Sir George responds to his constituents' queries on Phone Hacking and News International
12 Jul 2011
A substantial number of constituents have contacted me in broadly similar terms about phone hacking and News International and this is my response:

The allegations about phone-hacking are incredibly serious and what appears to have taken place is simply indefensible. The whole country is rightly deeply shocked. The idea of murder victims, terrorist victims or grieving families having their phone hacked by the press is sickening.

As you know, there is currently a major police investigation into this, carried out by officers who had nothing to do with the original investigation. I absolutely support this investigation and, as the Prime Minister has said, I believe that it should be conducted without fear or favour, wherever the evidence leads.

The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have agreed that it is also right and proper to establish a full, public inquiry to get to the bottom of what happened. A judge needs to be in charge so there is no question that it is totally independent. Everything that happened is going to be investigated. The witnesses will be questioned by a judge under oath and no stone will be left unturned.

Secondly, we need to learn the wider lessons for the future of the press. The Government has established an inquiry conducted by Justice Leveson, with a panel of figures from a range of different backgrounds who command the full support, respect and above all confidence of the public. They will be truly independent, without any motive but to seek the truth and clean up the press. This inquiry should look at the culture, the practices and the ethics of the British press. In particular, they should look at how our newspapers are regulated and make recommendations for the future.

It goes without saying that I believe it is absolutely vital that our press is free. It is an essential component of our democracy and our way of life. Press freedom, however, does not mean that the press should be above the law. This new system of regulation must strike the balance between an individuals right to privacy and what is in the public interest.

We also need to be clear about how all this has happened, and the responsibilities we all have for the future. Over the decades, on the watch of both Labour leaders and Conservative leaders, politicians and the press have spent time courting support, not confronting the problems. I believe that things have got to change and that the relationship needs to be different in the future.

As regards allegations of corruption within the police service, if this does transpire to have been the case it is entirely unacceptable and of course illegal. If there are any police officers who have accepted bribes from journalists, they should face the full force of the law. I understand that the inquiry is now being overseen by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. I would, however, like to stand up for the vast majority of police officers in this country who work tirelessly and decently to fight crime and to keep us safe.

On BSkyB, on 25 January, the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said he was minded to refer News Corporations proposed merger with BSkyB to the Competition Commission in the absence of any specific undertakings in lieu. News Corporation have now withdrawn their undertakings in lieu. As a result of News Corporations announcement, Jeremy Hunt has referred this to the Competition Commission with immediate effect. This will mean that the Competition Commission will be able to give further full and exhaustive consideration of the impact on media plurality this merger may have, taking into account all relevant recent developments.

BSkyB holds broadcasting licences for its television channels. Ofcom must be satisfied on an ongoing basis that the holder of a broadcasting licence is a fit and proper person. This is a requirement under the Broadcasting Act. News Corporation currently holds approximately 39.1 per cent of the shares in BSkyB. I am assured that Ofcom is aware of the allegations that have been reported of unlawful activity in its newspaper business. At this stage, however, I do not believe it is aware of any substantiated allegation which would suggest that BSkyB is not a fit and proper person to hold a broadcasting licence. Should News Corporations proposed acquisition of the rest of the shares in BSkyB proceed, I understand Ofcom would consider the evidence at that time.

The Opposition Motion for tomorrow is "This House believes that it is in the public interest for Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation to withdraw their bid for BSkyB."

As News International have withdrawn their bid, the motion has been overtaken by events.

(Below is my contribution to the debate)

The Leader of the House of Commons (Sir George Young) May I begin—[Hon. Members: “Where’s Cameron?”] May I begin by welcoming the tone of the Leader of the Opposition’s speech, which I very much hope will set the tone of our debate this evening? In response to the sedentary interventions from the Opposition, may I say that it is entirely appropriate that the Leader of the House should speak during this debate given that today represents a victory for Parliament and for those whom we represent. As events have overtaken the motion and as this is a short debate I propose, like the Leader of the Opposition, to make a brief contribution.

Despite the fact that the police investigation is under way and that the public inquiry announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is soon to be up and running, we are still hearing shocking allegations by the day. We are hearing allegations that personal details of members of the royal family were handed over to newspapers for profit, that the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), whom I welcome this evening, had his details blagged by another News International title and that victims of terrorism also had their phones hacked into and their privacy invaded. As both the nature of the malpractice and the scope of the newspapers involved widens, it is right that the police continue to follow their inquiries and the evidence wherever it takes them.

It was simply unrealistic to expect the public and politicians to separate all this from News Corporation’s proposed takeover of BSkyB. That is why both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister were right when they said earlier this week that News Corporation should withdraw its bid. Any hon. Member who was running the company right now, with all its problems, difficulties and the mess it is in would want to get their house in order first, before thinking about the next corporate move. That is why it was entirely right for News Corporation to withdraw its bid today. The whole House will welcome that decision.

I want to pick up a point that the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) made towards the end of his remarks. Today has proved that those commentators who have in the past written this place off were completely wrong. We have seen the tenacity of Back Benchers. The hon. Members for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) and for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), my hon. Friends and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) have been in the forefront of a relentless campaign for the truth, and they have revealed that the House is able not only to reflect the public mood, but to be a champion of its causes.

I also pay tribute to the forensic scrutiny of Select Committees—those chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith). They have vindicated the decision to make the Select Committees more independent of the Executive. The Chamber, which some had argued was losing its relevance and power, has in fact been leading the public debate over the past fortnight, with the Standing Order 24 debate, statements and Select Committee hearings all being televised live.

No one can say today, as they did two years ago, that Parliament is irrelevant. Yes, we have learned the hard way how easy it is to lose the trust of our constituents, but having proved itself an effective champion of the people on this issue, the House has the opportunity not only to regain the initiative, but to restore public confidence in Parliament at the same time.

Several hon. Members rose —

Sir George Young: I give way to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley).

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I thank the Leader of the House for giving way. As the saga unfolds and acquires a greater international component, what powers will the inquiry have to ensure that the international aspects of the story can be properly investigated so that the House is seen to have teeth and to be able to clean up the mess here, but to set an international standard?

Sir George Young: The prime focus of the inquiry that we have announced should be getting things right in this country, but I have no doubt that as we make progress there will be interest on an international scale in the way we take matters forward.

Given the news that broke this afternoon, it is right that the House can now focus its attention on the wider concerns that the public feel—allegations of widespread law-breaking by parts of the press, alleged corruption on the part of the police, and the years of inaction from politicians.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is unprecedented for a motion to be sponsored by six Opposition party leaders in the House of Commons and supported by Members on the Government Benches too? The Prime Minister said that he wishes there to be a cross-party approach. Bearing that in mind, does the right hon. Gentleman regret the fact that discussions that took place last night excluded the parties of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

Sir George Young: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister addressed that question in the statement this afternoon. We have published draft terms of reference. We are consulting the devolved Administrations. They will have an opportunity to make an impact on the terms of reference.

There is a proper, large-scale and well-resourced police investigation which has all the powers it needs to bring those responsible to justice.

Mr Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House give way?

Sir George Young: For one final moment.

Mr Reed: There is no doubt that the depths of the scandal have yet to be fully revealed. Many people, among them Carl Bernstein, have compared it to Watergate. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that comparison?

Sir George Young: It makes sense to allow the inquiry to take place before we pronounce a verdict on whether there is comparability with what happened in America, but the way that we have responded was the right way to respond, rather than to indulge in the sort of cover-up that happened over the Atlantic.

The House is clear that justice should be done. The Government are doing everything we can to make that happen. All Members will remember the scandal over parliamentary expenses that engulfed the House two years ago, almost to the day. Illegality and gross misconduct by a few, cover-ups and a lack of transparency, and the failure of self-regulation were a toxic mix that led to a dramatic change in how Parliament was perceived by the public, with the reputation of the majority tarnished by the actions of a minority.

I see parallels between what happened to us and what is now happening to another important pillar of any democracy, namely a free press. While there are parallels, there are also lessons. As with expenses, the right approach to the current situation is to reach political agreement on the right way forward, to ensure much greater transparency and to move away from self-regulation to independent regulation without impeding the media’s ability to fulfil its democratic role.

Mr Cash : Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Sir George Young: I will make progress, as many Members wish to speak. The police investigation, the inquiry that the Prime Minister launched today and the ongoing inquiries being carried out by Select Committees must now be allowed to get on with their crucial work.

Mr Cash: On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: I hope that it is a point of order.

Mr Cash: We have been told that there are published terms of reference and it would be helpful to have access to them. We do not know where they are and have not been told what they are.

Mr Speaker: That is a very important point, but it suffers from the disadvantage of not being a point of order.

Sir George Young: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in his statement this afternoon that the draft terms of reference would be placed in the Library.

This country has a rich tradition of a lively and free press, which must continue. We have been fortunate to have a strong and robust police force, which now must prove itself beyond reproach. Finally, although some outside this country may disagree, we are fortunate to have a House of Commons that is independent of Government, and the fact that Parliament has proved itself effective in resolving the issue is a tribute to how the House has addressed the matter.

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