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Column 600Wheeler, John
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Spencer Batiste and
Mr. Lewis Stevens.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
This Act shall come into force on such date as the Lord Chancellor shall by statutory instrument provide.'-- [Mr. Gow.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
(a) on the establishment of the Commission'.
No. 96, in page 2, line 2, leave out Secretary of State' and insert Lord Chancellor'.
No. 76, in page 2, line 2, after State', insert--
', and (b) in subsequent years by the Secretary of State and the Commission in equal numbers.'.
No. 84, in the schedule, page 4, line 17, leave out
by the Secretary of State'.
No. 88, in page 4, line 23, leave out
by the Secretary of State'.
Mr. Gow : Tomorrow we shall celebrate the anniversary of the birth of his late Majesty the Emperor of Japan. Hon. Members may wonder about the relevance of that anniversary to the debate. It is a question which has occurred to my hon. Friend the Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household, who is characteristically seated in his place. We noted that anniversary on an earlier occasion. Is it a matter of fact or a matter of opinion? The Bill is concerned with fact or opinion.
The new clause mentions the Lord Chancellor. It has been tabled for two reasons : first, to show my right hon. and hon. Friends' confidence in the Lord Chancellor--a confidence which, apparently, is not shared by all of Her Majesty's judges--and, secondly, to bring sense to the Bill. It is difficult to bring sense to the Bill. My hon. Friend the Minister, as diligent as ever in the performance of his duties, is still present. [Interruption.] The Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household laughs. My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South-East (Mr. Lightbown) laughed. He has now ceased to laugh. He recognises the truth of that remark.
As I said, we need to bring some sense to the Bill. It is difficult to bring sense to the Bill. My hon. Friend the Minister read out to the House an article by Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper who, as the Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household knows, is one of Her Majesty's counsel. He has been appointed chairman of the Press Council. No better appointment to that important office has ever been made. I praise Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper. He is a lawyer of outstanding quality, and he has a sense of honour. I was surprised when some Opposition Members gave the impression that they had no confidence in Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper. [Interruption.] That was the impression.
My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) has had to leave the Chamber. I make it clear on his behalf that, far from casting any aspersions on Mr. Blom-Cooper, my hon. Friend has gone out of his way, on Second Reading, in Committee and today, to pay tribute to him and to the reform of the Press Council that he is seeking. The fact that my hon. Friend considers that that work is likely to be doomed, because the Press Council is organised by those who control and own the press, is another matter. My hon. Friend's personal opinions of Mr. Blom-Cooper are clearly on record. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that and accept that no Opposition Member has cast any aspersions on Mr. Blom- Cooper.
Mr. Gow : I made the fairly innocent and, I thought, accurate remark that my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. and hon. Friends gained the impression that Opposition Members--other than the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie--do not think very highly of Mr. Blom-Cooper. My right hon. and hon. Friends are not shaking their heads and saying, "You have gone off your head, Gow." Instead of shaking their heads, they are nodding. The heads that are nodding do not belong to me but are those of my right hon. and hon. Friends. They are of age, and they can give their own indications. I see on the Treasury Bench three Ministers--as will the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) if he looks straight ahead. Whips are certainly Ministers--that is beyond dispute. Each of those three Ministers, chosen by the Prime Minister herself, agrees that the impression given by Opposition Members was that they do not have confidence in Mr. Blom-Cooper. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central is entitled to say that the wrong impression was given, but it is characteristic of the Labour party to give the wrong impression. It is always doing that.
Mr. Fisher : Without labouring the point, that matter will be resolved by reading the Official Report. Nothing on the record will show that my right hon. or hon. Friends gave such an impression. It might be that Conservative Members misinterpreted sedentary remarks, which can easily cause confusion. However, I suspect that nothing in the record of today's debate will bear out the impression gained by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow). I am sure that he accepts that.
Mr. Gow : Certainly I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is being so agreeable that I have even referred to him as "my hon. Friend." However, during the speech of my hon. Friend the Minister--and it was an excellent speech--he referred to the chairman of the Press Council. He was not ruled out by your immediate predecessor in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, because he was not out of order. When my hon. Friend the Minister made that remark, it was greeted with derisory laughter from the Opposition Benches. I am not inventing that incident. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Ground) agrees. It is not only lay right hon. and hon.
Column 602Friends who concur with my account. Not one of my right hon. or hon. Friends quarrels with what I say. That does not happen very often, but it has happened this morning.
Mr. Watts : Does my hon. Friend agree that the exchanges between him and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) illustrate one of the essential difficulties in the Bill? Even a matter so simple and matter of fact as what was said earlier in the Chamber can give rise to great controversy. Equally intelligent right hon. and hon. Members, listening to the same words, and seeing the same facial expressions, can arrive at wholly different conclusions as to the intentions behind words that were spoken.
Mr. Gow : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who in former times was my Parliamentary Private Secretary. If I may so, he was excellent--and I hope very much that he will catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, because he has an important contribution to make to our proceedings.
I do not want to devote my speech only to the subject of Mr. Blom-Cooper, but I place on record that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I have great confidence in his ability, intelligence and sense of honour. I set out to put some sense into the Bill, but that is not easy.
I welcome the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) to our proceedings. Earlier, before you were in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, the hon. Gentleman was seated not where he is now, below the Gangway, but on the Opposition Front Bench. I hope that he will return there, because that is where he belongs.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd) : Order. I notice, however, that we have amendments before us and that the hon. Gentleman has had more than five minutes on his preamble. I should be grateful if he would relate his remarks to the amendments.
Mr. Gow : It is a matter of deep regret to the whole House, but above all to him, that the hon. Gentleman is not seated on the Opposition Front Bench. Although the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) does not share the high regard which I have for the hon. Gentleman, I have good news for the hon. Gentleman. The right hon. Gentleman will not be leading the Labour party after the next election. Then will come the time for rapid preferment for the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Tony Banks : I cannot say that I necesarily wish such a scenario to come about or that I share the hon. Gentleman's predictions. If my promotion is as rapid as he suggests, I hope that my demotion is not as rapid as his was.
New clause 5, which has been studied so carefully by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West, will put some sense into the Bill.
New clause 5 provides that the Bill shall not become operative until a date selected by the Lord Chancellor. Why? My hon. Friend the Minister read out part of an excellent article by Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper. We cannot have the Bill becoming operational before we have set up the press commission. Does my hon. Friend understand that point? The Bill cannot become law until we have appointed 21 members of the press commission. I am sure that he agrees.
I want the Lord Chancellor to decide by statutory instrument when the date shall be. That is perfectly common procedure. It is commonplace for an Act of Parliament to include a date on which that Act shall take effect. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West agrees. We have no such clause in the Bill. That is why I have tabled new clause 5, which is supported by some of my hon. Friends.
Mr. Renton : I am following my hon. Friend's argument with rapt attention. I am hoping that he will explain why the Lord Chancellor, rather than my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, should give his seal of approval to the time when the Bill shall come into force. After all, the Home Secretary would appoint the members of the commission. Earlier this week he was quoted as saying that that would be a heavy task to which he was not greatly looking forward. I may not have quoted him exactly, but that was the message of his remarks. I am not wholly clear yet why the Lord Chancellor, rather than the Home Secretary, should trigger off the Act, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will soon enlighten me.
Mr. Gow : For the very reason to which I referred in an intervention before 10 o'clock this morning. The words "The Secretary of State" in a Bill do not mean only the Home Secretary ; they mean any Secretary of State.
The point that I want to make in response to the Minister's intervention is that I have much greater confidence in my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor than I have in my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. The Secretary of State for Wales has strange views about economic and monetary policy. He is one of those people who still do not understand what most of us already understand about economic and monetary policy. Even the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) understood. He was the first Socialist monetarist.
The right hon. Member should take my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales for a long walk over the hills, and explain to him that, when the rate of growth of the supply of money and the rate of growth of the supply of goods and services get out of balance, the consequence is inflation. That is why we do not want the Secretary of State for Wales making the appointments. If one is unsound on an issue such as monetary policy, one's judgment can be affected dramatically in other ways.
Mr. Batiste : Can my hon. Friend help those of us who were concerned about the way in which the Bill appeared to be creating some Orwellian nightmare of a Ministry of Justice? Leaving aside the personalities in the various offices, but, looking purely at the comparison between, for example, the posts of Home Secretary and Lord
Column 604Chancellor and drawing upon my hon. Friend's unrivalled experience in the House and of the people who have held those offices in the past, does my hon. Friend believe that it is inherent in the various responsibilities of those two offices that the Lord Chancellor would be the better person to deal with those difficult issues?
Mr. Gow : My hon. Friend has made an important point. It was not only the views of the Secretary of State for Wales that made me put down the new clause. Why I seek massive support for the new clause is that my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor is under assault from the judges. When my noble Friend is under assault, we in this place can put down a marker to show our confidence in him. We have to appoint 21 members of the press commission, which is far too many and one of my amendments seeks to bring it down to five. My noble Friend deserves the confidence of the House in deciding when the Bill shall become operative. We want to show some of the judges, who have been criticising my noble Friend's proposals, that we back him. In the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken), we are giving him another job. My hon. Friend is well versed in all matters related to journalism. Indeed, he is a distinguished writer himself. I wish that he would write more frequently in the newspapers and speak more frequently in this place.
One cannot allow the Bill to become operative on the day that it reaches the statute book, because those 21 folk must be in place. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South would be a very good member of the press commission, but I am not volunteering him for that post. Certainly, we do not want the Secretary of State for Wales to be involved, because he is unsound on monetary policy.
The third and most important reason is that we want to show our confidence and trust in my noble Friend. I believe that it is a very uncontroversial new clause. It will be widely welcomed. I am sure that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, who sits alone on the Opposition Front Bench, will welcome it warmly, but we shall receive no welcome from any representative of the Liberal party. We have noted that there has been an absence of any representative on the Liberal Benches even though the Liberal party is constantly proclaiming its concern about the press. It is a characteristic disgrace that there is no representative of the Liberal party here.
Amendment No. 96 is of particular interest to me. When my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) introduced the Bill, it was with the serious intention of ensuring that the press commission, which he proposes to take the place of the inane, anachronistic and toothless tiger, the Press Council, should be accountable to the House of Commons.
If there is to be accountability to the elected House of this Parliament, there must be a Minister--in this case the Home Secretary--who should be responsible for
Column 605answering questions or listening to complaints and problems which hon. Members, elected by their constituents, raise on the Floor of the House.
If the press commission had been in place during the past week, I and other colleagues on the Labour Benches and, possibly on the Government Benches, would have been raising some of the matters that we have unfortunately had to see in the pornographic sections of the British press. I would have been able to say to the Home Secretary--I could not say it to the Lord Chancellor--that he should look at the creatures who were able, on Wednesday, to publish their filth on the front page of The Sun. Incidentally, that is the same newspaper which got one of its journalists to ring me up a couple of months ago when a Conservative Member suffered the misfortune of his wife's death. That journalist telephoned me on a Sunday and pried into the private life of that hon. Gentleman. I told that journalist to get off, get himself another job--this time a job with dignity. Nobody with any dignity would work for The Sun.
In my home town of Liverpool there is now a massive boycott of that newspaper, a boycott which I wholeheartedly support. I hope that people up and down the country who have read the filth in Rupert Murdoch's paper will in future say no to buying any newspapers from that stable, including The Times.
No one in this country should be permitted to own more than one newspaper. If the Minister and other Conservative Members believe what they say about competition, there should be competition in the press. It should be possible for other proprietors to publish newspapers so that a wide stratum of opinion is expressed in our national press.
When the Minister reviews the situation--he says that he intends to do so-- it is important to take on board the feeling on the Labour Benches that the Home Secretary is the right Minister to be responsible for answering to the House.
I hope--I suppose it is a forlorn one--that my hon. Friend's Bill will become law during this Session. I have no doubt that the Bill will become law in the due process of time, because we shall return to this subject time and time again. I hope he will understand, however, that we must have a Minister in the House of Commons responsible for answering for any press commission--or, if my hon. Friend is unfortunate, for the Press Council.
The Press Council, as I have said, is a toothless tiger which came into existence in the 1940s. The Royal Commission on the press stated in 1948 that the regular diet of the British public on a Sunday was crime, sex and violence ; that has not changed after 40 years of the Press Council. Now we need a body with real teeth to take up the complaints that we bring to the House--even, perhaps, complaints about hon. Members who give quotes to the national press rather than raising points in the House.
On Monday the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) was called by Mr. Speaker to question the Home Secretary following his statement about the Hillsborough disaster. I have not seen the hon. Gentleman here since. If he had been here, it might have been possible to persuade him to raise in the House points that we could then have contested.
Mr. Wareing : I am trying to make the point, Madam Deputy Speaker, that amendment No. 96 attempts to transfer accountability from this House to the other place. The Lord Chancellor may have highly desirable qualities as a judge : he may be able, very rationally and properly, to make appointments to certain bodies--for example, the Council of Tribunals. The Home Secretary, however, is the right Minister to refer to the press commission matters raised by constituents.
Constituents have taken the trouble--and have used their money--to telephone me in London, 200 miles from the constituency, to complain about what has been said in The Sun. Many people believe that the press is not sensitive enough in other respects. I heard the Minister mention on the radio this morning the recent case involving the Princess Royal's letters, and I have referred to the hon. Member who was bereaved in the recent past.
Surely to God there is a need for the Bill. Surely to God there is a need for a press commission--for something more than we have had over the past 40 years, which has not altered the press one little bit. Surely it is right for the Home Secretary to be able to exercise some control, on behalf of this democratic body, over the national press. We hear talk about freedom of the press, but there is no free press in this country. There are fewer newspapers and fewer newspaper proprietors than there were in 1948.
We should be able to question the Home Secretary. We do not wish to listen to Rupert Murdoch's vicars on earth on the Conservative Benches ; we want our constituents' complaints to be dealt with. Who is in a position to redress the foul material that we have seen in The Sun this week, or even to register a complaint against the large photograph displayed on the front page of the Daily Mirror ? To whom should we complain in the light of the last 40 years of Press Council inactivity, unwillingness or inability to deal with what happened throughout that period? It has to be the Home Secretary.
Mr. Pat Wall (Bradford, North) : My hon. Friend asks who should be responsible for dealing with press outrages. He referred, rightly, to the absolute horror of the people of Liverpool over the headlines in The Sun and The Star and the abominable, frightening and terrifying photographs of the disaster. At the time of the Valley Parade football ground disaster in my constituency, there were press allegations that the fire had been started deliberately by incendiarists. They caused enormous anguish to many people in Bradford who were already devastated by the injuries and the loss of life. Nothing was done about that, despite the fact that the Popplewell inquiry found that those allegations were completely erroneous and untrue. As the representative of a constituency that suffered from such a disaster, I can only sympathise with my hon. Friend and the people of Liverpool who have had to put up with not only the Hillsborough disaster but the filth and calumny that has been heaped upon them by the dregs of the press.
Mr. Wareing : I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said. I hope that it registers with Ministers. That would be in the interests of the families of the 95 people of Liverpool who died and of all those who suffered as a result of the fire
Column 607at the Valley Parade football ground in Bradford. They are far and away more important than millionaire tycoons, some from overseas, who are allowed to get away with all this filth without any real action being taken against them by a Minister of the Crown.
When the Right of Reply Bill ultimately reaches the statute book it is important that the Minister with responsibility for these matters should be able to refer them to a press commission that has real teeth and that can dispossess these people--or creatures ; that is how they are looked on by my constituents in Liverpool. That is why we oppose the new clause. All that the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) seeks to ensure is that the problem is moved further and further away from the democratic representatives of constituents and that it is dealt with by the other place. We must ensure that the Home Secretary is able to deal with these creatures of the press. I hope that we shall create a press commission that has the power to impose real penalties on wrongdoers who are doing more damage to the press than any damage of which pornographers could be accused.
Mr. Greg Knight : I wish to speak briefly about my amendments which are grouped with new clause 5--Amendments Nos. 76, 77, 84 and 88. I invite the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) to say at the end of my speech that he is prepared to accept the amendments. Their purpose is to alter the appointments procedure. According to the Bill, the Secretary of State would appoint all the Members of the press commission for the first year. The amendments provide that in subsequent years only half the members would be appointed by the Secretary of State and that the other half would be appointed by the press commission.
I urge the promoter of the Bill to accept the amendments because, under the Bill as drafted, the Secretary of State would have complete control over the press commission because it would allow him to appoint all its members. That raises important questions about the independence of the press commission and the issue of Government control. Some fear that a future Government might use the press commission as a Government agent to exercise a form of censorship. I was shocked that yesterday the Evening Standard expressed that very fear. Its editorial column headed, "Rights and wrongs" stated : "By giving the most secretive Government in the Western world statutory control of the Press, it would inhibit our fundamental purpose to investigate and write about matters of real public interest Nor is there anything to protect the newspaper from frivolous demands for reply, each of which would have to go before the Government-appointed press commission for settlement within 28 days."
There are already fears that the press commission would act as an arm of Government.
I was absolutely amazed by the comments in the Evening Standard because I regard my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary as one of the most liberal Home Secretaries we have had, and I am sure that those fears are groundless. Nevertheless they have to be taken into account. To give the press and the public confidence in the press commission's independence, clearly the Government should relinquish some of their control over it. The easiest solution would be for the Secretary of State initially to appoint all the members of the press commission, but subsequently it would be reasonable and sensible for the press commission to appoint a proportion of its members
Column 608--my amendment has suggested half--so that accusations such as that in the Evening Standard cannot fairly and reasonably be made.
Mr. Batiste : It will be clear from some of my interventions in the debate that I am unhappy with the drafting of the Bill. I abstained on Second Reading because I hoped that the Bill would emerge from Committee in a form that I would find acceptable. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) is in his place as it is important that he understands why some of us have opposed his Bill today, but would not necessarily oppose a future Bill on similar lines were it drafted and structured differently. I fully appreciate the disappointment that the hon. Gentleman must feel, having been successful in the ballot and having chosen an important subject for his private Bill, to see it disappear into the sands of time on Report. Having read the Committee Hansard, I recognise the good nature in which the Bill has proceeded, and I should not like him to feel that I was aggrieved at the way in which he handled my earlier attempt to ask him questions. By the same token, I hope that he will pay serious attention to the points that I should like to make about new clause 4 and the amendments grouped with it.
I should disclose an interest in the sense that I am a lawyer and my law firm acts for a wide variety of clients, some of whom publish local newspapers, but not for the national or tabloid press. On occasions we have acted for those who are deeply aggrieved at what goes into the press, so I have been able to examine the issue from both sides. Perhaps my greatest interest, as a lawyer, is that the Bill as drafted would create so much extra work for lawyers in the courts that it would go a very long way towards replacing the loss of the conveyancing monopoly. In that sense perhaps I am speaking against my interests in saying that I should prefer a Bill that was less likely to come to the courts for judicial review and interpretation of so many of its clauses.
The core of my concern is the nature of the press commission. As the Bill is drafted, there is the potential for the commission to become, as I said earlier, some Orwellian nightmare of a Ministry of Justice, having in place all the apparatus of oppressive censorship, including a kangaroo court, palm tree justice and all the other things that I would find unacceptable in any other area of judicial activity in Britain.
The amendments relate to a particular part of the Bill so I shall confine my comments to that. However, flowing from that is a wider range of issues which concern my hon. Friends and myself. We are genuinely appreciative of all the points that have been raised by hon. Members and by many of our constituents. They are fed up with the antics of some sections of the press and their incapacity to appreciate the resentment they have created by their behaviour. Nobody outside the House should think that those of us who have been trying to amend the Bill to a form that we would find acceptable are offering comfort to those sections of the press. Should a Bill appear next year, either from a private Member or the Government, our reactions would not necessarily be the same.
Column 609that way. Does he not understand that that is how the tabloid press will interpret them? The press will take comfort from his comments and will see that they are being enabled to go on in this thoroughly unacceptable manner because hon. Members have sought to block this constructive Bill.
Mr. Batiste : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, because I can do no more than put on record my interpretation and, if any other interpretation is drawn from my comments, it will be wrong.
I have had considerable experience of the way in which tribunals in different areas operate. I have to balance the wrongs done to some individuals, which are so far without remedy for all sorts of reasons that have been described during the debate, with what I would see as the hamstringing of the press. That is not just a convenient slogan for trying to stick up for newspaper barons. It is an appreciation of the fact that one of the important pillars of a democracy is a press which at times is willing to make itself unpopular with Governments and people in trying to expose the truth. The press may sometimes go over the line, but, in balancing those issues, it would be wrong for a Member of Parliament to support what seems to be easy and popular now while placing in hostage the future of something that is fundamental to our democracy.
I support some amendments in the group and not others. the switch from the Secretary of State to the Lord Chancellor in the appointment of members of the press commission appears in one of the amendments. It will be clear from what I have said that my main concern is caused by the nature of the press commission. Clause 2 states that the press commission shall
"comprise 21 members appointed by the Secretary of State." I looked for some further clarification as to the balance of the commission. I looked to paragraphs 5 and 6 of the schedule but I found that the only balance listed is in terms of race, gender and regional representation in society. Those are important matters, but when one is appointing a group of people who can have a profound effect on our society, many other factors should be taken into account.
For that reason, we must look at the nature of the appointment of those people. I should have preferred to see much more specification in the Bill. When quangos are created elsewhere, a careful balance between the competing interests is usually provided in the Bill. It is a grave omission that there is no such balance in this Bill. The attempt at balance listed in the Bill does not carry any serious significance having regard to the nature of the work to be carried out by the commission. It has no boundaries and can deal with matters as they arise, but, because of its voluntary nature, it does not need safeguards to prevent abuses of power. I appreciate hon. Members' points that the Press Council by no means fulfils that role, but I hope that the voluntary body created as a result of Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper's appointment and the changes that he is proposing will give the public and hon. Members greater confidence.
I accept, however, that there may have to be some form of statutory control, but, rather than creating a press commission, we should be considering a quasi-judicial body. Across many aspects of society, when it is deemed that the courts are too formal, long winded or costly to