Phone-hacking laws are 'very uneven and unclear'

Sir Christopher Graham
The information commissioner has told a powerful group of MPs that legislation outlawing phone hacking is "very uneven" and "very unclear" and the law should be clarified.
Christopher Graham told the home affairs select committee that existing legislation outlawing the practice "was drawn up for another age and other circumstances".
The committee is investigating the legal framework surrounding phone hacking following revelations that the News of the World commissioned a private investigator to illegally intercept voicemail messages belonging to dozens of public figures.
Since the committee began its inquiry the paper has apologised to eight victims who are suing its owner, News Group Newspapers, in the high court and offered to pay them compensation. The total bill is likely to run to many millions of pounds.
The information commissioner pointed out he is not responsible for enforcing the legislation which outlaws phone hacking, including the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, but told MPs it needs to be updated.
He said he was monitoring the dispute between the director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer and John Yates, the assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police.
Starmer has contradicted Yates's claim that Starmer originally advised the Met that no offence was committed unless a voicemail message is intercepted before it has been listened to by its intended recipient. Yates told the home affairs committee earlier this month that advice "permeated the entire investigation".
Graham said on Tuesday: "We are a very interested bystander because there is a lack of clarity about where the law stands."
The information commissioner added: "At the moment you've got a regulatory vacuum because there's no equivalent of the information commissioner acting as a regulator giving advice and guidance."
Graham also said stiffer sentences should be imposed for illegally "blagging" information and revealed the Ministry of Justice is considering introducing measures that would allow judges to impose prison sentences of up to two years for the offence.
The maximum sentence for obtaining confidential information such as medical records or phone numbers by calling a company or public body posing as someone else is currently a £5,000 fine. Graham told MPs that blagging was a multimillion pound industry and that custodial sentences are needed to clamp down on "a very profitable business".
Graham said "tens" of public figures who are suing the News of the World for invasion of privacy have written to his office to discover if they were the victims of "blagging". He added that "less than a dozen" have obtained court orders requiring the commissioner to make available any information it has on whether they were victims of the practice.
The Information Commissioner's Office conducted an investigation called Operation Motorman in 2003 looking at Steve Whittamore, a private investigator who specialised in obtaining information from mobile phone companies, tax authorities and other public bodies, which resulted in his arrest and conviction. Some of the public figures suing the News of the World have asked it to provide relevant information from that inquiry.
Graham also criticised mobile phone operators for failing to advise their customers on the measures they should take to ensure their phones and other devices are secure.
He said he did not know whether mobile phone operators had written to their customers informing them they had been targeted by Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator who was on the News of the World's books until August 2006, when he was arrested for illegally intercepting voicemail messages.
He said it was not his job to advise them on whether they should hand over that information and he hasn't given them guidance about whether to do so.
Yates claimed during evidence to MPs on the culture, media and sport select committee that the Met had asked mobile phone companies to warn customers who may have been targeted by Mulcaire.
All four leading mobile phone companies have since denied they received such a request.


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