My Lords, it has been a long and hard struggle to attempt to convince the Government to meet their commitments to complete the Leveson reforms and, most importantly, complete part 2 of the Leveson inquiry. During earlier debates, I claimed not to know any celebrities who were not politicians. I apologise to the House because I should have inserted the caveat, “other than a world-famous international yachtsman”.
I agree with my noble and learned friend the Minister that we should accept the Commons rejection of my Amendment 147, which sought in effect to commence Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 in respect of data protection. I shall try to explain why in a moment, but it has nothing to do with the merits.
First, I would like unreservedly to support the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, and her new amendment which seeks to commence the Leveson 2 inquiry. I agree with everything she has said, and I hope that she will seek the opinion of the House. If she does, I will be supporting her in the Lobby.
I am bound to say that the print media have consistently misrepresented the issues in question. For instance, it has been said that the noble Baroness and I hijacked this Bill to pursue our amendments. It is actually fair comment, but as any noble Lord who has been in opposition knows, it is a perfectly proper standard parliamentary procedure, and I am sure that my noble friend the Government Chief Whip has himself used this technique many times when he was in opposition.
It was also alleged that we cynically excluded politicians from the scope of the inquiry. This is simply not true. We did try to table an amendment that sought much wider terms of reference for the inquiry. Quite properly, the clerks advised us that we needed to restrict the scope of the amendment to data protection issues. It would, of course, be open to the Government to set wider terms to include politicians, and if a Conservative politician is alleged to have done something wrong, I am happy to see them explain themselves to the inquiry.
I turn to my amendments. When my noble and learned friend comes to reply, while he has explained the stick component of Section 40, will he remind the House of how its carrot component works, because I do not think that he mentioned it?
Although the Commons never actually divided on my amendments, they were fully debated and it is clear to me that there is no realistic prospect of the Commons changing their mind. There is no Salisbury problem with the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, because she genuinely believes that if we send it to the Commons, we may get a different answer. However, I would suggest that this will probably be the last roll of the dice.
I feel bound to comment on the exceptionally effective campaign run, presumably, by the News Media Association. Whoever is running it knows what they are doing, although we have all been playing hardball. However, what is disturbing is that I have been silenced and skilfully suppressed nearly everywhere except in your Lordships’ Chamber, and therefore I am extremely grateful to the BBC programme, “The Big Questions”, for allowing me to contribute to yesterday’s debate. It is not clear to me why the Convenor of the Cross Bench Peers politely declined my offer to address the Peers on my amendment but nevertheless later allowed Sir Alan Moses, the chairman of IPSO, to address the Cross-Bench Peers. In the days immediately after our votes on Report, despite one national newspaper devoting three whole pages to criticising some noble Lords, my name was mentioned only once in any national newspaper, and I suspect that that was an accident. It is good that the press is supposed to be biased, opinionated and partisan.
Despite trying very hard, I was able to secure only two meetings to discuss the Leveson amendments with two Conservative MPs, and they had very good reasons to do so but nevertheless, quite understandably, they voted with the Government. Even the Leader of your Lordships’ House declined to have a meeting with me in the week preceding the vote in the Commons to discuss these problems—so much for free speech. The very same honourable Members who declined to meet me had helped to produce a majority of 530 to 13 in the vote to insert new Section 40 in the Crime and Courts Act 2013. What is going on?
I welcome the Government’s Cairncross review into the sustainability of the press. This is one of the Government’s arguments for not implementing Leveson. When I talked to my local editor, he was not worried about regulation; his problem was sustainability.
Recently, in accordance with the principal VAT directive, the appropriate tribunal decided that online publications would attract VAT at the standard rate. This is a tax on information and knowledge, when books and publications are exempt. The EU (Withdrawal) Bill has enough difficulties without me raising another one, and I do not want to tie the Minister’s hands, but can my noble and learned friend write to me—and perhaps to my noble friend Lord Black—to assure us that the appropriate officials are aware of the risk of negotiating away our freedom to zero-rate online publications post Brexit?
Much of the debate on Section 40 has centred on state regulation of the press. At the moment, unfortunately, we have covert state regulation because anyone in government, particularly sources close to No. 10, can suggest to the media that Ministers are reconsidering commencing Section 40. This is a completely unacceptable gun, held to the press’s head, which must be deactivated at the earliest possible moment. Worse still, it could inadvertently lead to the press self-censoring in the case of a story that might, in any case, make for difficult ethical and legal decisions for the editor concerned. Can the Minister indicate when this very short Section 40 repeal Bill will be presented to Parliament?
If we are not to implement the Leveson press reforms, we need to commence part 2 of the inquiry to find out what has gone wrong in the past, ensure that it is not continuing and prevent it from recurring. As one of our briefings today put it, the past is a prologue for the future.