Variable progress

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As the Defamation Bill concludes its Lords Committee stage, Des Browne calls on Ministers to make an improved Bill much better

As we draw towards the end of the Lords Committee stage of the Defamation Bill, significant progress is being made. We have already obtained a number of concessions from Ministers – on improving the public interest defence, enabling the court to remove defamatory statements from websites, and ensuring that regulations on website operators will be subject to the affirmative procedure – thereby increasing much needed scrutiny. 

All of this is mainly thanks to the work of Labour colleagues in the Commons, who pressed the government hard on these issues. But of the areas of progress made since the Bill has been with us in the Lords one is the idea to allow defamation proceedings to be brought in the county court rather than the high court. This would significantly bring down the costs of defamation proceedings; and when it was last discussed, the Minister said he would look into it. And we will press him further to ensure he has.

Nowhere however, is it more important to make progress than in relation to defamation on the internet. 

Here again, Peers have had a wide ranging, informed and lengthy debate. My colleague Dianne Hayter, for example, was forceful in standing up for the rights of the individual – whether the small-time blogger defending freedom of speech or the individual who has been defamed online and can’t afford to do anything about it. The Minister has again promised to go away and reflect; in doing so, he will have to strike a balance between the interests of all parties. We will remain engaged in that process, and will continue to push for the regulations to be brought in before the Lords returns to this issue – on the floor of the House – at Report stage.

We are pleased that the government’s spokesman in the Lords, Tom McNally is taking our concerns into account – and much more sympathetically to these than his colleagues in the Commons. We just hope they will now deliver. This Bill has become a good one and now enjoys cross-party consensus. The task now for the government, is to listen to our concerns make it even better.

Today, we’re onto the vexed issue of parliamentary privilege, the concerns of secondary publishers (booksellers and others) and the very important issue of defamation costs. 

On the latter, many concerns were expressed throughout the passage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Bill that such costs should be excluded in its provisions. It was argued that the so called ‘Jackson reforms’ should not apply to defamation, as this would effectively put defamation and privacy proceedings beyond the reach of most people. 

Assurances were given during the passage of that Bill in the Lords (by Lord McNally), as well as during the passage of the Defamation Bill in the Commons. But, despite a commitment to disapply the LASPO Act while a solution to defamation costs is found (which would be welcome), we are still waiting for Ministers to come forward with provide a concrete proposal.

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

Published 17th January 2013

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