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May I start by apologising to the Leader of the Opposition for the fact that he has only just received a copy of this statement? As he will find out, there was a development only about a half an hour ago that dramatically changed the contents of this statement—I have only just received my own copy—which is why we were not able to get him a copy in advance. [Interruption.]
Order. I want to hear the statement and I am sure that the House wants to hear it.
Mr Speaker, the events of last week shocked the nation. Our proud tradition of journalism, which for centuries has bravely held those in positions of power to account, was shaken by the revelation of what we now know to have happened at the News of the World. The perpetrators of those acts not only broke the law, but preyed on the grief of families who had lost loved ones either as a result of foul murders or giving their life for their country. I hope that the law shows no mercy to those responsible and no mercy to any managers who condoned such appalling behaviour.
As a result of what happened, the Prime Minister last week announced two independent inquiries to examine what went wrong and recommend to the Government how we can make sure that it never happens again. The first will be a full, judge-led, public inquiry into the original police investigation. Witnesses will be questioned under oath and no stone will be left unturned. As the Prime Minister announced on Friday, that inquiry will need to answer the following questions. Why did the first police investigation fail? What exactly was going on at the News of the World , and what was going on at other newspapers? The bulk of the work of this inquiry can happen only after the police investigation has finished, but we will start what we can now.
The second will be a separate inquiry to look at the culture, practices and ethics of the British press. In particular, it will look at how our newspapers are regulated and make recommendations for the future. That inquiry should start as soon as possible, ideally this summer. As the Prime Minister said, a free press is an essential component of our democracy and our way of life, but press freedom does not mean that the press should be above the law and in announcing this inquiry the Prime Minister has invited views on the way the press should be regulated in the future.
I also have to make a decision about News Corporation’s plans to buy the shares it does not already own in BSkyB. I know that colleagues on both sides of the House and the public at home feel very concerned at the prospect of the organisation that allegedly allowed these terrible things to happen being allowed to take control of what would become Britain’s biggest media company.
I understand that in the last few minutes News Corporation has withdrawn its undertakings in lieu. On
Order. Whatever opinion a Member has about this matter, it is a question of elementary courtesy that the Secretary of State should be heard.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Today’s announcement will be an outcome that I am sure the whole House will welcome. It will mean that the Competition Commission will be able to give further full and exhaustive consideration of the merger, taking into account all relevant recent developments.
Protecting our tradition of a strong, free and independent media is the most sacred responsibility I have as Culture Secretary. Irresponsible, illegal and callous behaviour damages that freedom by weakening public support for the self-regulation on which it has thrived. By dealing decisively with the abuses of power we have seen, hopefully on a cross-party basis, the Government intend to strengthen and not diminish press freedom—[ Interruption. ]
Order. The Secretary of State must be heard.
The Government intend to strengthen and not diminish press freedom, making this country once again proud and not ashamed of the journalism that so shapes our democracy.
I accept the Culture Secretary’s apology for the late notice of his statement, but the truth is that it points to the chaos and confusion at the heart of the Government. After what we have heard and the questions that have been left unanswered, we all know that it is the Prime Minister who should be standing at the Dispatch Box today. It is quite wrong that he chose to do a press conference on Friday in Downing street about the issues but is unwilling to come to the House today. Instead, he chose to do a press conference at Canary Wharf, just 20 minutes down the road.
The Culture Secretary has no direct responsibility for the judicial inquiry that he talked about, and he has no direct responsibility for the police and the relationship with the media, but he has been left to carry the can by a Prime Minister who knows there are too many difficult questions for him to answer. It is an insult to the House and to the British public.
Let me ask the Culture Secretary a series of questions. First, on the subject the judge-led inquiry, as soon as an inquiry is established, tampering with or the destruction of any documents becomes a criminal offence. We already know that is relevant to the offices of the News of the World. It may also be relevant to any documents in No. 10 Downing street and Conservative headquarters. Will the Culture Secretary—[ Interruption. ]
Will the Culture Secretary now agree that the judge-led inquiry should be established immediately? Any less means there is a risk that evidence will be destroyed.
Will he also confirm that the inquiry will be set up under the Inquiries Act 2005 so it can compel witnesses to attend? The inquiry must have the right terms of reference, including the unlawful and unethical practices in the newspaper industry and the relationship between the police and certain newspapers. Neither of those issues were in the terms of reference implied by the Secretary of State in his statement. Can he confirm that all these issues will be in the terms of reference?
Secondly, let me talk about BSkyB. Let us be clear: the trouble that the Government are in is of their own making. Any changes they make are not because they have chosen to do so but because they fear defeat in the House on Wednesday evening. The Culture Secretary chose not to follow the recommendation of Ofcom to refer this bid to the Competition Commission and he has been insisting for months that he can proceed on the basis of assurances from News Corporation. On Friday, the Prime Minister said the same. Now the Culture Secretary has adopted the very position he has spent months resisting—and the confusion continues. The Deputy Prime Minister has joined the call I made yesterday for Rupert Murdoch to drop the bid. On BSkyB, the Government are in complete disarray. Does the Deputy Prime Minister speak for the Government? If so, is the Culture Secretary now asking Rupert Murdoch to drop the bid? Can the Culture Secretary now assure us that on the basis of his new position, no decision will be made on the BSkyB bid until the criminal investigation into phone hacking is complete? Nothing else can give the public the confidence they need.
Thirdly, will the Culture Secretary state his position to the House on the need for responsibility to be accepted at News International? The terrible hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone happened on Rebekah Brooks’s watch, while she was editor of the News of the World. Last Wednesday, the Prime Minister refused to say she should go, and on Friday all he offered were weasel words. Will the Culture Secretary say what the Prime Minster refused to—that Rebekah Brooks should take responsibility for what happened on her watch and resign from her post?
Fourthly, given the role of Andy Coulson in relation to phone hacking and other allegations of illegality, will the Culture Secretary clarify the following—[ Interruption. ] Government Members should listen to what I am saying because it is relevant to victims up and down the country. On Friday at his press conference, the Prime Minister said, about the appointment of Andy Coulson:
“No one gave me any specific information.”
Yet Downing street has confirmed that The Guardian newspaper had discussions with Steve Hilton, the Prime Minister’s senior aide, before Andy Coulson was brought into government. Those conversations detailed Mr Coulson’s decision to rehire Jonathan Rees—a man who had been jailed for seven years for a criminal conspiracy and who is alleged to have made payments to the police on behalf of the News of the World. This serious and substantial information was passed by Steve Hilton to the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Mr Ed Llewellyn. The information could not have been more specific. Now, can the Culture Secretary tell us whether
Ed Llewellyn, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, told the Prime Minister about this evidence against Mr Coulson, or are we seriously expected to believe that Mr Llewellyn, an experienced former civil servant, failed to pass any of this information on to the Prime Minister? Frankly, that beggars belief as an explanation. This issue goes to the heart of the Prime Minister’s integrity and we need answers from the Culture Secretary.
Can the Culture Secretary now tell us whether it is true that the Prime Minister also received warnings from the Deputy Prime Minister and the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Lord Ashdown, about bringing Andy Coulson into government? Unless the Prime Minister can explain what happened with Mr Coulson and apologise for his terrible error of judgment in appointing him, his reputation and that of the Government will be permanently tarnished.
The Prime Minister was wrong not to come to the House today. As on every occasion during this crisis, he has failed to show the necessary leadership that the country expects. He saw no need for a judicial inquiry, he saw no need to change course on BSkyB and he has failed to come clean on Andy Coulson. This is a Prime Minister running scared from the decisions he made. This is a Prime Minister who is refusing to show the responsibility the country expects. The victims of the crisis deserve better, this House deserves better and the country deserves better.
Order. I want everybody who wants to contribute to these exchanges to have the chance to do so, but people who shout and scream cannot then expect to be called, and it is a rank discourtesy. It must stop on both sides of the House.
We are fighting a war. The Prime Minister arrived back from Afghanistan at around 10 o’clock last Tuesday night. By Wednesday lunchtime he had established two public inquiries. That is doing more in less than one week than the right hon. Gentleman’s party did in eight years.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about Andy Coulson. He should be very careful not to be someone who throws sticks in glass houses. In his comments he criticised me for being willing to accept assurances from News Corp. He was willing to accept assurances from the very same people about Tom Baldwin.
Let me answer some of the right hon. Gentleman’s specific questions. Tampering with evidence does not need a judge-led inquiry to be set up. It is a criminal offence now. We are moving as fast as we can to set up a judge-led inquiry into all the actions that were illegal or improper. We also want to set up an inquiry, with cross-party support—hopefully—to look into the unethical behaviour by the press, and we want that to start work immediately. Inquiries into illegal actions have to wait until after police investigations are complete. We are willing to talk to the right hon. Gentleman in order to get some kind of cross-party consensus so that that can happen as soon as possible. I said in my statement that we would like that to start as soon as this summer.
With respect to the BSkyB decision, I have at every stage in this process followed the procedures laid down in the Enterprise Act 2002 that was passed by the right hon. Gentleman’s Government. Not only that, but I have done more than those processes require, because at every stage I have asked for independent advice from the expert media regulator, Ofcom, and after careful consideration at every stage I have followed that advice.
Let me say gently to the right hon. Gentleman that he needs to show some humility in this matter. He attended Rupert Murdoch’s summer party and failed to bring up the matter of phone hacking. He was part of a Cabinet—[Interruption.]
Order. I want to hear the answer.
He was part of a Cabinet which, according to the then Culture Secretary, discussed phone hacking and decided not to act, and we now know why. According to the autobiography of Tony Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell,
“We first started discussing…the failed relationship between the media and politics in 2002…We discussed the issue back and forth for the next three years, but Tony never felt the moment was right to speak out…Gordon, who was courting the press, had no intention of agreeing to anything that might upset them.”
Now is not the time for party political posturing. We have all failed—politicians, journalists and media owners—and we must all work together to put the problem right.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital in his role that he should act within the law, taking independent advice—legal advice—because if he does not, any decision that he makes can be attacked in court? Does he agree that it is all very well for the Opposition to make their points today, but the spirit in the House last week was that there were faults on all sides and that we ought to do what is in the interests of the country? Does he agree that the Leader of the Opposition has betrayed that today?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. If we are to tackle this very serious cancer that we have seen in our society in the past week, we need a responsible attitude from Members on both sides of the House, and if we are worried about newspapers getting above the law, Ministers need to set an example and ensure that they do not get above the law themselves.
Order. Members are entitled to their own views on taste. There has been no breach of order.
I take being called a monkey very seriously, because in my wife’s country they used to eat them.
With regard to what the Prime Minister did or did not know, he will answer for himself, but he has said that he takes full responsibility for the decisions he took and that he had no knowledge of any illegal of criminal activity by Andy Coulson when he decided to employ him.
Will the Secretary of State, whose behaviour so far on this matter has been beyond reproach, pass on to the Government and the leader of the Conservative party the request that they join my party in asking Rupert Murdoch to withdraw his bid, and will he confirm that it is entirely appropriate for the regulator, Ofcom, to consider illegality by any of the people employed by any title owned by News Corporation, meaning all its newspapers and not just the News of the World?
My right hon. Friend has asked a question that I cannot answer, because every Member of the House can have a view on whether the take-over should go ahead or be withdrawn except me, as I have a quasi-judicial role and so I am unable to prejudge the decision by making a comment. With regard to illegality and the requirement under the Broadcasting Act 1990 that all people holding broadcasting licences be fit and proper, I wrote to Ofcom this morning to ask whether it stood by its original advice that the deal could go ahead, in view of the matters that came to light last week and had News Corporation not withdrawn its undertakings today. I am pleased to say that, with this referral to the Competition Commission, all those issues will be considered properly and fully.
Does the Secretary of State not recognise that at a time when wrongdoing was being very strongly alleged, and even more strongly denied, the Prime Minister’s decision then to appoint Andy Coulson to No. 10 as director of communications reinforced the credibility of what we now know to be unjustified denials of wrongdoing? Is that not why the Prime Minister should be here today?
With respect to the right hon. Lady, there are all sorts of things that this Government and the previous Government have done that we might now review in the light of the allegations that have emerged in the past week. That is why it is incredibly important that we have these two public inquiries to get to the bottom of press ethics, which is why we are trying to ensure that we grapple with the problem and sort it out, rather than sit on it for a very long time.
In 2003 the predecessor of the current Culture, Media and Sport Committee, of which I am a member, warned of deplorable practices in the media, including payments by journalists to the police, and called for an inquiry. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should have had an inquiry at that time?
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I think that everyone will be reflecting on what has happened. In the last Parliament there were two Select Committee inquiries on the matter and two reports by the Information Commissioner stating that things were wrong and needed to be sorted out, but nothing happened. Let us hope that as a political class we are up to the challenge of sorting things out this time.
Extraordinarily, the Secretary of State has come to the House without any briefing whatsoever to give further and better particulars behind the Prime Minister’s statement on Friday that he had—very careful words—no “specific” knowledge that Mr Andy Coulson had appointed a known criminal to work at the News of the World. Given the absence of a briefing today, does the Secretary of State accept that it is his duty to go back to the Department and to Downing Street and insist that a full, detailed chronology of who informed whom—or failed to inform whom—by name and what they said is published by the close of play today?
I believe that the Prime Minister is a man of honour and integrity, and when he says that he had no knowledge of that particular episode, I believe him.
I will tell my hon. Friend why that is the case. Typically, when there is a referral to the Competition Commission, it could decide to block the deal entirely or it could negotiate undertakings, circumstances and conditions under which it would consider it acceptable for the merger to go ahead. The Competition Commission is considering media plurality, just as I did. It is not considering broader competition issues, but if as part of that consideration it decided to accept any undertakings, it would want to be sure that they were credible, which is why compliance with the “fit and proper person” requirements of the Broadcasting Act 1990 will be extremely important.
Did the Secretary of State know about the dinner involving the Prime Minister, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks two days after he was handed responsibility for this policy area? Why, shortly after that dinner, did he abandon the previous approach by the Business Secretary and reject Ofcom’s clear recommendation to send the matter to the Competition Commission?
I did not know about the dinner, and I did not reject Ofcom’s recommendation. If the former Culture Secretary had been listening to my statement, he would know that I actually accepted its recommendation. On
No party cosied up to the Murdoch press as much as the Labour party, and the Press Complaints Commission has been an inadequate, toothless body for far too long. Does the Secretary of State think that there is some connection in the failure of the previous Government to sort out the PCC, and will this Government take on that task?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am sorry to say—and I am sure that she will agree with me—that the Leader of the Opposition got his tone absolutely wrong. The shameful events of last week are something for which both sides of the House need to take their share of responsibility, and working together, both sides of the House can make sure that we sort them out so that they never happen again.
“We have paid the police for information”,
thereby admitting a criminal offence? She was then editor of The Sun, having just been editor of the News of the World. How is it possible for someone with that background to become chief executive of an organisation and for that organisation’s bid to be accepted or even not brushed away totally?
What I would say to the right hon. Gentleman is how is it possible, when that happened under his Government, for them to do absolutely nothing about it for eight years?
I confirm to my hon. Friend that the intention is that the judge-led inquiry will cover all illegal and improper activity, and I am particularly keen that it should cover the practice of blagging, which is at the heart of many of the problems that we have been finding out about in the past week.
As head of Operation Abelard, John Yates would be aware of paperwork showing convicted private investigator Jonathan Rees discussing the use of covert surveillance techniques, including computer hacking, with a close associate of Rebekah Brooks, Mr Alex Marunchak. Rees, while serving time in prison, discussed his contact with reporters from The Sunday Times. Far from this scandal being about wrongdoing at the News of the World, it is a story of institutional criminality at News International. John Yates’ review of the Mulcaire evidence was not an oversight. Like Andy Hayman, he chose not to act. He misled Parliament. He misled readers of The Sunday Telegraph only yesterday. Does the Secretary of State agree that his position is untenable?
With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, who I commend for his tenacious campaign in this area, I do not think that that is a judgment that I, as Culture Secretary, should make. However, all the practices that he describes must be dealt with properly, in terms of both the specific criminal acts and the changes necessary to make sure that they do not happen again. He made one very important reference, in particular, when he pointed out the issue of computer hacking. We have to be very careful to act with sufficient thoroughness to make sure that we do not find that e-mail hacking becomes the next big scandal.
Between 2003 and 2010, successive reports set out that there were serious problems. Can the inquiry cover the relationship between the media and the Government to look at why action was not taken before now?
On behalf of the Scottish National party, we welcome the public inquiries and the referral back to the Competition Commission. Does the Secretary of State agree that there has been a systematic failure of successive Westminster Governments when it has come to the whole field of the regulation of the press? As long ago as 2006, the Information Commissioner found more than 3,000 breaches of data protection, but nothing was done. How can we have any faith that this House will in future get its press regulation fixed?
It is stretching it a bit to say that this is a Westminster issue and not something that affects the whole of the United Kingdom. We have to sort it out, and we are absolutely determined to do so.
The House fully appreciates why the Secretary of State cannot give his opinion on the BSkyB matter. Is he aware that the vast majority of people out there in the country are not the least bit interested in party political point-scoring, but believe that if Mr Murdoch had any decency at all, he would withdraw his bid for BSkyB?
As I said in my statement, I completely understand the horror with which many people viewed the thought of a company allegedly responsible for these appalling actions taking over what would become Britain’s biggest media company. I completely understand where the public are on that. We now have a lengthy process that will get to the bottom of the media plurality issues. If any of the appalling events that have come up in the past week are linked to media plurality, I am sure that they will be considered in their entirety.
I hope that the whole House will, like me, be scandalised by the facts that are emerging this afternoon about the former Prime Minister’s son’s medical records having been targeted by other newspapers in the News International stable.
One of the biggest problems that we have is that the police failed to act systematically. Assistant Commissioner Yates repeatedly lied to Parliament. He said that there were very few victims. He said that all the victims had been contacted. He said that all the mobile phone companies had been put on notice in relation to this. All of these things are lies, as he seems to have admitted in yesterday’s edition of The S unday Telegraph, and yet he has not had the decency to apologise to this House or, for that matter, the decency to apologise at all—surely he should. He is in charge of counter-terrorism in this country, for heaven’s sake. Surely he should resign.
I completely understand the hon. Gentleman’s anger on that issue, but obviously parliamentarians cannot tell the police what to do because we have the separation of powers. However, the judge-led independent inquiry will look fully at the way in which the police have behaved and it will get to the bottom of this. We must give it our full support.
The House will have noted in the Labour leader’s contribution the complete absence of any reference to the repeated failure by the Labour Government, despite repeated warnings to act in this area. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, notwithstanding what has been announced today, which is frankly little more than another ruse by the Murdoch empire, there is nothing to prevent Ofcom from now investigating whether the Murdoch empire is fit and proper to own the 40% of BSkyB shares that it owns?
Ofcom is at liberty to investigate the “fit and proper” issue in the Broadcasting Act 1990 at any time. It will have to investigate that issue to see whether it is relevant to the potential acceptance of any undertakings subsequent to a Competition Commission inquiry. Those issues will therefore be looked at thoroughly and carefully.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Home Affairs Committee and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, both of which have held inquiries into these matters, will be consulted about the terms of reference of the public inquiry? I have just received a letter from the Director of Public Prosecutions confirming his view on the law of phone hacking. I see that the Attorney-General is beside the Secretary of State. Is it the Government’s view that we should take the narrow interpretation of the law, as championed by the Metropolitan police, or the wider interpretation, as championed by the DPP?
The right hon. Gentleman will understand that that question is slightly above my legal pay grade. It is not for the Government to take a view on that matter, but for the courts. If the courts take a view that is not consistent with what we want to see, we are at liberty, as a Parliament, to change the law to ensure that the courts interpret it in the way that we want.
The previous Administration ignored reports from the Information Commissioner about 300 journalists across the national media being involved in illicit practices to gain information. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the inquiry he is setting up today will look across the national media and consider wider issues than just phone hacking?
Absolutely; we need to look at the kind of problems we may face in the information age, which might be very different from the tragic problems that were reported last week. We will look at all those issues. We recognise that our press has some of the finest traditions in the world, but has fallen sadly short of them. We want to do everything possible to ensure that we go back to having the finest journalism in the world.
Given that the criteria for media plurality are so narrowly drawn that they exclude such critical issues as the capacity to distort competition through cross-promotion, price bundling and preventing rivals from advertising, why cannot the Secretary of State use the delay created by the police investigation and sorting through 150,000 responses to the consultation to modernise the criteria for media plurality, either through a one-clause Bill or through an amendment to the communications legislation?
The issue of media plurality is not as narrowly drawn as the right hon. Gentleman might think. All the issues he talked about can be considered in so far as they affect media plurality. What we cannot consider under the Enterprise Act 2002 are competition issues, which are considered separately. In this case, they were decided by the European Union. We recognise that the law on media plurality needs to be looked at. Some of the processes that have come to light in the past few months have caused Ofcom to question whether the law is right on protecting media plurality, which we all think is very important. We will consider that as part of the communications Bill that we propose to bring before the House in the second half of this Parliament.
Did my right hon. Friend in recent days take any advice on the potential legal consequences had he, as Secretary of State, followed the advice given in public by the Leader of the Opposition? If he did seek such advice, did it suggest that had he followed the advice of the Leader of the Opposition, he would have sought to place himself above the law?
My hon. Friend is right that had I, as was suggested by the Opposition on a number of occasions, immediately referred the matter to the Competition Commission without going through due process, I would have exposed the Government to potentially successful judicial review. I think it is incredibly important, when people are concerned about newspapers putting themselves above the law, that the Government do not do so.
Can I bring the Secretary of State back to earlier questions? Is it not an amazing situation when an organisation admittedly involved in criminality can even be considered for further ownership of the media? No one outside this place can really understand that. It is surely a matter for punishment, not for being rewarded.
The hon. Gentleman will be relieved to know that there is indeed a very important responsibility to ensure that everyone who holds a broadcasting licence is fit and proper. However, that is a responsibility not for politicians but for the independent regulator, Ofcom, which I know will discharge its responsibilities very carefully in that respect.
Do the Government agree with me that the best way to improve media plurality and break the excessive power that has led to such repulsive behaviour is to eliminate all barriers to entry into the media market?
We want to encourage investment in the UK media sector in any way we can. I have to admit that right now, how to do that has not been at the top of my mind, but I agree that we want to stimulate plurality. The arrival of the internet makes that possible in a much lower-cost way than would otherwise have been the case.
Is it not convenient that this absent Prime Minister has been able to dodge the real questions—what did he know about criminal activities from Murdoch, when did he know it, and is it not time, based upon the British public’s reaction, that we sent this non-tax-paying Murdoch back from whence he came and, for the final humiliation, got the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to drive him to the airport? [Laughter.]
I am not sure how I can follow that, but suffice it to say that the hon. Gentleman has the chance every Wednesday to ask the Prime Minister any question that he chooses.
The Secretary of State understands the huge public concern not just about the plurality issues of the BSkyB takeover but about the criminal and unethical behaviour of Murdoch’s News International. I welcome the Secretary of State’s assurance that the “fit and proper person” test can be taken into account by the Competition Commission, but as he has said, it is Ofcom’s responsibility. In a letter on Friday, it seemed to say that it was reluctant to act while police investigations were ongoing, for fear of prejudicing them. Can the Secretary of State confirm that if the "fit and proper person" test cannot be resolved while the police are still investigating, he will make no decision until the criminal investigations are complete?
I have to inform my hon. Friend that I am not legally allowed to put a pause in the process until any criminal proceedings have come to a conclusion. However, I will take as much time as I need. I am very well aware of public concern on this issue. The Competition Commission will report in six months’ time, and there will then be a subsequent period of intensive discussions. During that period I am very hopeful that we will properly resolve the "fit and proper person" issue, because I am aware of how important it is to Members of all parties.
May I welcome the decision to review the regulation of the media, which is central, long-term, to raising standards and restoring faith in journalism? However, is the Secretary of State aware that for the best part of 10 years, Alastair Campbell invited the Labour party to do just that—to review the regulation of the media—but that it failed to do so throughout its term in office?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, which is why, with the greatest respect, I think the Opposition have got their tone completely wrong this afternoon. We have an opportunity to do something that many Opposition Members in their hearts know should have been done a very long time ago. We are determined to do that, and I would encourage them to work with the Government to ensure that this time, we get it right.
Just because I have a quasi-judicial role does not mean that I am not able to announce to Parliament important developments in the exercise of that role, which is what I have done this afternoon with, I see, Mr Speaker’s approval.
I was not expressing approval or disapproval; I was just nodding benignly, as is my way.
When it comes to the wider inquiry, could we ensure that the press practice of blagging is included? It appears to mean using subterfuge and pretence to gain access to confidential and other personal information, and it has been alleged of other newspapers, including by a journalist who now works for the Leader of the Opposition.
We must absolutely ensure that we do everything necessary to stamp out blagging. One of the most awful parts of this whole process is that we have discovered just how easy it is. In that respect, I would add that I believe that the role of phone companies is very important as well. They need to ensure that they are co-operating fully to ensure that it stops.
Could the Secretary of State advise me—if he cannot do so today, he could report back in future—as to whether or not the Prime Minister or any member of the Government has discussed these extremely serious allegations with Mr Coulson, or with Rebekah Brooks, since his resignation from the Downing street office in January of this year?
Order. The House has heard what has been said—[ Interruption. ] Order. I call Mr Christopher Pincher.
Does my right hon. Friend think that it is a great pity that the very fine and bipartisan speech made last Wednesday by Chris Bryant was not repeated today by the Leader of the Opposition? Does not the contrast between those two speeches demonstrate who is the better and more thoughtful man on this issue?
Order. I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to focus not on character assessment and comparisons in relation to it, but on phone hacking and the media.
I do not think that the Secretary of State or the Leader of the Opposition were in the House about a decade ago, when there were quite a lot of references to, and discussions about, the occult financing of the Tory party by the then Mr Michael Ashcroft in Belize. That was quite properly investigated by The Times newspaper. Since then, the now Lord Ashcroft has had his second chance—we should leave it at that. In the second inquiry, will the Secretary of State focus a bit on how we can have an ethics of journalism that protects not us, but the little person? Those are the ones who are destroyed by The Sun, The Mail on Sunday, the News of the World and all those foul practices.
I am not quite sure that I understand the first and second halves of the right hon. Gentleman’s question, but let me just say that the second inquiry will absolutely concentrate on the ethics of the press. The lesson from last week is that what changed the public mood was the fact that phone hacking moved from being something that affected celebrities and politicians to something that tragically affected members of the public.
Does the Secretary of State regret that such serious and grave matters have been used for party political point scoring? Will he reassure the House that the investigations from hereon in will still contain an invitation to the Leader of the Opposition to contribute constructively to such an important debate that is in all our interests?
Is it not a disgrace that the Secretary of State has come here to make a statement without basic answers to the questions being asked? He does not even know about conversations between Andy Coulson and the Prime Minister that anybody who reads a paper would have known. Why is the Prime Minister not here? What is his engagement that is more important than this House?
The Prime Minister is not here because today we have had an incredibly important development in a decision for which I am responsible. I therefore thought it important, as did he, that I came to speak to the House.
The Secretary of State will be aware that, in his statement last Friday, the Prime Minister said that he commissioned a company to do a basic background check on Andy Coulson, but he omitted to name the company. I am sure that it was a perfectly innocent omission, but will the Secretary of State place those details in the Library of the House this afternoon?
You might recall, Mr Speaker, that on
The best reassurance I can give to the hon. Gentleman is the fact that the inquiry into illegal activity—and certainly the kind of pressure he is talking about would be illegal—will be conducted by a judge who will, without fear of favour, look at everything that has happened and make recommendations to ensure that it stops.
Further to the Secretary of State’s answer to my right hon. Friend Mr Hanson, now that he has said that the Prime Minister has not spoken to Andy Coulson “recently”, will he undertake to place in the Library a log of any meetings and phone calls between the Prime Minister and Andy Coulson since his resignation from Downing street?
I will happily pass on the hon. Lady’s request to the Prime Minister, who will make a decision on what he wishes to place on the public record.
With respect to the hon. Lady, we have two independent reviews, one of which is looking into all illegal and improper activity, and the other of which is looking into press ethics. I think that all the activities about which she is concerned will be covered.
The Secretary of State indicated at the beginning of his statement that he had been late in preparing the statement because something had happened within the past half hour. He then went on to say that he was here instead of the Prime Minister because an important development had taken place. However, we were given to understand two or three hours ago that it would indeed be the Secretary of State making the statement. Surely these statements do not square.
Had News Corporation not withdrawn its undertakings half an hour before I spoke, I would have had another important announcement—one that is no longer valid—to make to the House about the operation of those undertakings. That is why the Prime Minister said that I was the appropriate person to make this statement.
Little has been said today about the practice of journalists giving illegal backhanders to police officers and perhaps even to royal protection officers, which seems to be prevalent from the News of the World down to the smallest local paper. It is disappointing that the Home Secretary is not here for this debate. May we have assurances from the Secretary of State that before Parliament goes into recess we will get a statement from the Home Secretary about what actions she has taken to stamp out this practice and ensure that any police officers involved are held to account?
I hope that what I have announced today will reassure the hon. Lady, because we are having a judge-led inquiry that will look into all illegal and improper activities, including the kind of activities that she has mentioned. That inquiry will be statutory, and it will have the ability to compel witnesses, who will speak under oath, so we will get to the bottom of the kind of activities that she describes and ensure that we stamp them out.
Does the Secretary of State agree that it was wrong for ordinary staff at the News of the World to have been sacrificed in an effort by News International to protect those at the very top of the organisation who were really responsible for the scandal at that newspaper? Does he therefore agree that Rebekah Brooks should resign from her post forthwith?
I think everyone should be held to account for their actions, whether they are the people personally responsible for phone hacking or the people who authorised it.