Major ready to act on media intrusions: Government set to approve White Paper on new privacy laws

Click to follow
JOHN MAJOR is preparing to give the go-ahead to curbs on intrusions into privacy by the media, including plans to allow the public to sue for damages.

The move may be seen as an attack on the press, but after months of delay, the Government is preparing to approve a White Paper on new privacy laws, which could be introduced in the next Queen's Speech in the autumn.

The Prime Minister rejected an early draft of the White Paper because he feared only the well-off would be able to afford to go to court. Mr Major told colleagues he did not want the Bill to be seen as protection for the rich and famous. Legal aid will not be granted for such cases.

It led to reports that the idea of allowing the public to sue for intrusion of privacy had been abandoned. But senior government sources confirmed last night ministers were planning to go ahead with the proposal by the Lord Chancellor for a civil remedy to be available to individuals who feel their privacy has been invaded.

In the reworked White Paper, the Lord Chancellor's Department is proposing a form of small claims court, where claims could be settled quickly and cheaply. For bigger claims, the Government is proposing the introduction of legal costs on a no-win, no-fee basis.

The Lord Chancellor's office is ready to propose the introduction of conditional fees, under which the lawyers, if they win, are paid their legal costs, plus a percentage of the legal costs. 'It would make people think seriously about their chances of winning,' one ministerial source said.

Ministers have rejected the US system of contingency fees, under which laywers share a percentage of the 'winnings'. One ministerial source said it could lead to lawyers advising clients to continue pursuing higher claims for damages when an acceptable settlement was on offer.

The civil remedy will be part of a wider Bill on privacy which would make illegal invasion of privacy by the use of bugging devices and telephoto lenses, in such cases as the topless photographs of the Duchess of York, the taped conversations of the Prince and Princess of Wales and the Princess of Wales working out in a gym. The White Paper follows the Calcutt report on the press, but Mr Major rejected the principal recommendation for a statutory complaints tribunal with sweeping powers to fine and awards costs. The Government decided to continue with self-regulation of the press. Professor Robert Pinker, the privacy ombudsman, was appointed in January by the Press Complaints Commission.

The date for the White Paper could be decided this week by the National Heritage Department, which is taking the lead, and the Lord Chancellor's Department. The departure of Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for National Heritage, who is almost certain to step down in the Cabinet reshuffle next week, has complicated the timing of the White Paper and could delay it.

An incoming secretary of state is certain to review the policy. Mr Brooke wished to publish the paper before he left the National Heritage department, but with time running out, it was looking increasingly unlikely last night that ministers would be able to publish the White Paper before the recess of Parliament on 21 July.