Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords have called for urgent legislation to bring in prison sentences for journalists found guilty of obtaining information illegally.
Lords frontbencher Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer said: “During the passage of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill in 2008, we debated whether there should be a prison sentence of two years for people – journalists and others – caught unlawfully obtaining personal data.
“We also debated whether there should be a special defence for journalists.
“During the passage of that Bill, the legal manager of News International emailed me and sought a meeting. News International were most concerned at the idea of the increased tariff and now we can see why.
“They put tremendous pressure on the Government to drop the idea of prison sentences for journalists being included in the Act.
“Was it actually the Prime Minister who instructed that that legislation be dropped? The conclusion at the end of the debate on that Act was that we wouldn’t include it on the face of the Bill but that it would be brought in by Order if necessary.”
She said the order should now be brought in urgently.
For the Conservatives, Baroness Neville-Jones said it was “wrong to think … that these issues are particularly new”.
She added: “In 2006 an investigation was conducted by the Information Commissioner. He found ‘an extensive illegal trade in confidential personal information…evidence of a widespread and organised undercover market in confidential personal information, that contravened the Data Protection Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.’
“This is about privacy and in his report the Commissioner said he had discovered that at least 305 journalists had been involved in the illegal trade in confidential personal information.
“He also established that the illegal activities had not been limited to one newspaper or newspaper group but were happening across a large number of titles and newspaper groups.”
Security minister Lord West of Spithead was asked by Labour peer Lord Campbell-Savours if all those who had allegedly had their phones tapped should be told privately.
Lord West said: “I think they should all be told and it will be something that I shall certainly be pursuing to see how the Metropolitan Police consider taking this forward.
“It is an operational matter but it just seems to me instinctively that people ought to know this has happened.”
Lord West said he did not want to give a “knee-jerk” response to all the concerns of peers, adding: “I think we need to look at the full implications of all of this across the board and then think how we act.”