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Press Regulation

Volume 747: debated on Thursday 11 July 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they expect to achieve final all-party agreement on their proposals for a royal charter on the supervision of ethical standards in the United Kingdom press.

My Lords, a cross-party royal charter has been agreed and published. On 4 July the Culture Secretary updated the other place by way of a Written Statement, as I did in your Lordships’ House, on developments since the cross-party agreement on 18 March. On 30 April the Press Standards Board of Finance petitioned the Privy Council with an alternative charter. The PressBoF charter will be considered by a committee of the Privy Council and a recommendation made before any recommendation is made regarding the cross-party royal charter.

I thank my noble friend for those details. Will he confirm that the priority now is to look after the past, present and future victims of press harassment and bullying and definitely not to appease international proprietors who do not pay UK personal taxes and insist on treating Parliament and people with continuing contempt?

My Lords, I understand fully, as I have in many of the exchanges we have had on this matter, that the priority is to ensure that there is a resolution in place so that the victims can be reassured that it can never happen again. It is clearly in everyone’s interests that the committee acts swiftly to consider the charter in a manner consistent with delivering a robust and justifiable decision.

My Lords, the agenda, the rules of decisions, the timing and attendance are determined by Cabinet Members. They have decided to give the press charter greater priority. Is the Minister aware that there is division on the press charter as a number of the papers do not support it? It is not consistent with Leveson’s request for independence—free of government, free of Parliament and free of the press. In giving priority to this they have chosen to make a controversial political decision inside the Privy Council. That may inevitably mean a division of opinion between Parliament and the monarchy.

I do not agree, although I can understand the noble Lord’s point about priority. There are due processes and legal opinion, so we have had to consider the PressBoF charter first.

There was an application to the Privy Council. The cross-party royal charter could not be referred because a number of outstanding points needed to be dealt with, including making it Scottish compliant because on 30 April the Scottish Parliament asked to be included in the matter. That is the position. There is no sense of priority; it is about dealing with the matter through the procedures that are required.

In relation to the newspapers’ own scheme, was it not Lord Justice Leveson who warned that over the past half century there have been fine words and promises from the press following similar inquiries and commissions, and frankly we ended up with phone hacking and scandal? Surely what we want this time is for the reality to match the rhetoric and for the Government to ensure that that is the case.

I agree with my noble friend. That is precisely why we are going through the procedures that we are, which we must do for legal reasons. The PressBoF charter will be considered swiftly, as I said. But Parliament has already, as we know, passed two Acts of Parliament—the Crime and Courts Act and the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act. All the recommendations made by Lord Justice Leveson will provide strong and effective incentives for relevant publishers to join a recognised independent self regulator.

Under the currently planned schedule of Privy Council meetings, final approval for the Leveson-compliant royal charter, which we and the other place approved in March this year, may not come until October. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that there is no further delay in securing Privy Council approval of the March royal charter? As Hacked Off, the campaigning organisation, rightly says, the public, the victims of press abuses and the democratic will of Parliament deserve better than this.

That is precisely why I said the committee was set up yesterday and the membership of it will be announced very shortly. It is determined to act as swiftly as it possibly can to ensure that the PressBoF charter is given due consideration. Once that has taken place and depending on what is said, there is obviously the cross-party charter, which is being finalised. That can then be put before the Privy Council.

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us who will be on this committee? Can he confirm that they will all be members of the Cabinet? Can he also confirm that the decisions that will be taken by the committee will not be reported to the whole of the Privy Council or indeed reported to Parliament but will be governmental decisions? We will then be faced with a situation in which a committee of the Privy Council, consisting of members of the Cabinet, will have taken a decision that will be backed by the Government and we will be presented with a fait accompli. Does he not think that that is an absolute disgrace?

As I have just replied to the noble Baroness, the membership and indeed the chairman of that committee will be announced very shortly. It will be for that committee to ensure that its work is rigorously applied given the legal opinion that has been given.

My Lords, is there any particular reason why the membership of a committee of the Privy Council should contain only members of the Cabinet?

With regard to the membership of this committee, I had hoped to be helpful to your Lordships and to have been able to give the information this morning, but it will be announced very shortly.

My Lords, what would the position be if this special committee of the Privy Council recommended in favour of the press’s own charter?

My Lords, I obviously cannot pre-empt what the committee is going to say, but it is fair to say that in the other place last week the Prime Minister said that there were serious shortcomings in the PressBoF charter.

Does the Minister agree, however, that an agreement between all the parties in Parliament is an extremely important step towards asserting the powers and influence of Parliament? Is it not important that the public know what has just been raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, the former Lord Chancellor, that members of the Privy Council will not be all the members or even a selection of members of the Privy Council? I have written to the secretary of the Privy Council as a privy counsellor to ask whether he would consider widening the terms of those taking part. This will be a government decision rather than a Privy Council one.

I am most grateful to my noble friend for that. I can only say—I am seeking to be helpful to the House—that all the announcements on the membership will be made very shortly. I am sure that they will be mindful of what my noble friend has said.