Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the welcome publication of the draft royal charter by the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, and the Prime Minister’s intention to submit the charter to the Privy Council for Her Majesty’s approval at the Privy Council’s May meeting.
My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and I have today reached cross-party agreement on a royal charter that will help deliver a new system of independent and robust press regulation in our country. As Lord Justice Leveson recommended, we need a system of tough, independent self-regulation that will deliver for victims and meet the principles set out in his report. This system will ensure up-front apologies, million pound fines, a self-regulatory body with independence of appointments and funding, a robust standards code, an arbitration service that is free for victims, and a speedy complaint-handling mechanism. We can put all that in place without the need for statutory regulation.
Let me set out for the House the significance of the decision to go with a royal charter instead of a statutory approach, and give details of the deal that has now been agreed. First, however, let me remind the House of the two key recommendations that Lord Justice Leveson made. First he said there should be a new powerful self-regulatory body that the press themselves had to establish—he was very clear about what that should involve and that the press had to establish it. Secondly, and crucially, in order that the press do not mark their own homework, he said there should be a recognition body to oversee the new system of press self-regulation.
The House will recall that Lord Justice Leveson’s own proposal was that legislation would give Ofcom the power to act as that recognition body. I said to the House on the day the report was published that I had serious misgivings about passing detailed legislation on press regulation. I also had grave misgivings about that task being given to Ofcom, which is already a very powerful body. I was determined to try to find a better way of establishing a tough regulatory body to enforce Lord Justice Leveson’s principles, and a different way of establishing the recognition body to check it was doing its job properly. That is what the royal charter does, without the need to write down in legislation the title, definition, functions, power, rules or composition of a new system of regulation—it puts those in place in a royal charter rather than in legislation and, as a result, it does not cross that Rubicon of which I spoke.
I thank the Prime Minister for taking an early intervention. He is aware that discussions are ongoing in the Scottish Parliament involving all parties, given that there are devolved powers, and that the position of Scots law is important. Will he give an assurance that the UK Government will meet the Scottish Government and the relevant all-party group in the Scottish Parliament to discuss progress?
I am very happy for the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to talk to her opposite numbers in the Scottish Government to discuss how we go about these issues. As I understand it, the Scottish Government are taking a rather different approach from ours, but I am sure that they can have that discussion.
Let me remind hon. Members why I felt that a full legislative response to Lord Justice Leveson’s report would be the wrong approach. I stated that there would be problems of necessity, practicality and fundamental principle. As I believe we have shown today, statutory regulation of our media, and statutory regulation to create a recognition body, is not necessary to achieve the Leveson principles. We can do it—indeed we will do it—via a royal charter.
There are reasons of practicality. If we are to have a system of voluntary self-regulation, as Lord Justice Leveson specifically proposed, it is vital that those who are being regulated participate in it. In my view, there was a danger that, if we pursued a detailed legislative approach, as Leveson recommended, we simply would not establish a regulatory system in which the press would take part—we would have been part of an exercise in grandstanding and something of a charade, rather than something that will actually deliver for victims.
Most importantly of all, detailed legislation is fundamentally wrong in principle. It is wrong to create a vehicle whereby politicians could more easily in future impose regulation and obligations on the press.
But will the Prime Minister confirm that the deal to which he has agreed requires the passing of legislation?
Two important but relatively small legislative changes need to be made. Let me explain what they are. First, Lord Justice Leveson said—the Government agreed at the time—that, in order to create an incentive for newspapers to take part in the system, we should establish a system of exemplary costs and damages that would not apply to newspapers that take part. We have accepted that recommendation and will be legislating for it—it can be done only via legislation.
I will come on to the second change we are making, but we are not embedding the charter in legislation or legislating about it; we are simply repeating the words of the charter. The charter says clearly that it can be changed only if there is a vote of two thirds of this House and two thirds of the House of Lords. Why have we put that in the charter? We have put that in the charter because we want to make it difficult to change the charter. We will repeat exactly that point in legislation in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. The legislation is to protect the royal charter; it is not legislation to recognise the royal charter.
I believe it would be wrong to run even the slightest risk of infringing free speech or a free press in that way. As Winston Churchill said:
“A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny”.
Today, by rejecting statutory regulation but being in favour of a royal charter, the House has defended that principle. I very much welcome the agreement that we have on the withdrawal of amendments from the amendment paper that would have created a new press law in our country—the amendments will either be withdrawn or, if they are pressed to a Division, we have agreed that we should all oppose them.
Let me set out for the House the cross-party agreement on the royal charter. As I have said, the new system of press regulation will deliver Lord Justice Leveson’s principles, including up-front apologies and £1 million fines. As I have just explained, we will use the Crime and Courts Bill to table the minimal legislative clauses needed to put in place those incentives, which Lord Justice Leveson regarded as important. They will give all newspapers a strong incentive to participate in the voluntary scheme of self-regulation.
Exemplary damages will be available against publishers who do not join a regulator if they utterly disregard the rights of ordinary people. We will also change the rules on costs in civil claims against publishers so that there is a strong incentive to come inside the regulator, with its independent arbitration system.
I am keen that there should be agreement between the three parties and welcome the agreement, but can the Prime Minister explain why the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has spent a great deal of time on the airwaves bad-mouthing the Labour party and giving the impression that the Opposition want to undermine press freedom? That is not true, and he knows it.
I commend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the incredible work that she and others have put in. Her point was that it is important that we go down the royal charter route rather than the legislation route. That has been our position consistently, because we do not want a situation in which politicians can meddle with the system. That is why we have agreed the no-change clause in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which will be debated tonight in another place. The measure will have the effect that the charter, now that it has been so carefully agreed, can be amended only if the process contained within it is followed. As I have said, that means that both Houses of Parliament must agree to a motion for change by a two-thirds majority.
Let me be clear. This is not by any stretch statutory regulation of the press, and nor is it statutory recognition of either the self-regulatory body or the recognition body.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. Will he confirm that awards of exemplary damages and awards of cost will be made not by the self-regulatory body, but by the courts?
Yes. My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right: they will be made by the courts. The point of what we are doing is to create an incentive for publishers to be part of the self-regulatory system, because, other than in exceptional circumstances, they will not be subject to exceptional costs or damages if they are within the regulatory system—that is important.
I am most grateful to the Prime Minister. He mentioned the victims in his opening remarks. He will know that 97 people have been arrested and 24 people charged as a result of the phone hacking issue. Given that hundreds of potential victims still have not been interviewed by the police, does he now accept that it is unlikely that part two of the Leveson inquiry, which he announced on 13 July 2011, will take place until after the next general election?
It is difficult to answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question, because of course it depends on the timing of the police investigations. What I am clear about is that the police must have the proper resources to carry out their work, which they do. On that basis, the second part of Lord Leveson’s investigation should indeed go ahead.
I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman who has a number of amendments in his name on the Order Paper, but let me briefly address the concern raised on whether the “no change” clause in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill could be used for a more aggressive approach to regulation of the press.
In my view, because the clause does not mention press regulation, or even this specific royal charter, it is no more in danger of being used in this way than any other piece of legislation on our statute book. That is an important point to make. It merely ensures that for generations to come Ministers cannot interfere with this new system without explicit and extensive support from both Houses. That is an important step forward.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for giving way, and I commend him for his statement. Will he explain to the House exactly what it is that has changed between Thursday, when he pulled the plug on the all-party talks and described the gaps as “unbridgeable”, and today?
What has changed is that the party for which the right hon. Gentleman used to speak from the Front Bench on these issues has come forward with a royal charter proposal which, with some changes, could be made acceptable. My concern was that last week the talks were drifting on and on and on, more and more issues were being asked for, and less and less was being dealt with. The move I made on Thursday has, I believe, unblocked the logjam, which is why we are here today.
Let me explain another way in which the logjam was unblocked. We have agreed that all Leveson-related clauses in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill will be opposed by all three main parties unless they are withdrawn. They include the clauses in the name of the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw). His clauses on the Order Paper have to be withdrawn, because they are unacceptable clauses of legislative press regulation. If they are not withdrawn, the agreement between all parties is that they should be voted against. The Defamation Bill will proceed. Its clauses relating to the Leveson report will be reversed by all three parties voting together, so it can now go through the House. All the other Leveson-related clauses in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill will be opposed by all three main parties unless they are withdrawn. As I have said, all parties have agreed that statutory underpinning clauses must be opposed in both Houses.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend, and everybody involved, on reaching this agreement. For my own information and for those outside, what is the difference between a royal charter and non-statutory clauses in legislation? Will the Prime Minister please confirm that we are not asking victims, at their own expense, to seek damages through the courts?
On my hon. Friend’s second point, the whole point about what we are establishing is that there will be a free arbitration service that victims can use—that is vital. The key point about the difference between a royal charter and setting out in legislation what a press regulator needs to look like, is this: if we pass a law in this House on press regulation that says, “This is what the recognition body has to look like; this is what the press regulation has to look like; this is what the fines are like; this is what the processes are like”, we cross the Rubicon. It would give the House and future Governments the ability to legislate in a totally illiberal way and to restrict freedom of the press. At the time of Leveson’s publication, I said that that was not an acceptable approach and that we should not take it. I said that we would consider alternatives, and we have found one—a royal charter—that means that we are safeguarded from taking that step.
Let me conclude by saying a word about the process by which the agreement has been reached and about the next steps. The royal charter agreed today has benefited hugely from hundreds of hours of detailed negotiations with representatives of victims, all main political parties and the press themselves, and has been further improved by the hours of discussions between the parties this weekend. I am grateful for the spirit of give and take on all sides. We stand here today with a cross-party agreement for a new system of press regulation that supports our great traditions of investigative journalism and free speech and protects the rights of the vulnerable and the innocent. If this system is implemented, the country should have confidence that the terrible suffering of innocent victims, such as the Dowlers, the McCanns and Christopher Jeffries, should never be repeated. My message to the press is now very clear: we have had the debate, now it is time to get on and make this system work.
I second the motion and thank the Prime Minister for calling this debate and for setting up the Leveson inquiry 20 months ago, with cross-party support. We would not be here today without that inquiry, following the appalling revelations about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone and what her family endured. It is her family’s bravery in speaking out and the bravery of all the other victims of abuse—the McCanns, the Watsons and many others—that has brought us here today. They were failed at every turn: by the press, who treated them like commodities simply to sell newspapers; by the Press Complaints Commission, which did nothing about it; and by politicians of all parties who failed to stand up for them because of fear.
Today we break the pattern of decades and decades of politicians promising to act on wrongdoing by the press but failing to do so. Some people will ask why we are here at all, given the many pressing issues that the country has to deal with. My answer is simple: because I do not want to live in a country where sections of the press can abuse their power to wreak havoc on the lives of innocent people and, equally, because I want to live in a country that upholds the rights of a fearless, angry, controversial press which holds the powerful to account, including those in the House. Today’s agreement protects the victims, upholds a free press and is true to the principles of Lord Justice Leveson’s report.
Lord Justice Leveson said there needed to be a
“genuinely independent regulator, with effective powers to protect and provide redress for the victims of abuse”.
That is what we will achieve today, with the approval of the House. First, in its appointments and how it works, the new regulator will be independent of the press. Secondly, it is a regulator with teeth, with the powers to direct apologies and corrections of equal prominence. That matters because we know the history: a front-page story that turns someone’s life upside down, followed by an apology buried in the small print on page 36. Thirdly, this system will endure, because of the statutory underpinning being considered in another place today, which will protect the system from being tampered with by Ministers or watered down. It is important that this underpinning has been endorsed by the Prime Minister and several newspapers.
I understand the heat and passion that this debate has aroused, including the concerns about press freedom, but we are today agreeing a system similar to that which already operates in Ireland and which includes many of our own newspapers. It is not direct regulation of the press either, but, as Leveson recommended, independent regulation with membership voluntary on the basis of incentives. I join the Prime Minister in urging all members of the press now to join this new system. Why do I do this? It is because doing so means that we can all move forward. Members of the press will be joining a system that commands the confidence of the victims and allows the press to hold the powerful to account without abusing its own power.
Today represents a huge moment for the House. We are doing the right thing. Politics has failed to grasp this issue for decades, but today politicians have come together to put the victims first. I want to thank the Prime Minister and the Culture Secretary. I also want to thank the Minister for the Cabinet Office for his indefatig—[Interruption]—for his limitless patience, including at 2.30 this morning; the Deputy Prime Minister for his determination to do the right thing; Members in all parties right across this House, including the minority parties, for supporting a new way forward; and the deputy leader of the Labour party for her important role in making this happen.
I also want to acknowledge the vast majority of decent, law-abiding journalists, who want to get back to doing their job. But let me end by paying tribute to the victims who have had the courage to stand up and make their voices heard—the McCanns, the Dowlers, the Watsons and, yes, their representatives. Today is the day we stand up for them. Today is above all their day.
I am delighted to support this motion and welcome the royal charter.
The last time the three party leaders addressed the House on this issue it was because we could not agree; this time, thankfully, it is because we have. I would like to thank your office, Mr Speaker, and the Clerks of the House for accommodating today’s unusual procedure. I am also delighted to see that all sides are claiming victory today. If everyone acts like this after the general election, they will have trouble fitting us all into Downing street.
It won’t be you.
The hon. Gentleman is always on cue, even at the most solemn moments.
When Lord Justice Leveson published his recommendations, the Liberal Democrats supported them. I agreed with his basic model of a new, independent, self-regulatory body for the press, with the new recognition body authorised to check periodically that the system is working properly. Given the importance of the relationships between politicians, the public and the press, I said at the outset that we should not become fixated on the means of change, but stay focused on the end we all seek: an independent press watchdog in which people can place their trust. My party has been clear from the outset that the worst outcome of all would be for nothing to happen—a very real possibility at points.
Just so that the country and the House can be clear, are we getting some statutory underpinning of Leveson as part of this agreement?
Of course. This model is a mix of royal charter and statute in two areas: one to install the system of costs and damages and the other to entrench the royal charter, such that it cannot be tampered with at whim by Governments in the future. If I may, I will turn to both issues in a minute.
Throughout this process I have sought to be pragmatic on the details while ensuring that any reforms must satisfy three tests. First, they must deliver the model of independent self-regulation set out by Lord Justice Leveson; secondly, they must command the widest possible cross-party support, which Lord Justice Leveson also said was critical; and, thirdly, they must strike the right balance between protecting the great tradition of a free press in this country and also protecting innocent people from unwarranted intimidation and bullying by powerful interests in our media. Let us not forget that the hacking scandal was caused by some of our biggest newspapers, but it was still a minority of newspapers and certainly not the local and regional press, which must not pay the price for a problem they did not create. A free press is one of the most potent weapons against the abuse of authority in our society, holding the powerful to account. Equally, however, the media must not abuse their own power at the cost of innocent people.
Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with me—and, I think, with most people in the House—that the terrible practice of phone hacking is already a criminal offence, and that no further legislation is needed, not even a tiny bit, to deal with the problem?
Lord Justice Leveson looked at this matter extensively and said that, in addition to taking action when the criminal law had been broken, further reassurance was needed to ensure that innocent people had recourse to justice when they were being intimidated or bullied in an unjustified way.
Our royal charter meets all three tests: it delivers Leveson, it commands cross-party support and it strikes the right balance between the freedom of the press and the rights of individuals. One of the biggest hurdles that we have all had to overcome has been the polarisation of this debate, with the idea that someone is either for a full statute or against it, and that they are either on the side of the victims or on the side of the press, when in reality most people are on the side of both. We have not succumbed to those false choices, however.
We have forged a middle way with a royal charter protected by legislation—a system of independent self-regulation, a voluntary system just as Lord Justice Leveson outlined—but with two specific statutory provisions. First, there will be a legal provision to ensure that if a newspaper is signed up to the regulatory regime, judges will be able to take that into account when awarding costs and damages in the courts. Newspapers will be rewarded for playing by the rules, and I very much hope that the newspaper groups will now see the logic of that incentive and get behind the reforms.
Secondly, there will be an entrenchment clause to prevent future Governments from chopping and changing the royal charter on a whim. I have been pushing consistently for that legal safeguard since the royal charter model was proposed. Without it, the royal charter would leave the door open to political meddling by future Governments, and that is a risk that we must not take.
In 2008, the House agreed, on an all-party basis, in sections 77 and 78 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, to strengthen the penalties in section 55 of the Data Protection Act 1998 for breach of data protection. Alongside that, a separate section guaranteed press freedom and a public interest defence. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that this is now the time, more than four years after they were passed, to bring those sections into force?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a strong case, and that course of action was recommended by Lord Justice Leveson as well. It is not covered by this cross-party agreement, but it is one of the issues that we will need to sweep up.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister give way?
If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I would like to conclude my remarks.
With these protections, the royal charter represents the best possible outcome.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister give way?
If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I would like to conclude—[Interruption.] All right, I give way.
In relation to the question of statutory underpinning, will the Deputy Prime Minister explain whether the fact that only two thirds of the Members of each House, rather than the whole of each House, will have to vote on the matter will make a difference to the outcome?
What has that got to do with Europe?
Hallelujah! A question that was not about Europe. I do not think that it will make any difference whatever to the status of the statutory entrenchment governing the circumstances in which the royal charter could be changed.
If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will not give way. Many hon. Members wish to participate in the debate, and I want to conclude.
With these protections, the royal charter represents the best possible outcome. I want to pay tribute to the campaigners, the victims and the families, without whom none of this would have happened. Their ordeals forced us to sit up and take notice, but it has been their tireless efforts and remarkable determination that have kept up the pressure. Throughout the sometimes fraught political negotiations, they have remained steady and consistent, asking simply that we do the right thing.
Finally, I would like to commend Members across the House, and the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, for working across party lines to get this done. The truth is that this is not a victory for any one individual or any one team; it is a victory for working together, for putting narrow interests to one side and for sticking with it. Today we turn a page on the mistakes of the past and, finally, establish a proper independent watchdog to serve the British people while protecting our free press.
I commend the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and their colleagues and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and his deputy, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman)—and, indeed, Lord Charlie Falconer, who has done excellent work with them—on finding what I believe to be not a fudge, but an elegant and sophisticated solution to squaring the circle. I have a registered interest both as a contributor to the press, and, with my family, as a victim of hacking—an issue that has not yet run its course.
What happened to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) in the courts today indicates just how far we still have to go to get some branches of the press to understand what they have done and what they need to put right for the future. I also commend the victims of press attack who have been so assiduous in carrying through—sometimes with great pain to themselves—the campaign to get to where we are today.
Let me say that the solution that we have reached—and I am very glad that we have reached it—protects the freedom of the press while also protecting the reputation of Britain across the world. It is important that what is done in this House or in our media cannot be misused or abused when it comes to the oppression of a free media in other parts of the world. We still have a problem in this country, however, in respect of what is now described as “the new media”. I hope that the charter and the sophisticated way in which penalties will be applied to those outside it will help us. I was sorry that Lord Justice Leveson’s report did not deal with the future, but we have an opportunity to do so now.
I make this brief speech because I believe that Parliament and politicians of all parties have demonstrated a professionalism, sophistication and maturity that, if applied to other areas of our lives, would be commended by the British people. Let me also make an appeal to some branches of the media and some campaigners who still “don’t get it”, to quote the words originally used when Leveson was being debated.
I want to ask Index on Censorship, which was on the radio at lunchtime, please not to mislead people into believing that this agreement achieves something that it does not or says something that it does not. I want to say to those in the media who have been extremely vocal over the weekend that they should please accept today’s agreement as the best possible outcome to a situation that was at one point seen as virtually impossible to resolve, with no squaring of the circle. The circle has been squared; Parliament has lived up to its historic reputation; the leaderships all political parties have stood up and been counted—and we should be proud of this Parliament and our leaders today.
I join those who have already congratulated the leadership and members of all three parties on achieving at the eleventh hour an agreement on a way forward. It is now more than six years since Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire were convicted of unlawful interception of communications. The reverberations from that are still continuing, but what we know for certain is that the initial claim that it was one rogue reporter was completely untrue. We now have evidence to suggest that the claim that it was one rogue newspaper was also untrue. We await further developments, but we are now on the point of getting what was needed for at least that six years or, arguably, for far longer—a tough independent regulator of the press with real powers, able to carry out investigations. That is necessary to avoid any repetition of the abuses we have seen.
I give way to my fellow member of the Select Committee.
I thank the Chairman of the Committee on Culture, Media and Sport for giving way. After the journey we have all been through, does he agree that to command public confidence, what we need now for the new regulator is a new chairman and also a new chairman of the code committee so that we can have a clean break from the discredited past?
We do need a new tough regulator, and the appointments to it will be conducted under the processes now contained in the royal charter. There is a recognition body to be established that will make sure that those appointments are compliant with the requirements of the Leveson report.
I want to make sure that the House does not lose sight of the fact that although there have been terrible abuses committed by the press, we still need to recognise the vital role that the press play in a democratic society. The press have also been responsible for uncovering acts of corruption and abuse of power, and that does not apply only to the broadsheet newspapers: some tabloids have an equally honourable record in conducting such campaigns. As I think the Deputy Prime Minister said, we should recognise the vital importance of local newspapers, and ensure that whatever system we introduce does not add to the burden on them at a time when they are experiencing very difficult economic circumstances.
The majority of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations have always been the subject of agreement on all sides. Everyone agrees about the need for a tough, independent regulator. It may well be that the outside world will wonder why, in that case, it took until two, three or four in the morning for agreement to be achieved on what might appear to be a very small issue. However, I commend the Prime Minister for his recognition of the fact that even a small amount of legislation could—I repeat, could—be very dangerous. Certainly the suggestion of statutory underpinning caused real concern, and not just among people who were singing to the tune of the press. Organisations that are dedicated to fighting for civil liberties in this country and abroad also raised genuine concerns about the implications.
I welcome the agreement, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is disappointing that the proposals do not deliver equality in terms of women’s representation on the regulatory and overseeing bodies, and thus do not address the endemic sexism that is sadly very present in the British press today?
I am afraid that I do not share the hon. Lady’s disappointment. The last thing I want is for the royal charter, or the House in particular, to dictate who should or should not serve on the regulatory body. That is a matter for the press, although it will need to meet the requirements laid down by Lord Justice Leveson, which will be enforced by the regulatory body. However, I am sure that the press will have heard what the hon. Lady has said, and will want women to be represented on the body when it comes to make its appointments.
This will be a voluntary system. It will be possible for Private Eye, perhaps The Spectator, perhaps even a major newspaper, to stand outside the system, and maybe to have its own regulatory body; but if the press are to enjoy protection from the award of exemplary damages in defamation actions, some legislation will be required. I think that that has always been accepted, and I think that it is sensible. It is ironic that some of those who have been campaigning on the issue were prepared to jeopardise the Defamation Bill, which they themselves recognised as being so important, and which is vital to the protection of not just the press but individuals who suffer defamation.
Will my hon. Friend say a little about the process that has taken place? A major reform has been decided behind closed doors with representatives of party leaders, perhaps unelected. Members of Parliament did not even have a chance to look at the draft until the beginning of the debate. Is he in any way concerned about that?
The original draft was published some days ago, although it has been subject to amendment. I fear that the truncation of the process over the past 24 hours has prevented us from having as much time as was desirable, but if the outcome has been the achievement of all-party agreement and the opportunity to have this debate, I personally welcome that outcome.
The safeguard in the charter—the requirement for a two-thirds majority in both Houses—is welcome because it will send the message that politicians will tamper with the royal charter at their peril. It is, of course, somewhat cosmetic, as any future Government with a majority in Parliament could overturn it and legislate if they chose to do so. It does, however, send the additional, powerful message that this is something in which politicians should not become involved. That issue has always underlain all my misgivings—and, I think, those of my hon. Friends—about the original recommendations in Lord Justice Leveson’s report.
I greatly welcome the fact that we have now achieved this agreement. I hope that it will deliver what we all want: a free press, protected from interference or pressure from politicians, but at the same time subject to clear rules enforced by a tough and independent regulator. If that is the outcome, the House will have done a good job.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
For every one of the five years that I have been worrying this bone, people have been telling me to leave it. They have been some very dark years—though latterly rather euphoric, I suppose. Most of the time it has been quite lonely and bleak. We have learnt some pretty dark things about ourselves. By “ourselves,” I do not just mean politicians and the media; I mean the whole of what used to be called the establishment—the quiet cabal that runs the country, all within five miles of where we sit tonight. I am talking about not just politicians, but prosecutors; not just journalists, but judges, industrialists and editors; policemen, commentators and publicists; the bold with the meek; and the guilty and the damned. We were all part of this. This was not a conspiracy that no one knew about—not in the establishment anyway. Among the people I am talking about—the few thousand most powerful people in the land, in whose collective charge are the freedoms of everybody else—in that wealthy, privileged powerful group with so much to lose, everybody knew.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
In a minute. They did not all perhaps appreciate the scale of what went on, but everybody knew that a crucial part of our nation’s body politic was rotten. We did not know that they were hacking Milly Dowler’s phone, but we knew that that was the kind of thing they did. We knew that there were virtually no limits to the kind of things they did, and we did nothing. For years, perhaps decades, we collectively looked the other way. To be candid, even now we have let families such as the Dowlers shoulder a heavy load. They should not have been put in a position to mediate on these proposals, but they were and they did so—they had to—under great duress, but with customary dignity. They did so because while the most atrocious things were being done by people charged with upholding the highest standards, we averted our eyes—or we actively conspired. We joined in with what they did to other people because it made it less likely—we thought—that they would do it to us.
At the root of all this was fear: an abject, dark-hours-of-the-morning screaming terror that they would turn the lights of hatred on us, destroy us and humiliate us—with pure lies or half truth, it did not matter which—deliberately and viciously, for no reason other than because they can, it makes money and it is just what they do. The effect was that the lives of the not-rich and the not-powerful—the utterly innocent, so much less able to defend themselves—were laid equally bare to the random acts of malice that we came to believe were inevitable.
That was the dark hour of our parliamentary democracy, whose lessons we must not forget as we congratulate ourselves today. But we can also take heart from having finally fought back. Parliament showed its strength where Governments failed. Brave journalists showed that the profession itself is a proud one. Honest police—more than any in the person of Sue Akers—showed that the long arm of the law, once unshackled, can still reach where it should.
Today’s agreement is a good one; it is more than just a moral victory. It took patience and strength to see it through. It almost feels like a kind of closure—but I do mean almost. We have a responsibility to give something back to journalism with strengthened freedom of information laws, a proper public interest defence and imaginative ways to support investigative journalism through the disruption of digital transition. At this late hour, I hear that the charter extends its remit to internet publishing. I hope that we can make the distinction between self-publishing for pleasure and digital news reporting for profit.
The central characters in this tragedy are Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation. He still sits at the head of the most powerful media conglomerate the world has ever seen and he still has politicians in his pocket. They still will not change the media ownership rules because they are frightened of him and they curry his favour. Amid it all, the Prime Minister looks over his shoulder as Murdoch’s people start to replace the current generation of leaders with the next. It is most naked on the Conservative Benches, but let us not avert our eyes again and pretend that it is not happening on the Labour and Liberal Democrat Benches, too.
As we reflect on the terrible cost of failures today, let us not leave the lessons half learned. Our children will not thank us for leaving the hydra with one head.
This whole debate began because the public felt that some of the press, not all of the press, were far too close to some politicians, not all politicians, and particularly to politicians in government. It began because the public felt that some of the press, not all of the press, were far too close to some police, not all police, in a way that was very corrupting. It also started because people were worried that some of the press would become all-powerful, leaving no pluralism among those looking after news and current affairs, which is a guarantee of real freedom and understanding.
In many years since the war, Parliament and Governments have perfectly properly and reasonably commissioned inquiries into the press. When the most recent scandals broke and the Prime Minister took his brave decision to announce that an inquiry would be carried out by Lord Justice Leveson, with the agreement of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, it seemed to me that Parliament and the parties all agreed that such matters should be reconsidered as things had gone badly wrong. There was consensus; I have never known such strong consensus in this House as there was at the moment when Parliament said that we had to put our house in order.
I commend Lord Justice Leveson and those who worked with him on his inquiry, to which the three party leaders, I and many others gave evidence. Lord Justice Leveson came up with an extremely balanced report and its credibility is strongest because it is so well balanced. It did not come up with a draconian new regime to deal with the press, but understood the desirability of, the need for and the absolute imperative for a free press in this country while saying that we needed systems in place.
We had a bit of a debate in this place and in the media about what the structures should be and Lord Justice Leveson spent a large part of his time and conclusions on that subject. He was clear about two things, however. He was clear that there should be an independent self-regulatory system, and that that should be underpinned by statute. He made that explicitly clear and today, in a clever but appropriate way, we have ensured that there is a charter at one remove from legislation through which we can guarantee the new system and that is locked in by a legislative safeguard. I commend those who thought of the idea and I think it gets the balance right. There is underpinning in legislation, but the key document is a charter agreed by this Parliament and by all the parties in this place.
Another advantage of today’s agreement is that the Defamation Bill, on which we have worked so hard, will be free to proceed. The amendments made by Lord Puttnam will be dropped, but another important amendment to the Bill raises the bar on the ability of corporations to use the chilling effect of libel law on legitimate investigative journalism and wholly helps the press. Will the right hon. Gentleman commit to supporting the retention of that provision when the Bill returns to the House of Commons?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is a journalist by training, for his work on the subject. One of the good things about today is that we liberate the Defamation Bill and enable it to become the law of the land. We have a very out-of-date defamation law. It has fallen into disrepute and one of the things that we will have done—I was going to mention it—is make sure that we do not clog up other legislation on which both Houses have worked very hard, and prevent it from becoming law—the Crime and Courts Bill, the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill and the Defamation Bill. I hope we can now go on to get the legislation as right as is humanly possible in the remaining weeks of this Session.
There is a suggestion that some parts of our society should be outwith any legal construct. I do not think that has ever been accepted in this country, and when we have not seen adequate self-regulation, Parliament has intervened. We have done it in recent years in respect of doctors, solicitors and ourselves. We have taken complete self-regulation away from this place because we did not think we were doing the job properly, and The Daily Telegraph and others showed that we were not doing our job properly. I commend them for what they did.
We have always followed the adage of the old judge, “Be you ever so high, the law is above you”, and that applies to the press too. We have never had a press free from the laws of the land, but—returning to the intervention from the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly)—the libel law, the defamation law, was not available to most of the public. It was available to the rich and famous, and very difficult for ordinary people to pursue. Yes, there is criminal law governing the press, and phone hacking was illegal under criminal law. That did not deal with all the complaints and all the problems that had arisen.
I, like others here, am one of the victims of those illegalities, but I do not think any of us here think that the problem was that we were getting it in the neck or that celebrities were getting it in the neck. We felt moved to act because people who were entirely out of the public eye suddenly found themselves entirely in the public eye, vilified, abused, misrepresented, traduced or publicly humiliated. It is people in the estates in Bermondsey and in the constituencies of all of us whom we are seeking to support, not because they do not need a free press—they do—but because on occasions the press had abused them without adequate remedy.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful statement, but is he really arguing that something like the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is being set up? There is a serious point here. We know that IPSA has reduced the effectiveness of Members of Parliament, and if we are setting up a similar body which reduces the power of the press, we have something to worry about.
If I tried to defend IPSA now, I think I would be lynched, so I shall not do so. That is not the model that has been followed, and the royal charter is as far away from IPSA as anyone could have contrived.
Let me make two final points. The important thing to come out of today is that we have established a regulator which nobody can veto, a code of conduct which, yes, will be drafted by the press but has to be agreed by somebody independent of the press, the rights of third parties to complain, and probably most important, the right of the regulator, if necessary, to direct both an apology and the method of the apology.
The greatest abuses recently have been the sort of examples that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition gave. Somebody appears on the front page, the subject of a story that is totally untrue. Their career may be ruined, their reputation damaged, their lives, their mental health and their finances decimated, and there is no remedy available. What happens and has always happened is that a very small correction or apology appears later, sometimes. That is the real failure of the system to date and that will now change. All our constituents should have some hope that there may be a fairer system.
Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that if there is a calumny on the front page of a red top, the apology will also be on the front page? If he is, that is great.
That is exactly what I think the public want. That is why it has been a privilege to work with colleagues of all parties and their staff. I pay tribute to the Prime Minister and his team, to the Deputy Prime Minister and his team. and to the Leader of the Opposition, his deputy and their team, and to their staff, the civil servants, the special advisers and others who have worked beyond the call of duty, and to the Clerks, including the Clerk of the House. There has been an absolute will to try to solve the problem in time.
Is not the prize here the fact that a free press will still be able to expose wrongdoing, but not at the expense of trashing people’s lives?
That is a very good summary. We want the best and freest press in the world, but we do not want a press that is marred and tarred by being seen to cosy up to the Government of the day, and compromised, and parties compromised. We do not want a press that does dubious deals with the police behind closed doors, not in the interests of members of the public. We want people to be able to be supported by the press, not trashed by the press. My hon. Friend is quite right.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
No, please, many others want to speak.
For 20 or 30 years, colleagues of mine in both Houses have said that we needed an inquiry such as this—Lord McNally, Matthew Taylor and many others—and we have now had one. Whenever people ask me what I stand for, I do not invent my own words; I look at the little card that my party issues, which quotes from the preamble to our constitution. I hope that we have all done what one sentence of that preamble says, and that we have all today taken action
“to build and safeguard a free, fair and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community”.
Today is about getting the balance right. I think that we have corrected the balance and it is a tribute to all who got us here.
For me, this day marks the end of a journey that began 21 years ago when I became Chairman of what was then the National Heritage Committee. Our very first inquiry was into privacy and media intrusion. At that time, we were particularly concerned not so much about what the press does to public figures—although sometimes what it does to public figures can be cruel and unjustified, but we are in the game and we know what we face—but about what the press does to private individuals who have never had any experience of a journalist knocking at their door or coming through their garden gate, and who suddenly, through no fault or initiative of their own, find themselves hounded and harassed by the press. We referred in that inquiry in particular to families of murder victims. We referred to families of soldiers who had been killed in action. They could neither control what had happened to their families nor in any way respond or cope with journalists looking for a story.
We made a recommendation that the remedy should be a privacy Act with a public interest defence. We were looking at parallels with the United States constitution, which defended the freedom of the press while at the same time defending the freedom of individuals. It is very sad that although the remedy that we proposed might not necessarily have been the most effective or the most appropriate, nothing was done. Nothing was done by the Government who were then in power; nothing was done by the Labour Government who succeeded it. We are having this debate today only because of the exposure of the scandal of phone hacking, particularly concerning the Dowler family, but also relating to a considerable number of victims of intrusion into privacy.
I congratulate all involved in arriving at the solution that has been put before the House today. When the Prime Minister made his initial announcement, I made clear, as I did in the subsequent debate, my opposition to statutory regulation of the press. I was a working journalist for nine years on Fleet street, and I was proud of the privilege of working in communications, establishing facts and investigating wrongdoing. Whatever we might think of some of the worst excesses of the press, a free press is indispensable to a free democracy. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that if the choice were between a corrupt and irresponsible press or a state-regulated press, I would—obviously with great reluctance and while biting my tongue—opt for the irresponsibility and corruption. I want a free press in this country, and I want it to be able to do what it does without fear or favour. Today we are getting the possibility that that can be achieved while protecting decent, innocent people from intrusion.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party. Other leaders of the party could have worked on this but did not, however much I admired them and however much they were my friends. I congratulate the Prime Minister, because his agreeing with my right hon. Friend to have a royal charter—I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman who thought that up, because it was very clever indeed—made what is happening today possible. I congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister, too, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the deputy leader of my party, on her hard and detailed work.
What we have today is the possibility of proper regulation. All my experience of the Press Complaints Commission, both personally and as Chair of what became the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, showed me that it was a total waste of time. It was a façade behind which the most irresponsible parts of the press did whatever they wanted. Over the years, and even after publication of the Leveson report, they still dragged their feet and had many more drinks over the eight in the last chance saloon. Well, the last chance saloon is putting up its “Closed” sign today, which is a very important achievement.
Although no newspaper is faultless, I think that it is appropriate to pay tribute to the journalists on The Guardian, who worked very hard on this and were not stymied or deterred. That is important, because they demonstrated that in the middle of all the scandal and uproar, journalists could still do the job of a journalist.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that as well as The Guardian, the Financial Times, The Independent and the Mirror Group deserve credit for having last week agreed with the Labour and Liberal Democrat versions of the charter?
I do agree. Of course, I am always ready to pay tribute to the Mirror Group in view of the fact that it paid my wages for nine years and I wrote leading articles for it.
We now have a chance—the equivalent of a public interest defence. With luck, but with far more than just luck—with an enormous amount of detailed consultation and work—we have got to this position today. When I spoke in the debate on the previous occasion, I said that when I was a working journalist I was proud to be a working journalist. The House of Commons, working as a British Parliament should—it does not all that often do so—has now made it possible to restore the pride in being a journalist, and that is a great achievement for all of us.
This House is at its best when there is an element of tension in the debate, and I am concerned that there is not that tension today.
We have a pretty revolting press in this country; I realised that from about the age of 18 onwards. It is pretty unpleasant, to be perfectly honest; there is not much merit in much of its coverage. However, I am concerned that so many speakers are saying that we must have a free press, must respect that free press, and must enshrine the freedom of the press in some form or in some law, because I thought that a free press was simply part of the deal of living in this democracy. I also worry when we say that we are not enshrining these new laws in statute. We have amendments on the Order Paper and we talk about having to pass this into law both in this House and in the House of Lords. To me, that feels very much like statutory regulation and legislation.
I have the greatest sympathy for all the people who were turned over by the press. Although it is unfashionable to say so, I also have a great deal of sympathy for many of our former colleagues who were turned over the press; I think that many of them were very good men and women. The truth is that more than 50 journalists have been arrested and face a date in court.
The police seem to be getting their act together. They are rooting out the bad practice whereby police officers sell stories or are in the pockets of the media. We are getting to grips with that issue. Another part of the problem we are facing up to is that the leaders of the main political parties have been far too cosy with the media for far too long. We cannot separate those relationships from what is happening here today. As a political class, we have failed as well.
I understand why my hon. Friend is unhappy, but does he take any comfort from the fact that we have been able to argue that it is right to take the route of the royal charter, which was once a minority view, as opposed to other forms of regulation?
I note my hon. Friend’s intervention, but I remain concerned about the royal charter. Even changing the royal charter requires the changes to be laid before both Houses and to secure a resolution by two thirds in both Houses. We do not do things by two thirds in this place; we do things by 50% plus one.
The two-thirds thing is obviously nonsense, because this House cannot bind its successors and a future Parliament can simply delete it.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree that the two-thirds provision is nonsense. It first appeared in this House as part of the fixed-term Parliament legislation. It was wrong then and it is wrong now.
I have probably gone on for far too long. Many better speeches than mine will be made today, and already have been. All I would say is that we have to strike a note of caution. I am not sure that today is the wonderful day that everyone is portraying it to be; in fact, I think it is a very sad day. I hope that we do not live to regret this at some stage in the future.
I refer hon. and right hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
This morning was quite exciting. Last week’s papal conclave lasted only two days, but a conclave that had lasted five days, or even 10 weeks, brought forth white smoke this morning. I hope that I do not have to say this too often, but I commend the Prime Minister. We now agree on two issues—press regulation and same-sex marriage. It is getting to be a habit, so let us hope that he joins us on the bedroom tax and a few other things.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it was more white flag than white smoke? I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) that this is a sad day. This is more than just a toenail in the door of regulation of the press and we may live to regret it.
I am afraid that I am going to take the Prime Minister’s side on this. I think that the proposal is well crafted, necessary and sufficient and that more might have been harmful in the way suggested by the hon. Lady. Incidentally, I am not particularly in favour of Popes, so the white smoke analogy is almost irrelevant.
I also commend the leader and deputy leader of my own party, because they have driven resolutely towards a sane and sensible conclusion, which is what we are discussing today.
Does my hon. Friend take with a pinch of salt all this stuff about Winston Churchill and a free press? It was Churchill, after all, who published a state-funded newspaper, The British Gazette, to try to suppress the general strike.
I think I will leave that to one side, but I did object slightly to the front page of The Sun today, because its hyperbole did it no favours. It did not inform the debate and I think it was unwise.
My interest in this issue started before I was elected as an MP, when the two girls were murdered in Soham. A friend of mine, Tim Alban Jones, was the vicar of Soham and I remember clearly that every door in that village was knocked, not just once but many times, because members of the press—and, sometimes, television and radio crews—were desperate to find some new angle to the story in order to sell their newspapers. Frankly, that community was in complete and utter shock. The press was not doing anything illegal, but it was unethical and immoral and it bullied and hounded the local community, which was deeply distressing, particularly to the families who had lost loved ones.
It took the vicar to stand up for the community and say, “Listen folks: will you please just leave this community alone?” The Press Complaints Commission in that instance was completely and utterly useless. I think the Prime Minister once referred to the PCC as a busted flush and that is exactly what it has proved to be.
The BBC has a royal charter. Will the hon. Gentleman remind me of how well it has behaved in recent years, particularly in relation to Jimmy Savile? Is a royal charter an amazing thing that prevents abuses from ever taking place?
No, of course not. I think it was Thomas Hughes, who wrote “Tom Brown’s School Days”, who said that simply passing a law will not make everybody obey the law and that making theft illegal did not prevent everybody from being a thief.
I was in the High Court this morning to hear yet more revelations about how a phone belonging to a Member of this House was stolen from her car in 2010 and then, only late last year, its private details accessed by The Sun. Personally, I do not think that the editor of that newspaper should still be in his job. It is incredible that an organisation that had said that it was cleaning out the Augean stables was still, in September and October of last year—long after the Milly Dowler revelations came out—behaving in this extraordinary way.
I totally endorse everything that my hon. Friend has said about Soham. That is exactly the experience that we had in Bridgend. The difference between Soham and Bridgend is that the Press Complaints Commission did come to our rescue. I will always be grateful to it for that. The PCC standards were changed and it made a difference in Bridgend. The PCC was toothless in many ways, but that was because the regulations under which it was set up made it toothless. Where it could act, it did.
I hate to say it again, but I rather agree with the Prime Minister. The PCC was toothless because it was not independent. It was not independent from the press in any shape or form. The code committee consisted substantially of editors, many of whom adjudicated on whether they had broken their own code. When they had broken their own code and it had been decided by the rest of the committee that they had done so, they stayed on the committee. They had an extraordinary way of marking their own homework, giving themselves an A and, when their colleagues said that it should have been a B, deciding that it should have been an A-plus.
Not only was the PCC not independent; it was held in contempt. Throughout the revelations on phone hacking by the News of the World, the PCC decided not to investigate. That was partly because it did not have the power to investigate, but I believe that it also chose not to investigate. It always took the line of the News of the World. It hung out the line about one rogue reporter for everybody else to bite on for longer than even the News of the World. In the end, the chairwoman of the PCC had to pay damages to a journalist because she had completely and utterly got the story wrong.
When we debated the Leveson report last year, many hon. Members said that self-regulation had clearly failed. I think that the hon. Gentleman is saying that we never had a system of self-regulation because the PCC was never a regulator. What we have today, which the House can unite behind, is the first ever proper system of self-regulation for the press.
Spot on! I completely and utterly agree with the hon. Gentleman.
This point matters, because if a body is not seen by the public to be genuinely independent, why would any member of the public choose to go to it for fair redress? If they think that it will always adjudicate in favour of the press, why on earth would they use it, even if it is cheaper or, as it will now be, free? I am glad that we have got that into the charter.
I am not a big fan of royal charters, and have not been from the beginning, because it is a much more autocratic way of doing business. A royal charter can be changed automatically just by the will of Ministers. That is why, at first, I was wholly opposed to the idea of the Minister for Government Policy, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin). I think that he came up with the poll tax as well and I was not in favour of that either.
The community charge.
Sorry, we have to rename all of these things. It is great to be heckled by the leader of my own party.
Article 9 of the charter specifies that the charter cannot be changed except by a two-thirds majority. Incidentally, the answer to the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) is that the two thirds applies not to all Members of the House, but just to those who vote. The most important thing is that that provision in article 9 has to be put into statute. That is the statutory underpinning that protects the charter, the House and everybody else from Ministers.
I will not give way, if Members do not mind, because I have given way quite a lot and I am sure that hon. Members think that I speak too much anyway. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] It is nice to unite the House. Again, it is nice to see the leader of my party agreeing.
We can all agree to this system today, but if the press does not sign up to it, it will have been a complete and utter waste of time and energy. The money that was spent on the Leveson inquiry—wasted; the efforts of all the families who put themselves through another form of upset and humiliation—completely and utterly wasted. I say to the press that there are times when their hyperbole is wonderful, entertaining and lovely. Even when vicious hyperbole is addressed at oneself, one can sometimes take the joke. However, some of the ways in which the press have put forward their argument in the past week have not been helpful to their cause. I hope that the press will now come on board.
There is a proud press tradition in this country of being able to tell the truth to the Government, politicians and those in authority. The Guardian revealed the truth about phone hacking at the News of the World, despite many other people trying to prevent that from coming out, and that is important. For myself, I bemoan the fact that the Rhondda Leader is not quite the newspaper that it was nine years ago; it is not as read as it was then, which means that local politics are probably even less scrutinised than Parliament today.
I wish to make one brief point about the way we are conducting our business today. I now have a copy of the charter—I think it is your copy, Mr Speaker, and I am grateful to you for finding one for me. In the end, however, this is not a good way for the House to do business. We are dealing with a motion that we have not seen—the motion we are debating is not printed anywhere—and a draft charter that people have only just seen, halfway through the debate as it is handed round. We have manuscript amendments in this House and the House of Lords, and on the whole we tend to make bad legislation when we do it on the hoof and those on the Back Benches are asked to trust in those on the Front Benches.
We are doing a good thing today and it is something we should have done a long time ago. I take no pride in the fact that the Government whom I supported when the Labour party was in government did not do enough in this field and could have acted earlier. In the past, we as politicians have tended either to chase or to run as far away as possible from a headline, which on occasion has meant that we have not been brave enough, or been too cowardly, in matters of press regulation. We let the victims of crime become the victims of the press as well, and—let us face it—we let Parliament be lied to time and again. I am glad we are putting a full stop on that today.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on preventing us from going down the route of full-scale statutory legislation of the media. Undoubtedly, what he has achieved was the best possible measure that could command a majority in the House. I urge the House, however, to remember that when Members on both Front Benches agree, we invariably make our worst blunders because the normal adversarial process of criticising measures is put aside. I hope we will consider what may be wrong with this measure, as well as what may be right.
The Leveson inquiry was set up because of phone hacking and libel, both of which were and are against the law, and neither of which is tackled by this royal charter. Those who always—rightly or wrongly—wanted to legislate to control the press have seized on the abuses of hacking and libel to propose legislation that tackles quite other problems that they see and have always wanted to deal with.
I sympathise with those who have been victims of press abuse—I, my family and relatives have probably been subject to more defamation and intrusion than almost anybody else in this House. Only last month I sent another cheque for 20 grand to a charity in my constituency after the latest offensive defamation. I do not think, however, that we should automatically presume that those who have been victims of abuse have great expertise in legislative matters, or grant those of us who have been victims a licence to legislate without criticism. That is simply mawkish sentimentality and it has led the House to focus exclusively on the legal framework we are establishing—a royal charter versus statutory regulation —and not on the powers we are giving the regulator, or that the regulator will be able to give itself.
I asked the Hacked Off lobby group, which was lobbying me and saying that it was keen to answer my questions, what powers to prevent or require publication the regulator will be given by this royal charter, what sort of material it could prevent or require the publication of, and what limits there are to the sorts of material it could prevent or require publication of.
On first inspection, it appears that the charter can require prominent apologies for abuse of individuals. If that were all it could do, I would be fine with it. In my time, I have had a banner front-page headline apology—I forget which newspaper it was, but the bottom banner headline on the front page was, “We apologise to Peter Lilley”. I hope others get the same when they are similarly abused.
However, that is not all the charter can do—the powers go beyond that to enabling the regulator to do other things, such as requiring those who subscribe to publish a factual correction. That is a pretty dangerous step. We are giving a body the right to decide what is fact and what is true. At best, that is a recipe for multitudinous time-wasting complaints that something is factually incorrect; at worst, it will establish a mini, self-appointed “Ministry of Truth”, which can decide what is true and must be published and what is false and must be withdrawn.
We note that no similar powers are taken with respect to the BBC, which will never be required by an outside body to publish corrections when it is factually incorrect, as it frequently is—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) advises me how to get corrections, but it is difficult enough even to get a reply.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
No; I have got the hon. Gentleman’s point.
My third point is on prevention. The charter says:
“The board should not have the power to prevent publication of any material”.
I am not sure what the legal power of “should not” is. The charter also states that the board “should” be able to do other things.
My right hon. Friend raises an important point about the wording of the document. The document sets out the criteria for recognising the regulator, not the terms of reference for the regulator itself, which will be a separate matter for the independent regulator. That is why the word “should” is used.
My hon. Friend reinforces my point. The document does not prevent the regulator from preventing publication; it says merely that publication “should” be prevented by someone else if they get around to it.
In any case, since the regulator can offer advice to editors of subscribing publications on how they should best comply with the code, and punish editors with fines of up to £1 million if they subsequently do not follow such advice, it effectively means that the regulator has the considerable power to prohibit or discourage publication.
The final question I asked Hacked Off was whether there were any limits in the measure as to how far the body and the code can go in future when it is annually reviewed. Each time it will be made more intense and its scope will be extended because that is how regulators work—they always increase their powers. As far as I could work out from Hacked Off’s rather incoherent reply, there are no limits to the powers that the body can grant itself or the extent to which it can go.
It find it worrying that we are, so far with no discussion, setting up a body with open-ended powers. It will have the ability to levy £1 million fines and effectively to deprive people of a livelihood if they break the code it establishes—[Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) says, like the Climate Change Act 2008, which we have subsequently learnt to regret, the charter has the support of those on both Front Benches.
I hope that when the body is established, a lot of media organisations will have the courage to follow The Spectator and stand aside from it and remain free while, hopefully, adopting the highest standards in how they publish and how they treat the public.
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate briefly in this important debate.
At the outset, it is right that we remember what has brought us to this point: the terrible abuses and suffering inflicted on the Dowler family, the McCanns and many, many others. Nobody in this country in the 21st century should have to go through what they went through. As a result of the action taken today, we hope that such abuses will not happen, but that if they do there will be appropriate, speedy and fair mechanisms in place to deal with them. Many hon. Members have referred to laws that are in place, in both criminal and civil law, to deal with such abuses. However, the law of defamation and the ability to take action in the civil courts for libel are not available to many people, because of the punitive nature of the costs and the fear that they may end up bankrupt. I am glad to hear that the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) has had success in the civil courts, but many ordinary citizens, and even many with greater means than those in this House, have been prevented from getting justice because of their fear of the consequences of going to court.
We on these Benches have always believed that the Leveson report offers a balanced way forward. We did not subscribe to the view that it would impose statutory regulation of the press—far from it. I commend the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, and all those who worked with them, for coming up with what I believe is a fair, balanced and sensible way forward. It is better that the House of Commons should speak with a virtually united voice on this issue, as that makes it harder for any section of the press to stand outside what is agreed, and that is extremely important. There has never been any question of any threat to the freedom of the press, and the freedom of the press is not endangered by what has been suggested here today through a royal charter.
I commend the right hon. Gentleman and his party for their support. On that point, we congratulate ourselves today, but does he agree that the press itself sets up the regulatory arrangements and the press itself sets up the appointment panel? The only requirement is to demonstrate that the people appointed to the panel are independent of the industry, whatever that means. Must we not be vigilant all the way through, so that we do not repeat history and allow regulatory capture from day one?
I absolutely agree. It is important to emphasise that today’s provisions, and Leveson himself, propose a means of independent self-regulation. Some of the hyperbole and over-the-top commentary has been deeply counter-productive and simply wrong. The idea that there should be nothing in legislation is deeply flawed. How else will we properly apply the issue of incentives and disincentives unless we pass something in this House that deals with exemplary damages and cost? There has to be legislation. I welcome statutory underpinning—for that is what it is—to non-interference in the royal charter.
As was said earlier by a number of hon. Members, including the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), no Parliament can bind another Parliament. The doctrine of the sovereignty of Parliament means that the two-thirds majority is open to being changed by a simple majority and the passage of any legislation in the normal way in any future Parliament. However, it sends a message and draws attention to the fact that if Parliament wishes to legislate on the matter, in overturning a distinct and discrete piece of legislation it is doing something significant.
Does the right hon. Gentleman think there is any risk, over time, of a political appointment to the oversight body—with the advent of a right-wing UKIP Parliament or whatever—that will constrain the freedom of the press?
No, because the system put in place for appointments to the regulatory body makes it very clear how that body should be populated. The terms of the royal charter are very clear that appointees will not be drawn from the political classes, will not be parliamentarians, and will not be involved in government or legislating. That is very important. Of equal importance, and why my party supported the version of the royal charter proposed by the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Prime Minister, was the issue of the press industry having a veto over who could be appointed. We believed that that was wrong and would not be tolerated in any other walk of life. It is absolutely proper and fair that there should be an appointment system that is not populated by the political classes and that is not capable of being vetoed by the industry. It was important for us that the regulator should have the power to direct apologies and corrections, including where they should be printed. That was recognised in the alternative version of the royal charter published on Friday, and we welcomed that. I therefore welcome its adoption in what is being presented to the House this evening.
We support what has been done: we welcome the fact that the royal charter has been changed for the better by cross-party agreement. I understand fully and endorse the reasons for proceeding by means of a royal charter as opposed to legislation. However, there is an irony in that we are now saying that the proper and best recourse is to proceed on the basis of a very antiquated means that is not subject to line-by-line scrutiny by elected Members of Parliament, or in any way subject to amendment. This is being brought forward on the basis of a draft by Her Majesty. Now, as a royalist and a monarchist I am all for that, and have no difficulty with it. However, in the modern, democratic world in which we live, it is ironic that we have decided that this is the way forward, rather than saying that the people’s representatives should have the opportunity to discuss, amend and vote on it. I understand the reasons, but surely there is an irony for all democrats in that.
May I invite you, Mr Speaker, to imply into what I am about to say all the paeans of praise, self-congratulation and mutual congratulation there have been in the course of the afternoon, because that would save time? May I also draw the attention of the House to my interest in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests?
Much of the debate we have had—not this afternoon, but in the course of the previous six months or so—has been somewhat mis-focused: Lord Justice Leveson never recommended statutory regulation of the press. Just as there has been inaccurate criticism of what he recommended from the more hysterical commentators in the media, so there has been equally inaccurate and exaggerated criticism from the other end of the market. I suspect that what we have managed to do today is to come down sensibly and gently into the middle, which is probably where we would have been in the first place if we had all read the Leveson report carefully. But there we are and here we are, and that is a good thing.
Boiling Leveson down, in essence he said that the Press Complaints Commission was not up to snuff, and that we needed a better version to achieve public protection and to ensure that the press, in the appropriate cases, behaved itself. To achieve that, clearly what we do not need—as the Prime Minister has said on a number of occasions—is the press or the media to mark their own homework.
Does the hon. and learned Gentleman think that we need to clear up the relationship between the regional press and the local press, which often finds itself in financial difficulties, especially with the many cutbacks in that area recently?
I am sure that that is a very good point, but it is not quite the one I am addressing.
We need to ensure that press regulation, insofar as we have it, is independent of the press and enabled to achieve justice for those affected by misconduct, but we must be careful not to oversell this project. I have a hunch—it is only a hunch, but we will find out in due course; it might be that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who I think will be winding up the debate—[Interruption.] Oh, the Prime Minister will be winding it up—that is even more wonderful. May I go back and regurgitate that praise after all? It is splendid news. I almost feel like sitting down.
We need to be careful not to oversell the project being launched today. I have a suspicion—I have no evidence for my hunch, but we will see over the next year or so—that not many cases will come before the new body, because it will be unable to deal with issues of huge factual or legal complexity. One problem with the PCC—it had its fans and its critics—was that it could not disentangle hugely complicated issues involving disputes about whether the sting of a libel or the words complained of were true or false. It could not gather together and sift huge volumes of documents exchanged on disclosure, which can be done by a judge and advocates in court. I suspect that this necessarily more informal system will be able to deal with only fairly simple cases. There is nothing wrong with that; I just urge the House not to be persuaded that this cross-party agreement will replace the royal courts of justice.
We have heard how exemplary damages are supposed to drive people into this voluntary arrangement, but will the hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that no judge would penalise somebody for not being part of the voluntary arrangement and would be no more likely to impose exemplary damages on somebody outside it than in the normal run of events? In that sense, the whip of exemplary damages would not be there, although I recognise that the incentive for those inside it would be.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The point about exemplary damages, as set out on the amendment paper, would incentivise people to join the scheme, although as I understand the amendments—I might have misread them—they do not mean that if someone is in the scheme, they will be immune from exemplary damages, and that if someone is outside it, they will always be milked for them. The old rule in Rookes v. Barnard and so forth would still apply, insofar as it is relevant nowadays, but, as the Defamation Bill will make clear, juries will be taken out of exemplary damages cases, which will be decided by a judge alone. To that extent, exemplary damages will play a part in the proposals, but in my experience they are quite rare in libel actions nowadays, although not unheard of.
Does the hon. and learned Gentleman believe that the proposed system is resilient enough to be exported? Could it be taken off the shelf by Egypt or Kenya, for example, or would it work only in a mature democracy, such as ours, where checks and balances are already in place?
The Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour party were extremely busy over the weekend, as were their representatives, dealing with England and Wales—
And I am not sure that their minds were on libel tourism to Cairo and other places along the Mediterranean, but who knows what will happen? Let us try and get it right for England and Wales.
Order. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) keeps chuntering from a sedentary position that Wales won. His point is now on the record. I trust that he is satisfied.
The hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) will have to wait and see whether the Egyptians cut and paste our system.
On the point about overselling, I have a suspicion that we will not see many of these cases. The arbitration system will be free, which will increase access to it for those without means of their own, so I suspect that many self-represented people will come before it. That will place a strain on the panels deciding complaints.
Leveson recommended a ring-fenced monetary penalty system under which money recovered from malefactors would help to fund the system and the cases being brought before it. It would be interesting to find out from the Prime Minister whether a system of compensatory payments would be available to the body, or whether it would simply be a question of punishing the respondent newspaper or media organisation. If a victim of newspaper misconduct required compensation, would they have to go to the courts to settle or get an agreement from the respondent, or would the independent body be entitled to award the newspaper’s money as compensation? The latter, too, would incentivise claimants to use the system, rather than going to the expense and trouble of clogging up the courts with less important cases.
What would happen if a newspaper failed to enact a decision appropriately—for example, if it printed an apology on page 32, instead of page 1? Who would quantify, and how would they quantify, that failure, and what would be the redress? Who would actually enforce the contract?
The short answer is that I do not know, but I would hazard a guess that if a signed-up member, which would therefore be susceptible to the jurisdiction of the body, failed to do what the body commanded, it would be in breach of contract, and arrangements would be put in place to ensure either that the contract was complied with or that damages were payable for breach of contract. Someone might have to litigate the breach of contract, but the system might contain fail-safe measures allowing the independent body to revisit the matter and deal with the malefactor in some preordained, but sensible, way.
Will my hon. and learned Friend give way?
I will take this interjection, but I am beginning to waffle, and it is high time I sat down.
Is not one of the problems with this process that we have not had time to read and prepare for the detailed issues, such as the ones we have just been discussing? That is a flaw in the process and could lead to bad legislation.
I am afraid that that is just one of the things we have to live with, and if we cannot cope with it, we are probably in the wrong place. I noticed that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) was able to speak for 12 fluent minutes without having seen the motion or read the charter—but then he might have prepared something earlier.
I wish you had.
That is also probably true.
To wrap up, something good seems to have happened over the course of this weekend and it is about to be translated into further action this evening, but I urge us not to oversell it or think that we have solved the problem of press misconduct. It will go on—it is all part of human nature. However, we have made a small step—indeed, rather more than that—towards bringing the press and the public to a better place. I therefore commend the Prime Minister and all who took part in the negotiations.
I want to make just a brief intervention in this debate. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and also record the fact that I am a witness to proceedings that have yet to be heard before the court in relation to phone hacking and other matters.
I join others in congratulating the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the deputy leader of the Labour party. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson). It is unlikely that we would have reached this point had it not been for their tenacity and courage at an early stage in the unravelling of this saga. I believe that the settlement announced today by the Prime Minister after negotiation represents a popular consensus—a proportionate balance between the interests of a free press, and the public interest and the reasonable expectation of the public to a measure of protection.
In the unlikely event that many members of the public will read the proceedings of today’s debate, they might at moments regard it as a debate that is rather overly concerned with the position of politics and politicians. I believe that Members of this House have to roll with the punches a lot of the time—to live with the fact that journalists will write things about us that are disobliging, that we do not like and that we do not agree with—but to some extent that is part of being a public figure. The focus of our concern and all the work done to get us to today’s settlement is those wholly private people who find themselves suddenly thrust into the spotlight of passing public curiosity, usually because something dreadful has happened to them. Their grief and distress have been compounded by the insensitivity and intrusion of the media, and that extends way beyond the individuals and families whose cases are well publicised.
Is the right hon. Lady saying that, for emotive cases where, as she claims, intrusion is an issue, the press of this country should not cover such stories?
I am certainly not saying that, but I hope that the new regulatory body will establish a code of conduct that strikes a proper balance between the public interest—separating it from public prurience and curiosity—and the real and lasting harm done to people at what in so many cases is the worst moment of their lives. That is the balance that is so often lost.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I will bring my remarks to a conclusion. I am sure he wants to take part in the debate later.
I had particular experience of this issue as a Minister, when I was responsible for victims of terrorist attacks after 9/11 and 7/7. It was truly shocking how the grief of many of those families was compounded by insensitive and uninvited intrusions by journalists who were in the grip of the competitive pressure of their newspaper against another. Because of that, I welcome the fact that the new body will have the power of initiative, which has been one of the great weaknesses of the Press Complaints Commission.
We will condemn the new system to failure if we believe that this is the end of the story, because there will always be tension in the operation of the new set of arrangements between how the new body works, the maintenance of a free and untrammelled press and the proper protection for public interest that I know the House is united to achieve.
I hope—and I think I believe—that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, with the Culture Secretary, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, has come up with a solution to the regulation of the press through the royal charter route, addressing a problem that has lain on the table unresolved for far too long.
It was when my right hon. Friend Lord Wakeham was chairman of the Press Complaints Commission that I first raised with him my concerns about the manner in which only the super-rich could obtain redress through libel action, while ordinary people nursing ordinary grievances had nowhere to run to, because at that time the PCC was the creature of the press. It was paid for by the press, it was run by the press and it was self-serving. It was a sadness that even the black arts of my right hon. Friend, learnt in the Whips Office over many years, failed to address the machinations of newspaper proprietors and newspaper editors.
I say “I hope” that what we are doing will work because I have some reservations. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) said that it was an updated version of the Press Complaints Commission. God forbid that it is, because if it is remotely like the Press Complaints Commission, it is doomed to failure. My concern is about the membership of the regulatory bodies, the recognition panel and the appointment panel that will appoint the recognition panel, because if there is the slightest chance that all or any of those bodies are dominated by newspaper proprietors and/or newspaper editors or senior journalists, I fear that we will again end up with yet another self-serving body.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the key differences between the new model being proposed and the PCC is the power to initiate investigations? There were plenty of warnings about phone hacking, bad practices and the trade of confidential information, but the PCC was unable to do anything about them because it was not a proper regulator and therefore had no genuine investigative powers.
I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from, but we need to remember that the Press Complaints Commission set its own code of conduct, in precisely the same way, as I understand it, as the press will be invited, under the terms of the draft charter before us, to set its own code of conduct.
I give way to my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
My hon. Friend is correct that the code committee will remain with a majority from the industry, but does he accept that nobody, as far as I am aware, has ever complained about the code? It is generally recognised that the code was fine; the problem was that nobody paid attention to it.
The code may have been honoured more in neglect than in recognition. There is a danger, depending on who is the regulator—or, in this case, who are the regulators—that that could happen again.
I do not want to take up any more time. I welcome what has been achieved by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and by colleagues. I hope it will work, but we will have to keep a very watchful eye indeed on the implementation and—to take the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) —the enforcement of the code of practice.
This is an important debate, but there has been a bit of hyperbole surrounding it. Today has been described as momentous, but I think that it is momentous for being the 10th anniversary of the war in Iraq; we should remember that.
No one in any part of this Chamber, or anywhere else in Parliament, would deny that a strong and free press is an essential pillar of our democracy. However, the corrupt press behaviour that we are trying to deal with, even though it takes place only in a minority of areas in the fourth estate, is a side effect of near-monopolies. We have had legislation for many years to combat unhealthy near-monopolies, but we have failed to apply that legislation properly or scrupulously to the media. This scandal is an exemplar of that fact.
I want to place on record my party’s gratitude—I am sure I speak for others—for the careful way in which Sir Brian Leveson undertook his inquiry. I also want to associate myself with some of the comments made about the proceedings over the past few days, which have perhaps not been the best demonstration of parliamentary democracy at work. During the last few hours, however, a broad compromise has been reached, and I am pleased about that. I am glad that Her Majesty’s Opposition have now reached agreement with the Government.
I should like to say in passing that I am grateful to the official Opposition for keeping me and my colleagues, and those in the Scottish National party and the other minority parties in the loop. The Prime Minister is in his place, and I want respectfully to place on record that, during the last Parliament, my party played a vital part in setting up the rather imperfect body known as the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. I could give him details of some of the changes that were made as a result of arguments put forward by me and my hon. Friends. Some of our arguments won the day and, in one case, we preserved the freedom of Members of Parliament to speak out in this Chamber when the draft proposals would have defeated our privilege in that regard. With the greatest respect, I urge the Prime Minister to remember that, should there be a similar occasion, we are ready and available as good parliamentarians and democrats to get stuck in, if I may use an inelegant phrase.
On the events of last week, I shall leave aside the matter of the amendments that were tabled, but I would welcome some clarification from the Government on what exactly has happened and why we have suddenly reached this decision in such a short time. The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) made the important point that we have not had sufficient time to decide these matters. Be that as it may, we are now dealing with the decision. Today, we have at least got an agreement that we can work on, and that is to the good of all. I commend the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and Her Majesty’s Opposition for arriving at that agreement. Our proceedings will have been listened to by Joan Smith, Ben Loakes, Paul Dadge and Jacqui Hames, who were all in their own ways victims of the awful behaviour that we are complaining about. Today, we have an institution on which to build.
The press is the latest institution to have taken a knock as a result of scandal, corruption and illegal practice. Since the establishment of the Leveson inquiry, my party has called for the establishment of a regulatory body that is independent of Government and of industry, whose independence is guaranteed by law. We have argued, as have others, that access to restitution and a simple, easy-to-navigate complaints process should be central to any new system that is established. The new compromise provisions before us have dealt with those aspects, but the question of statutory underpinning is open to debate. If we go further into that question we might appear to be dancing on the head of a pin, however.
I agree that any response to a mistake should be equal and proportionate, but does the right hon. Gentleman think that the proposals could make investigative journalists more risk-averse, if there is a chance that they might not get a complete answer?
No, I do not think so. It is a time-honoured practice for journalists always to check their sources, and they will need to revisit that aspect of their behaviour and ensure that they get it right the first time round. The proposals will not be welcome in all areas, however. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier), for example, could find himself considerably disadvantaged financially if what the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) said were true. I make that joke in passing, weak as it was.
Lord Leveson’s report stated that statutory underpinning was necessary in order to set up a statutory recognition process and to provide for costs and damages incentives for publishers who subscribe to a recognised regulator. The Government have at least seen the merits of the latter provision, and tabled amendments accordingly. Sir Brian’s report recognised that publishers would need to be incentivised to sign up voluntarily to recognised regulators. He also recognised that there would be circumstances in which a court would determine that a publisher must give a claimant exemplary damages, albeit rarely, as a result of reckless behaviour. The cross- party amendments to which I initially put my name would have implemented Leveson’s suggestion that incentives should exist for publishers in respect of exemplary damages and costs in such situations. I am pleased that the Government saw fit to table similar amendments.
I have some concerns about the proposals before us, however. I realise that, due to the short notice for tabling amendments, it will not be possible for us to enter into a deep debate on these points, but I wish to put my concerns on the record none the less. First, the amendments to which I was a co-signatory, and which were due to be debated today and have now been withdrawn, would have ensured that any new commission that was established, as well as any regulatory body, would have been subject to freedom of information provisions. That is a crucial provision that would have ensured greater transparency in the new bodies, and I sincerely hope that the Prime Minister, or the Minister responding to the debate, will be able to give us an assurance that that will still be the case.
Secondly, I welcome the assurances from the Government that any arbitration service will be free for claimants to use. I am pleased about that. Another amendment to which I had put my name would have placed a duty on courts to take account of a defendant’s means, including readership and assets, when awarding exemplary damages. I welcome the fact that the proposals fulfil that requirement. Although the proposals do not meet every recommendation made by Lord Justice Leveson, I welcome the fact that the House has been able to reach a compromise, albeit at the eleventh hour, to get at least some reference to the royal charter in statute.
The right hon. Gentleman has spoken powerfully about the perils of media concentration and the fact that today’s agreement, while welcome, is still unfinished. Does he agree that, in addition to what has been agreed today, we should call for urgent attention to be paid to measuring and tackling the concentration of media ownership, as Lord Justice Leveson recommended?
That is a vital issue for the health of the press, and for the health of democracy. I see that the Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), has heard what my hon. Friend has said, and he will no doubt consider the matter.
It is surely clear by now that we need, and will get, a credible alternative to the Press Complaints Commission that will work in the interests of the public and of the responsible parts of the press. In Ireland, the press has been regulated by an independent voluntary body since 2008. Although the Press Council of Ireland is not a statutory body, it is recognised in legislation—namely, the Defamation Act 2009. Interestingly, all UK papers that are also published in Ireland have joined the PCI, even those that oppose statutory regulation in the UK.
Press regulation is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and I am aware that a panel is considering the Leveson recommendations and their application in Scotland, headed by the former Solicitor-General and senator of the College of Justice, Lord McCluskey. I understand that the First Minister, Alex Salmond, has suggested in the past that he would be keen to implement Leveson’s recommendations in full, advocating an independent ombudsman and a Scottish press council similar to the Irish model.
I welcome today’s announcements and I am very pleased that this accommodation has been reached, but I agree with the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) that we must be extremely vigilant as we go along. This is the beginning of the story, not the conclusion. I am sure that people who have been aggrieved will now see that something positive is and will be happening, and I am pleased about that.
I start by acknowledging that the discussions and negotiations on this matter have been incredibly difficult and contentious for those of us who have been close to them. It would be fair to say that no love has been lost between the editors on the one hand and the Hacked Off campaign group on the other. It is also no secret that immediately after the Leveson report was published, I found myself in the slightly unusual situation of being closer to the position of the Opposition Front-Bench team than to that of my own Front-Bench team.
At the risk of doing dreadful damage to the hon. Gentleman’s career, may I congratulate him on his courage and attention to detail on this issue? To be perfectly honest, without the work that he and other Government Members did, we would not have produced an agreement today that was compliant with Leveson.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for doing that damage. Before I move on, it is important to note that all party leaders have behaved very responsibly in this matter and I would like to give credit to the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), for the way in which she has approached it; she genuinely tried to seek agreement in a very difficult situation. I find myself in the unusual, almost unique, position of agreeing even with the Liberal Democrats. I speak as someone who campaigned against the euro and dislodged a Lib Dem MP to get elected here. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I campaigned against the alternative vote and then voted against Lords reform to boot. On this issue, however, I have been able to work with the Liberal Democrats.
Most of all, I want to thank and congratulate the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and, indeed, the Minister for Government Policy, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), because it is good to be re-united with my own party on this issue. The Prime Minister told me back in November not to worry, as he had a plan to deliver Leveson, and I think that what is before the House today does deliver the Leveson proposals—perhaps even in a slightly better way than in Leveson’s own plan, as I shall explain in a few moments.
As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) pointed out, the important thing to understand about the Leveson report is that it explicitly said that statutory regulation of the press was not being recommended. Rather, Leveson was recommending a system that was about self-organised, voluntary regulation, to which news publications would be encouraged to subscribe voluntarily. He recommended statute to do two quite simple things. One was to establish the right incentives to join such a body, and that is the protection afforded through exemplary fines and costs; I am delighted that those will be debated later today. The second was simply to establish an independent public body that would judge a regulator—not every week, every month or every year, but every two to three years—on whether it was working effectively and meeting a certain set of criteria.
This may appear a rather ancient device to achieve what we want, but it is undoubtedly the case that a body established by royal charter is an independent public body that can perform the task equally well. There is one important advantage of establishing the body in this way, and that is that the press are more comfortable with it. Before people say, “Well, we should not be doing what the press want,” it is important to realise that in Lord Justice Leveson’s own plan he said that this would be a voluntary system. If we want publications to join something voluntarily and to seek recognition under a system, there will be a benefit in their being comfortable with it—provided, of course, that we get the detail right.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) picked up on some detailed points that I would like to touch on. He said that all the crimes committed related to defamation and breaches of privacy, so that the measures before us will do nothing to address those problems. That is not right, because what we have before us establishes an arbitral arm, which is a new thing, and it will provide affordable or even free adjudication on issues where there is a cause of action that previously only millionaires or celebrities could afford to take up through the courts.
My right hon. Friend also seemed to suggest that it was a bad thing for newspapers to make corrections and put right errors, but in all the difficult negotiations we have had the press did not raise this as a problem; indeed, it is what the PCC already does. There is nothing new about this. The criteria in the charter explicitly say that pre-publication advice is simply that—just advice, with no obligation on anyone to take it. A regulator will not have the explicit power to prevent anyone from publishing anything.
The £1 million fines are reserved for very serious and systematic breaches of the code, after prolonged investigations have taken place. I personally believe that we will not see many people being fined £1 million. Whenever I hear people mention them, I am reminded of the Austin Powers film in which Dr Evil says that he is going to hold the world to ransom for $1 million. What we have is a backstop power if there are really serious breaches, but what we are likely to see—this is a good thing—are more prominent apologies, corrections or perhaps lead page corrections for serious breaches.
On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that there is genuine concern in the advertising industry about the commercial and reputational risks of being found to be non-compliant with the code? Has not one of the problems with the press been that legal managers and news managers have not shared the same respect for the code and have been more than happy to fly in the face of it?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The serious problem has not been the code itself, but the fact that it has not been enforced rigorously enough.
Although it has caused us several days of anxious scurrying around to get an agreement, the Prime Minister was right, in my view, to bring the matter to a head, so in some ways that was a relief to us. A number of us have spent week after week in very difficult negotiations trying to reach a conclusion. I remember one particularly dispiriting moment at the end of a meeting with some of the campaign group Hacked Off when we thought that after three and a half hours we had identified the six key things we needed to put right and one of the campaign directors said, “Shall we now move on to the next set of 20 problems that I have?” I am therefore very pleased that we have all been put out of our misery by the Prime Minister’s taking us over the brink and focusing minds in the final few days.
It is important to note, too, that the last few days have not been in vain, as some important changes have been made to the charter. The first change is that it is now clear that the board of the regulator will be independent and that there will be no press veto. That is an important step forward. Secondly, it is clear that where the investigations take place, there must be a simple and clear process so that there is no chance of a regulator putting up all sorts of barriers to make sure that it does not happen. The third point is that when the press code is written, there will be a role for working journalists for the first time. It will no longer be just an editor’s code. That is important because we need younger journalists with a stake in the future of their trade or profession—however they choose call it—to have a role in writing the code. It will be an important step forward and breath of fresh air to get working journalists, not just editors, involved in the code.
We should all get behind this compromise solution. I hope the press can overcome the apprehension it has about such a body. I do not think that there is anything for them to fear. I hope, too, that groups such as Hacked Off will be a little less hacked off and feel a little cheered up by today’s agreement.
I add my congratulations to the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. I am delighted that we have reached the position where there is agreement between the three main parties on a royal charter, backed up perhaps by just a small bit of legislation to ensure independence and to avoid political interference by future Governments.
The Liberal Democrats have said from the outset that we support a strong and independent press regulator, free from political interference, that would protect the innocent victims of media abuse. What has been agreed over the last couple of days achieves that: the press remains free from political interference and able robustly to challenge politicians and expose wrongdoing, including wrongdoing by politicians. At the same time, however, those innocent victims of press abuse will have a robust regulator to hold the press to account when they have got it wrong.
I have already gone on record as saying that, in my view, the Prime Minister got it wrong when he decided to pull the Conservatives out of the all-party talks. Significant progress had been made, with both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party giving ground on the royal charter and with only a few areas of disagreement remaining—in relation to an industry veto on membership of the regulator, changes in the code of conduct, the nature of apologies, third-party complaints, and political interference with the royal charter. I pay tribute to the Prime Minister for returning to the talks, and I am pleased that the party leaders were able to reach an agreement.
We had argued that the press should not have an industry veto over members of the regulator, while the Conservative position had been that any industry representative on the appointments panel should be able to veto any nominee for the board of the regulator about whose impartiality that representative was concerned. Schedule 3 of the agreed royal charter ensures that there will be no industry veto. That change was essential if the regulator was to have real power over the press, and I welcome the concession that it represents.
We proposed that the regulator, not the press, should have the final say on changes in the code of conduct. The Conservatives proposed that the press should be able to recommend changes in the code, and that the regulator should be obliged to accept them. That, too, would have limited the real power of the regulator. Schedule 3 of the charter states that the code
“must be approved by the Board or remitted to the Code Committee with reasons.”
The original draft stated:
“The standards code must ultimately be adopted by the Board”.
That is another welcome concession.
All too often, victims have received apologies that have been hidden between other stories rather than given the prominence accorded to the original, offending stories. A number of Members have mentioned that. We propose that the regulator should be able to direct newspaper apologies when mistakes are made. The original draft charter stated that the regulator should be able to tell a newspaper to apologise, but should have no say over the manner of that apology. It seems obvious to me that a regulator of the press should be able to influence the manner of any necessary apologies to bodies within its remit, so I am pleased to note that schedule 3 of the charter states that the regulator will “direct”, not “require”, remedial action and apologies.
We proposed that the regulator should have maximum discretion when deciding whether to accept complaints from third parties. The Conservatives proposed that the regulator should accept such complaints only when there had been a “serious” breach of the rules, and when there was “significant” public interest. In schedule 3(11) the word “substantial”, which was used in the original charter, has been eliminated, which gives the regulator discretion to decide whether a third-party complaint is appropriate.
In relation to the question of political interference, we argued that there should be a clause in legislation making it much more difficult for future Governments to amend or abolish the royal charter. Under the agreement that has been reached, the Government will insert a clause in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill in the House of Lords, which will prevent future Governments from amending or abolishing the royal charter without consulting Parliament. That is fundamental to the future of press regulation, protecting the press from the clutches of future Governments while also ensuring that the regulator cannot be watered down.
We can argue about whether this amounts to statutory underpinning of the royal charter—we would argue that it does, while others might argue that it does not—but that really does not matter, as long as it does its job and protects the new independent regulator. No doubt all the political parties will want to claim the agreement as a victory for them, but the real winners are the innocent victims of press mistreatment. The press have nothing to fear from the royal charter, but when they get things wrong, the innocent victims of their mistakes can be confident that there will be a robust system in place to put it right.
Order. According to my reckoning, there are still five Members seeking to catch my eye. I am keen to accommodate them, but we have scarcely half an hour before I ask the Prime Minister to wind up the debate. I appeal to Members to help me to help them.
I am mindful of your exhortation, Mr. Speaker. I shall curb my natural exuberance, and my wish to wax lyrical about a subject that has occupied my waking and, dare I say, sleeping hours in the last few weeks. I share that experience with my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice).
I pay warm tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), who, I know, has spent many hours when he should have been sleeping working extremely hard to secure an agreement, and I echo the warm tributes that have been paid to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and all other Members on both sides of the House who have been involved for ensuring that the royal charter can genuinely proceed to approval by the Privy Council as a result of a cross-party consensus. I believe that without that consensus, use of this prerogative power would have been very difficult indeed. Negotiations were key if this was to work.
Today is not a day for euphoria, and it is certainly not a day for self-congratulation, but it might, just might, mark a welcome new chapter in the life and role of the press in our society. It is clear why Lord Justice Leveson had to embark on his 15 months of work. Let us not forget the reasons, which have again been outlined eloquently in the House today. If we stay true to the reasons why the Prime Minister rightly set up that inquiry, we must recognise that it was inevitable that we, as a House of Commons, would have to reach the decision—a tough decision—to make a change, and we have reached that decision today. We have broken the logjam of generations of politicians who have gone before us and who have said much about the need for reform, but have done precious little. There is a moment, perhaps, for just a bit of quiet pride in the fact that we, as a Parliament, are able to make that break.
Many speakers have rightly expressed concern, and want to understand more, about the nature and meaning of the royal charter, but let us not forget that this document is not the constitution of the regulator. It sets out, in clear terms, what a regulator should look like according to the recognition body, which is why it includes terms such as “should” and why it is exhortatory rather than prescriptive. That has to be right. Some of my right hon. and hon. Friends have asked what is the full ambit of the regulator. My answer is simply this: it is an independent body and a voluntary body, but, for the first time, we are to have a body that can be periodically assessed in relation to objective criteria. That is what the schedules to the royal charter are all about.
Before I sat down to watch the wonderful Six Nations victory by Wales in the match against England on Saturday, I donned my anorak and spent a few hours comparing and contrasting the royal charter published by Her Majesty’s Opposition with the one published by the Government. I came up with very few differences. Most involved a word here and there, but I considered one difference to be important. It related to the power of any new regulator either to “require” or to “direct” appropriate remedial action following a breach of standards.
We have heard a great deal about the difference between the meaning of the word “require” and the meaning of the word “direct”. I must admit that before I looked at the wording carefully, I did not think that there was much of a difference. However, I think it right for us to put the position beyond peradventure and include the word “direction”, which implies an order, a mandate, a compulsion for the member of the body to right the wrong that it has done. That could lead to the printed apologies on the front page, and to the remedies that actually mean something to those who have been affected by wrongdoing. That may sound boring, but it is very important to those concerned. It is the job of the House of Commons to do the boring but important things. That is why I think it is vital for us all to consider the detail of this important document as carefully as we can.
Much has been made about the use of statute, but I think it was inevitable. There had been a hope, at one stage, that the civil procedure rules that govern the way in which civil trials are held in England and Wales could be amended to allow for the regimen of aggravated damages and costs that is now in statute. That proved not to be the case, which is why, sensibly and inevitably, it has to be in statute. As for the entrenchment clause, whether we call it underpinning or supporting matters not. The point is still well made that this charter should not be subject to the whim of the Executive, to be amended by them at their pace, in their time and in their way; it should be for this House to consider any amendment. The role of the politician in the new system of regulation should and must stop there. This system is not about politicians interfering with the life and work of journalists; it is simply an important and significant step along the road to make sure that all the work of decent professional journalists, who spend their lives investigating wrongdoing and exposing that which should not be secret, is supported. So it will be good for them, just as it will be good for those who have been and those who may still be the victims of wrongdoing.
Some years ago, my profession, the legal profession, went through a similar process, and we now have an overarching body, the Legal Services Board, which recognises independent regulation. There was a worry that that would interfere with the independence of the Bar and solicitors, but the truth is that solicitors and barristers go about their daily work without having to look over their shoulder at a recognising body. In fact, that body is enshrined in statute and has a wider remit that anything I have read about in this royal charter. For those reasons, we can confidently support the agreement that has been reached between all parties in this House and look forward to a time when the victims of wrongdoing will receive a fairer deal.
May I join my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) on the fantastic job that he has done in articulating the concerns that many of us had, particularly on this side of the House, for which we did not get much thanks in the press? He behaved with extraordinary dignity and great tenacity.
Did my hon. Friend expect any thanks from the press?
Funnily enough, no, and I am happy to put that on the record. I also wish to congratulate Hacked Off because, whatever else one may say, it did act as a focal point, it did provide a concise briefing and it did help us along a tortuous path. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on having shown serious leadership in this matter; it needed bringing to a head and he has brought it to a head. I also wish to put on the record the fact that he has been here throughout these proceedings, which is more than I have been here for. So I congratulate him on what he has done, as well as the Leader of the Opposition. He has not been able to be here the whole time because he has had other things to do, but the Prime Minister has shown his commitment to trying to resolve this matter.
It is very important that we hold fast for a moment and remember that we did not create this crisis in the first place—it was created by others. It was created by a total failure of self-regulation over decades, by a failure to implement the findings of successive inquiries and by serial criminality in the press. The only point I would make to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) is that although these were criminal offences and they are now going through the courts, this serial criminality betrayed a corruption at the heart of our media—if not condoned, this behaviour was certainly overlooked. So the hysterical response to much of what we have been saying has been out of place. The day after 44 of us signed a letter to The Guardian—this is the only time I have knowingly signed something for The Guardian—The Daily Telegraph had half of its page 2 saying, “Tory MPs tainted by scandal in bid to end free press”. What sort of responsible press is that? I hope that The Daily Telegraph is taking note, but of course I will be denounced for this tomorrow as being “Closetly determined to end a free press.”
I wish to make three brief points. First, it is good that all three main parties, and indeed the minority parties, have agreed this outcome. It would have been bad news if there had not been agreement. We would have seen divide and rule, and acrimony, so those from all parts of the House who participated in bringing this about deserve our congratulations. It is also important to put on the record the fact that it is the historic duty of this House to remedy injustice—that is not the job of the European Court of Human Rights; it is the job of this Parliament and this House—and in seeking to bring about this change, we have sought to do that.
My second point is that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) is absolutely right to say that we should not set too much store by what has been achieved today. A huge amount of detail still has to be worked out and it will require a lot of good will on the part of all the media and the regulators to bring that about. May I just indulge the House for a moment on a slight word of caution to those who wish to see their apologies on page 1? When I sued Private Eye for libel—sadly, my hon. and learned Friend was not my Queen’s counsel at the time—we had agreed the damages, the apology and everything else, but the late Mr Peter Carter-Ruck said that it would not agree to put the apology in a box. Private Eye had agreed to put it on the same page as the offending article had been but would not agree to a box. I insisted that I could not possibly agree without having my apology in a box. Eventually Private Eye agreed, so on the day of publication I went down to the news stand and turned to page 4 or whatever it was. Sure enough there was the apology in the terms agreed—absolutely wonderful—and it was in a box. And so was every other story on the page! So we must beware what we wish for.
My third and final point is that this approach should be seen on all sides as an opportunity. It is an opportunity for a free press to move forward and to act fearlessly but to remedy the wrongs that they have recently perpetrated. It is an opportunity to ensure that ordinary people are given a fair crack of the whip and that we do not see a repetition of the kind of dreadful character assassination and misery caused to ordinary people, who have no remedy and have no voice in this House. If we achieve that, we shall have strengthened the British press and made them an example for the rest of world, and we shall have done a great service to the citizens of these islands.
May I join in the praise of the Prime Minister, which has become commonplace in this debate, although I do so for a different reason—not for this royal charter, but for accepting the constraints of collective responsibility? He has fought a valiant battle for the freedom of the press but, unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats do not believe in it and we therefore have the restriction on the freedom of the press that we find with this royal charter and this debate. Collective responsibility required that the Prime Minister should lead a united Government on this and I think he was right to do so, because the alternative was to have the Lib Dems with us in the Division Lobby one day and with Labour the next, and that is not a Government; it is, as I believe Palmerston put it, a mere coalition of atoms.
Why is a free press important? Why is freedom of speech important? Why is it a right that this House demands as an absolute? Since the Bill of Rights was introduced, we have been free here to say anything that we like. We can cast aspersions upon anyone we want, powerful or weak; we can make them up. The only constraints we have—not to be rude about the royal family, about judges or about ourselves—are those that the House itself has imposed. We have those freedoms because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) said, we recognise that the way to redress grievance is by being free to do so and having no constraint on what we say in this place. As soon as a constraint is imposed, we find that the Crown, as it used to, will use its powers to suppress a free press.
Before the Bill of Rights, what happened? MPs who said the wrong thing got sent to the Tower. The Prime Minister might think that that is an attractive option to have at his command, but freedom increased the power of the people against the Executive. We see that with newspapers: they hold us to account; they expose wrongdoing, corruption and criminality; and as they do it, they upset powerful people. Indeed, many Members of Parliament were upset over the expenses scandal—a scandal that was revealed only because a brave press was willing to use stolen information.
I am concerned about deciding to license the press—and that is what we are doing. If newspapers do not sign up to this agreement, they risk paying a high level of costs on any occasion when they are sued for libel, and that will be introduced by statute. If they do not sign up to the agreement, they risk punitive damages. Members of the House who are interested in their history will know that the law of criminal libel was used to put down the power of those who criticised Governments. Why was John Wilkes arrested? It was for a criminal libel. By increasing such powers and the viciousness of the laws against those newspapers that will not be registered and licensed by the state, we undermine our freedoms.
As for this wonderful charter, I, like the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), am reluctant to criticise the power of the Crown. The introduction to the charter reads:
“NOW KNOW YE that We by Our Prerogative Royal of Our especial grace, certain knowledge and mere motion do by this Our Charter for Us, Our Heirs and Successors will, ordain and declare as follows”.
By the sovereign’s mere motion, those who regulate the press are to be chosen, appointed and selected. It is the state that is taking on this power, with some minor protections against its being changed—but, oh, how minor those changes are! We hear that there will be three lines of legislation—three lines—to prevent the charter from being changed. Three lines of legislation can be repealed by one line of subsequent legislation; there is little protection in that. The motion of one charter may be created with further charters. It might perhaps be hard to alter it, but there is always the possibility of new charters to come.
We see, therefore, the risk of increasing state power over our media, leading not immediately to direct censorship but to self-censorship, which we are already seeing with the press being reluctant to criticise the great and the good. I am reluctant to disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot, but I think that Hacked Off is a most disreputable body that used the sad tales of a small number of victims whose bad treatment was often against the law as the cover for a campaign for celebrities who had disreputable pasts that they did not like being reported.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and I concur with every single word he said. I want to speak briefly from a journalist’s perspective, as I was one for 17 years, working for the local and national press and for BBC television and radio. In that time, 99% of those with whom I worked were decent, honourable people whose sole task in life was to hold the powerful, the corrupt and others to account and to stand up for the small man and woman. They did and they do. Regrettably, a tiny minority has ruined the barrel for the majority of the press, who in my view do an extremely good job and have held many people in this House to account. Some in this place have had to leave and have even gone to jail because of the press’s research and diligence. We risk treading on that power at our peril.
I rather liked the papal reference used by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). This latest charter has come from a private meeting held behind closed doors and was introduced to us today. If the hon. Gentleman was correct, the information reached us only just after the debate had started. There will be no further debate and for something so serious, which is fundamental to the freedom and democracy of our country, to be swept through by a small minority of highly placed people is wrong and undemocratic.
Knee-jerk reactions lead to unintended consequences and we see that in politics again and again. This subject needs a lot more thought, a lot more diligence and a lot more attention. The press protect this country. Yes, they make mistakes—of course they do. When I joined, an editor said to me, “Richard, accuracy is key. If in doubt, leave it out.” That is a very good bit of advice. The blame lies with the independent editors. They are the chief executives, they are the commanding officers—call it what you like, it is they who have failed in many cases to command properly the men and women in their structure. That is where the blame should lie and it is they who should lose their jobs and careers.
Already we have heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) that in most cases we have laws already. We have hacking and libel laws to protect people who suffer from such things. The Milly Dowler case was simply appalling—I do not defend it for one minute—but the laws are there. We do not need any more laws. When I heard about the royal charter, I was informed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s office that there would be no statute and I agreed to support it. There is now a smidgen of statute—just a little tiny bit—for which the support of two thirds of this House or the other place is required to effect change. Today, we will agree—regrettably, in my view—to push the charter forward without further consideration. If parts of the press do not sign up, what will happen? What will the Opposition, the Liberal Democrats or some of my colleagues do if not every publication signs up to the royal charter? Will they instruct them to sign up? Will they threaten them if they do not?
As we have heard, we do not know what powers the new body will have. Will it have more powers? Will we come back to this place to pass more legislation to make the press do what it does not want to do? I will not go on any longer, as other Members want to speak and we are running out of time, but I warn those on the Front Bench and everyone in this House to think very carefully before taking too many further steps down this road, as it will in the future undermine the democracy and freedom we are in this place to defend and represent.
We have to read up to schedule 4 of the charter before it sets out to whom it applies. It states that a
“‘relevant publisher’ means a person…who publishes in the United Kingdom…a newspaper or magazine…or…a website containing news-related material”.
That is why it is so unrealistic, because websites can be set up anywhere in the world. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) said that the code was voluntary, but if the stick being carried is sufficiently big, the code becomes coercive.
What will happen when our press become more bland and we see the people who read newspapers deserting them for the internet? Will the code apply to Twitter? There is a risk that we will abandon the printed press for the online news media, and what will happen then to our particularly vulnerable regional and local press? Who will be there to report from the courts? What will happen if our national press go into further decline and can no longer afford to fund world-class investigative journalism?
There has rightly been much talk today about the victims of the press, but we forget at our peril the victims of big pharma, of big corporations and of big state. I would far rather have our two-fingers-to-the-establishment, slightly out of control press than a nervous press, a bankrupt press or a bland press. Although we can all be commentators through the internet, we cannot all be investigative journalists. We owe a huge debt to investigative journalism and we should be very mindful of any threat to it. I hope that when he responds to the debate, the Prime Minister will feel at least that a free press deserves a free vote.
First, let me say that this is a matter on which people should feel absolutely free to express their opinions and to vote according to their conscience. We have had a good debate and a serious debate. It comes, as a number of hon. Members have said, after decades of this issue not being properly sorted out. Tragically, it has taken a crisis in the press, a very thoughtful report by a senior judge, and then a lot of political will and political co-operation, but we can be proud of the fact that the issue is finally being sorted out, with what I believe is a practical, workable, deliverable solution.
Let me say to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), who spoke eloquently against all that is being proposed, that I and everyone in the House care deeply about a free press, but a free press does not mean a press without a means of redress. It does not mean a press without a need to put things right when they get things wrong. It should not mean a press where the rich and the powerful can sue, get injunctions and take action, but where innocent victims have been left to suffer because the regulatory system does not work. A proper free press needs a proper, effective, independent regulatory system, and that is what we aim to achieve.
I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their kind remarks. I do that also on behalf of the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Prime Minister. This has been a genuinely cross-party effort. The royal charter has been hugely improved by the many hours of work that have been put in by all sorts of people to try to get it right. I would like particularly to thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Government Policy and the deputy leader of the Labour party, who I know have worked extremely hard to try to reach all-party agreement.
A number of hon. Members pointed out that this has been a complicated and at times interesting process. It is complicated when one is trying to achieve something when there are different opinions within all political parties in the House and a need to work across party to get this done.
I note from the debate that there was a warm welcome for the proposals from all parts of the House. I thought it particularly interesting that the current Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee welcomed what is being proposed, as did a number of past Chairmen of similar Committees. So I believe the proposal starts with good will.
I make the point, which echoes remarks made by the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), that this is only one part of what Leveson discussed. There is obviously the relationship between the police and the press. That needs to be put right, and new rules are being put in place. We need to get the relationship between the politicians and the press right, and there are new rules and new transparency in respect of that. There is the issue of press ethics, and I believe we have made some real progress today.
A number of hon. Members made the point about how much time there had been to study the royal charter. Obviously, in its final incarnation it has been produced only today, but the first version of a royal charter was published on 12 February, so there has been time for people to make points and to consider how it would work. A number of Members pointed to the irony of using a royal charter, even pointing out that some of the language in it is on the flowery side. Yes, it is perhaps ironic, but there is a real purpose. I believe that if we opted for legislation, even about the nature of the recognition body, we would be taking a bad step, so it is better to use the royal charter, which allows us to set up an independent body without using statute to describe its purposes.
I join the hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who urged the press to sign up. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) is correct: this is a voluntary system. What Leveson said we should establish is an independent self-regulatory body that the press have to set up. They then apply for recognition, if they want to, to the recognition body, and it is the recognition body that the royal charter establishes. I think there has been some misunderstanding about that point in the debate. The royal charter does not set up a self-regulator; that is for the press to do. We urge them to do it, and to do it rapidly. I know that work is already under way. It is our task, through the royal charter, to set up the recognition body. The press can decide to seek recognition from it, and then they get the advantages in terms of the exemplary costs and damages, which the House will debate a little later.
A number of Members made the good point that we must not oversell what is being set out today. It is a neat solution to the problem, but it is not a panacea, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) said. Those who will be responsible for making the self-regulation work will be the press. They have to set up their self-regulatory body, make sure that it has teeth, make sure that it can seek recognition, and then put in place something that we can be proud of.
I thought the quote of the debate was from the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman)—it is now closing time in the last-chance saloon was the phrase he used. The point that I would make in commenting on that is that we are not replacing a self-regulatory system with a statutory regulatory system. We are trying to replace a failed system with one that will work because, crucially, it has real independence at its heart.
A number of Members referred to the fact that the regulatory body will have an independent board. Crucially, not only is it independent, but it will be properly overseen by the recognition body, and crucially, that oversight is established in a way that does not endanger a free press or give Parliament a locus endlessly to interfere. That is important. Of course we all have strong views about the press, press freedom and press regulation, but it would not be right for Parliament to pass laws and then go on amending laws and making changes to laws about what the press should and should not do. It is important that the method that we have chosen means that not only will we not be able to do that, but the royal charter specifically says that it cannot be changed unless there is a two-thirds motion in both Houses of Parliament.
In a way, this is what the whole debate is about: Leveson gave us the architecture, the independent self-regulatory body, and the recognition body to make sure that the press was not marking its homework. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Government Policy played a key role in providing the solution that I think is best, which is using a royal charter so that we do not cross the Rubicon of writing all the rules into the law. I commend the leaders of the Labour party and the Deputy Prime Minister, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, on all the work that they have done to choose to work together to try to deliver something that is practical. It is notable that, when those talks broke down on Thursday, they chose to come up with a royal charter which was workable, rather than for us to get back into the trenches and have a fight over whether we should write these changes into law. I am pleased that everyone has taken the opportunity of doing a deal and having an outcome that will be good for our country.
It was right to commission the Leveson inquiry, it was right to listen to the outcome of the Leveson inquiry, and it was right to work out the best way of putting it in place. I know that many people thought it would be kicked into the long grass. It has not been. It has been acted on and acted on properly, and this should be done for the victims above all. I commend the motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the welcome publication of the draft royal charter by the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, and the Prime Minister’s intention to submit the charter to the Privy Council for Her Majesty’s approval at the Privy Council’s May meeting.
We come now to the Crime and Courts Bill [Lords] (Programme) (No. 3) (Motion).
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Order. The hon. Gentleman does not always choose quite the best moment. Obviously, I am bursting with anticipation to hear the observations of the hon. Gentleman through his point of order, but if he can just be a tad patient we will come to him. We could not forget him.
On the programme motion, it may be helpful to the House if I point out that manuscript amendments (d) to (i) to the programme motion have been tabled by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), with the support of a number of other hon. Members. Copies of those manuscript amendments, I understand, are available in the Vote Office. I have selected amendments (d) to (i), but not Mr Bone’s tabled amendments (a) to (c). I will therefore invite the hon. Gentleman to move amendment (d) in the course of debate.
When in a moment I call the Leader of the House, it will be to move the programme motion, but I am sure that he will indulge the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash).
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On Thursday, the Leader of the House announced the business for this week, and he added that following the European Council meeting there would be a statement by the Prime Minister. We have not had an occasion before when the European Council has not been followed by a statement. My point of order is therefore to ask why the Leader of the House suggested there would be one, but we have not had one today.
We have not had one today. The Prime Minister has heard the point of order and he is very welcome to reply if he wishes.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. We now have more European Councils than sometimes is altogether healthy, and certainly more than there have been in the past. There are almost always oral statements, but I think that on this occasion, when it was very much a take-note European Council rather than one packed with exciting things, a written ministerial statement will probably suffice.
I thank the Prime Minister for his reply. [Interruption.] An hon. Member is chuntering “Tomorrow” from a sedentary position. I do not know what tomorrow will bring. All I know is that the hon. Member for Stone has not yet exhausted the resources of civilisation, and I dare say he will return to these matters as and when he thinks fit. I thank the Prime Minister very much for staying to hear that and responding. It is a kind of pre-emptive gratification, and we are grateful for that.