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Press regulation: Ceci n’est pas une statute

18 March 2013

12:46 PM

18 March 2013

12:46 PM

The party leaders should finish their discussions on Leveson – by phone – in the next hour or so. We’ll then get a statement in the Commons on the outcome of those talks, and it’s highly likely that all three leaders will speak as part of that statement.

But the big debate now is whether what they have signed up to already constitutes the statutory underpinning that David Cameron was so very keen to avoid. There are two amendments to two different pieces of legislation relevant to press regulation: one on the Crime and Courts Bill on exemplary damages, and one to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill which prevents politicians meddling with the Royal Charter. That second amendment reads as follows:

‘Where a body is established by Royal Charter after 1 March 2013 with functions relating to the carrying on of an industry, no recommendation may be made to Her Majesty in Council to amend the body’s Charter or dissolve the body unless any requirements included in the Charter on the date it is granted for Parliament to approve the amendment or dissolution have been met.’

Now the problem is that this is an amendment to a piece of legislation. So it looks and smells rather like statutory underpinning. The Prime Minister’s spokesman didn’t necessarily help clear the confusion this morning when he briefed journalists that ‘what this does is it actually enshrines a non-legislative approach’. He added:

‘The amendment that will be made to the ERR Bill is a no-change clause, it will apply to any Royal Charter, it is not specific in any way to the Royal Charter that has been agreed with regard to the implementation of the Leveson proposals.’

This talk of specific and general underpinning makes the whole debate sound rather like a hushed conversation in the lingerie section of an old-fashioned department store. But whether the underpinning refers to one Royal Charter, or all of them from now on is less interesting than whether it is underpinning itself. This is what the spokesman had to say when I asked whether this was the first instance of legislation being introduced that influenced a Royal Charter, whether specifically or generally:

‘The key point about this is that it applies across the board and in a sense that’s why I was saying that it was enshrining the non-legislative route is in effect what it does is it points back to the Royal Charter itself.’

The Prime Minister may be less worried about that group of 20 potential pro-statute rebels that Coffee House identified on Friday. But there’s another group which is growing jittery about whether this is enshrining of a non-legislative approach is in fact statutory underpinning. That group is made up of the Conservative MPs who strongly opposed such underpinning from the start. Tracey Crouch tweeted this morning ‘I hate going to bed a loyalist and then wake up a rebel #pressregulation’.

And one of the things that might make that group a little grumpy is that though there were representatives of Hacked Off in the negotiations last night, neither Maria Miller nor the Prime Minister himself were present. Cameron was ‘kept in touch’, but wasn’t present. DCMS sources insist that Hacked Off were not in the room for the important discussions.

Those on the other side insist that having Oliver Letwin rather than the PM didn’t make any difference to the outcome of the talks, but as the Prime Minister has built a strong reputation as a negotiator, there might well be questions about why he wasn’t with the other two party leaders hammering out a deal.

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