HL Deb 14 October 1997 vol 582 cc390-2

3.16 p.m.

Lord Ackner

asked Her Majesty's Government:

When it is anticipated that the White Paper on the incorporation into United Kingdom law of the European Convention on Human Rights will be published, and how it is anticipated that such incorporation will further the development of a United Kingdom law creating and protecting rights of privacy.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, we intend to publish the White Paper next week. Incorporating the convention will not itself create a law of privacy. The extent to which it leads to any development of a law of privacy will depend entirely on the decisions of the courts in any particular cases where litigants rely on the convention.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for adding to the Answer he gave me on 23rd June. Does he agree that the correct, indeed the only, answer that can be provided to the recent cynical and contemptuous observation by Mr. Richard Murdoch, that any law of privacy would only inure to the advantage of the rich and famous, is that legal aid should be made available for those who cannot afford to bring forward a reasonable cause of action? Secondly, and lastly, does he agree that speculative litigation in the form of conditional or contingent fees—if allowed in this new field of jurisdiction—would be inadequate to ensure proper access to justice?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, one always needs to be accurate on these occasions. I think that his name is Rupert not Richard. I did read a newspaper report of what Mr. Rupert Murdoch said. Whether it was a fully accurate newspaper report I am not sure. It was in one of his own newspapers, but no conclusion can necessarily be drawn from that. The question of privacy is extremely important. The Prime Minister has made it plain, as has my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, on a number of occasions that the initiatives which the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, has put forward are extremely welcome, and that ultimately it will be a matter for the courts of this country to develop remedies as they think appropriate. Courts in the past have shown themselves to be subtle, flexible and useful vehicles for developments in areas of law which require a good deal of careful consideration and thought.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the incorporation of the convention will provide merely a minimum framework for human rights and will in no way inhibit the development of the common law in the appropriate circumstances?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, my noble friend put the matter more succinctly and directly than I. All I can say is that I entirely agree.

Lord Henley

My Lords, bearing in mind that the incorporation of the convention will not create a law of privacy, as the noble Lord put it, does he believe that it is time for the Government, in addition to producing a Green Paper on the matter, to bring forward legislation to create a law of privacy?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, these are not true alternatives. I remember that the former Government indicated that they would produce a White Paper on these matters, but decided not to do so. We intend to see how the courts deal with the new legal situation. It will give the opportunity for rights to be enforced in the domestic courts; opportunities which have never been available to the citizens of this country. We believe that that is the best way forward.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is my noble friend aware—we are noble and learned friends in another capacity—that some of us prefer the approach of allowing the courts to develop the law, as they have done previously, rather than introducing a law of privacy?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am happy to say to my noble friend that, as I sought to make plain previously, the Government, as indicated in speeches made by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor and more recently the Prime Minister, are firmly of the view that that is the best way forward. It will be consistent and consonant with the culture and traditions of our country, which are not the same as those of some of our neighbours on the continent of Europe.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, the noble Lord has not yet answered the question which I raised. Will legal aid be made available to enable the law to develop as he envisages?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, there are no present proposals to extend legal aid to the area to which the noble and learned Lord refers. However, legal aid is not a necessary precondition for successful litigation.