House of Lords

Wednesday 22nd May 2024

(1 month, 4 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Wednesday 22 May 2024
15:00
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham.

Company Directors: Identification

Wednesday 22nd May 2024

(1 month, 4 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Question
15:08
Asked by
Lord Mann Portrait Lord Mann
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To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they plan to introduce legislation to require company directors to provide identification of who they are and where they live.

Lord Johnson of Lainston Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Business and Trade (Lord Johnson of Lainston) (Con)
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The Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act will require that directors, people with significant control and the majority of those who file information with Companies House verify their identity. As part of that process, individuals will be required to provide their usual residential address. Today, we have laid regulations that establish the procedure for identity verification. The new requirements will be introduced in phases, beginning in spring next year.

Lord Mann Portrait Lord Mann (Non-Afl)
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Before spring next year, 700 new Chinese fake companies will be registered every day. There are streets that have been targeted literally hundreds of times—dozens of times per property. People who have never dealt with this kind of thing before are being threatened with fake invoices. Credit referencing by the credit reference agencies has been impaired, as has the ability to sell houses. Can we have a simple, fast-track system so that householders who are being deluged by this horrendous onslaught of fake companies can remedy it with Companies House and cleanse their records immediately—within days—rather than in the six or eight months that it currently takes?

Lord Johnson of Lainston Portrait Lord Johnson of Lainston (Con)
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I am grateful to the noble Lord for making those points. As I said, today we have introduced the statutory instrument that will enable us to clean up the register, but since 4 March we have already removed details that we thought were erroneous to the tune of 12,600, which is slightly more than we thought. If you are called, for instance, Jack Hanson and your name is being erroneously used from your address in Worcestershire, that is now being corrected by the registrar of Companies House. I have communicated with Companies House today and it is progressing extremely rapidly in solving this problem.

Since 1904, no such significant reform of Companies House and how people register their companies, their addresses and their verifications has been undertaken. The Government have done more than any other for over 120 years to make sure that we crack down on fraud and corporate crime and ensure that our companies register is indeed verifiable.

Lord Vaux of Harrowden Portrait Lord Vaux of Harrowden (CB)
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The Minister will remember that during the passage of the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act last year, we had a lot of debates on how to tackle the problem of nominees being used to hide shareholders’ real identities. During ping-pong on the Bill, he rightly referred to

“what we perceive to be an industry of nominee service providers prone to acting unlawfully”.—[Official Report, 11/9/23; col. 685.]

As a result, the Government introduced a power to make regulations that would impose obligations on nominees to enable companies to find out who their persons of significant control are. Can the Minister please tell us whether HM Government still intend to make such regulations? If so, when? If not, why not?

Lord Johnson of Lainston Portrait Lord Johnson of Lainston (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord for his question and his extremely collaborative input in the ECCT Bill over the past year or so. The statutory instrument that we are introducing today looks at the identity verification checks that ACSPs will have to undertake. As he will know, ACSPs are well covered by their various industry bodies, and, as I said, we have done an enormous amount to ensure that information on the register in Companies House is now true and verifiable. He will also know that we have gone even further to ensure that people with significant control are caught by the new regulations.

Lord Clarke of Nottingham Portrait Lord Clarke of Nottingham (Con)
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My Lords, the previous Parliament passed an amendment to extend to the overseas territories of the United Kingdom the legal obligation to have a company register show beneficial ownership and to make that register open to public inspection. Can the Minister let the House know what progress there has been in making the British Overseas Territories, such as the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands, comply with our obligations and open a register of beneficial ownership?

Lord Johnson of Lainston Portrait Lord Johnson of Lainston (Con)
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I thank my noble friend for that point. We are making very good progress and we collaborate with all such jurisdictions. There is more work to be done. A consultation on how much identity can be published has concluded recently, and we will report back to the House when we have our own findings that are appropriate for these measures.

Lord Anderson of Swansea Portrait Lord Anderson of Swansea (Lab)
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My Lords, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Andrew Mitchell said recently that over 40% of laundered money globally passes through London. How satisfied are the Government that the overseas territories and the Crown dependencies are indeed making progress on registers? Surely they are defying the Government.

Lord Johnson of Lainston Portrait Lord Johnson of Lainston (Con)
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I am afraid that I will push back slightly on the noble Lord’s point. We have had extremely high degrees of collaboration with the overseas territories. We are now very clear on who the beneficial owners are of land in this country, and, as I said, we have just completed a consultation that will allow us to go further in ensuring that everything is extremely transparent. I truly believe that real progress has been made, without impinging on the ability of legitimate businesspeople to open companies, run their businesses, make profits and grow the economy.

Lord Fox Portrait Lord Fox (LD)
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My Lords, I agree with the Minister that some progress has been made, but a great deal more is required. There are somewhere between 4.5 million and 5 million companies registered with Companies House, and they also need to be cleaned up. Can the Minister tell us how Companies House is getting on with that and when we will know for sure that all those companies are what they say they are?

Lord Johnson of Lainston Portrait Lord Johnson of Lainston (Con)
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I appreciate the noble Lord for pointing back to my previous answer about the 12,600 or so companies that have had their identities checked, expunged, changed or verified. That is clearly a significant starting number, which we expect will increase over the next year or so as Companies House deploys the £50-odd million that we gave it to introduce new systems to hire new people. That goes hand in hand with the 475 new economic crime prevention officers we have hired and the £400 million we have dedicated to fight economic crime between 2023 and 2026.

Lord Browne of Belmont Portrait Lord Browne of Belmont (DUP)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mann, on his Question. I stand here today as a victim of identity theft. I was listed as a director of a bogus company back in 2021 and became aware of that only recently. I can tell the House that it was not an easy exercise to have my name removed from the Companies House register. Will the Minister outline to the House what assistance the Government provide to the many people who find themselves in a similar position? I declare that unfortunately I have no interest in the goldmines in Ukraine which are listed.

Lord Johnson of Lainston Portrait Lord Johnson of Lainston (Con)
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I apologise to the noble Lord for the discovery that he does not have a significant interest in a goldmine. I am sure it will be something he would not want corrected on the register but I am pleased to say that now Companies House actually has the power to make common-sense changes, effective immediately. I assume that there is a process that requires some additional verification but Louise Smyth, the registrar, is particularly focused on this issue. It was something that was raised continually in the debates. For many people, the situation where they found themselves erroneously registered as directors or their address as a company’s address has been extremely traumatic. I am glad that we have now solved this problem with the 12,600 or so companies that we have taken action on, which is a good start, and we expect more to continue. I appreciate the anecdote.

Lord Leong Portrait Lord Leong (Lab)
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My Lords, registering a UK company costs as little as £50. Companies House, as at today, does not verify the names and addresses supplied by applicants. It was recently reported that nearly 40% of money laundered in the world is going through the UK, and London in particular. Can the Minister tell the House how much of this laundered money goes to shell or ghost companies?

Lord Johnson of Lainston Portrait Lord Johnson of Lainston (Con)
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I am grateful for that question. It is certainly work that we continue to do. I do not have that information to hand. The figure mentioned by the noble Lord seems like an incredibly high amount and a surprisingly large number. But the reality is that there is clearly economic crime in the system and we have done everything we can to remove that. I stress to the House the incredible cross-party consensus that we built around the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill to ensure exactly this. We have gone further than any Government for the past 120 years and I think we should get some credit for it.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Portrait Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe (Lab)
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My Lords, there are thousands of people in this country now of whom there is no identification by the state. It applies not just in companies but in so many areas. If you know anything about the Chinese community, you will know that there are literally scores and scores of people there who do not exist as far as the UK is concerned. As we are seeking to work together, is it not time that we return to trying to produce a proper digital identity scheme for the whole of the country?

Lord Johnson of Lainston Portrait Lord Johnson of Lainston (Con)
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I am delighted to say that the introduction of ID cards is not a component of this Question, as far as I am concerned. However, I should say that Companies House now will require electronic verification, so one will have to provide registered, nationally approved identity. One has to have one’s photograph taken. Importantly, to make life easier for businesses, we are going to have an effective digital system. So one has one login ID, however many directorships one has or companies one is involved in, whereby we can track people. For businesses and individuals, the system will be extremely simple.

Baroness Kramer Portrait Baroness Kramer (LD)
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My Lords, one area where open registers and public registers do not exist is for companies in freeports. Have the Government taken another look at this set of issues? Of course, those companies also do not have the normal tax and customs checks over their various activities. Does the Minister intend to link up registers of freeports with Companies House?

Lord Johnson of Lainston Portrait Lord Johnson of Lainston (Con)
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I beg to push back against the noble Baroness’s question. All companies in this country have to register and all have to go through similar processes. Freeports are no different and it is important to quash the idea that somehow there is a free-for-all in freeports. There are still checks. There is still our own English national law framework and all the other components that make sure that these are very exciting opportunities for companies which want to set up in this country. They cannot avoid their obligations. What they can do is profit from the opportunity.

Covid-19 Pandemic: Educational Attainment

Wednesday 22nd May 2024

(1 month, 4 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Question
15:19
Asked by
Baroness Twycross Portrait Baroness Twycross
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the attainment of children in schools, and what measures they are taking to address any adverse impacts.

Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Baroness Barran) (Con)
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My Lords, the challenges of the pandemic were unprecedented and almost £5 billion was made available specifically for education recovery. The latest results from 2023 show positive signs. For example, reading attainment at key stage 2 is back to pre-pandemic levels but there is more to do. We know that regular school attendance is vital for children’s attainment and mental well-being, which is why attendance is my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education’s No. 1 priority.

Baroness Twycross Portrait Baroness Twycross (Lab)
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My Lords, studies have consistently shown that Covid-related disruption in schools negatively impacted the attainment of all pupils, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. In August last year, Teach First’s polling showed that young people from the poorest backgrounds are twice as likely to feel pessimistic about their future career opportunities compared to the most affluent 16 to 18 year-olds. What more will the Government do to ensure that they get the support and the confidence they need for future success?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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The noble Baroness is right that our focus needs to be on those disadvantaged children. That has been reflected in our strategy focusing on 55 education investment areas, where we are working with local schools and other stakeholders in particular to make sure that we address exactly the sorts of gaps the noble Baroness identifies.

Lord Storey Portrait Lord Storey (LD)
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My Lords, the Minister is absolutely right that there is much more to do—you have only to look at the problems facing schools, particularly in socially deprived communities. It is not just about academic achievement but pupils being able to socially interact and regulate their emotions. Research consistently shows that parental engagement is crucial to the academic and emotional development of young people. Do the Government have any plans to start programmes that would involve parents in this way?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I agree entirely with the noble Lord about the importance of social interaction and parental engagement. When I talk to schools about this, they frequently cite examples showing how important it is that they know their local community and have that relationship with parents. Of course we support schools to do that, and some of our communication campaigns on attendance have been directed very much at parents, but we support schools to make those judgments in their communities. However, I absolutely agree about the importance of that.

None Portrait Noble Lords
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Baroness Berridge!

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait The Deputy Speaker (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con)
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My Lords, I think the House is calling for my noble friend Lady Berridge.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, thousands of young people will be taking their GCSE examinations this year who were also in year 7 when the pandemic began. Unfortunately, they have been doubly affected by being educated in schools which have been disrupted by the RAAC situation. Can my noble friend the Minister please outline what advice, assistance and best practice is being shared with those schools, so that they can make effective representations to the exam boards—which do listen to those representations—about the disruption that may have affected their education for a second time?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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We in the department have worked very closely with each of those individual schools. Of course, the disruption may have affected coursework rather more significantly than specific exams. We have therefore worked with every school that has wished to have our support, providing them with the funding to support their children in order to be able to catch up on any learning that was lost for those pupils in exam years, but also liaising with and supporting them in their engagement with the exam boards.

Baroness Blower Portrait Baroness Blower (Lab)
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My Lords, will the Minister take the time to congratulate a class of children from Sulivan Primary School, in Fulham, who were the first to design a garden for the Chelsea flower show? It has been extraordinarily well received. It is called “No Adults Allowed”—although they did allow the King to go in. Does the Minister agree that gardening is brilliant for young people and there should be more of it in the curriculum—which could help with the post-Covid situation—and that it provides opportunities for careers beyond school?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I am delighted to join the noble Baroness in congratulating Sulivan Primary School on its garden at Chelsea. I take this opportunity to shamelessly plug the National Education Nature Park, which is available to every early-years setting and every school and college in the country. It looks at opportunities for children to get outside, including gardening, and develop skills; and at opportunities to collaborate with other schools.

Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham Portrait The Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham
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My Lords, head teachers in my diocese in Nottinghamshire are reporting that the adverse impacts of the pandemic include a dramatic increase in attendance concerns, parental anxiety and pupils’ mental health difficulties. At the same time, they are reporting severe pressures on schools funding, leading to staff reductions, which cannot be in the best interests of children, especially where SEN provision is reduced. What assessment have His Majesty’s Government made of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the educational needs of SEN children, and what more can be done to mitigate this?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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Children with special educational needs and disabilities were of course greatly impacted during the pandemic. The Government have been working with a wide range of organisations in that area, including the National Network of Parent Carer Forums. Crucially, those organisations have been extremely supportive and helpful with our attendance work. The Government have committed considerable funding to increasing specialist capacity of places for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

Lord Robathan Portrait Lord Robathan (Con)
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My Lords, the House will recall that during the pandemic, the opposition parties wanted longer and fiercer restrictions than we got. Indeed, I have to tell the right reverend Prelate that the Church of England did not exactly cover itself in glory.

None Portrait Noble Lords
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Oh!

Lord Robathan Portrait Lord Robathan (Con)
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It is true. Does my noble friend agree that the questionable benefits of those lockdowns were extremely dubious, given the appalling damage that was done to people’s education, and to the economy and other things?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I am not entirely sure that revisiting whether we should have locked down gets us much further forward. The Government are genuinely, tirelessly focusing on everything we can do to support schools in order to ensure that children are back in school, attending every day and thriving.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall (Lab)
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My Lords, the Minister may recall that three years ago, a very distinguished educationalist who was appointed by the Government to make some recommendations on how to deal with education post-pandemic, Sir Kevan Collins, advised that £15 billion was required to set right the damage that had been done—whatever view we take about whether that damage was inevitable. Does the Minister think that the amount of resource that has been put in since that time, bearing in mind that he resigned when the Government reduced that figure to £1.4 billion, has been adequate?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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The money the Government have put in has been focused particularly on the most disadvantaged children and on leaving a legacy in our schools. The proof of the pudding is that attainment at key stages 1, 2 and 4 are all on the increase.

Infected Blood Inquiry: Compensation Scheme

Wednesday 22nd May 2024

(1 month, 4 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Question
15:29
Asked by
Baroness Primarolo Portrait Baroness Primarolo
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To ask His Majesty’s Government when the compensation scheme recommended by the Infected Blood Inquiry will be established.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, the Government’s priority is to deliver compensation as swiftly as possible and with the minimum possible delay, as advised by Sir Brian Langstaff and the inquiry. The infected blood compensation authority is up and running in shadow form already and will be formally established in law as soon as the Victims and Prisoners Bill receives Royal Assent.

Baroness Primarolo Portrait Baroness Primarolo (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. As a former Minister for Public Health, I offer my apologies to the victims of this health tragedy—I am very sorry indeed. Can the Minister clarify the Statement he made yesterday and explain what steps the Government are taking to ensure that people who have not received the first interim payment do so as soon as possible?

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, I recognise the noble Baroness’s long-standing interest in this very vexed area during her time as a Minister in the Treasury and the Department of Health. On that particular category of claimant, there is a GOV.UK page where those who have not already received payments in an interim form can register their interest. We have also said that we will pay interim payments of £100,000 to the estates of deceased infected people who were registered with existing or former support schemes, and that would apply where previous interim payments have not already been made.

Baroness Brinton Portrait Baroness Brinton (LD)
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My Lords, yesterday in the Commons, John Glen, the Minister, said that there are

“a couple of categories in which there is a potential risk”—[Official Report, Commons, 21/5/24; col. 759.]

of claimants being worse off. Some of the widows have been in touch because they are concerned that the Government’s proposals will repeat the problems relating to top-up payments from the Macfarlane Trust. Sir Brian’s recommendation 13(b) to keep regular payments and merge them fully into the new scheme, supported by Sir Robert Francis, already seems to be different from what the IBCA helpline is telling these widows. Will the Minister agree to meet and to make sure that this does not happen?

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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Yes, most certainly. That should not happen. We are determined that no eligible claimant should lose out as a result of the transition from the support payments to compensation payments; I am concerned to hear that different messages are being propounded on that. I announced yesterday the plans for the support scheme payments, but those who are legitimately in receipt of support payments have an expectation of receiving a certain sum of money over their lifetime and that expectation will be honoured.

Lord Dobbs Portrait Lord Dobbs (Con)
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My Lords, something really rather terrible has been going on, because it is not just the infected blood scandal that we are suffering from. We have the Post Office scandal that has gone on for 25 years and counting, and the Hillsborough Stadium disaster lingered on for 35 years. We have the Rotherham grooming scandal, which is another three decades; the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, with the family requiring two decades to get justice; and the Mull of Kintyre helicopter crash—another two decades. Something has gone very badly wrong with our system of justice; these scandals have become endemic in our system of government. I ask my noble friend to reflect on that and to perhaps propose what we are planning to do to stop our fabled system of justice becoming junk.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, I have no doubt that the same thought has occurred to many of your Lordships. The systemic moral failings exposed by Sir Brian Langstaff in relation to infected blood raise profound questions about the defensive culture of government and the public services at every level. The findings of this recent report undoubtedly have a resonance with a number of findings in other reports on high-profile calamities, and this issue merits deep reflection and honest thinking across government and the public sector.

Lord Reid of Cardowan Portrait Lord Reid of Cardowan (Lab)
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My Lords, as a former Secretary of State for Health, I associate myself completely with the expressions of regret and apology issued by the Prime Minister, the leader of the Opposition and, indeed, my noble friend Lady Primarolo today. As far as compensation is concerned, as Secretary of State I managed to give some financial assistance to those suffering from hep C, but only by reversing a very long-standing policy against huge resistance. It has been noted that civil servants are sometimes unwilling to change. What has not been noted is that one institution in government has the right to prevent such things being done but does not carry responsibility if there is a mistake: the Treasury. I warn the Minister now, if he is here after 5 pm today, that the Treasury will always try to find a way, because it does not recognise moral compulsion—but that should be as important to us as legal liability.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord’s words will resonate with anyone in this Chamber who has had the privilege of ministerial responsibility. Having said that, I do not think we should necessarily point the finger solely at the Treasury when it comes to the responsibility that lies at every level of government in this terrible disaster.

Baroness Featherstone Portrait Baroness Featherstone (LD)
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My Lords, I declare my interest. As this House may know, my nephew, Nick, was a haemophiliac infected with hepatitis C and exposed to CJD and died aged 35, leaving a 10 month-old baby daughter, Niamh. Compensation should be first on the list to alleviate immediate suffering, but can the Minister tell your Lordships’ House whether the Government will seek prosecutions for those who Sir Brian’s report indicates are culpable in this most terrible of tragedies?

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, I do not think it is for me as a Minister to opine on potential criminal liability. All I can say at this early stage is that the Government will make all relevant information available to those conducting any future criminal investigation.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, I echo my noble friend’s comments about the awful circumstances and the apology. Yesterday, after the repeat of the Statement, I reassured the Minister that what was required to implement all the recommendations of the report was cross-party working, and that we will continue to do that whatever the circumstances. He gave a commitment about the other 11 recommendations of the report; the Commons were due to debate it on returning from the Recess. I hope that we can keep that firmly on the agenda so that we properly address all the issues that the report raises.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I am very grateful to the noble Lord. I am personally keen that we should have that opportunity. I am aware that discussions are ongoing with the usual channels to enable us to have a debate not too far from when we come back from the Recess. Clearly, it is important that these findings be given the most thorough consideration by government. They are very grave indeed. As I said yesterday, the wrongs that have been done are devastating and, in many cases, life altering. A comprehensive response will be given in due course, but that should not prevent us debating the report in the meanwhile.

Lord Kamall Portrait Lord Kamall (Con)
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My noble friend the Minister has said there is more information available on the website for victims and their families. Has his department considered how those who are digitally excluded and not very digitally proficient or able to access digital services can get more information?

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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Yes, indeed. I know that Sir Robert Francis, the interim chair of the shadow compensation authority, has this very much at the top of his agenda in his engagement with the infected blood community.

President of Iran: Death

Wednesday 22nd May 2024

(1 month, 4 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Question
15:39
Asked by
Viscount Stansgate Portrait Viscount Stansgate
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the implications for UK foreign policy of the death of the President of Iran.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
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My Lords, the Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, and Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, died in a helicopter accident on Sunday 19 May. The funeral, as noble Lords will be aware, is taking place today. Our policy towards Iran has not changed. We remain committed to supporting the Iranian people in the challenge of the human rights abuses that they face, and, importantly, to holding Iran to account for its destabilising activity. As we have said repeatedly, Iran must adhere to international norms and standards in any upcoming election.

Viscount Stansgate Portrait Viscount Stansgate (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. First, do the Government have access to any intelligence that may shed light on the effect of the President’s death on the population at large in Iran? There have been some reports that the reaction has been somewhat muted. Secondly, are the Government or the West more generally able to do anything to use the current situation to assist pro-democracy groups in Iran, as a way of undermining support for a regime that, among other things, so brutally denies women their political and civil rights, and recently launched the first ever direct attack on Israel?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, as the noble Viscount will have noted, I made reference to Iran’s destabilising activity. We have all, not least within the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, been fully seized of the challenges we are facing in the wider region. That said, I know we were at one when we saw the tragedy of Mahsa Amini and the suppression of human rights in Iran. I speak as the UK Human Rights Minister in saying that it is important that, while this was clearly a horrific accident, our thoughts remain with the Iranian people as they continue their struggle for human rights and dignity within Iran.

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere Portrait Lord Hannan of Kingsclere (Con)
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My Lords, my noble friend the Minister just used the phrase “adhere to international norms and standards”, talking about internal elections. Can he think of any regime that has less adhered to those standards in its foreign policy and in its disrespect for territorial jurisdiction and national sovereignty, from the siege of the US embassy through to sponsoring attacks as far afield as London and Buenos Aires, through to this most recent horrific attack on Israel? Does my noble friend the Minister see any prospect for regional peace as long as we have that regime there, in Leninist terms, exporting its internal contradictions—in other words, trying to replicate its revolution far afield?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, my noble friend articulates the extreme and intense challenges that many in the region face, not least from the destabilising activity of Iran. We have seen this in the context of the current conflict in Gaza, in support for Hamas, and through support for Hezbollah and for the Houthis in Yemen. We are determined to ensure that peace, security and stability must come when we see progressive Governments across the piece, but equally people committed to ensuring that peace, security and stability can be achieved only when it is for the whole region.

Baroness Northover Portrait Baroness Northover (LD)
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My Lords, commentators have noted that these deaths are not likely to change the direction of the Government of Iran. Could the Minister update us on discussions that the Government may be having with the EU and whichever US Administration may come in after its elections on what can be done to take forward the curbing of Iran’s nuclear programme?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right to draw attention to the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. She will be well aware that we kept the JCPOA on the table, notwithstanding America’s withdrawal. We have seen increasingly—coming back to the point my noble friend articulated—Iran going directly against this by, for example, immediately prohibiting IAEA access to Iran. We have pressed on that; my noble friend the Foreign Secretary recently met Mr Grossi to assess the levers we currently have to ensure that Iran’s nuclear capability is not weaponised. We continue to be focused, including in our discussions with both the United States and European partners, and, I also add, with other key partners in the region.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, as we have heard, this is a regime that is repressive at home but also aggressive abroad, not least in this country. We have seen attacks on individuals, and attacks on and threats to the BBC, et cetera. I could continue. The Minister knows that we have repeatedly asked in this Chamber what the Government will do to ensure that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps cannot operate. Will he commit his Government to take urgent action to proscribe this organisation as soon as possible?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, the noble Lord will know that I am not going to say what we may or may not do around proscription. What is very clear is that we have taken action directly against the influences of Iran, its people and its organisations, including the IRGC. The noble Lord is aware that we sanctioned the IRGC in its entirety, including key individuals. Iran’s actions have not gone unpunished. We have now sanctioned over 400 individuals and organisations in this respect and remain very much focused on ensuring that the very actions that we have seen here in the streets of London, which the noble Lord mentioned, are fully curbed. In that, I pay tribute in particular to our agencies, as well as other key components, including the police, who have had to deal with this to provide the security that every person in the United Kingdom deserves.

Lord Bird Portrait Lord Bird (CB)
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I do not want to be a pain in the rear, but I feel like one because I want to talk about history. I wish the Americans, the British, the CIA and all that had not screwed up Mosaddegh, overthrown him and brought back the Shah. That led exactly to where we are today. When will we start learning from our history? We seem to forget it. We are the products of these problems.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I never see the noble Lord in the way that he describes himself. The challenges that any Minister faces from him in your Lordships’ Chamber are regarded with great respect. I welcome his insights. I assure him that the lessons of history inform the policies and programmes that the Government undertake. Both our personal as well as our professional experience lead us to ensure that we do not forget the lessons of history.

Baroness Deech Portrait Baroness Deech (CB)
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Does the Minister share my dismay that our representative at the United Nations stood in tribute to the death of the person who is now called the “Butcher of Tehran”? Will he ensure that all our actions in the United Nations are designed to keep Iran in its proper place, and not, for example, chairing committees on human rights and women, et cetera?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness, as I am sure she recognises, of the action that the Government have taken. It was the United Kingdom, together with the US, that led the campaign to ensure that Iran was removed, for example, from CEDAW, an organisation very much focused on the rights of women. We remain focused in that respect.

Lord Austin of Dudley Portrait Lord Austin of Dudley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, as I understand it, the Government have not proscribed the IRGC because they believe that we have to keep open channels of communication so that we can moderate Iran’s behaviour. Given that this is a state that exports terror right across the Middle East and here in the UK, kidnaps British citizens and launched an appalling attack on Israel just a few weeks ago, can the Minister point out what benefits the Government’s policy of engaging with Iran has brought?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, as my noble friend the Foreign Secretary has said on a number of occasions, we have incredible differences and challenges, and we have held Iran to account. Importantly, the engagement that we have had even in recent weeks, in advance of the attack on Israel which the noble Lord referred to, ensured that representations were made so that we did not see an increase in Iran’s destabilising influence. Those were conveyed not through any third party but directly to the now deceased Foreign Minister. It is important, as my noble friend has indicated, that when we are required to deliver those very direct messages, as we do consistently, we can do so directly to the particular representative of that given state.

Lord Dobbs Portrait Lord Dobbs (Con)
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I will follow up the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Bird, and go into the history. We know that the current Iranian regime is appalling and atrocious, but can we also reflect on the fact that our policies in the Middle East over recent decades have led to failure and disaster? The war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, Libya—we set out to do good things and we failed, and in many cases we made the situation much worse. Can my noble friend assure me that the Government will be much more realistic about their handling of the situation and our relations with Iran? There is no magic wand or weapon that we can use to change the situation there. Our foreign policy will be much more effective if we make it more realistic to what we are able to do rather than what we would, in some circumstances, simply want to do.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, having two questions posed to me about learning the lessons of history, I keep looking in the direction of the noble Lord, Lord West, but I fear he has run out of time on this Question. I agree with my noble friend. We have reviews that look at our interventions and strategies in conflicts past and at having a direct strategy on exit policies, for example. There are many noble and gallant Lords in your Lordships’ House who have reminded us of the importance of operational planning to ensure that, when we go in, as my noble friend said, with noble intent, we recognise what the intention is and how we will extract ourselves from conflicts. The lessons of history are important, but it is also important to remain seized of current challenges from those who oppose us, and to stay united in our response from your Lordships’ House and the other place as we look to these international challenges across the world.

Armed Forces (Court Martial) (Amendment) Rules 2024

Wednesday 22nd May 2024

(1 month, 4 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Motion to Approve
15:51
Moved by
Earl of Minto Portrait The Earl of Minto
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That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 18 April be approved. Considered in Grand Committee on 20 May.

South West Water: Brixham Contamination

Wednesday 22nd May 2024

(1 month, 4 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 20 May.
“On Monday 13 May, South West Water was notified by the UK Health Security Agency of cryptosporidium cases in the Brixham area. South West Water undertook monitoring from Monday evening into Tuesday, with the results on Wednesday morning identifying crypto in the Hillhead distribution area. A boil notice was issued for customers on Wednesday 15 May to cover both the Hillhead area and the Alston area. I know that has caused considerable concern and disruption to the local community.
To date, UKHSA has identified at least 46 confirmed cases of cryptosporidium but, given that symptoms may take up to 10 days to emerge, obviously that number may continue to rise. Two people have been hospitalised. Two bottled water stations were initially opened on Thursday 16 May, and in my call with the chief executive on Friday, I requested that a third be opened and the hours extended, both of which then happened, effective from Saturday.
I also raised concerns with the chief executive, including those shared with me by my honourable friends the Members for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and for Torbay (Kevin Foster) about inadequate compensation. That was raised to £150 for residents in the Alston supply area and has now gone up to £215 for those continuing to be affected in the Alston area. A helpline has been established for businesses and I requested that it work with local MPs to streamline the process. In addition, my right honourable friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries visited the community on Friday.
Some 16,000 properties were initially subject to the boil notice, but 85% of them—32,000 residents in 14,500 properties that receive their water from the Alston reservoir—have now had the boil notice lifted. Not only have all the tests on the Alston reservoir been clear, but South West Water says that the positive test of the valve supports its contention that the most likely cause is downstream of that reservoir. If that is the case, those 85% of residents were never subject to any water issues and the boil notice was applied on a precautionary basis. Notwithstanding that, I am sure that there will be ongoing concern, so daily testing of that water will continue for the foreseeable future.
The Hillhead reservoir has now been drained, cleaned and refilled. A flush of the network, which aims to remove traces of cryptosporidium detected in the system, was started this morning. We are working with South West Water and the Drinking Water Inspectorate, recognising the ongoing disruption to the remaining 15% of residents. I know that South West Water will want to comply fully and in a timely fashion with the investigation of the Drinking Water Inspectorate”.
15:52
Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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My Lords, recent events in the Brixham area have once again highlighted the sorry state of the water sector, yet just this week water companies in England and Wales have asked the regulator for permission to increase bills by up to 91%. They say that this is necessary to improve the water network, something that Professor Chris Whitty says is a public health priority as well as an environmental one. This pressing need has not prevented United Utilities increasing its dividend payments by nearly 10% while at the same time polluting Lake Windermere. Other firms are increasing payouts to investors despite their poor performance. Is it not time for the Government to call time on the current system by putting water companies into special measures and ensuring that law-breaking bosses face criminal charges rather than receiving bumper pay packets?

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Douglas-Miller) (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness for her question. We have debated a number of times the issue of special measures, and I think I have been clear in the House every time I have stood at the Dispatch Box that the Government will use special measures when the criteria for them are met. I accept that that is quite a high bar, but there are a number of other options for all those water companies that they should fully explore before the Government will consider putting them into special measures.

Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Portrait Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (LD)
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My Lords, the first television news on the Brixham infection indicated that contamination was contained to those already infected. The next day’s bulletin retracted that statement, telling viewers that the area of contamination had widened. Bottled water was available to some, but not all, living in that area. As the source was known to be a reservoir contaminated by animal faeces, why was action not taken sooner to alert people to the dangers of drinking their tap water and to provide everyone with bottled water?

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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I am always nervous of taking as fact what I read in the papers or listen to on the news. I have spent the morning speaking to the chief inspector of the Drinking Water Inspectorate and he is not able to tell me what the noble Baroness has told me. I am just guessing that he might have slightly better access to that information. It is dangerous to say with that level of assertion that that is what has happened, because it is not what I am hearing. It is a live investigation and I cannot go into the details of what I have been told. I can say that South West Water has been handing out bottled water and in many cases over the last week it has been prioritising priority service customers and vulnerable sites. It has opened three bottled water stations, at Broadsands car park, Freshwater Quarry car park and Churston car boot field. It is supporting both vulnerable areas and local residents with bottled water.

Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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My Lords, I remind the House of my previous interests—no longer—as chairman of a small water company; therefore, I know a bit about it. I hope that my noble friend will insist that the water companies behave properly, of course, but will he please remind the Opposition that when it was run by the state and municipalities, we had no investment at all? That was why it was privatised, and not for any other reason. In the years after privatisation, a great deal of investment has taken place. The problem was that both Governments—Tory and Labour—told the control, which started off with Mr Byatt, that he was to keep prices down instead of allowing the kind of investment that we need. You do not get water free, and we have to have proper investment.

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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My noble friend must have the same pack as I have in front of me because he has virtually said word for word what is in mine. We have discussed the issue of privatisation many times both in this House and in other debates and that is not a route that this Government are going to go down. I completely concur with what my noble friend has said.

Lord Boateng Portrait Lord Boateng (Lab)
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My Lords, in Scotland, real bills are still the same as they were 17 years ago, while English bills have increased by over 16% in real terms over the same period. The publicly owned Scottish Water invests over one-third more per capita in its water industry and supplies than any private English company. That is £282 per household over the last 17 years compared to only £210 per household in England. Does not one conclude from that that publicly owned companies are doing better than privately owned ones? If that is not the Minister’s conclusion, how does he explain the differential?

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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The noble Lord has some very impressive statistics on Scottish Water. I happen to be the beneficiary of Scottish Water because I live up there. It is not quite as rosy as he tells us, because one area on which we have made great progress in England has been storm overflows and monitoring and understanding exactly what is going into our river systems. If the noble Lord was to look at that area in Scotland, he would find it very deficient.

Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con)
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My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the water companies play an important role as owners of agricultural land? It is extremely important that we get to the bottom of what caused this incident to ensure that tenant farmers know exactly what their position is concerning South West Water and the Brixham contamination, as well as other landowners.

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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I completely concur with my noble friend that it is critical that we get to the bottom of what has happened to have generated this outbreak of cryptosporidium. It is currently far too early to know the exact cause of the outbreak. South West Water is continuing its investigations to confirm the source of the contamination. The Drinking Water Inspectorate has initiated its investigation into the cause, extent and actions of the company and begun collecting evidence on site. I should point out that it is the Drinking Water Inspectorate which is taking the lead on this investigation.

Lord Whitty Portrait Lord Whitty (Lab)
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My Lords, is not this instance a failure of the central role of the water companies to deliver clean and healthy water to every household? In the days before privatisation, we used to pride ourselves on our water and decry foreign water. Whether that was true or not, this is a central failure of regulation. There are three regulators of the water industry. We need to have a new start on regulation of water, with a single regulator for it, if we are not to have renationalisation. On the point of renationalisation, I know that my Front Bench, as well as the Government, are not in favour of it, but I note that the largest shareholder in Thames Water wrote down its shareholding to nil. If the rest of the shareholders, which are very guilty in this, did the same then the cost of nationalisation would be pretty small.

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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The noble Lord is quite right that the Canadian pension fund’s owners wrote down the value of its shareholding in Thames Water to zero, but that of course does not mean that it is zero. I am not sure that would help him in terms of its privatisation.

Lord Redesdale Portrait Lord Redesdale (LD)
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My Lords, there is quite justifiable anger at the way that some companies, including Macquarie, have dealt with taking money away from water companies. The problem highlighted in the south-west is that there is an enormous amount of anger in the country towards water companies. However, this has led to an increase in the amount of abuse and actual physical assault that workers in the water companies are facing at the moment, as has been highlighted by some of the work of the GMB. Could the Minister make sure that, when MPs or others discuss this issue, they should commend the work of those people on the ground rather than the higher issues that are causing problems?

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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I completely concur with those statements, because it is absolutely unacceptable that those who are sent out to sort a problem end up being abused and given a tough time for something which cannot conceivably be their fault. I totally accept that and will ensure that we take that message back.

Israel and Gaza

Wednesday 22nd May 2024

(1 month, 4 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Statement
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 20 May.
“With permission, I would like to make a Statement on Israel and Gaza. Over seven months since the horrors of 7 October, there is no end to the current conflict in sight. This Government want to bring the conflict to a sustainable end as soon as possible but, as so often with conflicts of this nature, the question is not about our desire for peace, but rather about the best means of achieving it. We continue to believe that the fastest way to end the conflict is to secure a deal that gets the hostages out and allows for a pause in the fighting in Gaza. We would then have to work with our international partners to turn that pause into a sustainable permanent ceasefire.
Building momentum towards a lasting peace will require a number of elements, including removing Hamas’s capacity to launch attacks against Israel. It was a deal of that kind that secured a pause in the fighting before Christmas—the only such pause since Hamas’s horrific attack. It was that approach that the United Nations Security Council endorsed just last month, following some effective British diplomacy.
A deal with Hamas for a pause in the fighting would involve exchanging hundreds of Palestinian prisoners charged with serious acts of terrorism in return for the hostages’ release. I do not underestimate how difficult that must be for the Israeli Government, but it is the best way forward that we see right now.
We continue to work closely with the United States and partners in the region to support such a deal. We do not believe that the International Criminal Court prosecutor seeking warrants will help in that regard. As we have said from the outset, we do not think that the ICC has jurisdiction in this case.
A deal as I have described offers the best prospects of reuniting more hostages with their families; the anguish for them is unbearable. I am sure that the whole House joins me in holding the family of Nadav Popplewell in our thoughts at this deeply distressing time. We are still working intensively to establish the facts after the awful video that his Hamas kidnappers released last week. The Foreign Secretary met the family last week to hear more about their ordeal at first hand. Likewise, we send our condolences to those families whose loved ones the Israeli authorities stated last week had died.
At the same time, the toll on civilians in Gaza continues to rise. Images from the Strip give us some sense of what they endure: civilians piling belongings on to a cart led by a donkey, or seeking to scrape together a meal in a makeshift shelter. We have seen appalling attacks on aid convoys and UN offices by Israeli extremists, and the tragic deaths of UN and other humanitarian personnel in Gaza.
We keep in close contact with Sigrid Kaag, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator, and we condemn all attacks on aid workers and support the United Nations’ call for an independent investigation. The Government of Israel have previously set out publicly their commitment to increase the flow of aid into Gaza significantly, but we need to see far more. The Prime Minister impressed the urgency of that on 30 April. In the past 10 days, the Foreign Secretary has spoken to Israeli Ministers Ron Dermer and Israel Katz. He has called on them to implement in full Israel’s aid commitments. We want to see: humanitarian aid allowed to enter through all relevant crossing points, including in Rafah; critically needed goods flowing in, particularly fuel and medical supplies; effective deconfliction processes to ensure that aid can be distributed safely and effectively; critical infrastructure restored and protected; evacuations for all those eligible; concrete action to protect civilians and minimise casualties; and, as Israeli Minister Benny Gantz said over the weekend, more planning for reconstruction and a return to Palestinian civilian governance of Gaza once the fighting has ceased.
We remain absolutely committed to getting aid into Gaza to alleviate the suffering, and we are working with a wide variety of other Governments and aid agencies to deliver aid by land, sea and air. I am delighted to confirm to the House that we have now successfully delivered British aid to Gaza’s shore using the Cyprus maritime corridor, which we and our partners—notably, the United States, the United Arab Emirates and Cyprus—made operational just last week. We have committed almost £10 million in funding. RFA ‘Cardigan Bay’ is acting as a logistics hub for the operation.
We have now delivered more than 8,000 shelter coverage kits alongside aid from the US and the UAE, with more aid to follow in the coming weeks, including hygiene kits and forklift trucks. Work to develop other effective partnerships for the delivery of aid continues. My noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon is in Qatar today, discussing a health partnership for Palestinians so that a British medical training agency can support doctors and health practitioners treating Palestinian patients.
We know that much, much more aid is required, but that delivery by land remains the quickest and most effective option, so we continue to work closely with Oman to maximise the aid delivered via the Jordan land corridor. I pay tribute to all those aid workers, military personnel, diplomats and medical professionals who are involved in Britain’s efforts to save lives and alleviate the suffering of civilians in Gaza. I confirm to the House that, last week, intense efforts by the Foreign Office led to the departure from Gaza of three British aid workers who were at risk from an outbreak of fighting.
As the fighting continues, we estimate that around 800,000 Palestinian civilians have fled from where they were seeking shelter in Rafah to other parts of the southern Strip. The extent of this displacement is why we have been clear that we would not support a major Israeli military operation in Rafah, unless there was a very clear plan for how to protect people and save lives. We have not seen that plan. We and 13 of our partners, including France, Germany, Italy and Australia, set out our concerns in a detailed letter to the Israeli Government.
After more than seven months of fighting, it is becoming difficult to imagine the realisation of a lasting peace, but Britain continues to try to build momentum towards that goal. That will require not only the release of all the hostages and an end to the current fighting, but the removal of Hamas’s capacity to launch attacks against Israel; Hamas no longer being in charge in Gaza; the formation of a new Palestinian Government for the West Bank and Gaza; and a political horizon for the Palestinians, providing a credible and irreversible pathway towards a two-state solution. That is what we continue to strive towards: peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike. I commend the Statement to the House”.
16:02
Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, the focus of all politicians should be on achieving an immediate ceasefire to end the war in Gaza, free the hostages, alleviate the humanitarian crisis and create a pathway towards a lasting political solution. In March, the Foreign Secretary said that we needed to work with our international partners to give hope to that process and to move towards recognising a Palestinian state, not wait for the end of the process. Can the Minister tell us what assessment the Foreign Secretary and the Government have made of the announcement today by Norway, Spain and Ireland recognising a Palestinian state?

Labour has been clear throughout this conflict that international law must be upheld, the independence of international courts must be respected and all sides must be accountable for their actions. As signatories to the Rome statute, the United Kingdom should support the independence of the ICC, which is a corner- stone of the international legal system. We must remember that the decision of the ICC chief prosecutor is only the start of the process. Therefore, we should wait for the decisions of the wider court, which will assess the information before it and decide whether to issue a warrant. It must be allowed to do so with independence.

Labour has been opposed to an Israeli offensive in Rafah for months. The UK Government’s priority must be to work with the United States and other allies to prevent a full-scale Rafah offensive. Does the noble Lord accept that, if the Rafah offensive goes ahead, we should join our American allies in suspending weapons or components that could be used in that offensive?

At the Business and Trade Select Committee this week, Andrew Mitchell confirmed that the assessment that no serious risk of a breach of international humanitarian law exists undertaken on 8 April only included evidence taken

“up to the end of January”,

so any actions the IDF may have taken over the last four months have not been taken into consideration. His department has said that it reviews its assessment of Israel’s actions on a rolling six-weekly basis, which means that a fresh assessment should have been published by Ministers on Tuesday. Can the Minister confirm whether a new assessment has taken place and when it would be announced?

In that same Select Committee meeting, Andrew Mitchell also said:

“You cannot use starvation as a weapon of war and remain within international humanitarian law: that is clear”.


Yesterday, I reminded the Foreign Secretary of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2417, which condemns the use of starvation against civilians as a method of warfare. It also condemns

“the unlawful denial of humanitarian access”

and the act of “wilfully impeding relief supply”. The Foreign Secretary acknowledged that Israel has not had

“a clean bill of health”.—[Official Report, 21/5/24; col. 947.]

on allowing humanitarian aid to enter Gaza. Does the Minister accept the Foreign Secretary’s description of the Israeli action and, if so, does he believe such action to in breach of Resolution 2417?

On Monday, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Alicia Kearns, welcomed

“the effort on the maritime port”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/5/24; col. 648.]

However, as we have heard, the United Nations has expressed deep concern about that and particularly stressed that land routes are the most viable, effective and efficient aid delivery method, which is why we need all crossing points to be opened.

Since 6 May, when the attacks on Rafah started, only 40 trucks have gone through the Kerem Shalom crossing. In Rafah, no fuel has gone in, no medical evacuations have taken place, and aid agencies have started to suspend the sending in of their own people to support aid distribution.

Andrew Mitchell acknowledged the importance of getting aid in by road—the Minister himself has said this—and the difficulties caused by Rafah having been effectively closed for the last few weeks. He pointed out the ability to do that is one of Britain’s specific demands of the Israeli Government. Andrew Mitchell also expressed the hope that there will soon be a deal between Egypt and Israel to put that right. Can the Minister give us an update on those talks? Will they succeed?

Concern has also been expressed about the safety of aid workers. On 5 April, the Foreign Secretary called for an independent inquiry into Israel’s killing of seven aid workers, including three Britons. Israel did take some action against those responsible for the decisions made in those attacks. However, Andrew Mitchell said on Monday that

“we are considering, with our allies, the best way to inject further independence into that investigation”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/5/24; col. 655.]

Can the noble Lord tell which allies we are talking in this respect and what action will be taken?

Finally, I want to raise something else that we have considered in this Chamber, which is the increased violence against Palestinians living in the West Bank. They are facing increased attacks, clearly in breach of international humanitarian law. I have also raised the attacks on the UNRWA headquarters. Can the Minister tell us what steps he and his department are taking to boost accountability for settler violence?

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Collins, we on these Benches have been making a set of points, essentially from early October, when the terrorist attacks against Israel started a cycle of violence and killing, and a situation that no one could have wished to see.

The first duty is surely for the Israeli Government and Hamas to come together and for Hamas to return the hostages. Like some other Members of your Lordships’ House, I have a small yellow lapel badge. Nobody has asked about it, but I was given it when I was in Israel before Easter, as declared in the register of interests. It basically calls for a return of the hostages. What are His Majesty’s Government doing to try to work further with the Israeli Government, and through other means, to get negotiations going again, to bring about a ceasefire and to discuss an appropriate way of bringing back the hostages? There are still over 100 hostages, some of whom we hope are still alive. What is going on? At the moment there seems to be very little discussion about a negotiated ceasefire, temporary or permanent, yet that is absolutely essential. And, again, we have long called for a two-state solution.

The Foreign Secretary, who I understand is due back in the UK—sadly not to repeat the Statement in your Lordships’ House but to be at a Cabinet meeting, I gather—has talked about recognition of Palestine “when the time is right”. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, pointed out, three countries have today recognised Palestine. Although I do not expect the Minister to say now whether there is likely to be an announcement from His Majesty’s Government, what is the British Government’s longer-term thinking about what a future settlement might look like?

Minister Mitchell in the other place was very clear that His Majesty’s Government cannot support an Israeli attack on Rafah without seeing a plan. He explicitly stated that the United Kingdom

“and 13 of our partners, including France, Germany, Italy and Australia, set out our concerns in a detailed letter to the Israeli Government”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/5/24; col. 646.]

What is the basis of that letter? Do His Majesty’s Government feel that they have any leverage? Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary ruled out a suspension of arms sales, pointing out that UK arms sales are very small in quantity compared with American sales of arms. But Germany is the second-largest exporter of arms to Israel—has it considered a suspension of arms sales? Is that being considered? Is there a position of saying that we do not support attacks on Rafah and that a way of leveraging might be to say that we would potentially suspend arms sales?

I will finish with questions about one brief mention of the ICC, because we have now heard that the prosecutor has put forward his recommendations and Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, has clearly pointed out the importance of giving the ICC our full support to deliver justice. Clearly, that is the Lib Dem position, and surely it should be the United Kingdom’s position, because we are signatories to the Rome treaty. The problem is that Israel is not—nor is the United States. So what is the Government’s position on persuading Israel and the United States to take notice of the ICC?

Finally, Minister Mitchell pointed out that the Minister was in Qatar on Monday, looking at provision for health support for Palestinians. Is he able to elaborate on those discussions and whether it is now possible to evacuate some of the sickest children from Palestine?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their questions and their observations, many of which I agree with and, indeed, are reflective of the Government’s position. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that we continue to work with international partners. As he clearly outlined, that is exactly the focus of the Government: bringing the war in Gaza to an end; ensuring that hostages are returned after—as the noble Baroness pointed out—being held for so long; and ending the suffering of innocent Palestinian civilians in Gaza. That remains the number one priority of the United Kingdom Government, together with our key partners.

The noble Baroness mentioned Qatar; that was not just about a health partnership. We announced a new health partnership on psychosocial support, looking at each other’s equities, and how we are currently working with key partners in the Gulf states—again, noble Lords have raised this in your Lordships’ House before—on how to work practically to get people out, who are now receiving support. We are also, working with key partners, extending training not just to Qatar, which we have announced formally, but to other Arab states, including Kuwait. I will continue to update your Lordships’ House in that respect.

The hostages themselves were part of the discussions with Qatar, which continues to play an important role, together with Egypt. Earlier this morning, I convened a meeting with Arab ambassadors to gauge their updates. There was of course interest in the United Kingdom’s position on a number of issues that both the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, have raised. I will go through those in turn.

I stress that we remain very much focused on this. My noble friend Lord Cameron and I have been engaged in extensive diplomacy. On Sunday, I hope to be in Brussels for specific meetings to follow up recent engagements in Riyadh with Arab partners and—I know that noble Lords have raised this as well—with EU partners on how we work together. It is clear to me, from a number of meetings that we have had, that we need to ensure that this is not just about the current conflict, which must cease, but that we get the hostages out. Anyone who has met with hostage families realises that. I have met with Palestinians who have left Gaza and seen their predicament, and I have met with doctors who are treating Palestinian children and women in Qatar. We need to ensure that humanity prevails in all that we do. That is the guiding beacon—if I may put it that way—in all my engagements.

My noble friend Lord Cameron spoke to Minister Gantz yesterday and he has also spoken to Minister Dermer. The Prime Minister has also engaged at prime ministerial level with Prime Minister Netanyahu. In all these, the primary focus is on the humanitarian, as well as seeking a resolution on getting the conflict ended —and the long term.

I would add that, when you see certain statements from Defence Minister Gallant and Minister Gantz recently, there is a real question that Israel needs to answer on whether the option of Palestinian governance is a real one—recognised not just by us in your Lordships’ House or by the United Kingdom Government, but within Israel and its Cabinet. It is important that that point continues to be emphasised. We are pressing on the humanitarian issues that were raised and on the issue of getting the Erez crossing fully opened. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned the challenges there. He will be aware that I myself called out the attacks on those convoys. I am travelling to Jordan next week to see how we can enhance our partnership and get more through the Jordan corridor.

The issue of settlers was raised quite specifically by the noble Baroness. As she will know, earlier this month, the Foreign Secretary announced new sanctions on extremist groups and individuals for inciting and perpetrating settler violence in the West Bank. We will not hesitate to take further actions in this regard. I know that noble Lords across the House have been supportive of curbing those particular actions.

We are very much seized of the two-state solution, and I come on to the point of recognition. My noble friend Lord Cameron articulated very clearly the United Kingdom Government’s position. Of course, we have noted what has been announced today by Norway, Ireland and Spain, and we are engaging with those countries: I have done so. Our position is also different from that of the United States. We have said repeatedly, as the Foreign Secretary recently articulated, that Israel does not have a veto on Palestine coming into existence. We have also said that this is not something that should wait until the end of any given structured process for peace. We remain focused on that. But the first step must be, as I am sure that noble Lords will agree, bringing this current conflict in Gaza to an end for the sake of both Israelis and Palestinians, particularly the hostage families and those who are suffering in Gaza.

On the issue of IHL, questions were asked reflecting Minister Mitchell’s recent appearance before the Business and Trade Committee. I was very clear when I appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee last week that the principle of law must prevail. I assure noble Lords that, both in the advice that I give and in the decisions that my noble friend the Foreign Secretary takes, those are the key principles that are considered in terms of the overall position when it comes to export licences. Noble Lords know of our very extensive and robust regime in that regard, but its application is also important. We are not a state supplier of weapons to Israel and, equally, the processes that are undertaken are well tested. Of course, the issue of the World Central Kitchen workers forms a big part of the assessment process which is currently being undertaken. I cannot give a specific or definitive date; what I can share with the noble Lord is that it is imminent, and I know it is being looked at specifically.

On starvation as a weapon of war, there is no way of holding back: of course, no one should use starvation as a weapon of war, and where it is seen, as I have said before, it brings serious questions. We rely on the strength of our relationship with Israel, which means that, as an ally and a friend, we continue to raise these issues, privately at times and quite directly. Equally, where we feel it necessary to take public action, we continue to do so.

The issue of the maritime port was raised. I pay tribute to those who worked to bring this into operation but, to be clear, what was delivered was a payload of only about 20 trucks. My noble friend Lord Clarke, who is in his place, asked me previously about British troops. The decision was taken to position no British troops, which then provides logistical challenges on the ground. We were able to deliver some of this, working with key partners such as the World Food Programme, but this is a desperate humanitarian situation on the ground, people are suffering and we need to alleviate that. That is why we are focused on land routes, on the situation in Rafah, on Kerem Shalom, and on the crossing in Erez, to get more aid in. The Ashdod port is also key. That is now operationalised but we now need that flow of aid. It was Israel that said quite publicly, “We need to flood Gaza with aid”. Yes, that is a good intent; it needs now to be seen in action.

16:22
Baroness Deech Portrait Baroness Deech (CB)
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My Lords, will the Minister take the opportunity to clear up some of the misinformation that is being put out, not least, I am sorry to say, by the BBC? For example, there are already 142 states that recognise Palestine and it has not made a scrap of difference. Humanitarian aid is being sent in but it is not being distributed, or it is being stolen by Hamas and sold. Even the United Nations has now admitted that the casualty figures relating to women and children should be halved—we have been given false casualty figures. Finally, I am puzzled by the way that we put Israel under a microscope but no one has anything to say about the hundreds of thousands of people who have died recently in Congo, in Yemen, in Syria and all over the place, without any concern, it seems, for their humanitarian aid.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s last point, I disagree with her. On Yemen, we have announced additional funding of £139 million. On Syria, we have announced further funding of £89 million, so we are very much seized of the humanitarian plight of those suffering across the region. On Congo, the situation is desperate. I myself visited Congo with Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Edinburgh on the prevention of sexual violence in conflict, so the noble Baroness is wrong to say that. I cannot speak for others, nor will I: I speak for the British Government and our country. We are very much focused on that.

On the casualty figures, yes, the UN revised them because they are based on casualties that it is now finding. I fear, and I do not want to add to speculation, that we need to make a full assessment on the ground. I agree with the noble Baroness inasmuch as we need to have these figures established and verified. To do that, we need the UN agencies and we need the verification process to take place, because what is undoubtedly true is that much of Gaza is currently in ruins and we need to ensure that those souls who have been buried under that are given dignity.

At the same time, I recognise that we hold Israel to a high standard because it is a democracy with a rule of law. We do not have the same standard for Hamas. It is a terrorist group. When we hold Israel to account, we do so as a friend and constructive partner. It is important that we continue to focus on that.

On recognition, and I am sure the noble Baroness will, on reflection, agree with me, I have said repeatedly that stability, security and peace will be possible only once there is stability, security and peace for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Baroness Northover Portrait Baroness Northover (LD)
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The Statement refers to

“a political horizon for the Palestinians, providing a credible and irreversible pathway towards a two-state solution”.

Is that not a mountain the top of which will never be reached? Why will the Government not do as the Foreign Affairs Select Committee does—of course, now Norway, Ireland and Spain are added to the 142 countries—and recognise the state of Palestine? My party has long argued for this so that we can move forward in the way that the Minister describes, to a peaceful and just existence for both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

I am proud of the work done by the late, lamented Lord Goodhart and many other British lawyers to bring about the ICC. Is it not important that we do not undermine its work?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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I agree with the noble Baroness about the importance of international law and the role that the ICC has played. We have seen this in areas such as Russia and Ukraine. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, articulated, it allows a pre-trial process to be followed and it is important that that process is now undertaken. Many have expressed their personal perspectives on that, but when it comes to legal processes, less is more. Let the ICC get on with its process. There will be an opportunity to discuss it further at an appropriate time.

It is very clear that we continue to engage with Israel as a constructive partner. There are those in Israel who recognise the same credible, irreversible pathway to the two-state solution. On recognition, I have articulated the United Kingdom’s position. We will continue to work constructively with Israelis and Palestinians, and do so in quite a dynamic fashion, between my noble friend the Foreign Secretary’s engagements and my own. We have been working in tandem on this.

The noble Baroness mentioned a mountain, the top of which will never be reached. If there is one commodity one must have in abundance when it comes to public service, it is to never give up on hope.

Baroness Altmann Portrait Baroness Altmann (Con)
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My Lords, I commend my noble friend for his support for the two-state solution, which I share. Israel has sought to live in peace with its neighbours. For the last few decades, it has offered a two-state solution and every time the Palestinians have rejected it. Israel has withdrawn from territory to make peace with Egypt and Jordan. It has given back Gaza unilaterally and withdrawn from the settlements. It is willing to do so in exchange for peace.

Meanwhile, we have recently seen the Palestinians using Gaza to attack Israel. The Hamas leaders of the Palestinians have hijacked the aid that is going in. They are making threats against America for building a pier to distribute aid. They have targeted and attacked the crossings, killing Israeli soldiers who were trying to facilitate the aid. Can my noble friend tell us what evidence there is of the Palestinians or their leaders actually wanting to live in peace with the State of Israel, or taking care to avoid the deaths of their own civilians?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My noble friend raises some very important points. To achieve peace, you need to have partners for peace. It is very clear that Hamas is not a partner for peace.

From engaging with people who have left Gaza, it is my opinion that Hamas has not done the Palestinians any favours. It is abundantly clear it has not put any security or protection in place for the people of Gaza. That is why we have been consistent that Hamas cannot be the governing authority in Gaza.

We also need to ensure that Israel comes to the diplomatic table. My noble friend is correct that peace agreements have been signed with Jordan and Egypt, but there are further chapters in that process with Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. There is talk of normalisation with the wider Gulf region. These are important elements, and, ultimately, that is what we strive to achieve. I agree with my noble friend about the recent appointment of a new Prime Minister in the Palestinian Authority, with whom we are engaging. We also need the Palestinian Authority to mitigate the previous issues that have arisen with the Palestinian leadership, to ensure that there is an inclusive approach and that, when direct discussions begin, both parties are committed to the notion of peace, stability and security. That should remain the aim of any Government.

Lord Anderson of Swansea Portrait Lord Anderson of Swansea (Lab)
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My Lords, we all share the sense of outrage at the massacres on 7 October. Is it not now unrealistic to expect Hamas to give up the remaining hostages for a pause and not a ceasefire, knowing that giving up its main bargaining counter will open the door for Israel to seek to eliminate the remaining Hamas militants in Gaza itself? Can the Minister say what the preferred solution is for the post-conflict governance of Gaza?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, on the noble Lord’s second point, it is important that Israel is very much part and parcel of that discussion. We have seen Ministers in the Israeli Government ask that very question of their own Prime Minister. It is important that that discussion takes place within Israel. Two options currently prevail, both of which are unpalatable: that Hamas remains in governance or that the Israelis retain the security of Gaza. Neither is palatable—that is not me saying that as a British Minister; that is the opinion of the Israeli Defence Minister.

On the issue of hostages, I have just come back from Qatar, and while I cannot go into detail, we will continue to pursue that particular avenue. I have met with the hostage families, and I assure the noble Lord that anyone who has done the same knows that they can never give up. Even if it is the 59th minute of the 11th hour, we should continue in that endeavour if it means that, with all our efforts, we get one more hostage out.

Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston Portrait Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston (CB)
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My Lords, I refer to my register of interests. Can the Minister turn his mind again to the ICC? It is my understanding that the prosecutor usually declines to act where there is an independent and effective legal system in the state concerned that can address any legal charges. Are we really suggesting that that is not in place in Israel?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, we have previously talked about the strength of accountability and the justice systems in Israel. As I said earlier, the prosecutor has submitted his evidence and a process is now under way. What we also implore Israel to do—and which it has demonstrated on certain issues—is to show accountability; for example, by investigating the tragic events around the World Central Kitchen that resulted in the killing of people, including British nationals. In that vein, we have asked for further details, including how it can be looked at independently.

To answer the earlier question from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, we are talking with key partners, including Australia, which are also undertaking a similar process. When we look at these processes, we of course look at the local system, but the ICC is an independent organisation that will make its own judgment.

Baroness Hussein-Ece Portrait Baroness Hussein-Ece (LD)
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My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the ICC seeks to prosecute individuals and not states, in answer to some of the questions that have been floating around here? What does he have to say, and what is the response of the British Government, to the comments made by the National Security Minister of Israel, Itamar Ben-Gvir, the day after the ICC’s announcement? He said:

“Only Israel will control Gaza … Israel will occupy Gaza, completely & fully including Jewish settlement in”


the “entire enclave”, and he called for the

“‘encouragement of voluntary migration’ of Gazans”.

He also stated that he wanted to live there in Gaza. Today, he stormed the al-Aqsa Mosque, in response to the declarations from Norway and Spain.

The Minister will know that Netanyahu’s Government oppose a two-state solution; the ambassador to this country has said very clearly, on record on the radio and television, that her Government oppose a two-state solution. In the light of that, why are our Government—who are committed to a two-state solution, as are all parties in this House—giving so much comfort, and not showing more resistance, to those opposed to it? We must consider those demonstrating against Netanyahu and the hostage families who want a ceasefire and to see their families brought home—which is not in the interest of Netanyahu, who is just trying to cling on to power to avoid corruption charges.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, ultimately, who governs Israel will be a matter for Israelis. On the noble Baroness’s point about the hostage families, we are extending extensive support to them by facilitating engagement, including in private meetings with key negotiators.

On the issue of statements by Israeli Ministers, I and the United Kingdom Government are clear on what needs to happen. The prevailing view of one Minister within the Israeli Government is not necessarily the view of other Ministers within that same Government. However, I agree with the noble Baroness that the current Government in Israel do not believe in this two-state solution; it is a stated policy of the Prime Minister and the current Government. That does not stop us engaging quite directly on this important issue and making the case in advocacy that, ultimately, as I say repeatedly, that will be the time for the realisation of the two-state solution, and of peace and security for both peoples, while equally recognising that the long-term future is an interdependency between Israelis and Palestinians to ensure the long-term prosperity of those two nations.

Baroness Helic Portrait Baroness Helic (Con)
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My Lords, I recognise His Majesty’s Government’s position to wait for the second report into allegations of UNRWA staff involvement on the 7 October terror attack before making a final decision on the new funding, once our current allocation has expired at the end of this month. UNRWA supports 3.7 million Palestinians, 2.3 million of whom live in Jordan, and hundreds of thousands of whom live in Syria and Lebanon. If there is no further commitment to aid, refugees who have nothing to do with 7 October or the situation in Gaza are going to suffer as a result. In order to avoid this scenario, will my noble friend consider exploring the option of restoring the funding for UNRWA’s activities outside Gaza or outside the Occupied Palestinian Territories as an interim measure, pending the second report?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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On my noble friend’s second question, our funding structures do not allow for that differentiation. We are waiting for the OIOS report—the oversight report—which is due this month, because it is specific to the abhorrent events of 7 October. However, this has not stopped us extending humanitarian support into Gaza, which is now well over £100 million. Last week, I met the head of the World Food Programme, Cindy McCain, when she was in London; earlier today, I met the executive director of UNICEF, Catherine Russell, to focus on how we can extend the best level of support. However, I agree with my noble friend, though I know that there are others who have differing perspectives. There are mitigations which are required, and UNWRA is addressing them. Philippe Lazzarini is very much focused on this, and I have seen the detail of some of the direct mitigations he is putting in place. I agree with my noble friend about the important role that UNRWA plays, both within Gaza and in neighbouring countries.

Lord Roborough Portrait Lord Roborough (Con)
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My Lords, it is the turn of the Green Party and then we will move on to Labour.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, in oral evidence yesterday to the Business and Trade Committee on UK arms exports to Israel, two Ministers, Andrew Mitchell and Alan Mak, confirmed that there is data available only for the first two quarters of 2023, and that the data for the following two quarters of the year is overdue, which the committee expressed concerns about. Does the Minister agree with me that, in the current situation, it is deeply concerning that the British public does not know what is going on, and, perhaps more damaging, that the world does not know what is going on? Whatever the volume, surely what is being sold is not a determinant of the UK’s legal position on arms exports to Israel. Yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, suggested that the US and the UK were in a different position because our volumes of sales were much less. I am not a lawyer, but my understanding is that it is no defence in court to say, “Well, I did not commit very much of the offence.”

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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On all these assessments, as I have said before, there is a process. If we are not talking at cross-purposes, it was about data and information we received, as my right honourable friend Andrew Mitchell said earlier to the committee about the assessments made during a particular period of time in 2024. On the issue of the principle of law, I agree with the noble Baroness that the principle should be directly applied.

Lord Turnberg Portrait Lord Turnberg (Lab)
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My Lords, no one can view what is going on in Gaza with any equanimity; it is truly horrendous, and Israel is coming in for a lot of criticism for what is happening there. But one has to look at this with some form of balance and look at who may be responsible for the majority of the problems. Hamas was responsible for the original horrendous acts, and its terrorists are preventing its own people sheltering in its caves. It is purloining the aid that is getting in and selling it on at a high price to its population, which is very cynical. It is also cynically sending rockets to the crossing at two places, closing them temporarily. So Hamas must bear some of the responsibility, and I am afraid that UNRWA is not entirely blameless either. Does the Minister agree?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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I certainly agree with the noble Lord on the role that Hamas has played. As I said earlier, I think that many in Gaza recognise the devastation it has wreaked on the people of Gaza. The United Kingdom position is very clear: we regard Hamas as a terrorist organisation, and it cannot be part of the future of Gaza. It could end this now.

The noble Lord points out the missile attacks on Kerem Shalom specifically, which curtailed the aid delivery. Equally, the current Rafah operation has closed the Rafah border, which was crucial for fuel supplies getting into some of the key hospitals, so we are also seized of that. On the issue of not holding Hamas to account, nothing could be further from the truth. We hold it accountable and responsible but, when we deal with this, this is not unfair scrutiny of Israel. Israel is a country that everyone from your Lordships’ House stood with, and rightly so, after those abhorrent events of 7 October, and we continue to work with it as a constructive friend and partner.

Committee (3rd Day)
16:42
Clause 42: Licensing and local services
Amendment 71
Moved by
71: Clause 42, page 83, leave out line 25 and insert—
“(a) be made using a process OFCOM shall create within six months of the passing of the Media Act 2024 to enable application on a continuous basis, and”
Lord Storey Portrait Lord Storey (LD)
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My Lords, my Amendments 71, 73 and 74 are concerned with local radio. For a moment I just want to remind people of the importance of local radio. In my own city of Liverpool, in the halcyon days there were two local newspapers, the Echo and the Daily Post, then along came Radio Merseyside—originally it was in two small almost cupboards in council buildings—and then, to a great fanfare, commercial local radio was established. The two print local newspapers and the two broadcast stations became an ecosystem. In those days, there were personalities presenting local news, current affairs and phone-in questions, and even attending local events. They had a local government reporter and they would vie with each other to get the best scoops and the best news.

Who would have thought in those wonderful days that now you would switch on your local commercial radio station and get a programme made in London, presented by somebody living in London, with production staff from London? You then discover that the local allowed input is probably just under a minute of local news and, if you are lucky, the weather and traffic news. Is that what local news is really about? Is that what we want in our country? I was fascinated to hear the Minister the other day quite rightly talking about the great successes of our PSBs, how they have embraced the whole country and how we have seen the establishment of production and of television studios in all parts of the country.

I wish the same was true of local radio. It is as if there are two furniture removal vans, one marked “radio”, which is heading towards London, and the other marked “television”, which is moving out of London and into the whole of our country. I received a letter from Radio Banbury, saying that a complaint was made that the former local radio station for Salisbury is no longer providing local news as required by its licence. The station is now owned by Bauer and runs as Greatest Hits Radio. Ofcom decided to take no action. One particular comment from Ofcom is of real interest:

“The Licensee explained that from 2 January 2024 it had planned to trial a ‘county’ bulletin for its stations in Wiltshire because it considered that the city-focused news bulletins for Salisbury ‘sounded jarring and parochial against industry-leading shows such as Ken Bruce and Simon Mayo’”.


As much as I like Ken Bruce and Simon Mayo, and think that there is definitely a role for commercial radio to cover the whole country, it should not be at the expense of our local radio stations. I hope the Minister considers my amendments very carefully. They are about saying that local stations that have been bought, almost ruthlessly, by Bauer or Global now get around the local news requirement by putting on a few minutes of local news, which is not really what this should be about.

The existing legislation within Section 314 of the Communications Act 2003 is being amended by the Media Bill so that the provision of local news and information is the only local requirement. It appears to regionalise the requirement, whereas existing FM licensees are held to a much tighter editorial area. A multiplex service covers a much larger area than the traditional FM coverage area. Under the current legislation, Ofcom allows local commercial licence holders to be compliant with just one 20-second local news story per hour. There is evidence that some stations have already moved to the regional model. Occasionally, traffic news is the only other evidence of information.

Existing legislation requires locally produced programming. FM licence holders are required to produce three hours each weekday from within their broadcast area. In recent years Ofcom has designed regions, aligned to the ITV regions, and the locally produced requirement is reached as long as the programme is produced within the region.

In reality, this means that stations as far apart as Banbury, Aylesbury and Winchester all share a local programme from Southampton. Often, there is no difference in the content, albeit the presenters are different. Aside from news bulletins, the content and music match that of all other stations in the network. The Media Bill removes the requirement for locally produced programming. It will leave local FM licensees allowed to operate as pseudo-national stations all day, every day, with the exception of 20-second regional news stories.

Ofcom last readvertised FM licences in 2019-20, allowing a fast-track process where current licence holders were not challenged. In 2020, the DCMS allowed unchallenged licence extensions for up to 10 years as long as the station committed to broadcasting on digital radio. At the same time, huge consolidation took place in the radio industry, with the main groups, Bauer and Global, purchasing radio stations across the country. For groups, paying to be on a digital radio multiplex is far cheaper and less risky than reapplying for their FM licence; most already have their service on DAB anyway. The result is that the vast majority of existing FM licences are held by the two big groups and are safe until 2030. At the same time, Ofcom is refusing to allow new applicants for FM licences.

If we want thriving local radio and if we want easy-listening competition for Radio 1 or 2, this is not the way to go about it. I am sure that, in our communities, we all want a radio station that is local.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, first, I need to apologise to noble Lords that I was not present at Second Reading. I am grateful to a number of local radio stations, and especially to Rob Persani of Rutland radio, which is where the Vale of Catmose is, for bringing to my attention the issue in Amendment 72. I am also grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, and the noble Lord, Lord Foster, who have put their names to the amendment. I also want to thank my noble friend the Minister for the meeting yesterday with the Secretary of State and the MP for Rutland and Melton, Alicia Kearns.

I support Amendments 71 and 73 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Storey. The purpose of Amendment 72, however, is to ensure that Ofcom issues licences where there is no digital coverage. I accept that the wording of the amendment would need redrafting on Report to more clearly define the test needed where there are areas of no coverage. Applying for licences needs to be in the system outlined in Amendments 71 and 73. Ofcom does not need to run expensive competitions any more for FM licences, and it is not surprising that no new FM licences have been issued since 2009 if it has to run such a competition. As has been outlined, if you have a DAB licence, your FM licence is now automatically renewed. That simple process of renewal online with the payment of a fee could apply to new licences, rather than the expensive competition process that we had previously.

Commercial radio stations used to come in all shapes and sizes, so it is sad to learn, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, outlined, of the demise of local radio. “Much in little” is Rutland’s motto, and there are about 41,000 people living there, plus tourists. Rutland radio is a great way to find out what is happening in the local area, especially as you drive around, but it has areas where digital has no reach.

The vision of Ofcom for the digital switchover for local radio is called small-scale DAB—smaller areas where it issues what are called polygon licences. I assume for the purpose of Amendment 72 that, as with the internet, His Majesty’s Government’s policy is that everyone should have radio access. Looking at SS-DAB and FM, even if small-scale DAB was the answer technically, it is not small scale enough to work economically.

Instead of the one frequency that you need for an FM station—at a cost, I am informed, of around £15,000 plus your annual fee to Ofcom—under a polygon licence a station such as Banbury radio, as the noble Lord just mentioned, would have to buy three such licences for that small-scale area delineated by Ofcom, at triple the cost. The local economy of advertising, which is what supports those local FM radio stations, just cannot sustain that; the areas envisaged by small-scale DAB are just too big.

I am grateful that the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, will cover the more technical issues relating to small-scale DAB, but, as I have outlined, it does not reach everywhere. In a place such as Rutland, it comes in and out when you drive between the villages and the two towns—yes, villages and two market towns is Rutland. Alicia Kearns MP recited to us yesterday how the digital signal goes out for lengthy periods when driving around. SS-DAB is fine for areas of greater population, but those areas do not need it. Apparently, there are pockets all around the country where you cannot get digital radio. No one is sure precisely where all those are, but it would be interesting to know from His Majesty’s Government whether they have looked at where the gaps are and what the internet coverage is in those areas. I suspect that there is quite a lot of correlation, but it is merely a suspicion.

Internet radio is also not the solution for those areas. Statistics from the UK Consumer Digital Index from Lloyds Bank show that 2.1 million people in the UK are offline, and 4.7 million people do not access the internet. Age UK did a survey of over-65s, and 2.7 million people, which is about 22% of that age group, are not accessing the internet. That could be due not to lack of coverage but to disability, cognition failure or vision problems. They will continue to rely on digital or FM radio.

It was rather prescient that, only yesterday, we raised with the Secretary of State that national resilience needs FM. In the national resilience strategy, it turns out that FM is the most resilient form of communication, so we will not be switching off FM in the near future. In the event of power outage or solar flares, it is the most resilient. Today, it just so happens that the Deputy Prime Minister is outlining the preparedness of household strategies to boost national resilience. The advice is to boost your analogue capabilities and buy a wind-up radio—but to receive what? FM, of course.

Why not allow those who want a new licence to broadcast on an FM frequency that will remain for the foreseeable future? All the commercial risk is on the operators. It will not cost His Majesty’s Government a penny. Also, the more people who continue using FM radios, the more resilient households are. They will know that their FM radio works and will not be scrambling around in the back of the wardrobe to dust it off in an emergency—but perhaps I am only the person who, on reading the national resilience strategy, is wondering where the batteries are for that torch that I bought, and where the candles are that I bought when the Deputy Prime Minister last talked to me about resilience.

Finally—and to give my second “it just so happens”—your Lordships’ House has just had a repeat of an Urgent Question from the other place on South West Water. In areas with no digital coverage and an emergency that is not a power outage, sometimes there is time to communicate with your population—for example, if there is flooding or a forest fire. But if you need to tell the public, “Stop drinking your tap water”, that is an immediate message. I hope that His Majesty’s Government are looking at how South West Water managed to communicate with all its customers in the local area. Sadly, as we renew only 0.1% of our mains water network each year, instead of the 1% average on the continent, I think that such incidents will be more frequent.

Many in your Lordships’ House will know of “Rutland Weekend Television” by Eric Idle, but the local coverage of Rutland radio and other local stations is not a comedy; it is essential. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will have some good news to tell your Lordships’ House on this amendment.

Viscount Colville of Culross Portrait Viscount Colville of Culross (CB)
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My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 72, to which I have put my name, and also to support Amendments 71, 73 and 74 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Storey. These amendments will do much to support local radio.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, has already explained to us the regionalisation of local radio and the destruction it has caused. This has not been helped by cuts at the BBC, which are forcing many of its stations to regionalise as well. In the area in which I live, East Anglia, BBC Suffolk and BBC Norfolk broadcast the same content for much of the day. These stations are not local; they are regional, and in some cases national. They have fired local staff and closed local studios, and as brands move towards national broadcasting there are fewer regional centres.

17:00
This is why Amendment 72, and Amendments 71, 73 and 74, are needed. Once again, the Bill gives too much power to Ofcom to make decisions that we in Parliament should be making. Clause 42 opens up the possibility of Ofcom granting licences for local radio stations on the widest range of delivery mechanisms. This should be welcome news to independent local radio stations, most of which are available online but wish to expand their listenership by moving on to other means of reaching their listeners. This can be done by small-scale DAB, known as SS-DAB, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, or by analogue FM, which is what many of us use, especially those living in rural areas. FM is easily found on the radio and works much better in many rural areas, yet Ofcom has not granted it a licence for local radio stations since 2008. In a letter to Andy Green of Banbury FM, Ofcom wrote:
“we have decided not to carry out any further rounds of analogue licensing as this would have a significant impact on small scale DAB rollout.”
Clause 42 therefore gives Ofcom a choice that it does not want to exercise. There are local radio stations that want to use FM wavelengths, for reasons I will explain, but which will not be able to obtain them. If ever there was a moment for Parliament to offer Ofcom clear guidance that would help a struggling but important part of our media landscape, Amendments 71, 72, and 73 would do that. They would encourage Ofcom to consider granting them an analogue FM licence, and not just the default small-scale DAB option.
In this climate, it has never been more important to encourage local radio stations. I too have been speaking to Andy Green, of the ironically named Banbury FM, which does not broadcast on FM but is online daily with five minutes of news six times a day, three minutes of which is local. There is also a local events guide broadcast throughout the day, giving local listeners a schedule for what is going on in the area. The station is manned by local people from the Banbury area, so the chit-chat in between the music is about their lives locally and reflects back the locality to its people. But he cannot get an FM licence.
The present national grouping of most commercial radio stations compounds the leeching of resources away from local areas. Most local businesses cannot afford the advertising on the Bauer and Global so-called local brands; despite their local names, they have national advertising rates. However, new online local radio stations give an outlet for these local businesses to advertise at a price they can afford. At the moment, these local community stations find that broadcasting mainly online limits the audiences they can acquire, so of course they are eager to expand on to radio.
Since 2019, Ofcom has prioritised the granting of small-scale DAB to local stations. It carries more spectrum and so can carry more radio stations, but it does not suit all licences. However, to receive DAB, listeners need over 80%, and in some cases 100%, signal —this is easy in urban areas, but in sparsely populated rural areas it is often a big problem—whereas FM can be easily received on a much less powerful signal and can reach listeners much more easily.
The problem for local radio stations in Ofcom’s drive to force them on to small-scale DAB signals is that in many hilly areas with sparse populations, the small-scale DAB system needs more transmitters than FM to reach the same number of listeners. Often, they are twice the price to install of FM transmitters. DAB transmitters have to be carefully placed so that they are not near main roads or houses, because the strength of their signal will block out existing radio reception, so it is much more complicated to set them up.
I hope that the Minister will be guided by the words of his colleague the Secretary of State for Culture. She wrote in April this year: “We remain committed to ensuring that as many stations as possible have the opportunity to take out a broadcasting licence in a form which meets their needs over the coming years”. The Secretary of State has asked us to listen to the needs of local radio stations. Those in rural areas such as Banbury, South Buckinghamshire, Rutland and many others feel they need to be available on the FM spectrum. Unless the Government support this amendment, it looks as if that is not going to happen. Ofcom is undertaking a review of how effective its sixth round of the small-scale DAB rollout has been. In the past, Ofcom has been has given a choice that it has not always wished to exercise; now, it is our duty, as Parliament, to guide it in the direction of offering FM licences to local radio stations.
Amendments 71, 72 and 73 aim to allow local radio to find an audience by extending its licences. However, I also support Amendment 74, which will help local radio. The small stations I have been speaking about create local content about their area. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, says, the big brands, which have bought up local radio stations and turned them into national brands, are not doing that. They have closed local stations and fired local staff. As a result, local radio in the regions is in crisis. These huge companies, which generate vast profits from their so-called local brands, should be guided by Parliament to support the local media infrastructure in areas from which they draw their name, rather than relying on a distant regional or even national hub.
Now is a golden opportunity for the Minister to show that the Government believe in levelling up. I ask them to help local people find out about their local area on a local radio by whatever means works for them, not for Ofcom.
Lord Foster of Bath Portrait Lord Foster of Bath (LD)
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My Lords, it is an extremely surreal moment to stand up just as the Prime Minister is about to walk out of the door of No. 10, maybe to announce a general election for 4 July. Of course, if that does happen it means we will be dealing with these very important issues during the wash-up process.

Lord Vaizey of Didcot Portrait Lord Vaizey of Didcot (Con)
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I just wanted to let the noble Lord know that Downing Street is delaying the announcement for 10 minutes so that we can hear his speech in full.

Lord Foster of Bath Portrait Lord Foster of Bath (LD)
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I am always grateful for suggestions from my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey.

The amendments that have already been debated are extremely important. I am particularly grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, for explaining the somewhat complex details surrounding the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge. These amendments are really important in the context of going back to the sort of local radio stations we used to enjoy. He is also right to point out that a number of our debates have already demonstrated how important it is for Parliament to give a clear direction to Ofcom about its various activities.

I will concentrate on my Amendments 75 and 76. On Monday, I referred to the vital importance of Sections 319 and 320 of the Communications Act in creating an impartiality framework for TV and radio, building on earlier ones. That tradition of impartiality is the basis for the very high level of trust in our broadcast journalists—a tradition as vital for radio as it is for television. As I said on Monday, in an era of disinformation and conspiracy theories, spread so easily and quickly via social media, those impartiality requirements and the trust they engender in broadcast news and information are more important than ever. However, they are now under threat from a combination of a new generation of opinionated news stations and what appears to be the increasing reluctance of Ofcom to implement Parliament’s will.

Those impartiality rules, laid down by Parliament in 2003, are very clear. Section 319(2)(c) of the Act lays down that one of the standards objectives to be enforced by Ofcom is that

“news included in television and radio services is presented with due impartiality and that the impartiality requirements of section 320 are complied with”.

Section 320 states clearly that, for every radio and television service, due impartiality must be preserved in—this is critical—

“matters of political or industrial controversy; and … matters relating to current public policy”.

In simple terms, I believe that means that the due impartiality requirements must apply equally to both news and what we might call current affairs.

Recently, however, Ofcom seems to be making a distinction, allowing greater latitude for current affairs programmes to escape the due impartiality requirement. The distinction was first raised on 21 March last year in an Ofcom blog posted by its then group director for broadcasting and online content, Kevin Bakhurst. It was headlined, “Can politicians present TV and radio shows? How our rules apply”. Mr Bakhurst stated that,

“generally speaking, if it’s a news programme, a politician cannot present”,

but

“They are allowed to present other kinds of shows … including current affairs”.


Yet that distinction between news and current affairs appears nowhere in the relevant statute; nor did it appear in Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code or in the guidance that accompanies the code, yet Ofcom now clearly sees a distinction.

Last month, looking further into the issue of politicians presenting programmes, Ofcom commissioned IPSOS to carry out some focus groups among audiences. One of the conclusions in the IPSOS report was:

“Participants thought they could easily distinguish between news and current affairs … However, in practice, the presentation and style of these types of content blurred the line between news and current affairs which confused participants”.


IPSOS concluded that:

“The most prevalent opinion was feeling uncomfortable with politicians presenting current affairs content”.


While Ofcom appears to want news and current affairs to be treated separately, audiences have difficulty distinguishing between the two, so, just as the 2003 Act intended, news and current affairs programmes should both be covered by Sections 319 and 320 of the Act. The arbitrary distinction that Ofcom appears to have made between news and current affairs has no basis in law. After all, both quite clearly relate to

“matters of political or industrial controversy; and … matters relating to current public policy”.

Were the distinction to continue, it would significantly weaken the impartiality framework, so Amendment 75 makes it clear that Parliament always intended news to incorporate current affairs, in line with audience expectations.

This brings us back to the issue about partisan presenters. We have some outstanding radio show presenters with well-known political allegiances, including some from this House. I mention in passing the excellent programmes on Times Radio presented by the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, and the newly ennobled noble Baroness, Lady Hazarika. We would not want to banish them from the air waves any more than we would want to banish, say, Nigel Farage from GB News. We are a liberal democracy, and we want to protect those contributions, but surely only if their shows live up to the same standards of impartiality required for news programmes.

Given the very high trust that audiences have invested in our broadcast services, as well as the clear audience discomfort with politically partisan presenters, we should seriously consider whether additional impartiality guardrails might be necessary for programmes hosted by well-known figures with well-recognised political allegiances. Amendment 76 addresses the rules around partisan presenters, whether on news or current affairs programmes, and it offers the simple proposal that the Secretary of State should review whether an enhanced duty of impartiality for such presenters might be necessary. The current rules around impartiality should not be allowed to be weakened by a regulator, certainly not without Parliament’s permission. Taken together, Amendment 75 and 76 seek to protect the legacy of trust which our broadcast media has taken decades to construct and which must not carelessly be disregarded.

17:15
Lord Vaizey of Didcot Portrait Lord Vaizey of Didcot (Con)
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Well, if no one is going to fill the gap, I will. I can confirm that a general election has not yet been announced—in deference to the excellent speech on radio from the noble Lord, Lord Foster. I thought I would make a few brief remarks —while we wait for this imminent event—with some reflections on radio.

I was lucky enough to be the Radio Minister for six years in the DCMS and now I am lucky enough to be a broadcaster on Times Radio—which is duly declared in my register of interests—so I have seen both sides of the fence. Ofcom has had a fantastic team looking after radio for many years and they are great experts on it. They were very much on the front foot when we discussed some of the mechanics and the engineering needed to extend digital radio.

The watchwords for radio are that we in Britain have an extremely successful radio ecosystem. We love our radio. We are also very far in advance of many other countries. To all intents and purposes, we have a universal digital network, which not many countries have. We still have our FM network. We have a plethora of radio stations, from legitimate national stations to quasi-national stations—which are really a group of regional stations knitted together—through to local radio stations and community radio stations. One of the things that I wanted to do most as a Minister was to support community radio. There is not enough money for it; there should be more money for it and for the engineering to support it. It is truly local radio. I used to visit places such as Swindon community radio which provided a vital service. It was run by volunteers and, rather like hospital radio, it is a great gateway into the radio industry and lots of young people still want to work in radio. That is very important.

It is a good thing, as it were, that the Government never made a firm decision on whether to switch over FM to digital and have allowed the radio industry in effect to lead that process and wait for it to come and say when it might be ready—when the dual costs may be too much or it might be sensible to go to a purely digital system. The other important point about radio is that the BBC sits at the heart of that radio ecosystem. That is one the important reasons to support the BBC but, at the same time, the BBC should be very mindful of its place and, in my view, be leaning in to providing the kind of radio services that commercial radio cannot afford to provide. In particular, that is local radio.

I completely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Foster, that there is far too much broadcast regulation being made up on the hoof by Ofcom, without any guidance from Parliament. That is partly up to the Government to drive consultation and to frame the debate so that Parliament can have that debate and make some decisions. However, I accept that, as a Conservative Peer, broad- casting a show on Times Radio, it feels very odd to interview Wes Streeting about Labour’s health policy. The people who run Times Radio and who run other radio stations take their obligations to Ofcom very seriously. They have compliance departments and ask whether something will comply with Ofcom or cross a line. They are very mindful of the existing guidance that Ofcom prepares.

As I said in the Second Reading debate, we should not be misled in terms of thinking about this kind of regulation for opinionated news—if you like—a sort of hybrid. We should not be misled because we might not like GB News, because it is deemed to be a right-wing station. We should have a proper debate about whether there is room for opinionated news in the broadcast ecosystem, particularly as we are now so deep into such a rich information environment with social media.

Lord Bassam of Brighton Portrait Lord Bassam of Brighton (Lab)
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My Lords, I can usually spot a cunning plan when there is one afoot, and I fancy that our debate this afternoon is going to be overshadowed by events outside this House as the lectern has already been rolled out. This is an eclectic group of amendments which raise some important issues on radio regulation. The noble Lord, Lord Storey, in Amendments 71, 73 and 74 seeks to establish a baseline of locally provided programmes. I suspect we all have some sympathy with this.

There was a time when local radio was genuinely that: local. I well remember, as a local government leader, a time when both commercial and public service broadcast—BBC—radio stations used to call me up to face a quizzical reporter or phone-in audiences on local issues. But it has been a while since those days, as less and less content is generated from a locality. Basically, “local” means anything but that, as the programmes can be made and broadcast anywhere, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, accurately described, and have no particular geographical audience.

Most commercial radio stations now work to the same format and are owned by fewer and fewer companies, with little or no community input. Sadly, they have contributed to the overall decline of local news as well. As we know, the BBC has much reduced its local services—several noble Lords have mentioned this—as part of its slimming down of local radio. It remains an open question as to how practical and workable the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Storey, are in the current context, and that is a question for us to consider.

I turn to the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, particularly Amendment 72, which I think we would all accept hits on a very significant issue. If we want to look at radio coverage in the context of levelling up—and I think we should—we clearly have a long way to go, because there are definitely issues of access. Last year, we passed legislation that in theory should enable better coverage digitally, but it remains the case that rural areas are still significantly disadvantaged. In replying to the noble Baroness, can the Minister update the Committee today on progress and how the Government see, and are seeking, other means to redress this widely perceived imbalance? Are there, for instance, any government targets in place that are designed to move the UK towards a more universal quality of coverage that will take account of rural and local needs?

Turning to the amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Foster, on radio news impartiality, I say that, yes, of course there should be careful consideration by Ofcom, both for television and radio, when current affairs shows are on either news stations or channels, or stations that focus heavily on news and current affairs. The noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, seems to have introduced a new expression into our debate today: “opinionated news”. I thought that was a very good expression and not one I had heard before. I do not think that we can easily move away from challenging that. How we resolve the fact that politicians of a particular party host such shows in the face of regulations that are pretty clear on impartiality and balance is something we need now to seriously consider, and the noble Lord raises a telling question.

We must also ensure that Ofcom has the tools it needs to decide on impartiality when it comes to politically hosted shows. Perhaps the Minister could outline what discussions he and his department have had with Ofcom on this matter, because it is a matter of serious concern. We need considerable reassurance on this because, hand on heart, we cannot say that it is working as well as it should—despite what the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, says about Ofcom having a very good team covering radio. I am sure that is true and that great diligence is exhibited there, but we need to move on and ensure that Ofcom can get on with the job in a way that satisfies widespread public concern about impartiality rules.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay) (Con)
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My Lords, I am pleased that we are now at the section of the Bill dealing with radio and able to say that the state of radio in the UK is in good health. The medium continues to be attractive to new generations of listeners, while the proportion of adults who listen each week is virtually unchanged from a decade ago. I imagine quite a few people are tuning in right now to their radios across the UK.

However, UK radio also faces many more challenges than it did in the past, with competition from technology platforms and online streaming providers, and it is vital that stations large and small are able to adapt their services in response to listeners’ preferences, which is why the measures in the Bill regarding radio are so important.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for his Amendments 71 and 73, which would require Ofcom to determine the licensing process for new local and restricted services licences within six months of the Bill’s completed passage. We would, however, consider such a requirement on Ofcom to be unduly prescriptive. As the UK’s independent regulator, not only for radio but also for spectrum management and specific frequency allocations, we believe that Ofcom should continue to have wide discretion in how it carries out its functions in respect of its regulation of radio services. We are not persuaded that overlaying new and prescriptive requirements on its duties is necessary.

My noble friend Lady Berridge, speaking to Amendment 72, referred to the meeting we had yesterday with my honourable friend Julia Lopez, the Minister for Media, Tourism and the Creative Industries. I was very grateful to my noble friend and to the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, for giving up their time to join us to discuss it. Her amendment seeks to ensure that, in areas defined as rural or in those that present a topographical issue—hilly or mountainous terrain or other things that get in the way of radio broadcast and limit the availability of digital services—Ofcom would be required to grant an FM licence to the organisation applying. That would mark a departure from the present licensing system, as we discussed yesterday, and create legal uncertainties about when this requirement applies and who would judge whether a particular area is unsuitable for a digital radio service.

Since 2003, Ofcom has had responsibility to secure the optimal use of the spectrum in determining where and how to license FM and other radio services. This amendment would conflict with that responsibility, especially in the case of areas where Ofcom judges that there may not be spectrum available to license further FM services.

Since 2010, Ofcom has successfully focused on developing community radio. A number of noble Lords rightly pointed out that this is greatly valued by people across the UK, with 320 services, the majority of which are on FM, across the country bringing an important degree of local choice and diversity. Ofcom has also focused on developing digital radio. Ofcom is currently focusing on small-scale DAB, which is now in its sixth round of licence awards, with 59 areas currently licensed, giving cost-effective opportunities for small commercial and community stations to broadcast on DAB as well as online. A number of these new multiplexes are located in more rural areas of the country, bringing new stations on air in these locations.

My noble friend raised very eloquently some pertinent points about the lack of services in more rural areas, such as the Vale of Catmose in her territorial designation. Ofcom has offered FM community radio licences in the most recent licensing round between 2017 and 2020 to people interested in developing community services. Although the most recent licensing round was a successful exercise, with more than 70 new community radio stations launching, rural areas with smaller populations may have specific challenges in being able to bring together viable proposals for community radio services, as my noble friend outlined in her speech.

With Ofcom’s licensing of small-scale DAB coming to a natural break point, I can tell my noble friend that we plan to work with Ofcom to look at the case for supporting new radio services in rural and remote areas and to assess possible options for helping to support these services get on air. To that end, my honourable friend Julia Lopez is very happy to write to Ofcom, asking it to provide advice on this, and to publish a copy of her letter. That can be done swiftly and I hope that, with that commitment to ask Ofcom to look at the case for supporting new stations in rural and remote areas, my noble friend will be content not to press her amendment and perhaps to continue to discuss this with us.

I turn to Amendment 74 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Storey. Like many who spoke, I recognise the important contribution that commercial radio stations play in delivering local news and other local information. The noble Lord’s amendment, which seeks to put in legislation the current requirements on local production and news drawn from the current Ofcom guidance, would be a significant change to the radio deregulation measures. It would reinstate the requirements for maintaining local production, resulting in higher costs for commercial radio broadcasters. By putting the current Ofcom localness guidance on a statutory basis, it would also limit Ofcom’s flexibility to develop new guidance that will set the expectations to enable Ofcom to hold stations to account for their compliance with the new locally gathered news and to adapt the guidance in future. Fixing these requirements in this way would result in additional long-term costs, which may have an impact on the financial viability of the sector and its ability to invest in content. It is worth noting that there are no similar provisions for the BBC under its royal charter or agreement.

17:30
The changes proposed in the Bill include important new protections for local news and information as well as new requirements, which Ofcom will be able to enforce, for a portion of local news coverage to be gathered locally—that is, by a professional journalist based in the relevant multiplex area. The Bill includes a power to extend these protections to digital radio for the first time, recognising that a further shift to digital broadcasting could reduce the availability of local news on local commercial radio using DAB.
The noble Lord mentioned the importance of locally based community radio services, the growth of community radio and the ongoing extension of small-scale DAB and new DAB-only stations. This means that there is now more choice for listeners and a wide range of community and small commercial stations in local areas across the country providing these services. We think that the overall approach—which protects and strengthens requirements to deliver local news and information—combined with powers to protect this provision for digital radio, is right for commercial radio and helps to ensure that it continues to deliver public value for listeners. For these reasons, I am not able to accept the noble Lord’s Amendment 74, although we have considered it carefully, as he hoped we would.
Amendments 75 and 76 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, are on due impartiality. We are proud of the UK’s world-renowned news and current affairs broadcasting sector, where British-made programmes are enjoyed by audiences both at home and across the globe. The regulatory framework that underpins this landscape, put in place by Parliament, is looked to internationally as the gold standard for the proportionate, fair and independent regulation of content. As noble Lords are aware, Ofcom is required by that framework to draw up and enforce a Broadcasting Code for television and radio to ensure that audiences are adequately protected from harm and that they can encounter a diverse array of voices and perspectives.
The Broadcasting Code sets out rules to ensure these protections for audiences, including rules specifically to protect children, to ensure that audiences are protected from harmful or offensive material, and to ensure that broadcast news, in whatever form, is reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality. Ofcom has a duty to keep the Broadcasting Code under continual review. This obligation is in place to ensure that the code remains up to date and continues to reflect the current viewing and broadcasting landscape. In this way, the regulatory framework is designed so that Ofcom can ensure that its regulation of content can adapt to the shifts in technology and audience expectations that we see in broadcasting.
To this end, Ofcom recently published audience research on the specific concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Foster, regarding politicians as presenters, and updated its guidance. Research uncovered a range of opinions on the advantages and disadvantages of having politicians as presenters. Overall, audience feedback supported existing due impartiality rules under the Broadcasting Code, which apply only to news. Viewers and listeners strongly value due impartiality as an important requirement, especially for news programmes, but they also value broadcasters’ freedom of expression and think that using politicians as presenters in non-news programmes can help to hold other politicians to account. I had the great pleasure of appearing on my noble friend Lord Vaizey of Didcot’s Times Radio show, and I am happy to report that he gave me no easier a ride on that show than he does in your Lordships’ House.
There is clearly a balance to strike here, and it is right that Ofcom, as the independent regulator, retains the flexibility to keep these matters under review and to take a decision based on the best and most up-to-date evidence, rather than being unduly restricted in legislation.
Lord Foster of Bath Portrait Lord Foster of Bath (LD)
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The Minister is missing the fundamental point. There is a simple question: does he believe, and is it the Government’s view, that the due impartiality regulations contained in Sections 319 and 320 of the Communications Act apply to both news and current affairs programmes?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I will happily write to the noble Lord with more detail on that, but we think the Bill strikes the right balance.

Lord Grade of Yarmouth Portrait Lord Grade of Yarmouth (Non-Afl)
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I do not wish to comment in any way, shape or form on the value or otherwise of any amendment to the Bill; I will just correct a statement. There is one code on due impartiality; the only difference between news and current affairs is that politicians are prohibited from being newscasters, if I can put it that way. The requirements for due impartiality are the same for news as for current affairs. The key word is “due”.

Lord Bassam of Brighton Portrait Lord Bassam of Brighton (Lab)
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Perhaps the Minister can help here. I am wondering what a newscaster is, having heard what the noble Lord, Lord Grade, said.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I will write on that point, having consulted the noble Lord, Lord Grade, to make sure that I give the correct definition.

I am afraid that, as the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, will have understood, I am not able to accept his amendments and hope that he will be content not to press them.

Lord Storey Portrait Lord Storey (LD)
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I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 71 withdrawn.
Amendments 72 and 73 not moved.
Clause 42 agreed.
Clauses 43 and 44 agreed.
Amendment 74 not moved.
Clauses 45 to 47 agreed.
Amendments 75 and 76 not moved.
Clause 48: Regulation of radio selection services
Amendment 77
Moved by
77: Clause 48, page 90, leave out lines 30 to 37 and insert—
“(1) In this Part, “radio selection service” means— (a) a service provided by means of the internet which enables, or among other things enables, a user of the service—(i) to make a selection between internet radio services provided by different providers, and(ii) to cause a selected internet radio service to play,by giving spoken commands that are recorded by equipment connected to the internet, or(b) a service provided by an in-car entertainment system which enables, or among other things enables, a user of the system to cause a selected radio service to play, whether by giving spoken commands which are recorded by equipment or otherwise.”Member’s explanatory statement
This would provide that “radio selection service” includes an in-car entertainment system which a person must navigate to access radio while in their car, as well as voice activated speakers.
Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton (Lab)
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The last group was fascinating and, in a way, this debate moves us on to how to future-proof access to radio stations. I will also speak to Amendment 78, to which I have added my name, and Amendment 81 from my noble friend Lord Bassam.

In the course of discussions with stakeholders in preparation for the Bill, it emerged that there is an issue about radio selection services. It was expressed to us as a matter of some concern. Given that the Bill is about future-proofing, the amendments in this group address an issue with regard to radio selection services in car entertainment systems, through which a person navigates access to the radio as well as using voice activation. The Bill seems to address the issue of selection services only with regard to internet radio services, which are of course a new category of designated radio selection services. These services are voice assistance services that enable listeners to select and listen to internet radio services by using voice-activated audio devices.

These amendments address the issue of how people might access radio not through internet or voice-activated mechanisms. Certainly, my car is much too old to do anything quite so sophisticated. They also address what happens to FM, which is very important. What concerns us is the place of public service broadcasters in such a system. Who decides on that prominence? I imagine that car manufacturers might be quite pleased if they also knew who deals with the regulatory regime that would apply under these circumstances. I read the Explanatory Notes to the Bill, since the Bill itself is a bit dense on this matter. I cannot see where the issue of public service broadcasting radio is addressed. My first question is: can the Minister tell us that?

Who will ensure that car manufacturers are—“doing the right thing” is not quite the right expression—making sure that our public service broadcasters are not neglected? As an avid Radio 4 and Classic FM listener, I really want to jump between the two with the sort of ease that I can at present. These amendments seek to address such issues, as well as the mandate to Ofcom, the accountability of the Secretary of State and Parliament, and how that might be best achieved.

My noble friend’s Amendment 81 is also about future-proofing, and would require the Secretary of State, through regulations, to expand the new protection for on-demand and online-only content, such as on-demand listening and podcasts. This is a group of amendments some of which are probing and some of which address quite a serious matter, which I suspect will have to be looked at as time goes on. I look forward to the Minister’s remarks on them.

Viscount Colville of Culross Portrait Viscount Colville of Culross (CB)
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My Lords, radio is the background to my life; I have it playing at home, in the car and even when I am walking about, whether it is the BBC, Global’s LBC or Bauer’s Greatest Hits stations. I cannot be alone in enjoying this wonderful medium, so I am glad that today it is getting the attention it deserves.

The way we listen is changing, and Clause 48 recognises this with the acceptance that, in the future, most people will be listening to the radio online. It covers the Ofcom-regulated stations—BBC, Bauer, Global and others—which make up 85% of our listening, but the methods by which we listen to this medium are changing fast. I have tabled Amendment 78—I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and the noble Lord, Lord Foster, for their support—because I want to ensure that the way we listen is future-proofed, and that in the future online radio can be listened to wherever people are and on whatever device they want to use.

I very much appreciate that this clause is the Government’s response to fears that deals can be done between the manufacturers of listening devices, such as voice-activated speakers, to promote their own radio content, or even the content of stations which have paid them to promote their content over that of the Ofcom-regulated station. The clause’s “must carry” obligations for the top three voice-activated speakers takes its cue from the work that Ofcom has done on prominence in TVs, which has already been debated. However, my concern is that the focus on these three big voice-activated devices will be to the exclusion of other methods of listening to radio.

I also support Amendment 77, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, about the benefits of being able to listen to relevant internet radio services on in-car radio, which is not voice-activated and not covered by Clause 48.

Myriad different devices that might carry these stations in the future are also not covered. We need to be certain that our PlayStations, iPhones and even fridges, to name but a few devices, will carry these popular stations. For example, Sony Interactive Entertainment, which owns PlayStation, is a very competitive and successful company; it could do a deal with a youth station to the exclusion of other stations, stopping gamers accessing and being introduced to the joys of what is described in the new section inserted by the clause as “relevant internet radio services”. I know that the criteria for the “must carry” devices is set out in new Section 362BC(4) and that the Secretary of State can amend this section, but my amendment seeks to anticipate these changes, calling for a review of what devices people are listening on. The Government see this clause as a regulatory burden for the biggest speaker manufacturers, but I see it as protection both for the listening public and the nascent radio selection services.

I want to throw in another important thought here. The Government have been worrying so much about device manufacturers not carrying radio content that they have introduced a “must carry” burden on them. However, new Section 362BA requires an internet radio service to offer to a DRSS. There is no mandatory requirement for a relevant internet radio station to carry its service. I want the Minister and the Bill team to think very carefully about a world in which designated internet radio stations themselves do a deal with the big device manufacturers to carry their radio channels exclusively. I am sure that whenever this idea was raised during the drafting of the Bill, civil servants would have asked why a radio station would not want to be on a device.

Your Lordships have to look only at what has happened in television to see that content providers are just as active in creating monopolies for their channels as device manufacturers. Netflix and Amazon drove their own discreet prominence regime with specific TV manufacturers for vast sums of money, as noble Lords have already heard in the debate on prominence. It was the content suppliers that drove manufacturers to put a Netflix or an Amazon button on the channel controller and to ensure that they dominated the home screen.

17:45
Global and Bauer are very successful, very aggressive radio companies. They have bought up most of the local radio stations and rebranded them with national content. It is perfectly possible that they would do a deal with a dominant listening device manufacturer, such as Google Home, to create a monopoly for their content. They could pay millions of pounds for such a market-dominant position, to the exclusion of all other device manufacturers. I ask noble Lords to think about the commercial disadvantage for the other device manufacturers which will be excluded from offering a popular radio station.
The problem is compounded by many listening devices requiring the radio stations to make a software fix in order to carry their channels. It might not be an expensive or difficult fix, but it will be a nuisance and an inconvenience for the radio stations to carry out. They might decide not to enable nascent device manufacturers to carry their content because they have not delivered the required software fix. In the process, they stifle the growth and compound the dominance of the big device manufactures covered by Clause 48. I know that the Minister and his Government want to encourage small businesses, so I suggest they take this concern seriously.
There is a way round the expense for radio stations having to perform the software fix so they can be carried on new listening devices: they can use radio aggregators. These are platforms which carry a wide range of radio stations, including Ofcom-regulated stations, and can be downloaded like any other app on to listening devices. I am afraid that, until I did the research for this amendment, I was not aware of aggregators such as Radioplayer and TuneIn, which carry a very wide range of stations. However, I fear that these aggregators could also suffer from radio stations not wanting to be on their platforms—already, BBC Sounds has pulled out of Radioplayer. These aggregators are becoming increasingly popular with young people and should be taken seriously if the Bill is to future-proof radio listening.
Universality has long been a principle of radio listening in this country. As the internet allows us to become increasingly atomised, living in echo chambers created by social media companies, I do not want the same thing to happen in the new and exciting world of online radio. The principle must be that online services of Ofcom-designated radio stations should be available on all speakers. If there is any danger of that service not being offered or carried universally, either because it is complicated for the radio companies to create new compatible software or because there is an exclusivity deal with a device manufacturer, then it should be taken seriously and stopped.
I want the fast-growing online radio channels to be a huge success, easily and universally accessible. The Minister has been very generous with his time, and met me twice about other concerns in the Bill. I ask him to meet me again, so that we can work together to make Part 6 of the Bill as effective and future-proofed as it possibly can be.
Lord Foster of Bath Portrait Lord Foster of Bath (LD)
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My Lords, I very much welcome the amendment tabled by the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, which suggests that there should be a post-enactment review by the Secretary of State as to whether radio selection services should be extended to other devices. I fully support the case that he has made.

Amendment 81, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, gives us an example of some of the things that need to be done and included in the Bill. His amendment, which seeks to extend the protections outlined in the Bill, would help future-proof the legislation and ensure that it keeps pace with rapidly changing audio-consumption habits. It is worth pointing out that this change was a key recommendation from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee during its pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Media Bill last year. Amendment 77, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, which seeks to expand the scope of the regulation to cover non-voice-activated in-car infotainment systems, is another very good example of something that should be done now.

There is another area that should be addressed in the Bill that is covered by my Amendments 79 and 80. Amendment 79 would require voice assistant platforms to share data with broadcasters on the use of their radio services, and Amendment 80 would prevent tech platforms charging broadcasters for that data. The free flow of data is crucial—for commercial radio, community radio and even the BBC—in order to create a direct relationship between the listener, broadcasters and, in the case of commercial organisations, advertisers, to help them exist and grow.

Tech platforms are currently not obliged to share data with radio broadcasters on the distribution of their audio services. Any personal data shared between tech platforms and broadcasters would of course need to be subject to user consent and compliant with data protection legislation. Following consent, better access to data can help drive innovation in radio and audio services, unlocking new levels of personalisation and curation for the benefit of audiences. It is also vital for commercial radio broadcasters, as they depend on advertising revenues for their survival. Increased data transparency will therefore support commercial broadcasters of all sizes in taking advantage of targeted advertising, which is more attractive to advertisers and can command a higher price. In the long term, that would help to support the sustainability of the commercial radio sector as it becomes more reliant on online listening.

Access to data is currently inconsistent between tech platforms. For example, while Google and Apple provide virtually no data at all to radio broadcasters, Amazon provides some limited data through its Radio Skills Kit platform. However, there are important user insights that are not provided—such as age, gender, location and other interests—which would support the development of more personalised content.

This amendment would ensure a minimum standard for consistent, high-quality data to be shared with radio broadcasters by regulated radio selection services. It would also secure a minimum level of data access for all broadcasters, ensuring that tech platforms cannot engage in gatekeeping behaviours by revoking data access and/or charging broadcasters for the provision of that data. Without intervention, broadcasters will be at a disadvantage compared with the tech platforms, which have access to all the data generated by the listeners of UK radio on their voice-activated devices. In the long term, there is a risk that that data asymmetry could undermine the clear benefits that the Bill brings in levelling the playing field between UK radio broad- casters and large tech platforms.

There is a clear benefit to including data provisions in media sector-specific legislation, as they provide the most relevant opportunity to legislate for the specific challenges facing the media sector, without placing disproportionate burdens on the platforms to make significant changes to their data policies across all aspects of their businesses. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response not only to these proposals but to the others we have already heard.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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As noble Lords have recognised, the provisions in Part 6 of the Bill are designed to secure the ongoing availability to listeners of UK radio services and will help to maintain the huge public value that radio provides as online listening continues to grow.

Turning first to Amendment 77 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, the Government fully recognise how important it is that radio continues to maintain its presence in the car. On the provisions in the Bill, I confirm that, where a radio selection service using an in-car device is voice-activated and connected to the internet, it will fall within the definition of a “radio selection service” for the purposes of Part 6. Indeed, that is further clarified by new Section 362BB(2), which ensures that the assessment of whether the use of a radio selection service is significant can take account of specific usages, including the level of radio listening via that platform that takes place in a vehicle. Therefore, should a selection service have significant usage among in-car listeners, it would be subject to potential designation under this part of the Bill.

However, it is correct that there are no requirements on car manufacturers more generally, as the measures are focused on designated platforms that provide a radio selection service. Amendment 77 would extend the definition of “radio selection service” to include services not connected to the internet but accessed via the in-car system provided by car manufacturers. We are not persuaded that it is necessary to extend specific regulatory protections further, given that the evolution of systems and their integration into cars is ongoing, and given the progress made by the radio industry in the UK and across Europe in securing partnerships with car manufacturers and platforms.

However, we recognise that ensuring continued access to radio in the car will be an important part of the review of the radio market in 2026—to which the Government committed in their response to the digital radio and audio review of April 2022—and we will continue to keep the matter under consideration. New Section 362BA also contains powers to amend the definition of a radio selection service, if needed in future, as listening habits change. While I thank the noble Baroness for the opportunity to set that all out, I hope she will be satisfied and willing to withdraw her amendment.

Turning to Amendment 78, tabled by the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, I agree with the sentiment that the definition of a radio selection service could change as technology evolves and listening habits change. New Section 362BA also contains powers to amend the definition of a radio selection service, if needed in future. That could include amending the definition to include different ways in which radio stations are selected if a clear need arises in future. As I mentioned earlier, in their response to the digital radio and audio review, the Government committed to a further review of the market in 2026, and the growth and direction of online listening will be an important part of that review. While I am happy to talk to the noble Viscount, if he wishes, I think he will have discerned our reservations about the need for what he proposes, and I hope he will be content to withdraw his amendment.

Viscount Colville of Culross Portrait Viscount Colville of Culross (CB)
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The Minister has not responded to my concern that there could be a stitch-up between the device manufacturers and the radio providers. Therefore, we should talk about whether there should be a “must offer” component in the Bill to ensure that the designated radio services actually offer their services. It is not just the device manufacturers that may need to be pushed, but, in a very competitive media world, the radio station providers.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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As I said in relation to the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, we are heartened by the progress made by the radio industry in the UK and in Europe in securing partnerships with car manufacturers and platforms. We considered representations for a “must carry” provision, including from aggregators, but we concluded that it was not necessary and best left to commercial discussions between radio station platforms and aggregators. If the noble Viscount wishes to speak further about that, I am happy to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, tabled Amendments 79 and 80, on access to user data. While I appreciate the intention behind his amendments and the support from both the BBC and Radiocentre for them, the Government consider that it would not be appropriate to include such provisions in the Bill. This part of the Bill contains provisions to address issues specific to radio, such as securing the continued ability of BBC-licensed and Ofcom-licensed commercial and community stations to access their listeners via voice-activated connected audio devices. By contrast, the issues raised in the noble Lord’s amendment are common across a wide range of sectors. The Government have been taking forward broader work on competition, including in digital markets. For example, the Competition and Markets Authority will gain powers under the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill which could, in certain circumstances, be used to tackle the unfair use of data by the most powerful technology firms.

I hope the noble Lord will also be reassured by the protections that the provisions in new Sections 362BI(3) and 362BI(4) will afford. These measures will allow radio stations to nominate a preferred route for their service to be delivered to listeners, provided that that route is not unduly burdensome for the platform to deliver. As such, they provide scope for routes through which—subject to a listener’s consent; for example, through logging in—a broadcaster may be able to access valuable data, enabling them to improve their service. I hope the noble Lord will appreciate why we cannot agree to his Amendments 79 and 80.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, for his Amendment 81, which seeks to extend provisions in Part 6 to cover a wider range of audio content that is accessible on connected devices by expressly including a power that would require Ministers to extend the provisions in Part 6 to online only and on-demand content. The amendment would require Ministers to bring forward secondary legislation within a specific timetable to broaden the scope of this legislation significantly, extending the regime to cover online radio and other audio content that is not currently regulated. This could include content that originated outside the UK and is available via the internet.

I have noted the points made about the need to future-proof the regime, and Part 6 includes a number of powers to enable the new regime to stay up to date to reflect market and listener behaviour. This includes the power to change the definition of a radio selection service. At the moment, the Government believe that there is no need for powers further to extend the scope to other on-demand audio content available online. That would significantly widen the scope of content covered and create additional uncertainty burdens on the platforms that might be designated without a clear reasoning or evidence that this was necessary on wider public value grounds. But the Government recognise that audio markets and listening habits will continue to evolve. That is why we have committed in our response to the Digital Radio and Audio Review to revisit in 2026 the issues raised in that review.

18:00
Lord Bassam of Brighton Portrait Lord Bassam of Brighton (Lab)
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I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but how do the Government really envisage future-proofing to take account of those changes? That is quite important in this debate.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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The Bill sets out the ability for Ofcom to assess the state of the market with the Digital Radio and Audio Review. We will do our own assessment of it and, through the Bill’s secondary powers, that work can be updated.

Lord Bassam of Brighton Portrait Lord Bassam of Brighton (Lab)
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Is the Minister content that that point is covered by that? Is there sufficient flexibility in the legislation to enable that?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Yes. We recognise, and the provisions of the Bill acknowledge, that an increasing amount of listening is taking place online. It is not yet clear, however, what form the evolution is taking and, in particular, how the ongoing provision of radio’s public value, which has been fundamental to the strength of radio over the past century, will be retained. We have committed to that further review of the radio and audio market in 2026, and the growth and direction of online listening will be an important part of it. If it proves appropriate in due course, the provisions in new Section 362BA allow the definition of regulated radio selection service to be amended. The Bill provides for it in that way.

Lord Bassam of Brighton Portrait Lord Bassam of Brighton (Lab)
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I will study the Minister’s words carefully.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As the noble Lord always does.

Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton (Lab)
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This has been an interesting debate because it is about future-proofing and the stage at which you need to undertake things. The Minister may need to think about taking powers that then may or may not be used. I thank him for his explanation and, on that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 77 withdrawn.
Amendments 78 to 80 not moved.
Clause 48 agreed.
Amendment 81 not moved.
Schedule 9: Part 6: further amendments
Amendment 82
Moved by
82: Schedule 9, page 163, line 14, at end insert—
“1A In section 393 (general restrictions on disclosure of information), in subsection (6), in paragraph (a), after “362AW” (inserted by paragraph 1A of Schedule 3) insert “, 362BC(6)”.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment adds a consequential amendment relating to Clause 48.
Amendment 82 agreed.
Schedule 9, as amended, agreed.
Clause 49 agreed.
Schedules 10 and 11 agreed.
Clause 50: Awards of costs
Amendment 83
Moved by
83: Clause 50, page 115, line 32, at beginning insert “Section 40 of”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on another amendment in my name which seeks to provide the same protection against court costs for a journalist working for a publisher which was a member of an approved regulator as would be enjoyed by the publisher.
Baroness Hollins Portrait Baroness Hollins (CB)
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My Lords, I will also speak to Amendments 84 to 86 in my name, and my comments will be relevant to other amendments in the group to which I have added my name.

At the heart of these amendments are the recommendations of the Leveson report, which followed a 12-month public inquiry ordered by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, in 2011. I received clarifications from Sir Brian Leveson that are highly relevant to the debate, and I will share them with the Committee before I speak to the details of my amendment. First, I declare an interest in that I gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry about the personal and family impact of unacceptable behaviour by the media, and I am co-party to a civil claim against a newspaper group about alleged hacking of personal data. The claim is at the pretrial disclosure stage.

The Leveson report recommendations aimed to balance press freedom with the rights of the public. The chair of the inquiry, then Lord Justice Leveson, proposed a new regulatory framework that was independent of political influence and would protect people affected by press wrongdoing. Although some legislative progress was made, those recommendations have been returned to repeatedly in this place over the past 10 years, with some noble Lords asserting seriously flawed arguments against reform—for example, that Lord Justice Leveson proposed state regulation or that his recommendations would imperil the survival of news publishers.

Sir Brian Leveson himself has never publicly responded to those arguments. I wrote to Sir Brian to put these oft-repeated arguments against reform directly to him. I was grateful to receive a detailed reply from him and, furthermore, I am grateful that he has agreed that I and other noble Lords might quote him in Committee today. I have put this correspondence into the hands of the independent body established by the royal charter, the Press Recognition Panel. It is now available on the Press Recognition Panel website for those interested to read it in full. It is an extremely helpful letter that forensically takes apart falsity after falsity. First, Sir Brian makes it clear that the principle behind Section 40 did not originate from campaigners or politicians but was inspired by the testimony of a national newspaper editor. He describes testimony from a national newspaper editor who could see merit in a framework that encouraged parties to seek out low-cost arbitration, rather than the vast expense of court proceedings, and how this could protect publishers from rich and powerful litigants and, at the same time, protect ordinary people from rich and powerful publishers.

That is the symmetry of protection that lies behind Section 40. Some noble Lords, even speaking on behalf of the Government, have claimed that Section 40 would force publishers to pay costs, win or lose. But Sir Brian explains in his letter that this is not true. Other noble Lords will cover this point in greater detail, but I am going to quote briefly from his letter. He says:

“Neither my recommendation (nor, as I read it, s. 40) ‘forces’ news publications to pay costs when they win”,


and

“the Act does not require an adverse award of costs against a successful organ of the press which is not a member of an approved regulator”.

I put to him the argument made by some that the recognition system constitutes state regulation. He replied:

“I simply do not understand how this assertion can be made”.


He continues:

“As I understand it, the Royal Charter was specifically designed to ensure independence—independence of the press and independence of politicians”.


He then concludes that

“the suggestion that it is some kind of ‘state regulator’ of the press flies in the face of all that it was set up to do”.

Another argument commonly made is that the problems the inquiry addressed are now out of date. Sir Brian is scathing on this point. He says:

“My Inquiry was set up … to make recommendations inter alia for a new more effective policy and regulatory regime which supports the integrity and freedom of the press … while encouraging the highest ethical and professional standards. Allegations of libel, invasions of privacy, misuse of personal data remain equally as relevant today and are as pressing as ever”.


I conclude from that that the reason that national newspapers are opposed to the Leveson recommendations is because they are opposed to the principle of accountability. It was never about political interference nor the financial risk to publishers, objections which Sir Brian Leveson confirms in writing have no basis in fact.

My Amendments 83, 84, 85 and 86 would allow the partial repeal of Section 40. They would ensure that publishers inside an independent regulator would be protected from vexatious litigation while allowing the part of Section 40 which would disadvantage unregulated newspapers to be repealed. In other words, these amendments would retain the carrot of Section 40—that is, the protection it affords regulated publishers—while dispensing with that element which would provide access to justice for victims of press wrongdoing to which national news publishers so vehemently object. It is a heavy compromise, designed to meet concerns of the national press that many of us find somewhat disingenuous. However, given the Conservative Party manifesto commitment to repeal Section 40, it is a way, perhaps, of ensuring that we can still make some progress. If my amendments are accepted, there will be no detriment whatsoever to the interests of the national press, even if it declines to join an independent regulator.

In addition, my amendments support regulated, independent and local newspapers in addressing the threat of vexatious litigation known as SLAPPs. If His Majesty’s Government oppose them, can the Minister explain what specific objection could justify blocking the prospect of such a potent defence against SLAPPs for the local press? Indeed, my amendments go further than Section 40 in protecting press freedom from SLAPPs. They would also protect individual journalists from the threat of litigation where they have written for regulated publishers.

This package of amendments which I am supporting today would introduce unprecedented protection for our free press and the journalists working every day to expose the truth. These amendments would all retain compelling incentives for newspapers to abandon the industry-controlled IPSO and join a genuinely independent and effective regulator instead, and in doing so, they would protect members of the public who have been affected by intrusion, harassment or lies at the hands of the press. They would do so without threatening detriment or disadvantage to any publisher which refused to do so other than the reputational consequences of declining to make themselves accountable for what they publish.

Over 200 local and independent newspapers have sought the protection afforded to them under Section 40 by joining Impress, the independent regulator approved by the Press Recognition Panel. Your Lordships should not be in any doubt: repealing Section 40 in full would undermine the freedoms and interests of local and independent newspapers.

I commend Sir Brian on his intervention. He does not engage with the politics of the matter but has chosen to engage on the accuracy of the debate. He was sufficiently concerned to respond to my letter and to remind us of the facts. I hope that His Majesty’s Government are listening and will take the opportunities offered by these amendments to think again. I hope that the next Government will have higher aspirations for a safer and more ethical culture and an accountable press. I beg to move.

Lord Lipsey Portrait Lord Lipsey (Lab)
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My Lords, I speak in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, whose name was to the amendment just so ably moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins. He had a back procedure this morning, is in great pain and has gone home. As he and I have been comrades in arms on this, I am glad to make myself a poor substitute for the great man.

Since we started this debate on the Bill this afternoon, the whole picture has been dramatically transformed by the Prime Minister’s announcement. There is to be a general election on 4 July. Why so? The Bill cannot complete its parliamentary passage by next Thursday, when the House is dissolved. That has a straightforward consequence: it goes into a procedure—I think it is called wrap-up, or it might be wind-up or whatever.

None Portrait Noble Lords
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Wash-up.

Lord Lipsey Portrait Lord Lipsey (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank your Lordships very much. It goes into a procedure, called whatever everybody shouted a minute ago, and the fate of this clause, along with the rest of the Bill, will depend on what arises from that procedure.

18:15
I have no insider information whatever on what view my party will take in those negotiations. However, it would be quite bizarre if it permitted this clause to go through unamended. First, it never belonged in this Bill in the first place. It may be that government lawyers ingeniously found ways of claiming that it could be put into this Bill, but it did not belong here. It was on a quite different subject from the rest of the Bill, and it is a great pity that the procedures will now allow it. I hope my party will oppose it rather than let it through.
Secondly, although I cannot say that my party’s line on these matters has been a completely straight line all the way through, in any case it has never come out strongly in support of this thing, so why it could conceivably think of letting it slip through via this procedure without it even having completed its parliamentary stages is quite beyond me.
Therefore, we may have seen the end of this attempt to repeal Section 40, and it will be for the next Government, rightly so, to decide how we are to go forward on press regulation. Of course, it may be the same Government; do I see faces of optimism, and nodding on the Benches opposite? I do not think I do. However, the Minister is loyal to his Government and nods still.
There is another reason why we should oppose this. It is so transparently clear that putting this repeal into the Bill is nothing to do with its merits but all to do with the Government trying to get the support of the press for the election that is now coming—I spoke on that at length at Second Reading. If the Government had a good reason for doing this, you would expect them to have said so. However, the only definitive statement of their position I can find is from the impact assessment on the Bill:
“it was envisaged that news publishers would become members of PRP-approved regulators. However, the vast majority of publishers have not joined a PRP-backed regulator. There now exists a strengthened, independent, self-regulatory system for the press. The government recognises there has been a raising of standards across industry and commencement of s.40 is no longer necessary to improve regulation of publishers”.
That is very thin. Not one word of evidence is given for any of the propositions about the improved performance of the press. It is true that hacking has probably passed its peak, but that is because people have been fined large amounts of money by the courts protecting privacy, not because of anything the Government have done. That is the only reason we get less hacking today than we used to.
At least that proposition makes more sense than the Government’s other argument in the impact assessment, namely that as most publishers have not joined PRP, the section is not needed. That is the exact opposite of the truth. It is needed precisely because most publishers have not joined the PRP and because, without this section remaining on the statute book, the public—so the Government say—can rely on the PRP to be replaced by IPSO. Therefore, if this clause goes through, the public must mostly look to IPSO for redress.
When I say “public”, I do not mean Harry and his friends. They have got the cash. I mean ordinary persons whom the press has harassed and libelled to an extraordinary extent. If I had infinite time, I would go through the long list provided by the PRP in its superb publication on IPSOs performance. It lists individual case after individual case where a member of the public has been left powerless in the face of this gigantic machine designed to approve everything that the press does. I am sorry—the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, will have a chance to talk later—but IPSO is an appalling regulator, a mockery, the substitution of a house-trained regulator for a real regulator.
The PRP’s document deserves close reading. How the press and IPSO treat those who complain is a catalogue of shame. I will not ask everybody to read this long document, because a short one has been made available by the Hacked Off campaign which lists IPSO’s shortcomings more briefly. IPSO does not possess regulatory powers. It is controlled by newspaper executives and not by anyone impartial. It uses a standards code written by newspaper editors. It has never fined a newspaper. It has never launched a standards investigation into a newspaper. It takes five to six months to process the complaints that it receives and upholds precisely 0.3% of them—that is three in 1,000. That is what we have in IPSO.
If the stand part amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, falls later, that deformed body will be the sole protection that those whom the press persecutes can fall back on. Rather, they could go for a legal action on privacy or libel but, unfortunately, that leads to complete inequality of armaments. The complainant does not have the cash; the newspapers do have the cash. Prince Harry can go to court; Joe Soap cannot. The status quo which the Bill preserves is one law for the rich and another for the poor.
I conclude with one observation. There is nothing personal in this; I am a great admirer of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, and if we must have a Tory chairing IPSO, I cannot think of anybody who would be better. However, if we go back to Leveson, one of the great fears was that going down this line would create a politicians’ pansy press, because IPSO will invariably back what the press wants it to back.
What is IPSO? One thing we can say is that the noble Lord who chairs it, as is true of previous noble Lords who have chaired it, was a Conservative politician in this House. There are only some things wrong with that; there is not a lot wrong with it, because the noble Lord is perfectly entitled to be. However, it is clear as a bell that it is quite wrong that anybody who is or has in recent years been an active politician should be given the job of regulating the press; I am sure that not many people would take it on that basis. We now have a body whose job is to regulate the press chaired by a man who until recently was a Conservative politician. As I said, it is nothing personal, because there were previous examples, but the ref is wearing the shirt of the team that he is supposed to be officiating over. That alone should move the House to back the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and others.
Viscount Astor Portrait Viscount Astor (Con)
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My Lords, my Amendment 87 is grouped with the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness. I also have Amendments 92 and 94. We have all been somewhat distracted by our mobile telephones concerning the next general election. I have been even more distracted by just having received the result of the 5.30 pm race at Kempton, where my horse came last. I hope that is not an omen for the future.

At Second Reading, I gave a full explanation of why Section 40 should remain on the statute book, so I will now address some of the misconceptions in that debate. It is worth remembering first that the inquiry led by Sir Brian Leveson was concerned that individuals without substantial means caught up in public interest events were unable to seek redress for defamation or unlawful intrusion into their privacy simply because they could not afford to litigate against an all-powerful press. At the core of the inquiry was the importance of the freedom of the press and the vital importance of freedom of expression.

At Second Reading, it was claimed that creation by royal charter is state control. It is the opposite. Royal charter was designed specifically to ensure independence for the press and independence from politicians. The Press Recognition Panel’s charter can be amended only by a two-thirds majority of the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Scottish Parliament. That is rather a high bar. I cannot see any way that it could ever be amended and for those three bodies to agree.

Sir Brian Leveson came to a meeting organised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins. It was extremely useful and helpful to hear what he had to say, particularly on Section 40. One thing he said was:

“It is important to underline that the Act does not require an adverse award of costs against a successful organ of the press which is not a member of an approved regulator (or indeed against an individual—oligarch or otherwise—who does not avail himself or herself of available arbitration provided by an approved regulator”.


In the Act, Section 40(3)(b) clearly allows the judge, where

“it is just and equitable in all the circumstances of the case to make a different award of costs or make no award of costs”.

Sir Brian concluded that this provision deals with so-called SLAPP litigation fairly and appropriately, thereby providing a way of defeating an oligarch intent on pursuing aggressive expensive litigation in an effort to silence criticism.

The second contention, repeated by my noble friend the Minister, was that Section 40 could stop publication of stories for fear of being taken to court and having to pay both sides’ costs. Sir Brian and the noble Baroness have addressed this issue. Sir Brian said:

“Section 40 does not force news publications to pay costs when they win. The recommendation encouraged news publications to establish an independent arbitration mechanism to resolve disputes which would then protect them from those intent on going to court in SLAPP type legislation while also allowing those without means who have been libelled or whose privacy has been invaded to seek redress without incurring vast costs which could not be afforded”.


Therefore, failure to attempt mediation can be taken into account in cost arguments. Sir Brian added:

“In any event, as I recommended, there is an overarching discretion so that the judge can reach a just and equitable resolution of any costs issue”.


Section 40 does not threaten small publishers who would not be able to fight libel and privacy cases. The reason to join a recognised self-regulator is to allow small publishers to offer an arbitration and therefore protect themselves from adverse orders for costs if expensive litigation was chosen in an effort to force them to retract irrespective of the merits of the case.

It is clear that those without financial means are unable to take on the press. However seriously they have been defamed or their privacy has been invaded, they are denied a remedy. We have seen how many millions have been paid in damages against those who have been able to take on newspapers; we do not see the ones that have not been able to. We saw the case recently of a famous actor who had to withdraw a case because of the threat of costs.

They do not get a chance of redress, and certainly do not get one from IPSO. Section 40 provides a warning to wrongdoers to behave; take it away and I believe we will be back to a free-for-all. I believe that my noble friend Lord Black is wrong when he says that Section 40 would be holding a gun to the head of the free and independent press and claims that it would be incompatible with our commitments to the ECHR—as much as I often dislike that court. I do not think Section 40 impinges on press freedom. It is quite the reverse; it protects the citizen and protects the press.

I am afraid IPSO has not worked as well as it should. It is too similar to its predecessor, the Press Complaints Commission. It has never investigated or fined a newspaper; it lacks independence and, many say, effectiveness. It is important that Section 40 provides a useful deterrent that works. The final argument used against it is that it was a manifesto commitment, as my noble friend the Minister quite rightly said. But we have had three Prime Ministers since that manifesto, and most of them totally ignored the manifesto commitments of their predecessors.

18:30
Lord Watson of Wyre Forest Portrait Lord Watson of Wyre Forest (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, and say to him that, while he unwisely backed the wrong horse, I know he is a very skilled and wise politician—too skilled to back the outcome of an election on day one. As I will talk about transparency today, I should declare an interest to the Committee, albeit a left field one: I am a current claimant in a voicemail interception litigation against News Group Newspapers.

To add to the surreal nature of this debate, as outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, I will address directly the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, on the wash-up. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, was a fantastic substitute for the noble Lord, Lord McNally, whom we wish well with his back procedure, particularly because he appears to be the only senior leader of any political party who has shown spine in this basket of amendments. I hope to convince both Front Benches to follow in the footsteps of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, this evening.

It is appropriate to ask both Front Benches whether they intend to follow the convention of Parliament to not rush through controversial clauses in Bills in the wash-up procedure. We are probably all united in the Committee that, whatever we think about Clause 50, it is certainly controversial. I will offer two other arguments about why we should proceed with caution in the wash-up procedure on this. First, much of the Bill will interfere with a regulated market, and in doing that we owe it to the consumers and providers within that regulated market to give full parliamentary scrutiny at all stages. I warn the Front Benches that the last time I remember Parliament deciding to interfere with regulatory matters in a wash-up was in 2005 with the Gambling Act, of which the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, will be aware. Some 20 years later, we are still dealing with the consequences of that rushed-through legislation. There is a third reason why we should proceed with caution in the wash-up. To add to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, about washing up: the electors now have us under the microscope, and if these clauses and amendments are rushed through by the Front Benches of both main parties, they will be airing their dirty linen in the wash-up, and that is a terrible start to a general election.

I have had sight of the letter from Sir Brian Leveson, quoted in this debate by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, and others, and I can confirm that it is damning about the disingenuous arguments employed by the opponents of reform on this issue—and, it must be said, the Government. I speak to this group of amendments to make the case that, despite two manifesto pledges, in light of recent evidence not easily available to the Government at the time, the Government should pause to reflect on their proposal of Clause 50.

Many failures have been attributed to IPSO in this debate. I add one other: it failed to protect ordinary people thrust into the media spotlight after a bereavement. IPSO was recently found by the independent Press Recognition Panel to be failing children and the victims of crime caught up in newsworthy events. The Press Recognition Panel was set up by royal charter, under a system backed by all parties in both Houses where there is no input whatever from politicians in its appointment. It is far more independent than Ofcom or any other regulator. Do not forget that IPSO members are appointed by a panel that it appoints itself, and it is chaired by a former Government Minister. The IPSO board also has former editors appointed by the industry who have the power to veto, just like the old PCC. It is no wonder, then, that it sits idly by while some newspapers are still neck deep in disinformation, inaccuracy, intrusion and the monstering of innocent individuals.

As noble Lords have said, in its 10-year history IPSO has done a total of zero investigations of the type that Ofcom does all the time, and thus there have never been any sanctions—no investigations and no sanctions ever. It is true that the PCC did not have the power to investigate; IPSO has been given that power but has never used it. Nobody is holding these hugely powerful people to account. They do exactly as they like, with scant respect for basic human decencies, let alone their own codes, and there are no consequences. They have no predators, and that cannot be good for our country.

We know that some newspapers were hacking the phones not only of well-known people and their friends, employees and relatives but of murder victims and politicians, not because of some tip-off of corruption or wrongdoing but for two reasons, neither of which has a shred of public interest justification. The first of these was to sell newspapers: the privacy of thousands of people was sold for profit by newspapers systematically. The second was to manipulate politicians, as we appear to be seeing in the wash-up of this process today.

We now know that serious allegations have been made against News UK that members of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, including me, were hacked while it was investigating the company from 2009 to 2011. Gordon Brown has recently said that he believes he was hacked while Prime Minister and, even more egregiously, that News Corporation claimed, absurdly, that he and I were involved in conspiracy to acquire stolen company emails, which was why it deleted millions of emails and scratched its back-up disks during the police reinvestigation in 2011. Some newspaper groups have treated Parliament, the Leveson inquiry, the public and their own readers with contempt, and no one can have any confidence that IPSO, just a rebranded version of the discredited PCC, has the powers, or even the inclination, to identify and expose wrongdoing such as phone hacking or illegally obtaining private medical information or itemised phone records.

There is another serious issue that has come to light since Parliament set up Section 40: the way that some newspaper groups were found to have misled Parliament or lied to a public inquiry—or stand accused of doing so—and appear to have done so with impunity thus far. In the recent judgment of the High Court in the case of the Duke of Sussex and others v Mirror Group Newspapers, which is now owned by Reach plc, the judge found that members of the board and then legal department egregiously knew about, concealed and allowed to continue the industrial-scale criminal hacking and blagging that took place from the mid-1990s until at least the end of 2011—that is, during the Leveson inquiry and the Select Committee inquiries themselves.

The legal department was found to have lied to Leveson, and the evidence in the 2023 trial was rejected by the judge, who also found that the editors at the time knew about wrongdoing and concealed it—“without doubt”, in his words—and many lied to the Leveson inquiry.

As for News UK, in 2011, it was exposed as having lied for years, claiming that phone hacking was by only one rogue reporter on the news desk in 2005 and 2006. It was found in 2014, the year after the legislation that we are proposing to repeal today, that from 2000 to 2006 the whole news desk and the features desk were involved.

In 2014, after a public inquiry and passing that Bill, we learned that scores of people who had been convicted in stings by Mazher Mahmood, the “fake sheikh”, could have been innocent, when the trial of Tulisa Contostavlos collapsed and he was later convicted of trying to frame her. Dozens of his victims are appealing their convictions, and many bring hacking claims. Mr Mahmood was instructed to tail me for days when I served on the committee that started investigating phone hacking.

In 2016, the Privileges Committee of the Commons found that two senior executives had lied to the CMS Select Committee. Only yesterday, the managing judge in the News UK and News Corp hacking litigation allowed amendments to the claimants’ case to allege—these allegations are currently untested and denied or not admitted—that two very senior executives and several others lied to the Leveson inquiry and gave misleading evidence to Parliament.

I could go on, but I hope I have demonstrated that the suggestion that the press has cleaned up its act is for the birds, and that there remains a rotten core to many of our newspapers and a culture of impunity when it comes to their illegal behaviour.

For those reasons, I have tabled Amendment 87A and support the others in this group. They are compromises, all intended to move us closer to universal press membership of an effective, independent regulator which would protect the public from press wrongdoing in all its forms. Amendment 87A would introduce a new right of reply for the British public against misrepresentations in the press where the publisher is not a member of a truly independent and effective regulator.

Lord Watts Portrait Lord Watts (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow that speech from someone who has had direct contact with the media over many years and has been abused by them himself, but there are many other people who have been abused in a similar way. I support this group of amendments, but I must be clear that I would prefer Section 40 to be maintained and to cover the issues that we are all addressing now. It is better than nothing, but it is not really the sort of protection that we should offer the public.

The press barons say that there is no need for regulation. They point to IPSO and the courts, and ordinary people are supposed to use one of those organisations. Quite frankly, as we have heard, IPSO offers no protection. In the investigations it has carried out, 0.3% cases are upheld, so the accountability is non-existent there. It can fine up to £1 million, but it has not fined anybody so far. It is quite clear that it is not effective for anyone who has a case of abuse.

I will not talk about celebrities, but I will talk about a woman called Mandy Garner. I have done this before and will again. Mandy’s daughter, unfortunately, was the subject of a hit-and-run accident. That is a tragic affair anyway, but it was made worse when the Daily Mail got involved. It sent a reporter down to the area and secured CCTV coverage of the child’s death from one of the shopkeepers. It then carried the story and put the link to that child’s death online for its readers. When Mandy objected to that and took a complaint to IPSO, it told her to go and see the Daily Mail. She contacted it and, after six months, she had made no progress with her case at all and went back to the regulator. She told it that she was even more stressed out now because she had made no progress whatever over six months. What did IPSO say to that woman? It told her that, if she was stressed, perhaps she should drop the case and not proceed with it. That shows the level of independent calculation going on with that body.

We need protection not for celebrities, because they can go to court and can afford to spend millions of pounds on legal fees, as we have heard, but for Mandy and many hundreds of people like her who cannot. I ask the Minister, the Government and our Front Bench this: what protection are they going to give to the public—to a future Mandy? Quite frankly, in what is proposed today, there is no protection for Mandy and people like her. It is a disgrace on Parliament that politicians are bullied and threatened to act in a way that is counterproductive to having justice in our society.

Lord Black of Brentwood Portrait Lord Black of Brentwood (Con)
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My Lords, it will not surprise many colleagues to hear that I oppose this group of amendments. I declare my interest as deputy chairman of the Telegraph Media Group and director of a regulatory funding company, and I note my other interests as set out in the register. I have been very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for taking the time and trouble to talk these amendments and other issues through with me, and for his ongoing commitment to constructive dialogue, which I welcome. I wish him well and hope that he is better soon.

I will have some specific comments to make about Amendment 87A, but the main reason that I am opposed to everything in the group is that all the amendments derive their terms of authority from the concept of an approved regulator. That concept is something that I, as I have made clear many times in this House, find abhorrent and anathema to any concept of a free society, because, whatever Sir Brian Leveson may now say, the approval derives its authority from the state. I know that there will always be those who resort to sophistry to claim that the method of approval through the Press Recognition Panel is apparently independent of the Government but, in my view, that is plain nonsense. The concept of approval is set out in legislation: the Press Recognition Panel derives its authority from a royal charter, the terms of which are set by the Privy Council, the ultimate expression of state power and authority. It also receives taxpayers’ money, so it is in part funded by the state and therefore in part accountable to it. It is a state body. Regulators that seek approval from it are therefore irrefutably state-approved, and that is repugnant in a free society.

The press can never be free of the state in any form, whether Parliament, Government, Privy Council or a faux-recognition body doing their bidding if it is involved in any way in content regulation. That is why successive post-war Governments of all political colours, dating back from the Attlee Government in response to the first Royal Commission on the Press in 1947, have, for 65 years, up until Leveson, backed self-regulation by the industry. Section 40 and the introduction of the concept of approved regulation sought to change that by introducing the first form of what is, in effect, licensing since 1695. Fortunately, better sense has prevailed since that legislation was rushed through Parliament without scrutiny or consultation. We have looked into the abyss and decided not to fall into it. That is why Section 40 must go in its entirety. Whether it be carrots or sticks, the approval of content regulation of a free press is alien to a free society and the proper functioning of parliamentary democracy.

Amendments 84 and 85, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, seek, perversely, to retain the incentive for publishers to join a state regulator, while repealing the provision that would effectively bankrupt publishers that print the truth. But even this leaves publishers with an insidious choice between shielding themselves from government influence and limited protection from SLAPPs. As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and I have discussed, it is of course right that Parliament takes an interest in press regulation; no one disputes that. If noble Lords or Members in the other place want to have that debate, let us do so, but this Bill is not the place for it. This is an important Bill, and it is important that it goes through in the wash-up in its entirety, including the Government’s manifesto commitments.

The media world has moved on in every possible way since the Crime and Courts Act 2013. The way in which the press operates and is regulated has fundamentally changed, and its long-term future is probably under greater threat than ever before. We need to get rid of Section 40, lock, stock and barrel, and not keep it lurking in the dark like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, as these amendments would do.

A whole host of international press freedom organisations, including the authoritative Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, Global Witness, and English PEN, have pointed out another reason for getting rid of Section 40 now: the signal it sends throughout the world. In a statement released yesterday, they said:

“Repressive regimes will be sent a clear message that the UK stands squarely behind freedom of speech. Freedom of speech with no strings attached. That message is critically important in the uncertain and dangerous world we all now live in … Never again must the UK go down this dangerous road”.


I want to say a particular word about Amendment 87A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Wyre Forest. I must admit that I was slightly surprised to see that he has put an amendment down relating to, in effect, a statutory right of reply to inaccuracies, given his own track record. Those he falsely accused of crimes —with stunning inaccuracy, to put it mildly—never had a right of reply.

I do not think any serious proposals in this area have been put forward since the mid-1980s, when our former colleague Lord Soley introduced them in a Private Member’s Bill. There is probably a good reason for that. Since 1990, there have been mechanisms for the redress of inaccuracies through a system of independent self-regulation, operating under a tough code of practice, on top of the laws of defamation. Today, IPSO has a strong record of getting inaccuracies corrected in a timely and prominent manner, along with an apology if appropriate. Furthermore, there already exist carefully delineated circumstances where the law provides for a right of reply—for example, following a defamation case—and data protection law, in addition to the Defamation Act, requires inaccuracy to be redressed. So, there is simply no need for such a measure as that proposed by the noble Lord.

Quite apart from that, the noble Lord’s proposal is wholly impractical. It would have the same effect as Section 40, had it been implemented, in simply allowing individuals to launch spurious and unfounded complaints against newspapers in order to gag them. It would be another version of SLAPPs, but without even having to bother a court to look at the merits of the case. It would be used by the rich and powerful to close down ongoing investigations and muzzle the press, and in doing so would weaken the public’s right to know and undermine investigative journalism. Frankly, this is simply another attempt to find some way to bully the press into a system of state-approved regulation.

It is time to move on from debates that are long past their sell-by date, to recognise the fundamental changes in the media in the last decade, to turn our backs on any attempts to impose state regulation on the media, and to get rid of Section 40 lock, stock and barrel. This Bill is an important piece of legislation for so many organisations and areas of the creative economy, and it is very important that it now goes through.

Lord Hunt of Wirral Portrait Lord Hunt of Wirral (Con)
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My Lords, I strongly support my noble friend, but first I declare my interests as set out in the register. As colleagues will know, I was the independent founding chair of the Independent Press Standards Organisation. I have listened carefully to the speeches that have been made, but I strongly agree with my noble friend that we are really going back over the debates we had a decade ago.

I want to go back to the first principles that my noble friend enunciated. In many ways, free expression is the bedrock of our society, but it is also a privilege—one not enjoyed by many millions of our fellow human beings, and which therefore must be matched by a sense of public duty and responsibility.

We are all familiar with all those egregious cases. As chair, like my noble friend Lord Grade, of the Press Complaints Commission, I found that it was powerless in many cases. I had to have face-to-face meetings with victims to hear for myself their harrowing accounts of their experiences. The PCC was powerless in many cases, particularly where criminal acts had taken place; it was up to the police. One of our sadnesses was that the police seemed so slow to act. Most of the phone hacking cases have now been resolved in the civil courts, but that should not blind us to the fact—I say this to all those who have spoken—that serious criminal acts took place, not just regulatory breaches. So far as regulation is concerned, the key question we have to answer is how to police culture and standards while maintaining independence of thought and deed. It is a very difficult balance.

The rock on which the system is built is the editors’ code, a living document that, as I understand it, is still recognised right across the world as an excellent code. I believe that IPSO has been very effective at holding publishers and publications to account. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, said that IPSO had not been effective because there were a relatively low number of adverse adjudications, and those who have mentioned that have given specific examples. However, press behaviour has improved over the last period. The Press Recognition Panel, which has been lobbying us—lobbying me all the time—pretty hard, largely in its own interests, is funded by the taxpayer, as my noble friend pointed out. I am all for trenchant, highly politicised contributions to this important debate, but I wonder whether it is fair to ask the taxpayer to fund them.

Viscount Astor Portrait Viscount Astor (Con)
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My noble friend says that the PRP is funded by the taxpayer, but IPSO is funded by the newspaper industry. Which does he regard as the more independent process?

Lord Hunt of Wirral Portrait Lord Hunt of Wirral (Con)
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When I gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry, Lord Justice Leveson pointed out to me that it was up to the industry to fund the regulator. When I first gave evidence to him, he asked me to sit down with the main newspaper groups and find a way forward whereby they would fund an independent regulatory process. My noble friend is quite right: it is very important that the industry itself funds the regulator, but the regulator should be independent. That is what I reported in my second line of evidence to the Leveson inquiry, and that is what I believe I managed to achieve.

The proponents of statutory regulation invariably nod sagely and sympathetically when I say all this, but honestly, they have no answers. I believe that state interference is not the answer. I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Watson—he sits on a committee with me and I have great respect for him—that Amendment 87A is state regulation in all but name. The system proposed would grind the free press into the dirt with both statutory interference into editorial decision-making and the prospect of endless and often frivolous litigation. Experience also tells us that the principal beneficiaries of such an arrangement would be not individuals who had been misrepresented or traduced but deep corporate pockets and their expensive lawyers, who want to challenge the press at every turn in a war of attrition.

19:00
I am sad to hear the news about the noble Lord, Lord McNally, because he and I have had so many debates and discussions on this issue, and I wish him a speedy recovery, but the situation we currently contemplate is the result of a rather messy compromise at the time of the coalition Government. The royal charter was intended to be a way of avoiding statutory regulation—a sleight of hand—but these provisions in the 2013 Act retained a potential element of statute which, it is fair to say, appealed more to those on the Liberal Democrat Benches who proposed them than to those of us in the Conservative Party.
Abolition of Section 40 is a clear commitment of the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto, and critics will ask why on earth it was not done sooner—I wish it had been. They will also repeat the old canard ad infinitum that it is all a cynical ploy to appease newspaper proprietors—in particular now that the general election has been announced for 4 July. The reality is that there is a genuine and deeply felt political and philosophical dividing line here. If a party of government sees a measure on the statute book for which it believes there is no good case and which it should never consider triggering into life, then abolition is the right policy, and let us get on with it.
With a couple of notable publishers who are now signed up to the Independent Press Standards Organisation, we really do have in IPSO a system of independent-led, press paid-for self-regulation that works. This country has always been, and must be, a beacon for freedom of expression exercised in the public interest but, above all, with restraint.
Lord Inglewood Portrait Lord Inglewood (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest that I chaired a local newspaper company which also defamed me. In addition, I am a trustee of the Public Interest News Foundation.

My view of these amendments and the subject matter behind them is that, whether or not Section 40 remains on the statute book, the outcome will not be satisfactory. Freedom of expression is clearly very important. There is a whole range of activities that we are properly free to engage in, but the law of tort steps in when people step over the mark and start hurting others. In my view, the way in which the world has developed, and within it the press, has meant that, under certain circumstances, that boundary is stepped over, and that we collectively, as a society, ought to have effective remedies to deal with the consequences. Indeed, that is what this debate is all about.

That is not easy, as we know, but it is important that we remember that, although a number of big names, including participants here in the Chamber, have been affected by this, what really matters are the small men. In fact, it is not only the individual citizens but some of the very new, small media companies that are setting up. There are two slightly separate aspects to this subject. The first is the relationship of what I might call the small plaintiff versus a large media company. The other way round is if you have a small media company versus a large plaintiff. When I chaired the media company that I did, we had a defamation action against a very, very rich man who liked litigating. We found ourselves in a position when it was jolly nearly a matter of risking going bust or standing one’s ground and holding the position in the courts. Our opponent withdrew at the very last minute, but it was a bad moment to be at, and it was not a satisfactory position for a media company to be in.

My view is that Section 40 is a near miss. There is a case for having a proper, enforceable regime that is independent of the state. I do not buy the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Black, that if there is regulation it therefore follows, because of the nature of the society we live in, that that regulation is state regulation. After all, the common law was not put in place by the state. What we are discussing is an extension of old common law principles into circumstances that are very different from what they were in the Middle Ages.

Therefore, I think the right way forward is that the Government—whoever they will be on 5 July—should revisit this whole subject, because neither having Section 40 nor not having Section 40 is a satisfactory outcome. We need a form of regulation that is independent of interference from media companies, from celebrity and other pressure, and from any other outside concerns, and which is not only genuinely independent but recognised by everyone as such. That is at least as important, from a societal point of view, as making sure that the thing is not impugned.

Baroness Fleet Portrait Baroness Fleet (Con)
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My Lords, I speak in opposition to these amendments and will voice support for the repeal of Section 40, which is long overdue. I heard the attack of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, on newspapers. I wonder what Lord Brittan might have replied.

As a former newspaper editor, my support for repeal is predicated on the simple principle that any state control or direct influence over a newspaper’s editorial content is anathema to a well-functioning democracy. A newspaper’s fundamental purpose is to speak truth to power and to expose wrongdoing. The very existence, let alone the implementation, of Section 40 puts that key democratic function at risk.

We must remember that we are debating this pernicious provision in the context of a legal environment where newspapers already have to self-censor and spike stories due to the threat of financial ruin, with the rich and powerful bringing strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, as they are known. Section 40 would amount to state licensing of these lawsuits, with the rich and powerful able to force newspapers out of business for having the temerity to print the truth. This “truth tax” would be particularly devastating for local publishers, but even the better-resourced national titles would struggle to stay afloat if exposed to unlimited legal costs, even in cases that they won.

Criminal tycoons have frequently used the libel laws to silence their critics, control adverse publicity and suppress the truth about themselves. Among the worst offenders were Robert Maxwell and Mohamed Al Fayed. They set the scene and have been followed by others. To conceal their own criminality, global corporations, law firms and Russian oligarchs have threatened the media by exploiting Britain’s libel laws. Fortunately, some media owners, including Rupert Murdoch, risked millions of pounds to defeat those seeking to assert that their lies are the truth, but Section 40 would make any resistance futile: the rich would own their “truth” and newspapers would pay for criminals to peddle their lies.

Of course, the other side of this debate will claim that Section 40 attempts to protect publishers by giving state-regulated titles protection from legal costs. Yet Section 40 would in fact force publishers to choose between freedom from the state and freedom from the rich and powerful who try to bury their wrongdoing through abuse of the UK’s legal system. Therefore, even Amendments 84 and 85, which seek to repeal the part of Section 40 that penalises independent publishers while retaining the cost incentive to become state regulated, should not be countenanced.

SLAPPs require a legislative solution, and there is a Private Member’s Bill currently going through Parliament seeking to do just that, but the idea that fundamental press freedoms should be sacrificed to achieve this is repugnant. As a group of press freedom organisations in support of repeal, including RSF, English PEN and the Society of Editors, said yesterday:

“Journalists face a myriad of threats and challenges but their mission of holding power to account and reporting difficult or uncomfortable truths has never been more important”.


By repealing Section 40, we will not remove all those myriad threats, but we will at least ensure that it will not be the British state itself that inhibits a newspaper’s ability to print the truth without fear or favour.

Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I think my interests have already been well and truly declared in this debate but, for the avoidance of doubt, I have been the chairman of the Independent Press Standards Organisation since 2020. I am not sure how appropriate it is for a regulator to extol its own virtues in a debate, and I do not propose to do so, but in view of the very trenchant attack on IPSO from a number of quarters, I think it may be helpful to the Committee if a few facts were presented before it.

IPSO regulates 90% by way of circulation of the newspapers published in this country. There was an attack on the organisation and, effectively, on those who work there. The young men and women who conscientiously look at complaints without any political bias or anything other than the conscientious approach you would expect from young people like that would be surprised and disappointed by many of the allegations that have been made against them.

The decisions that are made by IPSO are all published on its website. Details of the reasoning behind those decisions are available. IPSO provides advisory notices which help people, not only well-known people, but ordinary people who fear intrusion by the press, which I think is a successful aspect of what IPSO does. There is a board and a case committee, a minority of which has press experience. These are people whose identity is capable of ascertainment by looking at the website. Anyone can see what a wide variety of people they are. To suggest that they are somehow in the pockets of the press is unworthy.

Recently, there was an independent review of IPSO by a distinguished civil servant, Sir Bill Jeffrey. I invite critics of IPSO to read his report and his view of its independence. Independence is, of course, extremely important in a regulator.

As to the suggestion that effectively we reject the vast majority of complaints, of course many of the complaints that are made—

Lord Lipsey Portrait Lord Lipsey (Lab)
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Who appointed Mr Jeffrey?

Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks
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The appointment of Sir Bill Jeffrey was the result of a decision by the board. The identity of the board is available to anybody who seeks to find out who is on the board. If by that question it is suggested that Sir Bill Jeffrey was some sort of tame civil servant, I think he would be surprised to hear that, and his history of accomplishment and independence is something which I would be surprised could be satisfactorily impugned.

I was dealing with the suggestion about a vast number of complaints being rejected. Of course, a case has to come within the remit. A number of people are discontented with things they read in the press, but they do not come within the remit of a complaint which can possibly provide a breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice. The editors’ code comes from a body where the minority is of press interest. Very few people criticise the editors’ code, whether they criticise the press or the regulator.

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Of those complaints that warrant investigation, two-thirds are either upheld or resolved with the publisher directly or some form of satisfactory remedy is achieved. The problem of the statistics is that, for example, if one article merits more than 20,000 complaints that means that there is only one resolution that upholds the complaint, but it is wrong to extrapolate from those figures the very low percentage put forward earlier in the debate. Of course, IPSO is not in the business of trying to achieve a particular target in terms of the number of complaints. Complaints are simply adjudicated on their merits, and IPSO invites scrutiny of those decisions.
The Press Recognition Panel, set up in the circumstances about which we heard in the course of the debate, was, I understand, set up to stand back from the fray and decide whether a regulator which applied was approved. I have to express some surprise to see that body—whatever its financing, which we have heard about—expressing such strong views about a particular provision. I wonder whether that is quite what Parliament expected of a body standing back. That is a matter that the noble Lord might wish to take into consideration.
We then come to the question of SLAPPs and Section 40. I think there is agreement across the Committee that SLAPPS have been a remarkable evil. There is a great deal of cross-party agreement for a Private Member’s Bill that has government support, which was originally an amendment to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, and I hope it will continue whatever Government are in power. All that I can say is that if I were one of the people identified in an excellent book by David Hooper about the problem with SLAPPs, if I was inclined to bring one of these strategic cases, I would be reassured by the provisions of Section 40, even the modified provisions suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, knowing that newspapers would be trembling at the possibility of a Section 40 provision or something similar, or the right to reply in the circumstances put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Watson. We should not automatically assume that those who publish newspapers, whether local or national, have bottomless coffers. We must get away from the concept of powerful press barons against the poor minnows who sue them. It is not as straightforward as that.
Lord Watts Portrait Lord Watts (Lab)
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Is it not the case that 80% of our media is owned by five billionaires?

Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks
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I am not precisely sure of the figures. Certainly, the ownership of the press is a matter of record. I am not in a position to respond to that. It is perfectly true that it is a relatively minor group of people. I am not sure quite what that has to do with Section 40. We are talking about whether someone can make a complaint adequately and whether that regulator is independent. I ask the Committee to express the view that it is an independent regulator. There is a manifesto commitment. It is time that this provision is repealed. I understand from what I have read in an interview with the shadow Secretary of State that the Labour Party does not intend to amend the current system of press regulation. I look forward to hearing reassurance that this important Bill, including this provision, will be the subject of discussions in the wash-up.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I will just speak briefly, because I know that we want to get to Front-Bench spokesmen. A lot of detailed arguments have been advanced by those who have tabled amendments in this group and I think they reflect the detailed nature of the measures proposed. I have listened to those arguments and also heard some of the examples of people who have had bad experiences of the media. I sympathise with a lot of what has been said but, when it comes to matters of principle—and I believe that freedom of the press is a matter of principle—I also have the view that there are some circles that cannot be squared.

It is worth us just remembering that, only a couple of months ago, when we were debating foreign power ownership, Lord Ashcroft did a poll which showed that two-thirds of British people do care about freedom of the press. I think we can all agree that people might not always love or approve of everything done in or by the British media, but the principle of a free press, free from government interference, is something that matters to them. I believe it is a principle that serves the public interest and therefore one that Parliament must uphold. For that reason, I cannot support any of the amendments in this group and I will support my noble friend the Minister in resisting them.

Lord Foster of Bath Portrait Lord Foster of Bath (LD)
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My Lords, I begin by saying that, while I disagree with a great deal of what the noble Lord, Lord Black, said, I agree entirely with him in his view that this Bill is not the right place for discussing Section 40. I am enormously grateful for the best wishes for a speedy recovery that have been passed to my noble friend Lord McNally and I know that he is bitterly disappointed that he cannot be here. He would have been proposing a very simple way forward —that Clause 50 should not stand part of the Bill. The implication of that would, of course, have been that Section 40 would have continued to be on the statute book. But he would have gone a stage further and argued that it would be certainly the view of these Benches that it should not only be retained on the statute book but also should have been implemented.

There have been all sorts of debates about and criticisms of the proposal that came from Sir Brian Leveson. We should accept that a great debt needs to be paid to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, for the way in which she has forensically gone through many of those criticisms and debunked them. The one criticism that has not been debunked by her is that it is no longer necessary to have protection of the type that was proposed by Leveson because there is not really a problem now with what the press is doing. I think the noble Lord, Lord Watts, put it very clearly: there are still many examples of wrongdoing by the press. We need to be well aware of the implications of removing Section 40. There would be virtually no access to justice for victims of press wrongdoing. Ordinary people who find themselves defamed, have their privacy invaded or their grief intruded on by wealthy and powerful newspapers in search of higher circulation or clickbait will find themselves virtually helpless.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, may well be right that the degree of wrongdoing has reduced. That does not alter the fact that it still exists and there needs to be a mechanism to help in particular those who do not have deep pockets to ensure that they can get justice. Therefore, it requires the Government—were they to be continuing—to make very clear what their alternative is to provide the protection for those very people. There may not now be the opportunity, given the announcement about the forthcoming election.

We have heard many alternative solutions put forward in the various amendments before us today. There is not now time to go through all the detail. So, on these Benches, we are very clear that the best way forward now would be for the Government to accept the view of the noble Lord, Lord Black, that this is not the right place for a discussion of Section 40, that Section 40 should remain on the statute book and that a future Government—whichever party is in charge—should have an opportunity to discuss the right way forward to continue to provide the protection that is still going to be needed. I give way.

Lord Black of Brentwood Portrait Lord Black of Brentwood (Con)
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Can I just make it clear that I did not say that this was not the place to deal with Section 40? I said this was not the place to open a whole debate about self-regulation. I was crystal clear that Section 40 needs to go in its entirety and I hope its repeal will go through with this Bill immediately.

Lord Foster of Bath Portrait Lord Foster of Bath (LD)
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I apologise profusely to the noble Lord if I misquoted him. Let me say therefore that it is very firmly my view that this Bill is not the right place for a discussion of Section 40 and all the ramifications.

With those relatively few remarks, I very much hope that the Government will consider that the removal of Section 40 should not form part of this Bill, should not form part of the wash-up discussions and should just be kept as it is and we can debate it at a future date, whether we are on the same side of the Chamber or the opposite side.

Lord Bassam of Brighton Portrait Lord Bassam of Brighton (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank all those who have already spoken, outlining their rich and often diverging views on this important clause. I understand completely that there are very different views around the Chamber and we have heard them for the last hour or so. I will outline the Opposition’s view on Clause 50 and Section 40.

The Leveson report is now over a decade old. Responding to, rightly, the concerns of the time, Brian Leveson’s aims were to balance the competing concerns of protecting the free press—which the noble Lord, Lord Black, spoke eloquently about—while ensuring high press standards. We have heard noble Lords championing those during the debate this afternoon.

Therefore, while the inquiry helped bring about a press regulator, it did not enforce mandatory membership for news publishers. Rather, it made membership voluntary but introduced incentives for publishers to join, including consequences if they did not. Section 40, which has never been commenced, would make publishers who had not signed up to the regulator vulnerable to paying the costs of those they face in legal cases even if the wider case was ruled in their favour. Press groups have long pointed out the impact this imbalance would have on their ability to undertake free and fair reporting.

The media landscape is now much changed, although some of the issues that were present then clearly are today. It is to be expected that that would be the case some 10 years on. Challenges from the rise of social media, online consumption of media and the consequences of falling advertising revenue mean that we have seen a significant impact on the ability of the press to compete in the market and undertake its vital work.

Additionally, a self-regulatory system for the press now exists—something not anticipated ahead of the creation of Section 40 in the 2013 Act. This alone makes the situation different from 2013 and, taken together, these changes mean that it is right that Section 40 should not remain in the Act as it is. Thus, and for those reasons, we cannot support the clause stand part proposition tabled by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and so ably and so colourfully supported by my noble friend Lord Lipsey.

On Amendment 87A from the noble Lord, Lord Watson, I am very grateful to my noble friend for his contribution, but we are unable to support his amendment. I know he will be disappointed at that and he made very powerful arguments and a powerful case in putting his amendment to the House.

In our view, Amendment 87A risks wrapping up publications in sometimes spurious legal disputes and opening the door to sometimes repeated and vexatious claims. It would also put the onus of determining factual inaccuracies on the High Court. We do not believe that to be the right place for this to happen.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, as ever, for her carefully thought-through contribution. I pay tribute to her for the work that she has done, very ably and passionately, over many years. Outside your Lordships’ House, I look forward to digesting what Brian Leveson has had to say on this issue and, by extension, his contribution to this important debate. I shall speak to one of the noble Baroness’s amendments in particular: Amendment 84 presents an advantage in keeping parts of Section 40 that provide positive incentives to join a regulator and protections for those that do, while removing the part of Section 40 that has caused so much concern. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on this.

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It is absolutely right that we hold our press accountable for its actions while allowing it to continue in a changing and challenging media landscape, and protecting it from vexatious claims that threaten its ability to do the right thing—and to do its job in holding the powerful to account. I also note that beyond the measure introduced in the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act, we have had no further concrete update on extending anti-SLAPP measures from the Government. In drawing this important debate to a close, can the Minister take the opportunity to update colleagues on that? It is a very important subject to cover.
This has been a richly illuminating debate, passionate and critical to the vitality of our democracy—a debate on a day when we have learned from the Prime Minister that we are to have a general election. No doubt the press will play its part in that, and I hope it plays a responsible one.
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, I turn first to Amendments 83 and 86 tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, which, if taken together, would intend not only to keep Section 40 on the statute book but to amend its subsections (1) and (2), so that the protections offered by subsection (2) apply not only to relevant publishers but to individuals employed by relevant publishers. This would protect journalists employed by news publishers which are members of regulators recognised by the Press Recognition Panel from having costs awarded against them in legal claims based on news-related material published by that publisher, regardless of the outcome.

As I understand it, the noble Baroness’s intention is that Section 40(3), which would make publishers that are not members of a PRP-backed regulator liable for costs in claims made against them, should not apply in the case of claims made against individual journalists employed by such publishers. If subsection (3) were to apply to such journalists, they would be unfairly held liable for the costs of claims, in contrast to their counterparts employed by members of a PRP-backed regulator. This is likely further to exacerbate the risks to media freedom and quality journalism posed by commencing Section 40.

The noble Baroness spoke powerfully against strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, which the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, invited me to say more on. We know that they are used as a deterrent to pursuing stories which expose wrongdoing due to the high costs involved with these lawsuits, making defending the case beyond the reach of those targeted by this form of litigation. The intention of her amendment appears to be to provide protection for only the cost of claims awarded against journalists employed by publishers that are members of regulators backed by the Press Recognition Panel, where material subject to the claim is news-related material published by the relevant publisher. As only one regulator, Impress, has sought approval by the Press Recognition Panel thus far, if enacted as amended in this way, Section 40 would protect only a small number of news publishers and journalists for the time being.

The Government believe that all journalists should be protected from SLAPPs, which are a pernicious form of litigation. That is why, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, mentioned, the Government have supported the Private Member’s Bill introduced by Wayne David MP in another place, which had its Second Reading there on 23 February. Furthermore, it is why the Government have committed to protecting media freedom and the invaluable role of a free press in our society and democracy more broadly. As part of this, we are committed to independent self-regulation of the press. For this reason, we do not consider that measures penalising publishers which are not members of a Press Recognition Panel-approved regulator are necessary or proportionate. Their commencement would constitute an intrusion by the Government into the freedom of the press.

I turn to the other amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins. Amendments 84 and 85 intend to remove only Section 40(3) of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 and to commence the remainder of Section 40, including subsection (2). Subsection (2) would protect publishers which are members of regulators recognised by the Press Recognition Panel from being liable for court costs awarded against them in legal claims, regardless of the outcome. The amendment is to commence subsection (2) within two months of this Bill gaining Royal Assent. Accepting these amendments would be at odds with the Government’s clearly stated position to protect media freedoms and to repeal Section 40 in its entirety.

I turn to the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Astor, whom I commiserate on his misfortune in the 5.30 pm race at Kempton Park. The Government have committed to a free and independent press and do not interfere with what the press can or cannot publish; that extends to endorsing regulators of which they should become members. Consulting on, with a view to creating, other incentives for the press to join a Press Recognition Panel-backed regulator that a consultation might identify would conflict with the Government’s position.

Indeed, the Government consulted on the repeal of Section 40 in its entirety in 2016 and the vast majority of respondents to that consultation backed repealing it. That was reflected in our last two manifestos. We therefore cannot delay repealing any part of the legislation that risks providing incentives for membership of an approved regulator. Incentivising a publisher to join specific regulators in any way is incompatible with protecting independent self-regulation of the press in the UK.

These amendments are unnecessary as the press regulation landscape has evolved since Section 40 was passed, as noble Lords have noted, with the establishment of two new press regulators and the decision of some publishers to use their own regulatory systems. In practice, as I say, the amendments would incentivise membership of Impress, as the sole UK regulator which has sought approval by the PRP. It is likely to lead to a chilling effect on publishers which choose not to join Impress. Accepting these amendments would not be compatible with the Government’s policy, so I cannot support them.

Amendment 87A tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Wyre Forest, would introduce a requirement on publishers which are not members of a Press Recognition Panel-backed regulator to publish a reply or a correction where they have published information containing a “significant factual inaccuracy”. The requirement is triggered by a demand made by an individual to whom the information relates. If the individual seeking the reply or correction is not satisfied with the publisher’s response, he or she would have the right to apply to the High Court for a determination of whether the publisher has complied with relevant parts of the section. The court may order the publisher to print a reply or correction, or to make another order as appropriate.

In practice, this amendment would incentivise membership of Impress and, as with the commencement of Section 40, it could disadvantage publishers which choose not to join it. For the reasons I have set out, I am not able to accept the amendments brought by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, or my noble friend Lord Astor and hope that they will not press them.

Lord Watson of Wyre Forest Portrait Lord Watson of Wyre Forest (Lab)
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As this may be the final opportunity before a possible change of Government, can I thank the Minister for his service to the country? He enjoys the support of all political parties on the creative industries. His contribution is immense and is deeply appreciated, particularly his support for the music sector. Can I press him a little on my question about whether the conventions of the parliamentary wash-up will be respected when it comes to controversial legislation?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord for his kind words; he might be getting a little ahead of himself. It has been a pleasure to serve as Minister and I hope to continue to do so. I look forward to campaigning in defence of the arts and creative industries in the general election ahead. He will appreciate that I have been in the Chamber since the announcement was made, so I will have to disappoint him by saying that the discussions will be had in the usual channels and announcements will be made in the usual way.

Like other noble Lords, I was sorry to hear about the operation that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is having. I am sure we all wish him a speedy recovery, so that he can be on the campaign trail soon. His amendment, spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, seeks to remove Clause 50 in its entirety. I refer noble Lords to the comments I made earlier on why the Government do not believe that an incentive to join a PRP-backed regulator is needed. The failure to repeal Section 40 in its entirety would be at odds with the Government’s manifesto commitment. For this reason, it is important that this clause stands part of the Bill.

Lord Watts Portrait Lord Watts (Lab)
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Can the Minister deal with the question I raised on how poor people can pursue a case if they do not have the legal means to get satisfaction through the courts?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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The landscape has changed a great deal since these debates were had. There are multiple routes for people to do it, and we think that that is right. The debate is one that has gone on for a great deal of time. Passionate though the contributions have been today, they have not significantly added to the debate that has gone on for a long time. I have little more to add.

Viscount Astor Portrait Viscount Astor (Con)
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My Lords, before the noble Baroness deals with her amendment, I ask that my noble friend the Minister, when he finishes this debate and the letter from Sir Brian Leveson is placed in the Library, might look at it carefully. He was asked whether a regulator recognised by the Press Recognition Panel must be regarded as a state regulator, with all that that implies about government interference and the powers of censorship. He points out that he simply does not understand how this assertion can be made, as the recognition panel simply does not regulate the press. He goes on to say that Section 40 does not force newspaper publications to pay costs when they win. I think the Minister would find it helpful if he read that document. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, would find it even more helpful because—who knows?—in July he might find himself dealing with that issue from this side of the House.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I will certainly read the correspondence. I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, for quoting from it. I think it bears reading in its entirety, which I will be glad to do.

To continue on the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Watts, there now exists a strengthened independent self-regulatory system for the press. The majority of traditional publishers are members of IPSO. Despite Section 40 never having been commenced, both Impress and IPSO offer arbitration schemes for legal claims relating to defamation, privacy and harassment. These schemes are either free, through Impress, or low-cost, through IPSO, for claimants. We do not think it likely that the repeal of Section 40, to which we have long been committed, would have an impact on access to low-cost arbitration.

Baroness Hollins Portrait Baroness Hollins (CB)
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My Lords, I thank everybody who has spoken in support of these amendments. The distraction of live election news during my speech probably contributed to me being misquoted by some noble Lords, so I repeat that my amendment would cause no detriment to the interests of the press. I am sad that the Minister has offered no options for protecting ordinary people. I trust that my arguments, and Sir Brian Leveson’s letter, will be read carefully, because a number of things that have been said are just not true. I hope that this will be reviewed carefully before proceeding to wash-up. It would be wise to remove Clause 50 before allowing an otherwise good Bill to pass. I hope that the Opposition have the courage to insist on this. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 83 withdrawn.
Amendments 84 to 86 not moved.
Clause 50 agreed.
Amendments 87 and 87A not moved.
Clause 51 agreed.
Amendment 88
Moved by
88: After Clause 51, insert the following new Clause—
“OFCOM Chair discharging duties under this Act(1) Before appointing an individual as Chair of OFCOM, the Secretary of State must ensure that their preferred candidate appears before relevant select committees of both Houses of Parliament to set out how they would discharge their duties under this Act.(2) If a relevant select committee of either House publishes a report concluding that the candidate should not be appointed, and the Secretary of State decides to proceed with the appointment, they must make a statement to either House about why they are proceeding with the appointment, including but not limited to—(a) an assessment of that candidate’s ability to act independently in discharging their duties under this Act, and(b) a response to any findings or recommendations made in a report by a relevant select committee.”Member's explanatory statement
This amendment seeks to increase parliamentary scrutiny of proposed OFCOM chairs in discharging their duties under this Act.
Lord Foster of Bath Portrait Lord Foster of Bath (LD)
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My Lords, we have spent a great deal of time during discussions on this Bill quite rightly talking about Ofcom—its duties and its vital role in supporting our creative industries and in protecting the public. Its primary purpose remains as laid down in the Communications Act 2003: to protect the interests of citizens and consumers. However, in recent years, it has become something of the proverbial Christmas tree on which we have chosen to hang a procession of new regulatory burdens and responsibilities, from regulating the BBC to overseeing online safety.

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It has grown like Topsy, and it continues to do so as it adds 350 new members of staff just to deal with the online safety responsibilities. That is before it has to consider more staff to deal with the additional duties proposed in this Bill. It will soon, therefore, have over 1,500 staff. I have said it before, and I repeat, that at some stage there will be a case for splitting Ofcom into two, with one body looking after infrastructure and the other responsible for content. However, I accept that that is for another day.
Meanwhile, Ofcom lies at the heart not just of our creative and telecoms industries but of our democracy. It is difficult to overstate either the power or responsibilities that it wields. Yet, as I have pointed out on a number of occasions during the passage of this Bill, we have very few levers of accountability or scrutiny as a Parliament. When, for example, some noble Lords argued—I supported them—in relation to the remit of PSBs, that we should be retaining the list of genres and the Reithian principles, the Minister argued that the streamlined approach in this Bill would be overseen by Ofcom. I pointed out that such an approach would give Parliament no say in what Ofcom considers appropriate genres to be covered. I was then told that that was not a problem because the royal charter for the BBC and the licences for the other PSBs would cover this. I argued in turn that, if that was happening, would we have an opportunity to have a say on the royal charter and the licences? The Minister pointed out that the royal charter is laid before the House and there is a debate, but I hope he will acknowledge that there is no opportunity for that royal charter to be amended, regardless of what is contained in the debate.
The Minister did not answer my question as to whether or not the licences would be laid before Parliament and debated, and whether we would have an opportunity to amend them. I have checked, and my understanding is that there is no opportunity for Parliament to have a debate, and certainly no opportunity for Parliament to amend them. Therefore, Parliament has no say. I would be grateful if the Minister—he can intervene now if he wishes to—could confirm whether I am right or wrong. Perhaps he will do it at his wash-up, in due course.
I also raised the issue of Ofcom choosing to make its own interpretation of the regulations around due impartiality and of what constitutes news. I believe there is a greater need for parliamentary oversight over Ofcom. It seems sensible to start by looking at the appointment of its chairman, hence my Amendment 88. Currently, the Government appoint the chairman, with no safeguards against a highly partisan political appointment which may have little to do with promoting public interest. After that, the chair is effectively free to follow his or her own prejudices or political fixations.
This may sound like I have a particular beef about the current chairman, but nothing could be further from the truth. Whatever his political allegiances, we could not ask for anybody better. He rolls into one being a former BBC chairman, ITV chairman and Channel 4 chief executive. That is pretty good experience, and we are very pleased that we have him, even if—allegedly—he has never used Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or TikTok.
However, that is simply not the point. Given the power wielded by this hugely important institution that lies at the heart of our culture and our democracy, it is imperative that we ensure that the appointment of all chairs is carried out with proper scrutiny by Parliament, which, after all, determines what the regulator should do. Ideally, I would have tabled an amendment arguing for an independent body to recommend a candidate for final approval by Parliament, but, sadly, such an amendment was deemed out of scope. My Amendment 88 is the next best—in scope—option. It would require the Government’s preferred candidate to appear before relevant Select Committees of both Houses to explain how he or she believes Ofcom should discharge its duties under this Act. If the committees conclude that the person should not be appointed, the Government must, if they still plan to go ahead with the appointment, at least explain why they are doing so, in a debateable Statement.
Of course, it is equally imperative that Parliament have the opportunity to scrutinise Ofcom’s performance in the exercise of its duties under the Communications Act, so Amendment 90 ensures that Ofcom is subject to review within a year of the Bill being passed, and that Parliament will have an opportunity to debate the outcome of that review. It is in fact not that dissimilar from Amendment 91, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton.
As Ofcom grows inexorably in size and importance, it is incumbent on us to ensure that it is properly held to account. At present, I do not believe it is. These two amendments would make a difference in that regard. I beg to move.
Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton (Lab)
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My Lords, I rise to speak to my Amendment 91. The noble Lord, Lord Foster, outlined in his usual articulate manner the issues we are looking at in this group. We created Ofcom, and it is a hugely important regulator with a growing portfolio of responsibilities. This is a good time to look at whether it is being properly and adequately resourced, and supported in a way consistent with the enormous responsibilities it carries. In a way, that is what my amendment is about. There is a broader issue here than just Ofcom being accountable under this legislation. It is important that we have a good look at how Ofcom is supported to do its job properly. That might include looking at how the chair is appointed, or it may be a matter of resourcing.

We need to ask whether Ofcom is properly accountable to Parliament, in a way consistent with the important job it does. If we expect Ofcom to deliver robust regulation and protect our PSBs, viewers and listeners, we need to be sure that it is doing that job adequately and moving quickly when it needs to in order to deal with complaints and breaches of the regulatory framework for which it is responsible. So it is a question of confidence and accountability, and I want us to be confident that Ofcom is doing its job properly and has the right accountability to Parliament, given the growth in its work. I want to hear from the Minister that the Government are aware that this is not just business as usual for Ofcom now, because it is not.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness. I will address Amendment 88 first. The noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, brought up an important point about Ofcom’s impartiality and the process for appointing its chairman. I join him in commending the noble Lord, Lord Grade of Yarmouth, the current chairman, on his ongoing work to steer Ofcom through a time of great regulatory change—I acknowledge the change that the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, alluded to in her closing remarks. As the noble Lord, Lord Foster, said, he draws on his extensive expertise in the sector.

Given the trust we place in Ofcom to regulate our media sector, its independence and impartiality are of paramount importance. To that end, the existing processes ensure that the appointment of the Ofcom chairman is designed to give effect to just those objectives. The chairman is appointed by the Secretary of State following a fair and open competition. This appointment is regulated by the office for the Commissioner for Public Appointments. The chairman of Ofcom is designated as a significant appointment by the commissioner. This means that the advisory assessment panel, which advises the Secretary of State, must have a senior independent panel member to ensure its impartiality. This member must be independent of the appointing department and must not be politically active.

The parliamentary scrutiny of this process was enhanced in the update to the Governance Code on Public Appointments in February this year. The updated guidance specifies that, should the responsible Minister not follow the advice of the advisory assessment panel, she or he is required to write to the chairman of the Select Committee when she or he announces the chosen candidate, and must appear before the Select Committee if requested to do so.

Furthermore, the chosen candidate is required to appear before the Select Committee before he or she is appointed. These new processes, which I hope the noble Lord agrees will help to address many of the concerns he raised, will apply to all future appointments to the role. We believe that this process ensures robust scrutiny and promotes Ofcom’s independence. I appreciate the noble Lord’s intention in tabling this amendment and agree with him about the importance of the topic it covers, but, given that this process was updated as recently as February, I consider his amendment unnecessary and hope that he will be happy to withdraw it.

I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for Amendments 90 and 91 relating to Ofcom reporting. Ofcom has been regulating television and radio broadcasters since 2003, and we have confidence in its ability to continue to do so in the face of the changes brought about by the Bill. I appreciate what lies behind their amendments, which would ensure that the scope of the regulator’s functions, powers and duties—as well as its resources and capacity to deliver on its programme of work—is regularly reviewed. I am glad to say that there are already existing legislative requirements for Ofcom to report annually on how it carries out its functions. This information is published and laid before both Houses of Parliament, allowing the public and Parliament alike an opportunity for scrutiny.

In particular, Ofcom is already required to prepare a report on the carrying out of its functions each financial year, under paragraph 12 of the Schedule to the Office for Communications Act 2002. This includes reporting on its work, performance and finances, as well as any other matters requested by the Secretary of State. The last such report was published last July. This existing requirement combines some of the issues featured in the noble Lord’s and the noble Baroness’s amendments. More widely, it allows Ofcom to give a complete overview of its work. I hope that will reassure them.

On the noble Lord’s particular questions, the approach we have taken in the Bill is in line with that of other legislation. We have set out clearly defined principles that we want Ofcom to regulate against, and we have provided it with the tools it needs to do the job. On granular decision-making, it is right that Ofcom make these decisions. It has considerable sectoral expertise and is in the best place to judge the impact of its regulatory decisions. Off the back of the Bill, it will run 11 consultations, which will give a wide range of interested parties in the industry and beyond an opportunity to feed into its operational decision-making. Ultimately, Ofcom is in turn accountable to Parliament in the ways I set out earlier in Committee.

It is crucial that we protect Ofcom’s role as an independent regulator and give it the discretion to do its job. That is the approach we have taken in the Bill.