HL Deb 25 October 1989 vol 511 cc1371-3

3.4 p.m.

The Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will consider urgently the recent report of the Law Commission on theft and wilful damage carried out through computers.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry announced last week that, subject to the views of interested parties, he was inclined to accept the Law Commission recommendations. He added that he was currently seeking those views and that his department would be directly consulting individuals and organisations known to be interested. That consultation is also to be carried out in Scotland.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend who will know that the Scottish Law Commission had already reached the same conclusion and prepared a draft Bill. As other countries have been legislating in that field, does not the United Kingdom risk losing valuable business when robberies on a massive scale and destruction of records can be perpetrated without entry into premises and, in most cases apparently, without breaking the law?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, the Scottish Law Commission did a considerable amount of work on this subject in 1987 and proposed a statutory offence. The Law Commission report, which came two years later, took into account a great deal of further evidence that has emerged on the fast—moving issue of computers, and recommended two further statutory offences. It would be eminently sensible to follow the line suggested by the Law Commission for England and Wales, that it would be desirable that the criminal law in relation to unauthorised access to computers should be uniform throughout the United Kingdom. It expressed the hope that that end would be achieved by uniform provisions in legislation both sides of the Border.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, are we going to have a Green Paper and, if so, when?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, there has already been one report north of the Border and a recent one this side of the Border. My right honourable friend has said that he is inclined to accept the proposals, subject to further views. I should have thought that the balance of interest and opinion was that this matter has already been considered for long enough and that if any further step is to be taken it should be by legislation rather than further detailed consideration.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for the last part of his answer which overrode what he said earlier about seeking the further views of interested parties. The report is outstanding and I hope that he will convey to the Law Commission the views of, I assume, most noble Lords that it is a fascinating document. Is not the report so definitive that what is now required is an urgent move towards legislation, both on the general ground that this is prima facie a criminal offence and on economic grounds? It will be in the national interest to move rapidly. Is the Minister aware that some of us were rather dismayed by the report in yesterday's Daily Telegraph that the Government were thinking of further delaying? Surely that would be a bad thing.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his kind words about what is an excellent and full report. However, as I have already sought to indicate, it is desirable to achieve uniformity in this matter both sides of the Border. The Scottish Law Commission recommended only part of what is now proposed for England and Wales. It would seem sensible to make a further attempt to bring the Scottish proposals up to date. I do not envisage that that will be a difficult or lengthy procedure. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has said that legislation should be brought forward when a suitable opportunity arises. I am sure the noble Lord appreciates that, as always, I will not pre—empt what might be in the Queen's Speech and the Government's programme thereafter.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, while I am not in any way inciting my noble and learned friend to anticipate the Queen's Speech, will he convey to his colleagues that there are many of us who would like to see more uncontentious law reforms rather than items of contentious legislation in the new programme?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I am willing to convey my noble and learned friend's view on that matter. I have noted with approval that it appears to enjoy almost universal support in the House.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, my noble and learned friend may recall that when I raised the subject at Question Time in the summer I accepted the need to restrain the amount of legislation coming forward. That appeared to be echoed in your Lordships' House. Does he agree that a Bill on this subject is unlikely to be political or contentious and need occupy only a limited amount of parliamentary time?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, so far as I can gauge from what has been said in the House this afternoon, it would not appear to be an issue which would arouse much controversy. However, as I indicated, I think it is desirable that we should tidy up what differences there may be between England and Wales and Scotland. Thereafter, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said, this is a matter which should proceed to legislation.

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