Wednesday 13 October 2021
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, Members are encouraged to leave some distance between themselves and others and to wear a face covering when not speaking. If there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, this Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.
UK Journalism (Communications and Digital Committee Report)
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I am pleased to introduce the debate on this report. I am grateful to the staff for their assistance in preparing the report. Our clerk was Alasdair Love and our policy analyst Theo Demolder. They and the committee were provided with great assistance by Rita Cohen. I would also like to thank Professor Jane Singer, who provided expert advice throughout the inquiry.
I am especially grateful to noble Lords who sit on the committee, many of whom are speaking today and all of whom made a huge contribution to this inquiry where, typically, despite starting out with a range of perspectives, after listening carefully to the evidence and discussing the issues, we ended up on common ground and with a real sense of the need for urgency in addressing the issues that we identified. I look forward to hearing from my noble friend the Minster and welcome him to the Dispatch Box for the first time responding to a report from the Communications and Digital Select Committee, and warmly congratulate him on his appointment. Today I will be able to cover only some of our main findings and I am sure other colleagues will fill in some of the gaps.
Print circulations of newspapers have been falling and news is increasingly consumed online, yet only 8% of people pay for news. Even when the growth in digital subscriptions is taken into account, the average national newspaper circulation fell by 57% between 2009 and 2019. For regional newspapers, the decline was 85%. These figures are stark. We heard of the closure of hundreds of newspapers, with many more forced to consolidate and lay off staff. And this is not just about the loss of long-established publications. HuffPost and BuzzFeed, not so long ago held up as the outlets of the future, have both dramatically cut their UK operations.
Of course, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic deepened the challenges facing the media industry. But these long-term, structural threats will not go away. With so few people paying for online news, publishers are dependent on the online advertising market. The boom in online media inevitably means a tougher time for newspapers, having to compete to sell advertising space with an ever-growing number of content providers.
However, as the Competition and Markets Authority has proved, the online advertising market is opaque and unfair. In 2019, Facebook and Google’s dominance allowed them to take 80% of the £14 billion spent on digital advertising in the UK. Even in the £1.8 billion “open display” market, in which content providers sell advertising space on their own websites, publishers receive only 65p of every £1 that advertisers spend. The rest goes to a range of intermediaries, which are owned overwhelmingly by Google. We asked Google if it could name any other market in which such clear conflicts of interest, from operating on the buyer side as well as the seller side, would be permitted. It could not. Put simply, publishers are finding that the game is stacked against them. That Google would behave as it has is to be expected. It is the slowness of the Government and regulators to act to stop it that is the cause of frustration.
Our committee first called for the CMA to conduct a market study in April 2018. This recommendation having initially been opposed, it took until July 2019 for the study to be launched and until July 2020 for it to conclude. In this report, we again recommended that the Government should set up the proposed Digital Markets Unit as a matter of urgency. The Government announced its establishment on the day our report was released—surely the least time it has ever taken for a Select Committee recommendation to be accepted.
The devil, though, is in the detail. The Digital Markets Unit currently operates as a shadow: it does not yet have the statutory powers it needs to act and it appears that it will not be fully operational until 2023 at the earliest. As one publisher told us, whereas Facebook’s motto was
“Move fast and break things”,
the Government’s seems to be
“Move slowly and allow the platforms to break everything”.
Among the Digital Markets Unit’s responsibilities should be the enforcement of a mandatory bargaining code to govern the relationship between platforms and publishers. Facebook, Google and others profit from publishers’ content in a variety of ways. Links to news stories provide an incentive for people to use the platforms’ services, where they can show them advertising and collect data on their interests. However, publishers need the platforms much more than the platforms need the publishers, so they cannot afford to walk away: more than a third of publishers’ traffic comes from Facebook and Google alone. Although the prospect of regulation has prompted platforms to pay some publishers for the use of some of their news in some countries, these schemes are highly limited and tend to favour the largest companies. As the CMA noted, publishers
“have very little choice but to accept the terms offered by these platforms, given their market power.”
The platforms’ opposition to the mandatory bargaining code in Australia offers a preview of how they will fight to prevent such a code being drawn up in the UK. Google threatened to withdraw its search engine from Australia if the Bill establishing the code passed. Facebook banned news from its service for four days. Although the platforms were able to water down the code, it provides a useful base on which our Government should build. Establishing a mandatory bargaining code is not about special pleading or pretending that the news industry can return to a bygone age. It is about fixing the problems to which the platforms’ untrammelled market powers give rise. So I ask the Minister: do the Government rule out a bargaining code?
Although it is in orders of magnitude smaller, we need to give serious thought also to how the market power of the BBC affects smaller players. As well as being the most watched and most listened to, in the age of online news the BBC is now the most read source of news in the UK, competing with newspapers, including local newspapers, as never before. We recommended that the BBC website should include an aggregator section to drive traffic to smaller and local websites. Our inquiry was not about the BBC, nor media regulation, but the economic security of the news industry and the future of journalism. None the less, the BBC plays such a dominant role in the news landscape that it was an important part of our work, especially in relation to diversity and plurality, which I will now turn to.
There is a lack of data on diversity across the industry. But, from the statistics available, it is clear that there is underrepresentation of people from black and other minority ethnic backgrounds, and of disabled people. There is also great concern about retention and progression, an area where much greater data is needed. Will my noble friend the Minister give Ofcom the power it needs, and has asked for, to collect a wider range of data from PSBs to enable it to better to monitor diversity?
Many great journalists entered the profession without completing higher education. Now, though, across the industry 98% of early-career journalists come from the 50% of young people who go to university. Many must also comply with costly master’s programmes and low-paid internships, further narrowing the pool of talent. The Government have taken some steps to make the apprenticeship levy more flexible, but, once again, witnesses we spoke to were critical of the levy, which is failing the industry and young people in this sector. We repeated our call for urgent reform of the levy if we are to have a news media that truly reflects and understands the public it serves.
It was clear to us that it is important that news organisations, in addition to be being representative of the country in terms of protected characteristics, hire people from a geographical range of backgrounds and, especially in the case of PSBs, from a range of perspectives, to avoid a homogeneity of mindset that gives rise to partiality of output.
It is not the job of news organisations to please politicians, but rather to be constantly challenging us, and we should be very wary about levelling accusations of bias when we hear something we do not like. However, BBC staff, who cannot be dismissed as ideologically driven, have criticised the BBC’s liberal metropolitan outlook—which is not the same thing as political bias. We must take seriously warnings such as that of Roger Mosey, former head of BBC TV News, that the BBC appears to be “edging towards groupthink”, and Sarah Sands’ observation, when stepping down as editor of the “Today” programme, that the BBC
“can treat social conservatism with polite incomprehension”.
For the most part, this is not journalists setting out to sway the audience one way or the other; it is born of a blindness to perspectives and experiences different from their own.
We welcomed Tim Davie’s commitment to impartiality and his efforts to apply high levels of editorial standards to the use of social media by BBC presenters, but we felt that, to protect impartiality in the long run, Ofcom should be empowered to ensure that public service broadcasters monitor the accuracy and impartiality of their journalists’ public social media posts, and take appropriate action where necessary.
More broadly, it has become harder over recent years to distinguish fact from opinion—or outright fiction—online. Dire warnings about a “post-truth age” and a “pandemic of fake news” are not always backed up by rigorous data. Nevertheless, it is clear that more needs to be done to equip people with the critical and technological skills they need to navigate online news. Media literacy means more than identifying “fake news”; it is about understanding journalistic processes and their value, how news is presented online and how it is funded. This is not only something to be taught in schools; we heard that older people can be among those most in need of support. There are many commendable initiatives in this area, but they lack co-ordination. There is a role for the Government to use their convening power to help guide Ofcom, the BBC, schemes run by the platforms and those in the third sector toward greater coherence.
We have a short debate today, and I will be brief in concluding. We covered a number of other areas, and made recommendations about the need for much greater co-ordination of the wide range of journalism funding schemes, especially the funding of innovation, and envisaged a convening role for government to ensure that these schemes are truly delivering greater plurality, while equipping journalists to stay ahead of, and to use, technology to maximise the reach of their content. We welcomed moves by the Charity Commission to recognise public interest journalism as a charitable purpose. We recognised the vital role of journalists, especially at a local level, in publicising the work of public bodies, especially the courts, and we welcomed the Government’s commitment to improve journalists’ access to court proceedings.
We looked at another aspect of the dominance of platforms—the significant control platforms have in determining how and whether users see news stories, and in censoring whomever and whatever they wish, based on their political sensibilities, their business interests, or seemingly sometimes simply on a whim, rather than bringing plurality. We were concerned that the growth in online news will mean more and more control for Silicon Valley elites over what we read—and, ultimately, how we think.
I look forward to hearing noble Lords’ views on this and the many other recommendations in our report, and I hope that the report, and today’s debate, will inform the House’s thinking as we look forward to the upcoming media Bill and legislation to establish the Digital Markets Unit.
This year, as every year around the world, dozens of journalists have been killed doing their work and hundreds have been imprisoned. In Afghanistan, journalists have been rounded up and beaten today. So, when we call for urgent action to support journalism as the industry journalists work in goes through huge structural change, we are calling not for intervention to support a declining industry but for recognition that journalists are a pillar of our democracy and, in this rapidly changing, polarised world where a range of voices needs to be heard more than ever, there is something precious that we will miss in more ways than we can imagine if we do not act urgently. I beg to move.
Speak for yourself.
Since I am not a member of the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, I have the opportunity, without any self-interest, to pay tribute to him and to the other members of his committee for a job well done.
I can tell the noble Lord that, when I was leader of the Lib Dems in the first decade of this century, there were regular sorties, partly from down the Corridor, to try to wind up this committee, or make it a temporary committee. I say to the members of the committee and to noble Lords, “Cling on to this committee, because it has never been more needed than it is today and will be in the future”.
There have always been tensions between journalists and politicians. The late Simon Hoggart put it best when he likened the relationship to that between a dog and a lamppost. But we have to remember that, 30 years ago, David Mellor warned journalists that they were drinking in the “last-chance saloon”. Today, we have a former Daily Telegraph journalist in Downing Street, and the press, I suspect, feels more secure than ever from real regulation and accountability.
Only recently I was contacted by a lady whose daughter had been killed in a hit-and-run accident and who had been forced to suffer the tragedy of her loss but also the cruel insensitivity of the behaviour of the Daily Mail. She found that IPSO did not answer her complaint. I know the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, will be speaking later, but the truth is that IPSO does not fit the criteria that were set out in the Leveson report for a truly independent regulator.
There are those who would argue that Leveson is now in the past and that the new technologies make the old print media merely a sideshow. I am not sure that Leveson is now yesterday’s news. It was the first time in decades that anything remotely approaching a workable framework had been passed by Parliament. We now have a statutory body, the Press Complaints Commission, which is a model of arm’s-length independence, permitting no political interference. We have a recognised press regulator, Impress, which complies with all the Leveson criteria for independent and effective regulation and now has over 100 publishers signed up to the editorial code that it imposes. That structure protects the public from press abuse, protects journalists from being pressured into unethical and criminal behaviour and protects the whole concept of a free press from being pressured into a race to the bottom.
If the opportunity to build that groundwork around our media is refused by the big media owners, they cannot expect to be excluded from the provisions of the upcoming online safety Bill. My view is that we should split Ofcom into a technical and content oversight organisation, and allow no carve-out for print media from regulation by a revamped Ofcom. This makes sense as the line between print and online news becomes more and more blurred.
One other aspect of the report to which I draw attention is media literacy—the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, referred to it in detail in the report. The famous quote after the extension of the franchise in 1867 that now
“We must educate our masters”
is more true than ever. The noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, also referred to the need for the BBC to mend its ways.
Perhaps, in that process, I might make another suggestion. Perhaps the print media could take a leaf out of their own financial pages. Often, when there is a story carried in the financial pages, you will see at the bottom, “The publishers of this newspaper have a financial interest in the takeover”, or whatever it is. So perhaps when the Times, the Mail or the Telegraph run their almost-daily anti-BBC stories, we could have a little note to say, “Our billionaire, non-UK resident owners will become even richer if they can succeed in reducing the funding and reach of the BBC.” It is just an idea.
In short—my five minutes is up—I think that this is a job well done by a very important committee and a useful primer for the online safety Bill to come.
My Lords, it is a great honour to speak in this debate as a member of my noble friend Lord Gilbert’s committee, though I had very little input into this report and so can speak objectively about it. My noble friend Lord Gilbert began by praising our clerks and the people who work for the committee. Of course, he himself deserves a great deal of praise as a superb chair of our committee. He steers it with a deft hand at the tiller and it has been a pleasure to serve with him so far. Has that got me a lot of brownie points? Yes—good. Next time I apply to ask a question at an evidence session, I will be top of the list.
There needs to be a dose of realism about the future of UK journalism because a lot of the crisis in journalism has been brought about by journalists themselves—or, more accurately, by the proprietors. Let us not forget that newspapers were established not as an act of altruism or charity but to make money. Eighteenth-century newspapers were vehicles to carry advertisements and the news was an aside. Like many other content industries, whether music, television or film, newspapers have struggled to adapt to changes in technology. Indeed, the disruption of technology has brought about new news providers because everyone will fill a vacuum—whether it is Tortoise, Politico, Axios or Sifted. There will always be an opportunity for us to get news.
The reason why we talk about newspapers and journalism and why we talk, as politicians and policymakers, about intervening is, to echo what my noble friend said, the huge importance, particularly in our democracy, of people having access to trusted sources of news and journalism. By the way, in my earlier remarks, I did not want to denigrate in any way the professional qualifications and training that many of our journalists have. That is why it is important that we debate this and that we have this report.
I also use this opportunity to echo, to a certain extent, what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said. It is exhausting how often the BBC is attacked. We need to take a step back and realise just how extraordinarily lucky we are to have that institution in this country. There is no such thing as a perfect institution. I do not necessarily believe that it is the billionaire proprietors who are pushing this agenda; it is just easy, lazy journalism to always attack the BBC. We threaten its future at our peril, not the BBC’s peril.
I congratulate the committee that took all the evidence and produced this report on its instant win with the establishment of the Digital Markets Unit. My noble friend Lord Gilbert was quite right to press the Government to bring in the legislation to make it work.
I want to focus only on one point and one recommendation in the report, because of the short time allotted. It is the point that my noble friend Lord Gilbert referred to about collaboration of the different organisations that seek to support local news and journalism. There is a lot of good will out there, but good will can often be misdirected or energy can be wasted. We have Facebook giving money, we have Google giving money and Ministers are constantly demanding that the BBC support regional news and give it a platform. But all these efforts could be much more effective if they were more co-ordinated.
It was remiss of me not to take yet another chance to welcome the new Minister to the Dispatch Box—I welcomed him earlier in Questions. This is a chance for him to show his mettle. He is dressed elegantly today because he took a Question on fashion, but he is also a man of action. I know that, having listened to the chairman of our committee, he will leave this debate, go back to his officials and say, “Action this day. We want to see Facebook, Google, the BBC and others in my office”—because Covid restrictions are at an end—“for a face-to-face meeting to discuss how we can put all their efforts together to make it more joined up and co-ordinated to provide financial support for regional news journalism.” As I say, regional news has brought many of its problems on itself. If anyone tries to access a story in a local newspaper on their mobile it is a nightmare—a terrible experience. However, maybe we can help it at the other end by co-ordinating the efforts of the major platforms and of our much-loved, cherished BBC.
I declare an interest as a freelance TV series producer developing content for Netflix and the Smithsonian Channel.
I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, for his able chairing of the Communications and Digital Select Committee, on which I, too, have the honour to serve. This afternoon I will concentrate my remarks on the recommendations in this report to make the media financially sustainable and to support freelancers, who are the backbone of the creative industries and the media.
We heard during the inquiry about the financial pressures on so many media businesses as they face an onslaught on their revenue from tech giants. As the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, said, the committee has reported on the huge concerns that these companies are using their monopoly control of the digital advertising supply chain to drain the lifeblood from media companies. I am pleased that the DMU has been set up to confront this digital ad monopoly and I, too, urge the Minister urgently to introduce legislation to ensure that it is given statutory powers.
Likewise, media revenues are suffering from underpayment or lack of payment for the use of their news content on tech platforms. The Government’s response is that a code of conduct is being introduced. I urge the Minister to go much further and look at introducing a bargaining code. It must be fair to media companies both large and small, but, if our journalism is to be financially sustainable, it needs to be able to rely on an income stream for the use of its news content by the tech giants.
I also want to use this debate to draw attention to the plight of the people who supply the content: the journalists. They are the ones suffering as the media battles to reverse the downturn in its fortunes. Staff jobs have been cut to be replaced by freelancers. According to the ONS, the number of freelance journalists has doubled in the 10 years to 2019, and during the last two years that trend has accelerated as staff jobs have continued to be cut. Media companies such as the BBC and HuffPost have replaced employees with freelancers, while smaller companies now rely almost entirely on freelancers for copy.
However, not only are the rates for freelance copy falling like a stone, but freelancers are suffering from late payment, payment on publication and unfair kill fees. Freelancers have always suffered from kill fees when their content is not used. Sometimes this is because it is not of good enough quality, but often it is because the news cycle has moved on since the article was commissioned and it is no longer needed. As a result, the journalist can receive as little as 20% of the original fee negotiated.
An increasing problem, especially in the last few years, is the late payment of fees. I spoke to one journalist who had been commissioned to write a series of articles for a medium-sized media company. The 30-days payment on their invoice was repeatedly missed. Each time the journalist called the company, they were told that it was being dealt with by the financial department and that the delay was just a logistical difficulty. After many hours of calls and emails, most of the payments were six months late and some were even nine months late. In desperation, the NUJ took the company to court for breach of contract on the freelancer’s behalf. As a result, they were paid but knew that they would never receive another commission. This story is very familiar to freelancers, especially those working for medium-sized media and small online companies.
When this issue was raised in the report, the Government’s response was that they should not interfere in contract law and that freelancers should negotiate protection for themselves. However, that is to ignore the massive imbalance between the companies and the sole-trader freelancers. It is David against Goliath. In the uncertain world of freelancing, all people have is their reputation, and once that is stained by an attempt to renegotiate a contract or a legal case to reclaim fees, they are tarred as “troublemakers” and work dries up pretty quickly. The report recommends that the Government should consult on legislation strengthening the rights of freelancers, and that the Small Business Commissioner should receive extra powers to address the growing problem of these unfair payment practices.
The Government’s response has been a welcome consultation to look at the new powers for the Small Business Commissioner. I have spoken to the dynamic new holder of the post, Liz Barclay, who has been in situ for 100 days, but who reckons it will take three or four years for legislation to be enacted and these powers to take effect. In the meantime, she is campaigning to make late payers aware of the havoc they are creating. Currently, the Commission can deal only with businesses employing more than 50 people. In an industry with decreasing numbers of employees and increasing numbers of freelancers, this criterion needs to change so that much smaller companies come within her scope. I ask the new Minister to take this very seriously and pass on these concerns to his colleagues in BEIS. Give the Small Business Commissioner the powers to campaign against all bad payers and tilt the balance towards the Davids and away from the Goliaths.
At a time when we have heard so much about supporting the British worker, in the face of skills shortages it appears that, instead of getting higher pay, many of these British workers are struggling to make a living. Action needs to be taken now. Every day, British media companies are reducing news content and failing to cover council meetings and courts and to disseminate vital information to keep citizens informed so that they can play their part in our democracy. I urge the Minister to take these issues seriously and deal with them urgently.
My Lords, it is 20 years since I was a journalist, so perhaps you would spare me the rotten oranges this afternoon. I am very glad I am out of it, frankly, because there has been a revolution. The revolution has been caused by digital developments. If you can get most of your news for free from a telephone, are you going to go down to the local shop and buy a newspaper? That has happened, it is going on and this report summarises it well. The noble Lord, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, in his brilliant and magisterial introduction, made proposals to level the playing field with digital media. I will not repeat what he said because he said it better than I can.
I want to focus on two specific threats to the future of journalism that this report does not touch on. The first is the online safety Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Gilbert of Panteg’s, committee said in a previous report that it was concerned about the exemption from regulation of what the Government call “citizen journalism”. The trouble is that there is no clear definition of citizen journalism. If my next-door neighbour takes against the council’s policy on traffic, does his research, argues his case, puts it out online—yes, that is journalism, and yes, it can be protected. However, if the next-door neighbour instead takes against my approach to transphobia and posts vile threats against my family, is that citizen journalism? Not so much.
My second concern is journalistic standards. To be a journalist you do not have to have a professional qualification, as you would to be a lawyer or a doctor. I just got rung up one day and asked if I fancied a job as a journalist. There is no register that you can be thrown off and forbidden to practise. This seems to me inadequate.
What should take the place of this free-for-all? The proposals of Lord Justice Leveson, referred to earlier by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, at least gave people abused by the press a proper system for complaining, backed in the last resort by a royal charter. The remedy was generally accepted, including by Parliament —and then the rats got at it. Leveson recommended protection from costs for newspapers that joined a regulator compliant with his recommendations. So what did the Government do? Though Parliament passed the legislation, the Government simply refused to implement the critical Section 40 that would bring those cost-sharing things into effect. As a result—and we will come back to this in a minute—nobody much has joined any regulator that is Leveson-compliant. Not surprisingly, politicians prefer sucking up to Rupert Murdoch to protecting the public.
Instead we have IPSO, whose distinguished chairman is here today. As a regulator, IPSO has been shredded by a new publication by the academics Steve Barnett and Gordon Ramsay, entitled IPSO: Regulator or Complaints Handler? It quotes the Media Standards Trust research showing that, of 38 Leveson recommendations, IPSO satisfies only 13 and does not satisfy 25.
There is a compliant regulator under the rules set by the Press Recognition Panel, which is Impress, but the big publications have ignored it. IPSO procedures are designed to be procedurally flawless and substantively useless. I complained recently about a bogus poll in the Daily Express, which used methods that would have shamed a junior cub reporter on a local paper. IPSO ruled that this completely bogus poll was okay. Successive chairs—I hope the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, is an exception—have flailed about in the IPSO quagmire, without success. We remember Sir Alan Moses, who became IPSO chair, breathing fire over its inadequacies, only to retire hurt.
If journalism is to flourish, good journalism needs to be protected and bad journalism punished. One way to punish bad journalism would be an effective complaints regulation system. IPSO is no such system and never will be. Bring back Leveson—or something even better.
My Lords, I join with others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, and his committee on this excellent report. As well as the report, I also had the pleasure of reading much of the evidence that was given to the committee, which added a great deal of texture to the comments the report contained. Apart from as a consumer of journalism and a legislator, I hardly need to declare my interest as the chairman of IPSO, which has been much maligned already in this debate. It is of course tempting to enter a sturdy defence of IPSO into this debate, but I do not want to divert from the real issue, which is the future of journalism. Perhaps I will have the opportunity to convince the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Lipsey, of the virtues of IPSO in the “last-chance saloon”.
I think and trust that newspapers in the United Kingdom are better than they were when Leveson looked at the standards of the press. IPSO regulates 90% of national newspapers by circulation and almost all local newspapers. We have had 100,000 complaints in the last seven years. I do not consider that to indicate a failure by journalists or editors; most of the complaints are outside our jurisdiction or do not violate the editors’ code. Rather, I would hope that this is an indication that consumers value regulation.
The product that a reader of conventional newspapers has is regulated and curated by editors, but newspapers, and thus journalists, are now painting on a much-reduced canvas. Most people consume their news via social media—an area untouched by Leveson. There is no regulation and the curation of content is largely by algorithm. The absurdities that can result from algorithms was well illustrated by Peter Wright, in his evidence to this committee, and by the noble Lord, Lord Hague, in his article in the Times yesterday. Do noble Lords think that algorithms have much to do with the search for truth in a democratic society, or are they designed for the benefit of advertisers?
The online safety Bill is full of good intentions. I endorse the recommendation that it should include a mandatory bargaining code, for the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, gave. It is pioneering legislation, and all parliamentarians should give it support. Whether it will deal with the alarming practices employed by, for example, Facebook, described by Frances Haugen in her evidence to Congress is, however, rather doubtful.
Diminishing circulation and advertising revenue have represented a major threat to newspapers, and thus to journalists. Covid has of course accelerated this trend, although, in my view, journalists have done well in the course of Covid, and IPSO intends this autumn to publish a paper describing the journalistic response to the pandemic.
In addition to the danger so well described in this report, I reiterate the problems that face local newspapers, for all the problems of access to news described by the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey. Nine hundred local media titles written by quality journalists find their way to 40.6 million consumers via print and digital channels, but the BBC—much unfairly maligned, I hasten to add—is the largest online publisher, driving away some commercial news producers. Owen Meredith, the chief executive of the NMA, put it rather crudely, perhaps, but forcefully in an article in the Times the other day headlined “Local media need protection from the predatory BBC”.
This report makes a number of truly excellent suggestions. The future of journalism is of concern to all of us. I congratulate the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, I very much congratulate the Minister on his appointment and I look forward to working with him and the committee in helping maintain the high standards of journalism that we have come to expect and will very much need in future.
I, too, add my congratulations to my former Whip, the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson; I am glad I did not impede his progress up the greasy pole here in your Lordships’ Chamber. My entry into journalism was in 1960. I joined Hugh Cudlipp’s fantastic Daily Mirror enterprise. I did six years as a trainee sports journalist, and when I left, we were selling 5.25 million copies every day. I left, and look what happened—it is rather sad.
My natural state is combative, and I read the report of my noble friend Lord Gilbert’s committee ready to take up arms against some of its recommendations. I was terribly disappointed. I agree with every single word of the report; I agree with everything that has been said thus far; I am hoping that somebody will say something I disagree with in the remaining time.
I shall concentrate on the issues of copyright and dominant positions. Copyright means nothing to the new media internet giants. When I was at ITV the last time, I was at an internet conference, I was asked about Google, et cetera, and I described them as “parasites”. I said that they feed off other people’s investment; they make money out of the investments that other people make. I was immediately invited to lunch by the head of Google in Europe, who said to me, “Michael, what’s your problem?” I said, “Well, you had 300 million hits with Susan Boyle on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. Nobody asked me if you could use it. We have invested tens of millions of pounds in this show, and you’ve made a fortune out of it; we have got nothing out of it.” “Well,” he said, “if you want it taken down, just give me a call and we’ll take it down.” “Oh”, I said , “so if I go to Harrods and steal a gold watch and they ring me up and say ‘Can we have it back?’ and I give it back, it’s not a crime?” I said, “You’re stealing other people’s material.”
That is compounded by the fact that they have been allowed to achieve what no one—not even my noble friend Lord Faulks—could argue is not a dominant position. I have spent many hours in competition arguments about defining the market and what is a dominant position. This is the most dominant position that you could imagine. They abuse their market position by stealing other people’s material and short-changing them by just giving them a tip when they steal their material, publish it and make money through advertising—so the advertising market needs looking at very quickly.
Regulation is desperately needed. In the history of broadcasting and the media, regulation and statutes always lag behind the way the market and technology move, but there is no time to lose. I urge the Government to read every line of this excellent report again and again and take action. I ask the Minister to give us his assurance that, when he goes back to the office, he will bang the desk.
My Lords, it is daunting to follow the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord Grade. I thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, and his committee and staff for their comprehensive and deeply researched report.
The first paragraph of the summary stands out when it mentions
“the fundamental role that journalism should play in a healthy democracy”.
Likewise, the detailed measurements concerning trust in paragraphs 51 and 71 stand out. It was heartening to read the detailed references to training. Surely we would agree that it is everything for the young ones. “Chwarae teg”, as might be said in Panteg in the lovely land of Wales, our homeland.
The concepts of liberty and the journalistic profession are impossible to disentangle. Our liberty lies ultimately in the Commons Chamber, blessed by the secret ballot. There is a fail-safe across Parliament Square in the Supreme Court, an independent judiciary free of corruption and unafraid. So this is about liberty above all else. We need the fourth estate as never before, as its newly born rival, the ubiquitous and separate social media, appears to be devouring all before it.
In my grammar school days, I had a paper round. I read and delivered the long-lost titles of the 1940s, such as Reynold’s News, the Empire News, the Sunday Graphic and the News Chronicle. Today, the situation locally is not very happy. We still need traditional journalism. Think of those unemployed country-house butlers no longer ironing the unruly pages of the tabloids and the Times. Think of no longer having Quentin Letts and his chuckling, rollicking Dickensian destructions, and the “Gotcha” red-tops. Think of the sober, many-paged Guardian security scoops and Martin Wolf’s thoughtful, pink-paged FT assessments gone missing. Think of Ms Toynbee, Ms Turner and Ms Boniface—their brutal home truths and deep commitment lost. Think of Mr Rod Liddle’s Sunday Times breakfast lambastings gone. Think of the Telegraph’s morning sports section no more—there was a brilliant Fury fight report on Monday. Perish the thought of all that disappearing.
Paragraph 19 steadfastly states:
“Journalism is integral to liberal democracy … it ‘shines a light on wrong doing and acts as an essential check on the behaviour of individuals in positions of power’”.
Surely a continuing, ever-more prosperous metropolitan elite will need, read and shelter these titles. But these journalistic delights do not come cheaply. The stringent Economist, with the anxious testiness of Bagehot, comes in at six quid, bar a penny, with the Guardian at £2.50. I would sum it up by saying that price matters in any struggle for survival.
We need journalists and their newsprint. How can the near-total sway of social media, Twitter and Facebook, Napster and Apple, and all the ubiquitous, influential and insistent rest not imperil journalism? Has power flowed irreversibly out of a discredited Westminster these last decades? Across the road, for example, there is 4 Millbank and its television studios and its political and programme editors. Is the besuited, still male, televised but somewhat Victorian Parliament losing out to ever more powerful social media? The changing balance of power affects governance and, ultimately, our liberty. Has the media in the ascendancy dealt an historic blow to an ailing Parliament? Can the mother of Parliaments recover her feet of clay, so prominently displayed daily to all?
It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Jones. I join others in congratulating the Minister on his appointment and thank our committee chairman, my noble friend Lord Gilbert of Panteg, together with our officials, Alasdair Love and Theo Demolder, for guiding us through a very constructive process to produce this report.
Since the 1950s, there has not been a more important time to support our journalists and care about the future of journalism, for we now inhabit a world akin to McCarthyism in 1950s America, a vociferous campaign that ruined many lives and careers. George Orwell was extraordinarily prescient when writing Nineteen Eighty-Four—he just got the date wrong. I recall years ago thinking that the McCarthy witch hunts could never happen today and that Nineteen Eighty-Four was just depressing, dark literature. But much that has hitherto been integral to our culture has become offensive, and the acceptable is often now absurd. Our hard-fought-for and critical principle that is freedom of expression is being constantly attacked.
A viable future for good journalism to counter the so-called culture wars and fake news, much of it fuelled through social media, is essential. Perversely, a toxic cocktail of identity politics, culture wars and Covid has presented a real opportunity for journalism. Our collective experience through Covid to date has brought out the best in our vibrant press and radio, with journalists questioning Parliament’s response to the crisis: the extraordinarily draconian measures; spending without context; the impact on our economy and jobs; and the road map. I thank Talk Radio, with Mike Graham, Julia Hartley-Brewer and their colleagues, Toby Young and lockdownsceptics.org, UnHerd, Spiked and some of the magazines, such the Critic and the Spectator, whose journalists and commentators have dug deep in search of the truth. Never defiant, they kept some of us sane; they were and are the necessary grit in the oyster. In contrast, the PSBs—public service broadcasters—have stuck to inane questions that are frankly so easy for any politician to answer. The Government should welcome good, gritty journalism, from whatever source, which tests their policies, particularly when the Official Opposition are weak.
The Government’s response to our report is positive in a number of ways, such as supporting our stance on the need for well-co-ordinated media literacy, also making the commitment to identify what more can be done to facilitate journalists’ access to and reporting of court proceedings. This is vital for our local and regional news outlets. Court news sells papers, because people are genuinely interested in local crime and civil cases, for myriad obvious reasons. More than ever, people want to feel connected at a local level. Allowing journalists full online access to open court transcripts would greatly assist access to justice and accurate reporting and it would reduce costs. News businesses cannot afford to have bespoke court reporters hanging around our courts in the hope of witnessing a case that may be very much of interest to the public. I remember when practising as a barrister hanging around courts for hours on end only to see the case adjourned. The DCMS, working with the Ministry of Justice, could fix this with relative ease.
The news industry faces,
“continual and profound change in three interconnected aspects: the tools it uses to create and deliver information; the ways in which its audiences find, access, and use that information; and the strategies it employs to sustain itself economically.”
Our witnesses were, on the whole, optimistic about the future, accepting the need to be audience focused and technology empowered. Given the diverse range of organisations delivering content, we cannot easily compare the challenges and opportunities for the broadsheets with citizen journalism, the BBC with community radio and the hyper-local and hyper-specialist media organisations, or the lot of freelancers with pampered Google employees.
That said, witnesses spoke of the success of media businesses, including platforms applying innovative approaches to reducing costs and taking advantage of emerging capabilities. Adam Thomas, director of the European Journalism Centre, was particularly upbeat about the future. He stated:
“The UK has a good solid platform of media infrastructure, solid well-known regulation and good funding compared to a lot of the rest of Europe, which puts it in a really strong position.”
Notwithstanding the current dominance and behaviour of the tech giants, I, too, am optimistic for the future. As long as we focus on harnessing new technologies to support interoperability, that will encourage competition and drive innovation to support financial stability across the sector and find better ways in which to protect individuals from online harm. For me, technology is paramount, not poor, static regulation.
May I, too, join the “when I was a lad” brigade? I should tell the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that when he and I were lads, I was actually a director on “All Our Yesterdays”, briefly.
Like others, I warmly welcome the real focus that the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, has brought to this critical issue, as all the contributions so far have made abundantly clear. Independent, challenging journalism is the sine qua non of a healthy functioning democracy, as the award last week of a Nobel Prize to courageous but endangered journalists in Russia and the Philippines underlined. In a scene reminiscent of “The Thick of It”, the Kremlin congratulated Dmitry Muratov on his award, describing him as “brave”. This is the very same Kremlin that had just expelled BBC journalist Sarah Rainsford, after 20 years of impeccable and expert reporting from Moscow.
Over centuries, the UK has enjoyed an unparalleled tradition of vigorous comment and challenge, beginning in our Parliament but extending well beyond to a lively press. Those on the receiving end may not always like it—it is not always scrupulous and fair—but that tradition guarantees that no part of our national life goes unscrutinised and unquestioned. That in turn guarantees, sometimes in a rough and chaotic way, that as a nation we will always expose and address problems of every kind that we, as a nation, will progress.
My first job out of university was as a journalist on “World in Action”, the programme with the proudest tradition of investigative journalism on British television. By the time I left ITV, the network boasted three major and well-funded national current affairs programmes. None now exists, nor does any equivalent. I left ITV because I was invited to lead the creation of BBC News as a single entity. Previously, it had been organised in separate, unco-ordinated baronies.
In the 20 years since I retired from the BBC and from broadcasting, I have had the painful experience, as someone who was involved in journalism every day of his career, of watching from the sidelines the massive loss of revenues suffered by our vibrant national and regional newspapers, the substantial decline of income of the advertiser-funded PSBs and two brutal cuts to BBC revenues—soon, I greatly fear, to be followed by a third.
The internet has brought absolutely huge gains in disintermediation, immediacy and the ability to find out anything we want in a flash. But the impact has been to reduce, not to increase, the amount of journalism of quality. For journalism of quality is expensive; it needs both expertise and time—not just to uncover wrongdoing but to get under the skin of the complex issues that face all Governments and societies.
Of course serious journalism of quality still exists: Tim Shipman’s must-read, careful and insightful chronicling of our national politics, the FT’s economic reporting and John Ware’s and Peter Taylor’s supremely authoritative unravelling of the dark side of the Troubles. But so much of our declining journalistic resource is now invested in simple reactive coverage of today’s overt events, or in the repackaging, aggregation and regurgitation of other outlets’ stories. Of the stock of current affairs programmes that existed when I departed the BBC 20 years ago, only a less well-resourced “Panorama” remains.
There are no easy answers to the questions posed this afternoon, but reducing the real funding of the BBC and privatising Channel 4 are not two of them. Let us avoid incrementalism; let us stand back and recognise the big picture. As the committee suggests, digital players should not have a free ride. The noble Lord, Lord Grade, expressed that particularly well. They must contribute to the cost of creating original journalism and content. We must do everything we can to put a foot on the brake of the decline of UK PSBs. We must also do everything we can to ease the decline of our vital newspaper sector. As the PM would say, it is surely time to “Prenez un grip”.
My Lords, as other noble Lords have said, this is a good report from the Communications and Digital Committee under the distinguished leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert. Hence, this is an important debate. It is also an important debate because we are talking about an important topic, which is the framework in which our democracy works. This has been on the agenda of the Communications Committee since its early days, when I played a part in it, and regularly, rightly and forcefully, the committee comes back to it from time to time. I declare an interest as a trustee both of Full Fact and the Public Interest News Foundation, which are referred to in the report.
I am going to make my remarks from the perspective of local news. I was chairman of the CM Group, a Cumbria-based regional media company, for more than 10 years. It is now part of Newsquest. There is not only an important democratic aspect to news and local news, but an important community one because of the cohesion it can help bring to communities around the length and breadth of the country. We all know of some of the problems relating to that in the current world. I think it was CP Scott in his editorial to mark the centenary of the Guardian—some of your Lordships may have been sent a copy of it—who commented that newspapers are both institutions and businesses, but that it is important that a newspaper’s role as an institution ultimately trumps its characteristic as a business.
In discussions such as this, we tend to look to the future perhaps more than we might. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, who commented that 200-odd years ago, when modern newspapers as we know them came into being, there was—in my words—rather a long-established ménage à trois between advertisers, journalists and publishers. Interestingly, in the original edition of the Guardian, the first item on the first page was an advertisement for an anonymous black dog, which has thereby gained some degree of immortality.
For about 200 years that was sustainable, but now, thanks principally to technology, it has all broken down. The crucial question is, what happened? In very simple terms, the money ran out. I believe that in this country—and across the world more widely, for that matter—we somehow need to establish a sustainable system that will work to deliver these things over the years and into the future, so that the money will not run out.
In the report, a number of very useful points are made about specific things. But while they are valuable by themselves, they do not actually give a full lead towards a bigger picture. The report comments on charities, and the Public Interest News Foundation has registered investigative journalism as a proper subject for charitable registration. But it is not appropriate for the rough and tumble of real politics. It has a role to play, but it is not the answer. Criticism is made of the system of apprenticeships that we now have in this country. I currently chair the Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership, and for a time chaired a training company, and I believe that the criticisms, not merely in the context of journalism but more widely, are justified.
The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, talked about algorithms, and I am sure he is absolutely right. If consumer protection means anything, the confidence the public have and the need to know exactly how algorithms work is obviously crucial in this sector. Finally, as far as the relationship between platforms and publishers is concerned, it is clearly the case that the platforms have a dominant position, as the noble Lord, Lord Grade, said. This needs to be addressed.
It used not to be the case, but recently it seems that when there is a problem, the Government throw money at it. Journalists and media companies must not take the 39 pieces of silver, because it betrays their constitutional role. It seems to be one of the heresies of the modern world that the private sector is motivated principally—indeed often only—by greed. Clearly there are some extremely greedy people in the private sector, but we have to find a way whereby the private sector can deliver what we want to see, because we do not want the state to be directly involved. One of the interesting things about our country is that we seem to have a genius for devising ways of doing this. In public sector broadcasting, it is not only the BBC—there is Channel 4, ITV and Channel 5, all of which are working in a slightly constrained legal framework to enable media to be delivered to our fellow citizens. I suggest to the Minister—and I congratulate him on his new job, as a predecessor of his predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey—that, if he could help lead on establishing a new settlement for media in this country which enables the fourth estate to play its constitutional role and at the same time remain solvent, he will have done a very great service.
As I said at the start, this is an important debate which goes way beyond the economic value of the sector. I am sure we shall come back to it, and it is right that we should.
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood. I fully support his closing remarks and would like to do anything I can to help him in that quest.
I must declare my interests, first as a career journalist and somebody who still pens the occasional article and, secondly, as the current—and, indeed, so far only—chairman of the Financial Times appointments and oversight committee. I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Birt, refer to the FT and Martin Wolf in particular. As somebody who had never worked for that paper until recently, I assure noble Lords that I have been so impressed by the care that the journalists take in what they write.
But, like the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, I am not sorry that I am not now embarking on a career in journalism, because it is a very different career. Too many of the people who set off with grand ideas find themselves chained to a screen and never really allowed out, even to meet real people.
How different it is from those days when Lord Rees-Mogg—as he was then—never had anything to do with a keyboard and would phone in his copy to people who would take it down verbatim. Occasionally, of course, the odd typo slipped in. One went all the way through and, on the page in which the column appeared, Rees-Mogg informed the world that the Queen had just carried out her task with all the aplomb with which she “shot peasants”. I looked it up online and found the photograph that proved that she did indeed do this—the caption said, “The Queen and Prince Philip celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary with a peasant shoot”. If anyone is interested, it is in the Waterford Whisperer. I tell the story merely because it is evidence of fake news in the extreme, which is what we have to cope with.
Much has been said in this debate about the power of the platforms, and this excellent report, for which we owe our thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, and his committee, puts a lot of stress on that. I support the proposals to try to curb that power, but I do not underestimate the difficulties there will be.
However, today I will concentrate on two issues. The first is the importance of media holding power to account, particularly politicians. We have seen the media doing that very well during the last year or so, over PPE contracts, for instance, and most recently the Pandora Papers. What was most interesting about that was that 160 news outlets—normally the most competitive of organisations—combined their efforts to make a point and release some really valuable information that they had worked on so hard for so long.
It is really important that those organisations have the power to continue to do that, and to do so at a national and local level. The Government’s research has found that turnout in local elections is higher when there is good local media coverage. Luckily, the BBC is there to support local media. Since 2018, it has built up a team of 165 local democracy reporters, who make their work available over local news media. It is really important that that should continue.
It is also essential that the media functions not merely to convey the content of press releases but to question what is already being said. The process of education will help, and the report is very sound on that, but the process of educating people to be quite sceptical about what they read will take time. In the meantime, work such as that done by Full Fact, the charity of the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, is very valuable, but so is the work of the BBC with its Reality Check website, which is essential reading for anybody who wants to know the truth. Certainly, its dissection of the Prime Minister’s conference speech should be made widely available.
That takes me to my second point: the regulation of the BBC and beyond. Ofcom is a hugely powerful organisation with a wide reach. It does not regulate newspapers but does regulate just about every aspect of TV and radio, including the BBC. Since January this year, Ofcom has been awaiting a new chair. An acting chair was put in place at the beginning of the year, until 30 June, while the appointment process for a permanent chair was completed. This powerful media regulator is still without a permanent chair. It appears that the process to interview and appoint one has stalled. So, while I genuinely welcome the noble Lord to his new position as Minister, I also apologise for asking him whether he can he bring the House up to date on the process for appointing a chairman of Ofcom.
My Lords, this report is packed full of useful insights into the challenges facing contemporary journalism. I am especially pleased to see that at last—if rather belatedly—the problem of lack of diversity has been expanded beyond representation to include the urgent need for diversity of opinion. The problem of groupthink for journalistic impartiality is well described in the report. I agree with Sir Robbie Gibb that too often journalists are stuck in echo chambers and therefore misread the mood of the country, as they did with Brexit, too often mistaking Twitter for public opinion.
I am glad that the report notes the problem of confirmation bias. However, identifying a problem does not solve it. I am not so convinced by the proposed solution of getting Ofcom to collect data on a larger number of demographic characteristics of staff, such as socioeconomic background, because it seems to me that that is just another version of representational identity head counting that misses the point.
I am more persuaded by the report’s focus on the problem of an over-academicised journalistic profession. The tried and tested tradition of school leavers joining local newspapers as apprentices in the heart of communities, learning their trade by covering, for example, court cases and council meetings, would do more than valuably restore journalism’s key role of holding all public bodies to account. It might also drag journalism out of its rarefied ivory tower—and it might save us from the cack-handed reportage of the London media venturing into red wall areas like anthropologists discovering new exotic tribes.
One key area I do have qualms about is the treatment of the public’s mistrust of media institutions. I am squeamish about the seeming assumption that the problem here is one of the public’s ignorance. The disproportionate emphasis in the report on media literacy as a vehicle for restoring trust implies that it is the public who need educating—as though the media were blameless.
This becomes clearer in the discussion on how to train citizens to detect misinformation. Surely it is more complicated than that—especially as the term “misinformation” has increasingly little to do with factual accuracy and is regularly weaponised to delegitimise opinions that journalists and politicians deem dangerous or offensive, or which simply do not fit into a narrow official narrative.
Although the report, and the Government’s response, reassuringly stress the importance of a free press, I would say that media freedom has rarely confronted so many censorious trends. Those often come in the guise of fighting misinformation and fake news, and that is where we see the real threat to free media.
Ofcom’s coronavirus guidance heavy-handedly instructed broadcasters not to feature stories that, first, undermined people’s trust in the advice of mainstream sources, or, secondly, would deter audiences from following official rules. Surely, this veers close to state-endorsed suppression of dissent—as though the science were settled, and that was it. It turns the media into a behaviour-modification scheme.
As MP Steve Baker noted, Ofcom effectively labelled any kind of rational criticism as unscientific misinformation. This may explain a conformity of narrative, throughout the pandemic, from media outlets that differed from one another only in the levels of fear and anxiety they whipped up.
Meanwhile, the Government have encouraged big tech to become a “Truthfinder General” in recent months, in relation to alleged misinformation—at great cost to free speech and transparency. Ultimately, that denied access to a wide range of opinions and evidence, which were not made available to the public—or, indeed, to journalists.
Look at how those who tried to raise the possibility of a Wuhan lab leak had their social media accounts suspended, and how respected experts were lumped together with cranky 5G obsessives as agents of misinformation. Interviews and evidence were removed by Facebook. This in turn stopped journalists investigating what is now considered a crucial line of inquiry—but rather too late; the evidence has gone. Then there was the infamous removal of Talk Radio’s channel by YouTube. When digital giants feel emboldened by government to shut down and censor MSM, there is surely no room for complacency about freedom of the press.
In this context, I am less than reassured by the constant references to the online safety Bill as a protector of media freedom—hardly, when the Bill would mandate, and therefore empower, big tech to remove so-called misinformation, all enforced by Ofcom. This is a recipe for censorship.
Finally, there are new threats to a free press on the horizon. The media itself can be a victim of cancel culture. For example, the strategy of the online Twitter mobs unleashed by the NGO Stop Funding Hunt—sorry, I mean Stop Funding Hate—is to bully a variety of businesses to cancel advertising in certain media outlets, usually tabloids, but more recently GB News. The idea is to punish financially editorial “wrongthink”, and that is chilling. So I hope the committee will look into new threats to media freedom. I regret that, when it does that, one of the greatest threats it will have to consider is the forthcoming online safety Bill—unless some of us can stop it.
My Lords, I too congratulate the Minister on his new appointment. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, because we are basically saying the same thing. There is much to be welcomed in this report and I had the privilege to sit on the committee in the early stages of its deliberations. It is a worthy successor to previous reports by the committee, which have illuminated the media landscape and made some excellent recommendations to the Government.
This latest report on the future of journalism in our country brings together two essential points. It describes in detail the multiple changes, online and in print, which journalism has gone through in the past 20 years, yet it also emphasises that, despite all the turbulence, journalism should remain underpinned by the same enduring principles of an open and democratic society. Of those principles, none is more important to the future of journalism than freedom of expression. Without it, healthy journalism cannot flourish, and without healthy journalism there cannot be a healthy democracy.
I am therefore pleased to learn that the committee intends to tackle freedom of expression online in a future report, but nowhere in this report does it define what it means by “freedom of expression”. Indeed, the phrase, enshrining one of the most cherished freedoms, merits only one mention. This is a grave omission. It sits very awkwardly with the Nobel Peace Prize given last week to two journalists for their courage in defending freedom of expression in the Philippines and in Russia.
We mock and condemn the People’s Republic of China for promoting President Xi’s thought as the only acceptable way of thinking, but how is this different from those in our country who, in strident pursuit of the culture wars, would ban certain words and people from public discourse, who would censor history and dismiss scientific objectivity as the work of so-called “white privilege”? If journalism worthy of the name is to have any future at all, these forces cannot be allowed to prevail.
Nowadays, it is virtually impossible for journalists to avoid stepping on one of the many landmines laid by the monstrous regiment of culture warriors. Only last week, the Times reported the concerns of Tim Davie and of Michael Jermey, the director of ITV news and current affairs. Each referred to the culture wars and how they were making life incredibly difficult for impartial TV journalism.
It is a supreme irony that, as the demand for diversity gathers unstoppable momentum, plurality of speech and thought suffers from the onslaught of bigoted ideologues. This is the road to perdition—a road that led, in the last century, to dictatorships in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia and that is already leading, in this century, to the dumbing down of British education, the rejection of common sense and the creation of a British version of President Xi’s thought—all in brutal violation of our traditions, culture and history.
In its latest report, the committee is very good at shining a light on the trees of journalism—too good, because it has obscured the wood. Improvements in training and media literacy are all very well and worthy in themselves, but what purpose do they serve? What values inspire them? If the answer is not to strengthen freedom of expression, this report and others like it are not worth it.
My Lords, this has been a fascinating debate. I particularly applaud our committee chair, the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert and the staff he has already mentioned, for steering us through this inquiry—and, in the process, disappointing the noble Lord, Lord Grade, as he described earlier—which collided with one of the most significant periods to be a journalist, particularly in news: namely, the global pandemic.
Our aim at the start of this inquiry was to ensure that we examined innovative and sustainable platforms for the future of journalism. We were viewing that future in the context of the changes and challenges, particularly in technology, which have threatened traditional print media. If anything, the pandemic at the beginning accelerated some of those challenges, but it also highlighted a demand—a basic democratic right—for accurate, trusted news, particularly in the midst of the tragic global meltdown. The problem has been particularly acute at local level, where newspapers have closed and whole communities no longer have access to reliable local news and information.
The current existential threat, particularly in an unfair advertising market, and our hopes that the DMU has the necessary powers to tackle that issue and introduce a media bargaining code, were clearly and eloquently explained by the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, and the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to that specific query and I welcome him to his new role. I remind noble Lords, following the Australia experience, of the dangers in solutions that benefit only the larger publishers—a point I will develop later.
The difficult task in this report was to keep ensuring that we had set our sights on the innovations in the future and did not dwell too much on the grudges of the past—however tempting that may be, and as we have possibly heard once or twice today. In a world where social media has been the source of so much untrustworthy news, it was particularly important that people knew where to go and who to trust. They needed to know how to judge which information sources were trustworthy. My noble friend Lord McNally and the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, gave us some of the answers to this vexed question. Clearly, one of those answers is to resolve the legacy of Leveson 1 and the failure to deliver on Leveson 2—something we as a committee could not examine, given the lack of consensus.
Until some of those fundamental issues of how to measure trust are solved, one area of evidence that was particularly interesting to me was the increasing range of organisations that provide online credibility ratings through either extensions or plug-ins—almost like nutrition labels. Companies such as NewsGuard, the Trust Project and the Journalism Trust Initiative are now often used by larger companies to make significant advertising spend decisions, thereby forcing traditional publishers to be more transparent. It is encouraging that, through this market solution, media outlets have had to provide information such as more detail about their journalists, about their correction policies and, above all, about who owns them.
If only the Government could extend that level of transparency to their own Public Service Broadcasting Advisory Panel, referenced in their response to our report but still to this day shrouded in mystery: it never reports and it never even reports when it meets. In fact, there is very little information about how it was selected in the first place. I wonder whether the Minister could enlighten us in his response.
New initiatives to create greater transparency and therefore trust are welcome, as is anything that puts greater control in the hands of the consumer—which is why it is so important that so many noble Lords have referenced digital literacy. I am only sorry that the Government’s response to me, unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, was so uninspiring in comparison with the CLEMI initiative in France that we recommended they strongly consider. The lack of co-ordination in this area remains disappointing, and I believe it is a missed opportunity.
Another missed opportunity from the Government’s response is their refusal to play a greater role in co-ordinating some of the excellent initiatives such as the Nesta Future News Pilot Fund, the Facebook Journalism Project and the Google News Initiative, as the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, described. He gave us an insight into how it is possible to be a broker and bring together and co-ordinate initiatives such as those. I urge the Government to reconsider their reply on the issue.
Another initiative which the Government, in their response to our report, warmly welcomed was the BBC’s local democracy reporting scheme, as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, which, as they say, is making a valuable and diverse contribution to the sustainability of the press sector. A recent colleague of mine, Kiro Evans, is shortly leaving the joys of political public relations to go back to his first love, reporting, thanks to this scheme. He, like so many other young reporters, will be starting out in journalism and connecting people and communities through this great initiative. He is young, he is talented, he is black, and I hope he goes all the way.
While our report applauds some of the blind testing initiatives in the sector to ensure strong diversity, when we scratched the surface and looked in the boardroom and among the columnists, as in so many other sectors, the diversity challenge still has simply not been met. That is why I also support a revisit of the YouGov request about diversity.
Given the criticism of the LDRS when internally reviewed by the BBC last year and the fact that the vast majority of the scheme’s annual £8 million allocation goes to the UK’s three biggest local news groups—Reach, Newsquest and National World—it did seem a little like sour grapes when the representative body of those groups, the News Media Association, in a quote referenced by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, attacked the BBC for investing in 100 new digital community journalists while its members benefit directly from that licence money.
The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, touched on an issue which I found particularly interesting and made me hopeful for the future: charitable status criteria. We heard evidence that the UK lacks the philanthropic journalism which is able to register under the Internal Revenue Service’s tax code in the US. The Public Interest News Foundation was able to give us some insight into changes in France, Germany and Canada on this front. While I appreciate that, as the noble Lord explained, these remain baby steps, they are still worth examining and the Charity Commission’s decision that PINF is established for charitable purposes in recognition of public interest journalism is one to watch.
As Professor Steve Barnett put it in his written evidence, there is a need to support the
“growing culture of entrepreneurial journalism using digital media outlets, which are clearly capable of fulfilling some of the key informational, watchdog and investigative functions that local communities require”.
Sadly indicative of the attitude of this Government to such entrepreneurialism in media was the use of the “All in, all together” advertising funds at the start of the pandemic—a laudable initiative to prop up an industry in trouble. What a shame, then, that—as the then Minister John Whittingdale explained to us—the vast majority of those funds were allocated to members of the NMA, which represents the large publishers. A healthy media economy must surely include both large and small publishers; national groups and local independents; legacy print titles and digital natives. By favouring one part of the industry over another, the Government will inevitably foster suspicion and mistrust.
If we are to foster innovation and growth in this sector, the Government need to have an open mind about the small independents. Indeed, in both devolved nations, the Cairncross recommendations to invest in local news are currently under consideration. The blanket “No” from this Government is a wasted opportunity and, to me, seems frankly short-sighted.
I will spend as much time on the subject of Twitter as do most people going about their normal lives—and as the evidence in our report showed that they do. That has already been disproportionate and way too long. I expect that most people do not spend any time on Twitter. We seem to obsess about it far too much in this place, and most of the population are, very sensibly, elsewhere and not paying any attention. They are very sensible people for that.
Finally, I worry about a level playing field regarding the BBC. I want to go back to the comments I made at the start. Trust has never been so important. Which institution is by far the most trusted for news and information, not just about the pandemic but about all information and knowledge as we go about our lives as active, democratic citizens? It remains the BBC. Undermining that precious gift and global showcase is an act of self-harm.
Like others, I welcome this report heartily and hope that it makes a significant contribution. I am sad to have recently left the committee. It was an absolute joy to serve on and I wish all colleagues on it much success in the future.
My Lords, I join others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, on producing an excellent and genuinely informative report. It has probably been beneficial that we have not got around to discussing it for close on a year; that year has been time well spent in understanding better how the media market and breaking news have changed as a result of the pandemic. I join others in observing that it has really put our media networks and journalists to the test. For the large part, they have come through with flying colours.
I also welcome the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, to his new brief. It is a long way from Whitley Bay to Whitehall, but I am sure he will make that leap eminently well in his new-found berth.
A few years back, we welcomed the report of the Cairncross review. While we did not agree with 100% of its contents, we were pleased that it recognised a number of the significant challenges facing the journalism sector. We also, in that vein, welcome Breaking News for the way in which it has covered many of the contemporary issues. We recognise that some limited steps have now been taken by the Government since the publication of the review, particularly on media literacy. DCMS’s response to this committee report shows that a number of additional projects are under way, albeit at different rates of progress.
We think that journalism, particularly its more modern and traditional strands, was already facing big challenges prior to the Covid pandemic. I suppose the committee and the Government recognise that the past 18 months or so have exacerbated those issues and sped up the transition to online consumption of news content.
Earlier this year, we watched with fascination as Australia passed legislation that could force tech giants to pay local media outlets a fairer fee when carrying their content—an issue that has been echoed in our discussions today. This, in turn, led to voluntary agreements being struck with local and regional outlets facing particularly significant challenges in the modern era. What work is DCMS doing to promote fairer agreements between publishers and platforms?
In its response to the committee, DCMS rather skipped over a number of the report’s recommendations, stating that it was not, at that point, appropriate to pre-empt planned or ongoing consultation exercises. Now that some little time has passed, perhaps the Minister can provide us with updates and advise us better on some of the responses that the Government made then, because those issues are still current.
In recent months, we have seen a consultation on the future of Channel 4 framed as part of a wider strategic view of public sector broadcasting. Does the Minister feel that the time spent threatening Channel 4, a great British institution that has a strong news offering, could have been better spent addressing some of the points raised by the committee? Similarly, and in the same vein mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Birt, the time that government Ministers seem to spend attacking the BBC and echoing some of the tabloid attacks on it could be better spent, too.
The committee recommended revisiting the apprenticeship levy as a means of encouraging more people into the journalistic trade. The Government have said that they are testing different approaches in this and similar sectors. Having heard today many comments from around the Committee, I think there is a very good case for doing this. We need to go back to the point where journalists come not just from those of us who have the benefit of a degree but from school and learning on the job. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on that subject, because apprenticeships may well offer us a way forward in broadening the base of those who enter the noble art of journalism.
The Government leaned heavily in their response on the draft online safety Bill. The wait for that legislation in a proper form appears to go on and on. We welcome the establishment of the pre-legislative scrutiny committee and await its report, but perhaps the Minister can confirm that the Government remain committed to getting legislation on to the statute book as soon as possible. Many issues raised today relate very much to that piece of legislation, and they are long overdue for a legislative response.
As with so many things in life, you do not always know what you have until it is gone. Historically, Britain has been a pioneer in the field of journalism. As the committee noted, journalism is an essential component in maintaining a healthy democracy. We cannot and in many ways should not try to halt the changes in the market for news, but, without interfering with the integrity and independence of UK journalism, I hope that the Minister can agree that the Government have a role to play in safeguarding journalism for the future. It has much changed during my lifetime as a public figure, and we have to accept that those changes will continue—and at pace. Government has a key role to play in ensuring that we have an active journalistic culture in this country, and one that does not dumb down our news content.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to respond to this debate, initiated by my noble friend Lord Gilbert of Panteg, on the report of your Lordships’ committee into the future of journalism in the UK.
The committee’s very thorough inquiry was a valuable contribution to the debate on a very important subject, as the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, said. Today’s debate has been equally valuable in its thoughtful consideration of the issues and the crucial role of journalism in our society. That is not surprising, given the breadth and depth of experience that noble Lords have brought to bear on the subject. As well as half a dozen past and present members of your Lordships’ committee, we have heard—to mention just a few—from a former chairman of the BBC and ITV, a former director-general of the BBC, and journalists at all levels, with experience at, among others, the Times, the Daily Mail, the Sunday Telegraph and the Economist, as well as the current chairman of the Independent Press Standards Organisation. I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Jones, is not the only Member of your Lordships’ House whose experience in this area began with a newspaper round. I shall endeavour to address the points that all noble Lords have raised in the debate but, before I do, I thank my noble friend Lord Gilbert for his very helpful scene setting and his kind words of welcome.
A free and sustainable press is a key requirement of a healthy democracy—a point that has come across very forcefully in today’s debate. As reflected in our manifesto commitment, local newspapers in particular are a vital pillar of our communities and of local democracy. They provide a valuable service, fostering democratic engagement, instilling a sense of pride and social cohesion, and holding those who provide public services at every level to account—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, and others. This role is under threat, in the UK and overseas. As one journalist recently put it:
“In many regions of democratic states what goes on in the courts, council chambers, planning committees, chambers of commerce, trade union branches, community centres, sports clubs, churches and schools now goes unreported because local newspapers have gone bust or shrunk to shadows of their former selves. Citizens of most UK towns and cities now have much less information about what’s happening in their localities than their grandparents did.”
As my noble friend Lord Gilbert eloquently set out, journalists around the world are facing very grave dangers as they carry out their vital function as a pillar of democracy—a point that, as the noble Lord, Lord Birt, pointed out, was powerfully underlined by the recent decision of the Nobel prize committee.
The crucial role of journalism at all levels has been further highlighted during the pandemic. As my noble friend Lady Buscombe noted, the press has performed a vital public service in providing trusted news and public health information over the past year and a half, as well as in countering disinformation and misinformation. But the pandemic has also exacerbated many of the industry’s financial challenges, which pose an existential threat to its long-term survival.
As society has shifted online, the sector’s income from traditional print-focused business models has collapsed. Revenues that they are generating online have not yet offset these losses, and government-commissioned research found that total news publisher revenue fell by 50% between 2007 and 2017. This decline was accompanied, over the same period, by a 25% fall in the number of titles and the number of journalists employed.
In response, news providers are seeking to innovate and adapt to changes in the market, while continuing to develop traditional journalistic skills and to produce high-quality content. It is therefore vital that we also consider all possible options in the interests of promoting and sustaining news journalism, so that future generations can be inspired, challenged and engaged by a free and vibrant press.
That is why the Government have made a concerted effort to support the sector in recent years. I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, and others noting that. Using the Cairncross review as our template, we are seeking to address the market failure in the provision of public interest news. We have delivered a £2 million pilot innovation fund, which sought to explore new ways of sustaining the industry in this challenging landscape. We have zero-rated VAT on e-publications, including e-newspapers, and we have extended business rates relief on local newspaper office space until 2025. We have published our Online Media Literacy Strategy, which explores how information literacy can empower users to consider critically the content with which they engage online, as well as support users’ understanding of the journalistic process—which, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and others rightly pointed out, is very important. We are establishing a new media literacy task force, which will bring together key parties to take collective action to address key challenges in this area in a co-ordinated way. We will also be legislating for a new pro-competition regime, which will help to rebalance the relationship between publishers and platforms. I will return to this shortly.
In the shorter term, reflecting the financial impact of the pandemic and with a view to ensuring that the sector can continue to carry out its vital role in the provision of trusted news, we designated journalists as key workers during national lockdowns; we included essential print workers in the “reasonable excuse” scheme, enabling them to leave self-isolation for work purposes; we issued guidance to local authorities to ensure the continued delivery of newspapers; and we worked with adtech companies to ensure that the use of keyword blocklisting technology does not disproportionately limit news publishers’ online advertising revenues for Covid-19 related stories. We also implemented a significant public information campaign, across both the national and local press, worth £35 million in its first phase, to ensure that authoritative information about the Government’s response to the pandemic was distributed through reliable channels.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Wheatcroft and Lady Grender, mentioned the Local Democracy Reporting Service. That is independently run by the BBC, which I am pleased to say has committed to continuing the scheme until at least 2027. The BBC announced the creation of 15 new LDRS reporters, taking the total to 165, from July this year. Funds for this increase have come from a reallocation of resources from the BBC’s £8 million per annum local news partnerships budget—but the Government would support any further efforts by the BBC to grow the scheme.
I turn to the particular challenges raised by society’s shift towards digital consumption of media. As recognised in the report of your Lordships’ committee and in the speech of my noble friend Lord Gilbert, online platforms have created new opportunities for journalism but have also challenged established funding models and disrupted the relationship between publishers and their readers.
Last year, the Government committed to establishing a new pro-competition regime for digital markets. At the heart of this regime will be a mandatory code of conduct designed to govern the relationships between powerful online platforms and the businesses that depend on them, promoting fair trading, open choices, trust and transparency. This will make an important contribution to the sustainability of the press. Noting the committee’s calls for urgency on this matter, which we have also heard from the industry, the government consultation on the shape of the regime closed at the beginning of this month. A summary of responses will be published and taken into consideration as we prepare to legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows.
With regard to the question from my noble friend Lord Gilbert and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, about incorporating a mandatory bargaining code in the regime, we have not ruled out any options. Our thinking here is informed by the responses to the consultation and by the work of the Digital Markets Unit and Ofcom, which together are looking at how a code introduced under the regime would govern the relationships between the platforms and publishers.
Turning from the economic to the social, the digital shift has also given rise to the spread of illegal content online. To tackle this, as a number of noble Lords mentioned, we are bringing forward the online safety Bill, which will give online platforms safety duties for user-generated content on their services. I am glad that my noble friend Lord Gilbert is among those on the Joint Committee giving this Bill pre-legislative scrutiny. I shall not pre-empt its work today other than to say that this legislation will safeguard access to journalistic content. News publishers’ own websites are not in scope and below-the-line comments on those sites are also exempt. Additionally, the legislation will bring in strong protections for news publisher content and wider journalistic content when it is shared on social media platforms.
As my noble friend Lord Grade of Yarmouth highlighted, copyright is another means of ensuring that publishers are appropriately remunerated for the use of their content. We are monitoring the implementation of the copyright directive and its press publishers’ rights in the EU with that point very much in mind.
The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, took us back to the Leveson inquiry. Since that inquiry, the media landscape has changed significantly and there now exists a strengthened, independent, self-regulatory system for the press that ensures that it adheres to clear and appropriate standards. We believe that reopening the Leveson inquiry is no longer appropriate, proportionate or in the public interest. Indeed, the Conservative Party manifestos in 2017 and 2019 set out our intention to repeal Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. We are exploring options as to how and when that repeal can be effected.
I turn briefly to the broadcasting sector. As Ofcom noted earlier this year,
“trusted and accurate national and regional news”
continues to be among the public’s top priorities for our system of public service broadcasting. Notably, in the first week of the pandemic, the percentage of people who said that they trusted information from the public service channels was over 80%—we should rightly be proud of that. We expect public service broadcasters and their journalists to adhere to the highest standards while respecting their journalists’ right to freedom of expression—noting too that public service broadcasters are operationally and editorially independent. Like your Lordships’ committee, the Government welcome the initiatives taken by individual broadcasters in this regard such as the BBC’s revised guidance for its employees on the use of social media. Public service broadcasting has a long and proud tradition in the UK, delivering trusted news, and it is vital that public confidence be maintained for fair and balanced reporting.
As noble Lords mentioned, the Government are undertaking a strategic review of public service broadcasting. The review, whose terms of reference can be found on GOV.UK, is looking at what a modern public service broadcasting system should contribute to economic, cultural and democratic life across the United Kingdom—which clearly includes accurate and impartial news and indeed current affairs programmes, as the noble Lord, Lord Birt, rightly underlined.
The Government have also announced plans to legislate to make it a legal requirement for major online platforms to carry public service television, including news, and to ensure that it is easy to find. In doing so, these changes will give effect to a government commitment, and the recommendation of your Lordships’ committee in its earlier report on public service broadcasting, to implement a new prominence framework in line with Ofcom’s recommendations.
Noble Lords also raised a number of points regarding the workforce of the journalism industry. Your Lordships’ report noted the importance of ensuring that people from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds who aspire to go into journalism are not put at a disadvantage, and that this is important in building confidence in our news media. Ofcom’s latest diversity report on TV and radio, published last month, illustrates that there is still a lot of room for improvement and that greater progress is needed particularly in the retention and development of diverse talent. We also acknowledge that the BBC needs to improve its culture with a new emphasis on accuracy, impartiality and—as my noble friends Lady Meyer and Lord Gilbert and the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, pointed out—diversity of opinion to ensure it does not succumb to groupthink and become detached both from criticism and the values of all parts of the nation that it serves.
While we do not propose to amend the statutory framework for diversity reporting in broadcasting as recommended by the committee, there are other levers that we can use to help to address such concerns, including through our support for apprenticeships. For example, we recognise the challenges of offering apprenticeships in sectors where more flexible working patterns are prevalent, such as in the press. In August, we launched a £7 million flexi-job apprenticeship fund, enabling apprentices to work across a range of projects and with different employers to gain the full skills and experience they need. As the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, rightly said, this is about broadening the base of an important industry.
I noted the points raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, about the challenges facing freelancers. The Government have committed to strengthening the powers of the office of the Small Business Commissioner, who provides a vital free service to support small businesses with issues relating to payments and disputes. The recent consultation on the proposed new powers for that office closed in December and an analysis of those responses is under way. The Government will of course respond and set out their next steps, but I will ensure that the points that the noble Viscount raised are noted by colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
My noble friend Lady Buscombe mentioned the importance of court reporting. The Government and the judiciary both recognise the important role that journalists play in ensuring our legal system is open and transparent and, indeed, that justice is not just done but seen to be done. That is why we have updated our guidance so that journalists, at the discretion of the court, may be permitted to record proceedings in court as an aide-memoire. We have published guidance for court and tribunal staff on how to facilitate court reporting and established a national media working group which, alongside regional such groups, brings together media representatives, court officials and staff from the Ministry of Justice to discuss ways to promote media access to our judicial processes.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, asked for an update on the appointment of a new chairman of Ofcom. As noble Lords know, the previous Secretary of State made the decision to re-run the process to appoint the Ofcom chairman, as permitted under the Governance Code for Public Appointments and following consultation with the Commissioner for Public Appointments. An announcement on the launch of a new campaign will be made as soon as possible. It will be fair and open and run in compliance with the Governance Code for Public Appointments. In line with the code, all candidates who feel they meet the selection criteria can submit an application, including those who have applied for the first competition.
For all of the challenges it faces, the long history and modern vibrancy of journalism in the UK should be a source of great pride. Its role in democracy has never been more important. That is why the Government will continue to support the industry to sustain itself and thrive through an unprecedented period of change, whether that is through our world-leading pro-competition regime for digital markets, our work to set the global standard for safety online while safeguarding access to journalistic content or our work to explore what a modern public service broadcasting system should contribute to economic, cultural and democratic life. My noble friends Lord Vaizey of Didcot and Lord Grade of Yarmouth asked for action this day and desk-banging. I hope that what I have set out today gives them and other noble Lords a sense of some of the actions that we are already undertaking as well as our appreciation of the work that still needs to be done. Today’s debate and the report of your Lordships’ committee have been an important and impressive contribution to that ongoing work, and I look forward to working with noble Lords in that endeavour.
My Lords, in the weeks leading up to the 2016 US presidential election, I was working for a bit in the United States. I have to say, I came back much more enthusiastic about the BBC and our news media than perhaps I have ever been. It is not just about our big national news titles; it is also about the local news titles which noble Lords have talked about eloquently today. The media is an important part of the fabric of our society, and local reporting is dying before our eyes.
This was a typically fascinating debate. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, I am glad that the committee did not bring press regulation into scope. A number of noble Lords brought a couple of additional issues into consideration today. The noble Viscount, Lord Colville, was right to highlight the plight of freelance journalists, and my noble friend Lord Grade rightly highlighted the additional point about copyright, which is very important. I always want to highlight the work of the committee, and I draw your Lordships’ attention—particularly that of my noble friend Lady Meyer and the noble Baroness, Lady Fox—to our more recent report on freedom of expression online, which highlights a number of the issues to which they referred.
I conclude by thanking all noble Lords who contributed, particularly those from the Front Bench. The noble Baroness, Lady Grender, proposed this report in the first place, made a huge contribution and has had the opportunity today to reply to it. I thank her particularly for her contribution, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, for his support for the work of the committee and this report in particular, and the Minister for a very fulsome response. On behalf of the committee, we look forward to working with him across our various briefs.
My Lords, we are not going to adjourn, but we will take a few minutes to bring the speakers for the next debate into the Room.
Building a Co-operative Union (Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee Report)
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, on behalf of the committee, I say how much we welcome this opportunity to present our report and to update the House on the progress we have made since we published it. I thank the missing Ministers this evening—the noble Lord, Lord True, and Chloe Smith MP—who were extremely supportive and shared our journey to an extent. We welcome the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, this afternoon and look forward to hearing what he says.
Part of the benefit of working closely with Ministers is that we benefited from working with their officials in the Cabinet Office as well. They were always, and continue to be, extremely helpful to us. We welcome the Government’s response although, in a way inevitably I suppose, it was largely a statement of principle and support and there was a marked absence of hard, practical acceptance of the recommendations, but we hope that will improve too.
I start by thanking the committee and congratulating it on its stamina, not least over the past year. We have done a lot of things for the first time—we are a rather unusual committee—and it has been hard work. I am very pleased to say that, on Monday, the Liaison Committee agreed that we will extend our work until next summer. We really welcome that, because there is a lot still to be done. It is a real tribute to the work we do and to the need for Parliament to maintain its scrutiny over the common frameworks. It is also a tribute to the connections we have built up with the devolved Administrations across the UK.
I am blessed to chair a committee with such quality, insight and experience, often in high office, of what the journey to devolution has meant and its history. It is what gives our committee its unique weight and perspective and has enabled us to talk very frankly to the devolved Administrations, Ministers and stakeholders. Our expertise has already been poached; the Cabinet Office seized the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, and took him away from us. Although he has probably not gone to a better place, he has probably gone to serve a higher cause. In exchange, we got another hostage, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, who brings intimate knowledge of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act. The only downside of meeting in person today—it is lovely to see the committee as we have not met in person as a committee before—is that we do not have the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, who has been a very important member and given us enormously wise advice.
I also thank our wonderful staff: Moriyo Aiyeola, who took over from Erik Tate, Tim Stacey, our absolutely splendid policy adviser, and Glenn Chapman and Breda Twomey, who keep us in order and make sure that we do not stray too far from our companion committees, the Constitution Committee and the Northern Ireland protocol committee, on which some of our members also serve.
My speech today is something of a common framework because there are lots of things that I know my colleagues will want to pick up in detail, and I look forward to hearing from them. I have to start with a rather blunt question to the Minister. I know that this is a new brief for him so we will be kind, as always, but we also have to ask some awkward questions. When he winds up, please can he tell us which Minister is now responsible for the common frameworks? Which department is now responsible for the common frameworks? No Cabinet Minister has yet been appointed to replace Chloe Smith. Does that mean that, from now on, there will be no Minister in the Cabinet Office responsible for co-ordinating and driving the common frameworks programme?
If the responsibility has moved to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, we presume that the Secretary of State, Mr Gove, will be the man in charge, but can the Minister tell us who the responsible Minister will be? If this is the case, it would have been nice to have been told earlier than now. I speak for the devolved Administrations as well. So we need answers this afternoon as a matter of urgency and credibility but also plain courtesy, especially to the devolved Administrations. I hope I am not being too pessimistic about this but I think the department will have to make an effort to make sure that the common frameworks are not seen as another aspect of local government, having gone into the department which traditionally has been about local government.
This debate is timely in many ways and the issues we raised in March are more urgent than ever. We subtitled our report “Building a Cooperative Union” because our work suggests that is what the common frameworks can uniquely do, especially when the political environment seems to be hostile to that ambition. Some of our witnesses said, in very many different words, that government relations with the devolved Administrations had never been worse. Obviously, we are not offering a holistic solution in our report—that is not our job and we would be naive to try—but it offers a pragmatic prescription rooted in what works.
The content of what we do is often technical, sometimes dauntingly so, but the context is wholly political. Although we are forced to focus on process, as the frameworks themselves do, the function of the frameworks is no less than to guarantee safe and appropriate services across the UK, covering a host of issues: nutritional standards, carbon emissions, food and feed safety, blood products and transport systems. Every framework is different, every department behaves differently, but they determine huge areas of health and safety across the UK.
Since the common frameworks emerged in 2017 with a set of clear principles, 32 frameworks have been designated to replace the rules which had been established by the European Commission to guarantee a functioning internal market and to protect the common resources of the environment, which is why over half the frameworks are concerned with environmental issues.
Much of this constructive work was virtually invisible, which is why it is a challenge to explain what the common frameworks do, but we emphasised in our report that these frameworks could play a unique role in creating new opportunities for collaboration and consensus across the UK, through shared information, interests, policy and process. Above all, they were the way by which the common framework of the internal market could be maintained at the same time as managing divergence, which was not disruptive. In short, the common frameworks are a new asset, they have huge potential and they should not be underplayed.
Since we reported in March, there have been some setbacks and these have been largely external. But there has been some progress and this is to the credit, not least, of the work of the Cabinet Office officials and, I like to think, of our committee itself, in the way we have drawn attention to inconsistency, sloppiness in some cases, and things that could be done better, including transparency.
Of course, we have been dealing with delay. Every deadline set by the Government has proved to be widely ambitious and widely missed. The first deadline was Christmas 2020, and the second was the Easter just gone; now we are told that it is Easter next year—we shall see. The fact that our committee has been extended to next summer gives us some scope.
As for progress, when the committee reported in March, only seven of the 32 frameworks in development had reached provisional status. In July, we had better news: a further 21 frameworks had reached provisional status. However, while the UK, Welsh and Scottish Governments had signed them off, the Northern Ireland Executive had not. That has now, thankfully, changed, and the Northern Ireland Executive have approved the frameworks agreed by the four Administrations. This is most significant—and I am sure we will talk a lot about Ireland this afternoon—given that it is clear that common frameworks have the potential to be a positive force to reduce future tensions deriving from the protocol. To support this, we recommended that the Government should ensure that policy changes introduced with the protocol should be considered through the frameworks, in just the same way as divergent policy changes suggested by the other Administrations are so mediated. That would provide not just parity of process but a more predictable and transparent outcome.
The Government have accepted that in theory but, again, to what extent it will be applied in practice remains to be seen. That applies to our other recommendation that the significant number of frameworks that intersect with the protocol should include processes for reporting on the divergence that occurs and its effect. We have not seen any evidence of those reporting mechanisms being developed since we produced the report, but they are recommendations that do not ignore political realities; they are a pragmatic approach to a problem that we would like to contribute to solving. Perhaps the Minister could update us on the Government’s thinking on those areas.
The second area that has obstructed progress is the interaction between the common frameworks and the United Kingdom Internal Market Act, which has continued to be a cause of friction between the UK Government and devolved Administrations. The Welsh Government believe that the Act unlawfully altered the devolution settlement, and they are pursuing legal action. The Bill was amended in Committee, thanks not least to one of the members of our committee, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and the Act now contains the power for the Secretary of State to create exemptions from the effects of the Act in areas agreed through a common framework. We recommended in our report that each framework should be updated to include a consistent and transparent process for agreeing areas where this very important power will be used. It is proving difficult to do that; it is not easy—and we look forward to the Minister, I hope, telling us that some progress has been made, because it is definitely adding to frustrations and delays.
I turn briefly to the internal challenges of the programme itself. Much of the insecurity and difficulties around the frameworks is due to the lack of transparency, and I know that my colleagues will want to pick that particular failure up. The lack of transparency inhibits success, and that should not be the case. We have proposed a simple solution that an open consultation should be included in the scheduled review that each framework is due to undergo, but that has not happened. I look forward to hearing what the Minister says about that.
We also acknowledge in our recommendations that frameworks are still at an early stage. That makes it difficult to make any judgments as to whether they will raise or lower standards, maintaining or diluting previous European Union standards. It is difficult to determine that since, rather than establishing minimum standards, the 11 frameworks that we have seen have largely included agreements on the process for the future agreements of standards rather than the standards themselves. Since we reported, I can give one example whereby preliminary documents on the radioactive substances framework include agreement on maintaining or exceeding European standards.
All this is taking place within the wider challenges of the future of the devolution settlement. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, is with us this afternoon, and very much look forward to his contribution. Indeed, we look forward to seeing his report being implemented in full, as we do the outcomes of the intergovernmental committee and the Minister’s response on progress. Where we as a committee can speak with authority and unanimity is on the need for a clear commitment to ongoing parliamentary scrutiny.
In our report we recommended that the four Administrations should provide regular updates to their legislatures, and to public reporting as part of their planned reviews of the frameworks. Again, the Government are very much in favour of this in theory, but the commitments we have seen have been, frankly, lacklustre. The Welsh Government have no such inhibition in relation to the Senedd. The UK Government seem to fear making such a commitment as far as our Parliament is concerned.
In the context and in conclusion, I put on record the fact that our scrutiny committee is doing things for the first time and in different ways—not least because we are a unique and welcome point of contact between the Parliaments of the four countries. Our warm relationships and our continuing and frank exchanges have been mutually valid: they have set a tone and a precedent for what could and should happen going forward. The strength of devolution lies in the balance between common and individual interests and common frameworks both exemplify this and have the power to strengthen the wider and critical relationships. We hope most fervently that this is something that the Government, and Parliament as a whole, will want to invest in. I beg to move.
My Lords, first, I declare an interest as chancellor of Cardiff University. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for her leadership on the committee, and the staff and committee colleagues. The committee brings together a unique breadth of knowledge and experience from all four quarters of the UK. We have members who have been Ministers in the UK Government and in the devolved Administrations —members who have been elected not only to this Parliament but to the devolved legislatures—and an impressive breadth of legal expertise. This report is six months old but is now more relevant than ever. Common frameworks do not make the headlines, but they can be an important part of the cement holding our union together. They recognise the autonomy of the four Administrations and acknowledge that there can be divergence based on mutual consent. However, to do that job properly they must be handled with full transparency, with full public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny, both here and in the devolved nations.
The committee has repeatedly questioned the restrictive approach to consultation on draft frameworks and we have been given a variety of reasons for this. At first we were told that there was a need for speed, as all common frameworks had to be done by Christmas 2020. That, clearly, no longer holds water. The Government’s response to our report justifies limited consultation by saying that frameworks are really just about ways of working together rather than being about policy development. However, that is undermined by the rather haphazard approach to selecting appropriate consultees. For example, why is one farming union invited to give a response but not all of them? Broad consultation is an important way to increase transparency, the lack of which has been criticised in all the devolved legislatures as well as by the chairs of two committees from the other place.
Lack of transparency leads to lack of scrutiny, and the frameworks process is considerably less transparent and democratic than the EU processes it replaced, with a public debate involved in the European Parliament, for example. Overlaying on this rather obscure process the shock of the sudden emergence of the internal market Bill, and one can understand how that struck at any vestiges of confidence that the devolved Administrations felt in the UK Government’s even-handedness. Our haphazard devolution process has not really moved on in essentials since it was established at the end of the last century when the Labour Party were in power across Britain. Nobody then envisaged the political diversity we now have.
Frameworks include processes for resolving disputes, but they are not robust because they rely on the UK Government representing England at one point in the process and then acting as the ultimate UK Court of Appeal. There is a dangerous power imbalance. For our lopsided union to survive, it needs urgent attention, and the Dunlop review needs to be acted upon forthwith. If there is so much distrust in the post-EU processes at this stage, then they will not withstand the pressures when the standards start to change—environmental standards, consumer protection and so on. Inevitably they will change; EU standards will be raised, or the UK might decide to diverge.
The internal market Act has entrenched the superior position of the UK Government, with very little space for the devolved Administrations to take account of concerns and different circumstances across the nations. There are very limited exclusions from the primacy of market access principles—much more limited than under EU law. This undermines devolved powers, so it is no wonder the devolved Administrations did not give their legislative consent and the Welsh Government took the process to the courts. Overlay on this the complexity of the situation in Northern Ireland, and the position is unsustainable.
The messages are clear, the evidence was clear from across the UK, and we are the messengers. The Government ignore this at their peril. Common frameworks are humble, even banal, but vital for the way in which the UK can operate co-operatively in future.
My Lords, I, too, declare an interest as a chancellor of a Welsh university, Aberystwyth, and an interest as a member of the First Minister’s advisory committee on the exit from the European Union. I also pay an enormous tribute to the stewardship and diligence that our chairman and the staff of this committee have brought to this task. If one looked at the title of this committee and the report, “Common Frameworks”, you would think this was an entirely unimportant and wholly dull subject. It is a tribute to the chairman and staff that they have made it both fascinating and interesting. Let me try to explain why before I turn to the detail.
It was obvious when we departed from the European Union that, as the devolution settlements had been crafted during the period of devolution, there had to be something in place, given the commitment that there would be no fundamental change to the position on devolution. It is a tribute to us as a nation—and I speak as a unionist—that we have innovated through this rather dull-sounding subject, because common frameworks are a constitutional innovation of great importance, which have not really been properly studied as yet. They have provided us with a way, which is important in any non-unitary state—and ours is no longer a unitary state—of devising a means of allowing the constituent elements to have a degree of freedom to differentiate but also to have a means of holding the union together. That is their fundamental importance and the fundamental innovation of this subject.
It was a great pity that the process did not get under way properly, but I do not want to go back over that—there is little point. What is important is that we now look to the future. I would like to look to the future under two headings. First, I look at the grind that is involved, because developing new constitutional principles is hard work and requires attention to detail.
One of the outstanding achievements of the staff of the committee is to start to analyse the frameworks. One knows, when we pass legislation, that parliamentary counsel are assiduous in looking at their books, working out what has to go in and making certain our legislation, our statute book, remains one of the prizes of the way in which we do things; but none of that exists for common frameworks. Therefore, it has needed an analysis—an analysis of the approach of the frameworks to policy co-operation, operational co-operation, joint risk assessment, involvement of senior officials, the frequency of meetings, the presence of advisory boards and groups, reporting commitments and the very difficult subject of Northern Ireland. All this needs analysis to make certain that these frameworks have a consistent constitutional principle.
Secondly, we need to ensure that there is detailed consultation—again, hard work—and then there has to be scrutiny. I hope it is not too much of a shock to my colleagues that we really need, in the end, to distil the principles under which these will operate. That is the detailed work, but it is so important because it goes to the governance of the United Kingdom. I read with admiration the report of the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, and I look forward to his contribution this afternoon, but it is hard to underestimate the importance of the frameworks in ensuring a strong union by getting right a co-operative effort to make certain policy is formulated on a common basis but, on the other hand, allowing a degree of diversity that benefits everyone and enables each of the separate nations to make their respective contributions.
One cannot underestimate the change that has occurred during the pandemic. I have been surprised, in Wales, to see the shift away from a firm belief in the union to a question over it. These common frameworks give us the opportunity to show the strength of the union and of devolution, but it requires hard work. That hard work will be to try—this is ultimately our biggest task —to make sure that people understand what is by its title apparently such a dull, yet is a highly important, subject.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas. He is a vigorous champion for Wales, devolution and the union, and I very much agree with what he said. I also add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, and all her colleagues for producing such a lucid report, and I thank the committee for inviting me to give evidence. Their report was already written before I gave evidence, so I cannot claim any credit for contributing to its lucidity.
In a post-Brexit devolution world, the UK and devolved Governments depend on each other to be successful. Covid has clearly shown that. This requires processes and structures to facilitate how Governments across the UK work together and reach agreements—the co-operative union of the title of the committee’s report. In my view, the need for co-operation is likely only to grow if devolution within England is extended. Despite significant devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the UK remains one of the most centralised states in the OECD.
As the work of Professor Philip McCann of Sheffield University demonstrates, economies grow more strongly when they grow more evenly, and they grow more evenly where governance is less centralised. Dispersed power potentially makes life more difficult for Ministers and civil servants. They will have to contend with stronger voices from the UK’s more peripheral regions when establishing national priorities and allocating resources. That is why negotiating successfully with and mediating between the demands of different tiers of government must be a core UK Government capability. This capability will certainly improve fast if devolution within the UK is extended.
Since the committee produced its report, there has been a reshuffle. Two of its most notable features in the context of this debate are: bringing together in one department responsibility for levelling up, English devolution and strengthening the union; and, formally recognising, for the first time, the role within Government of a Minister for Intergovernmental Relations. I may be naively optimistic, but to me this suggests a more joined-up approach. I certainly hope so.
I want to touch on two points in the committee’s report. First, it rightly draws attention to the reform of the way intergovernmental relations are managed and disputes handled. This work is an important companion piece to common frameworks—a layer above, if you like—to deal with cross-cutting issues and to provide a means for dispute escalation. At the time of devolution in the late 1990s, insufficient attention was given to how Whitehall needed to adapt to the changes and to the glue holding together the United Kingdom. The draft package of reforms published by the Government in March was promising. It recognised that mechanisms for managing intergovernmental relations must be jointly owned by the UK Government and devolved Administrations and underpinned by impartial support and evidence—something I certainly recommended in my report. Agreement on this package seems tantalisingly close, and I hope that when he comes to reply to the debate, the Minister can update us on progress.
Reformed processes and structures take us only so far, so my second and final point is that a genuinely co-operative union needs to be founded on a culture of constructive engagement. As a doyen of the dance floor, the new Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, Michael Gove, knows better than most that it takes two to tango. It is disappointing—to extend the metaphor—that the Scottish Government sometimes appear out of step and unco-operative: for example, when it comes to engaging with worthwhile UK-wide initiatives such as the Hendy connectivity review and the development of freeports. That is why the committee’s report—this has been mentioned already—is right to highlight the importance of greater transparency and scrutiny of common frameworks and intergovernmental co-operation. Each can play an important part in encouraging, from all the parties, the right and better behaviours.
Here the UK Government need to show leadership by allowing light to be shone into what can often appear an opaque and closed world. Perhaps the Minister could also provide an update on progress in this area. The Government got off to a good start by publishing in March, alongside the draft package of IGR reforms, a first quarterly report on Intergovernmental Relations. By my reckoning there should have been two further reports since, but I am not sure there have been. If I am right, can the Minister explain why and say when the next report is expected?
I conclude by thanking the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee once again for its report, and I hope the Government will heed its constructive conclusions.
My Lords, it is quite intimidating to follow on from such a range of knowledgeable speakers. I join other noble Lords in thanking the committee members and the team they worked with for such an incisive report.
Although it is an excellent and well-constructed report that demonstrates the breadth of evidence provided to the committee, it does not paint a very satisfactory picture of where we have got to in the five years since the referendum on the EU. I am therefore pleased to hear about the extension to the committee’s work. I echo the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, about the failure to replace Chloe Smith. This might not have been a major issue in England but it made front-page news in the Herald on Monday morning—obviously another football to be kicked around.
Having considered the document, one thing is clear: even if the common frameworks are successful, they can be only a short-term arrangement for joint working between the four nations—there I have to disagree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas. There is an obvious need for a more transparent and accountable arrangement for dealing with devolved powers that have cross-territorial implications.
The report reminds us that the UK was in the European Union when devolution occurred and that had that not been the case, far more consideration would have been given both to the powers of each of the devolved Administrations and to how England would be represented in such an arrangement.
Not having a codified constitution may have some advantages. It allows changes to be introduced quickly when Governments have to respond to significant political pressure, but, on the other hand, quick fixes are not always the best. In the UK it has resulted in a piecemeal approach to devolving powers, leaving a patchwork of different arrangements in different parts of the UK. Now is the time to rethink those unnecessarily complicated arrangements as part of the adjustment to Brexit. This ought to have been an opportunity to involve the devolved Governments in planning how they would share governance over the repatriated powers. The most obvious solution to me is some form of federal arrangement.
The last-minute rush to get the deal through Parliament and to negotiate the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement obviously failed to take serious account of the implications for Northern Ireland, but it also left questions about Scotland and Wales. It is therefore not at all surprising that the original analysis that identified 154 potential areas for common frameworks could not be implemented. Even the much smaller number that are being taken forward are obviously presenting significant challenges.
The UK is already highly centralised, and even after 20 years, the Government still do not seem to understand the purpose of devolution. The report gives the example of this in the UK Government’s decision not to involve the devolved Administrations in the development of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act. As the Government of the whole of the UK, this demonstrates a lack of respect and a failure to look beyond what is good for England—which, not surprisingly, further increases the lack of trust.
The common frameworks approach does not tackle a fundamental concern identified by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, that the Government are both a participant on behalf of England and the final arbiter in any dispute. Does the Minister understand and accept the concerns about the lack of transparency and trust that add to the sense that the Government have little interest or respect for democratic structures outside the Westminster bubble?
If the UK is to stay together, it must involve a change in relationships. However, there is little evidence that the Government understand this. Probably the only way to hold Scotland within the United Kingdom will be to establish a second Chamber where the voices of the nations and regions can be given parity of esteem and find out what they have in common rather than what divides them. Co-operation rather than competition is the key.
My Lords, I begin by paying my own very warm tribute to our chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, whose charm and good will has made membership of this committee so very enjoyable. I join her in thanking all our clerks and policy advisers for their contribution to our work, which has been invaluable.
People sometimes ask, “What’s in a name?” The answer I usually give is, “Quite a lot, actually”. That is certainly so in the case of the common frameworks. It was not the most stimulating of names to give this project—indeed, it is rather dull, as has been suggested. The words themselves are accurate and meaningful enough to those who know what common frameworks actually are, but those who know what they mean are few and far between, and there is not much about them to excite interest among those in government who ought to know and do not. The contrast between them and the internal market Act 2020 could not be more striking. The words “internal market” were well chosen. They have an instant appeal and require no explanation. We have done our best at the start of the summary of our report to provide as succinct explanation of what is meant by common frameworks as can be devised. But our explanation occupies two sentences, some 40 words, and most other attempts that I have seen are a good deal longer.
The approach to the consequences of our departure from the EU that the internal market Act takes is so very different from that of common frameworks, and that is a source of real concern. One of the core strengths of the union to which all four nations in these islands belong is the respect that we give to our separate identities. Consultation, discussion and agreement wherever possible are the guiding principles. All four nations are involved in this process, and where divergence is acceptable to all, the common frameworks will allow for this, too. That point needs to be widely understood and respected.
The internal market Act, on the other hand, was designed by and for the centre. Its purpose was to ensure that there were no harmful barriers to trade between the different parts of the UK. But by elevating that principle above everything else, as the Act appeared to do, it appeared to ignore everything that the common frameworks were designed to achieve. Only at the last moment, by amendments to what are now Sections 10 and 18, was any recognition given to what the common frameworks are seeking to achieve. That was an unfortunate start for a vital step forward before the Bill was eventually enacted. As several of our witnesses made clear, the imbalance of power between the devolved Administrations and the UK Government which that Act creates is very obvious. Those sections give a discretion to the Secretary of State to exempt an agreed divergence from the internal market principles, but it is only a discretion, which may or may not be exercised.
That brings me to paragraph 102 of our report, where we recommend that
“the UK Government should work closely with the devolved administrations to develop a consistent and transparent process”
for the use of those discretionary powers. Their approach so far to the issue of divergence has tended to be fragmented, with different Ministers in different departments taking decisions on these cross-cutting issues without full consultation with all the interested parties or the full and frank sharing of information that needs to be shared. Paragraph 12 of the Government’s response tells us that the process that they aim to set up is still unclear, and it is certainly not clear how far that process has gone.
In June of this year, the Institute for Government recommended that a central unit in the Cabinet Office should be set up to oversee the UK internal market, track divergence between the different parts of the union and consider its implications for trade, devolution and the preservation of the union. It is disturbing to read in paragraph 36 of the Government’s response that the role of the Cabinet Office is to be reduced over time. Our point, which I bring to the Minister’s attention, is that it is far too early for that to happen. There is still too much uncertainty about how this process will be carried out. Guidance from the centre remains crucial to its success, and it is likely to be so for a considerable time to come. I should be grateful if the Minister could say whether this point about the importance of guidance from the centre is really understood and appreciated.
My Lords, I am proud of our report. As a committee, we have worked extremely well together. Much of this is down to our excellent staff and, of course, our chair, my noble friend Lady Andrews. Her patience, intellectual rigour and wicked sense of humour have ensured that we have produced a report that honestly scrutinises the Government’s work so far in co-ordinating key policy areas across the UK post Brexit. I say “work so far” because, in our conclusions, we have found the Government wanting on several fronts—despite welcome, regular updates from the Minister, Chloe Smith, at a time that has been challenging for her personally.
As my noble friend Lady Andrews said, we need to ensure that the common frameworks have not become orphaned in the latest reshuffle when it comes to ministerial oversight. Because common frameworks play such a vital role in the practical, day-to-day co-ordination of policy, as Members have said, in 32 areas of the UK’s new internal market, our list of recommendations needs to be taken really seriously by government. Indeed, the Government’s initial response to our report has been encouraging, but the delays in finalising common frameworks have now become very noticeable to stakeholders, to experts and to us in our job as scrutineers.
It is not as if our current post-Brexit economy and internal market are running so smoothly that complacency on common frameworks can be the order of the day. Many of us are bewildered about how quickly our modern, relatively well-oiled supply chains and labour market access—going back decades—have ground to a halt in the last few weeks. The Army being drafted in and competition law being suspended is not a good look for Team GB.
The committee believes that, as well as delays, there has been a lack of transparency in the development of common frameworks, with parliamentary scrutiny across the four nations being, at best, an afterthought and, at worst, an inconvenience. Stakeholder engagement has been inadequate and, at times, bizarre, as the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, highlighted. The quality of some departments’ output has also been unacceptable to the committee, as our chair has said. The Cabinet Office, to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, has just referred, has taken a co-ordinating interest up to now, but sees future framework monitoring placed in individual government departments. That way lies either inaction or turf wars. We would far rather see in the future the four devolved Administrations issuing regular updates to their legislatures and publishing reviews of the frameworks.
A serious concern of the committee has been how the frameworks interact with the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. Yet, until very recently, there has been a backlog of frameworks in front of the Northern Ireland Executive, and therefore a delay in the scrutinising work of the Northern Ireland Assembly. We have asked how the dynamic alignment with the EU in the protocol will work with common frameworks not only now but in the future. We have not had very satisfactory answers.
The noble Lord, Lord Frost, has been bringing the kettle to the boil, shall we say, on the future of the protocol. In September, speaking to the British-Irish Association, he said that
“we need to see substantial … change”
in three areas:
“movement of goods into Northern Ireland, the standards for goods within Northern Ireland, and the governance arrangements for regulating this”.
Since then, we have had his Lisbon speech on the same theme but going much further. How does the Minister intend to deal with the effective management of common frameworks that intersect with the protocol in these coming uncertain months?
Before I close, I welcome the Dunlop report and am pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, in his place. We see common frameworks, in their capacity as voluntary agreements, as a great opportunity to strengthen relations across the devolved Administrations. Those relations certainly need strengthening if the union is to hold. The prospect of the House of Lords playing a new and useful role as a neutral forum for receiving the views of the devolved Administrations and bringing about closer interparliamentary co-operation is one we could all roll up our sleeves for.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, was characteristically generous to the staff of the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee—and rightly so—as well as to the members of the committee. But, if the truth be known, she has led us in an utterly unpartisan manner, melding the opinions of noble Lords from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, as well as those of the noble and learned Lords from the Cross Benches, into a cohesive, collective view. Her introduction to the debate was both comprehensive and clear, and was one with which we can all, I am sure, agree.
We have the advantage that we all seem to enjoy each other’s company—albeit remotely, as we have had to participate on screen rather than, as here, in person. It is also a pleasure to welcome my noble friend the Minister to his new role, and to see my noble friend Lord Dunlop in his place. Through his eponymous report and its recommendations, he has played a central part in the study of the union, the United Kingdom and all its constituent nations, and of course he also gave us some extremely valuable evidence—albeit, as he said, after the completion of this report. However, I have no doubt that others will follow.
I believe that in our committee we all share a desire to see the union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland flourish under the current dispensation. If any of us wants, for example, to see a closer political and economic tie between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, or greater self-determination for England, Scotland or Wales, we want those things achieved in a spirit of democratic and mutual respect, and not antagonism, still less enmity. We represent—in so far as this House can do that—each of the four countries of the union by birth and residence, and, if I may say so, we all bring a particular expertise and experience to the committee.
However, whether our focus is on Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland or England, as well as on the United Kingdom as a whole, we all understand the delicacy of the current devolution settlement and the difficulties that the United Kingdom Government have in representing the interests of both the entire union and of England. Our committee is not a body of revolutionaries; we want to see the post-Brexit transfer of powers from the EU to the four UK Administrations achieved with efficiency, with competence and with consent.
The report we are debating, although the result of a good deal of hard work, is necessarily disappointing—not because of anything we have done but because of the external constraints under which we have been placed. One of them, lack of time, has been lifted, and we are to continue until next summer. Some may say that what we have been scrutinising is no more than the tedious process of moving regulations from one political institution, in Europe, to others here. I caution against that glib opinion: the name of our committee, and the work that we have done, may not excite Fleet Street’s finest, or even Brexit’s praetorian guard within Parliament, but, as with a number of institutions in this country, those with the fanciest titles often have the smallest influence. Go behind the name of this committee and read the report to see what others we observe, with grander names, have—or, more worryingly, have not—been doing.
Having listened to Ministers and officials giving evidence to us, it is my experience that, in the United Kingdom Government at the political level, there is a lack of real interest in the process and in the work required to ensure that the process works well. This must be got right if we are successfully and consensually to move powers from the EU’s institutions to our own.
This committee was established in September 2020, over a year ago, yet we have been supplied with a very small number of common frameworks. The rate of progress in bringing them forward to us has been, frankly, lamentable, and the process of their development has been opaque. The surprise expressed by Ministers that we were, and remain, dissatisfied with departmental progress has been extraordinary. The detailed consequences of Brexit, if not spoken about by government before the event—here I give them the benefit of the doubt—must at least have been known and thought about beforehand. Yet there we were in March, when our report was published, and here we are seven months later, with a woefully small number of these frameworks available for scrutiny.
Defra is the department with most to deal with, which is why I mention it, but when my right honourable friend the Secretary of State was giving evidence to us recently he could not tell us when the process would be completed. My impression, and this may not have been shared by other noble Lords on the committee, is that he really had no idea what the timetable for his department looked like. To be fair to him, he was not the only government Minister to give me that impression but, across government, I see a lack of political drive and leadership in this policy area. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, in the direct questions that she posed to the Minister this afternoon and with the concerns expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas.
My other concern is that there is a lack of respect and understanding among the United Kingdom Government’s political leadership for the policies and desires of the elected devolved Administrations. I fundamentally disagree with the aims of the SNP and I find the attitude and posturing of its leadership tiresome, but that is the party whose Ministers happen to be in government in Scotland. I am not a supporter of the Labour Government in Wales either but, like it or not—I do not—it is the duly elected Government of Wales. I am certainly no fan of Sinn Féin and have my reservations about aspects of the DUP’s politics but, again, they are the parties in government within Northern Ireland.
My understanding is, from evidence that we had from witnesses from the DAs and other non-political interested parties from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that, whereas officials in Whitehall maintain good business relationships with their counterparts in the DAs, there is no such equivalence at a political level. I dare say that this is caused to an extent by mutual political dislike or distrust, but the Westminster Government are the Government of the entire country whose Parliament legislated for the current dispensation and, although imperfect and replete with annoyances, it is the one we presently have. I, therefore, through the Minister, urge the Government to work harder to forge better relations with the DAs for the sake of the future of our United Kingdom.
I want to follow my noble and learned friend and add my congratulations most warmly to the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, the rest of the committee and her staff team for what has been an excellent report. I feel that I am here as an interloper. I am a non-practising member of the Faculty of Advocates, have followed common frameworks closely and, indeed, matters relating to Defra over the past few years. I should like to limit my remarks to two specific points.
I applaud common frameworks as a success story in intergovernmental relations to which the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, referred. I welcome the fact that common frameworks exist where necessary for, among other reasons, ensuring the proper functioning of the United Kingdom’s internal market. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, alluded to, I acknowledge that increasing tensions and policy divergence have been appearing, particularly through the operation of the internal market Act, the Trade Act, the Agriculture Act and, most recently—as a number of us have been advised by the Law Society of Scotland—the passage of the Environment Bill.
Briefly, without going into too much detail—the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, may reflect on this in his remarks when summing up the debate from his perspective—Amendment 80 was passed by the House to Clause 20 of the Environment Bill relating in particular to provisions on forest risk commodities and environmental principles. To cut a long story short—I am sure that I could spend all afternoon talking about this because it is technical—I understand that legislative consent has not been granted by the Scottish Parliament to the Bill as amended in Committee. While congratulating my noble friend the Minister on his new responsibilities, I invite him to use his good offices in his new role to liaise and work as closely as he can with the Minister for the Environment, our noble friend Lord Goldsmith, to find a resolution to this situation before that Bill is concluded.
I also add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Dunlop on the excellent work in his report. It is a great tribute to him that the common frameworks and the work of the committee will build on the conclusions that he has drawn. That will also be a testament to the work of the department regarding the extent to which the union holds strong as we proceed over the coming months, particularly given the ongoing tensions on the Northern Ireland protocol, as discussed earlier in the Chamber.
The only other comment I wish to make, as my noble and learned friend highlighted, is that Defra has 14 of the common frameworks as itemised under the Bill, yet only one has a provisional framework. I note that the others have no document whatever. Having represented a rural part of north Yorkshire which is not a million miles from the Scottish border, I know that tensions will be mounting—the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, will follow this closely from the Northern Ireland perspective. If payments are to be made which could have a competitive impact on farming operations between different parts of the union, that bodes very badly indeed. Will my noble friend investigate why there has been such little progress in these very important common frameworks that relate to the work of Defra? Can he give us an idea of the timeframe? If he cannot, will he pursue this with our noble friend Lord Goldsmith, who I am sure will be able to report to him?
It is extremely important that common frameworks are seen to work as effectively as they were meant to do. I conclude by saying what a role the committee has in holding the Government’s feet to the fire and making sure that all four nations of the union can proceed on an equal basis going forward—there might be divergences of policy, but these should be kept, at best, to the absolute minimum wherever possible.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and to commend our chair and staff of the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee. It was a pleasure to serve under the chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. She was able, with our assistance but mostly through her dogged determination, to get at the Government’s reasons for the delays in scrutinising the frameworks and having them ready for our further scrutiny, and the nature of the relationships between Whitehall/Westminster and the devolved Administrations. She also ensured that we arrived at a consensus report full of strong recommendations and capable of implementation by the Government. We also received a response to it from them.
Coming from Northern Ireland, I will focus on that area. Due to several political reasons, there have been delays—now there has been some speed in the last few weeks—in determining a scrutiny position from the Northern Ireland Executive on those frameworks. Part of the reason was down to the lack of devolution for some three years and the fact that it was suspended. Then we had Brexit and the differing views within the Northern Ireland Executive on it and the, shall we say, unwillingness of the DUP and Sinn Féin to work together in the joint offices of First and Deputy First Ministers. As a consequence of those political permutations, we ended up with delays; some would say “We approve them”, but the other side would not. All that has simply manifested in delays in not only common frameworks but the general political process in Northern Ireland, which in turn has impacted communities and delivery for communities.
Our committee was quite clear in talking about the relationship between Northern Ireland and the common frameworks. We recommended that frameworks should include processes for reporting on divergence between GB and Northern Ireland, with results being
“forwarded to the EU for information”.
Due to the fact that the Northern Ireland protocol contains a list of EU rules that Northern Ireland must continue to apply in the same way as the EU does, as divergence starts to take place in Britain, differences will begin to emerge between rules in Britain and Northern Ireland, which could negatively impact UK businesses.
I note this evening that the EU has brought forward some very important proposals that will deal with all those mitigations in the agri-food sector. I hope there is the ability and capacity to accept those within the Government, the parties and the wider community. I know that businesses in Northern Ireland want to get on with it and do the work that they are employed to do to deliver for all of us who live there.
All of this raises several questions I would like to pose to the Minister. Have any significant issues been identified through the frameworks and how efficient have those frameworks been in facilitating information exchange with the Northern Ireland Executive? As already referenced, our committee has yet to see a concrete commitment on reporting on divergence in areas where the protocol applies. We recommended that
“frameworks that include a major intersection with the Protocol”—
there are some 32 of them, because they deal with agri-food and the energy sector—
“should include processes for reporting on the divergence that occurs and its effects”.
Do the Government have any examples of them setting up processes through frameworks to monitor the effects of the protocol? I will say this rather gently to the Government: my view is that the Government have simply obfuscated the situation with the EU. Whenever the EU has indicated, as it did this afternoon, that it is bringing forward new mitigation proposals, the Government have brought forward red lines. This begs the question: do the Government want a resolution to the challenges presented by the protocol? They impact on the common frameworks issues of divergence, general policy-making and devolution within the three nations and Northern Ireland as a region. The people of Northern Ireland—and that is a divided society—cannot any longer be used as a bargaining chip in the overall relationship process with the EU.
Only this week I became aware that some learned people have brought forward suggestions about the way forward on frameworks. I look to those viewpoints for potential solutions. As one authority on EU-UK-Irish relations has said:
“The UK government must have systems in place to effectively monitor changes to EU law applicable under the protocol and ensure that relevant information triggers discussions in the relevant common framework.”
I ask the Minister: is this happening, or has it been considered and, if not, why not? That authority also states that the UK Government should be in a state of readiness to gather intelligence about future regulatory developments in Brussels. Is this work under way? That is vital, because I am also a member of the protocol sub-committee and all this legislation that impacts on Northern Ireland keeps coming to us on a weekly basis. In that regard, it also impacts on the common frameworks. There needs to be ongoing work and a stop put to the messiness we have seen over the last number of months.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, to welcome the Minister to his new role and to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop. I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond as a member of this Select Committee to the first report of Session 2019-21. It is chaired so ably by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. I acknowledge her detailed introduction and record my thanks to the committee staff, colleagues and advisers.
This Select Committee is unique in that it liaises with both the Cabinet Office and Whitehall, together with all the devolved Administrations. With our membership, importantly, drawn strategically from across the UK, it is in an excellent position to support the development of a strong focus and respect for all four devolved Administrations, with a clear aim to assist in building a co-operative union.
During the committee’s sittings, we have benefited from speaking not only with Ministers but with many academics drawn from all corners of the UK, as well as from listening to stakeholders and businesses who supplied a detailed wealth of written evidence. During Covid we have operated as a virtual committee, which has enabled us to link up so easily with those many witnesses, aiding our scrutiny work immensely.
It was envisaged that the frameworks would be agreed and in place by the end of the transition period, but regrettably this has been hampered by a reduction in the capacity of the devolved Administrations due to Brexit and then Covid-19. The process has also not been helped by the variable quality and clarity of the documents produced by individual departments for the committee to scrutinise. The setting of the timetable is a particularly challenging one, yet I stress the importance of scrutiny frameworks going forward so that they can be continually strengthened to aid future trade deals. This committee has strived for transparency throughout our deliberations, while also developing ongoing collaboration and consensus between the four Administrations with respect to the importance of adhering to a clear mechanism to resolve disputes.
Common frameworks strive to play a vital role in the UK’s economic development, seeking to achieve higher standards across the UK in developing and achieving their full potential. One area in which this committee challenged was when a decision was taken for “no further action”. The committee was of the opinion that a requirement was needed to record a more open response and that the Government should therefore publish a short justification for each policy area, producing a more transparent process than the EU and enabling an expansion of a detailed stakeholder consultation for each framework.
I support the idea that the Government should publish frameworks as and when they are agreed or amended and where new frameworks are developed following the publication of draft framework documents as early as possible in the process to allow for comments from stakeholders. There are, however, ongoing concerns surrounding the practical implications of the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland with the end of the transition period, and work must continue to prevent even more friction. The Government must also seek to minimise divergence within the scope of a common framework, deliver clear timescales for resolving cross-cutting issues and seek more clarity on the extent to which common frameworks will be either GB or UK-wide in scope.
I welcome the publication of the Dunlop report, in which the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, emphasised the need for a new approach to UK intergovernmental relations. Promoting areas of shared interest, demonstrating mutual respect, seeking to resolve disputes with early interventions and supporting the four Administrations to pursue regular updates to their legislatures is the way forward. Reports must be acted upon. Finally, the committee felt it should have the flexibility to extend the process of scrutinising individual frameworks beyond 21 days if needed.
I am satisfied with the Government’s endorsement, in that they will publish frameworks as and when agreed and when new frameworks are developed and that they will publish those draft framework documents as early as possible. Further, the Government have agreed to provide more information on the “no further action” classification process; again, I welcome this.
Frameworks must be in place to supply businesses and consumers certainty when buying and selling throughout the UK, as well as to deliver a strong union. Some work has been completed by this scrutiny committee, but there is much more to do. I am pleased that our remit has been extended, but the Government need to support greater parliamentary scrutiny to add vigour.
My Lords, I echo everything that has been said by every contributor to this debate about our chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, says, she has welded a disparate team into a common purpose and has added to the dynamics of this process, which would not have happened had we not existed. Indeed, as has been hinted at, there was some element of drift and lack of engagement, and our committee has a vital role to ensure that that does not characterise the common frameworks as, I hope, they draw to their conclusion in reasonable time. I therefore also welcome the fact that we have been extended, because had we not been, I would wonder what would have happened to the process without our attention.
As has been said, common frameworks must seem dry, technical and esoteric, but at a time when the integrity of the United Kingdom is under intense pressure, I believe our committee has realised that that they are of immense importance—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, argued that cogently and effectively. They are not completed—they are far from that—and they have not been fully tested. However, the approach to the common frameworks has been welcomed by officials and Ministers both in the devolved Administrations and legislatures and in the UK Government.
When the committee began its work, relations between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations were at a very low ebb and got worse. When the UK internal market Bill was published with no notice or prior consultation and other legislation was being pushed through, the impression was given that the UK Government were using post-Brexit legislation to undermine the devolution settlements. However, the internal market Act and the trade treaties that flow from Brexit could strain devolution to breaking point if not handled sensitively.
The more we have considered common frameworks, the more I have been convinced that they encapsulate the approach that should characterise relationships between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations generally, not just with regard to the application of the frameworks. They are voluntary and they seek consensus, and although they are about the technicalities, not policy, it should be recognised that the practical applications that were previously carried out in the EU were done in an open and transparent process that has not been a feature of the way common frameworks have developed.
It has been acknowledged that UK Ministers wear two hats as English and UK Ministers, which means that they cannot be impartial in the final resolution, so some more balanced, open and fair mechanism will be required to resolve disputes if they escalate to that level. The committee has pointed that out and the evidence has been brought to us as we have proceeded. Mike Russell, then the Constitution Minister in the Scottish Government, told us that
“The relationships between Governments have been very poor and getting poorer”
and David Rees, chair of the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee of the Senedd, said that relations were in
“a state of suboptimal mutual hostility.”
If the United Kingdom is to hold together, there needs to be a reset of intergovernmental relations, which is why our committee welcomed the report of the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, and indeed the evidence he gave to us, which recommended the establishment of a co-operative union. That is what we need.
It may not be surprising that relations between the Scottish and UK Governments are strained, given that their commitments to the continuation of the United Kingdom are diametrically opposed. However, I contend that both are at fault and both need to tread more responsibly, carefully and constructively. The 2014 referendum produced a clear vote against independence and, today, opinion in Scotland continues to be deeply divided. Nobody would expect the SNP to give up its aspirations for independence, but nor should it ignore its responsibility at least to acknowledge that Scotland operates within a devolved arrangement and will do so for the foreseeable future. By the same token, the UK Government are entitled to present their responsibilities as they affect Scotland, but they need to seek consensus and agreement rather than provoke confrontation and resentment, which on occasions seems to have been the preferred option. That applies also to the very sensitive situation in Northern Ireland and to Wales, and indeed to the regions in England, which have their own agenda too. Reversing or overriding devolution settlements should not be an option any more than devolved Administrations refusing to accept the legitimacy of the United Kingdom Government.
The current friction over the application of the Northern Ireland protocol does not bode well. The Government negotiated and signed the agreement, and resiling from it will have serious consequences. If the temperature was lowered and trust restored, it should be possible to find ways in which to apply the protocol with a light touch, which may make trade between the GB and Northern Ireland affordable. Turning up the heat could make restrictions unbearable, disrupt trade further and threaten peace.
Tensions within the UK and between the UK and EU serve no one’s real interests, although some may see a populist pay-off in provoking them. In the long run, politics exists to resolve tensions. Meanwhile, the Governments of Scotland and the UK sometimes seem to indulge in exacerbating them. I detect that the people of Scotland are getting a little weary of this, and I would welcome a more constructive approach by both Governments, drawing on the positive experience today of the common frameworks process. They are not dull—they are a model on which we can build.
My Lords, this is my first time in the Moses Room, and it really is the House of Lords at its best. During this debate, I have heard wise and careful counsel from experienced colleagues from all areas of the UK and, indeed, all parties, ably led by my compatriot, the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews.
Common frameworks can be a model for co-operation between equals and for progress by agreement that can be applied elsewhere, and all three Governments of the nations have shown commitment towards the UK Government in principle and in practice. The time taken to appoint a UK Government Minister for frameworks has caused a delay in the programme, but I believe it is still anticipated that there will be publication of most frameworks for scrutiny by legislatures in the first half of November.
The committee has said that at least three major problems exist with the current framework approach. First, during much of their evolution, frameworks have been developed behind closed doors and with minimal stakeholder engagement or parliamentary scrutiny. The vast majority are unfinished and have still not been published, despite being operational. Secondly, their relationship with the protocol for Ireland/Northern Ireland needs to be clarified, as was so ably expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. Thirdly, more information must be given to Parliament so that it can scrutinise effectively the operation of these important intergovernmental relations, which remain largely invisible. Wales has already developed a parliamentary scrutiny model for the Senedd.
The Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee is central to the practical underpinning of the union as a whole. It is an antidote to the inflammatory and insensitive rhetoric that has surrounded devolution. This is the union in the service of the people for the people. The unnecessary delays and the fight provoked over the internal market by the Government, inspired largely by the Prime Minister’s former special advisor Mr Cummings, and the embarrassment that caused together with the difficulties in resolving it did not auger well for the work of this committee.
In Wales, progress has been made on the processes underpinning the common frameworks, on the strict understanding that this is without prejudice to the position taken in ongoing litigation commenced by the Counsel General for Wales challenging the United Kingdom Internal Market Act by way of judicial review, on the basis that the Act has not modified legislative competence or the ability to make different provision for Wales in the manner it purports to do. The Welsh Government have a hearing in January which challenges the lawfulness of aspects of the Act. Basically, it undermines the devolution legislation, and they think it is unlawful constitutionally. The case will be heard in the Court of Appeal. The Act has been a significant distraction and undermining of the discussions on the frameworks, which were intended to be collaborative and consensual and, to some extent, largely have been positive. However, the Act undermines this progress.
There are still issues regarding excluding frameworks from its reach, but in Wales the Welsh Government go further and say that it is unlawful in this respect, and they are engaging in discussions on agreements on a without prejudice basis, as I said. I am struck by the way in which Wales is leading the way once again on this challenge and finding solutions to problems.
The report recommends that the four Administrations should provide regular updates to their legislatures and public reporting as part of the planned reviews. However, there is still no proper political commitment to note updates on the frameworks to the UK Parliament, which again stands in contrast to the Welsh Government, who have regularly updated the Senedd on each framework.
The report highlighted this need for greater transparency in the common frameworks process and raised concerns about insufficient stakeholder consultation, as noted by my noble friend Lady Bryan of Partick. In evidence, Viviane Gravey, a lecturer in European Politics at Queen’s University Belfast, argued that the common frameworks process was less transparent than the EU process it replaced and that
“EU directives were debated publicly in the European Parliament and in the Council of Ministers, with stakeholders who could decide for themselves whether they felt they were affected, whether they wanted to speak about this topic and whether they wanted to influence it.”
What action are the Government taking to ensure that the common frameworks process is much more transparent and fully engages with stakeholders?
Furthermore, the committee recommended that the UK Government should publish a short justification for each policy area where they have decided to take no further action. The Government responded:
“Work is underway to provide further details on the process and rationale in the upcoming 2021 ‘Frameworks Analysis’ report.”
When is this framework analysis report likely to be published?
The committee also recommended that the UK Government should make up for the lack of involvement of stakeholders in the initial development of common frameworks by revising them based on stakeholders’ feedback. It also stated that parliamentary scrutiny of common frameworks will need to continue even after they have been finalised, to ensure that important policy decisions are made transparently. How will the Government ensure that Parliament is able to fully scrutinise the operation of individual frameworks in specific policy areas?
The committee notes in the report that
“relations between the four administrations of the UK are in a particularly poor state, and that UK intergovernmental relations need to be reset.”
I again ask the Minister what tangible action has been taken since the report was published and since the Government last gave evidence to the committee?
I conclude with an extract of what my friend and colleague Mick Antoniw, the Consul General for Wales, said to the committee on 6 September:
“Anything that enables the four Governments to work better together in a more strategic way will be to the benefit of everyone. Whether that happens or not, as you say, is dependent on good will and trust, and whether this is a genuine process.”
I thank noble Lords for their expert and learned comments in this debate. I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for moving this important Motion. I also pay tribute to her and other members of the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee, many of whom are here today. I appreciate their continued work to scrutinise UK common frameworks and, in particular, their excellent report, Common Frameworks: Building a Co-operative Union, which was published earlier this year.
The CFSC has added huge value to the wider common frameworks programme, and I thank its members for working so co-operatively with the Government over the past year. I am pleased to hear that it has been successful in its bid to continue its valuable work into 2022. The Government look forward to continuing to work with the committee in the coming months.
In response to the questions asked by the noble Baronesses, Lady Andrews and Lady Bryan of Partick, about who is responsible for this within the Government, I can be clear that my honourable friend Neil O’Brien has taken over this role in my new department, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities —“Deluck” is the appropriate way of pronouncing the department’s acronym, DLUHC. He is now the Minister for Levelling Up, The Union and Constitution. Of course that is now under the oversight and strategic responsibility of my right honourable friend Michael Gove, who leads the department. They will continue to be supported by the very excellent officials in the common frameworks directorate, who I know work closely with the committee.
Noble Lords will be aware that since 2017, the UK Government and devolved Administrations have been working jointly to develop the UK common frameworks. Common frameworks establish a common approach to policy areas previously governed by European Union law which intersect with areas of devolved competence. Central to every framework is the agreement between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations to work together to make better policy for citizens and businesses across the United Kingdom.
In the review of union capability published earlier this year, my noble friend Lord Dunlop set out that common frameworks prove that the United Kingdom Government and devolved Administrations
“can come together as partners in a common endeavour”.
It is that spirit of common endeavour that should ensure that frameworks maintain consistent rules and regulations for all across the United Kingdom. Furthermore, common frameworks should support citizens to make the most of the opportunities afforded to the UK following our exit from the European Union, and allow trading partners peace of mind.
Common frameworks have previously been described by the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee as representing
“an example of best practice for positive cooperation across the UK and have an important role to play in an evolving devolution settlement and in strengthening the Union”.
The UK Government consider strengthening the union as a key priority, as noble Lords will know. One of the central objectives of the newly formed Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is to level up our towns and cities across the United Kingdom. The common frameworks programme has remained focused on upholding this by continuing to strengthen relations between the UK Government and devolved Administrations. The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, rightly said in her article in PoliticsHome that
“the collaborative process of common frameworks can be held up as a model to build a stronger and cooperative union”.
Representing joint and collaborative ways of working, common frameworks have been developed carefully, drawing on industry stakeholder expertise from across the United Kingdom to establish effective ways of working. Under guidance from constitutional teams in the UK Government and devolved Administrations, policy departments have ensured that they engage with those directly affected by a framework during its development.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, said, my honourable friend Chloe Smith set out previously that UK common frameworks are “ways of working” documents, as opposed to policy documents, so the nature of any stakeholder engagement may differ slightly from one framework to another. Common frameworks are also designed to be adaptable enough to endure as society, the regulatory environment, and the economy change. To enable such changes, the relevant Administrations will continue to review and monitor frameworks on a regular basis and engage with the relevant industry and parliamentary stakeholders as appropriate.
Of the 152 broad areas where powers returning from the EU have a devolved intersect, for 32 of these areas the UK Government and the devolved Administrations have agreed that it is necessary to develop a common framework. The remaining 120 policy areas where no framework has been deemed to be required will continue to be monitored, and new frameworks developed if the need arises. Decisions on whether frameworks are required have been made, and will continue to be made, in agreement with the devolved Administrations in line with the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations) principles that have guided the frameworks programme.
The Government welcome the CFSC report Common Frameworks: Building a Cooperative Union, published in March and the important recommendations it sets out. My honourable friend Chloe Smith, in her former role as the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, set out the Government’s response comprehensively to the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee in May, and I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to hear the committee’s thoughts in person today.
The CFSC has set out a number of recommendations regarding transparency with which the Government have either agreed or agreed in principle. The Government agree that transparency is a key priority for the programme, and I am happy to state that since the CFSC report was issued, four further provisional frameworks have been published to allow for parliamentary scrutiny and one full framework has been published following final ministerial clearances. The Government are keen to rapidly progress towards publishing the remaining frameworks, and at a quadrilateral meeting just prior to the UK ministerial reshuffle, the then Minister and her opposite numbers in the devolved Administrations agreed that on resolution of the remaining cross-cutting issues, Governments should progress towards sharing the remaining frameworks at pace with legislatures.
CFSC colleagues have mentioned the various cross-cutting issues, including the UK Internal Market Act and the Northern Ireland protocol, and the importance for all frameworks to clearly set out how they will interact, or be excluded from common frameworks. I agree that these are important issues, and I note that considerable work has been undertaken at pace to resolve such issues.
In recent months, work across the programme has continued at pace and with some notable successes, which demonstrate the continued value of working collaboratively across all four Administrations. As noble Lords will know, some of the greatest challenges in developing common frameworks have turned out to be the cross-cutting issues that affect many or all of the frameworks. These are: the ongoing review of intergovernmental relations; the Ireland-Northern Ireland protocol; the interaction between frameworks and trade deals and other international obligations; and the way in which common frameworks intersect with the UK Internal Market Act. In particular, fully understanding the implications of the latter two issues and how they should be addressed in common frameworks has been the subject of much work throughout 2021. Indeed, the CFSC report makes distinct recommendations on the importance of ensuring that the UK Government and the devolved Administrations agree a means of using powers within the UKIM Act to create exclusions in areas covered by a common framework.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions today and will try as quickly as possible to respond to the many points raised. The noble Baronesses, Lady Andrews, Lady Randerson, Lady Crawley, and, indeed, Lady Wilcox of Newport, all raised the issue of transparency. Transparency across the common frameworks programme is a priority for the Government. It is for this reason that throughout the development of each framework, they undergo industry-specific stakeholder engagement and then later parliamentary scrutiny under the UK Government and devolved legislatures.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, I clarify that common frameworks are not developing policy itself; rather, they establish intergovernmental ways of working, which noble Lords will recognise may therefore require differing levels of engagement. Thus far, the Government have conducted early framework development stakeholder engagement across all frameworks, bar two lesser-developed frameworks, and expect to further engage with many of those stakeholders as frameworks are published, and as and when any significant developments take place.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, and my noble friend Lady Redfern, we agree that frameworks should be published upon receipt of appropriate ministerial clearances. Noble Lords will be aware that, as a four-nation programme, frameworks can be published only on joint agreement by all parties. As such, it would not be in keeping with the joint nature of the frameworks programme for the UK Government to publish anything unilaterally. To update noble Lords, prior to the recent ministerial reshuffle, Ministers from across the UK Government and devolved Administrations met and agreed to progress the frameworks programme at pace. Once the cross-cutting issues have been fully resolved, we will jointly publish the remaining frameworks.
The Government recognise the important role Parliament has in scrutinising UK common frameworks and welcome the CFSC recommendation that further scrutiny may be necessary once frameworks are implemented and future development takes place. It is important for me to clarify that, as frameworks cover a wide range of topic areas, each is being developed by a different UK government policy department jointly with its devolved Administration counterparts. As such, once a framework is fully implemented, any decision around future framework development, and therefore continued scrutiny, will be taken at departmental level.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport, the Government intend to share the remaining frameworks with the CFSC to enable parliamentary scrutiny by the end of 2021. I expect that those frameworks with lesser intersects and with various cross-cutting issues will be sent first. This will be possible once they have been agreed or amended, but I recognise the frustrations around the delayed publication of provisional frameworks. The rest will follow shortly afterwards.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, raised two issues. Yes, there is an important role for the centre in co-ordinating things, but policy departments must also have a role, as they are the policy experts. In line with the recommendation that the Government should work closely with the devolved Administrations to develop a process for using these powers, government officials and their counterparts in the devolved Administrations are working closely to establish a process for making and evidencing such agreements. Ministers have also met to discuss progress and to chart a path forward. I also take this opportunity to extend my thanks to those in the devolved Administrations who have made great contributions to this work.
A number of noble Lords raised the Northern Ireland protocol; namely, the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick and Lady Andrews. I can provide an update on progress in certain areas, such as divergence. Common frameworks provide the right forum for discussions about how to best accommodate policy divergence in a way that works for the whole United Kingdom. Where proposals for divergence arise, the framework’s governance structures will ensure that views from all parties to the framework are taken into consideration.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, on reporting, the Government welcome the CFSC report’s recommendation to include processes for reporting on divergence. Once implemented, the policy teams will review their common framework regularly to ensure that it is updated according to changes made to any of the cross-cutting issues that intersect with it, including the protocol. Departments will take over full ownership of the framework, which will involve monitoring and reviewing it periodically, and engaging with legislatures and stakeholders, including giving updates on any divergence that has occurred. The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, asked a question on divergence, and I hope I have covered most of her points, as best as I can.
I reassure my noble friend Lord Dunlop that the recommendations in his review align with the Prime Minister’s ambitions to strengthen the working of the union. We do not see these recommendations as distinct workstreams and many coincided with our existing thinking. We have made progress in implementing the vast majority of the recommendations, in some areas delivering above and beyond the scope. We incorporated many of the recommendations into the intergovernmental relations review. As the Prime Minister said in his letter to the First Ministers and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland on 7 September, due to the
“hard work of ministers and officials”
in all four Administrations,
“we are now in a position to conclude”
the IGR and
“provide a new structure for … engagement”.
I will have to write to my noble friend on the specifics of transparency reporting.
In response to my noble friend Lady Redfern, the Government very much welcome the CFSC report’s recommendation to publish justifications for policy areas where it has been decided that no further action is required. In the coming weeks, we expect to publish the fourth iteration of the annual frameworks analysis, which will include an explanation for each policy area where a common framework is not currently required.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan of Partick, the EU exit resulted in returning powers in 152 areas where devolution also intersects. No framework is required in many areas as we believe that there is a low risk of divergence. Obviously, we will continue to review that position.
On the specific point raised by my noble friend Lady McIntosh on the progress on the Defra framework, Defra has provisionally agreed all 14 of its frameworks and one has been published for transparency. Defra frameworks have the biggest number of cross-cutting issues which are being worked through. As she will appreciate, that is quite a job of work to do.
There is broad agreement in this House that UK common frameworks are a helpful way to ensure the continued joint working across the United Kingdom by this Government and the devolved Administrations for the benefit of our businesses and, above all, our citizens. I look forward to continuing to work with this House and the noble Lords of the CFSC as we continue to deliver the common frameworks programme.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. He will know now, I think, why the committee is so formidable—formidable to chair and formidable in its questioning. I am conscious that a great number of questions were put to him this afternoon. I think there was quite a lot of good news in what he said, but we will have to read what he said carefully. It is of the utmost importance that we get the greatest clarity—and, frankly, the greatest enthusiasm—from the Government for the common frameworks.
The question raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, is fundamental. The centre has a role here in making sure that the common frameworks are properly co-ordinated and driven in the right directions, in the right way and at the right speed, that they really work and make an optimum contribution to strengthening the union. We will watch very closely how the Minister’s department is going to manage them, and the level of transparency. I have absolute confidence in officials, and we are very grateful that we at least have the name of the Minister; I am sure that we will want to talk to him as soon as he is properly in place.
Many of my colleagues raised the character of the frameworks, saying that they look dull, technical and impenetrable. I should say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan, and other noble Lords who have spoken that there is no such thing as an interloper in this debate: we welcome any interest shown by anybody from any part of the House, and well beyond. We have talked about the misleading nature of the frameworks. They are so much more than the sum of their parts, as they deal with huge constitutional issues and possibilities. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, spoke of them as constitutional innovations. They illuminate the lopsided nature of power in the UK, shining a new light on what is possible and necessary through devolution, and the risks of the state of the debate on devolution. These are huge historic themes, not small, technical adjustments. Since the issue has gone into the Department for Levelling Up, it will become confused with a whole range of other issues and imperatives.
Our imperative is to make sure that these frameworks, which were and may still be precarious—just as the existence of our committee might have been precarious—are maximised in their impact across the UK, for the benefit of the whole of the UK. We will hold Ministers’ feet to the fire and we will want to see what progress is being made, that faith is being kept, that transparency and quality is improved, that timetables are kept, and that the impact on the ground for delivery is as it should be. If there is divergence, it must be managed transparently and constructively.
Everything that my noble friend said about the position of Wales is absolutely true. The internal market Act was totally disruptive, and there was a very serious chance that the whole process would lose credibility. It did not—not least because of this committee’s work. That is the standard to which we will hold ourselves over the next year. We will be vigilant and pretty ruthless about what we expect in terms of behaviour from not just this department but all departments across government.
Committee adjourned at 8.11 pm.