Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Earl of Northesk: Amendment No. 14 is in this grouping. For the convenience of the Committee, and at the invitation of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, I shall speak to it now.

I hope that the Minister will find it music to his ears if I tell him that it is very much a probing amendment. I am only too well aware that the phrase "general reception" in Clause 2(3) is intended to be very much wider than my substitute formulation of "reception by the general public". Nor, per se, do I quarrel with that. It merely strikes me that the phrase is woolly. It lacks clarity.

I am aware that the phrase has been used previously in drafting, I believe in recent legislation related to broadcasting. But its context in this Bill seems somewhat different. It is conceivable that messages transmitted to pagers within a closed network—let us say that of a political party—could be interpreted as falling within the terms of,

In the case of a properly registered and legitimately constituted political party it is difficult to imagine an occasion when interception of such communications could readily be justified, even on the grounds specified in Clause 21(2). That is all good and well.

Equally, it is possible to envisage instances—in particular in the context of organised crime—where such closed networks could be the preferred mode of communication even though they could be interpreted to fall within the ambit of "general reception". Either way it is important that the Government's intended parameters of the phrase should be more clear-cut.

12 Jun 2000 : Column 1421

While I do not believe that the Bill would be improved by a copious list of the communications and broadcasts that the Government have in mind, none the less I should be grateful if the Minister can put some flesh on what are, as they stand, very bare bones.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am grateful to both noble Lords who have spoken and for the probing nature of the amendments.

Amendment No. 5 would include within the definition of a "private telecommunication system" all self-standing private systems in the United Kingdom, and all telecommunications systems abroad, whether public or private. I think that that is the correct understanding. The scope of the prohibition on interception would be widened to include all such systems. Amendments Nos. 6, 7 and 8 have this effect only for self-standing private systems. Under the Interception of Communications Act 1985, only the interception of communications in the course of their transmission by means of a public system is unlawful. The Bill extends this to make unlawful also interception on a private system attached to a public system: for example, an office or hotel network, or the telephones in a domestic household. This extension implements the requirements of Article 5 of the European Telecommunications Data Protection Directive. That is how we see it working. That is where it comes from. That is its root.

Our understanding is that Amendments Nos. 9 and 11 would change the definition of telecommunication system to exclude the origin and destination. The noble Lord made that clear in his explanation. But a primary purpose of this part of the Bill is to ensure that wherever along the path of a communication it is intercepted, the required level of authority, handling, safeguards and oversight remain the same. It would make no sense for interception of a telephone wire in the street to require a Secretary of State warrant, yet no warrant to be required if the interception was to occur at the telephone handset. Indeed, this was the deficiency identified by the European Court in the case of Halford v. UK which this Bill seeks to remedy. An important step is being taken with this legislation.

Amendment No. 14 seeks to clarify the meaning of the phrase "for general reception" . Clause 2(3) is designed to ensure that listening to a publicly available communication—for example, a radio or television programme—is not treated as interception for the purposes of this Bill. It uses a phrase which is used and well understood in other legislation. The noble Lord acknowledged that point. For example, the Broadcasting Act 1996 uses it in its definition of a "digital programme service". In Section 1(4) it states that this means,

    "a service consisting in the provision by any person of television programmes (together with any ancillary services, as defined by section 24(2)) with a view to their being broadcast in digital form for general reception".

In Section 1(7), we are told that "for general reception" means for general reception in, or in any area in, the United Kingdom. I hope that the noble

12 Jun 2000 : Column 1422

Lord will be reassured that the phrase here has the same meaning. I trust that with those reassurances, the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: On Amendment No. 14, police and ambulance broadcasts were, and sometimes still are, able to be picked up on short-wave radio. People sometimes listened to them out of interest and sometimes because they were criminals wishing to ensure that the police were not headed in their direction. It became a relatively common practice. I am not sure whether that counts as "general reception". It is no fault of the person that he or she receives the broadcast. But is it an offence not to retune immediately one's radio should one come across such a broadcast? I am not sure whether that would be a new offence. It would be of interest to know the position.

Lord Lucas: From the Minister's remarks and the definition he cited from the Broadcasting Act 1996, my noble friend Lord Northesk has hit the nail on the head. "General reception" means anything that is intended to be received generally. In the case of television, that includes signals intended to be used only by people who have paid the fee to unscramble them, or the pay-per-view fee. "General reception" clearly includes signals broadcast generally which are intended to be used only by those who have paid the fee or fulfilled specific requirements.

Under the Bill, even if I were to intercept and make use of a signal for Sky Sports 1, I would not be committing an offence under this Bill. However, if that technology is to be legitimate under this provision—under the definition given by the Minister it is—then, as my noble friend Lord Northesk said, interception of a signal to a pager or to a mobile phone, both of which are broadcast for general reception but are intended to be decrypted by an individual or group of individuals, falls within the definition and falls outside the prohibitions in the Bill. Therefore tapping mobile phones and pagers is not covered. It is an area that the Minister should consider. His own definition compounds the difficulties that my noble friend Lord Northesk outlined.

The Earl of Northesk: Perhaps the Minister will undertake to give the matter firm consideration. We seem to have unearthed a problem that we have not encountered previously.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I think that we have. We can debate this issue further under Clauses 20 to 24.

Perhaps I may clarify the point on pagers. It is clear that to intercept pagers would need a warrant. The noble Lord seemed to think that one would not be needed; we take the view that it would.

We do not agree that communications for reception by a closed network come within the provisions for general reception. We are clear that the term "general" means available to all. However, it specifically excludes those on a closed network. Noble Lords will need to understand that precise point.

12 Jun 2000 : Column 1423

The noble Earl, Lord Northesk, makes a useful contribution. We can have further debate on the issue on Clauses 20 to 24. On reflection, perhaps he will be satisfied with the definition as we have sought to explain it.

Viscount Astor: Perhaps I can ask the Minister a question relating to his reference to "general reception" and the fact that pagers are not included in this. Where does that leave subscription broadcasting, and indeed encrypted broadcasting? Where does that fit into the definition?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am grateful to the noble Viscount for his intervention. I shall need to take further advice on that point. I am sure that the noble Viscount will appreciate that it is rather more complex than is perhaps usual.

Lord Lucas: In case the noble Lord wishes to wind up, this is very much getting at the same point, a point which we should not leave alone now until we get a firm commitment from the Minister to deal with it very seriously. The size of a private group does not have any bearing on its status under this Bill. If I send out a signal which is receivable by two or 200 pagers, that is not something which is relevant under this Bill. If I send out a television signal which is intended only for the 200,000 people who have paid but is actually receivable by everybody, the definition that the noble Lord has just quoted refers to "general reception". Therefore, it is for general reception whether the group happens to be 200,000-strong or 200-strong. In other words, pagers—and I suspect mobile phones, even though they comprise only a singular group, which is none the less mathematically a group, as any mathematician will doubtless acknowledge—are by this clause as currently drafted (using definitions in other Bills, because there is no definition in this Bill) excluded from the effects of this Bill. The noble Lord has demonstrated that with his own words. None of us wishes that to be the case, but we must take this absolutely seriously.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page