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Press Regulation

Volume 768: debated on Tuesday 26 January 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the launch of the new press regulator IMPRESS, what steps they are taking to promote independent and effective press regulation.

My Lords, this Government support the framework for independent press self-regulation delivered in the previous Parliament. This system protects the freedom of the press while offering real redress when mistakes are made. We want to see the press voluntarily comply with the reforms recommended by Lord Justice Leveson and enshrined in the royal charter.

My Lords, I am glad to hear that the Government support the framework agreed in the last Parliament. However, is not the key question whether the Prime Minister will honour his pledge to the victims of press abuse by commencing the court costs incentive set out in Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, as Parliament intended?

My Lords, the exemplary damages provisions, which now extend to all media cases, came into effect on 3 November and provide an incentive to publishers to sign up. We are not convinced that the time is right for the introduction of the costs provisions but the Secretary of State is considering the issue further and discussing it with interested parties; we have had some discussions with individual noble Lords in this House.

My Lords, has my noble friend read the report on press regulation by the Communications Committee last year? Do the Government accept its recommendation that with the system evolving, especially with IMPRESS and IPSO, they should keep it under review and monitor it very carefully?

I am not sure that I am allowed to do this, but I must recommend this report as excellent reading. It is a very clear summary—I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Best, and the committee on it—and one of the good things is that it encourages regular review and reporting; of course the Press Recognition Panel will report each year.

We have brought in and implemented the new regulatory framework, and as recently as last November we brought in the wider exemplary damages provisions. There is a Leveson part 2 but that cannot be turned to until the phone-hacking cases are completed in the courts.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in its first year IPSO, supported by most newspapers, is establishing itself as being independent and effective under the chairmanship of Sir Alan Moses? It deals efficiently with complaints and makes instructions, which the press obey, to publish corrections even on the front pages of their newspapers. Does it therefore not follow that the Government should do nothing to undermine that system while it is being developed and certainly should be very careful, as the Minister has indicated, about introducing sanctions like arbitrary costs or punitive damages that people such as myself believe are likely to fall foul of press freedom and the European Convention on Human Rights?

My Lords, I have great sympathy with the noble Lord’s point. The single most important point is freedom of the press, as he says, and I am glad that we have found an independent, self-regulatory system which is now starting to deliver.

My Lords, Section 40—the costs protection clause—was part of the Crime and Courts Act that was passed overwhelmingly in the Commons and here. Is the Minister saying that the Government are now revisiting the wisdom of Section 40?

As the Secretary of State made clear in a speech before Christmas, he is reflecting on whether now is the time to bring in that provision. The noble Lord is right: it sits on the statute book—there is no suggestion of doing anything about that—but we are reflecting on when to commence it.

My Lords, further to that question and answer, does the Minister agree that an effective press regulator, as well as protecting the public, should also protect ambitious watchdog journalists from the threat of ruinous court costs by wealthy and powerful people who try to prevent publication of awkward stories? Notwithstanding the comments of my noble friend Lord Lester, does the Minister agree that this is another reason why the Secretary of State should rapidly enact the court costs incentives, which have already been agreed by Parliament?

I am not sure that I see it quite that way. The extended exemplary damages are a good thing and a good incentive. We need a free press; the system is getting under way; and the Secretary of State is entirely right to think about as and when—and when and if—to bring in the costs provisions, which of course sit on the statute book and can be commenced at any time.

My Lords, perhaps I may take the Minister back to Leveson part 2. The second part was due to look at specific claims made about phone hacking, what went wrong with the original police investigations, and alleged police corruption. As the Minister said, it was delayed pending the conclusion of criminal prosecutions. My understanding is that those prosecutions have now been completed. If that is the case, we know that hacking took place at the News of the World and at Mirror Group titles but we do not know exactly what went on elsewhere. Can we have confirmation from the noble Baroness that the second part of the public inquiry will take place and, if so, what the timetable will be?

My understanding is different in that two cases are outstanding. That means that Leveson part 2 will not be able to take place until after those investigations and trials have concluded. However, as soon as they have been completed, we will formally consult Sir Brian Leveson, as he now is, as chair of the inquiry before announcing what is appropriate.

No. The Government have brought in the regulatory system that was agreed in the last Parliament. The only issues today are the question that we are exploring, which is the timing and appropriateness of the costs provisions, and part 2, which, as the noble Lord opposite said, we have to defer until the criminal court cases are out of the way. I appreciate that that is frustrating for this House but, as we have heard from the Benches opposite, progress has been made in the mean time, and last week IMPRESS applied for recognition.