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House of Commons

Friday 21 April 1989

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Maryhill Community Care Scheme

9.35 am

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill) : I beg to present a petition from supporters of the Maryhill community care scheme, which has been endorsed by 1,000 signatures gathered at Maryhill and backed by members of Gairbraid church, St. Gregory's church, the Maryhill elderly forum, the Strathclyde elderly forum, the Forum on Disability, Age Concern, the Gairbraid tenants' association, Wyndford community council, Gairbraid community flat and local branches of the Transport and General Workers Union, the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union, the Amalgamated Engineering Union and the National Union of Mineworkers. It has also been supported by local councillors and, needless to say, by me.

The substance of the petition is

"That a great disservice will be done to the needs and interests of many isolated, elderly and disabled people who have relied on the Maryhill community care scheme since 1984. The scheme has now closed because it does not meet the Government's criteria for funding and no other source of finance is there.

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Wherefor your petitioners pray that your Honourable House ask the Secretary of State for Employment and the Secretary of State for Scotland to re-examine the criteria for funding, and meanwhile allow the scheme interim funds to enable it to continue for at least a short period of three or four months. Therefore your petitioners, as in duty bound, pray that the House accepts the petition.

To lie upon the Table.

Concessionary TV Licence

9.37 am

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West) : I beg to present a petition from citizens of New Parks estate and from people in the city of Leicester, designed to change the present extraordinary anomaly whereby pensioners who live in warden-assisted accommodation obtain television licences at an annual fee of £5, while others who do not have the benefit of such assistance usually pay the full fee. "The humble Petition of citizens of the New Parks estate and of the city of Leicester showeth, that whereas for people who are elderly and disabled a television set is no luxury but often their main contact with outside life and shield against loneliness ; whereas elderly and disabled people suffer greatly from inadequate pensions and other benefits ; and whereas licence concessions are made for some pensioners and disabled people who live in council bungalows or sheltered accommodation ; wherefor your Petitioners pray that your Honourable House will call upon Her Majesty's Government to remove the burden of television licence fees from old age pensioners and people who are registered as disabled ; or in the alternative that Her Majesty's Government will extend privileges at present linmited to specific pensioners and disabled people who are in straitened circumstances ; who are at present struggling to survive financially ; for whom the dignity and quality of life is inadequate ; and for whom the cost of television licences is unwarranted and a great burden."

The petition is signed by more than 500 citizens, and by me. To lie upon the Table.

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Orders of the Day

Right of Reply Bill

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

9.40 am

Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I refer you to page 1136 of the Amendment Paper. Amendment No. 29 deals with the Official Report. You have not selected that amendment for debate. I do not seek to challenge your judgment. It may be that when you read the Bill you observed, as I did, that clause 1(1) referred merely to a periodical. A periodical, as defined by "The Concise Oxford Dictionary", is something that is "published at regular intervals." It appears that the Official Report is likely to be caught, in any event, by the terms of the Bill. That raises a question of privilege. I am wondering whether the proceedings on the Bill should be deferred until the Committee of Privileges has had a chance to examine the question.

Mr. Speaker : If the hon. Member is making that allegation, he must raise it with me in the normal way.

Mr. Knight : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I accept without question that when one raises a breach of privilege the matter must be raised in writing, but I am saying that this is an anticipated breach. Should the Bill ultimately become an Act, that could constitute a breach of privilege.

Mr. Speaker : The hon. Member must table a motion to that effect. We have known for a long time that the Bill would be debated today. If the hon. Gentleman sincerely thought that this was a question of privilege, he should have raised it with me before.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are you able to say whether it is the intention of the Solicitor-General or the Attorney-General to grace us with their presence this morning? There may be an announcement about Mr. Justice Hoffmann's proposals, which would allow for speedier and cheaper resolution of disputes concerning the law of defamation. Many of the right hon. and hon. Members who support the measure believe that the cost of defamation proceedings is so great that it is impossible for a private citizen to take on a newspaper. If Mr. Justice Hoffmann's proposals were to be implemented, many right hon. and hon. Members might reconsider their position on the Bill.

Mr. Speaker : The hon. Gentleman used the word "if." As the hon. Gentleman said, it has not yet happened. It is a premature point of order.

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It may help us to make progress--this is the difference between my point of order and the others--if I were to intimate to you that I should be willing to accept--

Mr. Speaker : Order. No, not at this stage. If the hon. Gentleman mentions which amendments he is prepared to accept when we reach them, I am sure that that would expedite the proceedings on his Bill.

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Mr. John Watts (Slough) : Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) and arising also from the amendment that stands in my name, Mr. Speaker. If our reading of the Bill is correct and the term "periodical" encompasses the Official Report of both this House and the other place, does not an issue of privilege arise concerning the other place? If that is so, should not the other place have been informed that this House is considering a matter that affects its privilege? Has the other place been so informed?

Mr. Speaker : That is another hypothetical matter. As the House would expect, I have been through the Bill and the amendments with the greatest of care and I think that I have been generous in my selection of amendments. They are all absolutely valid points and we should get on with them.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not seek to challenge your ruling in response to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington). You said that we should wait until we reached the amendments. However, it would be helpful if the House understood from the outset that my hon. Friend is the chief sponsor and promoter of the Bill and that he is prepared to accept all the amendments in groups 4, 7, 8 and 9.

Mr. Speaker : That is a helpful suggestion. However, let us now get on.

New Clause 4

Press Commission Appeal Tribunal

(1) The Secretary of State shall appoint a panel of members of the Commission to sit as the Press Commission Appeal Tribunal ("the Appeal Tribunal").

(2) The provisions of Part II of the Schedule to this Act shall have effect with respect to the Appeal Tribunal.

(3) A party to a decision of the Commission may, within 28 days of being notified of that decision, appeal to the Appeal Tribunal ; and on any such appeal the Appeal Tribunal may

(a) affirm the decision of the Commission, or

(b) make any other determination which could have been made by the Commission.

(4) The Secretary of State may make rules--

(a) regulating appeals to the Appeal Tribunal ;

(b) prescribing the practice and procedure to be followed on or in connection with appeals to the Appeal Tribunal, including the mode and burden of proof and admissibility of evidence to be received by the Appeal Tribunal and circumstances in which the Appeal Tribunal may hold an oral enquiry ; and

(c) providing for other matters preliminary or incidental to or arising out of appeals to and decisions made by the Appeal Tribunal. (5) The power to make rules under subsection (4) above shall be exercisable by statutory instrument ; and a statutory instrument containing such rules shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.'.-- [Mr. Greg Knight.] Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Greg Knight : I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker : With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments : No. 73, in clause 4, page 2, line 35, at end insert :

subject to an appeal under section (Press Commission Appeal Tribunal).'.

No. 91, in page 2, line 35, at end insert :

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subject to the right of either party to appeal to the High Court or to the Court of Session in Scotland within 28 days of the decision being made. The decision of the High Court or of the Court of Session shall be final.'.

No. 100, in page 2, line 35, at end insert :

subject to the right of either party to appeal decisions to the High Court, or the Court of Session in Scotland.'.

No. 33, in schedule, in page 4, line 39, at end add :

If the panel determines that the complainant has not established a right under section 1 of this Act, the complainant shall have the right to appeal against that decision to the full Commission'. No. 75, in page 4, line 39, at end add :

Part II-- The Press Commission Appeal Tribunal 11. A panel of at least 3 Commissioners shall sit as necessary as the Appeal Tribunal to determine appeals.

12. No member of the Commission shall be appointed to the Appeal Tribunal until at least six months after his appointment to the Commission.

13. A person who is no longer a member of the Commission shall cease to be a member of the Appeal Tribunal.

14. The Secretary and other officers appointed under Part I of this Schedule to assist the Commission shall assist the Appeal Tribunal in carrying out its duties.'.

Mr. Worthington : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It may be helpful if I say that I am willing to accept new clause 4 and amendment No. 75.

Mr. Speaker : I call the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) to speak to his new clause with that in mind.

9.45 am

Mr. Knight : I am grateful for what the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) has said. However, I am in some difficulty because I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Slough (Mr. Watts) and for Keighley (Mr. Waller) are not convinced that the new clause is necessary. I must, therefore, place on record the reasons why the new clause should be added to the Bill. In doing so, I hope that I can persuade them to join the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie and me in supporting the new clause.

I should make my position clear from the outset. I oppose the Bill, but I do not rise to defend the worst excesses of Fleet street and Wapping. I am not saying that everything is perfect with the British press. I remind the House that this is not merely a debating Chamber. It is a legislative Chamber. The House must consider what would happen if the Bill became law.

In my view, the Bill is a dangerous threat to press freedom. It would undermine editorial direction and stifle investigative journalism. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) is a barrister-at-law and I have to tell him that in my view a newspaper is more than a mere passive receptacle or conduit for news, comment and advertising. The choice of the material to go into a newspaper and decisions as to the limitations on size and content of the newspaper-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) is trying to make a serious speech about new clause 4 in the face of barracking, noise and laughter. Press freedom is a serious matter. Press freedom is at stake. I want to hear what my hon. Friend is saying. [Interruption.] Opposition Members are shouting out, even now.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean) : Order. I hope that the House will listen to the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight).

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) is moving his new clause, although my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) has already said that he accepts it, so what is the point of making a speech about it?

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Let us get on with the debate.

Mr. Greg Knight : As usual, the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) can only be half awake at this hour in the morning. When I rose to my feet I made it clear that it is all very well for the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie to say that he accepts my new clause, but I know that there are serious reservations on the Conservative Benches about-- [Interruption.] I am seeking to persuade

Mr. Norman Tebbit (Chingford) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Skinner : He is being paid £60,000 to come here this morning.

Mr. Tebbit : I cannot imagine that anybody would ever pay the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) anything to turn up anywhere. [Interruption.] I am not sure whether you can hear me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on my point of order, but I could not hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) was saying because of the barracking of a number of Opposition Members who do not respect a free press and do not, furthermore, respect free speech in this House. Could you be so kind as to ensure that the debate is conducted in a manner in which I, at least, can hear what my hon. Friend is saying?

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I hope that we shall get off to a good start on these important debates and that the House will listen to the hon. Member for Derby, North, who has the Floor.

Mr. Knight : Before the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch appeared to have a fit, I was saying that a newspaper was more than a passive receptacle or conduit for news, comment and advertising. The choice of material and the decisions about the size and content of a paper and the treatment of public issues, public officials and politicians, whether fair or unfair, involve the exercise of editorial control and judgment. I have yet to be convinced that Government regulation of that crucial process can be exercised consistent with a free press.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight) : My hon. Friend mentioned that some Conservative Members had expressed reservations about new clause 4. Does he agree that the Bill is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, given that there are 1,800 provincial newspapers, many of which are held in high regard in the constituencies of hon. Members on both sides of the House for the way in which they report local affairs?

Mr. Knight : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I hope that when he has heard my arguments, he will decide that if we have to have the Bill it will be better with the addition of new clause 4. [Interruption.] Opposition Members keep

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shouting that it has been accepted, but I will repeat for the third time that although the promoter of the Bill has been persuaded that he should accept new clause 4, I am surrounded by hostile hon. Friends who do not accept the need for new clause 4 and intend to divide the House. I am seeking to persuade my hon. Friends that they should not do that and that new clause 4 should be added to the Bill.

Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet) : I understand that the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) is prepared to accept only amendment No. 75 and new clause 4, both of which I have put my name to and I am pleased that he is prepared to accept them, but the only basis on which the Bill would be acceptable to me would be if the other amendments in the group, providing for an appeal to the courts, were also accepted. If there is not to be an appeal to the courts, a radically different approach to the group of amendments and the issues they raise is necessary.

Mr. Knight : I realise that I have to add my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) to the list of my hon. Friends who are unhappy about the new clause. I hope to persuade them otherwise during my speech.

It would be easy for opponents of the Bill to take a negative attitude and merely seek to divide the House on Third Reading, but I hope that the House will realise that we are trying to be constructive and improve the Bill. If the amendments are accepted, I hope that the Bill will be more acceptable to the House.

Before developing my argument in support of new clause 4, I congratulate the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie on the good-natured and fair way in which he steered the Bill through Committee. Even his opponents recognised his good nature and courtesy in Committee. He has been more good natured than some of my hon. Friends. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris) will join us this morning, but ever since we concluded our proceedings in Committee, I have kept bumping into him in corridors and hearing him moan about the worst excesses of Fleet street. I hope that we shall have the pleasure of his company later. Although the Government have made it clear that they are neutral, I hope that two of my hon. Friends who are Ministers will attend the debate, and although they cannot take part, will join me in the Division Lobby. I am referring to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs, who has said that he agrees with most of my amendments to the Bill. I have not discussed the matter with my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic, but on reading through the Official Report, I noticed that during the debate on the Parking Bill he said :

"I look forward to attending the historic towns forum that is to take place However I may wish to return early so that I may be negatively neutral on the Right of Reply Bill. Given my job, if I had a formal right of reply, half the newspapers would be full of items explaining that they had misunderstood me. I am one of the more misunderstood Ministers".--[ Official Report, 7 April 1989 ; Vol. 150, c. 520.]

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne) : While on the subject of those who are misunderstood, what representations has my hon. Friend received from my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath)?

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Mr. Knight : I was rather surprised not to receive any representations from my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath). I have not seen him in the House for quite some time, perhaps because the House has not been considering matters that the Government consider particularly contentious. Perhaps that is the reason for my right hon. Friend's absence.

Mr. Watts : He is advertising cheese.

Mr. Knight : My hon. Friend the Member for Slough informs me that one of the reasons for my right hon. Friend's absence is that he is currently advertising cheese products on television.

New clause 4 introduces the right of appeal, which can be exercised by either party against the press commission to a press commission appeal tribunal which may affirm the original decision or make any other determination. The new clause also gives the Secretary of State powers to make rules to regulate the practices and procedures to be followed in connection with appeals. My hon. Friends may ask why we need an appeals procedure. I remind the House that the Bill as drafted gives powers of High Court enforcement. I consider that the Bill's provisions for the hearing of evidence are entirely unacceptable, and that an appeals procedure should be provided. The Bill does not provide a right to be heard in person by the commission. It does not even provide a right to be legally represented, and parties are not required to give evidence under oath. Therefore, it is clear that there will be no right to cross-examination or to the examination of any relevant documents.

Mr. Leigh : My hon. Friend is making a very interesting case, but will he address a fundamental point that worries me? The very first line of new clause 4 refers to the Secretary of State. Many Conservative Members are worried that because of the excesses of two or three national titles, the 1,850 regional daily and weekly newspapers, which do a good job and try to act responsibly, may be clobbered. Much as we regret the excesses of one or two national titles, Conservative Members are fundamentally committed to press freedom and we are not convinced that my hon. Friend's new clause, in fiddling around with the Bill, will in any way improve it or address that problem.

Mr. Knight : My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The main answer to his question is that the Bill should be opposed, but, as I said a few moments ago, we are considering a Bill on Report and I felt that it was more constructive to seek to alleviate some of the problems that the Bill will cause than simply to oppose it. My hon. Friend referred to clobbering the press. If he reads new clause 4, he will realise that it seeks to alleviate the clobbering of the press by providing a right of appeal.

Mr. Watts : I have been listening very carefully to my hon. Friend's development of his argument. Subsection (1) of new clause 4 states that the appeal body should be composed of a panel of members of the commission. Is that not the same as having the right of appeal against the refusal of planning permission to a panel of members of the planning committee which refused the application in the first place? Is it not a vicious circle into which those who fall into the clutches of the commission will be bound ever more tightly? How will the appeal be independent? Is it not a mere charade and facade?

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Mr. Knight : My hon. Friend has been rather harsh in his criticism. One hopes that those appointed will be responsible and independently minded people who have some knowledge of the working of the newspaper industry and who, therefore, would exercise their judgment freely when asked to review a decision of the full commission.

10 am

Mr. Tebbit : I am not happy about new clause 4, because it seems merely to complicate the Bill without giving any real assurance of the freedom of the press. The debate is about appointing a press commission, not a right of reply board. I disagree with my hon. Friend over whether the commissioners, or whatever we choose to call them, should sit on appeals against their own judgments. I think, as my hon. Friend does, that the commissioners would be responsible men and women and, after all, it should not be my hon. Friend who is criticising this but Opposition Members. They claim frequently that there can be no proper appeal or investigation of matters, for example concerning the police, because the police conduct the inquiries themselves. We always say that the police, like the commissioners, are honourable men and women who can be trusted to do a proper job. I hope that my hon. Friend will explain how the appeals will be conducted. Will they be conducted with barristers, lawyers, and cross- examination? How will they work?

Mr. Knight : I shall deal with my right hon. Friend's first point now and his other point later. I do not think that he chose a good analogy when he referred to complaints initiated against the police. In that instance, a police officer from another constabulary will carry out the investigation. I am not suggesting that editors from another newspaper should sit on the appeal board. It will consist of people appointed by the Secretary of State and they would not necessarily be editors who are currently in charge of a newspaper. Therefore, that point was not particularly valid.

Mr. Tebbit : My hon. Friend has missed my point. The appeals procedure he is setting up is not for appeals against the view of editors but for someone who wants to appeal against the decision of the commissioners. Yet the commissioners will be sitting on that appeals board. The Bill stinks. The concept of commissioners being appointed by the state to govern the press is anathema to most Conservative Members. However, my hon. Friend missed my point and perhaps he will deal with it in a little more detail now.

Mr. Knight : I understand my right hon. Friend's point. I would not envisage that a commissioner who sat on the original hearing would be one of the commissioners sitting on the appeal. If my right hon. Friend is thinking, "Well, new clause 4 does not say that", I should point out that the new clause makes it clear that there are to be rules laid down by the Secretary of State to determine the manner of the hearing of the appeals and other matters ancillary thereto. I am hoping--no doubt my hon. Friend the Minister will make it clear when he replies--that such things would be dealt with in the rules. I accept that there may be criticism and that some of my hon. Friends may think that I should have added the rules to the new clause. I thought that the matter should be reflected upon in the light of today's debate. Therefore, when I drafted the new clause

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I wanted it to allow my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to consider our debate and then formulate the rules. I want to give my right hon. Friend some flexibility in the light of our proceedings.

Mr. Gow : There is an important point to which my hon. Friend has not referred. Under new clause 4 some members of the commission will be allowed to hear an appeal. My hon. Friend has told the House that the commissioners will be appointed by the Secretary of State. However, when reference is made in the Bill to "Secretary of State" does that not mean any Secretary of State, so that, for example, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales could appoint commissioners? Why does my hon. Friend have greater confidence in the ability of the Secretary of State for Wales to choose commissioners than in his judgment on monetary and economic matters?

Mr. Knight : If the commissioners were to be appointed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, I hope that he would appoint my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, because it would at least give him something useful to do with his time.

Clause 4(4) forces the commission to deal properly with any complaint. Hon. Members will know that it must give a decision within 28 days of receiving a complaint unless, according to the Bill, "it is not reasonably practicable to do so within that time limit."

It does not say to whom it must be "reasonably practicable". Is it to one of the parties, both the parties, or the commission? The 28-day period does not allow time for correspondence, let alone consideration of the evidence.

Mr. Batiste : My hon. Friend is coming to what I think is one of the fundamental flaws in the concept of the Bill and I am interested to know how he will deal with it. If there is a voluntary system, it could--though it does not in the case of the Press Council--operate quickly and effectively. When one moves, as the Bill does, in the direction of statutory rights, one needs statutory protection as well. As the role of the press commission develops, we shall lose all its informality, flexibility and potential for speed because of the inevitable need to protect the rights of both parties involved.

Mr. Knight : My hon. Friend has made a valid point. I think that he may be coming round to the view that there should be an appeals procedure to remedy any injustice that occurs. I hope that that is his ultimate conclusion.

Mr. Batiste : My first preference would have been that the remedy should lie in an accelerated procedure to county courts in the first instance rather than to the press commission. Having regard to the strong feelings expressed in the Bill that matters should be dealt with through a press commission, I would go along with that as long as there is the opportunity to appeal within it and then the ultimate appeal to the courts.

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