HC Deb 10 May 1989 vol 152 cc873-4


Mr. James Cran (Beverley)

At long last, I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to control the manufacture and sale of electronic surveillance equipment in the United Kingdom. Although this matter is less sensational than what has gone before, the Bill's supporters and I believe that it is no less important. The Bill is necessary because of the growing availability in this country of electronic surveillance devices, which are commonly known in this and other countries as bugging equipment. There is no real impediment to the use of such equipment in this country. It can be sold over the counter in the relevant retail outlets for relatively modest prices. The equipment can be used to invade the privacy of third parties. The Bill's supporters and I regard that practice as grossly offensive. In line with other pieces of legislation introduced by other Back Bench Members, my Bill discourages that practice.

Technical developments are making the position a great deal worse. These devices are now becoming technically miniaturised and can be hidden in everyday office equipment and other equipment in houses and offices. These devices can be attached to the outside of buildings and walls, to windows, glass panes or whatever. When they are in place the conversations taking place inside the building can be picked up from anything from 1,000 yards to a few miles away.

My Bill questions why law-abiding citizens in this country should wish to use such devices to eavesdrop on other people's affairs. These devices are such that those people who are being snooped upon—for that is exactly what it is—may not know what is happening.

If hon. Members consult the advertising material for these devices, as I have done in some considerable detail, they will find that the equipment is sold for the purpose of, "discreet listening". Do hon. Members believe that the House should support discreet listening by the use of such equipment? We should not support it. The use of such devices could lead to a massive invasion of privacy. The Bill rectifies that position. It is much the same as the Anti-Hacking Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson), which is before the House and which deals with eavesdropping on computer-held information.

Eavesdropping is occurring in many guises. My Bill will ensure that, from the time of enactment of the Bill, all such devices would be licensed by the Home Office. The Act would apply not only to home manufactured devices but to a considerable number of devices imported into this country. Therefore, unlicensed equipment could not be sold in this country, and that would equally apply to another growth industry in this country: counter-surveillance equipment. We need such equipment to discover whether surveillance equipment is being used against us.

The Bill's supporters also strongly believe that the offence should be made a criminal offence. Prosecutions would occur far more easily and, perhaps just as important, a clear signal would go out to the community that the invasion of privacy about which I am talking will not be tolerated by the House.

This matter is of particular significance for companies. One company taking over another would be at a considerable advantage if it knew what the other company was thinking about the takeover. The same applies to new products brought out by companies. Should not new products before they are launched be the business of the company that thought of them rather than the business of everyone else who can use this equipment?

This must be a criminal offence because there is almost no legal protection at present. I do not know how it strikes other hon. Members, but it came as a surprise to me to learn that it is not illegal to listen in to other people's conversations—I do not mean in the street, but in their homes or offices. An Englishman's or a Scotsman's home is no longer the castle that it used to be. The only slender protection—this is disgraceful—in this country lies in the fact that if these devices transmit unauthorised radio signals their use is illegal. The same occasionally applies when they are used in conjunction with telephone lines or equipment. Only those instances are illegal, not stealing information from a third party. My Bill will rectify that.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary recognised these weaknesses in his letter to me of 4 August 1988: Radio surveillance devices are unlikely to cause interference to other radio users simply because if they did their use would quickly be detected and their purpose defeated. We are entitled to wonder why, if he believes that, he does not act on it. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am grateful for that support.

My Bill would also provide another measure of protection, in the form of ensuring that registers are kept of those who manufacture, sell and buy the equipment. We need to know where the equipment is going and for what purposes it is being bought. My impression is that the Home Office thinks the equipment is being bought for legitimate purposes; I do not believe it. Such registration would give a clear signal to the community that abuse will not be tolerated in this country. That abuse is occurring is evident in the words of a major retailer and manufacturer of this equipment, who said: I never sit in judgment on or moralise about why a company or individual should be buying surveillance equipment. My sponsors and I are of the same mind: retailers should exercise judgment. In its absence, we believe that legislation is necessary. For these reasons and in that spirit I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. James Cran, Mr. David Porter, Mr. Timothy Kirkhope, Mr. Matthew Carrington, Mr. Tim Boswell, Mr. Andrew Hargreaves, Mr.Dudley Fishburn, Mr. Alan Amos, Miss Ann Widdecombe, Mr. David Martin, Mr.Douglas French and Mr. James Paice.