HC Deb 01 December 1965 vol 721 cc1422-4
35. Mr. Abse

asked the Minister without Portfolio whether he is aware of public concern at the inadequacy of the law to protect the rights of privacy of individuals; whether he is aware that technical devices now on sale, such as micro-bug transmitters, constitute an invasion of the privacy of the citizen; and whether, in view of present ambiguities concerning remedies for infringement of privacy, he will cause the Law Commissioners to review the existing law.

The Minister without Portfolio (Sir Eric Fletcher)

I am aware that the devices to which the hon. Member refers do facilitate the invasion of other people's privacy and that there is anxiety about their use. I have discussed the matter with the Postmaster-General who is considering what steps could most suitably be taken to strengthen the existing safeguards.

Any proposal to create a general statutory right to privacy would raise wide and controversial issues, including the liberty of the Press. This factor might make it a difficult subject for the Law Commission to examine. The Commission already has a very full programme.

Mr. Abse

Is the Minister aware that in the United States, where the right of privacy law has been developed by case law and statute, it has become possible to weaken and make more elastic the law of libel as is desired, quite rightly, by the Press here? Is he aware that this is precisely because the law regarding privacy has been more developed there? Is he also aware that it is surely unsatisfactory that this right of privacy should be resolved as a technical matter by the Postmaster-General? This touches upon fundamental rights, and when devices are in existence which can lead to blackmail as well as to eavesdropping, would he not agree that there is a real necessity to get at the fundamentals of the law?

Sir Eric Fletcher

My hon. Friend bas referred to two different matters. The subject of the so-called micro-bugs is receiving the close attention of my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General, who will be answering Questions about that shortly. With regard to the wider question, I am aware that in certain States of the United States a law of privacy has been evolved by the empirical method of judicial decision. I am also aware of the close relation between the right of privacy and the law of libel and, as my hon. Friend knows, this matter was considered by the Porter Commission on the law of defamation which reported a few years ago. It pointed out great difficulties in formulating and extending the definition of libel in a way which, while effective to restrain any improper invasion of privacy, would, at the same time, not interfere with the due reporting of actions of public interest.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that it is totally illegal to operate a radio transmitter, even a micro-powered one, without a licence from the Postmaster-General? Can he make it clear to anyone manufacturing or marketing this equipment, that people who buy it would be operating outside the law unless they obtained a licence, and that prosecutions would immediately follow?

Sir Eric Fletcher

I think it is important that it should be generally known that it is an offence for anyone to use one of the devices without a licence from the Postmaster-General.

Mr. Abse

In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I beg to give notice that I propose to raise this matter on the Adjournment.

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