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Press Self-Regulation

Volume 568: debated on Tuesday 8 October 2013

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the progress regarding press self-regulation.

We all agree that what is needed is a workable and effective system of press self-regulation. Equally, I believe, we must protect our free press while striking the right balance between independence and redress for individuals. There can be no question of undermining the press’s ability to criticise or make judgments; that underpins our democracy and holds us to account. However, we are talking today about ensuring that the public has a fair system of redress through which to challenge mistakes and errors when necessary.

I have always echoed Leveson in saying that the success of a new system will be seen in an approach that offers justice and fairness for the public and clearly protects the freedom of the press. The House will be fully aware of the careful deliberations that followed the publication of Leveson’s report and the weight of responsibility that comes with implementing that system.

Significant progress has been made since I last updated the House, particularly by the press, which is well down the track of setting up its own self-regulatory body. All involved in the process now consider a royal charter to oversee that regulatory body to be the correct way forward. Just six months ago, that seemed impossible.

We are now talking about the differences of opinion about how a royal charter should be constructed. The committee of the Privy Council is unable to recommend that the press proposal for a royal charter be granted. Although there are areas where it is acceptable, it is unable to comply with some important Leveson principles and with government policy, such as those on independence and access to arbitration. A copy of the recommendation letter has been placed in the Libraries of both Houses so that right hon. and hon. Members have an opportunity to look at it in detail.

In the light of that fact, we will take forward the cross-party charter that was debated in this House. The charter will be on the agenda at a specially convened meeting of the Privy Council on 30 October. In the interim, I believe that we should finish making our charter workable so that it will meaningfully deliver independent and effective self-regulation.

We have already improved the drafting of the cross-party charter and we have worked with the Scottish Government to make sure that the press does not have to worry about complying with different frameworks on either side of the border. We have had discussions with the Commissioner for Public Appointments to clarify how his role will work. Those are all important improvements. Having considered the press charter, the committee has identified two substantive areas—access to arbitration and the editors code—where we could improve the 18 March draft.

The right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and I—indeed, all three parties—agree that those areas could benefit from further consideration. As such, all three parties will work together in the coming days and produce a final draft of the cross-party charter to place in the Libraries of both Houses on Friday. That will allow parliamentarians, the public, the press and whoever else to see the version we intend to seal. If any specific change cannot be agreed by all three parties, we will revert to the 18 March charter debated by Parliament.

We have an opportunity to take a final look at our charter and to bring all parties together and ensure that the final charter is both workable and effective. We have a responsibility to make sure that what we do will be effective and that it will stand the test of time, so we need to make it the best it can be. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get it right, and we all want to do that. To give individuals access to redress while safeguarding our country’s free press is a vital part of our democracy, as will be acknowledged on both sides of the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for her statement, for advance notice of it, and for her assurance to the House that the Conservatives remain committed to the charter that will introduce an independent complaints system for the press, which was put before the House by the Prime Minister, with the support of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, and unanimously approved by the House on 18 March and by the House of Lords. Will she reaffirm that the charter gives redress to victims when the press breach their code of conduct, while in no way interfering with the freedom of the press?

We believe that the charter should have been submitted for consideration at the Privy Council meeting tomorrow, but it will not be going to that meeting because the Prime Minister has chosen to delay its submission till the end of this month. We regret that, because it has been nearly a year since Leveson reported, and six months since the House agreed the draft charter. There has already been too much delay.

I therefore ask the Secretary of State to confirm to the House that the process that she, the Lib Dems and ourselves have agreed will be followed to ensure absolute transparency of the process and no further delay. That is, that the charter of 18 March will be completed by agreeing any matters that were still in square brackets on 18 March; that aside from that, the 18 March charter as agreed by this House will not be changed unless such a change has the agreement of all three party leaders; that the Secretary of State will this Friday place before the House the final version of the charter—that is, the 18 March charter including the issues that required to be completed, and only any changes if they have been agreed by all three party leaders—and that it will then be put forward to the Privy Council before the end of this month.

Will the Secretary of State agree that what is important for us is to get the charter sealed, to get the recognition panel established and for a regulator to be set up? We must ensure that there will be a fair and effective complaints system independent of the press and independent of politicians. As the Prime Minister said to the Leveson inquiry,

“that’s the test of all this. It’s not: do the politicians or the press feel happy with what we get? It’s: are we…protecting people who have been caught up and absolutely thrown to the wolves”.

So let us have no further delay. Let us get on and implement Leveson as set out by the House on 18 March.

The right hon. and learned Lady is absolutely right that the proposal that we are discussing today is all about redress, and that it is also all about ensuring that we retain freedom of our press, which we all value so highly. It is important, though, that we also recognise that the press charter that was put forward had to have a fair hearing, that it had to have a robust level of scrutiny, and that it was only right that a piece of work that had been put before us was treated in that way. I am sure she would agree that the process we followed was the right way to achieve the right outcome.

Now we will move forward, as the right hon. and learned Lady has outlined. Just to clarify, we will agree any improvements that we, on a three-party basis, feel will make this charter more workable, because, as the right hon. and learned lady will agree, she wants to have an effective charter in place to provide the sort of oversight that we have talked about in recent months. Of course, any changes to that charter would have to be subject to three-party agreement and, as I have outlined, that final version of the charter will be available for all Members to see in the Library this Friday. Following on from that, there will be a specially convened meeting of the Privy Council on 30 October, for us to be able to finally ensure that the seal is put in place.

I think it is important that we make this charter workable, but I agree with the right hon. and learned Lady that it is also important that we get going and put all this in place.

Does my right hon. Friend accept the first principle set out in Lord Justice Leveson’s report that any solution must be perceived as credible and effective by the press and the public? Does she agree that it would be infinitely preferable to achieve a system of press regulation that delivers the objectives of Lord Justice Leveson’s report, but which also commands the support of as many of the newspapers as possible, rather than a system which commands the support of none of them?

My hon. Friend goes to the heart of the matter when he reminds the House of Lord Leveson’s statement that whatever we take forward, to be effective it must also be credible, and we must take the press and the public with us. It is vital that we do that. Nobody would thank us for putting in place a system that was ineffective, did not work and did not attempt to make sure that self-regulation of the press in this country is effective.

Given that this House voted virtually unanimously seven months ago for this charter, will the Secretary of State say a little more about this further delay and reassure the McCanns, the Dowlers and the other victims that this will not mean a further watering down of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations or kicking them into the long grass, which has happened on every previous occasion?

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s question and he is right to say that we have been taking some time to make sure that our response to Lord Leveson’s report is well thought through and effective. I make no excuses for doing that. I think he would be the first to offer his own criticism if the process that was put in place were not effective. It may take some time for us to do this. We received from the press a press charter which, as I said to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham, it was right that we subjected to robust scrutiny to make sure that we looked at it in the correct way. We are now, as I have made very clear, moving forward with the cross-party charter, but there are issues that have been raised which bear further examination in the areas of the standards code, the editors code and arbitration. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will bear with us. I would rather get it right than just do it quickly.

I am on the wrong side of this argument as far as 530 colleagues in this place are concerned. The best protection and redress are provided by the courts, and does my right hon. Friend agree that the courts have an important part to play in this and will continue to do so?

Of course, my hon. Friend is right to say that the courts continue to have an important role to play, but one thing that we identified through Lord Leveson’s report and more widely was the importance of access to redress. An integral part of Leveson’s report was that an arbitration system should be available, and the lack of that arbitration system within the press charter was one of the reasons that the Privy Council committee took the decision that it has.

As someone who, throughout this protracted process, has made it clear that I prefer an irresponsible and pernicious press to a state-regulated press, may I nevertheless say that the procrastination by the press organisations has become unacceptable and that the timetable that the right hon. Lady put before the House must be adhered to? We cannot go on like this.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. I would like to see a robust press, and I am sure the press would never want to be seen as irresponsible. He is right that it is important that we adhere to the timetable before the House, but, again, I make no excuses to the House today for getting this right. Working with the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham and the noble Lord Wallace in the other place, we will make sure that we do everything that we can, particularly to address the issues of arbitration and the editors code, and make sure that everybody is aware of the additional changes that we have made, as we have highlighted before, with regard to Scotland. It is important that the Scottish press is able to have access to the charter in the same was as any other press.

Further to the royal charter’s extremely swift passage through both Houses of Parliament, what legal advice has the Secretary of State subsequently received on whether exemplary damages and the allocations of costs would breach article 10 of the European convention on human rights, and will that form any basis for future discussions with the industry?

There is no issue, as my hon. Friend outlines, with regard to European law. We have had full legal advice on that and I am content that there are no problems.

It feels like Groundhog day; we have been here before. You dragged us all here urgently in March to force us to look at a particular version of the charter, and we agreed almost unanimously. I do not know whether you have run out of sealing wax or quills or something—[Interruption.] Sorry, Mr Speaker; I mean the right hon. Lady, not you. Surely to goodness it is time we listened to the public, who have said in poll after poll that the self-regulatory system, which was completely and utterly bust, including the Press Complaints Commission, which did not stand up for victims and perpetuated the problems, must go. If she defaults on this timetable, surely this House, not just Ministers and shadow Ministers, should take the matter into its own hands.

Oh dear, Mr Speaker; we hear it again. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not really implying that he did not want us to make the improvements we have made with regard to Scotland. Clearly, in his world he would exclude Scotland from the charter process, or perhaps he is implying that we should ignore the very real concerns of the local press about the costs of arbitration. He might want to ignore the local press, but I do not.

The Liberal Democrats welcome the rejection of the PressBoF charter, which would have resulted in business as usual for the press, but the innocent victims of press abuse have been waiting a long time. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that there are no circumstances in which this process could be dragged beyond 30 October?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, but I will pick him up on just one of them. I do not think that the press charter would have meant business as usual, because clearly it was written in the light of the Leveson report. However, he is right that there were some significant issues that we felt had not been addressed. I can give him a clear undertaking from the Dispatch Box that I have every intention of moving forward with the timetable I have outlined.

How can the Secretary of State assure the millions of members of the British public who are not involved in the Hacked Off campaign that this will not be a slippery slope to reducing the freedom of the press, particularly with regard to the press saying things about people that nobody likes but that they must still have the right to say? Can she assure the public that this is not a slippery slope?

The hon. Lady speaks a great deal of sense. She is absolutely right that we must ensure that it is not a slippery slope to state regulation. We believe strongly in self-regulation, and the charter simply sets out the framework within which that will be judged. It is of course incumbent on us all, as Members of Parliament, to ensure that no changes are made that might lead to the sorts of problems she outlines, which is why I believe the “no change” clause is so important, because it ensures that any changes to the process will be made only with a very significant majority in both Houses of Parliament.

I am afraid that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), I am very much with the press on this matter. When all three parties agree on something, I am automatically concerned. As a former journalist, I think that the freedom of our press, for which millions of people died, is absolutely crucial. Will the Secretary of State advise the House exactly what role politicians will have in the new charter? To be precise, will we be able to interfere with the charter and potentially affect the freedom of the press?

Is it not a fact that the road to Leveson has been littered with many bodies: the News of the World, Brookes, Coulson and, who knows, it might even be Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail next? Instead of this prevarication, why does she not accept that it is refreshing that on occasions the Opposition are right? Get on with it and let us get this Leveson inquiry done and dusted.

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has noticed but we are actually working as three parties together here, so it is not about anybody being righter than anybody else. I would gently point out to him that we need to make sure we have an effective charter for the long term, and that if we had simply gone ahead with the charter as set out on 18 March, we would have effectively blocked Scotland from being involved and ignored real concerns coming from the local press. I am sure that he would not have wanted anybody to do that.

Does my right hon. Friend understand, even if she does not agree, that there is deep suspicion among many elements of the press and that that is born out of how this charter came into being: in a meeting in the Leader of the Opposition’s office in the middle of the night over pizzas with messages to-ing and fro-ing to No. 10 and with Hacked Off present but the press deliberately excluded? Will my right hon. Friend state categorically at the Dispatch Box that it is her determination to have a charter that all the press can live with and sign up to? Will she also— [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) really ought to calm down. We hear all the time about the two-thirds majority. The Clerks have made it clear that that is a parliamentary nonsense. It might well be the wish of this House of Commons that the charter cannot be changed except by a two-thirds majority, but we cannot bind a future House of Commons. It could be a simple majority in a future House.

I understand my hon. Friend’s strength of feeling and I have to say that the optics around 18 March did not help a difficult situation. But I do not think we should let that get in the way of the importance of getting a self-regulatory process in place and ensuring that the charter that oversees that is as strong as it can be. As Leveson said in his report, we will be effective only if we take the public and the press with us. If we are going to have effective press self-regulation, that is exactly what we should do and it is exactly what I intend to do.

We recognise the shameful abuses that rightly led to the Leveson inquiry but is the Secretary of State aware that although the proposals put forward by the press were inadequate on self-regulation, there is genuine concern among publications that were in no way involved with the abuses of the past about what is being proposed. I have considerable doubts about what is being put forward, and the concerns about the freedom of the press are by no means confined to those on the Tory Benches.

The hon. Gentleman is right that we have to get the balance right between having a framework of self-regulation and making sure that we protect the freedom of the press. He can have my assurance that that is at the heart of all our thinking, but we cannot ignore the fact that the Press Complaints Commission approach has been discredited. I see the hon. Gentleman nodding; I hope that means that he agrees that we need to look at something to put in its place.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Will the Secretary of State make clear how flexible she is prepared to be in enabling an agreement that the press can sign up to? Without that, it would be a complete nonsense. Will she give a cast-iron guarantee that there will be no veto in this process for Hacked Off and its celebrity backers?

I can absolutely guarantee that in view of the discussions on finalising the charter between me, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham and Lord Wallace for the Liberal Democrats.

My hon. Friends and I believe that there should be an end to self-regulation and, instead, truly independent regulation of the press. The Secretary of State said that all three political parties are involved in drawing up the charter, but there is no one from Northern Ireland; and she has consulted the Scottish Executive but not the Northern Ireland Executive. How is she going to ensure that the views of people in Northern Ireland, where this is a live issue, are fully reflected in the charter?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the whole premise on which we are putting forward self-regulation of the press is that it would be independent. Indeed, one of the reasons we are not pressing ahead with the press charter is that the Privy Council committee did not feel that it gave sufficient independence. I welcome his interest as regards the involvement of Northern Ireland. He is right that currently the charter would be in place for Scotland. However, we have not had interest from Northern Ireland in becoming involved. If he would like to effect that interest, I would very much welcome it.

Already, in the past week, we have seen one shadow Secretary of State threatening to sue his counterpart; the powerful are a sensitive bunch. Is this regulation not far more about protecting the powerful than the public? Can my right hon. Friend reassure me that we are not going to see a slide towards self-censorship by the press in fearing litigation?

I can understand why my hon. Friend might want to raise individual cases, but I certainly would not want to develop a piece of self-regulation based on individual cases. I assure her that we want the new system to be robust but fair and independent, and certainly not to end in the results that she talked about.

Does the Secretary of State truly appreciate that these repeated delays will be interpreted by the public and victims of press abuse as the Government continuing to kow-tow to powerful press barons, and that this currying of favour stands in complete contrast to the courage shown by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition in taking on the malign behaviour and bullying of the likes of the Daily Mail? Given the delays, can she give the House the specific assurance that on 30 October at the Privy Council meeting the charter will take effect immediately on its being sealed and not at some delayed date in the future?

The hon. Gentleman should consider this a little more carefully. We had put before us a charter from the press that, rightly, had to be carefully considered. That charter had important areas of consistency with Lord Leveson’s proposals. I think the hon. Gentleman might have been one of the first to jump up if it had not been dealt with correctly, because he would want to see the right process undertaken, not least because not doing so could have led to even further delay. I can absolutely say to him that we have a clear way forward, and I am very confident that we can stick to the timetable.

I recognise the efforts of the Secretary of State in seeking to bring about agreement between the three main parties in this House, bearing in mind that many will have shifted their positions significantly since the initial debate following Lord Justice Leveson’s report. May I suggest that a fourth party also needs to agree, and that is the press? Will the Secretary of State not be rushed into any announcement or any decision without the agreement of the press, as Lord Justice Leveson demands?

My hon. Friend is right that if we are going to have effective self-regulation, we need to take the public and the press with us, as Leveson pointed out. If we have a robust but fair process, we have more likelihood of being able to achieve that. I am sure that Members in all parts of the House would want to have a system that people felt that they could work with rather than one that they could not work with, so he can be assured that that is the approach we are taking.

Does not self-regulation almost inevitably mean no regulation? After three quarters of a century of strict charter control of broadcasters in this country, including a duty of balance, is it not true that the press has had a free for all whereby those who are weak and powerless have no chance of challenging it, and that the result is that the public, in overwhelming numbers, trust the broadcast media and do not trust the written press?

The hon. Gentleman has a view on this, but many different industries have very effective self-regulation, so I do not think he can simply write off self-regulation as ineffective. Evidence suggests that he is not entirely correct about that. It is important that the new process includes a very clear way of redress though arbitration. This will be a real innovation. We need to make sure that it is used correctly and in a way that we intend it to be used. That is one of the areas that I hope we can explore further on a cross-party basis, particularly so that we do not leave our local press exposed to any undue costs.

As this charter is being cooked up by the three party leaders, it is hard to see how my right hon. Friend’s answer to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) can conceivably be correct. Is she able to give any example of the arbitrary prerogative power of the Crown being used to impose a charter on an industry that has not agreed it?

My hon. Friend will know, of course, that what I am trying to do is make sure that we have a fair system in which people will want to take part. We have followed a good process and I think that the new system will improve demonstrably on the current one. I hope the press will find it straightforward to support it once we publish our final document on Friday.

Alongside the architecture of regulation, Lord Leveson commended consideration of proposals by the National Union of Journalists to include a conscience clause in journalists’ employment contracts. That was welcomed by the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Prime Minister on the day that Leveson was published. The last time the Secretary of State appeared before us she encouraged the companies and the NUJ to meet to consider the proposals for a conscience clause. Will she report on what progress has been made?

I have nothing to add other than I am sure that employers will want to look at the proposal. It is important that I am focusing efforts on making sure that the charter is in place to oversee the self-regulatory body. That is my priority at the moment, but I will, obviously, pick up on the point raised by the hon. Gentleman.

How will my right hon. Friend insist that the self-regulatory system that has already been set up by the press be morphed into the new system if the press refuse to do it?

That is an issue for the press. The last thing I want to see is the Government becoming unnecessarily involved in the setting up of a self-regulatory system. That is very much for the press. As I said in my opening statement, I believe the press is making good progress. We have been clear in our response to Leveson and I am sure it will have taken that into account. It is for the press to deal with these matters.

As a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee I have long held the view that there are forces of darkness within and outwith the House that have a vested interest in keeping this process running up to as close to the next general election as possible so that they can claim that those who support legislation are in some way interfering with the free press, which is a total myth. However, I agree with the right hon. Lady on Scotland: the one thing that unites Scotland is that we do not want Alex Salmond anywhere near the press.

The hon. Gentleman cites forces of darkness, but I am not sure how effective they are, given that we have already made provisions on damages in the Crime and Courts Act 2013 and on the no-change clause in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013. That shows a very clear intention, so perhaps the forces of darkness are not so dark after all.

I am sure the Secretary of State has noted the hon. Gentleman’s remarks in her little book. I do not suppose it will be published, but we are intrigued by the method she deploys. It may be imitated over a period—I know not.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is the danger of a legal challenge to any process that the Privy Council adopts? That might delay the implementation of the Leveson principles, which, as she knows, I support strongly. What assessment has she made of the timetable for the process she is proposing? Is it robust enough to withstand any legal challenge from those who are determined to delay this much-needed change?

I will keep my little book well and truly away from you, Mr Speaker.

I understand my hon. Friend’s point. It is important to follow robust procedures at all stages of a process such as this. I make no apology for considering fully the press charter that was put before us. As I have said, there were important areas of consistency with Leveson and it was clearly written in the light of Leveson. That must be acknowledged. I am confident that the timetable that we are following is robust. I have taken the necessary advice at every step of the way to ensure that I can be confident of that.

I understand from information released by the Department today that the Secretary of State met the newspaper editors on nine occasions during the three months to the end of June, but did not meet the victims or the representatives of their campaigns on a single occasion. Does she not accept that the impression has been created today that it is those who own the media who are being listened to, rather than the public, the victims or the journalists and others who work in the media? Leveson has already been severely watered down. Will she assure us that no further watering down will take place?

I am sorry that the hon. Lady chooses those words. I do not think that her party’s Front Benchers share her feeling that the response has been watered down. My meetings are a matter of public record through the Cabinet Office in the usual way. She will know that I and my officials meet regularly with all people who have an interest in this area, as she would expect. I hope that she will welcome that.

I am slightly disappointed that the Secretary of State, unlike most women, does not appear to be able to multi-task. The period since March does not appear to have been used to best effect and more time is still needed to tidy up this matter. Other aspects of Leveson, such as the recommendations on the ownership of the press, appear to have been disregarded. There has been ample time for the Secretary of State to provide a response on such matters.

Obviously, the hon. Lady may have her own view on this matter. My view is that we need to have a robust process by which we can stand. That is what the Government, working with Labour Front Benchers, have been doing. I am sure that she would not advocate rushing these things. When we agreed to the cross-party charter in March, it was clear that further work had to be done. The Scottish Government have understandably taken time to consider the matter and to debate it in the Scottish Parliament. I am sure that she would not want to suggest that that was unsuitable. Like her, I want Scotland to be involved in the process.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for acknowledging the distinct cross-party initiative in Scotland and the joint work that has been done to meet some of the cross-border challenges that lie ahead. However, a lot of people in Scotland will be surprised to find that we are somehow responsible for delaying the process. Will she assure me that she will continue to work with Scottish Ministers to ensure that we get the best possible outcome for both Parliaments through the joint initiatives?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman did not misunderstand me. I was not saying that any delay had been caused by Scotland—quite the opposite. I was saying that it was right to take time to do things properly. I welcome the involvement of Scotland in taking the proposals forward. As I have said to Northern Ireland Members, I would also welcome their interest.

It is not just because of the Northern Ireland twilight zone that some of us have doubts about whether a three-party compact, sealed by the Privy Council, is the best way of enshrining the Leveson principles. The Secretary of State has today stressed terms such as “credible” and “workable”. If large sections of the press refuse to work with and credit this proposal, how does she envisage that the courts will end up possibly wrestling with that dichotomy, and what happens if that then reverts back to Parliament?

I perhaps need to get back to the hon. Gentleman on the specific point regarding Northern Ireland. I think I am right in saying that publications issued in Northern Ireland are subject either to the Republic of Ireland’s regime, or to the existing Press Complaints Commission regime, but I am happy to consider the matter further. I feel that we have a strong way forward and I do not think we will end up with the sort of situation that the hon. Gentleman outlines. We have taken the time—rightly—to get this right, and I hope the new self-regulatory process that we put in place is robust and will not fall into the sorts of problems he outlines.

Further to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on Northern Ireland, will the Secretary of State indicate why, as this is a reserved issue, the Government did not initiate consultation and discussion with the Northern Ireland Assembly? Did they initiate consultation with the Scottish Parliament?

My understanding is that we did ask for involvement of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but that has not been taken up at this point in time. I would be happy to get back to the hon. Gentleman with further details on that.