The 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.