POLITICS
27/03/2012 02:37 BST | Updated 27/03/2012 04:46 BST

New Privacy Laws Not Required, Claims Joint Committee On Privacy And Injunctions

MPs and Lords have weighed in on the controversial debate of whether England and Wales need new privacy laws - and conclude that there are no grounds for introducing them.

However a report by Parliament's Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions has recommended one measure - censoring google results so they do not breach injunctions.

"Google and other search engines should take steps to ensure that their websites are not used as vehicles to breach the law and should actively develop and use such technology," they said.

The MPs and peers wrned attempt to define privacy in law would "risk becoming outdated quickly." They criticised the idea as it didn't allow sufficient flexibility, arguing it would cause "even more litigation over its interpretation".

The committee poured scorn on calls to restate the broad right to privacy. "The purpose of an Act of Parliament is to change the law; not to make a declaration", they wrote.

This move by the Parliamentary committee will be a setback for those who want privacy to be defined in law. This has included Max Moseley, and the Prime Minister - who said the law should be reviewed to "catch up with how people consume media today".

Calls for Parliament to make a privacy law came after last year's controversy over "super-injunctions". The scandal stemmed from suggestions that tabloid newspapers, looking to publish stories about alleged sexual behaviour of celebrities, were being "gagged" by "super-injunctions", granted by judges. At the time, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said "I also think there are areas of privacy where an individual is entitled to have it protected."

However, the justice secretary later told parliament that he saw "no case" for a privacy law. "No one has persuaded me that we really quite know what we were introducing as a Government if we introduced a privacy law" he added.

The law in England and Wales has been criticised as having a "weak, fractured and piecemeal approach to privacy", in a report from the EHRC.

The Parliamentary Committee rejected criticism, as made by figures including David Cameron, that privacy law had been "judge-made". Established privacy law has developed from the Human Rights Act, they claimed.

Major internet corporations were urged to take steps to limit potential breaches of court orders through their products. This was in response to last year's super-injunctions furore, when over 75,000 people named Ryan Giggs as a footballer who had taken out a super-injunction on Twitter. According to the committee, if internet companies fail to crack down on potential breaches of court orders, they should be forced to do so by law.

They called for the Attorney General to be more proactive in bringing action for civil contempt of court for those who break injunctions online.

"The threshold for him intervening should be lower", the committee said.

MPs should also be wary about abusing parliamentary privilege, said the Committee. They insisted that "the threshold for restricting what members can say during parliamentary proceedings should be high".

This comes after John Hemming MP used the exclusive right of "parliamentary privilege" to name individuals concerned in injunctions, in defiance of court orders.

The government announced last year it would revise how parliamentary privilege operates.

The best way to protect privacy, according to the Committee, is through increased media regulation. The Press Complaints Commission was "not equipped to deal with systemic and illegal invasions of privacy", and lacked "the power, sanctions or independence to be truly effective".

They called for a new media regulator, which would:

  • Allow access to a wider range of sanctions, including the power to fine
  • Cost nothing for people to complain to
  • Be able to determine the size and location of a published apology, and the date of publication
  • Have a greater role in arbitrating and mediating policy disputes

John Whittingdale MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

"The Committee spent some time debating whether additional laws to clarify the right to privacy were necessary or desirable. However, we concluded that the existing position, where each case is judged by the courts on an individual basis, is now working reasonably well.

"We are concerned that individuals with grievances about invasion of privacy should have an alternative to costly legal action available to them. It is clear that media self-regulation under the PCC did not work.

"We therefore wish to see a stronger self-regulatory system that is seen to be effective and commands the confidence of the public. The PCC's successor must have teeth; it must be truly independent of the industry; it must incorporate all major news publishers. Parliament should have a central role in scrutinising the process of media reform.

"If it is judged that the new body is not proving effective, statutory oversight of the media regulator should be seriously considered"