Monday, March 18, 2013

The press regulation deal is both more and less than it seems

I wonder whether our political leaders know what they are doing.

Their agreement includes a draft Royal Charter establishing the new press regulation system. The Charter states that, once passed, it can only be altered by a two-thirds majority in both the Commons and the Lords.

This provision is being given legal force in an amendment to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill:

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.

This amendment is deliberately general. As David Cameron, fearful of charges that he had caved in, explained:
This is not by any stretch of the imagination statutory regulation of the press. Nor is it even statutory recognition of either the independent press regulator or indeed the Royal Charter. It is a three line clause which applies to all Royal Charters of a particular nature from this point onwards.  
Colleagues may ask whether this no change clause could be used in future for a more aggressive approach to regulation of the press. Because it doesn’t mention press regulation and it doesn’t even mention this Royal Charter it is no more in danger of being used in this way than any other piece of legislation on the statute book.
But the objection he didn’t anticipate is the opposite one: couldn’t this no-change clause be used to set up other Royal Charters in defiance of the will of Parliament?

It looks like it could. The Privy Council – which is, in effect, the Cabinet – could create a Charter regulating some other industry, and include a no-change rule that required a two-thirds (or three-quarters, or nine-tenths) majority for its amendment or repeal.

But there’s a but.

The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, when passed, won’t itself be subject to the two-thirds rule. It could be amended by a simple parliamentary majority to remove the no-change clause. So a Cabinet that tried to bypass Parliament could be reined back in.

But there’s another but.

This also applies to the current Royal Charter. The no-change clause can be overturned by a simple majority, and then the new press regulation system can be scrapped in the ordinary way.

This feels like locking your valuables in a strong safe and then putting the key to the safe in a shoebox.

So, I wonder whether our political leaders know what they are doing.

No comments: