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House of Commons emergency debate on the publication of draft Royal Charter on press regulation
Mr Speaker, I seek leave to propose that the House should debate a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely:
The welcome publication of the draft Royal Charter by the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition today and the Prime Minister’s intention to submit the Charter to the Privy Council for Her Majesty’s approval at the Privy Council’s May meeting.
Mr Speaker, what happened to the Dowlers, to the McCanns, to Christopher Jefferies and to many other innocent people who have never sought the limelight was utterly despicable.
It is absolutely right that we put in place a new system of press regulation to ensure that such appalling acts can never happen again.
We should do this without any further delay.
The Royal Charter, which I would like us to take note of now, will help do exactly that.
Furthermore, the cross-party agreement reached today will also allow those Bills that had become blocked or amended with concepts of statutory press regulation to be unblocked.
Bills like the Defamation Bill - with important libel reform and the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill - setting up the Green Investment Bank.
As a result, the government’s legislative programme will be able to proceed.
I would therefore be grateful, Mr Speaker, if you would grant this application.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I beg to move that the House has considered the welcome publication of the draft Royal Charter by the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition today, and the Prime Minister’s intention to submit the Charter to the Privy Council for Her Majesty’s approval at the Privy Council’s May meeting.
Mr Speaker, my Rt Hon Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and I have today reached cross-party agreement on a Royal Charter that will help deliver a new system of independent and robust press regulation in this country.
As Lord Justice Leveson recommended we need a system of tough independent self-regulation that will deliver for victims and meet the principles set out in his report.
This system will ensure up-front apologies million-pound fines, a self-regulatory body with independence of appointments and funding, a robust standards code, an arbitration service free for victims and a speedy complaint-handling mechanism.
We will do all of this without the need for statutory regulation.
Mr Speaker, let me set out for the House the significance of this decision to go with a Royal Charter instead of writing the principles of press regulation into statute and the details of the deal that has now been agreed.
Let me remind the House of the two key recommendations that Lord Justice Leveson made.
First, that there should be a new powerful self-regulatory body that the press had themselves to establish.
Second, in order that the press do not “mark their own homework”, there should be a recognition body to oversee the new system of press self-regulation.
The House will recall that Lord Justice Leveson’s own proposal was that legislation would have given Ofcom the power to act as the recognition body.
I said to this House on the day the report was published that I had serious misgivings about passing detailed legislation on press regulation.
I also had grave misgivings about this task being giving to Ofcom, which is already very powerful.
I was determined to find a better way of establishing the recognition body that would oversee the tough self-regulatory body that Lord Justice Leveson envisaged.
This is what the Royal Charter does.
It sets out the title, the definition, the functions, the powers, the composition of a new system of press regulation.
But it does so without the need to write any of this down in legislation.
It avoids what I call crossing the rubicon.
A full legislative response to Lord Justice Leveson’s report is the wrong approach for reasons of necessity, practicality and fundamental principle.
As we have shown today, statutory regulation of our media is not necessary to achieve the Leveson principles.
We can do it - and we will do it - via a Royal Charter.
It is not practical because the system of voluntary self-regulation with a recognition body only works if those being regulated participate in it.
In my view there was a real danger that if we pursued detailed legislative changes to implement Leveson, the press would refuse to take part.
We may have created a situation with a system that worked on paper but not in practice.
That wouldn’t help the victims at all.
Most importantly of all, Mr Speaker, detailed legislation is fundamentally wrong in principle.
It is wrong to create a vehicle whereby politicians could more easily in future impose regulation and obligations on the press.
And it is wrong to run even the slightest risk of infringing free speech and a free press in this way or indeed being perceived to do so.
Winston Churchill said that: “A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny”
He was right.
And today, Mr Speaker, by rejecting statutory regulation in favour of a Royal Charter this House has defended that principle.
And I very much welcome the agreement for withdrawal of amendments which would have created a new press law in this country.
Mr Speaker, let me set out for the House the cross party agreement on a Royal Charter.
As I have said, the new system of press regulation will deliver Lord Justice Leveson’s principles including up-front apologies and million pound fines.
We will use the Crime and Courts Bill to table the minimal legislative clauses needed to put in place incentives which Lord Justice Leveson regarded as crucial to give all newspapers a strong incentive to participate in this voluntary system of independent self-regulation.
So exemplary damages will be available against publishers who don’t join a regulator if they utterly disregard the rights of ordinary people.
And we will change the rules on costs in civil claims against publishers so that there’s a strong incentive to come inside the regulator, with its independent arbitration system.
We have also made clear that politicians will not be able to meddle with this system.
Indeed the whole point about not crossing the rubicon is to avoid a situation where government ministers could in future easily impose further regulation and obligations on the press.
We have agreed a no change clause in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill.
This will have the effect that the charter - now it has been so carefully agreed - can only be amended if the process contained within the charter is followed.
In this case, that both Houses of Parliament agree a motion for any change by a two thirds majority.
But Mr Speaker, let me be clear.
This is not by any stretch of the imagination statutory regulation of the press.
Nor is it even statutory recognition of either the independent press regulator or indeed the Royal Charter.
It is a three line clause which applies to all Royal Charters of a particular nature from this point onwards.
Colleagues may ask whether this no change clause could be used in future for a more aggressive approach to regulation of the press.
Because it doesn’t mention press regulation and it doesn’t even mention this Royal Charter it is no more in danger of being used in this way than any other piece of legislation on the statute book.
It merely ensures that for generations to come government Ministers can not interfere with this new system without explicit and extensive support from both Houses.
Mr Speaker, we have also agreed that all other Leveson-related clauses in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill will be opposed by the three main parties, unless they are withdrawn.
The Defamation Bill will proceed and the clauses related to the Leveson report will be reversed by all three parties voting together.
And all parties have agreed that statutory underpinning clauses down on the order paper today must be opposed.
Mr Speaker, let me conclude with a word about the process by which this agreement has been reached and the next steps.
The Royal Charter that we have agreed today has benefitted hugely from hundreds of hours of detailed negotiations with the representatives of victims with all main political parties and with the press themselves.
It has been further improved by the hours of discussions that have taken place between parties this weekend.
And I am grateful for the spirit of give and take on all sides.
We stand here today with cross-party agreement for a new system of press regulation that supports our great traditions of investigative journalism and free speech and protects the rights of the vulnerable and the innocent.
If this system is implemented the country should have confidence that the terrible suffering of innocent victims like the Dowlers, the McCanns and Christopher Jefferies should never be repeated.
My message to the press now is very clear.
We have had the debate.
Now it is time to get on and make this new system work.