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Phone Hacking

Volume 531: debated on Wednesday 13 July 2011

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement. In recent days, the whole country has been shocked by the revelations of the phone hacking scandal. What this country—and the House—has to confront is an episode that is, frankly, disgraceful: accusations of widespread lawbreaking by parts of our press: alleged corruption by some police officers; and, as we have just discussed, the failure of our political system over many, many years to tackle a problem that has been getting worse. We must at all times keep the real victims at the front and centre of this debate. Relatives of those who died at the hands of terrorism, war heroes and murder victims—people who have already suffered in a way that we can barely imagine—have been made to suffer all over again.

I believe that we all want the same thing: press, police and politicians who serve the public. Last night the Deputy Prime Minister and I met the Leader of the Opposition. I also met the Chairs of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the Home Affairs Committee and the Justice Committee to discuss the best way forward. Following these consultations, I want to set out today how we intend to proceed: first, on the public inquiry; secondly, on the issues surrounding News International’s proposed takeover of BSkyB; and thirdly, on ethics in the police service and its relationship with the press.

Before I do that, I will update the House on the current criminal investigation into phone hacking. I met Sir Paul Stephenson last night. He assured me that the investigation is fully resourced. It is one of the largest currently under way in the country, and is being carried out by a completely different team from the one that carried out the original investigation. It is being led by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, who I believe impressed the Home Affairs Committee yesterday. Her team is looking through 11,000 pages containing 3,870 names, and around 4,000 mobile and 5,000 landline phone numbers. The team has contacted 170 people so far, and will contact every single person named in those documents. The commissioner’s office informed me this morning that the team has so far made eight arrests and undertaken numerous interviews.

Let me now turn to the action that the Government are taking. Last week in the House I set out our intention to establish an independent public inquiry into phone hacking and other illegal practices in the British press. We have looked carefully at what the nature of the inquiry should be. We want it to be one that is as robust as possible—one that can get to the truth fastest and also get to work the quickest, and, vitally, one that commands the full confidence of the public. Clearly there are two pieces of work that have to be done. First, we need a full investigation into wrongdoing in the press and the police, including the failure of the first police investigation. Secondly, we need a review of regulation of the press. We would like to get on with both those elements as quickly as possible, while being mindful of the ongoing criminal investigations. So, after listening carefully, we have decided that the best way to proceed is with one inquiry, but in two parts.

I can tell the House that the inquiry will be led by one of the most senior judges in the country, Lord Justice Leveson. He will report to both the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. The inquiry will be established under the Inquiries Act 2005, which means that it will have the power to summon witnesses, including newspaper reporters, management, proprietors, policemen and politicians of all parties, to give evidence under oath and in public.

Proprietors were included in that list.

Starting as soon as possible, Lord Justice Leveson, assisted by a panel of senior independent figures with relevant expertise in media, broadcasting, regulation and government will inquire into the culture, practices and ethics of the press; its relationship with the police; the failure of the current system of regulation; the contacts made, and discussions had, between national newspapers and politicians; why previous warnings about press misconduct were not heeded; and the issue of cross-media ownership. He will make recommendations for a new, more effective way of regulating the press—one that supports its freedom, plurality and independence from Government, but which also demands the highest ethical and professional standards. He will also make recommendations about the future conduct of relations between politicians and the press. That part of the inquiry we hope will report within 12 months.

The second part of the inquiry will examine the extent of unlawful or improper conduct at the News of the World and other newspapers, and the way in which management failures may have allowed it to happen. That part of the inquiry will also look into the original police investigation and the issue of corrupt payments to police officers, and will consider the implications for the relationships between newspapers and the police. Lord Justice Leveson has agreed to these draft terms of reference. I am placing them in the Library today, and we will send them to the devolved Administrations. No one should be in any doubt of our intention to get to the bottom of the truth and learn the lessons for the future.

Next is the issue of News International’s bid to take over BSkyB. By the day, we are hearing shocking allegations: allegations that royal protection officers were in the pay of the News of the World and handed over the contact details of the royal family for profit; and allegations that the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), had his personal details blagged by another News International title. As both the alleged nature of the malpractice and the scope of the newspapers involved widen, serious questions must be asked about News Corporation’s proposed takeover of BSkyB. Added to this, News Corporation has withdrawn its proposed undertakings in lieu of reference to the Competition Commission. That is why on Monday my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport referred the bid to the Competition Commission. The relevant independent authorities will now have the time to take an exhaustive look at all the relevant issues and come to a considered decision on whether the takeover should proceed. It will then be up to the Secretary of State to make the final decision, in his quasi-judicial capacity.

In every way we are following—and we must follow—the law with respect to News International’s proposed acquisition of BSkyB, but let me repeat what I said on Monday. In my view, this business should be focused not on mergers and takeovers, but on clearing up the mess and getting its house in order, and that is what the House will be voting on tonight. Let me also say this. The people involved, whether they were directly responsible for the wrongdoing, whether they sanctioned it or whether they covered it up, and however high or low they go, must not only be brought to justice; they must also have no future role in running a media company in our country.

Now let me turn to the issue of ethics in the police, and in particular their relationship with the press. Of course it is important that there is a good relationship between the media and the police. Police often use newspapers and other media to hunt down wanted criminals and to appeal for information. However, allegations have been made that some corrupt police officers may have taken payments from newspapers. And there are wider concerns that the relationship between the police and the press can also be too close.

When I spoke to Sir Paul Stephenson yesterday, he made it clear that he is as determined as I am that all aspects of the police relationship with the media should be beyond reproach. On the allegation concerning improper payments to police officers, I can assure the House that the Metropolitan police immediately referred the case to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Since then, the IPCC’s most senior commissioner has been supervising the Met’s work to identify the officers who may have taken these payments. As soon as any officers are identified, the commission has publicly made it clear that it will move to a full independent investigation drawing on all the available expertise necessary so that the public are reassured.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been assured by the commission that it has both the powers and the resources needed to see this through. It will go wherever the evidence leads it, and it will have full powers to investigate fully any police wrongdoing that it might uncover. The Home Secretary has also today commissioned a report from the IPCC on its experience of investigating corruption in the police service and any lessons that can be learned. The initial findings of this will be delivered to her by the end of the summer. I can also tell the House that in addition to the work of the judicial inquiry on the wider relationship between the police and the press, Sir Paul Stephenson is looking to invite a senior public figure to advise him on the ethics that should underpin that relationship for his own force, the Metropolitan police. In particular, this figure will advise him on how to ensure maximum transparency and public confidence in how the arrangements are working.

As we discussed a few moments ago, if we are calling for greater transparency from the police, I think it is only right that we provide it in Government, too. After all, as I have said, one of the reasons why we got into this situation is because, over the decades, politicians and the press have spent time courting support, not confronting the problems. So I will be consulting the Cabinet Secretary on an amendment to the ministerial code to require Ministers to record all meetings with newspaper and other media proprietors, senior editors and executives, regardless of the nature of the meeting. Permanent secretaries and special advisers will also be required to record such meetings. This information should be published quarterly. It is a first for our country, and alongside the other steps we are taking, will help to make the UK Government one of the most transparent in the world. I will also be discussing this with the Opposition, and perhaps we can adopt it on a cross-party basis.

After this statement I will be meeting the family of Milly Dowler. None of us can imagine what they have gone through, but I do know that they, like everyone else in this country, want their politicians—all of us—to bring this ugly chapter to a close, and ensure that nothing like it can ever happen again. It is in that spirit that I commend this statement to the House.

I start by thanking the Prime Minister for his statement, and for the meeting last night. The revelations of the past week have shocked the whole country, and the public now rightly expect those of us in this House, who represent them, to provide not just an echo of that shock but the leadership necessary to start putting things right. That is why it is in the interests of the whole House and the country that we move forward swiftly, comprehensively and, wherever possible, on an agreed basis.

Let me ask the Prime Minister first about the timing, nature and scope of the inquiry. I welcome the establishment of the inquiry today. Can he confirm that it will be staffed and up and running before the recess? Can he also confirm that, from the moment the judge is appointed today, it will be an offence for anyone to destroy documents related to the issues of the inquiry? And can the Prime Minister tell us what steps he will be taking to preserve documents in Downing street that might be relevant to the judge’s inquiry?

Turning to how the inquiry will operate, we welcome a number of aspects of today’s announcement that clearly build on the way forward that we have been calling for. It is right that there should be a single judge-led inquiry; we have made it clear that it must be judge led if it is to get to the bottom of what happened and when. Can the Prime Minister confirm that it is being set up under the Inquiries Act 2005, and that it will have the power to compel witnesses? Will he explain how he envisages the judge and the panel that he mentioned operating together?

As for the scope of the inquiry, in his press conference last Friday the Prime Minister set out a number of areas that he envisaged being covered, and he has gone further today. I think it is right that the Government have now decided to follow our advice, and the clear views of the Hacked Off campaign and the Dowler family, in opting for a far broader inquiry.

Does the Prime Minister agree with me that yesterday’s important sitting of the Home Affairs Select Committee made it very clear that questions about the relationship between the media and the police run far wider than what was covered by the first investigation? We must take the steps necessary to restore the public’s faith in the police’s ability to hold to account all those who have broken the law.

Similarly, it can only be right that the inquiry has been broadened to include the relationship between politicians and the press. On the specifics of that—the relationship between politicians and the press, and the relationship between the police and the press—can the Prime Minister assure the House that these aspects of the inquiry will be very much judge led, and that those who appear as witnesses to the inquiry will be under oath? [Hon. Members: “He said that!”] If that is the case, I welcome it.

Alongside these important questions about behaviour in Britain’s newsrooms, the police and the relationship between politicians and the press, a number of additional issues need consideration. On the issue of media regulation, does he agree that our instinct should continue to be for self-regulation; but does he further agree that it needs to be proved that self-regulation can be made to work? Will he comment on the work being done on privacy issues and explain whether he sees that as being part of this investigation?

I welcome the decision to make cross-media ownership part of the inquiry. Does he agree with me that abuses of power are more likely to happen where there are excessive concentrations of power? Will he confirm that the recommendations made under this inquiry can be legislated for in the Government’s forthcoming communications Act? May I suggest that it would be wise for him to bring that Act forward from its currently planned date of 2015?

Finally, I welcome the Prime Minister’s proposals about transparency. I hope and expect he will ensure that that proposal is implemented in a retrospective way back to the last general election, so he will publish all the details—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] So he will publish all the details of the meetings he had, and I will publish all the details of the meetings I had. Let me end by saying that people such as the Dowler family, and other members of the public who are the innocent victims of phone hacking, deserve a full and comprehensive inquiry. They need us to get on with the inquiry, to make it fully comprehensive and to get to the truth. They have my commitment and that of my party to make sure that we do everything to make that happen.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the helpful meeting we had last night and for the constructive attitude that he is showing in trying to get the terms of reference right and to get the inquiry under way in an agreed format. I will try to answer his questions as directly as I can.

The inquiry will start at once, in the sense of getting the terms of reference published: they will have to be consulted on and sent to the devolved institutions; we have to draw up the names for the panel—but we are not going to waste any time with that. We will get on with it. On the issue of destroying evidence, let me be clear that once a criminal investigation is under way it is a crime to destroy any evidence that could possibly relate to it—and everyone needs to bear that in mind.

Yes, this inquiry will be established under the Inquiries Act. As for the relationship between the judge and the panel, that is an important point. The panel, whose members have not yet been approached and appointed, must have a range of expertise available to it, including specialised understanding of newspaper media, but also wider than that. Those panel members will assist the judge in the work he does. As I said to the right hon. Gentleman last night, we would welcome suggestions of names of people who could bring expertise to bear.

Yes, the inquiry is now a broad one, as the right hon. Gentleman said. I think that is right, but we need to make sure that we put quite a tight time frame on it, as we need to see results. It is right to look at issues such as cross-media ownership, but it is possible to spend for ever looking at ways of measuring that, and we have to be careful that we do not have this going on for years without reaching a conclusion.

On relationships between the police and the press, and between politicians and the press—yes, everyone whom the judge wishes to call can be called to testify under oath. On the issue of media regulation, I prefer to call what we need to aim for independent regulation rather than self-regulation, which has quite a bad name now because it missed too many things. I do not want to move to a world of full statutory regulation. I worked in an industry—television—that was statutorily regulated, and it works, but I do not think it is right for the press. However, we will have to be guided by what the inquiry finds. As parties looking at the matter, I hope we do not get into a bidding war—I think that the right hon. Gentleman understands what I mean. Let us shoot for independent regulation if we can.

On the issue of privacy, of course the inquiry will consider it, but perhaps the inquiry will also look at the very good work that I know will be done by the Select Committees, on privacy and super-injunctions. On legislation, we will do that as necessary: we have a forward legislative programme, but let us see what proposals are made.

On transparency, I am consulting on the proposal to make much more transparent what Ministers do, including not just business meetings but social meetings. It is worth asking whether we should go further on meetings with journalists, as the police might want to do. I am happy to discuss how far the right hon. Gentleman wants that to go back: it was a slight case of, “Make me transparent, but not yet,” as he proposed stopping at the election, but let us have a good look at that.

Order. A very large number of colleagues wish to catch my eye, so I appeal to each Back Bencher to ask a single short supplementary question, and to the Prime Minister for his characteristically economical replies.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, and thank him for consulting me, and my two fellow Select Committee Chairmen, about the terms of reference last night. Although there is no doubt that we need a stronger system of regulation of the press in this country, will the Prime Minister bear in mind that although it was newspapers that were responsible for these wholly unacceptable and often illegal activities, it was also newspapers that exposed them? I hope he will agree that a free press is a fundamental cornerstone of a free society, and that we must do nothing to jeopardise that.

My hon. Friend speaks very good sense about this matter. Ultimately, we want not just a free press, but a free and vigorous press, which can make our lives miserable a lot of the time. That is absolutely vital. There will be those in the press who will be made nervous of a judge-led inquiry covering all the aspects of this matter, and I stress the importance of the panel in assisting the judge to ensure that the changes proposed are based on evidence of what matters and what works.

Given what the Prime Minister has said, will he now publish details of all the discussions that he and the Culture Secretary have had with News Corporation representatives since he entered Downing street? A week ago, when I asked the Prime Minister why the Government did not refer the BSkyB bid to the Competition Commission when Labour recommended it, he said:

“You would look pretty for a day, but useless for a week.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2011; Vol. 530, c. 1510.]

Does he regret that answer?

What has happened here is a massive firestorm of allegations that have got worse and worse. On both sides of the House, all of us started from the proposition that we had to keep separate the investigations that were taking place and the inquiry into BSkyB. I believe that we are now getting it right, and if the right hon. Gentleman has played a role by pushing and asking questions, I pay tribute to him. He, too, was a Culture Secretary, and knows about these issues. Just as I say to him, “Well done for pushing,” I suspect that he should also be saying to himself, “Why did we miss this for so long?”

I thank the Prime Minister for his decisive announcement and for the work that he and the Deputy Prime Minister have done to ensure that the concerns that my colleagues have been expressing for 17 years, and the calls for an inquiry that we have been making for two years, have at last been accepted.

Will the inquiry look into the Information Commissioner’s reports of 2006, and why his confirmation that 31 media titles and 305 journalists were involved in illegal activities in relation to personal information were not the subject of implementation of recommendations by the Labour party in government, whose leadership continued, even as late as last December, to accuse my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary of being too critical of Murdoch?

To be fair to my right hon. Friend, the issue of the Information Commissioner’s reports—particularly the two reports he mentions—really is a rebuke not just to the previous Government but to the then Opposition. We too should have made more of those reports, which included some very important detail about what was going wrong in data handling, data theft and the rest of it. We must ensure that the inquiry asks the question, “Why were they ignored, and what are we going to do about it now?”

May I commend the Prime Minister on the appointment of Lord Justice Leveson, who, as I am sure the Justice Secretary will confirm, is a man of the highest intelligence and integrity, and extremely well equipped to take on the job? On the future regulation of the press, I urge the Prime Minister not to fall into the trap that some in the press are setting, by asserting that any degree of statutory regulation is bound to lead to an end of self-regulation. Given that Express Newspapers has withdrawn from the Press Complaints Commission, as it did in January, will he acknowledge that some measures may have to be imposed by statute so that there is a stronger system of self-regulation?

The right hon. Gentleman speaks some very wise words. There are ways of setting up a regulatory system that is effectively independent, that is non-statutory, that does not have the Government’s fingertips all over it, as it were, and that can do a good and trusted job, as we see in the case of advertising standards. In any case, this matter will not now be for us, but for the inquiry, and it is important that the inquiry should look into it carefully.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement and the terms of the public inquiry that he set out, but will the public inquiry consider the role that mobile phone companies have played in the scandal, and will there also be consideration of the responsibilities that they may have to their clients, to protect their privacy?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It takes, as it were, two to blag—someone to ask, and someone to give. We do need to consider the matter. The inquiry will have a huge amount of evidence to go through, and it will need to ensure that it has proper technical expertise to get to the bottom of the matter.

May I also welcome the inquiry and thank the Prime Minister for consulting the Home Affairs Committee on the terms of reference? He seems to have included our suggestions in his statement today. He is right to say that the Committee was concerned by some of the evidence that we received yesterday, but we were very impressed by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, who is going through the list at the rate of 30 victims a month, and has about 12,000 telephone numbers to go through. If the Met requires further resources, is the Prime Minister able to give it what it needs?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his approach and the constructive suggestions that he made last night, many of which we have put into the terms of reference. We will also consider some of his thoughts on the membership of the panel. Obviously, it is for the Met to decide how it distributes its resources. Sue Akers has two inquiries going on: one into the phone hacking at the News of the World and elsewhere, and one into corruption within the Met—and that inquiry is now reporting to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which might take over part of it, although of course the police must have operational independence.

The Prime Minister is absolutely right to concentrate on wider issues than the BSkyB takeover. Is it not the case, however, that over the past few years, all those whom the public expect to behave—bankers, MPs, journalists, the police—have shown, or at least some of them have shown, that they are not capable of meeting that trust. Regulation plays a part, but is it not the case that all those who have positions of responsibility must examine their consciences and work out how best to behave in future to maintain public trust?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. No regulatory system in the world can protect against all bad practice, and a sense of social and moral responsibility is vital, whether one is a banker, an MP or a journalist. I am sure that we can do better than the current system, because on the evidence of what has happened over the past 10 years and the warnings that have been ignored, it is clear that the Press Complaints Commission is not set up in the right way, and has not worked.

There has been serious disquiet about whether it was appropriate for former senior public servants to take up roles with News International. One example is Andy Hayman, who took a job with News International very soon after leaving the Metropolitan police; another is the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Macdonald. Will the inquiry be able to consider the appropriateness of that, given the damage that it does to public confidence?

As the hon. Lady knows, in politics we have huge levels of transparency in relation to jobs that former Ministers can go into, and we also have a committee dealing with appointments to ensure that there is an appropriate gap. However, she has made a good point, and I am sure that the committee of inquiry will want to consider it.

The inquiry announced by my right hon. Friend involves a very wide set of responsibilities. Can he be satisfied that the proper balance will be struck in the conduct of that inquiry—that, for example, we will not allow justifiable annoyance about the activities of tabloid newspapers to obscure the fact that the behaviour, competence and integrity of the Metropolitan police is of equal importance, not least because it extends to many other areas of activity in the country?

Perhaps it is worth my explaining why we decided, in the end, to have one inquiry rather than two. I think that the problem with the original concept of two inquiries is that the one that was going to be judge-led and investigating the wrongdoing would not really have been able to get under way until much of the criminal prosecution was finished, so the second inquiry—the media inquiry—would race away with conclusions. That was not going to work and be sustainable, and I do not think it would have resulted in such a positive outcome as the one that I think we will see. Nevertheless, my right hon. and learned Friend has made a good point. If we have a broad inquiry, we must ensure that it gets its priorities right within the terms of reference, and I am sure that the judge whom we have appointed will do just that.

Yesterday afternoon we heard that the man who is in charge of counter-terrorism in the Metropolitan police is 99% certain that his phone was hacked. An hour later, I was shown a piece of kit that costs about £1,500 and is readily available on the internet. It effectively sets up an illegal mobile phone mast through which it is possible to listen to any conversation held by anyone on a mobile phone within three miles.

As I have said, that device is publicly available. It is illegal to use it, but private investigators are using it all the time. Is it not vital for the inquiry also to examine the role of private investigators, and the shocking fact that there is absolutely no regulation of them?

The hon. Gentleman has made a good point. One of the features of an inquiry such as this is that the terms of reference are set out and we can agree them and refine them, but in the end the judge will determine where to go on the basis of where the evidence leads. If the judge concludes that that is an important point, he or she can go absolutely down that track.

In 2003, the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport asked for an investigation of the practice by journalists of making illegal payments to the police. Does the Prime Minister agree that those in charge of the inquiry should interview former Labour Ministers to discover why they appear to have taken absolutely no action at the time?

My hon. Friend has made a good point, but I think that if we are to try to get this right, we must all put our hands up and say, “Yes, of course the last Government should have done more to respond to the Richard Thomas reports and the DCMS reports, but we must also ask why the Opposition did not press them more to do so.” We shall all have to answer questions on that basis, and look through the reports and see what was suggested, what was the evidence, and what more could have been done. We will never solve this if we try to do it on a party basis; we must try to do it on a cross-party basis.

I believe that if these measures are carried out, some good will come out of evil. I find myself in the slightly embarrassing position of being able to commend all three party leaders on coming together to ensure that that happens, and I thank them for doing so.

May I ask the Prime Minister whether he would allow Lord Justice Leveson access to the intelligence services as well? At the murkier ends of this scandal, there are allegations that rogue elements of those services have very close dealings with executives at News International, and we need to get to the bottom of that.

Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that the judge can take the inquiry in any direction in which the evidence leads it. He, like others, is free to make submissions to the inquiry, point out evidence, point out conclusions from that evidence, and ask the inquiry to follow that. As well as wanting a broad, independent and tough inquiry, we want some early results—some early harvest—and I am sure that the inquiry will produce that as well.

Will the ambit of the judicial inquiry focus on the need to enable ordinary members of the public, such as bereaved families of service personnel who have given their lives for this country, to seek and achieve legitimate redress of grievances through proper complaints against the media and their agents when they are guilty of malpractice?

That is a good point. We must keep the public, and the victims of what has now emerged, front and centre at all times. Of course we all, as politicians, have strong views about what has gone wrong, what might have happened to all of us and the rest of it, but, although some people have said that there is an element of “revenge for expenses”, this has to be about the public and the victims. Politicians must be very careful. Yes, we want a good and robust system of self-regulation, but we must also be absolutely clear about wanting a strong, free, independent press that is able to challenge and to uncover wrongdoing, as it has done in this case.

Given the Prime Minister’s acknowledgment that a cross-party consensus is essential, why has there been no consultation with the minority parties in the House? Do we just get the conclusions when they are arrived at? May I also ask whether the inquiry will extend to newsrooms in Northern Ireland as well as the other regions of the United Kingdom?

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. That consultation simply was not possible in the time that was available to us. Let me stress, however, that these are draft terms of reference. In the end the judge must be comfortable with them and agree to them, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise devolved issues with the Government and the judge, I am sure that we can ensure that that happens.

Some people find it difficult to sue newspapers that have lied about them because of the complexity and cost that that would involve. I hope the Prime Minister can assure me that the inquiry will look into how people on low incomes can be supported so that they can sue newspapers when they have been lied about.

Obviously one of the things that the inquiry will have to look into is how people can obtain redress from newspapers when they have been wronged. That has been looked into for many years, but the problem is that Governments have not acted. I believe that part of the solution is an effective regulatory system. If people end up having to sue a newspaper, things have gone too far. It ought to be possible to obtain proper redress through a regulatory system that has not just the confidence of the press but the confidence of the public: I think that is the key.

Can the Prime Minister tell the House whether he had any conversations about phone hacking with Andy Coulson at the time of Mr Coulson’s resignation—not his appointment—and will he place in the Library a log of any meetings and phone calls that have taken place between him and Andy Coulson since Mr Coulson’s resignation?

Of course, all the time during Andy Coulson’s employment, when articles were appearing and there was a storm of allegations, I had that conversation with him many times, because I had employed him. I had accepted his assurances: assurances which, as I have said, were given to many others. In the end, the reason for his resignation, the reason for his giving up on the second chance, was that he just felt that he could not go on doing the job, a job that he did well—no one denies that he did the job well—because of all the allegations. As for contacts, I have said what I have said about transparency, and I think that that is right.

Yesterday I met representatives of Hacked Off, who have been campaigning for a full inquiry on behalf of victims from the Dowlers to Hugh Grant. They have a range of requirements for what they would consider to be a sufficiently full inquiry. Has the Prime Minister met them, and does he believe that his current proposals will meet their demands?

I shall be meeting representatives of Hacked Off this afternoon. I have looked carefully at the briefing notes that they have issued, and I also listened carefully to what was said by the hon. Gentleman’s former colleague Evan Harris on the radio this morning. I think that we have reflected many of their concerns, and indeed some of their language, in the terms of reference, but I look forward to hearing what they have to say today. These are draft terms of reference, and, if they can be improved, we shall try to improve them.

Before the inquiries have been completed, if News Corporation does not heed the mood of the British public and does not heed the voice of the House of Commons this afternoon, will the Prime Minister be prepared to present a short Bill amending cross-media ownership rules, and also addressing the absence of limits to ownership of United Kingdom broadcasters by non-EU companies and non-EU nationals? There is not such an unfettered free market in the United States, for example.

I think it is difficult to bring forward specific legislation for a specific company; we have got to be a Government under the law. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but it is worth reminding Labour Members that a US-based company is able to purchase all of a UK broadcaster because of an Act that their Government passed.

I welcome the Leveson inquiry and agree very much with the Prime Minister that our focus should be on the innocent victims whom we have heard about recently, but he will be aware that there were concerns in the House that the hacking of telephones has impeded MPs in their work and interfered with freedom of expression, which is one of the most deeply felt and important aspects of our work. The Standards and Privileges Committee produced a report—its 14th report—on this subject. Will the Prime Minister ensure that it is fed into the inquiry and fully considered?

I will, of course, do that. This inquiry gives us an opportunity to look at some reports that a lot of work has gone into, but, sadly, that have gathered dust, rather than having been taken as seriously as perhaps they should have been.

Everybody is aware that the reason why Murdoch had such tremendous power was that he had more than 40% of the print media, with television stations thrown in. It was not because of his amazing personality that politicians of all parties were in his pocket; it was because he had such power through the newspapers. In answer to the recent question of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), the Prime Minister said he did not want to strip Murdoch or anybody else of their titles. Will he therefore include in the inquiry’s terms of reference that the judge can, if he so wishes, say that nobody should have more than one title or one television station? Will the Prime Minister agree to that, because without it this cancer on the body politic—Murdoch—will remain?

Of course, the inquiry can go where it wants to go; it can follow the evidence where it leads. I am sure the judge will want to produce an inquiry under the current law. That is what we have to do; we have to be a Government of the law. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman that we cannot have a responsible company owning a television or radio licence and also a newspaper, but we do need rules about plurality. That is why the media have not only a competition policy that they have to obey, but some rules about plurality so we can make sure there is a decent share of voice—a number of different voices in our media. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I am afraid that not enough was done over the last 10 years to make that happen.

We do not want anybody to be arrested in secret, but neither is it right that individual police officers should immediately contact their favourite journalist to let them know when someone is being arrested. Will the Prime Minister look at having a transparent and standard way of it being made public when someone has been arrested, so that this cannot happen in future?

My hon. Friend correctly identifies this as a problem, but I am not sure that I agree with his solution, although I will certainly look at it. It seems to me that it would be much better to try to have the same sort of transparency between the police and the media that we want between politicians and the media, because, in the end, I think transparency about media contacts would help to prevent the culture of leaking and briefing that has grown up in some parts of the police.

The Prime Minister’s statement was a bit complex, but it sounds as if the decision on the takeover would be made before the end of the judicial inquiry and the police inquiries. Is that correct, because surely it is not right?

The problem we face is that we have a set of rules concerning competition policy, plurality and “fit and proper” tests that are all laid down in the law and have to be carried out by Ofcom, the competition authorities and, indeed, the Secretary of State. He has to obey the law—and these laws were, largely, put in place by the previous Government. The Competition Commission will look at this; it will take its time, but it cannot take for ever in making its recommendation. Then there will be a decision for the Secretary of State. We cannot do anything but obey the law, but what we are doing today—what the leaders of the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats and I are all doing—is making a clear statement about our opinion by saying to this business, “You can’t go on pursuing a merger when you ought to be dealing with the mess you’ve got in your own business”, and I think that is the best thing to do.

Unlike my hon. Friend, I am not a lawyer, but I believe it is a criminal offence, because someone who obtains information falsely is breaking the law. This is another aspect that I am sure the inquiry can look at, however.

Does the Prime Minister agree that some of the evidence given to the Home Affairs Committee yesterday must have come as a shock and a surprise? For instance, how can it be justified for the police to dine with the very people whom they are investigating, and is that not all the more reason why this inquiry is so necessary?

I agree. I watched some of the evidence, and that was very striking. Let us be frank about transparency: MPs have had to go through this over expenses and meetings and other things, and it is time for the police to address it, too. Transparency is the best answer. There are bound to be relationships between senior police leaders and senior media executives, not least because the police have to explain what they are trying to do, but if those relationships are transparent, people can know what is going on.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, and may I say that it is good to see him on the front foot? May I also remind him of a sentence in the statement? He stated that “Sir Paul Stephenson is looking to invite a senior public figure to advise him on the ethics that should underpin that relationship for his own force, the Metropolitan police.” May I suggest that there is a wider need throughout the nation for such ethics to be applied, and may I ask the Prime Minister to take action to ensure that other forces are involved in this process?

Of course, relationships that have become unhealthy between some police officers and some media organisations are not just a problem in the Met, but as the Met is our premium and biggest force, I think that if it starts the process of not only transparency but the culture change that is necessary, that would set a good example to others.

In light of the information available to the Prime Minister on phone hacking, what techniques does he anticipate will be used to pressurise Ofcom over its decision as to whether Rupert and James Murdoch are fit and proper persons to run News International and BSkyB, and what action will he take to prevent any such intimidation?

The “fit and proper” test is a matter for Ofcom; it has to carry that out. It is right in this country that we do not ask individual politicians to make those individual decisions about who is fit and proper. We have also asked the Competition Commission to look at this issue. There is a separate issue, too: we need to allow Ofcom to make a “fit and proper” test at the point of full acquisition. That is a particular detail that we need to look at for the future.

For the first time ever, I think, I agree with the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner). What is most disturbing and murkiest about this whole situation is the relationship between politicians and the media. From the moment when Tony Blair flew to Australia back in the 1990s, that relationship has meant that successive leaders of major parties have felt it necessary to cosy-up to media moguls. May we have a situation in future in which party leaders do not go to the birthday parties of these people, and instead keep them at arm’s length, so that the whole country can be assured that it is the public interest, not any media interest, that has power in the land?

The relationship did get unhealthy. It was too close and, as I have put it, too much time was spent courting the media and not enough time was spent confronting the problems, but let us be honest, we are not suddenly all going to become monks and live in a monastery. We have to have relationships so that politicians can try to persuade media organisations that they are trying to do the right thing. We have a duty to explain our policies and what we are doing for the country. Democracy is government by explanation, so we have to explain ourselves to the media, but I hope that this whole process will end up delivering a healthier relationship where we can do that explaining, but confront the problems at the same time.

Given what the Prime Minister has said about the police’s performance yesterday, was it wise of the Home Secretary to describe John Yates as doing a good job, and of Boris Johnson, when chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, to describe this as a song and dance and a load of codswallop?

Let me deal specifically with the issue of John Yates, because this is important. He does an extremely important job for the country in terms of counter-terrorism policing. I have watched him and the job that he does at close hand. We have to have a situation where the police are operationally independent, and if we put our trust in Paul Stephenson to run his team, we must allow him to do that. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to think about this: it would be quite dangerous, would it not, if politicians were able to point at individual police officers, particularly those who were leading investigations into other politicians? So there are some dangers here. I think that John Yates is doing a good job on counter-terrorism. Clearly, as he said himself, he has some questions to answer about what went wrong with the initial investigation, and I hope that he will welcome this inquiry, which will get to the bottom of what went wrong.

In the light of and under the pressure of this inquiry it seems possible that serving police officers will go off on sick leave because of stress. Will the Prime Minister guarantee that in no circumstances will the taxpayer be asked to fund any pension of any police officer, either serving or now retired, who is found to be corrupt, as that would be the final insult?

I will have to look at the point that the hon. Lady makes. It sounds perfectly sensible but we have to obey the rules of the pension schemes and all the rest of it. However, people should not be rewarded in the way that she says.

The Prime Minister talks about independent regulation. May I ask that the inquiry considers possible remedies in respect of applying pecuniary damages where wrongdoing is found and, more importantly, ensuring that an equal amount of time and space is given to printing a retraction as is spent on vilifying people?

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. I have worked in a regulated industry, in television, where you could be fined if you got something wrong—the company I worked for was fined a lot of money once—and there is no doubt that that has a huge effect on the business. But it is not for us to say what the rules should be; it is for this inquiry to do that and it should be properly advised by experts who understand how the media works.

May I congratulate the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, and you, Mr Speaker, on granting the Standing Order No. 24 debate in order to put Parliament at the heart of this matter? There is a danger in all this. In the scandal involving MPs, most MPs were of the highest integrity and were working hard in public service. Likewise, most journalists, including those at News International, are hard working and are of the highest integrity. Will the Prime Minister just mention that fact?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The British press has a lot to be proud of in terms of its record of investigative journalism, of uncovering the truth, of providing information and entertainment, and of holding the powerful to account. The point I would make to the sceptics in the press who will worry about this inquiry is that we cannot go on as we are, and we need to do something to stop this firestorm, to protect what is good in the media and to ensure its freedom for the future, and also to deal with the abuse that we clearly see in front of us.

Earlier, in his responses during Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister alluded to alleged lying to Select Committees. Given that misleading a Select Committee or refusing to turn up as a witness for a Select Committee is contempt of Parliament but that the last time criminal sanctions were invoked against anybody for that was in 1666, will he undertake to introduce emergency legislation to make contempt of Parliament a criminal offence at the earliest opportunity?

I will have to look closely at the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. Perhaps it is something on which the Leader of the House, who does not quite go back to 1666 but goes some way further towards it than I do, will be able to give him some satisfaction.

With the number of individuals and organisations with questions to answer growing by the day, will the Prime Minister assure me that, should there be further dramatic developments in the coming weeks he would not hesitate to add his voice to the call for a recall of this place from our summer recess so that they could be debated on the Floor of the House?

There is never normally any shortage of people calling for Parliament to be recalled—indeed, I remember that a recent recess had not even started when someone called for Parliament to be recalled. I may not be the first out of the traps, if I may put it that way.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s repeated emphasis on transparency. In that respect, does he think it would be useful if freedom of information legislation was extended to public and private bodies that operate fully in the public sphere, notably all the media ones?

I am sure that that is something the inquiry can look at. I do not share Tony Blair’s regret on freedom of information; I think that it has actually been a good thing. What we are seeking here is more transparency, so that people can see who is meeting and who is doing what, rather than having to have a process of discovery. What this Government are bringing, across quite a range of areas, is that original transparency to reduce the need for often quite expensive discovery.

I very much welcome the Prime Minister’s plans to change the ministerial code in respect of meetings with members of the media. May I press him on the definition of “media”? In a world where increasingly people search for their news via Google and so on, and they share their news on Facebook and the like, I suggest that those organisations and meetings with them should also be in the public domain.

My hon. Friend raises a very good point, because “media” now encompasses such a wide range of things. That is one of the reasons why I think it is necessary to consult briefly on this change to the ministerial code before we introduce it, because I want to make sure that we do it in a way that is clear and works well.

An outraged public demand action and expect leadership in the public interest. At every stage, the Prime Minister has been slow to act. Does he agree that Rupert Murdoch is not a fit and proper person? Given that we now know that Lord Ashdown warned the Prime Minister not to appoint Andy Coulson, does he have any regrets about appointing somebody who was clearly not a fit and proper person?

The point I would make is that in government you are not just making speeches; you have got to make decisions and you have got to get it right. You have got to make sure the terms of reference are right, make sure the inquiry is right, find the judge, appoint the panel, work out how to be transparent and how to amend the ministerial code. It is not just about saying things; it is about doing things. Of course it takes time to get these things right when this enormous firestorm is going on, but I think that we have taken some major steps forward that will make a big difference. On the “fit and proper” test, that is a matter for Ofcom. We must not get into a situation where the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition is pointing a finger and making a particular point about a particular person—that is Ofcom’s role. As for the other question, I think that I answered it in full.

On that very point, does the Prime Minister agree that if there are any legal restrictions preventing the regulators from judging now on the fitness of News Corporation as an organisation—not the individuals—to own existing shares in BSkyB, those regulations should be swept away immediately?

As I said earlier, we are looking at that specific issue. We have asked Ofcom and the Competition Commission to look at it, and we are going to hear what they have to say.

In the cash for honours inquiry, the Met judged all suspects to be innocent until they were proved to be Labour. Does the Prime Minister agree that the best-trusted news in the country and the best investigative journalism comes from those broadcasters who already have a statutory duty to balance their news? Instead of having a half solution, would not the ultimate solution be to spread the obligation to provide balanced political reporting to all media?

That is a matter for the inquiry. I think there are difficulties here. The reason for the statutory regulation of television is that you are dealing with a previously limited spectrum that was a privilege to own and statutory regulation came with it. The reason for not having the statutory regulation of newspapers is that in a free society you should be free to set up a newspaper, to distribute opinions and information—[Interruption.] Even if it is the Morning Star, as someone said. It is important that we hold on to that. I want the newspapers to understand that neither the Government nor the Opposition want to leap into statutory regulation. That is not the intention; we want to improve on what we have now.

I commend the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister for working with the Opposition in dealing with this very serious issue. The Prime Minister will be sharing sensitive information with the Leader of the Opposition, so can I ask him to seek assurances that Tom Baldwin, an ex-News International employee, will not be privy to such sensitive information?

We all have to answer for the people who work for us and the accusations that are made against them. I am sure the Leader of the Opposition will want to do that.

May I emphasise to the Prime Minister that the feelings of revulsion being expressed against these practices are particularly strong in Scotland? Will he therefore meet the First Minister soon so that we can understand the full extent of phone hacking in Scotland and what needs to be done to tackle it?

I have regular conversations with the First Minister. In this case, the best thing is to ensure that the devolved Administrations are happy with the terms of reference and to work out how the inquiry will relate to those Administrations. Any evidence can be put straight into the inquiry in the way I have suggested.

Even if private medical details are obtained without breaking the law, it does not mean that it is right to publish them, especially when they relate to a child and no possible public interest case can be made. Will the Prime Minister confirm that the inquiry will consider and recommend what meaningful sanctions can be imposed in cases where media outlets might not have acted against the law but have certainly acted against common standards of decency and ethics?

The hon. Lady makes a good point. I am sure the inquiry will look at that, but let me repeat something I said earlier: whatever regulatory system we have, we must still have people at the top of newspapers and media organisations who take responsibility and recognise that it is not right to reveal that someone is pregnant, for instance, when there is no certainty that they will keep that baby. These are important things that are about common sense and decency, and whatever regulatory system we come up with, we must ensure that we keep hold of that thought, too.

I think I have answered this question in some detail. The fact is that the information was not passed on but the lion’s share of it was included in a published article in The Guardian about which I gave a very extensive answer about an hour ago.

Order. I would like to accommodate a few more colleagues, but to do so I require brevity. I call Mr William Cash.

Thank you for that, Mr Speaker.

The Prime Minister has referred repeatedly to media organisations and media executives and he has noted the fact that the word “media” covers a wide range. Does he agree that to be fully comprehensive the terms of reference should also be extended to sound and visual media? It is not impossible, given the uncertainty and unexpected turns of events, that that side of things might be involved, too.

As I said, whatever terms of reference are agreed with a judge they are free to pursue the evidence. If it takes them to different places, they can follow it and I am sure they will consider carefully what my hon. Friend says.

In his statement, the Prime Minister said that Judge Leveson and his panel will inquire into “the contacts made, and discussions had, between national newspapers and politicians”. May I take it, therefore, that he will submit to the inquiry details of all meetings held between him and senior figures at News International, including the names of the individuals who attended such meetings, even if one of them was his ex-chief of staff, Andy Coulson?

I will be happy to go along to the inquiry and answer any questions it wants to put to me about any contacts I have had with any media organisation at any time, as long as I still have the memory of when it happened. I am very happy to do that.

Is the Prime Minister aware that the Home Affairs Committee hearing yesterday was not a one-off but the conclusion of a nine-month inquiry, pursued throughout on a cross-party basis? That raised serious concerns about the role not just of the police but of the Crown Prosecution Service in curtailing the original investigation.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Clearly, one thing that the second part of the inquiry will consider, as well as the first police investigation, what went wrong and why it was insufficient, is the review of that investigation and why it did not result in further action. Those are difficult questions and it is right that an inquiry should consider them.

Has the Prime Minister satisfied himself that the proposed double-barrelled inquiry will be proofed against the possible chicane of legal challenges to its conduct and scope that it could face from various interests? Has he also anticipated the various calls, a few of them valid, for legal representation at the inquiry? Will Ministers or former Ministers, when they are giving or preparing evidence, do so with the support and assistance of Law Officers?

That is a very good question. I have found, doing this job, that almost nothing is chicaned, as he put it, from legal inquiry. We think we are doing this in the right way under the Inquiries Act 2005 and all the things that flow from that, but I can perhaps consider the detail of his question about preparation for Ministers.

Will the Prime Minister confirm that the police investigation will include payments made to connected parties, such as relatives of police officers, including payments not made in cash, such as electronic transfers to shell companies, vouchers or travellers cheques? In due course, will it also consider others who provide stories, such as paramedics, accident and emergency doctors and prison governors, and who might also be subject to corruption?

The inquiry must follow the evidence wherever it leads and if it finds malpractice in any of the services my hon. Friend mentioned, it must clearly investigate.

In recent days, it has become clear that a number of the alleged crimes that will be covered by the inquiry took place in Scotland. The Prime Minister said earlier that he has regular discussions with the First Minister. Has the Prime Minister received reassurances from the Scottish Government that the inquiry will have the full co-operation of the Scottish Government and all the relevant authorities?

One reason we need to consult about the terms of reference is to ensure that we consult with devolved Administrations, including the First Minister, to see what they have to say.

I congratulate the Prime Minister on grasping the nettle. Let me repeat the point made by the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) about the history of Select Committees not being able to compel people to attend. That must be considered as there is a process, but it is very long-winded. Can the question of whether there is any way of ensuring that people can be brought to a Select Committee when they are asked to give evidence be considered?

That is a repeated call to the one made by the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey). I think it is an issue for the Leader of the House to address; perhaps he can say something about it tomorrow at business questions. We want people to attend Select Committees. Obviously, we want to ensure that we do not ask people to do things that are desperately inconvenient, but if people give us the endless run-around, there should perhaps be some way through that.

Just to be absolutely clear, the Prime Minister said earlier that proprietors could be called to the inquiry. Will he confirm that if those proprietors are foreign citizens, they could be compelled to attend and give evidence, unlike with Select Committees?

The hon. Gentleman raises a good issue. I do not see why the answer to that should be no. If you own media in this country, then you should be able to be called under oath.

Does the Prime Minister agree that it would be a mistake if, at the end of this process, we saw the death of good investigative journalism? He has alluded to the investigation into MPs expenses, for example, and it would be wrong if we ended up with such a scandal not coming to light.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I do not want those people in the press who work hard, who are good investigative reporters, who do not break the law, who find good stories and who hold the powerful to account to watch today’s proceedings and think that we are going to strangle the free press in this country. That is not what we should be doing. It is very important that we all say that and that the inquiry bears that at the heart of what it is doing and it is in the terms of reference.

The Prime Minister said that destroying evidence would be a criminal offence, but my understanding is that that is the case only once the terms of reference for the inquiry have been set. Why did he not set up the inquiry last week, when Labour Members asked him to, and will he ensure that the terms of reference are set as soon as possible so that no further evidence is destroyed?

The premise underlying the hon. Gentleman’s question is wrong. My understanding is that when there is a police investigation, as there is with hacking, if evidence is destroyed that breaks the law. That investigation is happening right now. As regards setting up the inquiry, the terms of reference are now in the Library for the hon. Gentleman to see. If he has suggestions and ideas he can make them known, but I sent the terms of reference to his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition this morning for comments from the Labour party and we have incorporated those comments in full.

May I push the Prime Minister a little more on the culture of journalism? As with the bankers crisis and the MPs’ expenses crisis, changing the culture and self-responsibility of the industry is important. What will he do to take a lead on that?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We should celebrate good journalism and social responsibility in journalism and media organisations. Let me put it on the record that many media organisations do some brilliant things in our country to build up what I call the big society. We must not damn all media because of what is happening and what has happened in some organisations. As well as a good regulatory system, we need a culture that is, yes, about getting to the truth but, no, not about breaking the law.

Given the point made earlier by the Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs that the Metropolitan police’s small team will take many months to go through all the names and phone numbers that they have to go through, may I press the Prime Minister to make sure that they have enough police officers to do the job in good time?

As I said in my statement, this is one of the biggest police investigations currently ongoing in Britain. In defence of the Metropolitan police, next year is the Olympics and we have an enormous security challenge to get right in this country. The Metropolitan police has to meet a huge number of objectives—it is for the police authority to help to set those—so I do think it is putting adequate resources into this. As I have said, it is one of the biggest operations in Britain today.

May I for one congratulate the Prime Minister and other party leaders on the speed and scope of all this? I particularly want to follow up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) about why the issue of police ethics is being dealt with only in relation to the Metropolitan police. It seems to some of us that there is a kind of cultural tradition across all police forces of having a tight relationship with favoured journalists. Perhaps in the short term my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary could talk to chief constables about starting their own procedures.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. First, the inquiry will make recommendations across all police forces from the lessons it learns about this malpractice. The point that Paul Stephenson and I were discussing last night was that there is an opportunity for the Met specifically to take a leadership role in what it does, which I am sure others will follow.

The Prime Minister has said on several occasions that we should follow the evidence trail wherever it leads. If that includes the proprietors of News International or other media groups, should we not be hardening the terms of evidence? Is it the Prime Minister’s view that Rupert Murdoch should be required to give evidence to the judge-led inquiry?

The point about the judge-led inquiry is that it must choose who it wants to speak to and it must then call them under oath and make sure that they answer questions accurately. Clearly, it is going to want to talk to editors, proprietors and those who are responsible right across the media. That is going to be the work it does.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we will never be able to stop criminals who are intent on phone-tapping but that whatever we do and whatever steps we take we have to try to minimise the possibility of that?

That is right; we will never stop all law-breaking through a regulatory system, just as we will never stop all law-breaking through a policing system. Clearly, with the media we want to have a free, independent media that do not feel the heavy hand of statutory regulation, so we need a change of law but we also need a change of culture.

Does the Prime Minister agree that the general public will find it amazing that anyone is suggesting that the press should have self-regulation? Is it not a No. 1 priority that we should have regulation that is independent?

I like the word “independent” rather than “self”, which sounds as though newspapers will be regulating themselves rather than being regulated by someone more independent, although not reliant on the Government—that would be worrying—who can take a strong view.

Will the inquiry be able to take evidence from Mr Lance Price who used to work at Downing street and who said in 2006 that when he worked there he sometimes felt as though Rupert Murdoch was the 24th member of the Cabinet?

I am sure that Lance Price will be available. I have to say that the book he wrote about the last Government was one of the most depressing things I have ever read.

If the will of the House this evening is carried and News International simply withdraws its bid for BSkyB, what steps will the Prime Minister take to ensure that the will of the House is carried and what steps will he take to persuade Rupert Murdoch to do the decent thing?

As I have tried to explain, the Government have a responsibility to act within the law. We have to deal with each merger, acquisition and process as the law dictates and that is what my right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary has to do. Tonight, the House of Commons is going to express a very strong opinion and I hope that opinion will be heeded.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Can he tell the House whether other national Governments have been in contact to express their concerns about the activities of News International and whether US authorities are planning to investigate the company for possible breaches under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act?

In the firestorm that has hit the country, thousands of families have been thrown back to the trauma of a loved one’s death. Will the Prime Minister ensure that he has conversations with the Press Complaints Commission so that it can start talking to the editors of national newspapers about not regurgitating stories that will increase that trauma to families? Can we also ensure that when police officers approach families, if they need to tell them that their phone calls have been hacked, they provide them with help and guidance as well as information about desist notices so that those families’ trauma can be reduced rather than their grief being added to?

The hon. Lady makes a very good and sensitive point. It is not just for the PCC but for newspapers themselves to understand the trauma that is being caused and the need to be more sensitive.

Does the Prime Minister agree that one of the key weaknesses of the PCC is that the public interest defence in the code has, frankly, been used and abused over the years? That is why it is so important to have independent regulation going forward and why those who continue to cling to the idea of self-regulation are wrong.

My hon. Friend did an excellent job as my press secretary for many years before taking the sensible view that he belonged on these Benches. There is a problem, which the inquiry will have to look at: we want the press to take action in the national interests, but we have to have a system in which they are not breaking the law. That has to be resolved.

Will the Prime Minister explain further the practical difference between self-regulation and independent regulation?

I do not want to get into theological debate about this, but I think the problem with the phrase “self-regulation” is that it implies too much of a continuation of a scheme under which the press have effectively been regulating themselves. This will be a matter for the judge and his panel, but what we are looking for is something more independent—not statutory regulation with the heavy hand of the state, but independent regulation that means we are able to make sure that proper standards are followed. I gave some examples of how that works elsewhere and I think it can be done.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement and the leadership he has shown on this matter. Will he clarify a point about the inquiry, given that in recent months and years certain inquiries have held evidence sessions behind closed doors? What will be done to ensure that all the evidence is taken in public so that the public can see what has been done and what is being done to correct it?

This is an independent public inquiry led by a judge, with evidence being taken under oath and being held in public. That is the whole point. Obviously, if it suddenly decided it was inquiring into deep national security issues it might have to have a different session, but it is a public inquiry.

The Prime Minister says that he wants a cross-party approach to this issue, so when will he meet the leaders of the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish parties in the House? In 2006, the Information Commissioner reported up to 3,000 breaches of privacy. Will the inquiry that the Prime Minister is announcing today look into those cases?

I hope the inquiry will look at what happened with the Information Commissioner’s report, because that was one of the wake-up calls when, frankly, the politicians did not wake up. In terms of taking into account the views of the other parties in the House, I am going to discuss that with my right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary and see what is the best way forward.

May I ask the Prime Minister, given the group feeling in the House, whether we could put the full vetting authorities of the Government to the assistance of the Leader of the Opposition so that he can find out more about his director of communications?

We all have to answer questions about the people we employ and the activities they might have undertaken. I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition will be doing just that.

At the turn of the year, when Opposition Members were urging the Culture Secretary to refer the BSkyB bid to the Competition Commission, we were given to understand that, even if it were referred, the terms of reference would be very limited. On Monday, the Culture Secretary indicated to the House that there would be fairly wide terms of reference. Are the terms of reference that have apparently already been sent this week going to be made available to the House?

My right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary can answer this question in the debate later. The point is that the Competition Commission has been asked to look at plurality grounds and also to look at the “fit and proper” issue. We have to do these things under the law though: we cannot suddenly invent new grounds. We can only use the legal instruments and tests that are there.

May I welcome the Prime Minister’s reaffirmation that sunlight is the best disinfectant? If we are really going to sort things out on a cross-party basis, surely it is not good enough for this to involve only Government Ministers and special advisers—surely it should involve shadow Ministers and their special advisers as well.

I think that is right. The point about the relationship between politicians and the press, and where that has gone wrong, is, as I said, that we have been courting support rather than confronting problems. That has been the case for Oppositions. I freely admit that as Leader of the Opposition, you spend quite a lot of time trying to persuade newspapers and others to support you, because you want to explain your policies, your vision and what you are doing for the country. That will not stop. We are not all going to go and live in a monastery and never talk to journalists ever again, wonderful though that might seem by moments. We must have a healthy relationship where we can have those meetings and discussions, but at the same time confront the difficulties that we have. That is what the commission will do.

I am not a legal expert, but I am deeply concerned about the suggestion that there is a non-disclosure agreement between News International and Glenn Mulcaire, the man at the centre of hacking. If a non-disclosure agreement exists, it must have been put in place between News International and him in 2005 or 2006, at the time that Andy Coulson was at the News of the World. I have a deep concern about who negotiated that and the implications. Will the Prime Minister look into the matter personally, and will it be part of the inquiry?

That needs to be part of the police inquiry, never mind the inquiry that is about to start under Judge Leveson. There is a police inquiry now into what went wrong at the News of the World, how much hacking took place, who was hacked and who knew. All those questions need to be answered by the police, and it is a full-on police inquiry, not the rather thin inquiry that happened before.

On the issue of transparency about meetings between politicians and media proprietors and executives, will my right hon. Friend go further than the Leader of the Opposition suggested and go back not just to the last election, but to the previous Government, so that my constituents can see what people on both sides of the House have been up to in the past?

We will look at the issue of transparency and how best to put it into the ministerial code, and consider what is right and fair. The inquiry will be able to look at contacts over a period to try to see what went wrong in the relationship.

Will the meetings of the inquiry be open to the general public? In other words, will we all know what is happening, and will the general public know as well?

Does the Prime Minister believe that once a healthier relationship is established between politicians and the media, it will be easier for Governments to adopt evidence-based policy in relation to, for instance, tackling drugs, community sentences, or immigration and asylum?

That is a lovely idea. As I say, the inquiry will not mean no contact between politicians and the media. There are difficult issues—the hon. Gentleman mentioned a couple of them—where we need to try to explain and take people with us when we are taking difficult decisions. We cannot do that ourselves through direct communications. We need a lively and questioning media to help us do that, but perhaps a healthy relationship will make what he wants more possible.

I have been listening carefully to the Prime Minister’s answers. Does he accept that there is a significant difference between explaining Government policy or the Opposition’s position to the media, and courting their support, and that it is that culture of courting the support of the media that needs to be tackled not by inquiry, but by the Members of the House?

I agree. There is nothing wrong with meeting editors or proprietors and trying to explain why your vision is the right one for the country. People expect you to do that. Where it can go wrong, and where it has gone wrong, is where politicians start doing things, perhaps influenced by those media companies, that they would not otherwise do. I well remember standing at the Opposition Dispatch Box opposing 42-day detention, which I do not think for a minute most of those on the—sorry—then Government Front Bench believed in. I think they were doing it because of the pressure that they felt from some parts of the press. It is profoundly wrong, and the sort of thing that we must stop in the future.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. Does he agree that the Press Complaints Commission as currently constituted is clearly not fit for purpose, and that it would have been most helpful if its reform had been initiated back in 2007, when the phone hacking inquiry at that time failed?

Many people on the Press Complaints Commission have tried to make it work. I would argue that it has made improvements in recent years from when it was originally established, but when we look at what has happened and the trail of reports, problems and the rest of it, the conclusion we must come to is that the PCC did not do enough to pick that up. Reform is therefore needed. That is one of the starting points for the inquiry.

Does the Prime Minister regret the Opposition’s inaction over such serious and grave issues over a number of years? If they are now to succeed and maintain public support, they need to be above party politics, and political opportunism should be shunned and ignored.

My hon. Friend is right. We need an all-party approach, as far as possible. Sometimes all-party approaches can become a bit of a conspiracy, so we have to make sure that that is not the case. A basic level of agreement exists about the inquiry, the terms of reference, and the need to change the regulatory system. If we can push forward in that way, there will not be too much regulatory arbitrage, so to speak, which is a danger in such a situation. I propose to keep in close touch with the leader of the Labour party about this.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with a senior commentator in the Twittersphere who says that people in glass houses should not throw stones?

I long ago learned my lesson about not saying anything about the Twittersphere for fear of getting the wrong vowel in the wrong place.

Media regulation, like the inquiry, goes well beyond simple law-breaking. How can we be sure that it can act in a timely fashion on known wrongdoing where that is sufficient, without waiting for the conclusion of numerous criminal investigations and the prosecutions that follow them?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The part of the inquiry which is, for instance, investigating allegations of police corruption or investigating the hacking at the News of the World, must wait for the police investigations to be carried out, for prosecutions to be carried out and, as I understand it, for any appeals to be lodged. That is one for the reasons for having one inquiry with two parts, rather than two inquiries, otherwise the one doing that part would take a very long time indeed before it got going.

I thank the Prime Minister and colleagues for their succinctness, which enabled all 78 Back Benchers who wanted to contribute to do so.