MPs have again voted against carrying out part two of the Leveson Inquiry after Culture Secretary Matt Hancock offered strengthened Government powers to scrutinise the UK’s largest independent press regulator.
MPs narrowly rejected Baroness Hollins’s amendment to the Data Protection Bill pushing for Leveson Two to take place – which was passed by the House of Lords yesterday – by 301 votes to 289.
The Government’s majority has increased by three since the Commons vote on a very similar proposal last week put forward by Labour MP Ed Miliband.
Hancock told MPs before the vote that he wanted to add five new amendments to the bill, partially to ensure there is is “no backsliding” on the media’s commitment to the Independent Press Standards Organisation’s low-cost compulsory arbitration scheme.
The new law will ensure a report into the “use and effectiveness” of the scheme – to which the UK’s best-selling national newspapers have signed up ahead of its launch on 1 May – comes before Parliament at least every three years.
Hancock said: “The point that we are trying to address here is to ensure that the welcome moves by IPSO in the last few weeks can be debated by this house and sustained.
“I think that the low cost arbitration they brought in is good for the press and good for ordinary people who want redress from the press. I want to see it continue and this report will consider whether it does.”
He added that it would be up for the “government of the day” to decide how to proceed if the Culture Secretary is unhappy with any report into the low-cost compulsory arbitration scheme.
Hancock also widened the scope of the Information Commissioner’s review into media compliance with the new data protection law so it looks at good practice in the processing of personal data for the purposes of journalism.
This review will also be made permanent, to be held every five years after the first review which will take place within four years. Leveson Two would have been a one-off inquiry, said Hancock.
He also gave the Information Commissioner’s Office stronger powers to compel evidence as part of these reviews to ensure they are “robust and comprehensive”.
These amendments have been into force automatically, without the need for a commencement order (to bring them into force at a later date), as a “show of good faith”, said Hancock.
“What we propose with this set of amendments is that this house can continue to debate and scrutinise the effectiveness of the self-regulation of the press without requiring statutory regulation, which we seek to avoid.”
He later added: “I supported the original Leveson Inquiry and I’ve met victims of press intrusion, including some in this house, and worse still I’ve heard about the impact on members and their families and I’m fully aware of the distress that has been caused and how lives have been affected by false allegations and how hacking was used to access the most intimate of messages and how personal information was obtained through blagging and deception.
“But much has changed since the inquiry and while our press is not perfect the culture that allowed phone hacking to become the norm has gone and with the newly strengthened IPSO this country now has the most robust system of redress for press intrusion that we’ve ever had.”
Former Labour leader Ed Miliband, who tabled last week’s amendment pushing for Leveson Two, which was also voted down, said before today’s vote that an inquiry was needed to answer three key questions.
He said these were: What is the truth about what happened? Why it was allowed to happen? And, what lessons we can learn for the future?
He said: “There are some questions which we still don’t know the answers to. What were the corporate governance and other failures at News International and elsewhere that allowed this wrongdoing?
“Did the police fail to investigate? Was it their close relationships with the press? Did the politicians do the same? These are highly material questions.”
Miliband added that there was “no substitute for a systematic look at these issues and why that culture was allowed to happen and why, in certain cases, that culture is still allowed to happen”.
Following the vote, Hancock tweeted: “Delighted House of Commons has now voted twice – with increased majority – to defend a free and fair press. It’s time to put this bill on the Statute Book.”
Hacked Off executive director Dr Evan Harris said: “Today the Government have aided and abetted concealment and cover-up, in opposing the completion of an inquiry into corruption across the press, the police and politicians.
“It is a sad day for freedom of information, trust in journalism, and press ethics, all of which will suffer from the Government’s capitulation to press owners.
“But the fight goes on for the victims of press abuse, who will continue to campaign in Parliament and in the courts for a free and accountable press and the reforms they were promised.”
It is understood that Labour will not push for a vote on an amendment to the Data Protection Bill proposing Section 40-style cost penalties for data breaches by news publishers.
The News Media Association said it welcomed the Commons’ “clear decision to reject Leveson Two and punitive costs sanctions” and “looked forward to the early repeal of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act”.
“Yet another costly statutory inquiry into the news media inevitably would have demonised the entire press for the past failings of a few and led to more recommendations damaging for freedom of speech.
“The ICO’s increased powers will need to be carefully assessed and we will seek an early meeting with the Information Commissioner.
“Together with IPSO and its compulsory arbitration scheme, these mean that newspapers – local, regional and national – are subject to greater accountability in the UK than in any other western democracy.”
Picture: Parliament Live TV