March 13, 2013 10:46 pm

Leveson reforms hit legal snag

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David Cameron’s attempts to secure cross-party agreement on the Leveson press reforms hit an impasse on Wednesday after the prime minister and Ed Miliband locked horns over the need for legal underpinning of a new watchdog.

The prime minister refused to accede to Labour’s demand for statutory underpinning of a Royal Charter to regulate the press following 45 minutes of talks between Mr Cameron, the Labour leader and Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister. The trio will meet again next week to see if some agreement can be reached.

“It was a good meeting, but there are still issues to be resolved,” said a Labour source. “The discussions will continue. The party leaders expect to meet again in the next few days.” Mr Cameron’s camp was more gloomy. “Significant differences remain, but he wants to resolve them,” said a senior Downing Street official.

The meeting had been originally pencilled in for earlier in the week, but was pushed back as protracted negotiations – involving Maria Miller for the Tories, Harriet Harman for Labour and Lord Wallace for the Lib Dems – struggled to find a workable compromise.

Labour and the Lib Dems have called for legislation to recognise a new press watchdog, echoing calls from Hacked Off, a pressure group that represents hacking victims.

But Mr Cameron has been resolute that he will not tolerate new laws. Instead, Oliver Letwin, the cabinet minister, has drawn up a Royal Charter to regulate the press.

Media lawyers warned that wide political differences could scupper hopes of a deal.

“There is a big gap between what Labour seem to want and what the Conservatives won’t move from,” said Niri Shan, head of media and entertainment at Taylor Wessing, the solicitors. “The danger is that nothing gets done which would be the worst of all worlds.”

Both sides could save face by agreeing the Hugh Tomlinson QC compromise, which would see a standalone clause inserted in a bill stating that the Royal Charter could not be changed by ministers. That would enable Labour to claim victory in forcing a statutory element, while the Tories would remain relaxed because the provision is already part of Mr Letwin’s proposal.

A government official said last night that this had not yet been formally agreed between the two sides.

John Whittingdale, a senior Tory who chairs the media select committee, said on Wednesday that he hoped agreement could be reached quickly.

“This is an issue that should be taken out of the party debate and it should be possible to get a solution but I share the prime minister’s reluctance to have any kind of legislative framework so I hope that the alternative Letwin proposals can be agreed.”

Mr Cameron is under growing pressure to achieve a breakthrough. Key government legislation – the defamation bill and the enterprise and regulatory reform bill – is in danger of being shelved as peers insert Leveson amendments.

The government has made it clear that the defamation bill will not be returned to the House of Commons until there is agreement on Leveson because it cannot risk Lord Puttnam’s Leveson-friendly amendments, such as the introduction of an arbitration service to hear defamation claims, being voted through by Lib Dem and Labour MPs. Labour peers are also threatening to hijack the ERR bill next week, while MPs intend to insert Leveson amendments into the crime and courts bill.

“Cameron obviously wants to get the Labour party to sign up, but the important thing is to get the Lib Dems to sign up to the Royal Charter. Then they can force through the defamation bill knowing that they can get it through the Commons,” said one MP on Wednesday.

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