Julian Huppert writes…Update on the Defamation Bill

libel-reform-campaign-logoThe Defamation Bill has had a troubled passage through Parliament. Hijacked by Labour over Leveson, attacked by Tory backbenchers concerned about companies and undermined by vested interests, I was glad to see it finally reach one of its last Parliamentary stages in the Commons today.

I was on the Joint Committee that considered this bill when it was a draft – those discussions are already beginning to feel like a distant memory! But we will deliver a huge reform of the UK libel laws.

All the while, Lib Dems have been vociferous in their defence of both free speech, and a fairly administered right not to be defamed: particularly leading campaigners like Lord Lester and Evan Harris.

The fact that this Bill is in one of its final stages, and its main components – in line with Party policy – are still intact, is testament to our resolve.

In the words of John Kampfner, the chief executive of Index on Censorship: “When we launched the Libel Reform Campaign in 2009, only the Liberal Democrats backed change. Now the cause has cross party support.”

But for many, a key provision in the Bill concerns corporations. As I wrote back in June, when it comes to defamation, corporations and non-natural persons are treated just like individuals, even though they clearly aren’t the same.

This has a horrible effect on free speech in the UK, as companies abuse their power and resources.

Some of you will know that backbench Tories have tried to block our Lib Dem commitment to treat companies and individuals differently.

I’ve been working intensely on this issue, talking to Ministers – Lib Dems and Tories – and campaigners to get this resolved. And we seem to have done it. Following an intervention from myself during today’s debate, Helen Grant – the Justice Minister leading for the Government – confirmed a change in policy. She said:

I am, however, aware of the strength of feeling that exists on the issue of whether there should be a specific provision in the Bill requiring non-natural persons trading for profit to show substantial financial loss. As we have made clear at earlier stages of the Bill, in order to satisfy the serious harm test such bodies are likely in practice to have to show some form of actual or likely financial loss anyway. But I can confirm that we are prepared to actively consider that aspect of the amendment further and listen carefully to the views expressed in both Houses.

Now, you may wonder what that actually means. Which is a fair concern, given that some of it is incomprehensible to anyone outside the Westminster village.

Simon Hughes got the Government to confirm it meant a revised amendment. The Government will put back into the bill the Lib Dem aim to treat companies differently. Following our policy and the approach recommended by the Joint Committee, corporations will have to show substantial financial loss to take action – not just reputational loss.

For complex procedural reasons, the detailed changes will be made next week, when the Bill returns to the Lords. But it will happen.

From Conference motion, to Government Bill, we’re very nearly there with libel reform. This final step – to make the laws fair for ordinary citizens – is within grasp. We will seize it and deliver libel reform as we promised.

* Julian Huppert is Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge.

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15 Comments

  • Evan Harris 16th Apr '13 - 8:26pm

    Well done to Julian (and Nick and Tom) on their efforts here in getting the concession on companies.

    I would like to add David Howarth to the tribute list and declare the interest that it was me and David who wrote the manifesto words cited in the debate – that it should be harder for companies to sue in libel.

    The key question is whether we can make any further progress on the “Derbyshire” issue of ensuring that private providers of public services are not allowed to chill criticism by libel actions that are not open to their public sector competitors. Both should rely on using the media, suing in malicious falsehood and in individual directors suing in person.

    Julian is only wrong in saying that the bill was “hijacked by Labour over Leveson”. It was not hijacked and the Puttnam amendments were supported by a massive cross-bench vote , sponsored by senior Tory figures, and voted for by several Lib Dems, and not really opposed by the Lib Dem minister, Tom McNally who said “There is a strong case for getting things moving. If this debate has helped to stimulate progress, that is certainly a value that it has. There is a value in all three parties putting their cards on the table. This is not a time for secret diplomacy.” http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201213/ldhansrd/text/130205-0001.htm#13020546001340

    The welcome effect of Puttnam was to force the Tories to publish their (hopeless) Royal Charter and unblock the log-jam. The Defamation Bill was never truly under threat from Cameron refusing to bring it back with the Puttnam amendments in it, because the Crime and Courts Bill and the ERR bill were always the main suitable vehicles to force Leveson to be delivered.

    Interests: Associate Director of Hacked Off, Co-founder and member of Libel Reform Campaign.

  • @Tony Greaves: The backbench Tory amendment put down by Sir Edward Garnier was passed with most Lib Dem MPs voting for it, because supposedly the Government will give some kind of concession when the bill returns to the Lords (I’ll believe it when I see it).

  • Thanks for your work on this issue Julian. You and Tim have done some excellent fire-fighting for liberals and libel reformers. I just hope some of the party leadership learn the lessons from this – especially with the Draft Communications Data Bill likely to return to the political agenda in some form soon – http://www.markpack.org.uk/40489/the-libel-reform-o-turn-and-what-the-party-needs-to-learn/

  • While this battle is far from over, Julian, once again, well done; I believe the tireless work you and your allies have put into issues like this is not going unappreciated by the party at large.

  • So why did parliament remove this clause yesterday if it is just going to be put back in next week?

  • @Tony 11.08 I don’t think that that is right.

    The Govt only wanted to agree (“for the moment”) with clause 2(1) and Clause 2(3) so it could either disagree with the amendment (to re-table its own reduced version in the Lords) – which is what happened, or table an amendment in lieu in the Commons. The latter did not happen I suspect because there was no time between Govt concession and tabling deadline.

    I also think there are drafting issues wit 2 (1) which may need to be ironed out in the Lords.

  • Garnier’s motion passed by 298 votes to 230.

    This means that if the 37 Lib Dem MPs who voted aye had instead kept their manifesto pledge and voted no the motion would have been defeated (with 257 ayes and 267 nos).

    It seems insane for Julian (and the rest of the party) to be declaring victory having voted against the provisions they wanted.

  • Peter Chivall 18th Apr '13 - 3:13pm

    This seems once again to highlight the frightening gap between an increasingly out-of-touch leadership and a Party which is pointing in a quite different direction. We could grit our teeth and bear it when it had some basis in the Coalition Agreement, but this raft of wholly illiberal measures , including this and the Secret Courts issue just seems to show a total lack of Liberal spine in that part of the leadership that is so keen to justify the Coalition in terms of economic Liberalism. The sooner they all move on the betteroff both the Party and the people will be.

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