Digital Economy Bill - Committee (4th Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:45 pm on 8th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Keen of Elie Lord Keen of Elie The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Ministry of Justice) 10:45 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins. I will address Amendments 233F and 234A together. The amendments, of course, mirror Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 but would apply to digitally published news-related material only, as we know. The House has debated the issue of Section 40 on various recent occasions, including during passage of the Investigatory Powers Act and the Policing and Crime Act. There was also a stand-alone debate just before the Christmas Recess.

There is obviously a great strength of feeling about this matter. I realise that some Members of this House are frustrated by what they see as a lack of progress by government on Section 40. However, the Committee should also recall the strength of feeling on the other side of the debate. Many noble Lords have argued passionately in this House against Section 40 and are concerned about its commencement and its impact upon freedom of the press. That is why the Government ran a consultation to consider the matter further.

The press self-regulatory landscape has changed significantly in the past four years since the Leveson inquiry reported. It is right that the Government take stock, look at the changes which have already taken place and seek the views of all interested parties on the most effective way to ensure that the inexcusable practices which led to the Leveson inquiry being established can never happen again.

A consultation was the most appropriate way to ensure that the Government were listening to all views when considering options for the next step in respect of Section 40. Indeed, the consultation closed on 10 January, and it is estimated that we have received more than 140,000 responses. I know that many Members of this House responded to the consultation, and of course we are grateful that they took the time to do that, but many others have responded as well. It will be necessary to consider the many and diverse views that have been expressed with regard to this matter.

As many Members of the Committee will know, and as the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, mentioned, the consultation is now subject to a legal challenge. While I cannot comment on the ongoing legal proceedings, the Government have committed not to take any final decisions on the matters to which the consultation relates until the judicial review application has been determined. As such, it is not possible for me to set out a timetable for when the Government will respond to the consultation. But of course we hope that that judicial review application will be determined much sooner than later.

That brings me on to the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins. The issues that she has raised are of critical importance. I appreciate that she and her family were themselves the subject of press abuse, as were other Members of this House. I also recognise the strength of feeling that parties have on the commencement of Section 40. However, with respect, now is not the right time for this House to consider the present amendment.

News consumption is becoming increasingly global and more and more people are reading their news online from a multitude of sources from around the world. Bringing in a law that effectively mirrors Section 40 but for relevant digital publications only would create an incoherent regime applying different rules depending on the mechanism by which an article has been published.

Noble Lords who have supported these amendments have raised the profile of this issue and given a clear signal of their intent—and of their continuing intent. This has not gone unnoticed in government. But we must ensure that we consider this matter properly. As I said before, a free press is an essential component of a fully functioning democracy and we must ensure that we protect that. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, said about the position in Ireland. I am not in a position to express a view as to the manner in which that operates but I am perfectly content to indicate that we will look at that going forward as well. I hope that that will satisfy the noble Lord. At this stage, however, I urge the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, to withdraw her amendment.