Consideration of Lords message
After Clause 8
I beg to move,
That this House disagrees with the Lords amendments 15B, 15C, 338B, 339B and 339C.
Two weeks’ ago, we considered Lords amendments to the Investigatory Powers Bill. In accepting unopposed all amendments that relate directly to the subject matter of the Bill, this House demonstrated the value we all place on legislative scrutiny in the other place, and recognised the many improvements made by their lordships to this important legislation. We welcome the spirit of cross-party co-operation on this crucial matter. I would like to put on record again my admiration for the approach taken by all parties in both Houses in contributing to this landmark Bill.
Together, we have created a world-leading framework for the use of investigatory powers by law enforcement and the security and intelligence agencies. We have strengthened the authorisation processes and safeguards around the use of those powers, and we have created a powerful new body that is responsible for the oversight of those powers.
During that debate, however, we also gave thorough and anxious consideration to the amendments tabled by Baroness Hollins, supported by others, which sought to use the Bill as a vehicle to change the law in relation to the regulation of the press. The amendments would introduce a presumption that a court should award costs against a publisher in cases of unlawful interception if it is not part of a recognised regulator, regardless of whether or not it won a case.
Did my hon. and learned Friend see the article in The Times last week by the noble Lord Pannick? He is not necessarily always a friend to the Government on these matters, but he very clearly said that the Lords amendments should be rejected, that this was an important and well thought out Bill, and that the sooner we got on with it, the better.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. Lord Pannick played an important part in helping to refine other parts of the Bill, most notably on legal professional privilege. Lord Pannick said that we
“should reject the Lords’ attempt to hold such an important bill hostage on issues of press regulation that are far from central to the bill’s purposes.”
The Bill does not, and never was intended to, provide for the regulation of the press. It is about providing vital tools for our law enforcement and security and intelligence agencies. The Lords amendments we are considering today differ slightly from those we debated last time. The noble Lady revised her proposal to remove the link to clause 8 in order to avoid any risk that it could have an impact on the provisions already in the Bill. She also added a six-year sunset, which she suggests means that the change could be allowed to fall away after the process of reform of press self-regulation is complete. I thank the noble Lady for her efforts to minimise the collateral impact of her amendments and I recognise the goodwill she is showing in doing so, but I am afraid that the fundamental problem remains. The amendments are simply not appropriate at this time, or in this legislation.
The public consultation announced by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who is on the Front Bench today, speaks directly to the concerns of those supporting the amendments. It provides everyone—whether a publisher or a victim of phone hacking, a parliamentarian, journalist, police officer or a member of the public—with their rightful opportunity to contribute to the debate on the issue of press self-regulation, which affects each and every one of us in this country. The consultation document not only sets out the position but asks a series of questions to consultees. The questions are wide-ranging and allow a number of options to be explored. As is proper with a consultation, they allow consultees to express their views fully and to provide evidence to support their contentions. A number of options are set out. It is not simply a question of commencement, but whether part of section 40 should be commenced to afford protection to members of a recognised regulator, whether to not apply the particular provisions to publishers outside a recognised regulator, and to consider whether section 40 should be fully commenced, repealed or kept under review. This is an important consultation. It allows adequate time for people who are either well versed in the issues relating to the Leveson process, which occupied this House some years ago, or come new to the issue and want to have their say, bearing in mind the passage of time since the introduction of section 40 pursuant to the Crime and Courts Act 2013.
The Government have been absolutely clear that they recognise the very serious intrusion and anxiety suffered by victims of press misconduct.
Will my hon. and learned Friend tell the House what the double lock for the most intrusive warrants will achieve, and why it is so very important?
My hon. Friend is right to remind the House about one of the truly innovative parts of the Bill. The mechanism proposed by Government was refined in Committee by representatives from other parties, as well as the Government. It allows for not only a politician, a Secretary of State, to make a decision about authorisation, but for that decision to be then reviewed by a judge who will apply principles of judicial review—not just Wednesbury unreasonableness, but principles relating to proportionality and human rights matters that are properly engaged in considering what we accept are serious intrusions when it comes to this type of warrantry.
The Bill is unprecedented and world leading. The double lock represents the Government’s commitment to maintaining the balance between the need for the security and intelligence agencies and other investigative agencies to be fleet of foot when it comes to investigating serious crime. It will ensure that, with judicial input, the interests of privacy and human rights are kept very much to the forefront of these decisions.
On press misconduct, we must ensure that victims have appropriate means of redress. The situation, however, is complex and the overall solution is far from clear. We must do our utmost to avoid unintended consequences of what I accept are well-intentioned actions.
The hon. and learned Gentleman was referred earlier by the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) to the words of Lord Pannick. Does the Minister also agree with Lord Pannick that there can be no doubt that the amendments are within the scope of the Bill, which was one of the Government’s previous objections?
The hon. and learned Lady will know that the interpretation of scope taken in the other place is somewhat different from the one both she and I understand in this place, having both served on the Public Bill Committee. I pay tribute to her for the considerable number of amendments she tabled in this House. I think we have to accept that the Lords’ interpretation allowed for the introduction of these amendments. The Government rightly had issues with some of the technical deficiencies in them. I paid tribute to the efforts made by Baroness Hollins to amend the provisions to meet some of the Government’s concerns. However—this is why we seek to reject the amendments—they have no place in a Bill that relates to the regulation of investigative powers. This is all about national security and dealing with crime, whether that be child abuse, trafficking, drug dealing or any other criminality we want to deal with in society. That is why the amendments are not only out of place but pre-empt the outcome of the consultation launched by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
Would my hon. and learned Friend not go further and say that a Bill on national security is precisely the wrong place for restrictions on the press, as it would make it look as if we were really trying to hit them hard?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Bill is all about balance and the importance the Executive attach to the way they seek to interfere or intrude into the private lives of individuals and to setting out clearly the criteria that must be met before they can act. It would be wrong to take any measure that sends a message that the Government wish to ride roughshod over the interests of individuals and freedom of speech. He knows that the consultation launched two weeks ago will deal with the very issues that have caused him concern over a number of years, although it would be wrong for me to pre-empt the outcome of that open process.
Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that phone hacking, which we hear so much about, particularly from those who support these press rules, is already a criminal offence for which people can go to jail? In addition, we have the libel laws, so anything the press does, in a major regard, is already very much covered.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to remind us that where we have existing mechanisms —and the criminal law is, of course, there—they must be used. To be fair to both sides of the argument, the issues about redress of grievance and the mechanism of press regulation, which he knows from his experience as a journalist has existed for years, are important ones. I know that he would be as anxious as anybody in the House to make sure that, rather than the focus being on celebrities and the like, ordinary people who end up as victims—chiefly of inaccuracies reported in the media—have a reasonable and cost-effective means of redress. He is absolutely right, however, to talk about existing mechanisms and the criminal law, and of course the criminal law was used in a significant investigation by the Metropolitan police that resulted in several convictions.
Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that, in respect of the consultation that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has set out, we have to get the balance right between respecting the freedoms of the press and the rights of innocent people who have never sought publicity but who find themselves on the wrong side of an investigation and need a low-cost method of arbitration to bring their grievances forward?
My hon. Friend the Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee puts it more succinctly than I did, and he is absolutely right about the balance to be struck and the need for ordinary people who might be the victims of misconduct to have access to meaningful redress of grievance, so I am grateful to him. Having been here in the previous Parliament, he and I will remember debating the Leveson process and the aftermath of the findings of Sir Brian Leveson.
Turning back to the consultation to which my hon. Friend referred, the Government have set out a clear timetable, and we have committed to responding to that consultation in a timely manner.
Who exactly is going to be consulted?
It is a public consultation and invites comment from all members of the public, from whatever corner of the country they might come and whatever interest—it might be no interest—they represent. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to emphasise the important point that the Government would welcome as many responses as possible to the questions posed in the consultation—and not just responses but evidence to support the contentions made by those who take part.
I should note that the Select Committee will be taking evidence from victims of phone hacking and press representatives and will makes its own representations to the Government through the consultation process.
The Government warmly welcome that approach. The work of the Select Committee—indeed all Select Committees—is invaluable and carries real weight, and the Government will consider it carefully when the consultation responses are assessed by the Secretary of State and those who serve her in the Department.
After the Government’s response, there will be ample opportunity for the House and the other place to consider and debate it in due course. As I said earlier, however, now is not the time to do so. The Bill, which we have all recognised is so important to our collective security, should not, with the greatest of respect, be used to force that debate.
I am glad to rise in support, once again, of these very important amendments. I believe that any member of the public who just heard the Solicitor General’s speech will be puzzled about the Government’s resistance to implementing an aspect of Leveson that they agreed to in principle some time ago.
Labour fully supports the Lords amendments and has consistently and genuinely called for the Leveson recommendations to be implemented in full. A new system of independent self-regulation was agreed by the three main political parties in 2013, following extensive consultation with victims of press intrusion, and Labour believes that the promises made to them should be honoured. If the best that the Government can come up with is that hoary old doctrine of unripe time—“It’s a good idea but not now”—they must be a little desperate. It is disappointing that we have to speak to the amendments yet again to get the Government to honour their agreements. It is a breach of the cross-party agreement, and breaks promises made by the House to the victims.
Lords amendment 15B would not be necessary had the Government fulfilled their stated commitment to implement section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which they have promised to do innumerable times. Happily, the amendment goes further than section 40 and would not require ministerial approval, meaning that it would automatically implement section 40 in relation to phone hacking claims. This would restate the clear intention of Parliament as previously expressed in 2013. Ministers have talked about riding roughshod. The Society of Editors, the National Union of Journalists, with the backing of the TUC, and many others concerned with the freedom of the press, have said that there is the potential to ride roughshod over freedoms.
Will the hon. Lady explain one point about the amendment? Why should the press be punished if it is not in fact guilty of phone hacking?
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will complete my next paragraph and then address his point.
The ability of journalists to protect their sources is a vital part of a functioning democracy. It means whistleblowers, important sources and others can divulge matters sometimes of the utmost public interest—there is a host of whistleblowers in the NHS, to take just one example, and there have been important whistleblowers in almost every area of public life. However, we have to once again flag up the powers in the Bill—although it is a Bill we support—and say that simply being able to identify internet records without ever examining the content would potentially allow the identification of whistleblowers in many cases. This represents a potential infringement of civil liberties, a riding roughshod over civil liberties and a riding roughshod over the freedom that ultimately benefits us all.
As for the point raised by the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), if the Government do not want to implement this aspect of Leveson and if they do not think it necessary, why have they on so many occasions, including to the victims themselves, promised to do so?
The claim that these measures will impinge on the freedom of the press is factually inaccurate. Instead, they would allow for a low-cost and timely mechanism for redress on behalf of those who have been or believe themselves to have been mistreated or maligned by the press. I repeat the point that was made earlier: this is not about celebrities, but about ordinary people who through no fault of their own get caught up in the maw of the tabloid press and have to put up with seeing their picture appearing on the front page of tabloid newspapers day after day—often on the basis of misinterpreted tips from the police force. These people need to be able to get redress. That is why we support the amendments.
This amendment 15B, which the Government intend to vote down, was proposed and improved in the House of Lords by the Cross Bencher Baroness Hollins and overwhelmingly passed. It would implement the same provisions as are contained in section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 in respect of claims against media organisations over phone hacking and other unlawful interception of communications. While there is a free-for-all by ignoring Leveson and a failure to implement section 40, the most irresponsible practices of the press, which can ruin the lives of ordinary people, will go unchecked without any recourse—except for celebrities and the ultra-rich, who can afford libel lawyers.
It was always envisaged that as soon as pending legal proceedings were complete, we would see the second phase of the Leveson inquiry. The Minister had a lot to say about the consultation. Does he remember that Leveson lasted over two years and cost £5.4 million in total? Having spent so much money and so much time—and particularly the time of so many distinguished lawyers—why on earth do we need another consultation? Opposition Members believe that this is merely a stalling mechanism, and we think that the Government’s continuing to stall on this issue is disrespectful of, and inappropriate for, the ordinary victims of phone hacking.
The hon. Lady mentions phone hacking again, so let me remind her that phone hacking is an illegal act. People go to jail for it. Will she acknowledge that this is already a criminal offence?
It may be a criminal offence, but the entire House knows that time after time, tabloid editors and their staff engaged in phone hacking, betting that the people whose privacy was being infringed would not have the money or the knowledge or the social capital to take them to court.
This consultation is the Government’s most recent attempt to kick this issue into the long grass. The victims of phone hacking—many of whose lives have been ruined—are being forced to relive the traumatic experiences of Leveson. The understanding was that so many millions of pounds were spent and so many top-flight lawyers engaged in order to arrive at a conclusion on these issues—not so that the Government could continue to stall.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the virtue of Leveson was that it was an inquiry held in public with an independent judge in the chair? The problem with the Government’s consultation is that it will effectively put politicians—and Government politicians—in the chair to re-run these issues in private?
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for that very important point. Leveson was public and engaged, and it expressed widespread concern. With millions spent on Leveson, the Government now propose a private, secret consultation.
The Minister said that this set of amendments was inappropriate. He has said that he opposes them because of the doctrine of unripe time. I put it to Members that it is for the House to decide whether these amendments are appropriate and timely. I support the Lords amendments.
I rise to support my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General in his resistance to the Lords amendments, which was based on principle rather than over-excitement or hyperbole. It seems to me that the motion put forward in the other place—no doubt well intentioned—does not entirely cover the justice of the case. Before I move on to the main part of my argument, I would like to declare an interest, in that I have some 40 or 45 years’ experience as a member of the media and libel Bar.
The first Lords amendment proposes a new clause to be inserted after clause 8, and I am particularly disturbed by one or two aspects of it. I fully appreciate that as a matter of policy and politics, we in the House, the Government and Parliament generally frequently make use of what I would call the nudge system of trying to encourage people to be of better behaviour. We introduce laws that seek to persuade people not to behave in an antisocial or criminal manner. Broadly, it is the use of incentives to encourage better behaviour, and I have a suspicion that that is what is behind the Leveson report and their lordships’ proposed new clause.
In some respects, the provision is in the wrong place. The Bill is about investigatory powers and although I accept and applaud the ingenuity of those who introduced the new clause in the other place, I believe that introducing it into this important Bill, though understandable, is not the best place for them to have done so. They risk imperilling the policy behind the Investigatory Powers Bill without advancing their own cause in respect of those grievously and adversely affected by phone hacking.
While the proposed new clause is, on the face of it, of course related to phone hacking, it seems to me that it is not limited to phone hacking. If we look at subsection (1)(b), we see that the defendant in question needs to be “a relevant publisher”—that is fair enough—but if we look at subsection (1)(c), we find that it deals with claims
“related to the publication of news-related material.”
It may be that the news-related material has come as a consequence of phone hacking, and as my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) has correctly pointed out, phone hacking is already a crime and the criminal justice system is already able to get a grip on it. When it comes to the consequences of hacking someone’s phone, there could be a public interest defence to the criminal charge of phone hacking. The newspaper might publish material that a claimant says is in breach of his rights of privacy or a misuse of private information or a breach of confidence, or it could amount to a defamation. None of those additional civil claims is covered by this nudge or incentive proposal. I think that we need to be wary lest a legitimate exposure of misconduct on the part of, say, a public authority or a person in the public sphere might be inhibited by this no doubt well-intentioned new clause.
The first point that I would make to my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General is that subsection (1) of the new clause does not limit the nudging or the incentives to the misdemeanour of phone hacking. It goes beyond that, and in doing so, it seems to me, could put a defendant newspaper or publisher in danger of being penalised for doing what might turn out to have been the right thing. As I said a moment ago, it might well be that the initial phone hacking was on the face of it criminal, but there might be a defence for it, and, moreover, the product—the fruit—of that phone hacking, legitimised because it was in the public interest, might lead to a further claim in a cause of action under civil law.
The defendant publisher might win the case, because what had been written might be true, and it might not be against the public interest to publish the confidential information because it had exposed iniquity or something of that nature. The defendant newspaper—if it is a newspaper—should therefore be entitled to win the case and defeat the claim. Under the new clause, however, although the claim had been defeated and the publishing defendant had won the case, the defendant would be required to pay the undeserving claimant’s costs as well as its own because the defendant might not be a member of some approved regulator.
I am listening with great care to what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is saying. May I suggest to him that the situation that he has just described is covered by the proviso in subsection (3)(b) of the new clause proposed in Lords amendment 15C, which states that the court may take account of whether
“it is just and equitable in all the circumstances of the case”
to make a different award of costs? May I suggest that in the circumstances that he has described, the “just and equitable” exception would kick in, and a newspaper that had a valid defence and had revealed iniquity as a result of hacking could pray it in aid?
It might if both new clauses became law, but it might not if the new clause to which the hon. and learned Lady has referred did not become law, and we were left with only the one with which I am dealing.
My second point is this. Why should a well-intentioned and successful defendant publisher have to risk the expense of successfully defending a claim and then having to pay the costs of the unsuccessful claimant? That strikes me as unjust. The House is famous for passing laws that are laden—replete—with unintended consequences. It seems to me, however, that when an amendment paper contains a proposal that will clearly lead to a problem—although I am not suggesting that it would be an insoluble problem—we would be foolish not to warn the Government against it. I am delighted to see that the Government seem to have mustered their forces and thinking processes in such a way that an unjust law will not be passed.
When I spoke in the House following the publication of the Leveson report, I was sufficiently pompous and self-confident to rebuke Members who thought that the inquiry, and the report that followed it, meant that there would be state regulation of the press. There will be no such thing as a consequence of the Leveson inquiry. However, I feel that I am entitled to warn Members who, like me, thoroughly disapprove of illegal phone hacking not to assume that once the words “phone hacking” have been uttered, that permits the House, the Government and the courts to rain down on successful, innocent and well-intentioned defendant publishers the burden of the costs of successfully defending a claim.
It should be borne in mind that defendants do not choose to be defendants. Of course they choose to publish the material that they have got hold of, but it is the claimant who feels obliged, or makes the choice, to sue the defendant. To be sued as a defendant is tedious enough, but to be sued as a defendant, to win, and then to be required to pay the costs of the unmeritorious claim must surely constitute even more of a punishment.
Is there not another choice that the media can make? Can they not choose to subscribe to a compliant regulator and thereby avoid the need for all the regulation and legislation that we do not want to see in the Bill?
Of course I understand what my right hon. Friend has said. He is one of the most sophisticated proponents of the “nudge” or incentive system of lawmaking, and I salute him for that. I sometimes wonder, however, whether it is a good idea to use the force of what are essentially the punitive elements of the legal system to encourage innocent defendants to pay the costs of unmeritorious claims. Yes, in a perfect world we would all settle our disputes, and people would not even provoke disputes in the first place; but to be compelled, on penalty of having to pay out large sums in legal costs, to join an organisation of which one either does not approve for one reason or another, or does not wish to join for one reason or another, strikes me as unjust.
I have been a victim of, shall we say, stupid conduct by the press. It is very annoying. I have seen others, not only my friends and colleagues but people for whom I have acted, having to deal with the misconduct of the media. But I would rather have a system which recognised justice—
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not see a difference between himself—as he has already told us, he is a leading advocate at the criminal Bar dealing with these matters on a day-to-day basis to earn his crust—and someone who does not have those advantages and who is caught in the same snare?
I do not wish to be rude to the hon. Lady, but I did not say any of those things. I am not a leading member of the criminal Bar. I happened for some little while to be a member of the media and defamation Bar, which may be a distinction without a difference as far as she is concerned. [Interruption.] She may disagree with me—she may disagree with me vehemently—but what we are trying to do is to pass good law. If my colleagues on the Front Bench, and those around me, disagree with me, fine: go ahead and disagree with me.
My hon. Friend clearly does.
I absolutely disagree with my right hon. and learned Friend. I have been sitting here listening to him carefully, but I cannot think of any other industry that does not offer any sort of guarantee. If people make faulty washing machines, they replace them, but if they publish stories about people, they have already made their money by the time they end up being sued, and that is why the papers have to bear some of the cost.
My hon. Friend’s intervention demonstrates to me that I have not made myself clear. What I am suggesting is that it is wrong for a claimant who has lost his case to demand the costs from the successful defendant. I am not suggesting that if I make a faulty washing machine, I should not be liable, under law or morally, to put the matter right. However, if I have made a good washing machine, the fact that my hon. Friend does not like the colour of it, or the fact that it revolves in any number of ways—[Interruption.] I am in danger, Madam Deputy Speaker, of reducing the level of the debate to something that it should not be. I will stop now, because I think I have made the points that I wish to make with sufficient clarity. Some will agree with me and some will not, but I urge the Government to be very wary about passing unjust laws for very well-motivated purposes.
Order. Before I call the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) on behalf of the Scottish National party, let me say that we have 19 minutes left in this very important debate and I have noticed several accomplished and learned colleagues attempting to catch my eye. I know they are as capable of making a good argument in three minutes as in 15 minutes, and I implore them to take the former course.
I rise to support the shadow Home Secretary and her motion to accept these amendments. I will keep my comments brief. I will not go into the Scottish angle because I covered that in some detail last time.
The other place is clearly seeking to use these amendments to bring pressure on the UK Government to bring section 40 into force. The SNP is happy to lend its support to that effort, particularly as these amendments would afford protection and legal redress for those who suffer as a result of the most egregious sort of interception without legal authority when phone hacking is carried out by newspapers. Those who have not hacked, do not hack and do not intend to hack have nothing to fear from these provisions. Contrary to what has been said in the newspapers by many who advocate on behalf of wealthy newspaper proprietors and contrary to what has been said by some Government Members, there is a get-out clause in these provisions where a newspaper is sued unfairly and unjustly, and that is the just and equitable exception. We have to trust that the courts will implement that properly, as we trust them daily to implement justice and equity.
In the other place Baroness Hollins pointed out what this is really about. A widespread criminal conspiracy involving more than one newspaper group lasted, and was covered up, for many years. It was combined with unexplained failures in police and prosecution action and allegations of political involvement in a cover-up. As a result, there was a public inquiry, which came to conclusions that were supported cross-party in this House. The Government committed to implementing them; they are now failing to do so. As I said in an intervention, they are seeking to replace the public semi-judicial inquiry that was Leveson with a consultation in which the Government will consider proposals behind closed doors without the benefit of submissions and evidence being given in public, and that is not right.
Does the hon. and learned Lady recall that the reason we reached the agreement we did was a determination that politicians should have no role in this, so does she share my frustration that we are here again in November 2016 still discussing this?
I agree. I was not here when these matters were previously discussed in this House but I followed that closely and it was all about taking politicians out of the mix. The Government’s consultation is putting politicians into the driving seat—and Government politicians at that. That is exactly what many of us did not want to happen, and it is what Leveson said should not happen.
I support these amendments because they now stand alone and do not impinge on the other provisions of the Bill. As Lord Pannick said in the House of Lords, these amendments are now in scope. They are supplementary to what is there already and they do not detract from the security issues in the Bill. I believe these two points meet many of the objections put forward by Ministers.
The amendments are on point and relate to the subject matter of the Bill because they deal with the consequences of unlawful interceptions of communications. At the risk of tooting the SNP’s trumpet too often, I simply remind the House again that new clause 8 came into the Bill as a result of a suggestion made by me and my colleague in the Bill Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands).
These amendments will apply to new and old phone hacking claims alike, but they are not objectionable, as being retrospective, because in considering how to deal with costs the court must look to the issue of whether the defendant was registered with an approved regulator at the time when the claim was commenced.
I believe the remaining objections to the amendments are misplaced. If the Government are concerned about these amendments causing delay to the passage of this important Bill, all they need to do is bite the bullet and implement section 40 and then we can forget about the amendments, and I invite them to do that.
In all the years I have been here, I have never before found myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), so I am deeply unhappy about this debate and the fact that I have been put in this position.
I also feel very uncomfortable with some of the things my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General has said, because I know that in his heart he, like me, would like to see low-cost arbitration. That is why I am so pleased with the Culture Secretary and the wonderful steps she has taken to keep people like me onside—people who passionately care about redress for ordinary people. This is the 21st century; it is the age of information and that is why the quality of information is so critical. We as a Government cannot police the media, and I believe my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) understood that when he put forward his royal commission proposals, but we must do our bit to ensure that the quality of information is good enough, and at the moment it is not.
What plans does my hon. Friend have for the internet, which is not governed by these measures and on which reprehensible things are said every second of every day?
The internet is not policed and that is as it should be, but my hon. Friend has to understand why people have stopped reading newspapers and take their news from the internet now. There is a choice, and the choice they can make is to favour the sources they believe in. That presents a different set of challenges to the individual than having a quality media.
I absolutely believe in the freedom of the press, but not in the irresponsibility of the press. That is why I welcomed the conclusions to the Leveson inquiry and why I welcome the Secretary of State’s inquiries. We have to get the balance right between policing and responsibility, and while this Bill is about security and information, I do not agree that it is an inappropriate place to bring forward this debate. Given what the Government have agreed to do, I think we should take full advantage of that, but we must remember that the people who are most likely to contribute are those who write for a living and are therefore most likely to be journalists. It will be difficult for the Government to maintain that balance of common sense, but I have absolute confidence that they will achieve it.
First, I echo what Members have said across the House about the importance of a free press and a press both acting freely and speaking with confidence to the powerful. We have seen the role of British investigative journalism in taking on corruption in international sport, where it could without fear or favour pursue its investigations and therefore brought down powerful and mighty people. We do not want that to be jeopardised in any way. At the same time we should be conscious that if we just implement the section 40 provisions as they currently stand, some of the biggest victims would be small newspapers and magazines that have never been part of these bigger things. We should also at this time reflect on the nature and purpose of section 40. That is why I believe the Secretary of State is right to have a further consultation.
The idea was not necessarily that the section would be required; the hope was that the press would seek recognition through a recognised authority and have a proper, robust system of self-regulation recognised by the press recognition panel. The press have decided not to do go down that path. Many of them have set up the Independent Press Standards Organisation as their own regulator. They do not wish to see recognition, which in itself would solve the problem; if IPSO had sought recognition we would not be having this debate about costs and extra damages, but it has not sought that. So this should be a time to see whether IPSO can become recognised, with public confidence, as being Leveson-compliant, meeting the standards and providing, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) said, the right level of proper low-cost arbitration. Section 40 is really about saying there must be a robust system of self-regulation and low-cost arbitration. If that cannot be put in place, the alternative is someone going to court and the industry having to pick up the costs in the courts, rather than paying for the arbitration system.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the demands that the nation puts on the media would be satisfied if IPSO were to establish the low-cost arbitration, even if it did not formally seek recognition? Does he agree that most Members would be satisfied with that as an answer?
My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. If such an accessible arbitration system were to be established—which would involve going further than the pilot scheme—it would be churlish of the House to ignore that progress and to insist on the point of principle involving going before the recognition panel. This matter should be pursued, and that is why it is right to use the consultation process to explore what more can be done to ensure that IPSO is compliant, that it offers the access to low-cost arbitration that the public want, and that it can win public respect as an effective means of self-regulation for the press.
I rise briefly to express my agreement with the Solicitor General and particularly with my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins). A vibrant, responsible local press that is able to speak freely and report stories within the law is a pillar of our democracy. It is something we should be proud of and always strive to protect. What concerns me, and the press, is the potential for the press to have done nothing wrong—having not misreported a story or wronged an individual—and yet to find itself on the receiving end of costs that threaten its existence.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe has eloquently set out, no one disputes that there should be a way for people who have been genuinely wronged by the press to have access to affordable and effective redress. It is beyond doubt that this must be addressed. To that end, I fully support the approach put forward by the Solicitor General and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in undertaking a further consultation to see whether a way forward can be found that strikes the right balance. The Secretary of State has adopted an open, measured, sensible and appropriate approach to implementing our clear determination to provide redress while safeguarding the freedoms and viability of our hugely precious local press.
This is an absolutely dreadful amendment and it should be thrown out, rejected and sent back to the House of Lords. It is fundamentally wrong. It seeks to punish those who might be innocent and to fine them for telling the truth and for saying things that people in power do not like. This amendment goes to the heart of our free press, and it should be thrown in the bin. IMPRESS is already an organisation of ill repute, founded, funded and paid for by somebody who is known to us only because of his misdeeds. A degenerate libertine has provided all the money for IMPRESS, which only the most junior newspapers will sign up to. It is a dreadful body.
We should maintain the freedom of our press to help us with our liberties. We have only to look at the policeman who went to prison a few weeks ago. He successfully sued the press in the 1990s, but it turned out that he was in fact a child molester. Whenever we put constraints on the press, we help the powerful to get away with misdeeds. This House should stand up for freedom. It should stand up for liberty and it should reject the unelected House of Lords trying to prevent scandal from being reported freely.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), who was most eloquent. I have a disadvantage in following such eloquence with a short speech. I believe that I have just a few minutes left. I must declare an interest in that I was a journalist for 17 years. Perhaps I saw a little bit of the worst, but most of it was good. It is the local and regional press—the majority of our press today—that I am concerned about. It simply will not be able to take the risk of reporting at local level, albeit accurately and fairly, lest it should incur a costly exercise in court, and that is not acceptable.
In the first week of my career, the editor called me in and said, “Richard, you cannot go far wrong if you report fairly and accurately.” I agree with other hon. Members who have said that the message to the editors must be that they should report fairly, accurately and truthfully. Truth is the biggest sword of defence for the press. As my editor said: if in doubt, leave it out. I implore all editors who want a free press, as I and many other hon. Members do, to behave honourably, truthfully and in good faith. If they cannot report something that they long to report because they know it will result in a huge sale of newspapers, I suggest that they delay publication until they have the facts.
I am here to defend the press, because the press in this country is one of the cornerstones of our democracy. I do not want IPSO to sign up to the royal charter, which represents state intrusion, not through the back door but quite openly. As I understand it—I hope that I am reporting the facts correctly here—IPSO is considering a system of low-cost arbitration. But what is low-cost arbitration? I suspect that local newspapers and those taking cases against them often employ expensive QCs. How do we cap the cost? I am not quite sure what “low-cost arbitration” means.
I agree that if a grievance is found to be justified, and the press is found to have got its facts wrong, it has a duty to publish that inaccuracy on its front page and to give it the same prominence as it gave to the original story on its inside pages or perhaps its front page. Any editor worth his salt should drag in the journalist responsible and say, “Enough is enough.” The free press: that is what we are here for and that is what I am fighting for. I totally back the Government in not supporting this Lords amendment.
We have heard many heartfelt contributions to this debate from Members on both sides of the House and I recognise the strength of feeling on this issue. Time does not permit me—
Order. I think the hon. and learned Gentleman is seeking the leave of the House to respond to the debate.
I certainly am. I seek the leave of the House to respond to the debate, but time does not permit me to say much more.
I congratulate the hon. and learned Gentleman on his excellent brevity.
15 November 2016
The House divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
That this House disagrees with Lords amendments 15B, 15C, 338B, 339B and 339C.
More than one hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of the Lords message, the proceedings were interrupted (Programme Order, 1 November).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83H), That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendments;
That Ms Diane Abbott, Robert Buckland, Joanna Cherry, Nic Dakin, Andrew Griffiths, Andrew Stephenson and Matt Warman be members of the Committee;
That Robert Buckland be the Chair of the Committee;
That three be the quorum of the Committee;
That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Andrew Griffiths.)
Question agreed to.
Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.
Order. If Members are leaving the Chamber following the previous business, I hope that they will have the courtesy to be quiet while we begin the next business.