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Press Regulation

Volume 558: debated on Wednesday 13 February 2013

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport if she will make a statement on the proposal for a royal charter on press regulation.

I must make it clear that following the publication of Lord Justice Leveson’s report, cross-party talks have been exploring different ways of implementing the tough self-regulatory system for the press which he recommended, and which would ensure that justice was done for the victims of press abuse.

As Members will know, there are already several press bills in the public domain which have been published by various organisations. The draft royal charter published by my party yesterday is outside the normal arrangements for collective agreement, and does not reflect an agreed position between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties.

I made it clear to the House on 3 December that we would

“send a loud message to the press of this country, and…that the status quo is not an option.” —[Official Report, 3 December 2012; Vol. 554, c. 594.]

Both the Prime Minister and I wholeheartedly support a tough new system of independent self-regulation, as outlined by Lord Justice Leveson. We know that any new model must restore public confidence and ensure that the abuses of the past cannot happen again, but we continue to have grave reservations about statutory underpinning and, as such, we have concerns about implementing a press Bill. The royal charter I have published would put in place Leveson’s recommendations without the need for statutory underpinning. It would see the toughest press regulation this country has ever had, without compromising press freedom. The royal charter implements the principles of Leveson in a practical fashion and is the Conservative party’s alternative to Lord Justice Leveson’s suggested use of Ofcom as a verifying body. All parties now agree with us that handing further powers to Ofcom, an already powerful body, would not be appropriate.

Let us be clear: the charter does not create a regulator; rather, it establishes the body that will oversee the regulator. The regulatory system that the royal charter body will oversee will be tough, and the regulator will have the powers that Leveson set out to investigate serious or systemic breaches of the press code; to impose up to £1 million fines; and to require corrections and other remedies, including prominent apologies. The royal charter body will provide tough oversight and ensure that the new regulatory body is efficient and effective.

We have also published draft clauses for exemplary damages, which will provide real incentives for the industry to join the regulator and ensure that there are serious consequences for those that do not. This is tough regulation and a tough package, and delivers the principles of Leveson.

Lord Justice Leveson’s report was almost 2,000 pages long, and areas were raised in it about which all political parties have expressed great concern. Ofcom is but one example. All political parties expressed serious reservations around data protection proposals and their potential impact on important investigative journalism. There were also concerns about whether it would be appropriate for the Information Commissioner to investigate, and then decide on, public interest.

The royal charter reflects a principled way forward, proposed by the Conservative side of the coalition. We are clear that this is a workable solution, but it is only a draft, and we will continue to debate it as part of the cross-party talks, and we will continue to seek to secure agreement. We are all committed to the Leveson principles. This is about taking the Leveson report forward, and making sure it can work in practice. The challenge before all of us is to find an agreement. The victims deserve nothing less.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but will she acknowledge that, as they stand, the Conservatives’ proposals do not implement the Leveson report recommendations? We called for cross-party talks and have been engaging in them in good faith, with her and with the Minister for Government Policy. Does she agree that what Leveson proposes is fair and is reasonable? It protects free speech and protects people from abuse and harassment by the press. There can be no justification for watering it down. The most straightforward way of implementing Leveson is by statute, rather than by royal charter and statute, but whichever route is chosen, we must implement the full Leveson, not Leveson-lite.

Leveson said that the system must be independent of Government, yet, through the Privy Council, Ministers would be able to tamper with the royal charter at any time. Will the Secretary of State address that problem with clauses in statute providing that, once established, Ministers cannot tamper with the charter? Leveson said the recognition panel must be independent of the press, yet the royal charter as drafted will allow the press to be part of the appointment process to the very body whose job is to guarantee the independence of the system. Will the Secretary of State take the press out of the appointment system, and will she undertake to come forward with changes to the recognition criteria, so that what is in the royal charter matches, rather than dilutes, Leveson?

Leveson’s report was published in November and there is growing impatience for it to be implemented. The December debate in this House made that clear, and the vote in the Lords on the Defamation Bill last week showed that there will be no acceptance of Leveson being watered down or kicked into the long grass. We will be reasonable on this, but we will be robust. We have an opportunity to make an important change that has been needed for decades. We must ensure that what the press did to the Dowlers, the McCanns, Abigail Witchalls’s family and to so many others, who suffered so terribly and whose lives were made a misery, can never happen again. Their heart-rending evidence to Leveson is the unanswerable case for lasting change. A big responsibility falls on us, and history will judge us as having failed in our duty if we do not implement Leveson now.

I start by thanking the right hon. and learned Lady for the work we have been doing together and for today’s opportunity to clarify some of the points she has raised. She is right to start by making sure that we all focus on the group of people we need to focus on—the victims. She knows that the Conservative party, myself and the Prime Minister are absolutely committed to implementing the principles in Leveson. She may need to reconsider her choice of words in advocating implementing Leveson in full, because she will know that that is not what her party advocates, and it is not what my party advocates either. There are clear recommendations on data protection and the use of Ofcom as the verifying body that she has already expressed deep concerns about, so I am sure she did not mean to say that she would advocate the full implementation of Leveson, as she just did in her remarks.

The right hon. and learned Lady rightly says that if we are to take a royal charter approach—I was pleased to see that there was not a wholehearted rejection of that when we put it forward yesterday—we do need to make sure that it cannot be tampered with. She will know, having looked at the charter itself, that we have made clear provisions to ensure that such tampering is not possible. I would very much welcome her intervening on me now to give her party’s clear undertaking that that would not be an approach she would take; she can take it from the Conservative party that there is no way that we would ever want to tamper with a royal charter, and I am sure that she would be able to give those undertakings, too.

The right hon. and learned Lady also raised the issue of the appointment process, rightly saying that it needs to be independent. That is why we have taken the approach that we have, which is to involve the Commissioner for Public Appointments and to make sure that we are following the good practice that we have on appointments to organisations that are similar to this. I have to say that some of the bodies involved in the conversations about the Leveson report, such as Hacked Off, have actually proposed involving politicians and the press in an appointments process. We would wholeheartedly reject that, because we do not think it is right. We know that the appointments process for the verification body needs to be independent, and those who have read the details of what we are proposing will see that that is exactly what we are doing.

The right hon. and learned Lady also outlined concerns about the recognition criteria. She is right to say that we need to make sure that we give very full regard to the criteria as set out in the Leveson report. That is why we have used his recommendations as the basis for that section of the royal charter, but clearly we have to make sure that they work in practice, and remove any uncertainty and any concerns about clarity. I know that she and I would agree that, as we move forward, certainty and clarity are vital in this area.

The Liberal Democrats have always been clear that we would prefer independent press regulation backed by statute rather than a royal charter, but we do accept that a royal charter could work. Unfortunately, the draft royal charter currently fails to meet the general requirements set out by Leveson. Regardless of what political parties might say now, does the Secretary of State accept that, as it stands, there is nothing to prevent the charter in law from being amended by a future Government through the Privy Council?

I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome support. I give a clear undertaking that we will continue to work together through the cross-party process to make sure that we come to a consensus. I completely understand his desire to make sure that any verification body has clarity, certainty and longevity. That is exactly why we will put clear provisions in the charter that state clearly that any changes would have to have the full support of the three party leaders and a two-thirds majority vote in both Houses of Parliament. I believe that provides the sort of certainty that my hon. Friend is looking for.

May I ask the Secretary of State about data protection? I acknowledge the concerns expressed on both sides about Leveson’s chapter on data protection, but in 2008-09 both sides of the House agreed to change the Data Protection Act to provide for a two-year maximum jail sentence for breach of the data protection rules, with a clear public interest defence for journalists. The provision is on the statute book, and for four years we have been asking for it to be brought into force. Will the Secretary of State say what possible reason there is for not bringing in that very important provision? It is not about catching out journalists acting in the public interest, but about dealing with unscrupulous claims management companies—people who unlawfully trade in data and are getting away with it at the moment, because the Government have failed to implement that section.

The right hon. Gentleman raised that point in our last debate on this subject and I understand the depth of his feeling. Numerous changes are going on in the area of data protection, particularly with regard to the EU regulations. It is something I am looking at very carefully. I am also looking at consulting on the provisions in Leveson, so that we have people’s input and can make one set of changes to data protection rather than having a slightly more ad hoc piecemeal approach.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is considerable public impatience to have a new, strong independent regulator in place as soon as possible? Will she re-emphasise to the industry the need to reach agreement very swiftly, and will she confirm that her approach will both ensure that the new body conforms with all Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations and allow it to start its work without waiting for legislation?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is right; momentum is important. The implications of the amendments made in the Lords last week are that people want to see change. That clear message has gone out to the press, and it is certainly something that we are underlining through our response to this urgent question.

As someone who has expressed my long-standing repugnance towards statutory regulation of the press, may I point out to the right hon. Lady that it is getting on for three months since the Leveson report was published? The Government said they would act speedily, yet the press continue to wriggle out of any agreement or responsibility and are seeking to abolish the licensing hours for the last chance saloon. Will she make it absolutely clear that this is unacceptable and that she will set a deadline, and if that deadline is reached without agreement by the press, the House will have to act?

The right hon. Gentleman makes his point powerfully. Perhaps I can reassure him by saying that the self-regulatory approach that Leveson advocated requires the press to put together a new regulatory regime. Every indication I have is that that is exactly what is happening. The publication of the plans yesterday for a royal charter oversight body is our contribution to doing exactly what the right hon. Gentleman is calling for, which is to act as swiftly as we can. Putting the charter body in place will take significantly less time than some of the recommendations for Bills that have come from other quarters.

In this place, the first reaction to scandal is to call for statutory regulation. May I urge colleagues who make such a call to learn from personal experience? In that context, perhaps we should call the new statutory regulator the independent press standards authority—or IPSA for short.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I underline the fact that this would be the toughest press regulation that this country had ever seen. There would be a £1 million fine if someone is not a member of the self-regulatory body, as they would be subject to exemplary damages. Those are not things that the press want to see—they are things that Leveson called for, and would be enacted under the approach that we are taking.

The Prime Minister looked the Dowler family in the eye and gave them a solemn pledge that he would enact Leveson in full. Does the Secretary of State think that they deserve an explanation from him on why that is not the case in these proposals?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we are absolutely committed to taking forward the principles of Leveson but, even more importantly, we want to make sure that oversight of the self-regulatory approach that we have taken is fully independent of both the press and the Government. He might agree that having a charter that is not subject to continuous amendment by the House may well give us that result.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be appropriate for Lord Justice Leveson to come to the House so that aspects of his report can be subject to parliamentary scrutiny, perhaps by the Committee on which I used to serve?

I know that the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport has raised this issue, and it is something to which Lord Justice Leveson would need to respond directly. However, I can reassure my hon. Friend that I will always be available to come to the Committee and explain the rationale behind our approach.

The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that a consensual approach is needed, which is why I am pleased that, for the past three months, we have been working together to reach a position in which all three parties can agree. The Conservative party published the royal charter yesterday as a way of trying to move that process forward and, as I said, I was pleased that it was not rejected. We will have further cross-party talks tomorrow. I really think that he is right: we need to reach consensus on this.

If the measures proposed by my right hon. Friend had been in place, would they have made any less likely the great scandals that led to the setting up of Leveson—namely the failure of the police to investigate and prosecute on phone hacking, and the criminal libel of the McCann family by the Sunday Express?

My right hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of the police and the comments that were made in Lord Justice Leveson’s report about their role. My right hon. Friend will have noted, I hope, the report by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary yesterday, in which she took up the issues that Lord Justice Leveson raised. I would make a further point about culture—not just culture in the police force but the culture of the press. The tough self-regulatory approach that Lord Justice Leveson set out will do a great deal to make sure that that culture and the ethos of the press prevent such abuses from happening again.

The Leveson report also recommended consideration of the insertion of conscience clauses in journalists’ contracts, which would enable a journalist to reject and refuse any instruction from an editor or employer that was contrary to the code of practice. The National Union of Journalists has approached editors to negotiate a change of contracts to include a conscience clause, but the editors are not engaging in meaningful discussions on that recommendation. Will the Government urge all sides to come together to meet and discuss effectively the introduction of conscience clauses, as that would give further protection to everyone concerned in the industry?

Clearly that is something for the editors as employers to look at carefully. I hear the point that the hon. Gentleman makes—it is important that we have a journalistic industry with integrity, and I am sure that he is making that point very well and that it will be heard by people outside the House.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on coming up with proposals that avoid legislation, but she has sadly failed to satisfy fully either side in the debate. Will she specifically tell the House how the proposals are viewed by the local press, and what representation it will have under future regulatory structures?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s contribution, and I hope that by trying to take the Leveson proposals and make them workable we will come to an arrangement that everyone will feel will make the situation much better for the future. She is right to raise the issue of the local press: the press industry itself, in its deliberations on the new self-regulatory body, is looking at that in detail. It is for it to work out how the local press is accommodated, but I echo her concern, particularly given, as we all know, the financially difficult times that the local press faces, and remembering that it is not necessarily the architect of the problems that we are trying to address. That needs to be recognised in the way in which self-regulation is worked through in future.

I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. As part of ongoing talks about Leveson, press standards and press regulation, will she update the House on discussions that she and her officials have had with the devolved institutions, and the possible impact of a royal charter in a place such as Northern Ireland where press standards are of the utmost importance?

The hon. Lady is right to raise the issue of the devolved authorities, and that is something that we have firmly in our sights. In particular, there are issues with the approach that the Scottish Government might take. Our approach would be clear: we need some commonality if at all possible, so that publishers have one set of regulatory provisions. We shall certainly try to continue our talks with the devolved authorities in that respect.

A vital principle that underpins democracy is the freedom of the press from statutory regulation. My right hon. Friend has proposed a system of regulation based on a royal charter, which she described as a basis for discussion. Can she reassure us that the vital principle of non-statutory regulation will be maintained whatever solution is finally agreed?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that undertaking. We believe that we can achieve the ends and principles that Leveson set out without taking a statutory approach, and the royal charter document that we published yesterday gives us grounds to believe that that is fully achievable.

I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The real problem with the royal charter process is that it is the most autocratic tool in any Government’s weaponry, because it is easily changed at will by a Government, and no Government can bind their successors unless that is underpinned by statute. Will most people not think that this is a pretty shabby deal between the Government and proprietors, as the Government promised last year that they would publish the details of all meetings with proprietors by Cabinet Ministers, but they have not done so since last June? Must they not publish before tomorrow’s meeting the details of all their meetings with proprietors?

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to answer his question about the amendability of a charter, he will see in the royal charter that there are clear provisions that it should not be tampered with. If he feels that his party might tamper with the charter in that way, perhaps the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) should underline that that would not happen. Finally, the hon. Gentleman can give no guarantee that a press Bill would not be changed. Ultimately, the parliamentary process leaves any Bill that comes before the House subject to amendment. We believe that a charter approach gives us something that is a far clearer way of providing the freedom of speech that we want for the press in future.

Every time the press make up a story they effectively deceive my constituents who buy their newspapers. When can my constituents expect to have proper protection from deception in their newspapers?

My hon. Friend will know that the editors’ code already sets out clear provisions to achieve that. The new approach that Lord Justice Leveson has proposed would underline the importance of the culture of the press. We are working swiftly to make sure that that is put in place, and by implementing a royal charter to put in place a verification body we can do that an awful lot more swiftly than through a Bill that would go through Parliament.

Public trust, both in the media and in this House, is the big issue that is to be discussed in relation to Leveson. How can the public trust that what is coming from Government is not a political compromise, rather than something that will protect the public from the abuse that they have faced in the past?

The very clear assurance that I can give the hon. Lady is the assurance that the Prime Minister gave on 29 November, that we agree in full with the Leveson principles and are taking them forward. I find it difficult to believe that anybody would think that the press facing £1 million fines or, if publications are not part of the self-regulatory body, exemplary damages, is anything other than the toughest form of regulation that this country has ever seen and among the toughest in the western world.

Although it is important that we keep the press out of the appointments process and that we do not allow any room at all for ministerial interference, I welcome the progress that we have made so far, but I would like clarity on one point from the Secretary of State. Part of the goal that everyone shares is to even out the playing field between David and Goliath, whoever David happens to be. Surely part of that requires arbitration to be free for complainants, not merely inexpensive, whatever that means—free, as it is at present under the Press Complaints Commission.

My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of access to justice. He will know from reading Lord Justice Leveson’s report that he considers it very important that there should be a cost-effective process and ready access. We are trying to make that objective work in the way that it works in many other areas of the law in relation to tribunal access. There would be a very low cost barrier in place for people to get into the arbitral arm. Above all, they will always be free to put forward any complaints and internal processes will continue to be free at the point of access.

Yesterday Gerry McCann, the father of Madeleine McCann, said:

“This royal charter plan falls far short of Leveson . . . The Conservative party can’t rewrite Leveson now. They must think again.”

Does not the reaction of Mr McCann show that this plan fails the very test that the Prime Minister himself set out in his evidence to the Leveson inquiry—that everything must satisfy the victims of press abuse in this country?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we are taking a 2,000-page document and making it work in practice. That has been our objective every step of the way. None of the main political parties in the House agrees with every single recommendation of Lord Justice Leveson. We have outlined the issues that those on both sides of the House have with regard to data protection and the potential roles of Ofcom that were outlined in the report. The hon. Gentleman should understand that making that report work in practice has been our central drive over the past two and a half to three months and we will continue to do so, making sure that the full principles of Leveson are put in place. We owe that to the people whom we are trying to support.

I certainly welcome the proposals that my right hon. Friend is putting forward, as far as they go. Can she confirm that it will not be compulsory for publications to sign up to the new body if they do not feel the need to do so? That freedom is important, even if it means that they are taking more of a risk by staying outside.

My hon. Friend will know from the provisions in the Leveson report that there is no compulsion there. He has formed his recommendations on the basis of the use of incentives. That is where the clauses dealing with defamation and the exemplary damages come into play. That provides the sort of incentive that publications which feel that they are at risk in this area need, but clearly, those publications that do not feel they are at risk may choose not to be members of the new self-regulatory body. That is their decision.

Last week the Culture, Media and Sport Committee heard from representatives of the Press Council of Ireland. They made two important points. One was the important and positive role that the National Union of Journalists plays in the process over there. Secondly, they were bemused, as were many Opposition Members, at the discontent shown by proprietors in this country, whereas they are content with the legislation in Ireland. Can the Secretary of State explain why?

I am not sure I can explain any discontent on the part of proprietors on that score. The Committee would need to call them and question them more closely. But what I have seen from the press is a desire to engage and to put in place the sort of self-regulatory body that Lord Justice Leveson called for. In parallel with that, it is timely that we also make sure that the verification body that plays such an important part is also in place, otherwise we will not be able to implement Leveson in full. That is why cross-party talks are so important and why we need consensus on this. We need to be clear on that point.

I welcome the progress that has been made, in particular the agreement now from the Government that some statute is required in order to create the incentives to join such a new system. I acknowledge that a royal charter could be an alternative way of establishing an independent body, provided the recognition criteria are right. But can my right hon. Friend explain to the House what happens if there is no regulator that is worthy of recognition, in the view of the recognition body? In that instance, will all newspapers automatically be subject to the exemplary fines and the costs, or will we have no system at all?

On a day when six more former journalists of the News of the World have been arrested, including two sitting journalists of The Sun, on charges which the police say represent a new conspiracy in the phone-hacking scandal, is it not even more important than ever that the Secretary of State shows some urgency about her action? Unless real action is taken and unless the full principles of Leveson are implemented, the public will not forgive her.

The hon. Gentleman is right that urgency is a vital part of this. Momentum is important. That is why we published our royal charter document yesterday and why I was pleased to see that there was a general acceptance that this could well be a way forward. We have further cross-party talks tomorrow. The point was made earlier in our discussions that we need a consensus, and this is the time when that consensus can start to be formed.

Whatever proposal passes this House, surely the important thing is that the culture of the press changes. Should not we, as a Government, set an example? One of the criticisms was that the Government and press were getting too close together, yet earlier this week, on Monday, we had the social care statement, which had been widely leaked to the press the previous weekend. Favourite journalists were given advance information. The Government must stop that if the public are to take us seriously on the issue.

My hon. Friend is right that it is a culture issue, which I raised before in my comments. We need to make sure that the calls for transparency in Lord Leveson’s report are heeded. The subject has been part of our cross-party discussions and we have formulated a paper on it, which is at present with the Opposition. I hope that tomorrow, in our further discussions, we can pick up on the issue of transparency and they can respond to our recommendations.

Consensus is very important, but what I am hearing here from the Secretary of State is, “Consensus on my terms”— consensus that takes away any suggestion that there could be statutory underpinning and it undermines many of the other recommendations. That is not really consensus, is it?

The hon. Lady should be focusing on the ends, not the means. All our parties agree with the principles in Leveson. All our parties agree that we would not want to see the Leveson report implemented in full. We have to work together in the environment in which we find ourselves and come to an agreement. We believe that the charter document provides a way of getting to absolutely the same ends, just by different means.

Does the Secretary of State accept that whenever statutory underpinning is promoted, we must remember that it runs the risk of a future Minister restricting press activity that is genuinely in the public interest? Therefore, can she reassure me that the principles of Leveson can be delivered without statutory underpinning?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. I think that there is a philosophical difference between the approach of the parties in that regard, but it is not an unbridgeable gap. I will continue to try to work with both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party to come to an agreement on this. Otherwise, we run the risk of not moving forward with Leveson, which I think would be inexcusable and unforgiveable.

Newsquest Media Group, Johnston Press, Ackrill Media Group and all the local newspapers in Yorkshire and the north have stated unanimously that they do not want Parliament bearing down on them. We just want to hold local organisations and politicians hard to account. I urge the Secretary of State to push forward quickly with her proposals, which are excellent and what people in the north want. Well done.

I thank my hon. Friend for that endorsement of our approach. He makes an extremely important point, which is that we have to understand that our local papers are a vital part of our local communities. We must ensure that they can continue to be vibrant and that they do not fall foul of an approach that was not really designed to affect them; it was designed to deal with abuses in other areas of the press. He makes an extremely important point.

My right hon. Friend said that the Government totally accept the main principles of Lord Justice Leveson’s report. She also suggested that the report’s main recommendations are acceptable. Is it possible for those main recommendations to be instituted without some form of statutory underpinning?

My hon. Friend raises the issue of Leveson’s criteria and approach, which we believe can be effected in the main without statutory underpinning. What we have been talking about, however, is the importance of recognising the exemplary damages through statute, which would need to be in place to make sure that it is as effective as it needs to be so that the balance of provisions that Leveson put forward work in the way he intended.