HL Deb 06 April 1995 vol 563 cc317-20

11.28 a.m.

Lord Chalfont asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will introduce legislation to make the violation of privacy a tort, actionable without proof of damage.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, I appreciate that infringements of privacy are a matter of concern to many people, but privacy is also a matter of great complexity, and the Government are still considering what is the best approach to adopt. We will be announcing our conclusions in a White Paper.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for that encouraging reply. In further considering this matter, will Her Majesty's Government bear in mind that this country is a signatory to both the United Nations Covenant on Human Rights and the European Covenant on Human Rights and Freedom, and that both those covenants require signatories to afford the protection of law to the right of privacy? Will Her Majesty's Government seriously consider what legal steps can be taken to prevent the awful misery which is caused by abuses of the very necessary freedom of information?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, certainly, in further considering this matter, the Government will bear in mind the considerations to which the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, referred. I believe that these matters were referred to in the consultation paper which we published some time ago on this subject.

Lord Renton

My Lords, as a Scotsman, will my noble and learned friend kindly bear in mind that an Englishman's home is his castle, and that it should not be besieged by reporters, press photographers and television cameras which constitute one of the principal invasions of privacy?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I believe it highly likely that the idea of privacy is as precious to the Scots as it is to the English, although it may not be illustrated by quite the same expressions as are used in England in that particular connection. Obviously, the sort of the scenes to which my noble friend has referred are matters to be very carefully considered in looking for a good way forward in this connection.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord appreciate that the Welsh equally have a concern for privacy along with the English and the Scots, although they do not have as many castles? On a more serious point, can the noble and learned Lord tell the House when the White Paper on this complex subject is likely to be produced and whether it is envisaged that there will be legislation on the subject before the next general election?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, my answer has to be that the White Paper will follow on the taking of the necessary decisions. Whether or not legislation will follow before the next general election must depend on that. Therefore, at this stage the question is hypothetical.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, since the Government accepted the recommendations of the first Calcutt Report as long ago as 1990 that there should be new criminal offences of bugging, trespass and the use of telephoto lenses, when do they propose to bring forward legislation implementing recommendations that they accepted so long ago?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the decision about precisely what form such legislation will take is necessary before taking the matter forward in detail. Obviously, there are quite considerable questions surrounding that matter. The description of the offences is fairly general in the report and considerable questions arise about the nature, for example, of the defences which should be available.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor consider that the complexity of the subject should not stop us from proceeding along these lines? British Columbia and the French have a law on these lines as a part of their constitutions. Therefore the problem can be solved and has been solved. Does the noble and learned Lord agree that we should continue to make efforts to achieve that here?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I know that certain other countries have laws of privacy which are part of their legal system. As my noble friend knows, here we are accustomed to legislating in considerable detail. Therefore it is necessary to consider quite carefully whether we can adequately describe the right to be protected in suitable terms for the purpose of legislation. But the consultation paper held out some hope that that is possible. As I said, these are matters which are still under consideration.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, will my noble and learned friend ensure that the forthcoming White Paper will deal with the problem of the toothlessness of the various supervisory bodies whose guidelines are regularly ignored?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, obviously toothlessness is an important matter to be dealt with in this and other connections. It is important that hitherto self-regulation has been the method by which a degree of responsibility has been achieved. I believe that my noble friend's question is directed to whether self-regulation is sufficiently effective. That is an extremely important issue and certainly one which we have very much in mind.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord at least agree today, as one despicable instance of this sort of journalism follows another, that the case for self-regulation is becoming steadily more and more difficult for us to argue?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I had understood from an intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, that the Liberal Democrat Party has taken a view about this particular matter. But I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, said, that incidents are often a test of the effectiveness of self-regulation. It may well be that the incidents will lead to a change in the method and detail of self-regulation. That is a course which also has to be kept in mind as a possibility.

Lord Annan

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord accept that the very favourable and encouraging Answer that he gave to the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, has become, with every other interjection, less encouraging? Does the noble and learned Lord agree that the time that will be needed to consider all these matters suggests that this action will be put off until the Greek kalends? Might the noble and learned Lord put a slip on the agenda for this probing saying, "Action this day"?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I have been indicating the complexity of this matter from the point of view of the time that has already been given to considering it. I do not believe that it would be wise for me to commit myself to action this day, but perhaps I may commit myself to "Action as soon as possible".

Lord Acton

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that my American wife is a law professor and has written a short and very readable book on the leading American case on the invasion of privacy which is called Invasion of Privacy? Without meaning in any way to muddle the "Action this day" point, if I send the noble and learned Lord a copy of the book, without referring to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, will he read it?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am very willing to receive particularly readable books. From time to time I receive books which would not all come into that category to an equal extent. The fact is that there are important issues that can be dealt with in a readable and concise way. I believe that on the whole our own consultation paper might merit commendation on those lines also.