Data Protection Bill [HL] - Commons Amendments

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 14th May 2018.

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Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords) 5:45 pm, 14th May 2018

My Lords, we are 90 minutes in and we have heard lots of familiar tropes rehashed and replayed, but have we achieved very much in this debate? While sitting here I have been wondering how on earth one brings together the two very different sides that are emerging in this debate. I whispered to my colleagues on my right and left asking for help and support, and all I got was, “You need the judgment of Solomon on this”, and I do not have that. However, we are going to ask noble Lords to vote on this issue, and so I want us to think very hard about what we have been doing here.

This is not about the wider context of the issues that have stemmed from the time that Leveson was set up. The only question on which we will divide today is whether or not the Government go ahead with the review which they started and has been only half completed and whether it concludes. It does not have to go in its full and present form—Sir Brian himself has said that. Maybe there is another way in which it can be done. In some ways, although I do not necessarily take this as a serious suggestion, it is more like a truth commission than a judicial inquiry. But we need to know what happened. We need to know the facts; otherwise, we will all go sadly wrong. What will we lose if Leveson 2 is scrapped? What will we gain if it goes ahead? That is the narrow question.

The Government are bringing forward three substantial measures today that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cavendish, and others have mentioned, may well have a big effect on the way that the press is regulated going forward. Amendment 55 introduces a code for data protection and journalism. If it is to be effective, that will begin to narrow down what is in the public interest in journalism. Amendment 108 is on guidance to individuals on how to seek redress against media organisations. It will have to define what those redress mechanisms are: they have to be set out, made clear and signposted, so there will be a lot of activity in this area. Amendment 109 introduces a review after four years—which some have said could be expanded to take in some of the issues raised today—on the processing of personal data for the purposes of journalism. Does that not actually cover everything that we have been talking about?

I welcome these amendments. I will support them and they deserve support from all interested parties because they will help to define and strengthen our understanding of where we are to find the balance to be struck on privacy and free expression. They also mark a significant change in the Government’s approach to this. I acknowledge that and that they have listened to the debate and moved. I pay tribute to the current Ministers. We had a meeting at lunchtime today which I felt also made some progress.

The judgment today, in relation to the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, is not about the overall package. The overall package is so wide: the evolution of IPSO into an effective regulator, although there is some way to go; the changes made to the Bill when it was in your Lordships’ House; the Cairncross review on how to protect quality journalism; the changes proposed in Amendments 55, 108 and 109; and the review, as has been mentioned, of the police and fire procedures. Do those, taken together, achieve what this all-party group of senior politicians who set up the Leveson inquiry wanted to see happen?

The first point has already been made and is important: everything in that list is focused on the future. Some things, indeed, are delayed by four years. Looking forward is good. I am not against that, but not at the expense of learning the lessons from the past. These measures are all very welcome, but absent the facts, will they achieve what is needed so that we can all move on together? How will we even know that we are on the right track if we do not have the facts?

In his speech on Report in the Commons last Wednesday, the Secretary of State said that in shutting down the Leveson inquiry he was not making a choice between,

“doing something and doing nothing”,—[Official Report, Commons, 9/5/18; col. 710.] but he was choosing to “do something better”. So, is the package we have before us that I have just listed, absent the second half of the Leveson inquiry, really something better? Amendments 62A and 62B ask Parliament to deliver on the promise given in November 2012 by the then Prime Minister that he remained,

“committed to the inquiry as it was first established”.—[Official Report, Commons, 29/11/12; col. 446.]

My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and others have stressed that going ahead with an inquiry does not compromise press freedom. It is quite the reverse. By getting all of the facts out into the open, it should reassure the public that it is known “who did what to whom” to use Sir Brian’s phrase, and no attempt has been made to hide illegality, avoid embarrassing deals or any suspicion of a political fix. It would ensure transparency and draw a line under this whole sorry chapter.

The arguments used against so far are so thin—about as thin as the reliance of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, on the pick and mix Conservative manifesto. Is it really too expensive? The actual cost is £5.4 million, not the much larger figure which is often bandied about, which includes the changes in procedures and processes incurred by third parties such as the police. Do we really know all the facts? We did not know at the start of the inquiry that the Sun was involved in hacking or that Trinity Mirror was as complicit as News International. Sir Brian points out that, when comparing evidence of one trial to another, conflicting and irreconcilable accounts are given by different people working within the same organisation. He suggests that,

“the public interest would be served by a detailed, reasoned report which covers the whole of the … evidence, not just the evidence relevant to any specific trial”.

The Secretary of State claims that the terms of reference of the inquiry have already been met. But the amendments before us today replicate the outstanding parts of the original Leveson inquiry. They have not been met. In any case, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, and my noble friend Lord Puttnam have so eloquently reminded us, underlying all this is the question of trust. Parliament should honour the promises given to the victims. It is clear from what has been said today that egregious behaviour is still happening.

I do not think that the Government have a credible reason for not accepting this amendment today. I do not think that legitimate journalism and the very many honest journalists have anything to fear from allowing work to be done establishing the facts. Everybody in public life in this country—everybody—believes that a free and fearless press is a key part of our liberties. This amendment is not a threat to the freedom of the press. It does not address the role of the Press Recognition Panel. It does not prioritise Impress over IPSO. It does not impose the proposed cost-shifting regime or commence Section 40. It does not affect local or regional press. But it will remove the barrier that meant that press activity in Northern Ireland was not reviewed in Leveson 1.

This House is composed of people with experience and diverse talents, but one thing that unites us is our ability to bring a sense of fairness and balance to the political process. In this debate today, we are doing our constitutional duty of reviewing legislation coming from another place. I hope that your Lordships’ House recognises that this is not about reviewing the wording of an amendment for accuracy or content. It is also about making judgments about fairness and delivering on what has been promised, making sure that we intend to have a free press going forward. On that score alone, we should have no concern about asking the other place to think again.