“(3) The Secretary of State must consult the Scottish Government and obtain its consent before establishing an inquiry under subsection (1).”
This amendment would ensure that before any inquiry was established, the UK Government must have consent from Scottish Government.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Clause stand part.
Clauses 168 and 169 stand part.
Government amendment 72.
Amendment 138, in clause 207, page 121, line 12, after “subsections” insert “(1A),”.
This amendment is a paving amendment for amendment 139.
Amendment 139, in clause 207, page 121, line 13, at end insert—
“(1A) Sections 168 and 169 extend to England and Wales only.”
This amendment would ensure that clauses 168 and 169 would only extend to England and Wales and not apply in Scotland.
Amendments 137, 138 and 139, which stand in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, were tabled because we believe that the Bill is incompatible with the devolution settlement, trampling roughshod over areas of wholly devolved competence. Whether by accident or design, the Lords amendments on Leveson—in particular on section 40—that seek to impose a one-size-fits-all Truro to Thurso solution are wholly inappropriate, as they fail to recognise or take cognisance of the fact that in press regulation and criminal justice, to name just two fields, it is the Scottish Parliament, not this place, that has legislative competence. The three amendments draw that distinction and defend the devolution settlement, removing any lingering doubts as to where the hitherto clear legislative boundaries, which have existed since 1998, lie.
Amendment 137 relates to any future inquiry on press standards, styled as Leveson 2. The Scottish National party has been clear throughout that all individuals should be able to seek redress when they feel they have been the victim of press malpractice, and that it benefits each and every one of us to have media that are transparent and accountable. However, we have been equally clear that if there is to be a second part of the Leveson inquiry, the distinct legal context in Scotland must be taken into account. As press regulation and criminal justice are matters for the Scottish Parliament, it is that body that must be consulted about the scale and the scope of any future inquiry and how it will operate in Scotland. As long as the Scottish Government were consulted and the distinct Scottish legal system taken into account, we would be happy to support efforts to establish a second part of a Leveson inquiry because any reasonable person would agree that the terms of reference for that part of the inquiry have not yet been met.
It is unfortunate that we have had to table the amendments. It is not unreasonable to expect the House of Lords to know that press regulation and all the associated issues of the culture, practice and ethics of the press would fall under the devolved competence. A blanket UK-wide amendment would only negatively affect areas of devolved competence. We are disappointed that the amendments were necessary in the first place, but we sincerely hope that Members in all parts of the Committee support our attempts to respect the devolution settlement.
Amendment 139 would ensure that clauses 168 and 169 would extend only to England and Wales and would not apply in Scotland. Again, this is simply a case of our having to tidy up after the Lords. I want to put on record that there is no excuse for what we regard as lazy and entirely inappropriate amendments from the other place. By accident or design, those amendments take no cognisance whatsoever of which powers are devolved and which are reserved. For the future benefit of their lordships, let me say again what I have said on numerous occasions. Although data protection may well be an area of competence reserved to this place, press regulation and criminal justice are wholly devolved to the Scottish Parliament and have been for the past 20 years. If the Bill is not amended, the power of this Parliament will be extended into areas that are solely the preserve of the Scottish Parliament. I believe that will set a very dangerous precedent.
Not only does the Bill drive a coach and horses through the devolution settlement, but I would question why the House of Lords thought it in any way appropriate to apply section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 to the whole of the United Kingdom, because there is no such piece of legislation as the Crime and Courts Act in Scotland. It simply does not exist. Furthermore, the whole concept of exemplary damages, as I understand is being proposed, is not even recognised and has no equivalent in Scots law. If the Bill were passed unamended, it would force the Scottish Government to pass a legislative consent motion—something they have said they have no intention of doing because, as I said, press regulation and criminal justice are wholly devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
It is simply unacceptable for the UK Parliament to decide what should happen in Scotland with regard to press regulation; that is a job for the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Government have made it clear that, although they are not opposed to press regulation and are having ongoing discussions with the Scottish media about best to implement an independent press regulation system, it is for Holyrood to decide on a course of action, not to have it decided for them by Westminster. I fully expect the Government to seek to remove clauses 168 and 169 and the Opposition to seek to restore them on Report. I hope that, when the Labour Opposition do that on Report, they will ensure that what they bring back to the Floor of the House of Commons is compatible with the devolution settlement and that the proposed new clause will exclude Scotland from the section 40 legislation.
It is not enough for the Government to say that they understand and sympathise. I urge the Minister to accept our amendments because they preserve and protect the devolution settlement, which has worked well for the past 20 years in terms of press regulation and criminal justice. I ask the Minister and in particular Conservative Members representing Scottish constituencies to respect the devolution settlement and accept that what came back from the House of Lords flies in the face of the long-established devolution settlement. I ask them to accept that it is wholly inappropriate and inconsistent with Scots law and, therefore, support our amendments.
I want to say a few words in defence of the clause and touch on the amendments the Government have proposed. The substance of the clause is an attempt to ensure that we activate the second half of the Leveson inquiry, to look into allegations of collusion between the police and members of the fourth estate.
It is worth reminding ourselves of the absolute horror with which we all looked at the revelations about News International’s malpractice. The idea that individuals from national newspapers could hack phones of pretty much anybody in the country, including most notoriously the phone of poor Milly Dowler, sell that information and turn it into front-page newspaper stories, absolutely shocked us. Serious questions were asked about the way the police investigation was conducted. That is why the House united not just to begin the Leveson inquiry, but to propose a second part to look into the question of police collusion. That element was not possible at the time because of the cases that were coming to court, both civil and criminal. The solution proposed by Mr Cameron, the then Prime Minister, which I believe was supported by the present Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, was that there should be a second half of the Leveson inquiry. Mr Cameron said:
“One of the things that the victims have been most concerned about is that part 2 of the investigation should go ahead—because of the concerns about that first police investigation and about improper relationships between journalists and police officers. It is right that it should go ahead, and that is fully our intention.”—[Official Report,
Imagine our surprise when the Secretary of State decided to close the Leveson inquiry, saying that the world had changed and that all criminal behaviour and conduct in the fourth estate magically and mystically came to a definitive, categorical and unequivocal end in 2010. That, however, appears not to be the case. Subsequent to the Secretary of State’s declaration that the world had suddenly returned to order and honesty, we heard the revelations of John Ford, a professional blagger employed by The Sunday Times, who set out several detailed allegations and examples of criminal behaviour relating to sensitive information, including on members of the Cabinet and their personal bank accounts. Furthermore, he claims that the practice persists today, saying that
“I know individuals who are still engaged in these activities on behalf of newspapers.”
The Secretary of State has no evidential basis for his rather complacent assertion that the practice no longer occurs.
When the Secretary of State presented his decision to the House, most hon. Members who were lucky enough to hear his statement left the Chamber feeling fairly clear that he had explained that Sir Brian Leveson supported his decision to close down Leveson 2. Imagine our surprise when it subsequently emerged that Sir Brian “fundamentally disagrees” with the Government’s decision to end part 2 of the inquiry. Anyone who enjoyed the Secretary of State’s evidence session last week in front of the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport as much as I did will have noticed the rather penetrating questions from my hon. Friend
When Sir Brian Leveson said that some of the terms of reference could be changed, he was recommending that they be expanded, not restricted, so that the inquiry could look further into how social media companies collect and use data, as well as how they are used as conduits for fake news.
It is probably worth spelling out in more detail some of the evidence that Mr Ford has offered to Parliament. Not all members of the Committee luxuriate in membership of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, so they will not all have seen John Ford’s letter of
“I illegally accessed phone accounts, bank accounts, credit cards, and other personal data of public figures (mainly politicians and their families). My targets included politicians of all parties. In most cases, this was done without any legitimate public interest justification. Many blags were ‘fishing expeditions’ which, by definition, do not satisfy the public interest defence for section 55 of the Data Protection Act 1998.
I was tasked by at least 20 journalists at the Sunday Times, most of them senior, including by very senior executives. They all knew what I was doing and that it was against the law.”
Mr Ford goes on to reflect on the Secretary of State’s response to the urgent question on Wednesday
Mr Ford says in his letter to the Select Committee:
“I am sorry to inform you that Mr Hancock is totally wrong”.
He goes on to say that
“having spent 15 years in the business, it is no surprise… that I still know people in the illegal data theft industry, and specifically,”—
this is the nub of the argument—
“that I know individuals who are still engaged in these activities on behalf of newspapers.”
So it would seem that there are allegations that the malpractice did not unequivocally, categorically, absolutely, definitely come to an end in 2010.
There is clear evidence before a Select Committee of the House that malpractice continues. The decision therefore to shut down once and for all an inquiry into it can best be described as turning the other way and walking on by. Others, I suspect, will come up with rather fruitier descriptions of what the Secretary of State is up to.
The public policy challenge that the Minister has to reflect on is in the allegations that Mr Ford goes on to make about the inadequacy of the police and the Information Commissioner in taking meaningful action. Mr Ford, I am afraid, is on quite strong ground when he points to a past pattern of behaviour, such as the instance of Steve Whittamore, who was a prolific blagger in the mid-2000s, which neither Operation Glade nor Operation Motorman used to take any enforcement action against newspapers that had paid Whittamore thousands of pounds for illegal blags.
A track record of evidence is, I am afraid, coming to light for action simply not being taken against police officers or newspapers. Mr Ford, regrettably, is drawn to the conclusion that, if we look at the past activities of and the court cases settled by the Trinity Mirror group and News UK, taken together, they show that the police and the Information Commissioner’s Office “are not interested” in or “don’t feel equipped” taking on “newspapers in individual cases”.
I suggest that when we have such extraordinary malpractice, so serious that the result was the closure of one of our oldest national newspapers, and when there is cross-party consensus led not by one of us—by a humble Back Bencher—but by the Prime Minister of this country who made a solemn promise, not only to the House and to Parliament but to the victims of the crimes, that Leveson 2 would go ahead, and we cannot believe those assurances, what are we ever to believe again from the mouth of a Prime Minister? The Minister is shaking confidence in prime ministerial pronouncements and in the cleanliness and hygiene of the fourth estate. One simply has to ask, what on earth are they worried about that would surface in Leveson 2?
The Secretary of State tried to rest his arguments in the House and before the Select Committee on the idea that many of the allegations that Mr Ford made had been reviewed comprehensively in Leveson part 1, but that completely ignores the solemn promise made by the Prime Minister of this country that Leveson 2 would take place. It also ignores the crucial evidence in Mr Ford’s statement that he says that he knows of illegal activity that still persists. The Minister will probably say, “Well, if that’s the case, it’s a crime and should be reported to the police,” and so on, but what we learned during Leveson 1 is that case studies such as that tend to be tips of icebergs. The real worry is that the iceberg in this case is wholesale police and newspaper collusion that, frankly, should be weeded out.
Over the past three or four years, we have learned to our great cost of the need sometimes to delve deep into the past—into the track record of offences, whether that is Hillsborough, Orgreave or the evidence surfaced by Leveson 1—to get to the truth so that public policy and reform can be better in the years to come. I do not understand why we would not take a systemic look at the allegations of collusion between the police and the media to satisfy ourselves that the system is beyond improvement.
I want to finish with the words of Madeleine McCann’s father, Gerry McCann, whose family was unfortunately libelled and intruded upon by the press following Madeleine’s disappearance. When he learned that the Government are scrapping Leveson part 2, he said that
“this Government has abandoned its commitments to the victims of press abuse to satisfy the corporate interests of the large newspaper groups…This Government has lost all integrity when it comes to policy affecting the press.”
I hope that, having reflected on those harsh and serious words, the Minister will conclude that we have nothing to fear, nothing to hide and everything to gain from letting Sir Brian Leveson finish the job the Prime Minister said he would be allowed to finish.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I declare an interest: I was a journalist for many years—I am no longer practising—although not in the hard-copy newspaper industry. Given my background, I take a deep interest in these matters.
I have a great deal of sympathy for the reasons for the Scottish National party tabling amendments 137, 138 and 139, and I absolutely understand the need for the tidying up that needs to be done to the amendment that has come from the other place, which appears to be addled in relation to the legal situation with the Scottish Parliament’s devolved powers. I fully understand why the Scottish amendments have been tabled, and I have sympathy with the view that the Lords amendment needs tidying up. However, I cannot support the SNP amendments simply because I do not want the amendment from the other place, to which they would be attached, to be part of the Bill at all. I will go through some reasons to explain why, but I want to put on the record my sympathy for the reason for them being tabled.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute described the amendment from the other place as “lazy” because it does not take into account the Scottish devolved powers. That is one description of it. It is also, frankly, a bit mysterious. I find it a little hard to understand why we are discussing this issue at all in relation to the Bill. That amendment and the section 40 amendment, which we will discuss later, were attached to the Bill in the other place in much the same way as one attaches decorations to a Christmas tree. They are not part of what we should be discussing, although I am grateful that we have the opportunity so to do, because that allows the Government to put their case, as I am sure Ministers will do shortly, and as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did in the House earlier.
As I set out in my speech on Second Reading, I believe strongly that we should reject the amendments that have come to us from the other place—in particular, the amendment relating to Leveson 2. I heard everything the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill said about the need for Leveson 2 and about victims needing their day in court. I am not putting words into his mouth—I do not think he used exactly that phrase, and I do not disagree—and there is indeed a difficulty in that, of course, there are still examples of reporters working for a variety of news organisations who are undertaking practices that are either immoral or illegal, or in some cases both.
When I started work as a journalist in 1986, it was quite clear that that was going on, and it is quite clear to me now that that is still going on. Establishing Leveson 2 would not change that; it would not put it right; it would not solve any of those wrongs. It would not even bring the sort of justice that I am sure we all want for members of the public who have been wronged by the media.
The right hon. Gentleman made great play on the fact the former Prime Minister said that Leveson 2 will go ahead. Indeed, he did. It was before my time in the House—I am not as long serving as other Members—but the fact is that things have changed markedly since the former Prime Minister made that commitment on going ahead with Leveson 2. The landscape has changed markedly. It is absolutely right that we take account now, in 2018, of the situation that we find ourselves in. Given that Leveson 1 has happened, given what we know Leveson 1 was able to achieve and what it was not able to achieve, and given some of the reforms that have since taken place, it is absolutely right that the current Government in 2018 revisit the matter. In my view, they have reached absolutely the correct conclusion: the grounds on which Leveson was originally to go ahead no longer are justified.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I wish that the entire media operated with the editorial standards of BBC Essex and the Swindon Advertiser. I was struck by a remarkable statement: that he believes that the mispractice or malpractice still goes on—I have written down carefully the words that he used. I cannot, therefore, understand why the conclusion he draws from the persistence of malpractice is to look the other way and to shut down an inquiry into whether it took place and who the guilty are. I would be grateful if he can correct me on my misunderstanding.
Thank you for that clarification, Mr Streeter.
There is nothing remarkable about what I said. Quite clearly, there is still malpractice going on in the journalism industry. Is the right hon. Gentleman honestly trying to say that that is a remarkable thing to say?
It is not remarkable at all. Of course it is going on, but establishing and carrying out Leveson 2 would do nothing to solve that problem and nothing to bring justice to the members of the public who have been done wrong by that small number of journalists who are acting in that way. I do not know why the right hon. Gentleman finds that a remarkable statement to make.
As for the statement that he made on Second Reading—that the Government’s position is to say, “Nothing to see here—absolutely nothing happening”—that is not what the Government are saying at all. The Government’s position is clear: Leveson 2 simply would not do what I think the right hon. Gentleman and probably everyone in this room would like it to do, which is to be some sort of cleansing disinfectant that solves all the problems. It simply will not do that.
It is a big gamble to spend potentially £50 million when we are not sure whether it will have the required outcome. That is the point. The Lords amendment would start the Leveson 2 process, which would cost at a very conservative estimate £50 million, potentially last for a huge amount of time and still not get to the answer that we want. There must be better solutions.
I had started to discuss the fact that the landscape has changed and that the very framework in which we work has changed markedly since the former Prime Minister made the commitment to go ahead with Leveson 2. There have been huge changes. Not only have we had the Leveson 1 inquiry, which in its own terms of reference touched on many of the issues that the proposed Leveson 2 inquiry would cover, but we have had any number of changes, improvements, and reforms in the way the police and indeed the media operate. We have had Operations Elveden, Tuleta and Weeting, which included Operation Golding, all of which have investigated a wide range of practices in the interaction between the police and members of the media and journalists. At a total cost, incidentally, of about £40 million for those operations, they have done good work and all of them have resulted in significant reform.
When I first joined the journalistic trade, way back in 1986, there was malpractice on a scale that we would not believe, and it was completely normal for journalists to pick up the phone to a friendly police contact and get whatever information they wanted to write their next report. That was absolutely normal. It is not normal now. I am sure it still happens, but it is now not the norm, which is good. That is why we do not want to turn the clock back and commit ourselves to a very long inquiry—a Leveson 2 inquiry—which would not do what we want it to do.
Where malpractice occurs in the media, where cases such as those raised by the right hon. Gentleman come to light, and where members of the public are treated in the most despicable way by journalists, I want people to be able to have the right to redress, to have their day in court, and to be able to say, “This is what has happened and it must change,” but Leveson 2 would not do that. It would not provide the means by which that happened. That is why the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was absolutely right to make the decision and to say that Leveson 2 is not on the Government’s agenda, and nor should it go ahead. It is perhaps worth pointing out also that this Government were elected only nine months ago on a manifesto that specifically said that Leveson 2 would not go ahead. That was a manifesto commitment.
Mr Streeter, may I just seek absolute clarification from you? From your earlier instruction, are we now also talking about section 40?
Thank you very much indeed.
I do not really have much to say. To be clear, we are considering the amendment made in the other place. It seeks to enact section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which this Government and the Secretary of State have said we will not do—indeed, they have said that we wish to repeal section 40.
It is very clear in my mind that we need to reject the amendment made in the other place. There is a very straightforward reason, which is that section 40 does one key thing: it seeks to persuade media organisations, specifically newspapers, that have not signed up to a recognised regulatory body to do so by providing a financial inducement of the most “blunt instrument” kind.
I have here a document from the House of Commons Library; for the record, I emphasise that the House of Commons Library is neutral. The document discusses why section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 was introduced. The Library says that it was intended to
“coerce or incentivise publishers to become members of a recognised regulator”.
That is language that we should be worried about. The reason we should be more worried about what section 40 will do—it is pretty straightforward—is that if a member of the public brings a defamation action against a newspaper, it goes to court and the newspaper wins the case, that media organisation is still financially liable to pay the costs of both sides.
Quite simply, that will encourage a lot of entirely superfluous and vexatious legal actions to be brought by people who just have some kind of beef against the media and pockets bulging with cash that allows them to do so. When, as will inevitably happen, the media wins the case, because it was built on sand, the media organisations concerned will be put out of business by the requirement to pay the legal costs on both sides.
I was not in Parliament at the time. I have only been here for two and a half years. We go back to the point that I made in relation to the previous clause. The ground has shifted. We now know what the effect will be. The other place debated this in some detail; the arguments were put extremely strongly, and by a narrow majority their lordships, as is their right, passed the amendment and asked us to consider it. It is perfectly right that they are asking us to consider it. It is perfectly right that we say: “Up with this we will not put.” Section 40 will have precisely the opposite effect to what probably anyone listening would hope it to have. It will be an extraordinarily damaging measure for the future of the freedom of the press in this country. It will have the effect of preventing publication of material which is in the public interest and which is true, legitimate, and fair, because newspaper proprietors will not be able to afford the risk of going to a court case which they win but still have to pay the costs. It will be an incredible impediment to the free press in this country. For that reason more than any other we must reject the amendments that come from the other place.
I am grateful to you, Mr Streeter, for setting that out so clearly. I want to speak in defence of clauses 167 and 168.
I am clearly an innocent abroad in a world that is not innocent. I struggle to follow the argument made by the hon. Member for North Devon. On the one hand he was pretty insistent that malpractice continued, but then invited us to believe that somehow the world had changed comprehensively. Either the world has changed or it has not. I fear that the world has changed a bit, but not enough, so there is still a need for an effective means of offering justice to those who have been maligned by newspapers.
The architecture set up by the right honourable Members for West Dorset and for Basingstoke was complicated. We have a fine tradition of a free press, going back to the restoration. One of the reasons why the industrial and scientific revolutions flourished in this country was that we had a culture of free speech—something that Voltaire admired greatly when he spent time in London. However, the reality is that bad behaviour by the press has destroyed people’s reputations without any real chance of recovery. In a world of social media, when reputations are destroyed, the smears stick to people like tar. They do not go away; they stay with people and scar them for life.
That underlines the reality that there needs to be some kind of low-cost, readily accessible form of arbitration and settlement when the press, so help them, get things wrong. People make mistakes; to err is human, so we have to ensure that human institutions have a means of fixing things when mistakes are made. Many of the victims who suffer at the hands of the press may be poor people, not rich people, who do not have access to expensive lawyers who can file emergency injunctions to stop publication overnight, as we know many celebrities have.
The challenge that confronted the previous Prime Minister and the right hon. Members for West Dorset and for Basingstoke was how to ensure that we sustain a free press, which is so important to the culture of free speech in this country, and deliver justice to those who have been maligned—how to ensure that justice is accessible to them. The proposal that was constructed was fairly elegant. It sought to ensure two things: first, that there was an independent code of practice and secondly, that there a low-cost form of arbitration. As it happens, the only regulator that has come forward with those mechanisms and been recognised is IMPRESS.
IMPRESS is bedevilled by well-known problems, but the only current alternative is the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The challenge with IPSO is that it is not independent and it operates a code based on the old editors’ code, which is subject to changes on a whim. Although it has just about put in place a low-cost arbitration scheme, it has never been tested in anger, so we do not know whether it will work.
Conscious of that, the previous Prime Minister decided that the best way to balance the difficult things that we needed to balance and to make progress was to accept Sir Brian Leveson’s recommendation that there be some sort of fiscal incentive for people to do the right thing and create a regulator that does the business for justice for people who are maligned by the press. That is why the architecture was constructed in that way.
In 14 years, I have never heard of such a comprehensive volte-face by a Government as casting away a policy of which they were the architects. They were the architects of the policy. They worked hard to get cross-party consensus. They made promises to the victims of press injustice that the policy would be carried through. Now, the Conservative party decides to put all those promises, those policies and that delicate balance in the bin. That is unwise. The British public have some right to, not perfect consistency, but a degree of consistency from a governing party.
We have heard that the world has not changed, and we have heard that there was a history of police collusion with newspapers. I do not think that turning a blind eye is the way to remedy historic injustice or to perfect public policy for the years to come. The British public deserve a degree of consistency in the delivery of the scheme that the previous Prime Minister set out with all his customary eloquence just a couple of years ago. That is why these amendments are important. They will be retabled on Report if the Government succeed in defeating them here.
I accept the arguments made by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute about the need to perfect the amendment, but the problem is not going away. If the hon. Member for North Devon is right, there are many further landmines along the road. Having worked with the police over the last 14 years in my role as a constituency MP, the one thing I know about police officers is that they hate bad apples, so they are frustrated when bad apples are allowed to continue in the organisation. We should be casting those individuals out root and branch.
We should also reflect on past misdemeanours to satisfy ourselves that we have good systems, good policy and good laws in place to guard against that kind of malpractice in the future. That is how we improve the country: by reflecting on past mistakes and making corrections. Turning a blind eye never, ever works. That is why these amendments and clauses are so important.
I shall be mercifully brief. As a print journalist for 15 years, I start by saying that the entire industry was genuinely horrified to learn of the extent and the offences that had been committed by organisations that, in the main and over many centuries, worked genuinely in the public interest. We should not forget that journalists who work in the media today, and were doing so while that was going on, are in the main trying to do the kind of public service that we would all defend. We should not underestimate the horror with which the industry greeted the stories of what happened to the Dowler family and many others, be they celebrities or other victims. I hope we would agree across the House that the media in the main have fulfilled that remit. I should also say, as did my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon, that I have a great deal of sympathy with the amendments proposed by the Scottish National party. We should prize consistency above all else in this area.
The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill said that he was surprised to learn that the Government did not seek to proceed with the second part of the Leveson inquiry. It was in our manifesto, so his surprise is surprising. I can only conclude that he did not read the Conservative manifesto. Perhaps he read the Labour manifesto and was so horrified he could not face reading another one.
The Labour one? Quite right. We should bear in mind the two things used in favour of the position taken by the Conservative party and the Government in the manifesto. The first, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon said, is that the world has indisputably moved on. Even Sir Brian Leveson agrees that the world has moved on. The challenges that face our modern media are not the challenges that would have been subject to the Leveson inquiry. The more important point is that, where there are legitimate concerns about the media and how people are treated, the solution to that is effective and independent regulation, and that is what we have now more than ever.
The hon. Gentleman served on The Daily Telegraph long enough to know that the IPSO code today bears a striking resemblance to the old editors’ code. Perhaps he could give us the benefit of his experience and tell us whether he is satisfied that the IPSO code meets the tests set out by Sir Brian Leveson and agreed in all parts of the House.
I will say two things. I had a mercifully limited engagement with what was then the Press Complaints Commission, although we did have to deal with some complaints in my small bit of the paper. Although we took it seriously, it is in no way comparable with the seriousness that IPSO is now taken. That might be down to the fact that the scale of the apology that can be demanded by IPSO, and has to be given, is exponentially greater. That is a crucial deterrent when it comes to the work done by journalists in the newsroom, who sometimes regard their editors as figures of great fear as much as great role models.
The other side is that we have a crucial low-cost arbitration system that allows people who are not of the means that the right hon. Gentleman described to bring cases against the media and get the redress they deserve when people make mistakes. Those are the two crucial differences between the PCC and IPSO. The latter is a fundamentally more powerful, very different regulator, but it has the credibility and independence that IMPRESS will simply never have.
The hon. Gentleman was an experienced and respected journalist and has a track record on which to draw in his reflections. He did not quite answer the question whether he thought the code of conduct that IPSO regulates meets the tests set out by Sir Brian Leveson and agreed on both sides of the House. Will he reflect on whether the code of conduct is prone to changes driven through by newspaper editors? There is no guarantee that newspaper editors cannot influence that code, and its shape and bite, in the years to come.
The right hon. Gentleman is right that there is a continuous thread to the sensible key principles of press regulation, and for journalists to have a role in shaping those is not entirely illegitimate. None the less, we must bear in mind that those principles should serve the public before they serve the press. That is what is in the principles that Sir Brian Leveson sought to suggest. The right hon. Gentleman is right that we agree on those on both sides of the House, and that IPSO strikes the right balance. The sense that both the world and the regulator have changed should reassure both Opposition Members and members of the public who would like the Government to secure a free but sensibly regulated press that serves all of us.
Surely my hon. Friend shares my concern, and more to the point the public’s concern, that state interference smacks of all the wrong things the Government do and undermines the free press, on which we depend on a national and a local scale.
I agree, which is why IPSO rather than IMPRESS strikes the right balance between the two. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill made great play of David Cameron promising IPSO, but I would make great play of Government delivering on the manifesto pledges they made when they fought an election in 2017. Not doing what he set out also delivers on a promise—the more recent promise should take precedence.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon powerfully made the case against section 40, which seeks to punish the victim. That would obviously have a clear chilling effect not only on our local newspapers, which are often on the brink of bankruptcy, but on the broader media. We can look at fantastic pieces of journalism even today, such as the one about Cambridge Analytica. The Guardian itself says, “Please, we would like your donations so we can keep our valuable journalism free”—the paper has had to fight off three pieces of legal action by Cambridge Analytica and one from Facebook. Those huge corporations seek to shut down legitimate investigation, and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill suggests that if they were to bring and win cases, The Guardian should pay for them. That is an extraordinary position to take.
Let us be real about this. The idea that companies such as Facebook or Cambridge Analytica will desist from legal action to shut down stories that they do not like—the idea that that will not happen at any time in the future, even under the existing regimes—is for the birds. The argument that is better made by some of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues is to do with the risk to local newspapers, most of which are now owned by Trinity Mirror, which makes tens of millions of pounds in profit, or the Johnston Press. The point is that vexatious claims can be shut down and thrown out at any one of three stages by the regulator or, before the case goes to arbitration, by the arbitrator or by a judge, so the incidence of costs arising will not be on the scale the hon. Gentleman anticipates. Equally, he must accept that, without a form of low-cost arbitration, justice is denied to people who are maligned by newspapers.
I enjoyed the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, but I disagree with him profoundly. I worked for a newspaper that had, by comparison with our local papers, an enormous budget. The threat of having to pay the legal bills of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica would have a profoundly chilling effect, even at the very highest level of journalism.
Is my hon. Friend as concerned as I am that The Times journalist who uncovered the Rotherham child abuse scandal said that it would have been inconceivable—that is the word he used—for the newspaper to have run that story on its front page had section 40 been in place? How would that have damaged the investigation?
Exactly—there are a number of such examples. Opposition Members might wish to imagine that the so-called Fleet Street media has money to burn and could not care less about paying all sorts of legal costs. However, we all know that these businesses have to mind every penny, whether they are profitable or not. It is legitimate for them to do that. If every single investigative journalist was constantly living under the threat of their piece of work costing their newspaper and their boss tens of thousands of pounds, they simply would not get hired, never mind allowed into print.
Finally and very briefly, the hon. Gentleman is making an eloquent argument. Why, then, was that proposed by the right hon. Members for West Dorset and for Basingstoke? How did they get it so profoundly wrong?
That is a fascinating philosophical question, but I can only tell the right hon. Gentleman that I would not have voted for it. I appreciate that he will say that it is easy for me to say that now, but the idea that people in this place would be convinced that it is the best possible model is simply not plausible after the statements that my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon and I have made today. Surely we need a set of press regulations that preserves the independence of the media, and their ability to invest in journalism at local and national level, which we all want if we are to hold the powerful to account. We also need regulations that allow hon. Members to say with a clear conscience that we have done nothing that puts those businesses in serious jeopardy.
It does not seem to me that a costly Leveson 2 is the best use of public money, or that the threat of section 40 will ever be the best use of private money, putting legitimate local and national media out of business. Those arguments seem to me like a powerful case for IPSO, and for a sensible look at the sustainability of the press, as the Prime Minister has set about doing. They do not under any circumstances seem to me like a good reason to vote for the amendments.
I will set out the Government’s position on clauses 142, 168, 169 and 205, before returning to the amendments in the name of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute.
As we have heard, clause 142 requires the Government to establish an inquiry with terms of reference similar to those contained in part 2 of the Leveson inquiry, but in relation to data protection only. The Government set out our intention not to reopen the Leveson inquiry in our response to the consultation on the future of the inquiry on
The Government recognise that there is a great deal of feeling on both sides of the debate. We have listened to all views, including those of victims, in reaching a decision. No one seeks to excuse the past behaviour of individual media organisations, nor to legitimise it. As the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill said, some of the stories we heard at the beginning of the Leveson inquiry were horrific. The Government have a duty, however, to make decisions that are proportionate and in the public interest. In the light of all the evidence available, it is apparent that part 2 of the inquiry is no longer appropriate or proportionate.
Part 1 of the inquiry lasted over a year, and heard evidence from more than 300 people, including journalists, editors and victims. Since then, the majority of the Leveson recommendations have been implemented. Three major police investigations examining a wide range of offences have been completed. More than 40 people were convicted, some of whom were sent to prison. There have also been extensive reforms to policing practices, and significant changes to press self-regulation.
As a result, the terms of reference for part 2 have largely been met, and the culture that allowed phone hacking to become the norm has changed. Meanwhile, the media are facing critical challenges that threaten their sustainability, including fake news, declining circulations and gaining revenue from online content. Free and vibrant media are vital to democratic discourse, and we need to tackle those challenges urgently. Holding a costly and time-consuming public inquiry looking predominantly backwards is not the right way to go.
The Government are committed to addressing these issues, and we are developing a digital charter to ensure that new technologies work for the benefit of everyone, with rules and protections in place to keep people safe online and to ensure that personal information is used appropriately. As part of that, we are also undertaking work to ensure that there are sustainable business models for high-quality media online. The media landscape is different and the threats are different, too. Issues such as fake news mean there is a need to protect the reliability and objectivity of information.
Likewise, clauses 168 and 169 are similar to the provisions contained in sections 40 and 42 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, but apply to breaches of data protection law only. The Government do not believe that introducing a provision similar to section 40 of the 2013 Act into the Bill is appropriate, but in relation to data protection only. That is particularly so given our decision earlier this month to repeal section 40 when there is a suitable legislative vehicle. In coming to that decision, we considered all the available evidence, including the views of respondents to the public consultation that we undertook last year. Many respondents cited concerns about the chilling effect that section 40 would have on the freedom of the press, which was so ably summed up my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness.
The right hon. Gentleman has made great play of the former Prime Minister’s statement. I remind him that that statement was given six years ago. Much has changed since. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon tried to make the point that, although we cannot rule out that egregious conduct is still going on in the press, as I imagine there is in virtually every other sector of society, we can agree that much has changed and improved. That is why the Government have changed their direction. I hope that satisfies the right hon. Gentleman.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter.
On that point, the Minister accepts that egregious activity could be taking place across the industry but does not think that the proposal is the appropriate vehicle for dealing with it. She believes that the digital charter is the appropriate vehicle, but what evidence is she using to ensure that that addresses the egregious activity?
I want to correct one thing that the hon. Gentleman said: I did not say that that activity was taking place across the industry; I said that it was still taking place. Indeed, we have heard the horrendous allegations made by John Ford, albeit referring to behaviour that predates 2011. He alleges that it is still going on. I am not denying that it probably is still carrying on in pockets, but I would not say that it is widespread.
Press self-regulation has changed significantly in recent years with the establishment of IPSO, which follows many of the principles set out in the Leveson report. As so few publishers have joined a regulator recognised under the royal charter, commencement of section 40 would have a chilling effect on investigative journalism, which is so important to a well-functioning democracy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. We keep hearing about the chilling effect—it is well rehearsed—but could the Minister confirm that it could be entirely avoided if newspapers sign up to an appropriate regulator, which does not have to be IMPRESS? It is not a difficult thing to do.
Currently, IMPRESS is the only regulator recognised under the royal charter. I cannot speak for the press. There was a heated debate when the legislation went through Parliament. The press decided as one not to join what they perceived as a state-backed regulator. IPSO now does the job, albeit the Financial Times and The Guardian alone among the broadsheets have not joined IPSO.
The media landscape has changed. As I noted earlier, high-quality journalism is under threat from the rise of clickbait and fake news, from difficulties in generating revenue online to replace the revenue that used to flow from printed sources, and from the dramatic, continued rise of largely unregulated social media. If implemented, section 40 could impose further financial burdens on publishers, particularly at local level—200 local papers have closed in the last decade.
On top of that, the amendments made in the other place undermine our Scotland and Northern Ireland devolution settlements—that point was ably made by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute. The proposed new clauses seek to legislate on a UK-wide basis despite press regulation being a reserved matter for the devolved Administrations, which brings me to amendments 137, 138 and 139 in the name of the hon. Gentleman.
The Government are sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments for reasons I have set out. We will nevertheless push instead for the removal of those clauses from the Bill in their entirety. Similarly, while we agree with the sentiment of amendment 137, which seeks to require the Government to obtain the Scottish Government’s consent before establishing an inquiry under clause 142, we note that there is already a consultation requirement to that effect in the Inquiries Act 2005. Such an amendment is therefore unnecessary.
To conclude, high-quality news provision is vital to our society and democracy. I know there is shared interest across the House in safeguarding its future, and the Government are passionate about and working to deliver it. We believe that the clauses would work against those aims and cut across the work we are doing to help strengthen the future of high-quality journalism, and will therefore oppose their continued inclusion in the Bill.
I take on board what the Government say and appreciate that they have accepted the principle of the amendment, but I still intend to push it to the vote. It is essential that the devolution settlement is protected in as broad and deep a way as possible. I understand that they would seek to remove the entire clause, but if the clause is passed and de-amended, it has serious consequences for the devolution settlement. For that reason we will be pushing it to the vote.
Division number 10 - 9 yes, 10 no
Division number 11 - 9 yes, 10 no