HC Deb 02 December 1996 vol 286 cc664-5
31. Mr. Dykes

To ask the Attorney-General if he will discuss the legal aspects of possible future changes to the laws on privacy with the Secretary of State for National Heritage. [5200]

The Solicitor-General (Sir Derek Spencer)

The collective Government position was set out in their response to the report of the National Heritage Select Committee on privacy and media intrusion, published on 17 July 1995.

Mr. Dykes

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer. Will the Government look at this continuously, bearing in mind the sad hopelessness of the Press Complaints Commission? In view of the sensible suggestions made by—among others—Mrs. Norma Major in September about illegitimate intrusions into children's privacy and the family privacy of people in public life, should we not look again at the strict laws that exist in France and other countries to see whether we can possibly draft appropriate future legislation?

The Solicitor-General

I am obliged to my hon. Friend, but he should not write off the Press Complaints Commission quite so speedily. We believe that, since the appointment of Lord Wakeham, we have the best chance in years for effective self-regulation. The commission has a lay majority and is independent of the industry. If we are to go the way of legislation, we need law that is clear, intelligible and enforceable, and, as our paper makes clear, we are not persuaded that we have been able to find such criminal offences. There was no unanimity that a civil tort should be introduced.

Mr. Winnick

The Press Complaints Commission is a wash-out, and no one takes it seriously. Is it not of interest that the late President of France had a private relationship, out of which a child was born, but not until his dying days—when he clearly wanted it to be known—was that made public in the newspapers? It may be argued that public figures should be subject to press intrusion, but there is no justification for the private lives of individuals who are not involved in public life and are not engaged in criminality to be investigated by, and exposed in, the press, causing them embarrassment. They are not politicians, so why should they be subjected to such intrusion?

The Solicitor-General

The duties of the Law Officers are many and various, but we are not responsible for what goes on in France, nor for French law. The law in each country reflects its culture and domestic attitudes. A number of criminal cases each year are launched on the back of investigative journalism. Investigative journalism plays an important part in disclosing wrongdoing and hypocrisy. Before we start to lay down the law, we should ensure that we do not do more harm than good.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Does my hon. and learned Friend realise that many people in the House and outside will find his answer bordering on the complacent? They thought that the White Paper response to a serious situation last year was wholly inadequate. Will he promise to think again, and even to convene a meeting of hon. Members who are concerned about this matter?

The Solicitor-General

I am well aware of my hon. Friend's interest in this matter and of the Bill that he introduced, which exemplified the difficulties. With the greatest respect, I say that it was a disproportionate response to a particular problem. I will see to it that his comments are passed on to the Secretary of State for National Heritage, who is responsible for policy in this area.