to the next general election to do nothing to offend the great peers of the press.
Lord Inglewood: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Donoughue and Lord Thomson, for their remarks, but I must confess that I am most disappointed at the tone of their responses. I am disappointed because they seem to equate the Government's decision with some form of cowardice or inability to come forward with the right solution. This has been, as the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, commented, a long time in gestation. When one is dealing with difficult matters it is important to think thoroughly and carefully about what is being proposed. That seems to be a point of view that does not lend itself to the Benches opposite. I am disappointed about that; it does not underscore their claims to government.
This is a difficult issue that we have been dealing with and we approached it from the same kind of perspective as the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. The key man here is the small man who finds himself subjected to intrusion and finds that his privacy is gravely violated. We have to try to ensure that that does not happen. In this instance we are trying to establish a state of affairs where these abuses do not occur. It is because that is our aspiration that we reached the conclusions that we did. If one looks at the matter in the
Further, in a free society where investigative journalism is a legitimate part of the system, one must have defences, and if the defences are such that they effectively negate the effect of the very rules that are being put in place, that hardly seems to be a way of protecting the small man. Another important matter in this regard concerns the consequences under this sort of system if there is litigation of some kind and the matter goes to court. What we will then find is that, under the rules of privilege, the whole world will become privy to the very breach of privacy which the system is intended not to publicise. That will be an extremely unsatisfactory way, to put it mildly, of dealing with the problem.
We believe that in the real world an effective and robust non-statutory system is that which will deliver best for our citizens. I wish to pay tribute to the work of my noble friend Lord Wakeham, who is unable to be with us here this afternoon because, since the advent of his chairmanship of the Press Complaints Commission, a number of important changes have already been instituted. In the annex to the Government's response they are set out in some detail. In addition, an exchange of correspondence between my noble friend and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State indicates the kind of direction in which the non-statutory body is likely to move. This, we believe, will provide the best protection for our citizens from the undoubted excesses of the press which have been displayed in a number of well publicised instances over recent years. It is because we believe this is the most practical and effective way of dealing with this serious problem that we have brought forward our response.
Lord Harmar-Nicholls: My Lords, it gives me no personal pleasure to find myself 100 per cent. in agreement with the two spokesmen from the Opposition Benches. Anyone with half an eye will recognise this for what it is: a fobbing off Statement to try to put under the rug something that the Government know should be dealt with because they know that to allow things to continue as they are poses a danger to society generally.
I understand the problems of obtaining statutory powers to try to deal with this matter and I know that to try to copy the French legislation would be difficult and intricate, as has been explained. However, there is no reason at all why the Government cannot make some start in some aspect of it to show that they really mean business. I say this with some feeling because I have tried to do just that. In the previous Session I brought forward my photograph Bill which would have gone some way towards closing a number of loopholes following the unfair and malicious photography that is carried out, while not settling the whole of the problem.
The noble Baroness, who is on the Front Bench at the moment, had to answer on that occasion and give the Government's view. What was the Government's view in the previous Session? It was not a criticism of my little step forward. They said the Government could not follow my proposals because they had their own plans almost ready to put into operation. Now we are given this fobbing off Statement which means nothing. I hope that my noble friend will take the trouble, now that he has responsibility for this matter, to look up my photograph Bill. We got it through the Committee stage and we were almost at the end of the Report stage, after which the matter could have been sent to another place to receive the detailed examination that it deserves.
I am a little worried as to the contribution that my noble friend Lord Wakeham will make because his predecessor led the Opposition at the Report stage as to whether or not we should proceed with my Bill which in no way prevented a bigger move forward later and which in no way inhibited any future efforts to make it even more complete. On the promise that something would be donenothing was donewe lost that Bill. Is there no way to make the Government realise that as regards this important matter it is better to inch forward in the right direction instead of finding words which merely mean they will put it off for another day, and another day, and another day after that?
Lord Inglewood: My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for drawing my attention to his photograph Bill. I wish to assure him that I shall consider most carefully the issues that it raises. However, needless to say, I am obviously disappointed by the underlying thrust of my noble friend's remarks. As I said in repeating the Statement to your Lordships, we believe that self-regulation offers the most effective possibility of appropriate regulation in this respect.
It is, I think, agreed among your Lordships that there have been serious problems in this regard in the past. Against that background, if we look at the matter of self-regulation and its recent history in this country, it is important to see whether some of the problems relate to the detail of the system that is in place or whether the very system itself is in some way or other fundamentally flawed and cannot as a matter of principle work properly. It is our view and the view of my noble friend Lord Wakeham that it is the former, and that it is a matter of getting this system to work better which will then mean that it will be able to deliver what I am sure not only your Lordships but the vast majority of the citizens in this country want to see.
I draw the attention of noble Lords to the final words of the letter from my noble friend Lord Wakeham to the previous Secretary of State at the Department of National Heritage. It is appended to the Government's response and states,