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Queen’s Speech — Debate (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:05 pm on 9th May 2013.

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Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Conservative 12:05 pm, 9th May 2013

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate. Lichfield is next to my old constituency of Sutton Coldfield, so I listened to him with an even greater care than I might otherwise have done, and I strongly share many of the views that he has just expressed. I also agree entirely with what the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, said at the end of her speech about equal marriage, which is something that I shall come to.

At the heart of any debate on constitutional affairs and equalities is parliamentary democracy and the importance of respecting that democracy. We in this House have an important role. We can advise, but it is the elected House that decides. It has the authority that comes from being the elected House—the authority that comes from the people or the citizen. It is in that respect that I want to test just two measures that will be debated in Parliament over the coming weeks, although neither was specifically mentioned in the Queen’s Speech.

The first is the proposed royal charter on the press. To be frank, I thought that that debate was over. No one thought that a few weeks later we would be asked to consider a rival royal charter put together by a number of big newspapers—a rival royal charter that, in the words of the respected media analyst Claire Enders, is,

“further away from what Leveson recommended than anything that has gone before”.

On 18 March, we should remember, there was a debate in the other place on the Government’s royal charter proposals. Everyone agreed that it was a compromise, but it was a compromise agreed by all three major parties in Parliament. A final line had been drawn, or so we thought. The Prime Minister said:

“My message to the press is now very clear: we have had the debate, now it is time to get on and make this system work”.

For the Labour Party, Mr Miliband said:

“Today represents a huge moment for the House. We are doing the right thing. Politics has failed to grasp this issue for decades, but today politicians have come together to put the victims first”.—[Hansard, Commons, 18/3/13; cols. 636-37.]

And for the Liberal Democrats, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

“Today we turn a page on the mistakes of the past and, finally, establish a proper independent watchdog to serve the British people while protecting our free press”.—[Hansard, Commons, 18/3/13; col. 640.]

Therefore, there is no conceivable doubt about what the leaders of the three parties intended. They had agreed a way forward that protected the freedom of the press but which also sought to protect the public from the abuse of press power. No objective observer looking at what had been revealed by the Leveson inquiry could fairly argue that they were overreacting. The agreement followed the worst set of scandals to affect some of the national press for the past half century. The private details of phone conversations, not just of celebrities but of ordinary people, had been revealed. Great harm was done to individuals—to citizens—in this country. The scandal forced the closure of one high-circulation and profitable newspaper because of the action that had been taken. Journalists and quasi journalists have been arrested—about 100 to date—and 24 have been charged.

As Leveson made clear, the knowledge of what was going on was not confined to one or two rogue journalists or one or two junior executives; it went much higher than that. That is the answer to those who say that as phone hacking is a criminal offence no further action is required because the criminal law will look after all that. The point is that the culture of newspapers, where phone hacking was allowed and the results published, had to be changed. It was for such reasons that the Government proposed their royal charter. Even more important, that was why the House of Commons supported them. When it came to the crucial vote on damages, 530 Members of Parliament voted in favour of the Government’s proposals and 13 voted against. The next day the Times had the headline on its front page, “Press deal divides parties”. Divides parties? A vote of 530 to 13? Just imagine the Whips going into immediate crisis talks on that, or those nice people at the National Theatre who put on that excellent play, “This House”, based on Labour’s voting problems in the 1970s, immediately asking for a sequel.

There is a much more serious point. The Government’s royal charter of March has been subject to a barrage of black propaganda from the newspapers that eventually produced their own royal charter. No issue has been too small to build up an attack. An affair between two people at the inquiry is portrayed as invalidating the whole painstaking Leveson inquiry in spite of Lord Justice Leveson’s assurance that there was no effect whatever. The poor old Hacked Off campaign is portrayed as a deeply sinister organisation with unlimited funds to do damage to the British press. If anyone had any doubts about why the Government’s course was best, we had only to look at the tactics employed by newspapers whose self-interest is utterly clear. The truth is that this has been a David and Goliath struggle, and the Goliath has been the big national newspapers, which have had the resources to place deeply misleading and untruthful advertisements in their own papers and to instruct their reporters to get any story that might cast doubt on the Government’s proposals.

I very much hope that no one in the special adviser group, which seems to surround this Government just as it did the previous one, believes that if further concessions are given to the newspapers that are proposing their own royal charter, that will be to the benefit of the Government. Bluntly, it will be seen as a defeat, and it is not healthy in any democracy for Parliament and the Government to be defeated by an outside group, however powerful that group may be. We did not allow it with the trades union barons and we should not allow it with the press barons either.

The basic question I want to ask the Government is very simple: why have we paused? Why, to use the Prime Minister’s words, are we not getting on with it? The public are on the side of the Government and will remain so as long as the issue is fought with strength and consistency. The public are not fools; they know that newspapers are not innocents dressed in white. They do not want to challenge press freedom, but they to want to challenge the blatant misuse of press power.

My second point concerns the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which the noble Baroness referred to. Again, there have been calls that it should be put off or withdrawn. Frankly, some of the coverage is a misreading of what has taken place, because in truth the decision to carry it over to this Session was taken in February in the Commons with a majority of 464 votes to 38. That, I imagine, is exactly what the Government intend to do.

Let me suggest in principle why it would be quite wrong for this Bill to be put off or withdrawn. I entirely respect the deeply held religious views of those who are opposed. I underline that. I do not want to set out cases as if this is a Second Reading debate. That is to come. Suffice it to say at this stage that my personal view is that Parliament should value people equally in the law, and that enabling same-sex couples to marry removes the current inequity. A legal partnership is not seen in the same way and does not have the same promises of responsibility and commitment as marriage. There are many same-sex couples, including those working in the churches, who view marriage as fundamentally important and want to enter into that life-long commitment. It is therefore Parliament’s duty to enable that to happen, and in so doing strengthen the society in which we live today.

However, the fundamental point that I want to make is not that. I want to see this country setting an example of equality of treatment in a world where discrimination, prejudice and stigma are rife and are quite probably increasing. Let me explain in a few words why I feel strongly about this. Over the past months I have visited a range of cities and countries around the world looking at the HIV/AIDS position.

Whether I have been in Ukraine or Uganda, what has shocked me most—perhaps even more than the deaths, which at least I was expecting—has been the widespread intolerance and prejudice towards gay and lesbian people.

An opinion poll in this country suggested that many Christians in Britain believed that they were a persecuted minority. I can only say that if anyone wants to see a persecuted minority they should look at the plight of gay, lesbian and transgender people around the world. As you travel you go to countries where homosexuality is a criminal offence and where people who are suspected of being homosexual are persecuted and even forced to leave their family homes. In one country a newspaper was dedicated to exposing homosexuals—to identifying them, photographing them and publishing their addresses—so that the local population could take action against them. In one case, this led to a murder.

You can go to countries where the most popular political cause is to toughen up the laws against homosexuality rather than to modify them. Action of that kind has been taken in Russia, while in Kampala a Private Member’s Bill promised capital punishment—now generously reduced to long imprisonment—for aggravated homosexuality and a penalty of imprisonment for those who suspected that someone was homosexual but failed to report it. You may feel that that kind of Bill would be thrown out. Not at all; the common view is that it will be passed.

I do not think that one Act passed by this Parliament or one action will suddenly bring the walls of discrimination crashing down. There are certainly actions that will help—not least, if I may say so to the Bishops’ Bench, ensuring that the churches in sub-Saharan Africa, including the Anglican Church, take a stand against what is happening there.

In some parts of the world what Parliament does may have some persuasive influence—probably not in Russia and Ukraine but quite possibly in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. It can have influence for this reason: the criminal laws against homosexuality were introduced into those African countries by British Governments in the days of the Empire. We were the authors; we set out what the standards should be. It remains the case that 42 out of 54 Commonwealth countries criminalise same-sex relations. We should remember that it was as late as 1967 when the law here was changed. Until then people could be imprisoned.

Even here, not all the antipathy to gays has been removed—not by a long chalk—but unquestionably the law has played its part in improving the position. The Bill, which will be debated later, is not only right but could have an important persuasive effect both in this country and abroad, and will set out our belief in equal and fair treatment.

As for the later debate, we should also remember, just as we remembered on the position of the press, that the Bill for equal marriage was passed overwhelmingly in the other place on a free vote, by 400 votes to 175: a majority of over two to one.