Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): I very much welcome my right hon. Friend's comments earlier about the Localism Bill. Can he confirm that its provisions will apply to applications for onshore wind farms such as those on the Dengie peninsula in my constituency? One of them has already been described as harmful to the local environment, and it is deeply unpopular with the local community.

The Prime Minister: I can give my hon. Friend a positive answer. The Localism Bill addresses that issue. As well as doing that, it is important that where local communities are affected by things such as onshore wind, they should make sure that they benefit from those developments. The Localism Bill brings a whole new approach that will much better settle this difficult debate than what has been done until now.

Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): I endorse the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that we in this House have always recognised that, although freedom of the press is sometimes uncomfortable, it is absolutely vital to a free society? Does he also agree that the treatment of Luke Harding is a matter of some concern, but that it is of even greater concern that half a dozen or more journalists have been killed or have disappeared in Russia in the past few years? Will he make absolutely sure that those coming to this country from Russia are left in no doubt as to how seriously we regard that?

Mr Lidington: My hon. Friend makes good and sensible points. We consistently raise both individual cases and the broader issues to which he rightly ascribes importance with Russian visitors to the United Kingdom, but they are also raised by British Ministers and officials when visiting Russia, and we will continue that practice.

Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): It is not often, I expect, that I shall sign a motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. On this particular occasion I thought it right to do so. I commend the Leader of the Opposition on his approach, which is that we must tackle these appalling matters on a cross-party basis. I have always tried to do that in the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which I am proud to chair, and I think that we have succeeded. I will merely say that I am sorry that the Leader of the Opposition’s predecessor did not choose the same approach this afternoon.

I believe that the atmosphere at present has become so poisoned by the stream of appalling revelations that it would have been quite wrong for the News Corporation bid to acquire the whole of BSkyB to go ahead. We still do not know—we still have not even begun to know—the full extent of what has been going on in the newsroom at the News of the World, in the higher levels of News Corporation or, possibly, outside that, in other organisations, but clearly there were already question marks about the “fit and proper” test for News Corporation’s bid. The important thing is that we should obtain answers to questions very rapidly. There is an ongoing police inquiry, which needs to be concluded as fast as possible; there is the judicial inquiry that the Prime Minister has rightly set, which I fear will take much longer; and then there is my Select Committee, which has asked Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks to appear before it next Tuesday. We have not yet received a response. The Select Committee will meet tomorrow morning, and if we have not received a reply by then, we might well wish to return to the House to ask it to use the powers available to it to ensure that witnesses attend.

Read more ...

Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee received considerable evidence that the massive increase in the cost of libel actions that can result from the use of conditional fee arrangements is having a seriously chilling effect on investigative journalism? Does he accept that the measures he has announced this afternoon are in some ways even more important for sustaining investigative journalism and scientific debate than the measures contained in his draft Defamation Bill?

Mr Clarke: I think that is right. This will have a big impact on defamation cases where people threaten the publisher of something they do not like with enormous costs if they want to defend the action. This is having, to use the jargon phrase, “a chilling effect” not only on scientific and academic work, but on proper investigative journalism. When we put the draft Defamation Bill together with what we are proposing to do in the light of Rupert Jackson’s proposals, the way in which we are setting up no win, no fee generally and the announcements I have made about the jurisdiction of the courts, I think we will make a significant impact on lowering the costs of all this litigation to the advantage of plaintiffs who have a legitimate grievance and of defendants. We are going to stop the whole thing being a high roller’s gamble, which is what it is at the moment, as to whether the other side dare face the risks of the huge costs being piled up the moment a claim is brought.

Mr Whittingdale: Does my hon. Friend recognise that the revelations that have streamed out over the past six months have probably led to a greater loss of confidence in the self-regulation of the press than there has been at any previous time? I strongly support self-regulation, but if the public are to regain confidence in that self-regulation, the PCC will have to be seen to have stronger powers. My Committee strongly recommended that it was not sufficient for the PCC simply to require a newspaper to publish an adjudication. In cases of serious breaches of the code, there should be some sanction available to the PCC to demonstrate that the breach was unacceptable and to ensure that newspapers take seriously the requirement to abide by the code.

Mr Vaizey: I have run out of time, but I would say in conclusion that the PCC and the press will have heard hon. Members’ remarks in the debate. The Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee will be aware that the PCC is conducting its own review following the phone hacking allegations. As well as being a criminal offence, phone hacking is of course a breach of the code. The PCC is reviewing the matter to see whether it can make its recommendations stronger, but it will have heard the important—

Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): Although I welcome the moves to increase the NAO’s access to the accounts of the BBC, the Secretary of State will be aware that the Comptroller and Auditor General has written to him to say that he will still not have the ability to decide what to do and when to do it. Does he agree that that ability is essential if the NAO is to have the genuinely unfettered access that he has promised?

Mr Hunt: I agree that the NAO should have unfettered access to the BBC accounts. I take heart from the comments that the incoming chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, made to my hon. Friend’s Committee, when he said that he wanted the NAO to have full, unrestricted access and to be able to go where it wished to ensure and scrutinise value for money at the BBC.

Mr Whittingdale: I welcome the report from the committee of the Master of the Rolls, which contains a number of sensible recommendations, and also the Prime Minister’s decision to establish a Committee to examine all the issues surrounding the granting of injunctions and super-injunctions. Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept, however, that matters are developing very rapidly? Does he accept that the revelation on Friday of some of the details of the injunction granted to Sir Fred Goodwin raised important issues of public interest, and that that raises the question of why the injunction was granted in the first place? Does he agree that he would virtually have to live in an igloo not to know the identity of at least one premier league footballer who has obtained an injunction, and that the actions by thousands of people who posted details of it on Twitter are in danger of making the law look an ass?

In the report by the Master of the Rolls, doubt is cast once again on the right of the press to report the proceedings of Parliament. Does that not have worrying implications for the rights of Members of the House of Commons, and for parliamentary privilege?

More than a year ago, the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport called for the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840 to be replaced by a clear and comprehensive statute upholding the fundamental rights of the press to report what is said in this place. Will he ensure that that, too, is considered by the Prime Minister’s Committee as a matter of urgency?

The Attorney-General: Let me respond to my hon. Friend’s reference to individual cases by saying that he will not be surprised if I am not drawn into commenting on the matter. What I can say is that widespread public interest and, indeed, disquiet have been expressed about the events of the past few weeks and days, and that—as the report by the Master of the Rolls clearly showed—they raise the question of how a person’s privacy can be balanced against the requirement for the public to be properly informed, and also the question of how injunctions may be enforced. I would add, however, that the courts have power to punish those who breach injunctions, and those who decide flagrantly to do so should bear that in mind when they embark on such a course.

The question of parliamentary privilege is not a new issue. While it is fully recognised that we have complete privilege in this Chamber to say what we like—and the Lord Chief Justice reiterated that in the clearest and most unequivocal terms in his comments last Friday— the question of the extent to which communication between a constituent and a Member of Parliament is covered by parliamentary privilege remains uncertain. What is entirely clear is that—from the judiciary’s point of view as much as those of the Government and Parliament—that is an undesirable state of affairs, which is undoubtedly susceptible to both clarification and rectification if the will is there for that to be done.


John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the key determinants of the success of the creative industries is the strong protection of intellectual property? Is he considering following the example of President Obama and appointing a champion for intellectual property, which would send that signal? Does he agree that what would send precisely the wrong signal is any suggestion from local authorities that the enforcement of actions against pirate or counterfeit goods by trading standards officers should not be seen as a priority?

Mr Vaizey: I met President Obama’s copyright tsar, Victoria Espinel, when she was in this country last week. We had a meeting with the IP crime group, which is very effectively taking forward the enforcement of measures to tackle IP crime. The Minister, Baroness Wilcox, is also an extremely effective champion of the IP industry.

Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): May I congratulate the Secretary of State on the meticulous care that he has shown in his handling of this matter? Can he confirm that every single concern that has been raised by the regulatory authorities has been addressed? On the wider question of impartiality, does he agree that the value of Sky News is not because it makes money—it does not—but because of the benefit to the overall reputation of BSkyB that comes from the integrity, objectivity and the quality of its news gathering, and that it would therefore be madness for any new owner to seek to change that?

Mr Hunt: I completely agree with what my hon. Friend is saying. The regulatory authorities have both confirmed, both on 3 March and today, that they are satisfied that the undertakings I am putting before the House address the concerns that were raised about media plurality. I have taken that advice very seriously indeed.

My hon. Friend’s second point about Sky News is particularly important today because in the revised undertakings that we have published there are two things that particularly strengthen what the public value about Sky News. First, News Corp undertakes that it will not do anything to cause Sky News to contribute less to media plurality in this country if this deal goes through. Secondly, it agrees that it will continue to cross-promote Sky News on the Sky platform at the same level it currently does. In terms both of financial viability and of that all-important contribution to media plurality I am satisfied that if I proceed with the undertakings as published today, we will continue to have a free and plural media.