Corporations have been mentioned by a number of hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly). I have already quoted from the Lib Dem manifesto; we specifically identified the area as one that we wanted addressed. It is absent from the Bill but I hope that some amendment or amelioration will be possible. Corporations are not individuals and should not have the same rights. Clearly, if individual directors were libelled they should have the same rights, but considering the extent to which

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corporations can use libel laws to manage their brand, as the Libel Reform Campaign has put it, we should be very careful to ensure that that cannot happen. It should not be simply about protecting an image as opposed to any real or substantial harm that might have been incurred as a result of comments that people might have made.

I promised to keep my remarks short and I always keep my word. We have made good progress on the Bill and I hope that the open approach that has been adopted so far by Lord McNally and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), will continue. The Bill can be improved. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so let us not pass it by.

7.30 pm

Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye) (Con): This is a timely debate. The Bill might be uncontested, as we have heard from many Members, but it is not uncontroversial. Free speech and freedom of expression have been brought to the forefront by the Leveson inquiry, which is happening a mile down the road. In this House, we know that there is a fine balance to be struck in weighing the right to freedom of speech and expression against the right to privacy. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State said in his opening remarks, when it comes to the law on defamation it is vital that we get the balance right. Every Member who has spoken has mentioned the difficulty of getting it right. The solution is not a simple one and great care and caution must be taken.

I, like many other Members, believe that our libel laws are outdated and have made it far too easy for the rich and powerful to suppress and stifle criticism. Even many small-time bloggers, journalists and academic professors are afraid to tackle important issues for fear of being sued—a sad reflection of the current law’s unintended consequences. The Government’s reforms seek to redress the balance, maintaining the importance of free speech while giving people the opportunity to defend themselves against unfair and malicious allegations.

We have heard a lot today about libel tourism. I appreciate that there are mixed views on the matter and on how much of a problem it is in the UK. Some Members have felt that it is overstated, others that it is not, but I think we all agree that it is a problem that London has been labelled in such a way. It is crucial to emphasise that not only the number of cases reflect the problem caused by the libel tourism tag. The threat of proceedings can be used to stifle much-needed investigative journalism, regardless of whether a case is ultimately brought.

I agree with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), who spoke so eloquently about libel, that it is important that everybody from every walk of life should have access to protection from libel. Libel tourism is hardly an attractive label to be attached to the UK. Here we are, in the mother of Parliaments, standing up for our country, and we do not want to hear that label used. We have so many wonderful attractions in this country—and, dare I say it, in Hastings—so let us try to lose the tag as a

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destination for libel tourism as we tackle the issue of defamation. I therefore strongly welcome the provision in clause 9 to tighten the test applied by the courts in cases brought against people who are not domiciled in the UK or the EU.

I support the provisions in clause 11 on the presumption against a jury trial in defamation cases. Of course, I understand the importance of trial by jury in most cases, where it provides a fair hearing for all concerned. Many Members have spoken about the importance of maintaining the true and honest right of British citizens to be tried by their peers, but the existence of the right for either party to opt for trial with a jury has its problems. As we heard earlier, it can often impede settlements, create additional costs and increase the length of cases which, on average, take about 12 months from the issue of court proceedings to trial.

The outdated law surrounding privacy and defamation is highlighted by the online traffic that many Members have discussed. Our internet hosting sites are a particular example. Twitter and Facebook especially have driven a significant rise in online libel claims. For example, last year a county councillor was ordered to pay £3,000 in damages and costs to a political rival over false claims made on Twitter. Operators of websites, both large and small, are also at risk of action against them in respect of comments posted by a third party. It is almost impossible for many websites, such as social networking sites, to police that. The owner of a book store would not be prosecuted for a sentence contained within a book sold at the shop, so why should online sites be fearful of such action being taken against them?

Dr Huppert: The hon. Lady is making an excellent point about how a bookshop should be treated, but unfortunately that is not what happens at the moment. Bookshops are subject to libel cases about books they are trying to sell, which they have no ability to defend.

Amber Rudd: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. That is a broader point about some books, but there are quite a lot of books that are not subject to such analysis. I am sure that the Minister will address that point later.

At the moment, internet hosting sites are obliged to remove allegedly defamatory material from their website when they receive a complaint, often without knowing whether the comments are defamatory. That is an attack on free speech and the Bill addresses that issue. The provision in clause 5, which offers website owners a new process governing the responsibility for publication on the internet, will undoubtedly give websites greater protection against a threat of legal action. I am sure that is welcomed by Members on both sides of the House.

Above all, I welcome, as I know my constituents in Hastings and Rye will, the clarity that the Bill will provide in an area that remains unsettled and unclear to many.

Let me mention clause 13, which repeals the Slander of Women Act 1891.

Michael Ellis: My hon. Friend is making some very powerful points. The Slander of Women Act 1891 will be repealed by clause 13, as she says, and that tallies well with the Government’s proposals to repeal a number of

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pieces of outdated and outmoded legislation. Does she feel that that rarely used piece of legislation should be repealed in such a way?

Amber Rudd: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intelligent question. The Act provided that slander imputing unchastity or adultery to a female is actionable per se. Although I naturally support adequate protection of women across the country, I think that goes a little too far. The Act does not apply to Scotland, so it is about time the rest of the UK followed suit.

I am confident that the Bill will redress the balance in the defamation rules towards freedom of speech in a way that is just and fair. The reforms are well overdue and, as we have heard this afternoon, widely supported by the public and the rest of the Members of this House. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

7.38 pm

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. We face a tough challenge in trying to write defamation laws. On the one hand, we want freedom of expression and, on the other, we want protection of reputation. We want to get the balance right while ensuring that the system is affordable, because the law should support whoever is right rather than whoever is wealthiest. We should also ensure that the law is accessible to all, not just to lawyers, and we simply do not have that balance. The costs are not right—they are far too high—and there is what has been described today as the chilling effect of people being silenced for fear of large costs, even in thoroughly unmerited cases. That happens. We have heard about a number of cases, including those that involved Simon Singh and Peter Wilmshurst. We have heard of publications such as Nature, Which? and the British Medical Journal, which do not feel that they can publish articles out of fear. It applies online as well—Mumsnet, WhatDoTheyKnow and many others.

While I was writing this, a case came up in my constituency, Cambridge. Richard Taylor, a local blogger and an extremely assiduous attender of council meetings who writes them up in immense detail, described a council meeting which was looking at enforcement action against a property in Cambridge being used as a bed and breakfast without the benefit of planning permission. This has led to a rather bizarre libel threat from an organisation known as WWFS Ltd or UK Law Consultants Company, who say they are consultant solicitors. Though I am not an expert in the field, the claim appears to me to be baseless, especially since the people making the claim refuse to say which part of his description they find defamatory. They have gone on to threaten other commentators.

Mr Taylor writes on his blog—all this is there, if anybody would like to look at—and this should worry all of us:

“My view is that this kind of thing is one of the reasons people shy away from entering discussion of how we run our society, be it at the local level in Cambridge or more broadly.

Having received the threat of legal action I have had to consider if I am prepared to risk everything I have in order to do what I consider to be the right thing and continue to publish the material. This is to an extent the question which has to be asked before publishing any material, every blog post and every tweet could potentially be personally ruinous.

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Should the case reach court, the cost of defending it, even if the judgment was in my favour, could exceed my resources.”

A number of people with legal training and others are assisting Mr Taylor in the case and I think he will be all right. He is also determined enough to get through.

The current position is not acceptable. The Libel Reform Campaign was established in 2009 to try to make a difference. Lord Lester proposed his Bill in 2010. There was a Government draft Bill in 2011, and I had the great privilege of serving, with other Members who have spoken, on the Committee which considered that. The full Bill was tabled in 2012, led by the Minister, Lord McNally. It has been nice to see how this has captured the imagination. As John Kampfner, the chief executive of Index on Censorship, said,

“When we launched the Libel Reform Campaign in 2009, only the Liberal Democrats backed change. Now the cause has cross party support.”

That is absolutely correct. I pay great tribute to him and to everybody in the Libel Reform Campaign—Index on Censorship, English PEN, Sense about Science and all the other supporters that they have.

I would like particularly to mention one extremely dogged individual who has been involved with that, as well as with the Hacked Off campaign, Dr Evan Harris. I suspect that Members in all parts of the House will have heard his comments on the issue. I am delighted by the cross-party support that we have.

This is a good Bill, but with some tweaks it could be a great Bill. I am delighted by clause 1. The serious harm test is right, but it should be coupled with a strike-out power so that cases could be quickly ended where there is no serious harm to consider. I support clauses 2, 3 and 4 as they codify the common law, which means that non-lawyers such as myself can find out what the rules are, without having to plough through case law after case law.

With regard to clause 4, I am pleased about the codification of Reynolds, but it is still a complex defence. Some improvements can be made, as Members have mentioned. I hope the Government will consider the possibility of a simpler, clearer public interest defence which would apply where defendants take appropriate action to correct any errors or inaccuracies that they have made, as has been suggested by the Libel Reform Campaign. I do not expect the Government immediately to say yea or nay to any such proposal. It needs to be considered very carefully, but I hope they will look at it. If we could find something like that, it would be an excellent improvement.

Clause 6 is a key change from the draft Bill and shows the value of pre-legislative scrutiny, which I hope will be applied to a number of other Bills, as it is shortly to be applied to the draft communications data Bill. Clause 6 is extremely welcome. I pressed hard for this. My experience as an academic scientist made me particularly concerned and I was especially pleased when the Secretary of State announced, in response to a question that I asked him, that there would be a change to give protection to academics and scientists publishing peer-reviewed articles.

Currently, journals are afraid of publishing peer-reviewed statements, and academics can be afraid of making the statements that they need to make. There has been an insidious silencing of rigorous scientific debate. A survey conducted by Sense about Science in 2010 found that

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38% of editors of scientific journals have chosen not to publish certain articles because of a perceived risk of libel, and 44% have asked for changes to the way articles are written to protect themselves, not necessarily because they thought there was a genuine case to answer. Journals such as


, the

British Medical Journal

and a range of others are not libel experts and should not be expected to be libel experts.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that that should be extended to national newspapers? There is indeed a stifling of debate about scientific issues in the national press, and very many of our constituents do not read the scientific press and need access to good scientific debate in the national press.

Dr Huppert: I thank the hon. Lady for her comment. She is right that we need to encourage more educated scientific debate among the general public. That is a larger issue than the subject of the present debate. The question is how far one goes in providing the sort of privilege that we are talking about. Peer review processes are significantly better developed than what we see in newspapers. I would expect newspapers to have more access to lawyers who could advise on libel because they deal with a range of issues. But there may be ways of going slightly closer to what the hon. Lady suggests and I would encourage something like that to happen.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Is it not possible that we could have a sort of citizens advice bureau for people who are thinking of publishing something so that they could go to someone who understands the issues, without having to go through the law to get guidance quickly, so that good debate is not stifled?

Dr Huppert: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comment, and I can see where he is coming from. The clause goes further than that and it is better. It says that for peer-reviewed academic publications, unless they are malicious, there is no risk. So the citizens advice bureau approach is not necessary. Anybody publishing in this way knows that they are fine, as long as they are not being malicious, and I hope people would not seek to be malicious in this way.

However, we do see such cases, and not only the famous ones. In the past six years one in 10 of all High Court libel cases have involved an academic or scientist. It is a real issue, and I believe firmly that scientists and other academics should focus on doing research in their field, not on researching the law. That protection is very welcome.

Clause 10 is another welcome addition to the Bill, particularly because it protects booksellers. As the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) mentioned, they sometimes face cases on questionable materials. If they are selling two such books a year and are not interested in defending the case, they just remove the book from their stock. It should be the author who is responsible, wherever possible.

I support most of the other clauses. I am pleased to see clause 7, which extends some of the privilege protections, clause 8—the single publication rule—and clauses 9,

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11 and 12. I am pleased to see clause 13, which gets rid of the Slander of Women Act 1891. Society has moved on slightly in terms of gender roles since 1891.

This is a good Bill, but there are still some areas of concern. I agree with those who have said that one of the key areas that has not been looked at enough is costs. It is key to get the costs right, but that is not entirely within the Bill. Cost is not just a matter of writing legislation. Legislation alone does not solve every problem. The Government need to do a little more work to make it clear how they will reduce costs, in addition to the legislative changes that are being made.

Then there is the issue that has been touched on recently about corporations and other non-natural persons. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) that non-natural persons are not natural persons: companies are not the same as people. They do not have feelings in the same way and they could be treated differently. There have been many cases, such as the McLibel case, of corporations which abuse their power and their resources to take unreasonable libel actions.

The Joint Committee recommended that corporations should have to prove that they have actual, substantial financial loss and that they should have to get permission from the court in order to take actions. That seems a modest way to go, given some of the other proposals, which are quite tempting. An extreme view is that corporations should not be allowed to take libel action at all. This has been tried in Australia, so that only corporations with fewer than 10 employees are allowed to take any sort of libel action. I have spoken to a number of lawyers in Australia, and that does not seem to be the best way to go. I hope the Government will not go ahead with that idea, although I was initially attracted to it.

I rarely disagree with comments from the Libel Reform Campaign, but I do not like the idea of courts being asked to make declarations of falsity. I was initially persuaded of that, as people who served on the Committee are aware, but I think on balance that it is hard to expect a court to say definitively, “This statement is false,” because new evidence can come up. It is a very hard thing for any court to say.

Lastly, let me turn to clause 5, which deals with an incredibly complex area. I think that the idea of a new defence is a good approach, but it needs to be tweaked somewhat and the Government’s proposed regulations should be published and available for discussion alongside the Bill. I hope that the Government will be absolutely clear that this new defence is an optional one that website operators can use but do not have to. It does not impose on them a duty; it merely gives them a defence if they comply with some regulations. Furthermore, I hope that the Government are absolutely clear that the existing defences from the e-commerce directive remain in place and that the rules about being a mere conduit and so forth still apply in exactly the same way they have done. It is very important that we do not see any inadvertent weakening of the protections available.

It is also important that we are clear that the good practice of post-comment moderation used by some website operators, whereby they try to do their bit to filter out the things they can tell are inappropriate, does not itself bring about liability, so long as that does not

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change the meaning in a damaging way or significantly increase the scale of publication. This was recommended by the Joint Committee and accepted by the Government, because if the BBC, for example, spots something inappropriate and removes it, it is important that that does not render it more liable to the thing that they could not have spotted because they would not know the facts of a case.

It is also important that there is an ability to preserve some anonymity. It is right that action should be taken against a person who posts something online, but there will be cases, such as those of whistleblowers and dissidents, in which there is a real reason why anonymity should be preserved. The key point is that there should be a communication channel between the person complaining and the original author, even if that is mediated by a third party.

This is a very complex area, and I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State said at the beginning of the debate that he was open to considerations to try to get it right. I hope that either he or the Minister will be able to arrange for the Bill team to meet me and the Libel Reform Campaign, internet service providers and organisations we have been talking with, such as Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Mumsnet, to discuss how we can get this right so that we get what we all want: something that works in a clear and simple way and gives the right protection to the people we wish to be protected. This is a good Bill and I am delighted to support its Second Reading.

7.52 pm

Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), who is a fellow member of the Home Affairs Committee. It will come as no surprise to Members that I support the Bill. I do so because it defends the sanctified right of freedom of speech that this House has sought to protect for generations and, I expect, will continue to seek to defend. But it is also a good Bill because it recognises that there are limitations to the right of freedom of speech—sadly, the courts have not always recognised in recent years that there are limitations to certain rights. With every right there is a responsibility, for example, and it would not go amiss to notify the human rights courts of that point occasionally. The right to freedom of speech has been recognised in the courts for many years but, to use the classic example, it does not extend to allowing a person to go into a crowded theatre and shout, “Fire.” We have to recognise that those rights must be curtailed.

The Bill will rebalance the law to ensure that people who have been defamed are able to protect their reputations, and it is right that they should be able to do so. Freedom of speech and freedom of expression are not, and must not be, unjustifiably impeded by actual or even threatened defamation or libel actions. The reality is that sometimes even the threat of a defamation suit can prevent a person from making a fair comment on something, giving an opinion about a product, service or individual, or expressing a doubt about something. Many will take the view that it is simply not worth it and decide it is easier not to refer to a particular area of controversy because they do not want to risk getting a solicitor’s letter and the very expensive defamation actions that would follow. The Bill will ensure that the threat of

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libel proceedings is not used to frustrate scientific, medical or academic debate, for example. Sadly, there have been examples of the peer-reviewed work of academic experts and others and their freedom to speak freely on those subjects being endangered by threats or actual suits for defamation.

We need to reduce the potential for trivial claims and address the perception that has arisen in some parts of the world that this country is suitable for libel tourists, the people who come to this country, despite the fact that only one or two of their books or magazines have been sold here, to take an action for defamation because the law in their home country is in some way unsuitable for their purposes. We do not want this country to be seen as a libel tourism haven, and that is addressed in the Bill.

In my judgment, it is right that the test for determining that a statement is suitable for defamation proceedings is whether it has caused “serious harm”. Cases sometimes go before the courts in this country when even a reference to someone being ugly or in some way antisocial is enough to justify a libel action. It is a matter of fact and degree, but in my judgment it is right that serious harm should be proven before a statement can really be considered defamatory.

The Bill also deals with the new statutory defence of responsible publication on matters of public interest, to which I have already alluded. Such things as peer-reviewed academic, medical and scientific analysis, which sometimes necessarily has the effect of rubbishing someone else’s academic work, should be appropriately open to debate, so long as there is no clear malice, and not subject to over-sensitive legal actions. The Bill updates and extends the circumstances in which the defences of absolute and qualified privilege are available, including extending qualified privilege to peer-reviewed material.

I am also impressed by the way the Bill goes some way towards addressing the issues that have arisen in recent years concerning the publication of defamatory material on the internet. The single publication rule that the Bill introduces will prevent an action from being brought in relation to the publication of the same material by the same publisher after the one-year limitation period. It has been quite easy for people to take defamation actions against newspaper websites, for example, and others if they repeat the libel that was originally the subject of an action. It is very easy for those websites to be insufficiently monitored so that they repeat the libel and a further and new action can then be taken. It is right that a limitation of one year be put on that, because the nature of the internet is such that it is very easy to draw down the material that was the subject of the libel and repeat it.

Another feature of the Bill that has been referred to in the Chamber is that it will remove the presumption of a jury trial in defamation actions. I would passionately seek to defend the right to a jury trial in almost every case, and certainly criminal cases. There are now very few civil cases that would be subject to jury trial—I can think of malicious prosecution, false arrest and false imprisonment, but very few others.

This Bill will not remove the right to a jury trial in defamation proceedings, but it will remove the presumption that a jury trial should be the forum that is utilised. We should of course trust our judges to exercise their lawful discretion to order a jury trial when they think it

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appropriate, and there will be some cases in which a jury trial will be appropriate, especially one involving one person’s word against another when there is very little other ancillary evidence, because juries are equipped to make a judgment on witnesses when they hear them from the witness box.

Guy Opperman: On jury trials, does my hon. Friend not accept, however, that in civil liability trials and in all number of other pieces of litigation, the judge is taken out of the assessment of the truth of individual witnesses, and that credit is something judges are well used to judging on a regular basis? Does he not also accept that there is a possibility of our merely returning to a situation in which we have endless jury trials, instead of trusting the judges to get on with the decision?

Michael Ellis: I recognise my hon. Friend’s point, and the common law will no doubt develop in this area, but I hope that, if this Bill becomes law and removes the presumption in favour of jury trials, judges will recognise that jury trials will be less frequent than heretofore. I will be corrected if I am wrong, but I seem to recall that until relatively recently juries in defamation cases had a part to play in deciding the quantum of damages after successful defamation proceedings, and I recall also some rather large figures for damages awarded against various periodicals. I am a great fan of Private Eye, possibly because I have not featured in it—[Interruption.] I am not inviting it, and I emphasise that!

Bob Stewart: I have, and you are about to.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. “He” is about to.

Michael Ellis: The less said about that, the better. I remain a fan of that periodical, and as far as such proceedings are concerned we have to move with the times, because defamation law has not tended to move with them sufficiently.

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Michael Ellis: Always to my hon. Friend.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: My hon. Friend says that we should move with the times. Surely we are Conservatives and should be turning the clock back.

Michael Ellis: Notwithstanding my hon. Friend’s pertinent observation about our party of support and care, I think it is right—I know my hon. Friend will agree—that the Conservative party has moved with the times. It is the longest-serving political party anywhere in the democratic world because it has tended to move effectively with the times over the generations.

Few colleagues have made the point that the Bill will rightly provide a power for the court, under the existing summary disposal procedure, to order publication of a summary of its judgment, which will be available in defamation proceedings generally. It is my understanding that the courts will be able, in certain circumstances, to order the offending publication to reprint some or all of

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its judgment. That will be quite useful if a judge feels that there has been an egregious failure by the periodical which is not going to be met other than by his or her intervention to ensure that proper redress is made in terms of the court’s ruling. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) referred some time ago in this debate to a page 1 splash, which a few months later results in a postage-stamp-sized apology on page 52. A judge will be able to order, if he or she wishes, that a transcript of the judgment be reprinted in full in the newspaper. That will be quite powerful for the courts, and an effective measure.

The secondary publishers to which hon. Members have referred, namely the vendors, bookstores and booksellers, need greater protection from civil suit in any defamation action that may be brought against them. There may be certain circumstances in which it is appropriate to take punitive action against a bookseller or a company that disseminates libellous material, but it ought to be a secondary measure. The primary purpose—the primary avenue—should be to take an action against the author and publisher of the offending work, and the disseminator should be involved only if necessary, appropriate and reasonably practicable. I therefore approve of all those measures, which will be rather effective.

We need to remove the trivial and unfounded cases and raise the bar for bringing a claim. I am conscious that it is sometimes prohibitively expensive to take an action for defamation, and colleagues have referred repeatedly to the chilling effect of the costs involved. That can itself be limiting, and a principal concern of mine is that individuals who are without means or even of “middle” means—if I can put it that way—are not able to take the same action as a wealthy individual or a news company that has a greater ability to fight and to defend actions in what can be very expensive defamation proceedings.

In short, this Bill has my support for all those reasons. It is clearly a necessary measure in order to modernise the law of defamation, and in those circumstances I expect it to have considerable support on both sides of the Chamber.

8.7 pm

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): I, too, support the Bill, and on defamation I fundamentally believe, as Shakespeare wrote:

“The purest pleasure mortal times afford

Is spotless reputation: that away,

Men are but gilded loam or painted clay.”

That was said in “Richard II”, a king who sadly did not last long enough as a Yorkist to enjoy much of his spotless reputation, as he was shortly killed thereafter, but his reputation, spotless as it was, went with him to the grave.

The world is clearly changing. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) and I shared an illustrious, or non-illustrious, career as barristers in a former life, and my old copy of “Carter-Ruck on Libel and Slander”, the definitive edition from 1997, features not a single paragraph about libel and slander on the internet, because of course such a thing did not exist in those days.

We now face the dreaded heretic that is the internet troll. Many of us would not have known, until a couple of years ago when we took public office, what an

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internet troll was, nor would we have been subjected to the great delights of annihilation in print or prose, such that we all now have to face the slings and arrows of outrageous internet fortune on a regular basis, but the development of the law requires this Defamation Bill, which we are considering, and it can only be a good thing.

My hon. Friend said that we must move with the times, but sadly the reason why we have Lord Leveson’s inquiry is that too many political parties moved with The Times for far too long, and Mr Murdoch and his empire have been far too close to too many people on a repeated basis—such that I am beginning to distance myself from The Times.

Michael Ellis: I didn’t mean The Times newspaper!

Guy Opperman: I accept the possibility that my hon. Friend was not referring to that, but was referring to the development of events over the past few years.

It is absolutely vital to ensure that we have a free press and an ability to speak out without fear or favour—that is fundamental—but justice must be accessible to the people who receive comments from such a press. The Bill definitely increases that accessibility, and I welcome that wholeheartedly. Any interpretation of such legislation must take account of the countless stories told throughout this debate of people whose reputations have been annihilated on the internet and elsewhere.

Bob Stewart: Would it not be fair for people of little means to have the opportunity to go to, say, a defamation ombudsman who could give them advice and help them before they spend one penny? At the moment, the law seems to be available only to those who can afford it, and that is wrong. It should be possible for a man or woman of no means to be able to go and get decent advice from someone who knows what they are talking about.

Guy Opperman: I am delighted to say that to a certain extent such advice does exist. There more developed citizens advice bureaux and victim support organisations are able to provide such assistance, as are the Bar Pro Bono Unit and the Free Representation Unit. I have represented individuals in libel cases as part of the Bar Pro Bono Unit, and there will certainly continue to be such accessibility. However, my hon. Friend identifies one of the fundamental flaws in the Bill, which I hope will be remedied in Committee.

The Jackson report that was instituted by reason of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishing of Offenders Act 2012, which we passed on 1 May, ensured that there is no ability to recover the cost of insurance for the litigation. The consequence of that is that individuals who wish to bring such litigation against a newspaper would have to risk a great deal were they unsuccessful. There is a way round that. The way forward is for the courts is to develop what they have developed in other branches of the civil litigation arena—a protective costs order. In the case of Compton v. Wiltshire primary care trust, the protective costs order was extended to a local group of individuals to make the case a matter of public interest. This means that were someone to wish to bring a civil action against a public organisation or a newspaper

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and it was in the public interest for them to do so, they would be protected were they to lose the case because the very fact of bringing that action constituted something that was in the public interest. I suggest that we will see that development in libel and defamation law. As my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North said, common law will develop to accommodate the fact that, sadly, there is no legal aid and precious little to assist the individual litigant in taking a case against the newspaper or public institution that has defamed them.

The nature of this Bill is such that there is general agreement that we need to move forward and have a better understanding of such access to justice, which is patently not there at the moment. I should make a declaration as a trained mediator and as someone who was at the Bar and has earned a moderate living as a barrister. [Interruption.] I was not a very good libel lawyer, I hasten to add. The shadow Minister just said that I used to practice extensively at the Bar in this field, but I assure him that I was of no quality whatsoever in libel cases; I got far too irate. A greater use of mediation at an early stage can only assist. Looking at the various problems that arise in libel, the mediation and the apology at the early stages are most important, not necessarily the damages that are ultimately sought, but we get so enmeshed in the process of litigation that we end up with a case that has mushroomed way beyond the reality of the loss entailed. I therefore welcome the extra mediation and alternative dispute resolution processes that the Bill will bring about.

I warn that there can be a sad tendency to have a great deal of discussion at the early stages of the litigation process. I have witnessed that in many a case. One has to clear hurdles at the outset to prove that the nature of one’s case gets over a certain threshold and it would be not unheard of for a newspaper or a public organisation with deep pockets suddenly to attack the individual and say, “We don’t accept the judge’s finding that you’ve got over this hurdle—we shall appeal this.”

I represented Mrs Compton in the case of Compton v. Wiltshire primary care trust, which concerned the health services in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland). There were 14 separate pieces of litigation involving the primary care trust that went all the way to the House of Lords on seven separate occasions. Her original hurdle was overcome and tested all the way to the House of Lords. These early hurdles must have a finite end. If one has a preliminary hurdle to get over in a defamation case, as is now set by the Bill, there should be one single right of appeal and then the matter moves on. Without that sort of process, an individual may find themselves enmeshed in ever-deeper litigation before the case has even got off the ground. By that stage, years have passed, their reputation is gone, and their ability to respond to the libel or defamation has totally dissipated. I warn the Minister that there needs to be strict guidance on the maintenance of the alternative dispute resolution process as it goes through.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon has returned to his seat. I sat through his lengthy and impressive speech, in which he said, if I remember correctly, “The law, like the Ritz, is always open.”

Mr Buckland: I said that it is open to all.

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Guy Opperman: I apologise to my hon. Friend. It is possible that he dines in larger and more salubrious establishments than the rest of us, who are more Little Chef and Happy Eater people. I am sure that those days of the Ritz are sadly gone.

As lawyers practising in this field, we know that it is important to have accessibility, because without that there is no justice. There is a long history of those who have been defamed, from Oscar Wilde to Winston Churchill to Marie Stopes to W. E. Gladstone. It is good to see the Liberal home affairs spokesman, the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), in his place. Of course, Gladstone was the last man to be libelled from the grave. His son took an action on behalf of the reputation of W. E. Gladstone and his family, who he felt had been maligned and libelled, and was successful before a jury trial.

That brings me nicely, with a slightly Radio 2 link, to jury trials. That issue must be addressed with robust guidance. It is not sufficient to say to the courts that the presumption should be against jury trials. The Secretary of State said that in matters where there is a genuine test of credibility, there would be a jury trial. I entirely accept that, but it would be extraordinarily rare to have a libel case without a genuine test of credibility. The whole purpose of libel law is to test the meaning and intent of certain words.

Michael Ellis: Does my hon. Friend accept that in many cases it will not only be about the word of one person, the plaintiff, against that of the other, the defendant, because there might be supportive material that backs up one against the other, such as e-mails, an exchange of letters, other documentary or ancillary evidence, or supportive or corroborative evidence from other witnesses?

Guy Opperman: I regret that my hon. Friend—eminent lawyer, lion of Northampton and feared throughout the west midlands legal circles though he is—has identified the fundamental problem with his own argument in a sort of self-defeating prophesy. There will surely be an assessment of the individual merit of these e-mails and of whether they have been written by an individual who can be accounted for. All those matters will come under the test of credibility that he has espoused and that was put forward by the Secretary of State.

That all goes back to the issue of a jury trial. I have no problem with jury trials. I conducted nine murder trials and umpteen Crown court trials. The short point is this: if we are to reform the libel system so that defamation is no longer tried by a jury, save in the most exceptional circumstances, the test cannot be, “Who do we believe?” As I attempted to explain earlier, that question is assessed by district judges, county court judges, circuit judges and every other judge in the country on a daily basis. We do not need a jury trial to assess that. One could argue that 99% of all trials in this country are conducted in the absence of a jury, when judges assess the merits of an individual’s credibility. With respect, I urge the Secretary of State and the Committee to address this issue so that there is proper guidance on it.

This matter has rightly been dealt with on a cross-party basis. I support the idea of having a draft Bill. It is patently clear to those of us who have endured the delights of guiding such wonderful Bills as the Health

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and Social Care Bill through this House, drafted as well as they were, that we are now debating a Bill that has been considered by sane and intelligent persons on a cross-party basis, and that we are therefore fine-tuning rather than redrafting. That, I assure the House, is something that we should all welcome.

8.21 pm

Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman). I come at the Bill from a completely different perspective, because I am definitely not a lawyer. I am very much a poacher turned gamekeeper on this matter, because in another life I was an insurance broker—even worse than a lawyer—and I used to place libel and slander policies at Lloyd’s. When I saw this debate on the Order Paper, I therefore thought, “You know what? This is one for me.”

Having sat here since half past 3, I have been considering whether to give the five-minute speech, the 10-minute speech or the 15-minute speech. I have not had the nod and the wink from the Whips to say that it should be the three-minute one because we are getting to the later stages of the debate. As has been said, there is cross-party agreement on this matter. Is that not a breath of fresh air in this Chamber?

Clauses 2, 3, 4 and 9 are particularly helpful. They have all been expanded on by learned friends, so as a mere humble Back-Bencher and political hack, and not a lawyer, I do not need to expand on them further.

Bob Stewart: And not learned.

Heather Wheeler: Indeed, not learned at all.

What is fascinating to me is that the Bill is drafted so clearly that the person on the Clapham omnibus will be able to understand it. Two years into this glorious coalition Government, is it not something that we are finally getting a Bill about which the person on the Clapham omnibus will be able to say, “That protects me. I understand that.”? It can be understood not only by lawyers, but by MPs and ordinary people who do not earn their money by standing before people with wigs—you are not wearing a wig tonight, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I can genuinely say that. We have found a Bill that the people will rejoice at. There should be greater publicity about the process by which this Bill has come about. It should be held up as a burning light to demonstrate what Parliament can do when it does the right thing and gets behind something.

It is an even better Bill because it fits with the great coalition pledge of one-in, one-out. We are getting rid of a horrendous piece of law that has been in force since goodness knows when.

Michael Ellis: Since 1891.

Heather Wheeler: Since 1891—what an amazing piece of legislation to be getting rid of! Again, that is something of which this House should be eminently proud.

Ministers have been asked a few questions and for a few clarifications. I will sit here to the bitter end, because I want to see the Bill through. To repeat myself, it is interesting that we finally have a Bill that lay people can genuinely understand and say, “Well done.” I thank

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everybody who has been part of the process of putting it together. I look forward to hearing the winding-up speeches from the Front Benchers in due course and I commend the Bill to everybody.

8.25 pm

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): I thought I might throw a few pebbles into the pond of consensus that there has been so far. We have had near enough five hours of consensus. It is now time to hear a little from the other side.

First, as a general principle, when all parties agree on something, it is usually a mistake. We have found that historically. The cut and thrust of debate, with one side saying one thing and the other putting forward the alternative view, is enormously powerful in getting to the right answer. I am rather suspicious when we have a lawyerly committee that comes together. I am so pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler), to break into the lawyerly cabal and give the view from the layman. So first, I have a suspicion of consensus in principle.

Secondly, as my doubts were beginning to grow, at the end of his fine speech, the Lord Chancellor said that this was a “sound piece of modernising” legislation. It seems to me that the words “sound” and “modernising” never go together. If something is modernising, one ought to be suspicious of it. We had modernising from 1997 to 2010 and it almost bankrupted the nation. Therefore, “sound” and “modernising” are not compatible.

I think back, of course, to the coalition agreement. It is a great pleasure and a daily joy for all of us to be in coalition with our Lib Dem friends, allies, compatriots.

Tom Brake: The feeling is mutual.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I am so pleased to hear that it is mutual. I say that for the benefit of the Hansard Reporters in case they did not catch it, although they have such sharp ears that I am sure they did.

The Bill is something that the Lib Dems asked for in the coalition agreement. It is a major piece of legislation, which we are pushing through at the very earliest stage of the second Session of Parliament. We should remind the Lib Dems that this is their legislation. When they come back and ask for more legislation later in the Session, perhaps to do with constitutional reform, we can remind them that they have had their fair share and that we have been relatively sotto voce about our concerns over this Bill, so they cannot expect to have any more.

Tom Brake: Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that this Bill is very short, and that it therefore should not constitute our entire contribution to the coalition’s programme?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I have been listening for the last five hours to how amazingly important the Bill is and to the view that it is short but perfectly formed. It seems to me, therefore, that the power of the Bill and the effect it will have should not be underestimated when we look at the scales of coalition balance. At the moment, they are weighing down heavily on the Lib Dem side and I think that we might need a little counterweight for the Conservatives later in the Session.

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I want to consider the merits of the Bill and the whole idea of what we are trying to achieve. We have heard from other Members about freedom of speech, which is something of the utmost importance—the cliché of the evening, but it is a true cliché. Freedom of speech is under attack from the Leveson inquiry, which wishes to bind down journalists to rules of good behaviour, and sometimes from libel lawyers.

However, we should also consider the question of reputation, defamation and how we should protect people when they feel they have been hard done by. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) quoted Shakespeare. Two can play at that game, so I though I would too:

“Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,

Is the immediate jewel of their souls.

Who steals my purse steals trash—”

in my case butterflies and moths, and things like that—

“‘tis something, nothing;

‘Twas mine, ‘tis his, and has been slave to thousands;

But he that filches from me my good name

Robs me of that which not enriches him,

And makes me poor indeed.”

So it is right that there is some protection in our legal system for people’s good name, even though that impinges on freedom of speech.

There are already many protections in the law for freedom of speech. We are fortunate to enjoy under the Bill of Rights an absolute privilege for anything that we say in this Chamber. It can never be used in any court of law. We can be as rude about people as we like—not that I am going to use that privilege this evening, but it is a privilege of absolute free speech.

It is to be welcomed that the Bill maintains that truth should be a defence in a defamation action. That seems perfectly sensible and wise, although I know Pontius Pilate questioned what truth was, and there is always that issue to consider. Truth is not necessarily as absolute as it can sometimes be thought to be off the cuff, so to speak. There are elements and forms of truth, and of course in the oath that people take in courts there is “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”, indicating different levels of truth.

Fair comment, which has been allowed in the past, is now being made clearly part of the law, which is absolutely splendid. If people wish to air their disagreements and phrase themselves strongly, that is all to the good and to be encouraged, and it should be protected as part of free speech. However, what if the defamation is serious? What penalties should there be then? Who should decide, and who should be charged?

I am concerned about the liberties that we are giving to internet service providers and to people who are responsible for websites but deny any responsibility for their content. They become more and more powerful as time goes on. There are two or three firms that dominate the world in that sense, but they are not necessarily on the side of the individual who is defamed.

I had my own little issue with somebody who set up a highly amusing Twitter account in my name. It was not done by me—it was much funnier than I could ever have been—but there was nothing that I could do to stop it. It went on churning out comments that some journalists thought I had made. I always thought I

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could say my own silly things without anybody saying them on my behalf. There needs to be some recourse for people who are impersonated and defamed through that impersonation. The responsibility ought to lie with the internet companies, which ought not to have a great exemption that allows them to tarnish people’s reputations without any great difficulty.

I have some specific concerns about the Bill and the argument that has been developed today. The first is about jury trials. We heard from the Lord Chancellor and others very good arguments for getting rid of juries—that they are expensive, that they are inconvenient, that they make the process more difficult for m’learned friends. However, that requires that we should have absolute faith in the wisdom of judges, and personally I do not. They are broadly good and wise eggs and do their best under difficult circumstances, but they are not omniscient. I feel that if my reputation were on the line, it would be safer in the hands of 12 good and true men and women of this country—ideally, of course, of Somerset. That would be the best way to protect one’s reputation. I accept that it is expensive, but it is more just.

That is particularly important in any libel case that has a political tint about it, because judges are part of the establishment. They are there, in some ways, to uphold the establishment, and we see from some of what they come up with when commissioned by the Government to write learned reports that they often fall on the side of the establishment. Lord Hutton was the supreme example of that a few years ago when he produced a most extraordinary whitewash of all that had gone on over the Iraq affair. I therefore do not believe it is right or wise to use the argument of convenience, which could be used to abolish juries in every trial in the land for all time.

Michael Ellis rose

Jacob Rees-Mogg: It is a privilege to give way to my hon. Friend.

Michael Ellis: Does my hon. Friend accept that the Bill simply removes the presumption in favour of a jury trial? Does he also acknowledge that part of the difficulty with jury trials in defamation actions is that the fact of a jury trial being so much more expensive can and has been used by those who have substantial means who are seeking to put off putative plaintiffs from taking defamation action in the first place?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: My hon. Friend makes the point that the Bill takes away the presumption in favour of juries, which is fair enough. I would put that presumption back. I would trust juries to make the decision, because they are better at doing so than judges, and because a jury decision is more just. The presumption in favour of a jury is less likely to leave one under the hammer of the establishment if one falls on the wrong side of it. It is true that establishment views are sometimes hard to break through, and judges are establishment creatures, so I would always trust juries against judges.

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): My hon. Friend makes a compelling argument for retaining the presumption in favour of a jury trial for libel. Will he go further and support the re-establishment of juries

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in the criminal proceedings at which the previous Government chipped away, and in the broad range of civil matters in which jury trial is no longer available?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I am in absolute agreement with my hon. Friend. Those who attack juries often take a grand view of people in public life. They think that people who are in office of some kind, or who have a seal from the Crown, are grand fellows who know everything. I think we should trust the people—a sound Conservative party slogan from the 1930s. When brought together randomly, the people make better decisions—after all, they sent hon. Members here—than the most learned judges in the land.

Any attack on juries is a part of the continual chipping away at one of the great protectors of our ancient liberties. We might believe that this attack does not matter because all our liberties are not under attack nowadays, but our liberties are always under attack. It is in the nature of Governments and judges to get more power for themselves and to suck it out from the people to whom it rightly belongs. Members of the House, representing the Commons of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—although in this instance, we are discussing only English and Welsh law—should always be on the lookout for any attack on the rights of the people.

The cost of jury trials, which was mentioned, is part of the mishmash of saying such trials are less convenient. If jury trials are expensive, we should ask: “Is justice worth paying for, or should we penny-pinch?” Of all the things the state pays for, law and order, defence of the realm and justice are the three bulwarks on which our rights depend.

I want to criticise a couple of little points in the Bill—they are less important than the jury system, but few things are as important—the first of which is the protection of academics unless they are malicious. When one of my hon. Friends said earlier that academics are not malicious, I laughed inwardly, because academics have a reputation for having some of the most spiteful battles of any profession in history when they disagree. We should be careful in saying that academics are frightfully lovey-dovey—even people in the acting community are probably quite tough with one another behind the scenes. We should not make the assumption that academics should be protected against the requirement to tell the truth just because they are academics. If what a person says is wrong, and if it defames somebody and damages their livelihood, whether they are a regius professor or a tabloid journalist ought not to make any difference.

Another thing I would like to keep—I will be accused of being old fashioned for this—is the Slander of Women Act 1891, which protects the reputation of ladies. I cannot see any reason for getting rid of it. It is rather a shame to make our law so dry and drab that we have no elegant ornaments on it to protect the reputations of those who deserve a higher degree of protection than we gentlemen.

Ultimately, there is a battle between defamation and free speech. Our newspapers, much maligned though they have been in recent months, and possibly over the last couple of years, are the most fabulous protector of our freedoms and liberties because they are so rude—because they do spy on politicians; because they do publish stories that we do not like. They embarrass us; they make us look foolish—sometimes even corrupt.

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That embarrassment and shame have made British public life the most honest of any country in the world. We should always protect that freedom of speech from the forces of law or the forces of Leveson—it does not really matter which: freedom of speech is very precious. But if newspapers misuse that freedom of speech, let them be punished in the defamation courts. Let them be fined and have a penalty to pay, along with the costs of a jury, because that is what has given us such a good and well balanced system—a system that ensures our liberties, but compensates those who are defamed.

8.41 pm

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): We have had an excellent debate this evening. We have had some extremely informed contributions from across the House—some short; some somewhat longer; some, indeed, quite lengthy—and the debate on the Bill will be all the richer for those varied contributions.

I would like to begin by putting on record my thanks to all Members, from both Houses, who worked on the Joint Committee considering the draft Defamation Bill. They provided excellent observations which improved the Bill to a huge extent—indeed, to an extent that anyone listening to this evening’s debate will not comprehend. I also add my thanks to those my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) gave at the start of this debate to the key people and organisations—to the Libel Reform Campaign, which did fantastic work; to Dr Simon Singh, who has been mentioned by many contributors to this debate; and to all those who petitioned and lobbied for this Bill. We owe them a debt of gratitude for the work that they did and the pushing that they instigated and continue with.

This is a good Bill—it has to be, as it started life under a Labour Government. There are, however, still areas where it needs to be improved. On the assumption—a reasonable assumption, I think—that the Bill will make it to Committee, we will table a number of amendments and new clauses which we hope will make it the best it can possibly be. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) is indeed in listening mode, because the journey that this Bill has undertaken is a classic example of co-operative working. We hope that our serious and practical input in order to improve the Bill will be accepted at an early stage, unlike the challenge—I will be kind this evening—that was the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, where the Government had to endure strong persuasion, shall we say, in the other place to make the right concessions. [interruption.] I am in a very generous mood this evening. Let us have none of the tactics with this Bill that were needed in that case. Let us hope that the Minister is indeed in listening mode and will act quickly and appropriately.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting said there is much in the Bill that we are pleased about, which reflects the good work up to this point. For example, the protection offered to scientists and other academics in peer-reviewed statements and the single publication rule are good measures, as are the tidying-up provisions, such as those relating to bookshops and, despite the comments of the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg)—meant, I am sure, in very good faith—to the Slander of Women Act 1891.

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A number of concerns remain, however, and I am keen to highlight them this evening in order to provide the Minister and his officials with plenty of time to address them before we meet in Committee. We must not lose any opportunity to improve the Bill further in the same consensual way that we have worked on it up to now.

The first concern is the fact that the main mischief caused by the cost of defending an action and the length of time taken to resolve cases might not be addressed at all by the Bill. The Joint Committee agreed with the Government’s intention of promoting early resolution by allowing the judge to determine key issues at an initial hearing. However, the Committee went on to propose a stricter approach, as it felt that the Government’s changes did not go far enough. The Minister and his officials should revisit the Committee’s report urgently, with a view to bringing forward revised civil procedure rules and more. Those points are raised in the report; they have been well documented and discussed, and we need new proposals to be introduced urgently. Let me put on record our concern that, although the Bill tidies up the existing law and brings defamation law into the 21st century, it might not have any positive impact on the costs and delays in libel cases.

We also have grave concerns about the ability of ordinary people to get access to justice. Kate and Gerry McCann, Christopher Jefferies and others wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister during the passage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting said. It is worth repeating their views, as they are so important. The letter warned:

“Parliament is on the cusp of passing a law that will grossly restrict access to justice for ordinary people in privacy and libel cases, without even any saving to the public purse. We strongly object to the passing of this unjust measure and urge you to amend it before it is too late.”

Of course, the LASPO Bill was passed. The letter continued:

“A successful libel defendant obviously does not get any damages so these reforms will prevent all but the rich from being able to defend their right to free speech against wealthy or corporate libel claimants.”

We share the concern that the changes brought about by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 will result in justice being denied to most people, who will be unable to protect their good name or to defend themselves, even when they publish the truth.

We would like the Government to be more explicit about what constitutes substantial harm. As we have heard today, this is an area of widespread concern. In Committee, we will seek far more detail on this from the Government, and I hope that they will seize the opportunity to provide it. I hope that the Minister will take that opportunity to put on record a clarification of what is substantial harm, and what it is not. One person’s substantial harm might be quite different from that of another. I shall return to that point later. We would also like the Government to be clearer about honest opinion. Again, we will test that point in Committee in order to draw out what they mean by the term. We also want them to tighten up the single publication rule, as we feel that a further test relating to the credibility of the source would improve matters further.

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On the question of trial by jury, we hope that the Government will take the opportunity to be clearer—again in line with the findings of the Joint Committee—about which cases should go before the courts. The Libel Reform Campaign and many others have highlighted serious concerns about the public interest tests. Indeed, an interesting and appropriate article in The Times today raised the point that, while clause 4 seeks to replace the Reynolds defence, it does not bring the law up to date in line with the Flood judgment. I agree with the article’s view that a tick-box approach will help nobody. Moreover, there is a real risk that the factors could end up being used as hurdles or as elements to be ticked off. I know that the clause does not say that. In fact, it states that

“the matters to which the court may have regard include (amongst other matters)”,

but, given what happened in relation to Reynolds, there is a danger that those matters would become a set of hurdles or, as the article explains, a set of tick-boxes.

We have two further serious concerns. First, there is the clause that deals with the operators of websites. On the face of it, clause 5 seems a sensible approach, bringing the law into the 21st century. However, the absence of draft regulations seems sloppy and misguided. I hope the Minister will forgive me for using those words, but given the fundamental importance of regulations to the Bill, no other words do justice to the danger of their absence. The Secretary of State said that we will have to get the detail eventually. I am sorry, but that is not good enough. There is also the worrying development that libellous statements hosted on a website might remain in place because the defamed person is unable to take action against the identified author.

The Justice Secretary made great play in this morning’s media—as, indeed, did the Minister—of the fact that internet trolls would no longer be able to hide behind anonymity. That is greatly to be welcomed, but what about the internet trolls whose details are provided, thereby allowing the website operator to use that defence? What happens when the troll is in another jurisdiction? The website operator is able to use the defence of identifying the internet trolls, and that is it—the line comes down. We shall seek to amend the Bill in line with the Joint Committee’s recommendations.

Let me deal with what hon. Members have said many times is a glaring absence from the Bill: corporations. All too often, corporations are able to flex their muscle and call in their lawyers even when the author or publisher makes a justifiable statement that is fully capable of being defended. The corporate bullying must end. I am surprised that the Government have given in to brash big business rather than at least attempt to address the inequality of arms. We shall seek to bring forward a new clause to encapsulate what the Joint Committee report concluded on this important issue. Broadly, we shall seek to ensure that serious harm in the context of corporations means that where there has been or is likely to be a substantial loss of custom directly caused by the defamatory statements, the court must give permission before a libel claim can be brought. It is all in the Joint Committee report, and we have heard many Members across the Chamber say how much they welcome its work. It is incumbent on the

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Minister to take on board the comments of Conservative Members who say that the report is a good one that should be taken forward.

Let me comment on some of the contributions, beginning with the Lord Chancellor’s opening comments. He said that the courts would decide what counts as “serious harm”. Does that mean yet more litigation, yet more costs and yet more delay while the courts decide what it is? We need a really strong steer to avoid that. He referred to the development of new procedures to hear preliminary points and meanings before full trial. I think that is very good, but again it is all pie in the sky and yet to be done, with nothing concrete before us. As to the circumstances in which jury trials will be left to the judge, the Lord Chancellor was fairly clear; he felt it was a matter for the judges to decide when juries should be brought in, but that leaves things wide open to further litigation, further delays and further costs.

Moving on to other contributions, we heard first from the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries), who spoke from personal experience about some of the appalling messages, including death threats, that she had received. She raised the issue that a matter of serious harm for one person might not necessarily be the same for another person. She also mentioned that the impact of being defamed can last a lifetime for a young person; it might impact on them and never go away. She was the first to raise the issue of looking at libel law on a regular basis. At that point, I almost heard the Minister groan. As the debate continued, we heard some alternatives to that, some of which had merit, and I shall come back to them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) made a characteristically thoughtful and serious speech. She made the excellent point that the police were not always up to speed when it came to crimes on the internet. The different police forces need to find a way of ensuring that when someone makes a complaint of this nature, it is referred to specialist officers who have the necessary knowledge and experience. Perhaps the list of matters to be considered by the police and crime commissioners should include that, as a matter of urgency.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the importance of supporting good journalism. We have heard a great deal about bad journalism today and about how it should be dealt with, but a Bill that supports good journalism should surely be encouraged. She discussed the meaning of “serious harm”, and also the difference between the website issue raised in clause 5(2) and the issue of letters pages or chat shows. I especially enjoyed her observation that the internet was not like a mediaeval forest that was beyond the law. We may well return to that point in Committee. My hon. Friend, and a number of subsequent speakers, also made the point that the No. 1 problem for a particular newspaper—as I understood it—was the threat from oligarchs who would try to sue it if any inappropriate comment was made.

The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) talked about the use of lower courts. When Opposition Members discussed the issue with libel experts, they expressed concern about the level of expertise in some courts, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that one option is to establish whether some of the problems result from a lack of specialist judges.

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The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) hit the nail on the head when he said that 21st-century libel reform was not straightforward; I do not think anyone could disagree with that. I was also impressed by his insistence that the Bill should be about the protection of people, which echoed our concern about website operators and others.

The hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), who is not in the Chamber now, produced a lengthy analysis of the Bill.

Sadiq Khan: Very generous.

Robert Flello: My right hon. Friend chides me for being generous again. I am merely trying to create the right atmosphere for the Committee stage, when the Minister will doubtless accept all our amendments and new clauses.

The hon. Gentleman felt that the Bill was better as a result of the Joint Committee approach, and better than it would have been had it relied solely on evidence sessions. How can I disagree? As I have said, I strongly believe that the Joint Committee’s report needs to be reflected in the Bill.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) spoke of the balance between freedom of expression and protection of reputation. He rightly raised points about companies and corporations, and referred briefly to the consequences for jury trials.

In his substantial contribution, the hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) rightly observed that costs were driven by procedure. The draft Bill that was considered by the Joint Committee focused strongly on that point, and we need to see some movement on that from the Minister.

My hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) returned us to the theme of responsible journalism. He took us on a trip down memory lane when he talked about the infancy of Google and the like. He then drew attention to some of the good aspects of the Bill and some of the omissions, such as the omission of provisions relating to corporations.

Paul Farrelly: I also took the House on a trip down memory lane when I mentioned the issue of the Russian mafia and Russian oligarchs, which is ever present today.

Robert Flello: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that comment. I knew he would not want to miss the opportunity to add it, so I paused just long enough for him to rise to intervene. He makes a good point. We must not allow Russian mafia—criminal gangs—to suppress free speech in the UK. That is outrageous.

The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) highlighted a number of areas that we need to address. I look forward to perusing Hansard tomorrow to refresh my memory so we can address them in Committee.

I was impressed by the contribution of the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), in part because she managed to mention her constituency on so many occasions in the context of defamation law. She made

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a very good speech, in which she said it was too easy for the rich and powerful to stifle free speech. I entirely agree.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) is no longer in his place. He gave one of his customary long short speeches. He talked about the chilling effects that we have seen and went through quite a few cases. He hit the nail on the head when he said that clause 5 on website operators addresses a complex area that is difficult to get right. I agree.

The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) talked about his personal experience as a mediator and libel barrister. The hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) welcomed the Bill and the cross-party approach. The hon. Member for North East Somerset said in a complementary way—with an “e” not an “i”—that, instead of having consensus, he preferred holding to the cut and thrust principle. If he serves on the Committee, he may well see plenty of cut and thrust as we ensure that the Bill is knocked into good shape. I thought he was a little unfair to his coalition colleagues, but he redeemed himself by reciting “Othello”, I think—I hope I am not wrong about that. He also made the very good point that those responsible for websites must take responsibility for the content on them. Of course there need to be protections where website operators act responsibly and do the right thing. We will need to see the regulations on that, and we have not yet had sight of them. I never thought I would hear the hon. Gentleman say he was an anti-establishmentarianist —if there is such a word—but it was interesting to hear him say so and to talk about the battle between libel and free speech.

We have had a good debate and, in view of the consensus on the key principle, we will not seek to divide the House this evening. However, I again stress to those on the Treasury Bench that they should see our acceptance of the principle and our willingness to work collaboratively as an opportunity to embrace positive improvements so that we do not rehearse the protracted warfare that gave Ministers a number of bloody noses in the other place. We do not want to see that. Instead we want to see a good Bill come out of this process.

So let us move into Committee with a genuine desire to improve this important piece of legislation further.

9.3 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We have had an extensive and informed debate in which many varied and interesting points have been raised. As the Secretary of State said in his opening speech, our core aim in introducing the Bill is to reform the law so that it strikes the right balance between the right to freedom of expression and the protection of reputation. I was impressed by the elegant description of this balance by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips).

I want to take this opportunity to thank the draft Bill Committee members, a number of whom have spoken today. They were very capably chaired by Lord Mawhinney, and we have valued their recommendations and careful scrutiny of the Bill. I also thank Lord Lester, whose private Member’s Bill focused attention on this important issue. I am sure that the remarks of my hon. Friend the

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Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) about the openness of the Government’s position in the Joint Committee will be well received by my noble Friend, Lord McNally, who has worked very hard on this legislation over the past year.

As the points that have been raised illustrate, there is a range of views on exactly what the balance should be and on how individual issues should be dealt with, but for the most part these are issues of nuance rather than principle. I can confirm to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) that of course I remain in listening mode and shall continue to do so throughout the Committee’s proceedings. I welcome the clear recognition from the shadow Secretary of State and Members on both sides of the House that reform of defamation is needed. I also welcome the support that has been expressed for the Bill and what we are trying to achieve with it. The Bill was described as a “burning light” by my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler).

Let me respond to some of the specific points that hon. Members have raised. Questions were raised by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), the right hon. Members for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham and the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) about how far the serious harm test raises the bar for claims. As the Secretary of State indicated, it is our view that the requirement to show serious harm represents a higher hurdle than the current law. It will be a matter for the courts to determine how the test should apply in individual cases, but we wish to nudge the threshold up to deter trivial claims. No doubt we shall be discussing this issue further in Committee. Hon. Members have expressed concern that the test might require detailed evidence to be presented. We recognise that the introduction of the test might involve some front-loading of cost, but we believe it is better to resolve this issue at an early stage so that only cases involving serious harm proceed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) has been a determined and consistent advocate for scientific research and freedoms. On his request for a strike-out power in clause 1, we took a different and wider approach than Lord Lester’s Bill on this issue. Our measures change the substantive law of defamation instead of focusing on one aspect of the procedure. Our intention is that the normal rules, as set out in the civil procedure rules, will apply. It seemed preferable to rely on those rules rather than create a new and unprecedented procedure for mandatory strike-outs. If the court decides that the serious harm test is not satisfied it will be able to use its power under the rules to strike out the claim.

On clause 2, the hon. Member for North Antrim and others have expressed concern that legislating to rename and restate the defence for justification as one of truth could lead to uncertainty about how far the new law might differ from existing law. The right hon. Member for Tottenham, the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham also raised more general concerns about the Bill in the same regard. I agree that

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any new legislation will inevitably require interpretation and development by the courts in individual cases. However, as the Secretary of State indicated, we want to simplify and clarify the law, which has become unnecessarily complicated. We believe that the clause sets out the key principles of the defence as clearly as possible and will provide greater clarity and certainty in defamation proceedings.

Similar concerns were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) regarding the new statutory defence of honest opinion and whether it would be misused by the press. Again, this is an area in which the law has become particularly complex and technical and has often led to protracted disputes. I confirm to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham that clause 3 clarifies and simplifies the law. We believe that this change will provide greater certainty and will help to avoid unnecessary litigation and cost.

On clause 4, my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), the right hon. Member for Tooting, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge have expressed the view held by some that the clause might not provide strong enough protection for publications in the public interest and that instead of the defendant having to show that a publication has been made responsibly, the claimant should have to show malice or recklessness on the part of the defendant in order to defeat the defence. We share the view of the Joint Committee on the draft Bill that this would not be appropriate. It would widen the scope of the defence and not offer sufficient protection to people whose reputations had been defamed.

Our position is that the clause strikes the right balance and will provide effective protection for responsible publications, but we will be pleased to discuss the matter further in Committee, including the implications of the Flood decision. We do not consider, as suggested by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, that we have departed from the Reynolds defence. Clause 4 is based on existing common law and the defence established in Reynolds, and is intended to reflect the principles established in that case and subsequent case law. The essential test is whether the defendant has acted responsibly in a matter of public interest. That matches the case law and gives the court appropriate flexibility.

This is probably an appropriate time to consider the suggestion from the hon. Member for North Antrim that newspapers be required to notify people in advance about any story they propose to publish. We do not consider it appropriate to require that prior notification be given to the subjects of newspaper articles. However, the defence in clause 4 follows the Reynolds case in identifying as factors that the court can consider in deciding whether the publication was responsible, first, whether the defendant sought the claimant’s views on the statement complained of before publishing it and, secondly, whether an account of any views the claimant expressed was published with the statement.

On clause 5, many hon. Members have discussed how technology has changed the arena in which defamation operates. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, my hon.

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Friends the Members for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) and for Northampton North (Michael Ellis), and the hon. Members for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) and for Bishop Auckland raised important questions about the extent to which the new provisions will tackle trolling and abusive behaviour on the internet. Clause 5 establishes a new procedure that can be followed by website operators on receipt of a complaint about defamatory material on the site on which they host user-generated content. Provided that website operators comply with this procedure, they will have a defence against a civil action for defamation. The procedure focuses on putting complainants in touch with the author of allegedly defamatory material so that they can take action against the author and bring civil proceedings of defamation, if the matter cannot be resolved by other means.

It is recognised, of course, that the dead cannot be defamed, but it is also important to recognise, in response to the sad case in Liverpool mentioned by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton, that a range of criminal offences exist to tackle trolling and other offensive behaviour on the internet. These criminal sanctions include section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which creates an offence of sending or causing to be sent

“by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.

Section 127 has been used to prosecute instances of cyber-bullying, hate crime, homophobic crime, incitement to violence, crimes committed by animal extremists, domestic violence and other sorts of threatening and abusive behaviour. Other offences, under statutes such as the Malicious Communications Act 1988, the Computer Misuse Act 1990 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, may apply, depending on the circumstances.

The Crown Prosecution Service will determine under which legislation to progress prosecution, depending on the circumstances of each case. Some 2,000 criminal prosecutions for trolling have occurred in the past year, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire that action must be taken, where appropriate, and that trolling can be a very nasty business indeed. She clearly explained the range of the activities involved. We are confident that this criminal legislation is being used effectively to tackle offensive behaviour, as the recent case involving Facebook demonstrates. In addition, clause 5 will help to improve the civil law in relation to defamatory postings. Our idea is to help enable the claimant to take action against the author, including anonymous trolls, at a low cost and with the possibility of avoiding the involvement of lawyers.

Paul Farrelly: I have learned in this debate that the word “troll” is being used in this way. Let us not give these people the respectability of Norse mythology. Can we not describe them as they are? Can we avoid using “troll” and just say that these are sad, irresponsible people?

Mr Djanogly: I understand and agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiment, however I am reflecting what is now in common usage and “troll” is a word that people will understand. Some people understand it in either the criminal or the civil context, but the point I am making is that it can be used in both contexts.

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Our approach will also promote freedom of expression by helping to ensure that material is not needlessly taken down without the author being given the opportunity to defend it, as often happens now. I can confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge that we will also be ensuring that protection is in place for whistleblowers.

Robert Flello: Will the Minister please address the issue of what happens when a defamatory statement is put on a website anonymously and the website operator then tells the person defamed who the person posting it is but they are impecunious and are out of jurisdiction? What happens then in terms of taking the statement off the website, because the website operator now has a defence?

Mr Djanogly: If the website operator has a defence, they are out of the picture. That does not stop action being taken against the anonymous troll, but that would have to be done by way of an order, which, admittedly, would be a more expensive procedure.

Nadine Dorries: I believe, and think that the shadow Minister probably does too, that the entire process whereby the responsibility is on the website owner to seek out and address the libellous or defamatory comments left by a troll will be enough to encourage that website owner to remove the comments themselves if they do not get a satisfactory answer. I know that it is not in legislation, but I believe that that even happens now and so this approach will help to reinforce that process.

Mr Djanogly: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I would be the first to admit that there are no silver bullets here. We are looking at a range of proposals that will give an array of weaponry to deal with what we consider to be a dangerous situation. Let me make it clear that the Government are committed to tackling trolling, cyber-bullying and other forms of abuse and misuse of social networking sites by working with industry, academia, charities and parenting groups to develop tools and information for users aimed at keeping society safe online.

The Government are pressing the internet industry in the UK and Europe to implement clear and simple processes for dealing with abuse online, and we have also recently reviewed our cyber-bullying policy. For the most part, social network site operators adopt sensible and responsible positions on any misuse or abuse of their services in the terms and conditions they require of their users. They support this with systems for notification of breach and removal of material in breach. This corporate responsibility of operators, aligned with collective responsibility on users to report misuse, provides the basis for self-regulation of the internet and a more immediate means of monitoring and dealing with abuse.

Many hon. Members queried when we would be publishing regulations to set out the new procedure in detail. I can say tonight that a note on the new process will be provided to the Public Bill Committee to aid its scrutiny of the Bill’s provisions, and draft regulations will be published for consideration by stakeholders in due course.

As the right hon. Member for Tooting said, we believe that extending the clause 6 protection is important in order to help encourage robust and open scientific and

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academic debate, and I, too, acknowledge the principled stand and ongoing participation of Dr Simon Singh in this area. In drafting the clause, we have given careful consideration to defining key elements of the peer-review process to ensure that the scope of the provisions is clear and appropriate, and we are satisfied that it is.

The hon. Member for North Antrim, among others, expressed the view that the problem of libel tourism has been exaggerated. We recognise that there are mixed views on how far libel tourism is a real problem; my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris), among others, took the opposite view, saying that it is a serious problem. However, I point out that the number of cases alone may not accurately reflect the extent of the problem, as the threat of proceedings by wealthy foreigners and public figures can be used to stifle investigative journalism, regardless of whether cases are ultimately brought. That is a form of legal arbitrage and on balance we believe that there is a need to take action specifically to address the issue. We must lose our growing reputation as the libel capital of Europe.

As for how clause 10 will interface with the new defence for website operators under clause 5, if a website operator were to fail to follow the process and then attempt to use a clause 10 defence on the basis that they were not the author, editor or commercial publisher of the third-party material, it would be for the court to decide whether the fact that they had failed to follow the process set out in clause 5 meant that it was not reasonably practicable for the claimant to pursue the primary publisher.

The right hon. Member for Tooting, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), my hon. Friends the Members for Worthing West, for Gainsborough and for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham discussed issues relating to a person’s reputation being decided by his or her peers in the form of a jury. I understand those views but, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State outlined, in practice very few defamation cases now involve juries. We need to appreciate that jury trials can create practical difficulties and add significantly to the length and cost of proceedings, and that if the judge believes that a jury trial is appropriate that will still be a possibility. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) said, the proposal should also help moves towards early settlement.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon gave a lively exposition of how the move away from jury trials is part of what he described as an evolutionary process of libel law. The right hon. Member for Tottenham asked about guidelines and whether they should be included in the Bill to assist the court in the exercise of its discretion to order trial by jury. A clear majority of consultation responses considered that such guidelines would not be necessary. The courts are already familiar with exercising their discretion to order jury trial when appropriate, and we believe it would be preferable to allow them to continue to do that without specific guidance in the Bill.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, the shadow Justice Secretary, the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and others have touched on the new procedure for resolving key preliminary issues at an early stage and its relationship with costs. Let me say first to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South that we agree that this is an important issue, and I agree with the shadow Justice Secretary that if we can reduce procedure we can reduce costs.

During our initial discussions with interested parties in the summer of 2010, it became apparent that a major area of concern was the extent to which defamation proceedings can become mired in disputes over preliminary issues. That contributes substantially both to the time taken to resolve cases and to the costs involved. For example, in British Chiropractic Association v. Singh proceedings in relation to whether the words complained of were matters of fact or opinion took almost two years to resolve. When a ruling was ultimately given on the issue by the Court of Appeal the claim was withdrawn, but by that point substantial costs had been incurred and the defendant had been placed in a position of considerable uncertainty and stress over an extended period.

In the light of such concerns the Government consulted, alongside consultation on the draft Defamation Bill, on the possibility of introducing a formal new procedure in the High Court to channel all cases in which proceedings are issued through a process whereby early rulings can be given on key issues that currently contribute substantially to the length and cost of the proceedings. That would help to clarify the issues in dispute and the defences that may be available and should assist in encouraging early settlement in many cases. The practical implications of the proposal were discussed with members of the senior judiciary with experience in defamation cases and those views were taken into account by the Government in developing a skeleton outline of how the procedure could work, which was published in the consultation document.

The main preliminary issues which the outline envisaged being determined under the new procedure were whether the claim satisfies the serious harm test where this is disputed, which would enable claims failing that test to be struck out as early as possible; what the actual meaning of the words complained of is and whether that meaning is defamatory; and whether the words complained of were a statement of fact or an opinion.

It was envisaged that the procedure would be automatic in all cases where any of these issues needed to be resolved. In addition, other issues which it was considered could potentially be determined, if relevant, were whether the publication is on a matter of public interest, because an early decision on whether a matter is or is not in the public interest could help to determine whether there is any scope for the defendant to use this defence; whether the publication falls within the categories of publication in schedule 1 to the Defamation Act 1996 for which the defence of qualified privilege is available, as this would help to clarify whether it is open to the defendant to use this defence; and consideration of costs budgeting in appropriate cases, depending on the outcome of the ongoing costs budgeting pilot.

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Sir Peter Bottomley: On the case of Dr Singh and the chiropractors’ action against him, the House would like to know, if not now then in Committee or on Report, that the changes which are proposed, both in the Bill and in what my hon. Friend the Minister is describing now, would have chilled the chiropractors and they would not have tried to take the bad action that they took, based on bad science and on money and bullying.

Mr Djanogly: We intend that issue to be addressed both in terms of the substantive law and in terms of the procedure.

Paul Farrelly: I was also trying to give the Minister a pause for breath when the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) intervened. I tabled the question on Trafigura. One of the consequences was that because of the clash between Parliament and the courts, the courts started to look at how their procedures were working. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, issued a press statement saying, in effect, “I did not realise what my courts were doing.” Similar circumstances are applicable in libel, but they have not come to a constitutional clash, which why it is so important that the Government look at civil procedure rules and make sure that the courts are managed properly from the top by the Lord Chief Justice and throughout, without our intervening in their affairs.

Mr Djanogly: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that is already happening and forms the subject of my not infrequent meetings with the Master of the Rolls.

Sir Peter Bottomley: Following up the very important Trafigura issue, if either a solicitor or a barrister ever purports to a client or to someone on the other side that they cannot talk to their Member of Parliament about a matter of public interest, whether international, as in the case of Trafigura, or in a number of medical cases where hospitals or trusts appear to try to silence a consultant, a clinician or a nurse on the issue of patient safety, I hope the Minister will join me in saying that the standards board for the barristers or the solicitors should say, “That person is unprofessional and will be subject to discipline.”

Mr Djanogly: If someone has a problem with the advice that they receive from their professional, they can of course go to the complaints organisations.

We indicated in the consultation document that the Civil Procedure Rule Committee would be asked to consider appropriate procedural changes through secondary legislation to support the new approach. A majority of respondents on this issue were in favour of introducing a new court procedure to resolve key preliminary issues at an early stage. Many of these argued that procedural reform aimed at speeding up defamation proceedings and reducing costs is one of the most important elements of any proposed reform of the law. However, a small number of legal professionals argued that it is unnecessary and could add further complexity.

A range of comments were provided on the issues that would be suitable for determination under the procedure and on other points of detail. I can confirm to the House that we are considering these in working up detailed proposals for the Civil Procedure Rules Committee to consider.

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Paul Farrelly: At a time when the country is going through some severe problems, we have more pilots in the legal profession than we have, potentially, in the RAF, determining how to cut the costs of lawyers in defamation cases. When we discussed this in the Select Committee, we came to the ludicrous conclusion that cost-capping measures in the courts led only to costs increasing because of the number of cases that were being discussed for cost-capping. It is important that the Government and the Courts Service get a grip on, I am sad to say, how judges run their own courts.

Mr Djanogly: We have been doing that, and the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we addressed the issue to some extent in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, although perhaps not to his satisfaction. As I have said, we are also consistently discussing the issue with the judiciary, because it is an important one.

These issues should not need primary legislation, which is why they do not appear in the Bill. However, I can assure the House that we are firmly committed to ensuring that they are addressed in order to reduce costs and encourage settlements and that we are taking the work forward on all these issues alongside the Bill.

With regard to the provision sought by the right hon. Member for Tottenham, the hon. Members for Bishop Auckland and for Newcastle-under-Lyme and my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington, namely a specific provision requiring corporations to show financial harm, a proposal made by the Committee, we share the view that the inequality of financial means that exists when a large corporation sues or threatens smaller companies, individuals or non-governmental organisations lies at the heart of current concerns. In view of the fact that corporations are already prevented from claiming for certain types of harm, such as injury to feelings, in order to satisfy the Bill’s “serious harm” test a corporation would in practice be likely to have to demonstrate actual or likely financial harm in any event.

The right hon. Member for Tottenham, the hon. Members for Bishop Auckland and for Stoke-on-Trent South and others made observations on cost protection for claimants in defamation cases in the light of concerns raised during the passage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. The Government’s reform of no win, no fee conditional fee agreements in that Act should not prevent strong cases from being brought. However, we recognise the concern that individuals who are not wealthy or powerful sometimes need to bring defamation or privacy cases. The Bill and the procedural reforms we intend to take forward alongside it seek to reduce the complexity and cost of defamation proceedings. In order to achieve those aims, I can confirm that we are carefully considering the issue of cost protection in defamation and privacy proceedings and will keep Parliament updated as the Bill progresses.

Continuing the theme of privacy, my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon suggested that the law on privacy should be codified. The Government welcome the report of the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions, on which he served. The Committee recommended, on a majority vote, that the law on privacy should not be codified. The Government are considering the recommendation, along with all the Committee’s other recommendations, and will publish

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our response in due course. My hon. Friend also queried whether section 13 of the Defamation Act 1996 should be repealed. Section 13 relates to the ability of Members of Parliament to waive privilege in relation to defamation proceedings. The Government are consulting on the issue as part of the Green Paper on privilege and consider that the issue is better examined in that context than in the Bill.

In conclusion, the Government firmly believe that reform of the law is needed to bolster free speech and ensure that the threat of libel proceedings is not used to frustrate and impede responsible investigative reporting or debate on issues of public importance, while ensuring that people whose reputations have been seriously harmed have clear and effective remedies against those responsible. I look forward to detailed scrutiny of the Bill and further constructive debate in Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Defamation Bill (Programme)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Defamation Bill:


1. The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.

Proceedings in Public Bill Committee

2. Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Tuesday 26 June 2012.

3. The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.

Consideration and Third Reading

4. Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.

5. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.

6. Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading.

Other proceedings

7. Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments or on any further messages from the Lords) may be programmed.—(Stephen Crabb.)

Question agreed to.

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Proceeds of Crime

9.33 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): I beg to move,

That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 7641/12 and Addenda 1 and 2, a draft Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the freezing and confiscation of proceeds of crime in the European Union; and supports the Government’s intention to not opt-in under Protocol (No. 21) to the European Union Treaties at this stage.

I welcome the opportunity to debate this important draft directive in the House this evening, but I should say at the outset that I am sorry that it has had to be scheduled on a day when a number of members of the European Scrutiny Committee cannot be present. It was originally scheduled for 23 May, but it was necessary to move it in order to give more time to consider fully the views of operational partners before deciding whether or not to opt in. Given the weight of parliamentary business and the limited time available before the opt-in deadline, it was not possible to find a time for this debate when members of the European Scrutiny Committee had returned from their pre-presidency visit to Cyprus. That is not as I would have wished, and I have offered to meet the Committee Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), to discuss the directive.

I also recognise that, in order to inform these debates, we must ensure that the House is informed at an earlier stage of the Government’s position on such directives. I have written to the European Scrutiny Committee Chair to underline the high priority that I attach to ensuring that this process and these debates provide more effective scrutiny, and my officials will work with the Clerk of the European Scrutiny Committee and with the European Union Committee in the other place to that end. I am also arranging a discussion with the Minister for Europe to consider how the matter might be addressed effectively.

On the subject of the motion, asset recovery is a hugely important weapon in our efforts to tackle organised crime. The proceeds of crime are not only a central motivation for organised criminals; they fund further criminality. Freezing and confiscating criminal finances hurts organised criminals and protects the public, and I have no doubt that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House will have examples of when the use of asset recovery has been a very effective weapon in providing relief to communities from serious organised criminals. It is an effective means of tackling and putting increased pressure on organised crime groups.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): The Minister is absolutely right, but we must do much better, and the better way is to make sure that there is more co-operation between EU countries on ensuring that those who try to find a safe haven for their money in another EU country are caught and their money confiscated as quickly as possible.

James Brokenshire: The right hon. Gentleman, the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, makes an important point about international co-operation—one that we certainly recognised in the organised crime strategy that was published last summer. Criminals may wish to hide or to secrete assets not only in the EU, but throughout the world, so the need to look at the matter in an international context is an important one to which I shall return during my contribution.

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In our domestic legislation, we have taken some important steps forward. The Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 is the principal piece of domestic legislation for the restraint and confiscation of the proceeds of crime. It is an advanced and powerful piece of legislation that in most areas goes beyond the minimum standards of the directive that we are debating this evening. It provides a single scheme for the confiscation of the value of the proceeds of crime, following any criminal conviction and regardless of the amount.

If a defendant has been convicted of a listed serious offence or has a number of convictions, the court can assume that all their property is the proceeds of crime and can be factored into the amount of a confiscation order, a power known internationally as “extended confiscation”. It allows for the confiscation of assets that have been transferred to family members or other third parties; it enables the freezing of assets by a court from the beginning of an investigation in order to prevent their dissipation; and it provides civil recovery powers, an intrinsic part of our approach to this area of law, whereby the focus is on the property, not on the person who holds it, and no conviction is required. That is a particularly useful tool for tackling high-level organised criminals for whom it is hard to obtain a conviction.

In 2010-11 UK law enforcement agencies froze or recovered more than £1 billion of criminal assets. The amount of assets recovered has increased year on year since the 2002 Act, and one of this Government’s first steps on entering office was to do away with some of the arbitrary targets that the previous Government imposed on law enforcement professionals. This has galvanised their professionalism and their approach to ensuring that more assets are recovered or frozen. Certainly, the UK is recognised as a leader in this field. However, the Government want to do more, particularly on international asset recovery, as we made clear in our organised crime strategy of July 2011.

In 2008, it was estimated that some £560 million-worth of UK criminal assets were held abroad. That underlines the level of sophistication that a number of organised crime groups are seeking to deploy in order to hide or to shield assets. Improved international co-operation is therefore a necessary step towards recovering that money. That is why we welcome the aims of the directive, if not some of its provisions. It is right that we seek to drive up standards throughout the EU and find better ways of working together with our EU partners. To that end, the directive covers confiscation following a criminal conviction, extended confiscation, third-party confiscation, non-conviction-based confiscation, and powers to freeze assets. The UK already has all those powers under the Proceeds of Crime Act, and so, in almost all areas, we exceed the minimum standards established by the directive.

The purpose of the directive is to require member states to be able to freeze and confiscate the proceeds of cross-border serious and organised crime. The Commission argues that the confiscation of the proceeds of crime in the EU is under-utilised despite the existing EU legal framework. It says that there are three problems with the current EU legal framework: its incomplete or late transition into domestic law, diverging national provisions that make mutual recognition more difficult, and the low utilisation of confiscation in practice. The directive therefore creates minimum standards for the freezing, management and confiscation of the proceeds of crime.

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The Commission intends that minimum standards will lead to greater co-operation, but a mutual recognition instrument has not yet been published.

It is vital that we get the detail right, and we must pay great attention to the effect of the directive on our existing domestic regime and its likely operational impact. In that regard, the Government have identified a serious problem with the directive. As drafted, it poses a very real threat to our domestic non-conviction-based confiscation regime. Operational partners have expressed concern that opting in at this stage poses a risk to the powers used by our law enforcement agencies to target and disrupt the most serious organised criminals. Our non-conviction-based confiscation powers are civil law measures that allow prosecution agencies to take action against property that they think has been acquired through unlawful activity. The action is not taken against an individual, and no criminal conviction is necessary. As I said, it is a particularly useful tool for tackling the high-level organised criminals against whom it is very difficult to achieve a criminal conviction.

In 2011-12, approximately £20 million-worth of criminal assets were recovered using non-conviction-based confiscation powers. It is important to note that the Proceeds of Crime Act, and the use of the civil standard of proof as structured within the Act, has been upheld by the Supreme Court, and therefore its operation has been subject to judicial scrutiny at the highest level. Because of its criminal law legal base, the directive risks placing non-conviction-based confiscation measures in the UK on to a criminal law footing, opening new avenues of legal challenge to our powers and, in many ways, undermining the court judgments that have been secured in relation to the operation of the Proceeds of Crime Act. If criminal law procedural protections and a criminal law standard of proof were introduced, our domestic regime would be severely weakened and our law enforcement agencies would find it harder to disrupt the workings of some of the most dangerous organised criminals.

This is a technical argument, but it is of great importance to the law enforcement agencies that protect our country from organised crime. Under qualified majority voting, there is no guarantee that we can secure the necessary changes to the text. This Government will not risk hindering the work of law enforcement agencies in tackling high-level criminality. The risk is simply too great.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Is it not the case that non-conviction-based confiscation powers exist in many other EU countries and that the directive is therefore likely to be changed to increase flexibility and incorporate those powers, rather than to reduce it?

James Brokenshire: There is likely to be negotiation and discussion on the directive, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, given the manner in which such instruments are taken forward. However, given the significance of the existing powers and the way in which the regime has been tested before the courts, the key point is that because of the use of qualified majority voting, which I have mentioned, there is no guarantee that there will be the outcome that he suggests. The Government have taken the judgment that that risk is too high. On balance, we believe that not opting in at this stage is the

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better option. The risk to our civil recovery regime is simply too great, and I am not willing to take it, especially when operational partners have expressed such concern to us.

None the less, it is our intention to play an active part in the negotiation on the directive. Our experience on the recent human trafficking directive shows that the UK can have an influential voice, even when it does not opt in at the outset. In that case, we opted in to the directive at the post-adoption stage. The UK’s recognised experience and expertise in asset recovery will certainly help with the negotiations.

Our wider aim is to establish effective mutual recognition arrangements for both conviction-based and non-conviction-based confiscation orders. Although the draft directive adds nothing to our domestic asset recovery regime, mutual recognition arrangements could greatly improve our ability to recover the proceeds of crime held in other member states. The draft contains no proposal to establish an effective system for the mutual recognition of confiscation orders. Law enforcement partners say that they would welcome such proposals. The Government will consider how best to use our influence on that matter.

It is important to underline the comments of the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee on how mutual recognition can be a powerful tool. It is important to focus on that point. Indeed, the EU Select Committee in the other place has highlighted it as an issue with the directive and it needs careful attention.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): Is it not the case that there is bilateral mutual recognition in almost every case and that we do not necessarily need mutual recognition under the aegis of the European federal government in Brussels?

James Brokenshire: It is certainly true that bilateral arrangements can be structured. All that I am seeking to say is that negotiations on the directive provide the UK with an opportunity to have an influence. They do not affect our decision, reflected in the motion, not to opt in at this stage because of the serious risks and operational requirements that I have identified.

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): I urge the Minister to be very cautious about mutual recognition, because it means that countries that do not have a legal system that is as robust as ours can have their orders enforced in this country. It therefore threatens the rights of British subjects.

James Brokenshire: I certainly hear my hon. Friend’s point, and we will monitor that carefully in relation to the directive. As I have indicated to the House, there is currently no proposal in the directive dealing with mutual recognition.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): I hear what the Minister says, but I wish to clarify it. In another place’s proceedings on the matter only recently, on 22 May, Lord Henley, the Minister, said:

“The directive offers us a valuable opportunity to raise the standard of asset recovery legislation in the EU, enhance our

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co-operation with member states, and increase our powers to recover criminal assets held overseas.”—[

Official Report, House of Lords,

22 May 2012; Vol. 737, c. 778.]

Why did the Minister in the Lords say that only two weeks ago, whereas the Under-Secretary is saying today that we are not going to opt in?

James Brokenshire: If the right hon. Gentleman reads the report, he will see that my noble Friend underlined clearly that the Government had not concluded their consideration of the directive at that point and had not formulated their decision on whether to opt in. We have listened carefully to the concerns expressed by law enforcement partners about civil recovery powers, and we have determined that the best course of action to protect our laws and our current civil recovery operation is not to opt in. I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman seems to challenge that view. He seems to have determined that it would be appropriate to opt in.

Mr Hanson rose

James Brokenshire: If the right hon. Gentleman wants to take a different course, I am happy to give way to him.

Mr Hanson: I was simply looking at what was said only three weeks ago in another place and what the Minister is saying now. Given what he has said today, is he willing to publish in the Library at least some sort of précis of the responses that he has had from the agencies concerned, so that we can examine them in the light of the directive?

James Brokenshire: I am certainly happy to consider that, but the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that there are sometimes operational sensitivities attached to doing so. We have heard clear representations from operational law enforcement partners, which have been an important factor for the reasons that I have outlined. We none the less recognise that the UK would benefit from the directive raising standards across the EU regardless of whether we opted in, because of the developed legislation that we have in place in this country.

Not opting in at this stage is not a sign that we do not care about asset recovery. It is a sign that the UK takes it very seriously and is committed to getting legislation right for the UK and all member states. Our ultimate aim is to achieve better mutual recognition of both criminal and civil confiscation. The directive will not achieve that, and we will press for a further instrument or instruments in due course that would have that effect. We will analyse the directive carefully, but in the context of the current version, and for the reasons that I have explained, our clear judgment is that the UK should not opt in at this point.

9.54 pm

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): The nature of the debate has changed slightly since the initial discussions in another place some weeks ago. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the draft directive on the freezing and confiscation of the proceeds of crime in the European Union, and I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation of his view. He mentioned that the debate should have taken place before the recent recess and was pulled at the last

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minute. That might be for the reasons of operational advice that he gave, but I smell a bit of anti-Europeanism on the Conservative Back Benches—there is a slight whiff of concern about the EU encroaching on the House’s legislation. Perhaps that is one reason why the Minister has looked at the matter in more detail, but I accept at face value his indication that he has taken advice.

The directive seeks to harmonise national responses by laying down minimum rules for member states with respect to the freezing and confiscation of criminal assets. As the Minister knows, dissipating and converting the proceeds of crime into a variety of assets is one way in which criminal gangs and terrorist organisations operate. The process of uncovering such assets can be complex and difficult, and international co-operation is an indispensable tool in the recovery process.

Like the Minister, I welcome the promotion of cross-border responses. In order to be effective in tackling organised and other crime, we need to co-operate and strengthen our existing relationships with other states within the EU. The Commission believes that EU and international law remain underdeveloped and underutilised. Crime does not respect borders, and we must have a proactive cross-border approach.

I found myself agreeing with Lord Henley, the Minister in another place, who said on 22 May that the directive offers a valuable opportunity to raise the standard of asset recovery in the EU. The Minister has tonight indicated that we already have a strong UK provision on such matters. In fact, for the most part, the UK exceeds the requirements of the draft provisions, owing in no small part to the measures he mentioned, such as the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, which was passed by the previous Government, and the Terrorist Asset-Freezing etc. Act 2010, which I supported as a Minister and saw through the House as a shadow Minister only a couple of years ago.

The Minister has noted that there are a range of figures, but around £560 million-worth of UK criminal assets are overseas. We need to look at how we recover those, because sums of that magnitude indicate that the Government can do more. Effective international co-operation is key.

I believe the directive will be an important tool in tackling serious organised crime, but I am willing to take at face value what the Minister has said. I would like further information on any concerns that have been expressed to him. He can share those either with the House or with me on—dare I say—a Privy Council basis, because I would like a flavour of them. Ultimately, I want an improvement in the asset recovery regime across Europe and international co-operation with our European partners to deal with this problem.

As the motion asks the House to take note of the document, it is important that we examine it. The European Scrutiny Committee highlighted a number of issues, including a range of matters on which there needed to be further work—I accept that these are for discussion—including the extent of criminal offences and the implications of article 8 on safeguards for the legal aid budget. There is a concern whether article 9 includes value-based confiscation, and a concern about articles 3 and 4 on the confiscation of the proceeds of crime, and on extending confiscation when the court

“‘finds it substantially more probable’ than not that these assets are derived from other similar crimes.”

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There is concern about article 7.2, under which, in urgent cases, assets may be frozen prior to obtaining a court order, which is at odds with UK legislation. Article 7 requires member states to be able to freeze property that is in danger of being dissipated, hidden or transferred, as ordered by a court.

A range of issues were raised, including on article 11 and others, by members of the European Scrutiny Committee.

Charlie Elphicke: I am listening with care to the argument the right right hon. Gentleman puts to the House, but I am unclear on one thing: does he think we should opt in to the directive, yes or no?

Mr Hanson: I have said to the Minister that we believe that the directive is a positive development, as the Minister in the other place also said, only two weeks ago, and we should look at it in a positive way. I will take at face value the concerns that the Minister has raised this evening about operability and the advice that he has received from the agencies, but if the hon. Gentleman thinks that we should not opt in because of a wave of anti-European sentiment, that is a very different matter indeed. I will certainly be a positive European. We should have co-operation. I want to see co-operation between states. I also want the European Union to take powers to take the assets of criminals abroad who are operating and making profits in this country. That would not be a bad thing. I would very much welcome further discussions with the Minister about the points that he has raised, but in principle I have no objection to a Europe-wide document helping to support this approach and enshrine improvements on what we currently have in British law.

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): Was that a yes?

Mr Hanson: For the anti-Europeans on the Government Benches, let me say that it is certainly a yes. I certainly wish to see co-operation on a Europe-wide basis to freeze terrorist and criminal assets and to repatriate them to this country. The hon. Gentleman can certainly take it as a yes. This evening I have listened to what the Minister has said, which indicates that he has had advice—which I have not seen—that says that there are difficulties with this measure. What I am saying to the Minister—and to his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who is in her place—is that my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary and I would wish to have sight of that advice and to have further briefing on it, so that we can scrutinise the operation of the process by the Minister and how he intends to take forward discussions on the document as a whole. However, I sense that Government Members have objections to the very principle of such co-operation, rather than to the practice that the Minister has set out.