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T9.  Jessica Morden (Newport, East) (Lab):
With the coroners Bill coming up, what discussions has the Ministry had about doing more to accommodate
the needs of Muslim communities? Because of the need to bury the deceased as soon as possible, I often hear concerns from the Welsh Muslim community that the intervention of the coroner in non-suspicious deaths can be time-consuming and distressing. What more can be done about that?
Mr. Straw: I understand the concern that my hon. Friend has raised. It is a concern not only to members of the Muslim community, but to members of the Jewish community. In Greater Manchester, the coroners, led by the Bolton coroner, have developed a good local protocol that means that, in cases that are regarded as forensic, relatives can choose post mortem by MRI scanner, rather than by intrusive post-mortem methods. That ensures that the post mortem is much swifter and can be quickly followed by certification and burial. I am in discussions with the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), about how we can see that practice rolled out across the country.
Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday, you had occasion to reprimand the Home Secretary because she sought to make a statement at topical questions. You told her that if she wanted to make a statement, she should come to this House in the normal way. Today, the Government have published their youth crime strategy, and it is inconceivable that even this Government should publish a document to which they attach such importance without making an oral statement in the House. Have you had any indication of when we might expect such a statement? Will it be later today, tomorrow or Thursday, or is the Home Secretary so embarrassed by the fiascos of the past couple of days that she can no longer face the House?
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of what you have said on consecutive days, may I ask that you refer the whole question of topical questions to the Procedure Committee? The procedure is clearly not working as some would have hoped and is being abused by certain Ministers of the Crown. That is a very unsatisfactory situation.
Mr. Speaker: We are almost getting to the stage where the Chair is being drawn into the argument. Yesterday, I gently reminded the Home Secretary that she could have made a statement, but I go no further than that. From time to time, I have to tell Back Benchers not to make speeches, so it cuts both ways. I will say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman and to Sir Patrick that Ministers come to make statements to the House and the Speaker does not bring them to the House to make speeches or statements, other than when there is an urgent question. It is up to the Home Secretary or any other Minister of the Crown to decide when they want to come to make a statement.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I know the weight that you put on the accuracy of ministerial answers to the House. On 1 July, in answer to a question from the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), the Minister for Local Government, who is in the Chamber this afternoon, said that the Department for Communities and Local Government had
made no estimate of the likely costs or savings that would be incurred if Gloucestershire was to become a unitary authority.[ Official Report, 1 July 2008; Vol. 478, c. 794W.]
Unfortunately, yesterday, his fellow Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), cast doubt on the accuracy of that answer in a radio interview. Has either Minister indicated to you an intention to come to the House and put on record which statement is accurate?
Mr. Speaker: That is not a point of order. I know where the Minister is sittingI know him well, so the hon. Gentleman does not need to point. It is up to Ministers what replies they give. From time to time, Ministers might give diverse responses. That is up to them, but it is nothing to do with me and is not a matter for a point of order.
The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): Further to the point of order about topical questions, Mr. Speaker. I shall not touch on the issue of oral statements, but will you confirm that when the Modernisation Committee reported to the House about topical questions, part of its recommendationas I recall, although I might be wrongwas that Ministers should open topical questions with a short statement of 50 words or so? That is what Ministers have sought to do.
Mr. Speaker: I remember when the right hon. Gentleman, the Lord High Chancellor, as he is now, was Leader of the House and we used to have cosy talks in the Speakers study. He was the person who told me of the great value of topical questions and sold me the idea, saying that it would give Back Benchers the opportunity to get in.
Mr. Speaker: If Mr. Mackinlay, whose grandfather came from Springburn, is happy, that suits me. Yes, a Minister makes a statement in response to the first questionthat is finebut when several statements come up afterwards that is a concern for me. The regulars in the Chamber will note that I have run topical questions well over the time in order to get Back Benchers in, because I am not going to be unfair to Back Benchers. Here endeth the lesson.
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to create offences in relation to breaches of the Press Complaints Commissions Code of Practice; and for connected purposes.
I should like to begin by thanking those hon. Members who kindly agreed to sponsor this Bill, and all those colleagues who have given me their support in the face of potential threats, or of the consequences of taking on and challenging the British press. I should also like to express my gratitude and thanks to Lord Soley, who in 1993 tried to bring in a similar Bill but who was unfortunately unsuccessful.
This Bill would introduce a statutory method for protecting the general public from inaccurate and, at times, inflammatory reports in the press and media. It is not intended, either by design or omission, to restrict or in any other way curtail the freedom of the press. However, a free press must balance commercial considerations with its responsibilities to individuals and to society as a whole.
The press are beholden to ensure that what is reported is accurate and can be substantiated if challenged. As it stands, a high proportion of people living in the UK have some difficulty in believing even the racing results printed by some of our newspapers. Indeed, a recent survey suggested that only 7 per cent. of the general public trust tabloid journalists.
I want to make a clear distinction between the tabloid press and those in the journalism profession, such as the late Charles Wheeler and, of course, our own Alan Johnston. At tremendous risk to themselves and their crews, they have worked bravely to report from some of the most troubled hotspots in the world and to bring events to our television screens. I contrast that with those who perch themselves in the Press Gallery here, and who indulge in cowardly character assassinations by day yet by night moonlight with the old boys network of the BBC.
The Press Complaints Commission was established in 1991 by the newspaper industry to address increasing concerns that self-regulation of the press was failing adequately to protect the public, and indeed the industry itself. The PCCs prime function is to put things right when they go wrong during the editorial process, and it seeks to police a voluntary code of practice that was drawn up by members of the industry. Its board has 15 members: seven are senior editors and the other eight are lay members. The PCC operates under the slogan Fast, Free and Fair, and its voluntary code states that the press must take all due care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information in text or in picture format. It also states that a
significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence.
If appropriate, an apology may also be published. The code continues by saying that the press, while free to be partisan, must be clear in their distinction between content, conjecture and fact. Finally, it also states that any publication must report fairly and in an accurate fashion
the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published.
That is the PCCs voluntary code as it stands at the moment. However, despite its adoption, the number of complaints to the PCC is increasing. As recently as 2003, the total was up by 39 per cent. at 3,649 complaints, more than half of which related to the accuracy of reports. Despite that alarming rise, and against the backdrop of an increasing lack of trust in tabloid newspaper journalism, the PCC wrote to me, in response to the Bill, to establish its view that no review of its practices was warranted. The National Union of Journalists and I disagree with the PCCs position on that matter.
The NUJ has for some time suggested that the PCC should be declared a public authority, to bring it within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. That would make for a more transparent system, in which the PCCs workings were opened up to public scrutiny. At present, cases brought before the PCC are dealt with in secret, and only the final judgment is made public. The NUJ also argues that the best way to ensure adherence to the PCCs code of practice is for journalists themselves to uphold it. However, many journalists are increasingly forced to violate the code as a result of commercial pressures, or pressure from editors, some of whom are members of the PCC.
The NUJ argues that if journalists had a contractual right to refuse to carry out assignments or tasks that required them to breach the code of practice, the result would be greater accuracy and less need for complaints. Such a conscience clause would perhaps be the biggest step towards a return to a fairer, free press. There have been suggestions from some quarters that if we made the press complaints procedure more accessible and effective, our newspapers would be full of nothing but apologies and retractions. That view is clearly absurd, as the only foreseeable reason why a paper would be full of corrections is that it had been full of inaccuracies in the first place. In addition, many countries such as Germany, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Greece, Austria, Switzerland and France have just as robust, or even more stringent, systems to ensure that their citizens are afforded protection from inaccurate press reporting.
In the UK, the current voluntary code of practice leaves newspapers free to print what they like, irrespective of the personal consequences for those involved. In the majority of cases in which members of the general public are the victims of inaccurate reporting, they do not have the resourcesfinancial or otherwiseto mount a legal challenge against those responsible. There is an increasing body of anecdotal evidence to suggest that in situations in which victims feel that they have a strong case, they are bought off with minimal out-of-court cash settlements, and with a small retraction buried in the depths of the newspaper. There are, of course, some high profile cases, such as that of the McCann family, whose lives have been made a misery, not simply because of their own actions, but because of subsequent unsubstantiated, and frankly outrageous, reports about their situation. In my view, the McCanns are due every penny of their successful claim.
However, what about the case of Mr. Murat, at one time the prime suspect in the Madeleine McCann case, who was cleared of any involvement, but whom the British media decided to convict, and whose life now
lies in ruins? The principle of innocent until found guilty seems not to be held to by the tabloid newspapers, which choose to persecute people in the court of public opinion, although what they say has little or no basis in fact. There are many cases like Mr. Murats, and that must give Members of the House, and the public, great cause for concern, as anyone at any time could fall prey to the vicious practices of the often unrepentant British press.
A recent newspaper report was a prime example of inaccuracy; it made statements to the effect that a group of Muslims had attacked a house in Windsor that they thought was being purchased by four members of the armed forces returning from a tour in Afghanistan. The report was made despite the fact that there was no evidence to suggest that the vandalism was caused by Muslims. The story even included a quote from the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). Subsequently, evidence emerged that indicated that the local Army barracks had received three anonymous telephone calls the previous week from local residents who objected to the presence of soldiers, fearing that they would lower property prices in the area.
As I made clear at the start of my comments, I do not wish to restrict the freedom of the press in the Bill. A free press is an essential tool in maintaining any forward-thinking democracy, and in avoiding
Bill ordered to be brought in by Jim Sheridan, Tony Lloyd, Ann Clwyd, Michael Connarty, David Taylor, Ian Lucas, Mr. Brian H. Donohoe, Mr. David Clelland, Mr. Mohammad Sarwar, Mr. Jim Devine, Mrs. Madeleine Moon, and Mr. Dai Havard.
Jim Sheridan accordingly presented a Bill to create offences in relation to breaches of the Press Complaints Commissions Code of Practice; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 October, and to be printed [Bill 138].
Mr. Speaker: I have given careful consideration to the Lords amendments to the National Insurance Contributions Bill. I am satisfied that they would impose a charge on the public revenue which is not authorised by a resolution of this House. Therefore under paragraph 3 of Standing Order No. 78, the Lords amendments must be deemed to be disagreed to.
Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): I am grateful for your ruling, Mr. Speaker; it clarifies this particular matter. I wish to make one point about the Reasons Committee. To quote the Financial Secretary, the main purpose of the National Insurance Contributions Bill was to align the upper earnings limit of national insurance contributions with the starting point of the higher rate of income tax. Since the Bill went through the House of Commons, when we broadly debated the matters to which the Lords amendments relate, it has emerged that it is no longer the Governments stated intention to align national insurance contributions and income tax. Would it be appropriate for the Committee, in providing its reasons to the House of Lords, to give the reasons why the Government wish to proceed with the Bill, given that the stated policy intention no longer applies?
That a Committee appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendments Nos. 1 to 4; Jane Kennedy, Mr. Bob Blizzard, Mr. Jeremy Browne, Mr. David Gauke and David Wright to be members of the Committee; Jane Kennedy to be the Chairman of the Committee; Three to be the quorum of the Committee; Committee to withdraw immediately. [Mr. Khan.]
That the following provisions shall apply to the Health and Social Care Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 26th November 2007 (Health and Social Care Bill (Programme)):
Consideration of Lords Amendments
1. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after their commencement at this days sitting.
2. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
3. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement. [Mr. Khan.]
Mr. Bradshaw: I was expecting, Mr. Speaker, that after what I said you would say that it will be convenient to consider the other amendments, and I would then continue. However, I am happy to make my points on the first group of amendments now, if that would be in order.
In my view, the scrutiny of the Bill in both Houses has been enormously constructive, helped by the fact that there was broad cross-party support for the principle of integration and a genuine commitment to getting the framework right. Increasing integration of, and collaboration between, health and social care are among the key drivers behind the regulation framework provided for in the Bill, and constitute a recurrent theme running through Government policy. We introduced this group of amendments to address some of the key concerns that were debated at length here and in the other place. They were put forward in discussion with the current commissions as well as with the National Consumer Council, the Picker Institute, and Which?, all of which have welcomed them.
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance. Given that the Minister is now making his second speech on this amendment, does he need the leave of the House to do so?
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