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Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, will the Minister explain how it helps employment relations to reduce the size of people's pay packets by increasing national insurance charges, as the Government propose?
Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, what we as a Government have tried to do is to act responsibly by indicating that in dealing with the deficit, some difficult decisions will have to be taken. Our record on unemployment is that we have created maximum employment over many years-it reached its height at something like 29 million, which is as near to full employment as one can get-and we do not believe that an increase in national insurance will have the effect that the noble Lord has predicted. Our main point is that we have been absolutely honest in saying that as we recover from the deficit, we will have to make difficult choices. I wish that the Opposition could arrive at the same conclusion.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, has the Minister observed, as some of us behind him have, that the three Questions that have been asked so far from the opposition Benches have all been supplied by central casting in such a way that all the questioners asking supplementary questions have had to resort to scripts?
Lord Hunt of Wirral: Would the noble Lord accept that one reason why the number of industrial disputes fell in the 1990s was because of laws introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, which the party opposite opposed? I was proud to serve as his junior Minister. Will he get the facts right? Compared to 1997, the number of working days lost last year showed a substantial increase. It has risen again this year in what many people describe as a simmering spring of discontent.
"A quick look at the numbers confirms that modern fears are overblown. Despite the odd conspicuous walkout, industrial relations have been serene for nearly two decades ... Official statistics going back to 1891 suggest that strikes have never been less frequent".
To ask Her Majesty's Government what measures they propose to ensure non-European Union nationals owning British print media publications conform to national regulations and the Press Complaints Commission's Editors' Code of Practice.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Lord Young of Norwood Green): My Lords, I had thought of asking whether I could deal with the Questions en bloc, but I did not think it was procedurally acceptable-and as the Lord Speaker is here, I thought that I had better not.
The Government do not propose any new measures to regulate non-European ownership of British print media publications. The press is self-regulated, having adopted a voluntary code of practice which imposes requirements relating to accuracy and balance in reporting. Complaints are handled by an independent Press Complaints Commission.
Lord Dykes: I thank the very industrious Minister. In the mean time, does he feel that the famously flabby Press Complaints Commission has the true grit necessary to do effective monitoring over the election campaign period in order to ensure that the oligarch-owned monopoly area free newspapers do not dish out a relentless series of election news stories of a hardline capitalist nature to the detriment of the Liberal Democrat Party and other progressive parties?
Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, on the question of regulation, we strongly believe that a press free from state intervention is fundamental to a strong democracy. Of course, with that freedom comes responsibility, as well as an obligation to abide by the law. All newspapers, including foreign-owned ones, sign up to a self-regulatory code of practice covering accuracy and balance of reporting which is enforced by the Press Complaints Commission.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, we all accept the need for a free press but does my noble friend agree that there is something slightly the matter with foreign owners living abroad and with no loyalty to this country being able to control the editorial policies of our leading papers? Does he further agree that this is something that the Government should look at very seriously after the election? It is not democracy and it is not sensible.
Lord Young of Norwood Green: We would not agree with everything that my noble friend says in relation to that issue; nor would we be able to say that we are opposed to any foreign investment in British newspapers. Whether the next Government will look at this issue is best left to them.
Lord Soley: Will my noble friend consider a more innovative approach to this problem? Given that the press is such a keen supporter of the Freedom of Information Act, will he consider extending such an Act to the press itself?
Lord McNally: My Lords, is there not a great danger of our press being extremely vulnerable? We are told that the economics of the printed press are now extremely fragile. Do we have defences in place to stop major titles falling into the hands of foreign owners, in the way that our football clubs have done, without any proper check on the responsibility of those buying up such titles?
Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, the Secretary of State has powers to intervene and could do so if he believed that the merger might give rise to concerns relevant to the media public interest consideration, the need for accurate presentation of news and free expression of opinion in newspapers, and the need for a sufficient plurality of views in newspapers in the UK or a significant part of it. Therefore, where we feel that there is an undue monopoly, the Secretary of State has the ability to intervene. I quote a recent example although it happens rarely. The media plurality powers have been used only once so far-in relation to the proposed acquisition by BSkyB of a significant shareholding in ITV. That was a slightly different situation because it cut across the media rather than relating to just one aspect.
Lord Borrie: My Lords, is it not time that any acquisition of British media from abroad should be made conditional on compliance with EU regulations and the Press Complaints Commission editorial requirements, and that that condition should be enforceable by law so that the problems adverted to by several Members this afternoon would be avoided?
Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, to my knowledge they are subject to those regulations. The problems referred to so far have been of concern. There has been concern about the takeover of a couple of newspapers by one foreign owner, but that is all that has been mentioned so far. Therefore, they are obligated to subscribe to and observe the rules, both voluntary and compulsory, that currently apply.
Lord Hughes of Woodside: My Lords, is there not something incongruous about national newspapers which trumpet in banner headlines that they know how the Government should run their business, and condemn them for how they do so, when their own businesses are in such a parlous condition that they have to sell newspapers such as the Independent for a pound to a foreign oligarch?
Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, I am not sure that I totally agree with that analysis. I think that running a newspaper in the current environment is not easy, given that we are talking about the electronic media as a whole.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the newspapers which most strongly support the Conservative Party are either substantially controlled by non-domiciles or are controlled in offshore tax havens such as Bermuda which minimises their tax contribution to the United Kingdom? Is there not a contradiction between their vigorous support for British national sovereignty and the determination of those who control them to avoid paying British tax?
Lord Tebbit: My Lords, does the noble Lord recollect whether Lord Beaverbrook was a Canadian? I think he was. Can he further say whether he regards a KGB man to be an appropriate person to ensure that the press is free, open and unbiased?
Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, perhaps I may slightly correct the noble Lord: "former KGB" might be appropriate. I know he is a stickler for accuracy. We shall have to judge this takeover by what happens in practice. I repeat the point I made previously: all newspapers, including foreign-owned newspapers, sign up to a self-regulatory code of practice covering accuracy and balance of reporting, which is enforced by the Press Complaints Commission.
That Standing Order 41 (Arrangement of the Order Paper) be suspended until the end of the Session so far as is necessary to give Her Majesty's Government the power to arrange the order of business; and that Standing Order 47 (No two stages of a Bill to be taken on one day) be suspended for the same period.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper is customary at this point in a Parliament. It suspends two of our Standing Orders so that, before Parliament is prorogued later this week, the House may consider the items of business set out yesterday by my noble friend Lord Bassam of Brighton. I hope that the Motion will find favour with this House.
Given that one of the amendments to my Motion is about the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, it may be helpful if I make it clear that, following discussions between the main parties, agreement has been reached that Clause 53 of the Bill, which would have ended hereditary by-elections, will be withdrawn. The Government will also withdraw Clause 56, which would have made provision for the resignation of Members of this House.
In relation to the transitional provisions on the tax status of Members of your Lordships' House, an amendment has been tabled to provide for a three-year cooling-off period before a former Member of this House can take a seat in another place. The Government will also withdraw Part 3 of the Bill, which would have provided for a referendum on voting systems. I understand that my noble friend Lord Bach will also be in a position to offer concessions on some other matters as we progress this evening.
I realise that some noble Lords will be disappointed, but we have acted in good faith to achieve a consensus and, following those concessions, I believe that there is significant cross-party agreement for the provisions in this Bill. I beg to move.
Lord Tyler: My Lords, the amendment suspends Standing Order 49, which says that no amendment can be moved to a Third Reading of a Bill unless notice has been given to the Clerk no later than the day before and in time for it to be printed and circulated.
Obviously, the reason for tabling this amendment is that some of the Bills scheduled for later today, including the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, and tomorrow might need to have amendments tabled to them after Report, in time for Third Reading, so that we can avoid the dangers of rushing our process. Mistakes and errors of judgment can so often occur in the wash-up stage. I have experienced that in the past.
For brevity, I shall concentrate on one Bill, but from what I hear from several Benches, other Members of your Lordships' House may wish to contribute in regard to other Bills scheduled for today and tomorrow. At the outset, I wish to make one point clear: the Leader of the House said that the "main parties" agreed to the deletions in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, but that does not include my noble friends on these Benches, nor do I believe it includes the Cross-Benchers, nor any Back-Benchers. I shall return to that point. We believe that the key clauses in the Bill should not have been struck out as part of the unholy alliance between the Government and the Conservative Front Benches. This casual and cavalier treatment of important issues does nothing for the reputation of your Lordships' House.
I was led to believe when I joined your Lordships' House that we were self-regulating, that we sought to be transparent and accountable, less partisan than the other place and that consultation was much more effective at this end of the building. Yet, on these negotiations, all the Back-Benchers, the Liberal Democrats and the Cross-Benchers have been excluded. This is not a wash-up, it is a stitch-up, and a squalid little stitch-up. It was conceived in speed and in secrecy behind closed doors. I would like to think that the Leader of the House and the Government Chief Whip did their best to ensure that the interests of your Lordships' House were represented in the negotiations. The facts suggest otherwise. It looks as if this was entirely dictated by Downing Street-either by the Prime Minister himself or the Commons Government Chief Whip.
In brief, our interests in your Lordships' House have been completely overruled. Why? Because the full reform of your Lordships' House has not taken place, and therefore the other place feels that they can snap their fingers at our interests. There has been plenty of time to bring forward proposals. The past 13 years have amounted to a missed opportunity. I want to concentrate on the issue of the continuation of the hereditary principle. Ninety-one weeks ago, a White Paper was produced, negotiated between the parties. At about the same time, there was a reference to electoral reform. Today, the Prime Minister is proposing a double referendum on those issues-13 years after the commitment was first made. Why should we believe this manifesto commitment when all the previous ones have been so clearly ignored?
This House deserves carefully managed stages to discuss the Bill and revisit all the Minister's previous promises on the issues; hence our amendment. There is a whole catalogue of commitments made in Labour manifestos and publications over the past 13 years. Starting in 1996, Mr Tony Blair stated in his personal credo, which he titled, New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country, that he would bring,
"The House of Lords must be reformed. As an initial, self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute".
In the interminable debates on the Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Steel, supported on all sides of the House, most notably by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, my noble friend reiterated the determination to dispose of this anachronism. Ministers have agreed on every occasion on its urgency and importance. Only a few days ago, on Second Reading of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, repeated that commitment as being urgent. He said,
After 13 years of dither, delay and downright deceit, why should anyone believe another Labour promise on reform of the Lords? With Mr Brown, it is always jam tomorrow, but tomorrow never comes. Labour manifestos have been fantasies, and the one that Labour will publish in the next few days looks as if it will be just the same again.
I turn to the Conservatives. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, with whom I enjoy debating, participated in an exchange of views on the electoral system and the coming election at a meeting at the British Academy on 10 March. He argued most persuasively that the only change that should take place in the forthcoming campaign should be a change of government and that after that there should be no other change whatever. That sits slightly uncomfortably with the Cameron campaign slogan, but I thought at the time that he was taking a characteristically independent
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Where was that notable advocate of radical change in the composition of your Lordships' House, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who has argued so persuasively for this major reform? Did he take part in these dubious discussions between the Front Benches in the carve-up that has taken place in recent days?
It need not have been like this. We could have had a full Bill soon after the July 2008 White Paper on Lords reform. There was no progress because the Government were split. We could have had effective control against big money buying British politics in the Act in 2009. Was it not extraordinary to hear the Prime Minister at Prime Minister's Questions today twice refer to the problems caused by the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft, and the investment of foreign, offshore funds in British politics to buy seats? Was it not extraordinary to hear him referring to that when he and his Government have done nothing about it? How are they going to deliver it now if it is not in the Bill when it could have been? Similarly, on electoral reform, there was a complete failure to act on the promise and on the Jenkins report.
Whatever happened to the Prime Minister's promise to surrender or limit the prerogative powers, not least the power to decide when to go to the country, to hold an election? Today, he says he is in favour of fixed-term Parliaments. That is a fat lot of use in the last few days of this five-year Parliament. What an extraordinary promise to make now. Why did he not process it when he could have done?
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