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Prime Minister’s Evidence (Leveson Inquiry)

Volume 553: debated on Tuesday 13 November 2012

It is a delight to sit under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, not least because it keeps you away from Corby for another few hours.

Why does the issue that I am raising matter? Why should we bother to have a debate at all about the Prime Minister’s evidence to the Leveson inquiry? For the simple reason that the inquiry is about to report in the next couple of weeks—perhaps in three weeks. There are many rumours about the precise date. The report will almost undoubtedly be the most significant moment in the fortunes of the British press for several decades.

Following the horrible events at Soham, there was an investigation by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee 10 years ago into what happened with the press and the way that local people were badgered. However, it is only following the News of the World investigations that people have, I think, come to the conclusion that the door of self-regulation’s last-gasp saloon has already been firmly slammed. That is why 42 Conservative Members of Parliament wrote to The Guardian last week suggesting that they will—as long as Lord Justice Leveson does not come up with madcap suggestions—support the kind of ideas that he may come up with.

The report will go to the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, but, most importantly, to the Prime Minister. The bona fides of the Prime Minister, who will direct the Government’s decision about what should happen in the light of the report, is essential to our understanding of how we should proceed. The Government will decide whether there should be any statute, which is what many of us would support and whether to present any measure. Consequently, it is vital that we should be able to assess the Prime Minister’s bona fides in relation to the evidence that he gave.

Of course, although it is unconventional in a half-hour debate to take interventions from hon. Members who have not notified the Member leading the debate.

I apologise for not notifying the hon. Gentleman. Will he be apologising to the Prime Minister for the accusations, which were proven false, that he made against him in the House, for which he apologised to the House?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman gives me the opportunity to repeat the comments that I made earlier in the year. I do apologise, and have apologised profoundly to the House, for giving evidence that I had previous notice of as a core participant, which I should not have done—I apologised to the Leveson inquiry as well; I believed it to have been published but it had not been—but there are still discrepancies in the Prime Minister’s account. The Prime Minister’s list of meetings does not include, for instance, the dinner with the Brooks family at their home on 22 May; so, no, the Prime Minister’s list is still not correct. Also, it does not account for the fact that two of the meetings that Rupert Murdoch said happened were withdrawn later in the day in amended evidence. I am sorry; I am not going to apologise to the Prime Minister, because I still think there are profound discrepancies in the evidence that he has provided.

The other reason I think that the matter important is that the Prime Minister cannot in the end run away from the norms of Parliament by evading answering 17 questions of mine and countless questions from other members of the media and the public. I put all those points to him in a letter last night, because I presumed that he would not reply to today’s debate, and that a Minister from one or another Department instead would do so. I want to say to the Prime Minister that it is not right simply to say one will not answer questions. Whether one likes a Member or the tone of the question is neither here nor there. It is a fundamental principle of Parliament that questions must be answered. He does himself no favours, because in this regard silence speaks volumes.

There are things that we already know about the Prime Minister’s evidence. We know that Mrs Brooks and News International gave considerably more material to the Leveson inquiry—texts, and, as I understand it, e-mails as well—that has not yet been produced in public, but will be published before the inquiry is finished. That material relates to three periods: October 2009, May 2011 and June 2011. We also know that some witnesses—there is at least one lawyer in the Chamber who will know well the processes of the Inquiries Act 2005—were served with section 21(2) notices, which meant that they had to provide material. The Prime Minister has still refused to answer even whether he was required to provide any material under section 21(2)—so, for that matter, have the Home Secretary and other Ministers. It is a simple question. Were they asked to provide material under section 21(2) or not?

We also know for an incontrovertible fact now—because Downing street has confirmed it to several newspapers, although not in answers to Parliament—that Downing street has stored four categories of material in relation to evidence for the Leveson inquiry: texts between the Prime Minister and Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson, James Murdoch and Rupert Murdoch; e-mails between the Prime Minister and those four people; texts between Andy Coulson and News International; and e-mails between Andy Coulson and News International. I simply draw those out separately because the Prime Minister, in his evidence to the Leveson inquiry, did so, too. I simply do not understand why Adam Smith, the special adviser to the then Culture Secretary, was required to provide every e-mail and text to the inquiry, every one of which was made public, while none of the other people involved was required to do so. None of the politicians, so far as I can deduce, but perhaps the Minister will correct me—

Is not the hon. Gentleman’s point that it does not seem that any politician was required to provide information under section 21—including the former Prime Ministers, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) and Tony Blair?

Yes, so far as I understand it, that is true, but I have no means to ask Tony Blair questions through Parliament—nor, for that matter, the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown). Everyone should provide all the material that should be in the public domain. However, only one person is now the Prime Minister, who will make decisions about the future regulation of the press. I do not understand why Adam Smith had to provide all the information that led to his resignation, when the Prime Minister and his special advisers did not have to provide any such material. That suggests to me that there is one rule for those at the top, and another rule for others.

We also know for a fact—because Downing street said so this weekend to The Mail on Sunday—that a civil servant at Downing street and an unnamed lawyer reviewed all the material and decided not to hand it over to the Leveson inquiry. We do not know what criteria were used for deciding whether it should be handed over, or why they decided that nothing—not a single e-mail or text message—was relevant to the inquiry, whether it referred to the BBC or gave further evidence of a much more extensive relationship or of earlier knowledge of what went on at the News of the World than we have been aware of thus far. The only thing that we know is the name of the civil servant—Tristan Pedelty. We do not know the name of the lawyer, or, for that matter, whether the lawyer was paid for by the taxpayer or by the Prime Minister personally. Certainly, all the legal advice provided to former Prime Ministers would have been paid for by them personally.

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows about the rules of debate. I have not stopped him so far. He has been perilously close to crossing the line in trying to impugn the personal conduct of the Prime Minister. He has just crossed the line in making an allegation, if I heard him correctly, that it might be that the Prime Minister personally paid for legal advice. If I have misheard that, I would welcome a correction. If I heard him correctly, I ask him to withdraw that remark.

Mr Hollobone, I do not understand why it would be impugning the Prime Minister to suggest that he had paid for legal advice. It is perfectly legitimate. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s office itself has said that it is perfectly legitimate for any Member to pay for their own legal advice. I cannot see why that would be impugning him. I am not intending to impugn him by suggesting that he may have paid for the legal advice. I think you are nodding.

Order. I welcome the clarification from the hon. Gentleman. I just remind him that, as far as “Erskine May” is concerned, expressions that are unparliamentary include those which impute “false or unavowed motives”. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of that. I just point it out, so that he does not cross the line.

I am very grateful, but I think that that chairing is slightly dubious, if you do not mind my saying so, Mr Hollobone, because I have made no imputation. I have not made any imputation at all about the Prime Minister. I have merely suggested that he might have paid for his own legal advice. I think that that is perfectly legitimate.

Order. There is no dubious chairmanship in this Hall today, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting otherwise.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone.

We also know the Prime Minister’s interpretation of what is relevant, because he has already announced it to the Leveson inquiry. He said that he had looked for

“text messages…in relation to the BSkyB bid.”

He went on:

“In relation to my e-mails”—

meaning his e-mails—

“searches are still being carried out.”

That is from his written evidence to the Leveson inquiry. In both those cases, as I understand it, he understood that the only thing that he was looking for was material relevant to the BSkyB bid.

I think that most reasonable people in this country would conclude that any text or e-mail that showed an extensive relationship between the Prime Minister or a member of his staff and members of News International—for instance, around the time of the setting of the licence fee, if it related to the licence fee—was material that should be published and be in the public domain. Any reasonable person would expect that, at a time when decisions were being taken about the future regulation of Ofcom and a new communications Bill was being considered, any communications showing much closer access between the Prime Minister or his office and one set of people in the media market, such as News International—Rebekah Brooks, Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch—is material that should be in the public domain, so that the public could decide whether that is relevant.

Indeed, the Leveson inquiry is not explicitly into the BSkyB takeover bid at all. It is expressly, as the Prime Minister says in his written evidence, into

“the role of the media and its relationship with the public, police and politicians.”

I would therefore have thought that any texts and e-mails between the Prime Minister or his office and the people we are talking about at News International were material to that inquiry, and so should be handed over.

We also know that the relationship between the Prime Minister and Rebekah Brooks was certainly far more than neighbourly. Some people have suggested that, as they were neighbours, they were bound to know each other. In the Rhondda, “neighbours” means those living in the same street; Dean and Churchill, where the two families live, are six and a half miles apart, so that is a different understanding of neighbourliness. In the evidence, Mr Jay asked the Prime Minister:

“did you see her every weekend or most weekends in the period 2008, 2009?”

He replied, “Not every weekend.” “But most weekends?” was the next question, to which the Prime Minister replied:

“In 2008, 2009? I’d have to check. I might be able to go back and check, but I don’t think every weekend. I don’t think most weekends. But it would depend.”

My contention is that if extensive material held by No. 10 Downing street refers to conversations held during that time—2008 and 2009—or held otherwise by the Prime Minister reveals that his answer was not entirely complete when he was speaking to the Leveson inquiry, it is only right and proper that it should be published. In a sense, that is the sole point that I am trying to make.

There is lots that we do not know. The Government have trumpeted their transparency over the past two years. Yet, I note—I hope that the Minister will be able to correct this—that no Ministers’ list of meetings with outside bodies has been available since June this year. The June to September list is not available, but it should normally have been out by now. It is important that that is published before the Leveson inquiry reports. Most people would want to know whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Culture Secretary or other Cabinet Ministers, as well as the Prime Minister, are now having extensive conversations with all the editors and proprietors of newspapers in advance of the Leveson report, so that they can make a fair judgment about the bona fides of the Government’s intentions.

As I have already said to the hon. Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson), there are discrepancies in the list of meetings that the Prime Minister has thus far advanced. I am also somewhat doubtful about some of the lists of Ministers’ meetings. I merely note that a large number of Ministers only ever record eight meetings with external bodies in three months. Eight meetings in three months would seem to be something of a dereliction of duty. I would have thought it would be eight meetings a day. I have looked at the Minister’s list—it is a very, very thin list.

It is a thin list, I suggest.

Why should all this material be published? That it should is not my word, but that of a civil servant at No. 10 Downing street. The material that is being held—its existence is not now being denied by Downing street—has been described as salacious. I believe that everyone has a right to privacy, which is a fundamental principle, and not everything should always be published: people should be able to retain a degree of privacy. However, when the person is the Prime Minister or a Minister who is making executive decisions about a particular industry, it is important that there is full transparency, so that everybody knows whether they are acting on a clean slate or are parti pris and whether they are doing favours for their friends or are entirely free, open, clear and transparent in making their decisions. As I think the Prime Minister has said many times, the only antiseptic is full transparency.

I believe that this material needs to be published, because it has been described as deeply embarrassing—again, not by me, but by a civil servant in Downing street. I know better than many others that one can get over embarrassment—indeed, extreme embarrassment—in life. The Prime Minister knows that, too: he knows that if this material is just embarrassing, it is neither here nor there. I can only conclude that this material may be incriminating because it suggests that the Prime Minister knew what was going on far sooner than we realise; or because it makes explicit how the Prime Minister and Mrs Brooks were working together; or because it shows No. 10, in the shape of Mr Coulson, in cahoots with News International—I particularly want to know whether the material gathered by No. 10 has been given to the Metropolitan police for its ongoing investigations—or because it details the deal that I believe was secured between the Conservative party and News International or News Corporation before the general election, which led to the BBC having the World Service and S4C rolled into its budget and to its total budget being cut by 16%; or because it shows a consistency and regularity of access and contact that would make most reasonable people in this country question the bona fides of the Prime Minister.

I believe that all this will come out. I put in a freedom of information request on 18 October, and I have to receive a reply by Thursday. I can see no reason why the Government should say no, but they may do so, in which case we will simply have to go through the process of going to the Information Commissioner. I understand that many journalists have also put in identical or similar freedom of information requests. I say to the Prime Minister that however long he puts his fingers in his ears, screams “La, la, la” and refuses to answer questions, in the end this material will come out. The message of the News of the World saga must surely be that the original criminality might be terrible, but the cover-up always does for people in the end. This is not going to go away.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I certainly would not describe it as “dubious”. However, I was interested to learn this morning that you are our secret weapon in Corby, so I will endeavour to keep to time in order to release you on to the people of Corby later today.

This is an opportunity to debate some important issues that have been raised by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), not least his assertion that my list of meetings was thin. I take some exception to being accused of having a thin list of meetings. When I became a Minister, and the first set of meetings of Ministers was published, I came top of the list because of the number of meetings I had had—twice as many as some ministerial colleagues. It is, however, always difficult to win in politics. I was proud for a day to have the longest list of ministerial meetings until I read on Twitter that it was clear evidence that I was in hock to corporate interests. That just goes to show.

As the Prime Minister has made clear on many occasions, it was this Government who set up the Leveson inquiry, but it is worth reminding the House that it had all-party support—including that of the Leader of the Opposition, and of the Chairmen of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and the Justice Committee. The whole House has got behind it and is looking forward to the outcome. We should, however, use the opportunity of this important debate to set out in more detail the background to the inquiry, and the powers and procedures of inquiries set up under the Inquiries Act 2005.

Has the Prime Minister provided a single text or e-mail to the Leveson inquiry, and was he asked to provide his evidence under section 21(2)?

Last night, the hon. Gentleman wrote to the Prime Minister, saying, in question No. 6: “You have stated in your written evidence to the inquiry that you have provided all texts related explicitly to the BSkyB takeover but have refused to state whether you have ever provided a single such piece of evidence.” I find that statement completely contradictory. The Prime Minister has made a statement to a judge-led public inquiry, signed a statement of truth, and given evidence on oath, in which he has said that he has provided the evidence to the inquiry, and yet the hon. Gentleman will not accept that.

I will give way to my hon. Friend in a minute.

I just want to set out the background to the Leveson inquiry. We cannot fail to be aware of the circumstances under which the inquiry was established. Some 16 months ago, a series of revelations clearly showed that action was required. The driving factors included accusations of illegal forms of news gathering by the press, particularly phone hacking, and allegations of improper relationships between the press and the police. An unhealthy culture in some newsrooms had gone unchecked, until brought to a head by the Milly Dowler hacking revelations, and I know that the country, and every Member of this House, was appalled to hear about those activities.

As the House knows, the Prime Minister was quick to act. Within days he had put in place steps to set up an independent wide-reaching inquiry, headed up by a judge—Lord Justice Leveson—and backed by a panel of experts.

What does my hon. Friend make of the claim by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that he is not in a position to ask the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), about what texts and e-mails he had with Rebekah Brooks and others? It seems ludicrous to make that claim in this place.

I hear what my hon. Friend says. That is, of course, a matter for the hon. Member for Rhondda. One can, of course, ask members of the Government questions in debate and through parliamentary procedures, but with other Members of Parliament for whom we cannot use parliamentary procedures, we can use this thing called the post. It could be the internal post, or it could be Royal Mail. The hon. Gentleman could write to the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown) internally in the House of Commons, or he could write to him at his home address, just to check the facts, which I know he is keen to clear up.

I have set out the background to the Leveson inquiry, but I also want to make it absolutely clear for the record that the Government recognise the fundamental importance of free speech, as well as of a vigorous press to support our democratic process. The press plays an essential role in holding the powerful to account. It brings matters of public interest to the fore, informs citizens and enables them to exercise their democratic rights. Whatever steps are proposed, it is vital to maintain a press that is free to conduct that important role in our society but, equally, we all want a regulatory system in which the public can have confidence.

To ensure that the abuses identified and the wider culture could be examined, the Leveson inquiry was given the task of exploring the culture, practice and ethics of the press, particularly in the context of the press’s relationship with the public, the police and politicians. From those investigations, the inquiry will make recommendations for the future of press regulation, and on how future concerns about press behaviour should be dealt with. As the hon. Member for Rhondda made clear, we expect the inquiry to report shortly, but I am unable to give the House a date because that is in the gift of Lord Justice Leveson, as, I remind the hon. Gentleman, is the whole conduct of his inquiry.

On a point of order, Mr Hollobone. It is the convention of these half-hour debates that interventions are taken only by agreement of the person who has tabled the debate. I note that the Minister is choosing to give way to people who did not notify me before the debate that they would be seeking to intervene.

The hon. Gentleman, unusually for him, is muddling some of the parliamentary procedure here. In half-hour debates, if an additional speaker wants to speak they have to seek the permission of both the Member who has tabled the debate and the Minister who is replying. That rule does not apply, however, to interventions, and it is entirely at the discretion of the Member who is on his feet at the time—in this case, the Minister.

Further to that point of order, Mr Hollobone. Is it in order for a Member to accuse you of having dubious chairmanship and of being wrong in your rulings?

I do not know whether that is in order, but it is certainly not appreciated, and it is just wasting the time available to respond to the debate. I would have thought the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) would want to hear the Minister’s remarks.

I will give way to my hon. Friend in a minute. I think, Mr Hollobone, that you are absolutely right, if I may say so. I am now running out of time in which to respond to the hon. Gentleman because of his point of order. You will also have noticed, Mr Hollobone, that before he made the point of order I had already agreed to take an intervention from my hon. Friend.

Instead of pursuing conspiracy theories, I have noted that the previous Government reportedly held slumber parties at Chequers for News International figures. Does the Minister agree that politicians of all parties were simply too close to the press?

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. I am not in the business of making allegations against people and trying to cloud the issues on the basis of personal attacks, but it is clear, and this was said by the Prime Minister from the outset, that all politicians should look to themselves and their relationships with the press. I have always found it odd that the Opposition have developed the theme that the Conservative party was somehow too close to the Murdochs. I have been involved in politics for a while, and I remember that for the past 14 years—before 2009—all News International newspapers were slavishly devoted to the Labour party and played a significant role in securing the election of Tony Blair. Indeed, he flew to Tasmania, I seem to remember—

On a point of order, Mr Hollobone. I beg your indulgence. Could you just clarify for me what the terms of this debate are? Are they meant to be the Prime Minister’s evidence to the Leveson inquiry or what we are hearing about at the moment, which has nothing to do with the inquiry or, indeed, with the Prime Minister’s evidence?

The title of the debate is the Prime Minister and the Leveson inquiry. I was listening to the Minister’s remarks and he was talking about the Leveson inquiry, and I have ruled that to be in order.

The hon. Member for Rhondda said from a sedentary position that I was not talking about the inquiry—again questioning your ruling, Mr Hollobone—but I of course was, because I was making the point that the reason we set up the Leveson inquiry—

Sitting suspended.