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Press Regulation

Volume 746: debated on Wednesday 3 July 2013

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how it will ensure that the relative merits of the two proposed royal charters on press regulation will be properly compared with one another given that it has been reported today that the relevant Privy Council meetings are likely to be months apart.

My Lords, the charter published on 18 March continues to have the support of the three main political parties. The Press Standards Board of Finance has petitioned with an alternative charter and this is being given proper, legally robust consideration in line with the Privy Council process. That will need to include consideration of the merits of the petition in the light of all relevant facts. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will update the other House on these matters very shortly.

In thanking my noble friend for that response, perhaps I may ask him two questions. First, am I right in saying that the effective decision on the press’s proposal for its royal charter will be taken by a group of Ministers who happen to be privy counsellors? It is four months since the beginning of this royal charter process. Why has it taken so long? Given that the Government and Parliament have already rejected the press’s proposals, why do they need until October to give even further consideration to them? Secondly, is the Minister aware that press proprietors are now in the process of setting up their own body in any event and that one story is that they are to begin recruiting staff? Can the Minister therefore tell me just when we will get round to deciding the royal charter which was overwhelmingly approved by Parliament in March? Surely it is that charter, the charter approved by Parliament, which is pre-eminent and the one that we want to see considered and implemented?

A number of questions were asked, my Lords. We have to undertake due processes as regards the PressBoF charter application. One reason for the timing of that is that none of the detailed preliminary work with the relevant government departments and other interested parties that normally precedes a formal petition of the Privy Council has been undertaken. Indeed, that period of openness has resulted in 19,000 responses. Due processes have to be undertaken. That is the legal advice to which it is important to adhere. As for the Government’s charter, work is continuing on the outstanding points. I will perhaps go into them in further detail later, but work is being undertaken on the Government’s proposals. As for the press proprietors’ considerations, this is a matter for the Privy Council, not a matter for the press proprietors. The Privy Council will go through the due processes that are required. They may be lengthy or arcane to some, but they must be undertaken.

Is it not glaringly obvious to everybody that the press is playing for time in order to avoid their responsibilities? Is it not time that we faced up to this? May I offer my assistance to the Minister, having had some experience of Bills of this nature from 20-odd years ago? I suggest that a group of Members, whether in the House of Commons or the House of Lords or jointly, see the Culture Secretary with proposals for a Bill promoting Leveson’s recommendations. It might take into account some of the other factors that have come to light, but we could have proper regulation fairly soon by putting a Bill through Parliament and ceasing to play for time with royal commissions.

My Lords, I understand your Lordships’ frustration about timing. Indeed, already two elements of Acts of Parliament with cross-party agreement deal with some of the Leveson recommendations. Obviously, I will pass on to the Secretary of State the noble Lord’s suggestion. However, I repeat—and I am sorry for doing so—that we have to go through the due process. The legal advice on these matters has been given to the leaders of all the political parties and I know that the Leader of the Opposition is in possession of that. That is why we are going through the necessary procedures.

How much support does the Minister think there is for the PressBoF charter other than from a certain powerful interest group? The fact is that its proposal would not create a self-regulator that is genuinely independent or impartial. On Monday, I quoted Sir Tom Stoppard and I want to quote him again.

“The resistance to a statutory monitor suggests that the dream of self-regulation persists in some quarters. Well, they had that, and . . . they blew it”.

Does not my noble friend agree with one of our greatest defenders of the freedom of the press?

We are in the position we are because wrongdoing took place, and we have had to decide how best to ensure that this does not happen again. That is why the cross-party royal charter commands the support of all the political parties. Indeed, it is why at PMQs today, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made very clear his views on the PressBoF proposal and his continuing support for the cross-party royal charter.

My Lords, when the noble Lord answered the question on Monday, he said,

“it is not appropriate for the Privy Council to consider more than one royal charter at a time on the same issue”.—[Official Report, 1/7/13; col. 976.]

Why is the Privy Council uniquely incapable of multitasking? I bet it is a man who is running it. Yes it is—it is the Deputy Prime Minister.

As I am sure noble Lords are aware, there are about 500 members of the full council. I bet there are more than enough in the Chamber this afternoon. Indeed, the noble Lord who asked the question is a member of the Privy Council, as are all the others sitting next to him. We could have a meeting now in the Moses Room. Could the Minister agree that this would be a desirable thing to do so that we can begin to do what the victims want and what Parliament has decided?

The noble Lord makes some very tempting suggestions but there is going to be an update by the Secretary of State very shortly—although I am not sure what “very shortly” means. I hope that it will be helpful to your Lordships. Clearly, we all want to make progress.

My Lords, what proposals do the Government have for dealing with the situation which may arise when, having gone through due process, two charters have the approval of the Privy Council?

Oh dear. The truth is that there will be this due process in which the PressBoF charter is considered. Obviously, I cannot prejudge that because that is part of the due process that will need to be undertaken. Once that is considered, clearly, the cross-party charter would come up for consideration. As we speak, work is going on to ensure that the fine-tuning of that is complete, and that involves Scotland compliance following the vote of the Scottish Parliament on 30 April, and discussions with the Commissioner for Public Appointments.

My Lords, for the sake of clarity, will my noble friend explain to the noble Lord opposite the difference between a meeting of Privy Counsellors and a meeting of the Privy Council? He does not seem to understand the difference.

I defer to the many Privy Counsellors in your Lordships’ Chamber. Not being one, I have not yet attended a meeting, so I am not in a position to comment fully, but I entirely understand the point that my noble friend is making.

The Minister said that wrongdoing took place, so can he explain the Government's retreat from the position that the victims of that wrongdoing had to be satisfied by the outcome of what is now before the Privy Council? Will he please explain to those victims that retreat and the delay in giving them the satisfaction that was promised?

The important thing is to make sure that this is done properly and correctly, and that is what is being done. I do not quite understand what the noble Baroness means in so far as we are going through the current process because of the need to ensure that this does not happen again.

I understood that. The victims are precisely why we are here. It is to ensure that this does not happen again. That is the final objective that we need to secure.

Is the Minister still committed to securing a royal charter that will underpin self-regulation but not self-interested regulation?

The intention with the cross-party charter is precisely to ensure that there is independent regulation of the press. As I said earlier, we need a free press but we need a responsible press. We need to secure a lasting settlement on both of those.