Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for National Heritage, said in the Commons yesterday that whether all MPs would have a free vote on Friday's Second Reading of Clive Soley's Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill was a matter for the Chief Whip.
Private Members' Bills such as Mr Soley's, which would create a legal right to have inaccuracies corrected and an independent press authority to enforce it, are theoretically allowed a free vote on Second Reading.
But it emerged yesterday that 100-plus ministers and parliamentary private secretaries were instructed in letters from the whips last Friday to abstain on the Bill to tighten Sunday trading law sponsored by Ray Powell, Labour MP for Ogmore. The Bill still passed its Second Reading.
The presumed rationale for such action, even if it only takes the form of an instruction not to vote, is that the Government intends to introduce its own measure. That could likewise be applied to Mr Soley's Bill. While Mr Soley, the Labour MP for Hammersmith, wants to curb press inaccuracy, government policy is to tackle invasion of privacy.
Mr Soley, who on Thursday is to publish the transcripts of cross-party hearings on his Bill, said he believed that even with 100 Tory absentions, his Bill had a better than 50-50 chance of passing Second Reading. 'A number of Tories have told me they will vote for it, and told me that very recently,' he said.
'It would not surprise me if they told their troops to stay out of it, but I would be very angry if they told them to vote against.'