Minding the gaps

Des Browne 4x3.jpgDes Browne on Labour's concerns with the Defamation Bill

Our defamation laws are not fit for purpose. We have known this for years and Labour started the process of reform when we were in government. The Defamation Bill, which has its second reading today in the Lords, seeks to address these concerns.

Labour supports the reform of our libel laws to make them making them fairer, simpler and cheaper, and to achieve a better balance between protecting freedom of speech on the one hand and reputations on the other.

The Coalition’s approach to reforming defamation has been piecemeal and they have failed to address a number of key issues. Their Bill fails the simple test set out above. A piecemeal approach to legislation is the hallmark of the way in which they operate and was partly responsible for the failure of their constitutional reform programme. We must protect these much needed reforms from a similar disastrous end.

Cross-party consensus on the need to update our defamation laws means that the government could have worked with the whole of Parliament to put forward sensible reforms. Instead they failed to take advantage of this opportunity, principally failing to take into account many of the recommendations of the Joint Committee of both Houses, which was set up to scrutinize the Bill, and rejecting most of our helpful proposals in the Commons.

In addition, because of the government’s mishandling of the timetable, MPs were unable to scrutinize large aspects of the reforms, particularly as Ministers still refuse to publish the regulations setting out the detail of much of them. As the Bill enters the Lords, the regulations are still no nearer publication.

The result is a Bill that needs significant improvement. It is ironic that many in the Commons, including on the LibDem benches, now rely on Peers to fill in the gaps!

Nevertheless, fill in the gaps is exactly what we intend to do. Today, I will set out where we think the Bill is lacking and how we will seek to improve it. We will seek more detail and clarity, for example on what the new, higher threshold of “serious harm” entails. We will aim to improve the so-called “public interest defence” – aimed at creating a defence of responsible publication on a matter of public interest – and the way in which the Bill deals with website operators. We will also press the government for details of an early resolution procedure, to make defamation proceedings quicker and cheaper.

At present, the Bill does not include provisions to restrict the use of defamation laws by corporations. Labour would like to see measures to this effect, in order to address the inequality of arms that exists between wealthy and powerful corporations, and members of the public or NGOs.

Finally, we are concerned about access to justice under the Bill. The current system is skewed by the high costs of defamation proceedings, which limits access to justice to the wealthy. There is no point reforming the law in this area unless we ensure that people from all backgrounds have access to justice. We will therefore want to introduce measures to address the costs of defamation proceedings.

There is much work to do on this Bill. Thankfully, many on the Labour benches have considerable expertise in this area and we will draw on their knowledge to ensure that the Bill that eventually leaves the Lords is clearer, more proportionate and indeed more fit for purpose.

Lord Des Browne of Ladyton is leading for Labour’s Lords frontbench on the Defamation Bill

Published 9th October 2012

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