Lib Dems push forward on freedom of speech, freedom of information

Two snippets of news today about freedoms – a reminder of the importance of libel law reform and good news on extending freedom of information.

In the Independent, John Kampfner (Chief Executive of Index on Censorship) writes:

“There’s nothing like a boob job cream to get readers going on an important issue. The case of Dr Dalia Nield, one of the country’s leading plastic surgery consultants, goes to the heart of the problem with English libel law. Dr Nield took issue with the company producing the cream, which claimed to increase a woman’s cup size. Her remarks, in a national newspaper, produced a familiar outcome – a threat of action from Britain’s legal establishment.

“A citizens’ advice bureau has been threatened for challenging the conduct of a fraud-prevention firm. An official at a south London borough is being sued for comments allegedly made about a local headmaster in emails between himself and a civil servant.

“These cases and more attest to a culture in the UK of the citizen critic being prevented from airing concerns on matters of public interest…

“So far, so terrible: and yet, after a year-long lobbying campaign, the law is set to change. This spring the Coalition Government launches its draft Defamation Bill – the first serious attempt to rebalance the law for generations.”

Not only is the Government going to publish its draft Bill, but Lord (Tom) McNally, the Lib Dems’ Minister of State for Justice, has staked his ministerial reputation on it, saying his career should be judged on the outcome.

Meanwhile, today has also brought news about the government’s promise to extend the reach of freedom of information legislation:

Freedom of information laws are to be extended as part of a push by the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, to make public bodies more accountable. The deputy prime minister also wants to cut the length of time government records are kept secret from 30 years to 20.

Current FoI legislation covers councils and government departments, but Clegg wants it to include potentially hundreds more bodies such as the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Financial Services Ombudsman and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. In a speech tomorrow, Clegg will say the reforms are “part of our wider project to resettle the relationship between people and government”.

“Free citizens must be able to hold big institutions and powerful individuals to account,” he will say.

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  • Good news on defamation, we have seemed to be moving toward the american approach of litigation first reason later for far too long. Free speech always comes at a price and there needs to be a reasoned approach to what is or is not reasonable. I hope all sides avoid the politics and get the bill to the Lords which seems, to me, to be good at looking at this type of issue (so long as the principles don’t get lost in the details).

    On freedom of information I do think there needs to be more thought around the cost of disclosure. The principles are great and have led to some interesting revelations since the legislation came into force. The problem is that some organisations have been swamped with requests which can be quite complex, and therefore time consuming (with the associated costs increasing in line). At a time of decreasing budgets we need to ensure that additional costs are controlled.

  • Andrew Suffield 7th Jan '11 - 7:29pm

    The problem is that some organisations have been swamped with requests which can be quite complex, and therefore time consuming

    And also that some organisations deliberately inflate the complexity of requests (for a variety of reasons, including the desire of bureaucrats to ensure job security and grow their department). My personal favorite is one occasion when I asked for a (fairly short) table of numbers, and what I eventually got back (on the last day of the deadline, weeks later) was the numbers I asked for, plus a thick document that I didn’t ask for which consisted entirely of excuses for why these numbers were reasonable.

  • Indie today reporting that the Royal Family is to be protected from FoI requests!

    A backward step in my view. Any comments?

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