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Mr. Paul Marsden: I understand that we do not want to introduce unnecessary regulation, but given the patchy and sometimes appalling quality of food in schools, how will the Government monitor the situation with the aim of improving it nationwide, without incurring extra bureaucracy for individual schools?

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Send the Minister to taste it.

Derek Twigg: I am not sure about that.

We have a healthy eating project together with the Department of Health, we have issued strict guidance to schools and we are working with them to ensure that those standards are reached. We also have the schools food trust. Those measures should help to achieve the major improvement that we want to bring about.

We must have a smarter accountability system, where intervention is in inverse proportion to success. A key component of that smarter accountability system is greater emphasis on self-assessment, getting schools themselves to identify the areas where they need to improve.

On the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central, Ofsted inspections will be shorter and sharper. The new inspection regime that we are introducing will mean that Ofsted captures pupils' well-being and health in its reports. We are working out the detail and will announce in due course the approach that will be taken, but we are certain that it must be in the broader context of food in schools, not focused solely on school lunches. We cannot take unwanted bureaucracy away from schools with one hand, and give it back with the other.

We cannot rely on Ofsted alone. Children eat a meal at school each day. We need parents and schools together to ensure that there is good food every day and that food provision is kept under continuous review. After all, the school meal is only one aspect of provision and it is vital that we get vending, snacking policies and packed lunches right as well. Schools are accountable to parents. That is where real pressure can come from and we are empowering parents to exert that pressure.

We need to take action and we are already responding. We must maintain our confidence in our school leaders to make the right decisions. They are doing an excellent job. Heads and governors know what is best for their school. They see their pupils daily, know their backgrounds and are aware of local circumstances. We are giving them the appropriate framework, tools and support to make the necessary decisions. We have to remove unnecessary burdens, so that they have the time and space to make the key decisions that result in a good school. Unnecessary legislation makes everyone's job harder.

We are involving parents, because they have a key dual role to play, demanding and helping to provide high standards. We are engaging the food industry, because its experience and expertise can make a valuable
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and vital contribution. The result that we all want is to provide every child not just with the opportunity to eat well and live a healthy lifestyle, but with the support and self-knowledge to make healthy choices in school and for the rest of their life. I ask the House to oppose the Bill.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Division No. 98
[1.19 pm


Davidson, Ian
Evans, Nigel
Gilroy, Linda
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Ottaway, Richard
White, Brian

Tellers for the Ayes:

Geraint Davies and
Mr. Paul Marsden


Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Colman, Tony
Conway, Derek
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Forth, rh Eric
Harman, rh Ms Harriet
Hawkins, Nick
Stringer, Graham
Widdecombe, rh Miss Ann

Tellers for the Noes:

Paul Clark and
Mr. Nick Ainger

It appearing on the report of the Division that fewer than 40 Members had taken part in the Division, Madam Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.

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Right of Reply and Press Standards Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

1.30 pm

Peter Bradley (The Wrekin) (Lab): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is an unexpected opportunity to promote my Bill. I extend a word of sympathy to the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), who cannot be here today. I believe that his wife is ill disposed. Not ill disposed—I mean indisposed. She may be ill disposed—[Interruption.] Yes, she may demand a right of reply and I should be pleased to give it to her. However, I make the point not only so that we can send her our best wishes but because, when my name was drawn out of the ballot, I received letters from all over the country from people who beseeched me to take up the Bill that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire adopted. I do not want those people to believe that the hon. Gentleman has gone on his holidays or is failing in his duty to promote that measure. It will be considered in the House in due course.

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce the Bill. We live in an information age. We have never had more access to information, and even information that we do not seek rushes towards us on the super-highway. In a democratic society, we rightly place great importance on citizens' participation in national and community affairs. We have more opportunity than ever to contribute to decisions about how our lives are governed and we base them on the information available to us. It is therefore important that the information on which we base our judgments is true. It is essential that a free flow of information should underpin our democratic way of life. However, when information is untrue or inaccurate, our opinions and decisions may be distorted, sometimes deliberately, to serve the interests of those who wield considerable power, including media corporations. That happens too frequently.

People need to believe that what they are told is true.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Ha!

Peter Bradley: The right hon. Gentleman guffaws—I believe that that is the right description.

Mr. Forth: Snorts.

Peter Bradley: I gave the right hon. Gentleman his right of reply and he corrected my inaccuracy. I do not know why he snorted—perhaps he will have an opportunity to explain later. However, people need to believe what they are told. That is my view as a Labour Member, but perhaps it is not shared by those on the Conservative Benches.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that people should be able to believe what the Prime Minister tells them?

Peter Bradley: Let me develop my point, because I hope that we can agree on some principles without dividing on our political and tribal associations. People
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need to be able to believe that what they are told is true because our system of government—no matter which party forms the Administration—is based if not on consensus, then on consent. It is based on the premise that people can trust that the Government of the day make their decisions and act in good faith.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) mentioned the Prime Minister. Perhaps he had in mind the controversy over the so-called "dodgy dossier". We do not have access to the information that Prime Ministers and their advisers have. When decisions that affect all of our lives are made, we need to be able to place our faith in the good intentions of those who have such access precisely because we do not. That is why I attach huge importance to the principle of trust, although that trust must be based on a belief that what we are being told is true.

Mr. Forth: Would the Bill extend protection to those who are smeared by the Government? There have been many cases recently in which vulnerable individuals have suffered as a result of Ministers and those in their Departments saying the most disgraceful things about them. Would such people have a right of redress under the Bill?

Peter Bradley: The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. He is a very experienced Member of the House, and he spends far more Fridays in the Chamber than I do. He must have seen the title of my Bill: it refers to a right of reply to material that is published in newspapers and other publications. It does not, for example, seek to replace the libel law. If someone is libelled, they have recourse through the courts, although it is not always easily available to them. Its limited scope is one of the merits of the Bill.

The important, and uncontroversial, principle that the Bill seeks to establish is that if we cannot trust the information that forms the basis on which we make judgments and form opinions, our form of government is critically undermined. I want to discuss the relationship between trust and truth, as that will explain why I want to promote the Bill.

I understand that we might not be too far away from a general election. Recent trends have shown falling turnouts, a phenomenon that should concern us all. The press frequently insist that the fact that people are becoming disengaged from politics is the fault of the politicians, who have forfeited their trust. It is interesting, however, to note that newspaper sales are also tumbling dramatically. Compared with five years ago, 1.75 million fewer newspapers are now being sold every day. Why should that be so?

Last year, the Committee on Standards in Public Life undertook an interesting survey—it sent its findings to hon. Members, so they might be familiar with them—and found that only 27 per cent. of the public trusted Members of Parliament. Even more revealing was the finding that only 7 per cent. trusted tabloid journalists. Another, more encouraging finding was that 47 per cent. trusted their own Member of Parliament. I am sure that we all feel reassured by that statistic, but what it tells me is that the closer people are to events and personalities, the more likely they are to place their trust, and the more remote they are, the more difficulty they have.
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Despite the loss of trust in politicians as a class, however, and despite the decline in trust in journalists, 64 per cent. of people said that their opinions were shaped at least in part by what they read in newspapers. So, when citizens are invited to decide who runs the country in a few weeks' time, we could have the strange state of affairs in which their judgment of politicians they do not trust will be based on what they read in newspapers they do not believe. That is a problem for all of us—politicians, the press and the public—and we need to take action to arrest the downward spiral.

Politicians are accountable, and we will find out at the general election whether the people to whom we are accountable want to put their cross in our box. We are also accountable in other ways: Ministers are accountable to the scrutiny of the House, and each of us is accountable to the standards commissioner. The press is not accountable, however. Journalists are not accountable for what they write, and there is very little redress if what they write is wrong or untrue. My Bill does not propose in any way to curtail their freedom or infringe their rights. It is fundamental to our liberal democracy that politicians should not have the last word and that the press plays a central role as a check and balance against our excesses or our temptation to exceed acceptable limits. I want the press to continue to be free to publish without fear or favour, but I want the Bill to establish a new right for the public to correct inaccuracies that misrepresent, damage or mislead them. I do not wish to curtail press rights other than the right to misrepresent individuals and mislead the public. The press should not have an unfettered freedom to misinform or deceive.

We all understand that there are intense pressures these days on journalists. We live in a 24-hour news culture, with increasingly powerful global media corporations in competition with each other, and newspapers and publications forced to compete with the internet. All that imposes pressure on newspapers in particular to out-scoop, out-sensationalise and outsell their rivals. In those circumstances, it is inevitable that corners get cut.

We are all familiar with the problems that politicians encounter with the press—the ferreting out of facts has given way at least to some extent to creating perceptions about facts. It is so much easier to create a perception than to undertake the time-consuming and exhaustive research that is infinitely preferable. We see newspapers reflecting prejudices rather than presenting news to their readers. We see a blurring of the distinction between the reporting of events and the editorial line that the newspaper takes on those events. We see less room for proper debate in the pages of newspapers or for the reporting of debates, including debates in the House of Commons. We see a much keener appetite to denounce those who come forward with ideas rather than to explore and contribute to those ideas. We are also seeing an unhealthy phenomenon, particularly in Sunday papers, in which agenda-setting political stories are based on a series of unattributed and often fabricated quotes in order to generate controversies that otherwise would not exist. All that is very unhealthy.

Our response as politicians is frequently to spin our side of the story and to come forward with a soundbite that we believe might capture a headline. We see lobby groups and in particular single issue groups tempted to
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take up ever more extreme positions, and to think up ever more dramatic stunts to get themselves into the newspapers. As the standard of debate declines, people's faith in what they read in newspapers also diminishes. There has been little sign of change for the better. It is now 15 years since David Mellor famously warned journalists that they were drinking in the last chance saloon, and little has happened to stop the bingeing.

This is not just a question of values, principles and what underpins democratic life; inaccurate reporting has victims. It is interesting that 94 per cent. of those who complain to the Press Complaints Commission are what it classifies as "ordinary people"—not celebrities or politicians, but ordinary men and women, and some 56 per cent. of their complaints are about inaccuracy.

Inaccurate reporting, casual indifference to the reputation of others, and not having the time or inclination to check facts or to corroborate them destroys people's reputations, damages their livelihoods and turns their lives upside down. Legion case studies have been put together over many years, particularly by MediaWise, to illustrate the damage that can be done to the lives of individuals who are the subject of media attention that is less scrupulous than it ought to be. They have no adequate recourse or redress. As I suggested in my response to the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden), they might be able to take their case to a libel court, but in doing so they have to be pretty confident of ultimate success. They also have to be wealthy and very patient. The risks are very high.

In fact, in such circumstances most people do not want monetary compensation; they simply want the record set straight, and quickly. The PCC is their only other means of achieving redress, if redress it is. Last year, it received more than 3,600 complaints—just under 40 per cent. more than in the previous year. It adjudicated only 23 of those complaints and upheld just 11, or 0.3 per cent.

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