This morning on the “Today” programme, John Humphrys, normally not afraid of anything, commented on a piece about branding and said that he dared not say anything derogatory about Coca-Cola because it would sue. John Humphrys may be powerful, but clearly not powerful enough to damage Coke’s profits. Even he knew the chill factor of a threatened action.

In Committee, our amendment was supported by my noble friend Lord Triesman and the noble Lords, Lord Faulks and Lord May of Oxford. It is no secret that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, shared this view until his then boss, Ken Clarke, took him into a quiet room, sat him down and, with the persuasiveness for which he is renowned, convinced him that corporations have reputations. The words are those used by the Minister in Committee on 17 December.

The cases that led to much of the pressure for libel reform were largely brought by corporations, using deep pockets and expensive lawyers to stifle criticism. An American corporation sued Dr Peter Wilmshurst, the British Chiropractic Association sued Simon Singh,

5 Feb 2013 : Column 176

Trafigura sued the BBC, manufacturers are for ever threatening


, and McDonald’s infamously and stupidly sued two individuals.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights called for the Bill to be amended so that non-natural persons would be required to establish substantial financial loss in any claim for defamation. Its report stated:

“Professor Phillipson … suggests that the failure to impose any restrictions on corporations’ ability to sue in defamation renders the law on reputation inconsistent and incoherent. Defamation law and the protection afforded under Article 8 has developed on the basis that the protection of an individual’s reputation is a significant human rights issue. Corporate claimants have neither personal emotions nor dignity, and yet are treated as natural persons for the purposes of defamation”.

The Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee also called for a requirement on a corporation to prove actual damage to its business before an action could be brought. Regrettably, the Government opposed this on the grounds that a corporation does have a reputation. Our amendment does not contradict that. It simply requires companies to obtain the court’s permission to sue by showing that it has been, or is likely to be, caused substantial financial loss. This has widespread support and we hope that the Minister will think again.

The second part of our amendment extends the bar on public authorities being able to take action to other organisations performing a public function. The Derbyshire principle is a legal precedent that a government authority cannot be sued for libel. There are good reasons for this. First, it is a body corporate and thus, under the first part of the amendment, it should be debarred since it cannot show financial loss, given that all of us must pay its levy, whether by income tax or rates. The second reason is the comparative resources of any government body compared with those of an individual. The third is that such an authority had a monopoly over education, street cleaning, social care, parking and myriad other services, so any damage to a its reputation would not dent its market, while publicity was a key driver of improved services or access to redress, since users were unable to take their custom elsewhere. That world has changed. We now have free schools in competition with those run by local authorities, while the voluntary sector and private companies run myriad services on behalf of public authorities and paid for by public funds.

First, users need to be able to comment on such services without fear of a defamation action. Secondly, ratepayers and taxpayers must similarly be able to comment without fear of action. Thirdly, since such services are won through competitive tendering, it seems extraordinary that in compiling their bids, private or voluntary sector organisations can say what they like about the local authority against which they are bidding, but could take action for defamation if the local authority or any of its service users said a critical word about them. Are these providers spending taxpayers’ money on services, including issues such as the Border Agency, adoption and care homes, really to be protected from criticism by hiding behind the threat of defamation? Surely we should be able to hear questions about standards, complaints or conduct without lawyers bullying commentators into silence.

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Our amendment would cover only those parts of a corporation performing a public function. Thus, Virgin Care would lose its right to sue over its commissioned work but Mr Branson could still protect his brand’s name where Virgin’s profitability was at risk. In the Commons, the Government rejected this on the excuse that the court in Derbyshire had rejected it. However, that was 20 years ago, when outsourcing was a fraction of what it is today. Now we have one lot of bidders—public bodies—at a disadvantage compared with others because one side can sue for libel but not the other.

In Committee, the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, said that,

“legislation could remove the flexibility that exists under the common law for the courts to develop the Derbyshire principle … in the light of individual cases … it is better to allow the courts to do this rather than introduce … statutory provision”.—[

Official Report

, 17/12/12; col. GC 467.]

This is a decision that Parliament should take, not the courts. Why do a 2013 Government, pledged to update our defamation laws, feel bound by a 1993 ruling when new legislation is exactly the time to make good any shortfall in the law? The Derbyshire case upheld the right for uninhibited public criticism of public authorities. We should extend this to organisations carrying out those services which were once the monopoly of public authorities.

The amendment is not unfair to corporations. It allows them access to the courts to pursue a defamation case where there is a risk of substantial financial harm to their business. It would remove that right only from those providing public services, akin to the existing bar on public authorities. I beg to move.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I have added my name in support of the amendment, which would reinstate a provision from my Private Member’s Bill preventing profit-making bodies from suing in defamation except where they can show substantial financial loss or the likelihood of it. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has indicated, it would extend the Derbyshire principle to bodies performing public functions. It does not seek to prevent companies from suing. It simply requires that they show harm where they feel it most—in the pocket. I do not believe that companies should not be allowed to sue for libel. They have no feelings but they and their shareholders are able to be hurt in their pocket book. If we were to bar companies altogether from suing, that would clearly violate the European Convention on Human Rights because it would be discriminatory.

That is why, in my Private Member’s Bill and in these amendments, I have supported the right of corporations and trading companies to sue provided that they can show actual, or the likelihood of, serious financial loss. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, indicated, the Joint Committee on the draft Bill concluded:

“It is unacceptable that corporations are able to silence critical reporting by threatening or starting libel claims which they know the publisher cannot afford to defend and where there is no realistic prospect of serious financial loss. However, we do not believe that corporations should lose the right to sue for defamation altogether … we favour the approach which limits libel claims to situations where the corporation can prove the likelihood of ‘substantial financial loss’ … corporations should be required to obtain the permission of the court before bringing a libel claim.

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This would encourage robust and decisive action by the courts to prevent trivial and abusive litigation from being commenced at all”.

Before I turn to the second limb of the amendment, I wish to make it clear that there is nothing to stop the directors or officers of a company from suing in their own right; it simply hampers the ability of the corporate body, the trading body, to do so itself. So it is conspicuously moderate and balanced and I hope that it will be acceptable to the Government.

5.45 pm

On the second limb, I argued successfully the Derbyshire case. Before that case was decided by the House of Lords, there was a previous, appalling, case of Edward Campion, a rate payer, who distributed a leaflet criticising the Bognor Council. The Bognor Council—not its councillors or officers—sued Campion, who could not have a lawyer. It won, and he was ruined for having distributed the leaflet criticising the council. That is a classical example of the citizen critic being destroyed by a libel action brought by a government body. In the Derbyshire case—the Law Lords overruled Campion—instead of Mr Bookbinder, the leader of the Derbyshire Council, suing for libel, the council sued, no doubt in order that he might avoid any liability in costs, to vindicate what it called its “governing reputation”. Many years before, in the South African case of Die Spoorbond, it was held that a railway company should not be permitted to sue for libel in respect of its public functions.

The amendment seeks to rationalise the Derbyshire principle, leaving the judges to apply it case by case. I agree that, in the end, it is a matter of judicial discretion in particular cases but the amendment is sound in the way in which it is expressed—that non-natural persons, that is to say, corporate and similar bodies performing a public function, do not have an action in defamation in relation to a statement concerning that function. That seems sensible in democratic terms as the officers of the company are able themselves to bring a claim. That is not the position in the United States where it is quite clear that neither the government company nor any public officers can bring a claim for libel. We are much more balanced than that and we allow public officers to sue to vindicate their individual reputations.

The amendment applies the common sense of Derbyshire in statutory form. I do not understand the argument that the Law Lords in some way ruled in Derbyshire against this proposition. They did no such thing. They did not follow the Sullivan rule in a way that prevents individuals from suing, but made it quite clear that anyone performing a governing function as a corporate body could not sue for libel.

I hope that this second limb will be acceptable to the Government. The two limbs are united in these amendments but they need separate consideration. I support both of them.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames: My Lords, I, too, support the amendment, but I do so on the basis that the general restriction on companies suing for defamation is limited to the requirement in subsection (3) of the proposed new clause that trading entities should

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have to show actual or likely financial loss before being entitled to sue for defamation. As drafted, proposed new subsection (2) would introduce a restriction on companies that is not so limited and is entirely undefined.

However, the restriction in proposed new subsection (3) is in line with the recommendation of the Joint Committee on the draft Bill, on which I served, and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has pointed out, the recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights as well. Whether companies should be able to sue for defamation was one of the issues that the Joint Committee was specifically asked to consider outside the ambit of the draft Bill, and we took a great deal of time and heard a great deal of evidence on this issue. The amendment accords with the sense of many who believe that corporate bodies trading for profit should not be in precisely the same position as natural persons in defamation law.

As in so much of the law in this area, the task is to strike the right balance between the right to free speech and the right to protect reputation. But it is a fact that companies cannot suffer hurt in their feelings and personal reputations in the same way as individuals can. Therefore, many have called for companies to be denied the right to sue for defamation. It is argued that companies have other ways to protect their reputations. It is argued that individual directors can sue, but to bring a suit for defamation is a serious undertaking and would expose those individual directors to substantial personal risk in costs when the real claimant should be the company. It is argued that large companies may have other steps they can take to protect their reputations by advertising or seeking publicity for their position, but that depends on their financial strength. A right to sue for malicious falsehood is often mentioned, but that is dependent on an ability to prove malice, which is notoriously difficult to do.

I take a different view. While companies do not have feelings that can be hurt, they can suffer financially, as my noble friend Lord Lester has pointed out. Defamatory statements about companies can have very serious consequences for their businesses, affecting the jobs of their staff and the prosperity of all concerned in them—whether or not untrue and defamatory statements are made with a view to profit by competitors or innocently by journalists. Therefore, it does not seem to strike the right balance to deprive companies of the right to sue for defamation altogether, quite apart from the fact that it would probably be contrary to the HRA to do so.

However, it seems proportionate and balanced to insist that companies and other non-natural persons trading for profit show that they have suffered or are likely to suffer substantial financial loss as a result of the defamation in respect of which they wish to sue. Imposing that condition recognises the difference in kind between individuals and non-natural persons trading for profit. It would not restrict the right of charities and other not-for-profit organisations to sue, and it is right that it should not do so; for example, charities can suffer from defamation in their future ability to raise funds, but it may be very difficult for them to demonstrate that. Proposed new subsection (3) of this amendment applies only to import a modest

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and proportionate restriction on the right of trading entities to sue and would introduce a valuable extra reform to this Bill.

Finally, I support the reform suggested by proposed new subsection (4) relating to bodies performing public functions, for the reasons that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and my noble friend Lord Lester have already given, but principally because bodies performing public functions should be open to public criticism, even if private, in just the same way that public authorities are.

The Archbishop of York: My Lords, I, too, want to add a sentence of support to what the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lord, Lord Lester, said.

I am patron of many charities and it would not be right if we did not strike the right balance. If a charity felt it was defamed because it was a body corporate, the restriction that has been put in here requiring the permission of the court is necessary. We are living in a very litigious society so if you are going to go to court to sue anybody, the permission of the court should be shown.

In proposed new subsection (3) there is the question of finance and the possibility of striking out if you cannot actually show that you have suffered loss. Because of that balance—that common sense that the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, was talking about—I am very attracted to this, and I hope that the Government will accept both limbs of the amendment, because you really could not do one without the other. It strikes a balance. For such a very long time, individuals could sue but reputational damage, as well as financial loss, is often incurred by a number of charities and it would be good to be able to do the same thing in terms of bodies corporate.

Lord Faulks: My Lords, of course, there is in the Bill a significant hurdle for any claimant, whether a non-natural person or a natural person: they have to show serious harm, so that is a hurdle of itself.

I supported the general tenor of this amendment in Committee but expressed a reservation at that time. Indeed, the Joint Committee on Human Rights expressed a similar reservation, which is: what about the small companies? Of course, I accept that the individual can sue if he or she is sufficiently identified, but if it is a small business—say, the local ice cream vendor; maybe nobody knows them by name but they have a valuable local business reputation—it will have to overcome considerable hurdles before suing. It will have to show substantial financial loss; it may not be very substantial objectively but it may be very substantial to that business. The hurdle of serious harm added to this procedure seems to prevent it recovering in circumstances where it should be able to recover.

Malicious falsehood may be difficult to prove, in the sense that malice is always difficult to establish. None the less, if I say that Hayter & Co. is going out of business, when it plainly is not, it is not difficult to infer malice from that pronouncement. It would be unfortunate if companies had to resort to the alternative tort in circumstances where they should, in my view, be able to rely on ordinary defamation.

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My final observation relates to proposed new subsection (4). I accept what my noble friend Lord Lester said about the public function. Deciding whether somebody performs a public function is not necessarily very easy, just as deciding whether something is a public authority for the purposes of the Human Rights Act has caused the courts considerable distress.

I have sympathy with the general tenor of this amendment but I cannot go all the way with it.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. As has been pointed out, Amendment 2 concerns two distinct but related issues. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Lester, who I greatly respect with regard to this Bill in particular, described it as two limbs. That is a nice way of reflecting on the current Government, in having two arms to the same body, and we are seeking to move forward on these matters.

The issues that have been raised again this afternoon were extensively debated during the previous stages of this Bill. These are whether there should be restrictions on the right of bodies corporate and other non-natural persons to bring an action in defamation, and whether any non-natural person which is performing a public function should be prevented from bringing a claim in relation to a statement concerning that function.

In relation to the first issue, the Government have made it clear in previous debates that there is a difficult balance to be struck, as the most reverend Primate articulated. Considerable damage can be done to the reputation of a business by unjustified and defamatory allegations, and this has an impact on all those involved with the business, including its shareholders and employees. On the other hand, we fully recognise the need to ensure that powerful businesses are not able to—for want of a better term—bully individuals or organisations with limited means into remaining silent on issues of public importance by the threat of libel proceedings.

However, if that is the problem we are trying to solve, imposing specific restrictions on the ability of businesses to sue does not seem justified. Wealthy individuals can equally send threatening letters to those with limited means. This is why we think the twin-track approach we are proposing is preferable. It embraces both elements within the Bill and procedural changes alongside it.

First, all claimants—corporate or otherwise—will have to satisfy the new test of serious harm, as my noble friend just mentioned. As we have made clear, it is our intention that the serious harm test will raise the hurdle for bringing a claim and will ensure that trivial claims do not proceed. In order to satisfy the serious harm test, businesses are likely in practice to have to show some form of actual or likely financial loss. The courts have talked in terms of,

“a tendency to directly affect its credit or property or cause it pecuniary damage”.

Quite what that will require will depend on the type of business concerned and the facts of the particular case, and we do not think that it is helpful to attempt to define explicit restrictions in the Bill.

5 Feb 2013 : Column 182

6 pm

The cost of proceedings is at the root of many of the concerns expressed in the debate on this issue. As I have made clear, we are fully committed to reducing costs and are taking a number of steps to achieve that. The Civil Justice Council is actively engaged in considering the options for costs protection in defamation proceedings and will be reporting to the Secretary of State for Justice in March. The introduction of cost protection measures will provide valuable protection to defendants of limited means when they are faced by an opponent with substantially greater resources.

In addition, we will be bringing proposals for procedural changes before the Civil Procedure Rule Committee shortly. As we explained in the note that we provided to the House before Committee, those proposals will enable key issues—such as whether there is serious harm, what is the actual meaning of the words complained of, and whether they are a statement of fact or opinion—to be brought before the court at the earliest possible stage. In many cases, that will enable early resolution and settlement of the dispute at greatly reduced cost. We will also be encouraging the courts to be more pro-active in managing cases to ensure that a tight grip is kept on those cases which proceed to trial.

We believe that the approach that I have outlined is the best way forward. It will give significantly more protection to defendants with limited means, and lessen the likelihood of attempts being made to threaten and intimidate them, while still enabling businesses to protect their reputation where it has been seriously harmed by unjustified allegations.

I turn to the second element of the amendment. In the case cited of Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers, the House of Lords held that local authorities and governmental bodies are already prevented from bringing actions for defamation. As the noble Baroness articulated, the amendment would extend that principle and prevent claims by any non-natural person performing a public function.

We do not consider that extension to be appropriate. As my noble friend Lord Faulks mentioned, it would be a significant restriction on the right of a wide range of businesses and other organisations to protect their reputation, and a clear majority of responses to our public consultation on the draft Bill were opposed to it. A rigid and restrictive statutory provision which would remove the right to claim from a wide range of bodies does not represent a proportionate approach. We consider that it is much better to allow the courts to develop the Derbyshire principle as they consider appropriate in the light of individual cases.

On the basis of the explanation that I have given, I hope that the noble Baroness will be prepared to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have spoken, particularly those who have spoken in support—the most reverend Primate, the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, with whom I had the pleasure of serving on the Joint Committee, and the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, who raised an interesting question about small companies such as

5 Feb 2013 : Column 183

the ice cream vendor. In the Joint Committee, we went through the question of whether, as in the Australian situation, there could be very big internet companies with fewer than 10 people but enormous turnover. We felt that there was no way to cover that—although, as has been said, if someone is so identified, such as the well-known company Hayter and Hayter, I could probably take action in my own name.

I say two things to the Minister. I am disappointed by his response. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, said that this is moderate and balanced. I am slightly insulted by being called a moderate, but I can live with it occasionally. This is a moderate and balanced response. It is one that I should have thought the Government would accept. To put together the big issue of companies bullying and rich people bullying is not the right comparison. A few rich people do it. In our next amendment, we will come to a strikeout ability, which is the way to deal with those very few—and we know they are—who bully.

We are talking about, day after day, companies threatening anyone who says that they were not perfect with taking them to court, when they know that they can do that because of the depth of their pockets. On the Derbyshire principle, the Government are just wrong. If we want people exercising public functions but privileged to sue on their reputation, that does not give us the confidence for even more outsourcing of public functions. I think that the Government have taken the wrong call on that, and I would like to test the opinion of the House.

6.05 pm

Division on Amendment 2

Contents 201; Not-Contents 193.

Amendment 2 agreed.

Division No.  2


Adams of Craigielea, B.

Ahmed, L.

Alton of Liverpool, L.

Anderson of Swansea, L.

Andrews, B.

Armstrong of Hill Top, B.

Bach, L.

Bakewell, B.

Bassam of Brighton, L. [Teller]

Bath and Wells, Bp.

Beecham, L.

Berkeley, L.

Bhatia, L.

Bichard, L.

Bilston, L.

Blackstone, B.

Blood, B.

Bragg, L.

Brooke of Alverthorpe, L.

Brookman, L.

Brooks of Tremorfa, L.

Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, L.

Browne of Belmont, L.

Browne of Ladyton, L.

Butler-Sloss, B.

Cameron of Dillington, L.

Campbell of Surbiton, B.

Campbell-Savours, L.

Carter of Coles, L.

Christopher, L.

Clancarty, E.

Clark of Windermere, L.

Clarke of Hampstead, L.

Clinton-Davis, L.

Collins of Highbury, L.

Colville of Culross, V.

Corston, B.

Coussins, B.

Crawley, B.

Cunningham of Felling, L.

Davies of Coity, L.

Davies of Oldham, L.

Davies of Stamford, L.

Dear, L.

Donaghy, B.

Donoughue, L.

Drake, B.

Drayson, L.

5 Feb 2013 : Column 184

Dubs, L.

Elder, L.

Elystan-Morgan, L.

Evans of Parkside, L.

Evans of Temple Guiting, L.

Evans of Watford, L.

Falkland, V.

Farrington of Ribbleton, B.

Faulkner of Worcester, L.

Filkin, L.

Foster of Bishop Auckland, L.

Foulkes of Cumnock, L.

Gale, B.

Gibson of Market Rasen, B.

Golding, B.

Goldsmith, L.

Gordon of Strathblane, L.

Grantchester, L.

Grenfell, L.

Griffiths of Burry Port, L.

Grocott, L.

Hanworth, V.

Hardie, L.

Harris of Haringey, L.

Harrison, L.

Hart of Chilton, L.

Haworth, L.

Hayman, B.

Hayter of Kentish Town, B.

Healy of Primrose Hill, B.

Hereford, Bp.

Hollick, L.

Hollins, B.

Hollis of Heigham, B.

Howarth of Newport, L.

Howe of Idlicote, B.

Howells of St Davids, B.

Hoyle, L.

Hughes of Stretford, B.

Hughes of Woodside, L.

Hunt of Chesterton, L.

Hunt of Kings Heath, L.

Irvine of Lairg, L.

Janner of Braunstone, L.

Jay of Ewelme, L.

Jay of Paddington, B.

Jones, L.

Jones of Whitchurch, B.

Jordan, L.

Judd, L.

Kakkar, L.

Kennedy of Southwark, L.

Kennedy of The Shaws, B.

Kestenbaum, L.

King of Bow, B.

Kinnock, L.

Kinnock of Holyhead, B.

Kirkhill, L.

Knight of Weymouth, L.

Laming, L.

Layard, L.

Lea of Crondall, L.

Leitch, L.

Levy, L.

Liddell of Coatdyke, B.

Liddle, L.

Lipsey, L.

Lister of Burtersett, B.

Listowel, E.

McAvoy, L.

McConnell of Glenscorrodale, L.

McDonagh, B.

McFall of Alcluith, L.

McIntosh of Hudnall, B.

MacKenzie of Culkein, L.

Mackenzie of Framwellgate, L.

McKenzie of Luton, L.

Maginnis of Drumglass, L.

Mar, C.

Masham of Ilton, B.

Massey of Darwen, B.

Maxton, L.

Monks, L.

Moonie, L.

Morris of Handsworth, L.

Morris of Yardley, B.

Nye, B.

O'Loan, B.

O'Neill of Bengarve, B.

O'Neill of Clackmannan, L.

Palmer, L.

Patel of Blackburn, L.

Patel of Bradford, L.

Pendry, L.

Pitkeathley, B.

Plant of Highfield, L.

Powell of Bayswater, L.

Prescott, L.

Prosser, B.

Puttnam, L.

Quin, B.

Ramsay of Cartvale, B.

Rea, L.

Reid of Cardowan, L.

Rendell of Babergh, B.

Richard, L.

Robertson of Port Ellen, L.

Rogan, L.

Rooker, L.

Rosser, L.

Rowlands, L.

Royall of Blaisdon, B.

Sawyer, L.

Scotland of Asthal, B.

Sherlock, B.

Simon, V.

Smith of Basildon, B.

Smith of Leigh, L.

Snape, L.

Soley, L.

Stern, B.

Stevenson of Balmacara, L.

Stoddart of Swindon, L.

Stone of Blackheath, L.

Taverne, L.

Taylor of Bolton, B.

Temple-Morris, L.

Thornton, B.

Tomlinson, L.

Touhig, L.

Trees, L.

Triesman, L.

Tunnicliffe, L. [Teller]

Turner of Camden, B.

Uddin, B.

Wall of New Barnet, B.

Walpole, L.

Walton of Detchant, L.

Warwick of Undercliffe, B.

Watson of Invergowrie, L.

West of Spithead, L.

Wheeler, B.

Whitaker, B.

Whitty, L.

Wigley, L.

Wilkins, B.

Williams of Elvel, L.

Wills, L.

Winston, L.

Wood of Anfield, L.

York, Abp.

Young of Hornsey, B.

Young of Norwood Green, L.

5 Feb 2013 : Column 185


Aberdare, L.

Addington, L.

Ahmad of Wimbledon, L.

Alderdice, L.

Allan of Hallam, L.

Anelay of St Johns, B. [Teller]

Ashcroft, L.

Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, L.

Ashton of Hyde, L.

Astor of Hever, L.

Attlee, E.

Ballyedmond, L.

Bates, L.

Bell, L.

Benjamin, B.

Berridge, B.

Bew, L.

Black of Brentwood, L.

Blencathra, L.

Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury, B.

Brabazon of Tara, L.

Bridgeman, V.

Brinton, B.

Brittan of Spennithorne, L.

Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, L.

Brookeborough, V.

Brougham and Vaux, L.

Browning, B.

Burnett, L.

Buscombe, B.

Byford, B.

Caithness, E.

Cathcart, E.

Cavendish of Furness, L.

Chidgey, L.

Clement-Jones, L.

Colwyn, L.

Cope of Berkeley, L.

Cotter, L.

Courtown, E.

Cumberlege, B.

De Mauley, L.

Deighton, L.

Dholakia, L.

Dixon-Smith, L.

Dobbs, L.

Doocey, B.

Dundee, E.

Dykes, L.

Eccles, V.

Eccles of Moulton, B.

Eden of Winton, L.

Elton, L.

Falkner of Margravine, B.

Faulks, L.

Fearn, L.

Flight, L.

Fookes, B.

Forsyth of Drumlean, L.

Fowler, L.

Framlingham, L.

Freeman, L.

Freud, L.

Garden of Frognal, B.

Gardiner of Kimble, L.

Gardner of Parkes, B.

Garel-Jones, L.

Geddes, L.

German, L.

Goodlad, L.

Hamwee, B.

Hanham, B.

Hannay of Chiswick, L.

Hanningfield, L.

Harris of Richmond, B.

Henley, L.

Heyhoe Flint, B.

Higgins, L.

Hill of Oareford, L.

Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, L.

Home, E.

Hooper, B.

Howard of Lympne, L.

Howard of Rising, L.

Howe, E.

Howe of Aberavon, L.

Howell of Guildford, L.

Hunt of Wirral, L.

Hurd of Westwell, L.

Hussein-Ece, B.

Inglewood, L.

James of Blackheath, L.

Jolly, B.

Kerr of Kinlochard, L.

King of Bridgwater, L.

Kirkwood of Kirkhope, L.

Knight of Collingtree, B.

Kramer, B.

Lang of Monkton, L.

Lee of Trafford, L.

Lexden, L.

Lingfield, L.

Linklater of Butterstone, B.

Liverpool, E.

Lucas, L.

Lyell, L.

McColl of Dulwich, L.

Maclennan of Rogart, L.

McNally, L.

Maddock, B.

Magan of Castletown, L.

Marks of Henley-on-Thames, L.

Marlesford, L.

Mayhew of Twysden, L.

Miller of Chilthorne Domer, B.

Miller of Hendon, B.

Montgomery of Alamein, V.

Moore of Lower Marsh, L.

Morris of Bolton, B.

Moynihan, L.

Naseby, L.

Nash, L.

Neville-Jones, B.

Newby, L. [Teller]

Noakes, B.

Northbrook, L.

Northover, B.

Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, L.

O'Cathain, B.

Parminter, B.

Perry of Southwark, B.

Plumb, L.

Popat, L.

Randerson, B.

Redesdale, L.

Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, L.

Rennard, L.

Risby, L.

Roberts of Llandudno, L.

Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L.

Roper, L.

Rowe-Beddoe, L.

Ryder of Wensum, L.

Scott of Needham Market, B.

Seccombe, B.

Selborne, E.

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Selkirk of Douglas, L.

Selsdon, L.

Sharp of Guildford, B.

Sharples, B.

Shaw of Northstead, L.

Shephard of Northwold, B.

Shipley, L.

Shutt of Greetland, L.

Skelmersdale, L.

Smith of Clifton, L.

Spicer, L.

Stedman-Scott, B.

Stephen, L.

Sterling of Plaistow, L.

Stewartby, L.

Stoneham of Droxford, L.

Storey, L.

Stowell of Beeston, B.

Strasburger, L.

Strathclyde, L.

Taylor of Goss Moor, L.

Taylor of Holbeach, L.

Tebbit, L.

Teverson, L.

Thomas of Gresford, L.

Thomas of Swynnerton, L.

Thomas of Winchester, B.

Tonge, B.

Tope, L.

Tordoff, L.

Trefgarne, L.

Trimble, L.

True, L.

Tyler, L.

Tyler of Enfield, B.

Ullswater, V.

Verma, B.

Vinson, L.

Wakeham, L.

Wallace of Saltaire, L.

Wallace of Tankerness, L.

Walmsley, B.

Wasserman, L.

Wei, L.

Wilcox, B.

Wilson of Tillyorn, L.

Younger of Leckie, V.

6.17 pm

Amendment 3

Moved by Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town

3: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—

“Strike-out procedure

(1) The court must strike-out an action for defamation unless the claimant shows that—

(a) its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant; and

(b) there has been a real and substantial tort in the jurisdiction.

(2) For the purposes of subsection (1)(b), no real and substantial tort is to be regarded as having occurred in relation to the claimant unless the publication in the jurisdiction can reasonably be regarded as having caused serious harm to the claimant’s reputation having regard to the extent of publication elsewhere.

(3) Subsection (1) does not apply if, in exceptional circumstances, the court is satisfied that it would be in the interests of justice not to strike out the action.

(4) An order under subsection (1) may be made by the court of its own motion or on an application by any party to the action.

(5) Subsection (1) does not limit any power to strike-out proceedings which is exercisable apart from this section.”

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: My Lords, perhaps I can be very naughty and thank the House for its support on that Division.

The intention behind Amendment 3, which I move on behalf of my noble friend Lord Browne of Ladyton and myself, sets out a vital procedure—the ability of a court to strike out an action for defamation. This power is vital. Everything that the Bill seeks to achieve has been about reducing costs—which have completely distorted the law on defamation—by facilitating early resolution, as the Minister said in response to an earlier amendment. If the key issues can be decided early on—which the virtual ending of jury trials enables—then lawyers’ time is diminished and costs are brought down.

The costs in these cases, as we have heard, are such that they put the use of the law to protect reputation beyond the reach of all but the richest. The only

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others who have been able to make use of this law are those who have used no-win no-fee cases to do so—arrangements which are shortly to be ended. This law has been beyond the reach of most people. Virtually no defendant can contest a case, or claimants bring one, as they risk being crippled not just by their own legal costs but by those of the other side. I heard just today of a case involving one day in court which cost £40,000 on each side.

So costs are vital, as is early resolution. Up against a rich newspaper, no one without sizeable means can consider taking on a case. With a multimillionaire, an oligarch or a company even threatening an action, journalists, papers, NGOs or Which? will be reluctant to publish anything, no matter how true, that is going to tie them up in legal and financial nightmares.

The amendment is about the last part of the jigsaw. Having enabled early decision of most issues by clarity of the law and the reduction of the use of juries, we now need active case management and the clear authority of the court to strike out before trial actions that fail the test of serious harm based on a falsehood, or where other jurisdiction is more appropriate.

That clear ability of a court to strike out an action is what we want written into the Bill. It would allow either side to apply for this strike-out or for the judge to start the process. At one level, the amendment would write into the Bill what in effect exists in the Civil Procedure Rules but which will not be evident to the ordinary member of the public, be they a potential claimant or a defendant. Non-lawyers do not even know of the existence of the Civil Procedure Rules, much less what they say.

The Bill has aimed to provide for a lay person—an author or the defamed—a clear statement of what the law on defamation is, without recourse to a lawyer or a legal textbook. Our description of the power of a court to stop an action is clear. It would show to the claimant that unless they could show serious harm to their reputation, and a tort—that it was wrongful—then they should proceed no further. It would indicate to the defendant that they could go to the court and ask for such a strike-out when it was obvious to them either that the claimant had no relevant reputation here or that any such reputation had not been caused serious damage. This is clarity; it would add to the Bill a power that is already there, and it would be a signal that we want early case management so that as many of these issues as possible can be dealt with and, where appropriate, struck out. I beg to move.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I cannot support the amendment. One of the difficult things about having a Bill like this is to decide what Parliament should be doing and what the courts should be doing. Parliament has put into Clause 1 this very important barrier of serious harm. In his important reply to the previous debate, the Minister helpfully indicated that serious harm—for example, with a corporate body—would include the likelihood of serious financial loss as one of the factors to take into account. Obviously this is a preliminary hurdle, and obviously the procedure rules, which are not in the Bill but will be in the Civil

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Procedure Rules, and case management will ensure that a party can come before the judge at the beginning and say, “Strike this out because the serious harm test is not satisfied”.

My first reason for not supporting this is that it deals with matters of procedure that will be dealt with, I think, by the Civil Procedure Rules themselves, a pre-action protocol and case management. The second reason is that the factors that are listed here,

“caused or is likely to cause serious harm … and … a real and substantial tort in the jurisdiction”,

are exactly the kinds of issues that one would expect the judge to have regard to, but the Government have very wisely decided to move against having a checklist—for example, in Clause 4. I think that our judges can be well trusted to be able to apply the serious harm test in Clause 1 without a checklist and without being fettered in any way.

I sympathise with the aim of the amendment, but it is an example of overreach. We should not be writing this kind of procedural detail into the Bill; we should leave it to the wise discretion of the judiciary.

Lord Faulks: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend Lord Lester. It is possible that the House may remember the contribution that I made to the first debate when I drew the House’s attention to the protocol, which does very much what the amendment seeks to do. Under the current law it is perfectly possible, and indeed it happens on a regular basis, that a court will rule on a preliminary basis and will strike out claims, either pursuant to the CPR or under the inherent jurisdiction. They will manage the case so that preliminary matters are heard—for example, an issue as to meaning—without a full-scale trial. Judges and masters are experienced in dealing with this, and that is a matter that should be left to the protocol and to the masters to develop as a matter of practice. With respect, it is not a matter that should be put in the Bill.

Baroness Butler-Sloss: My Lords, I support what the noble Lords, Lord Lester and Lord Faulks, have said. I have to admit to having been a judge, but not a judge who tried this sort of case. I believe that this is a matter that should be left to the judiciary, and the amendment is overemphasising something that really does not need to be done.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames: My Lords, while the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, is right to say that costs and early resolution are vital, I suggest that this extra strike-out provision is entirely unnecessary and, further, that it would introduce added uncertainty by bringing in a gloss on the serious harm test in Clause 1. In addition, it would add complexity to Clause 3 by introducing another test for whether or not there should be a strike-out. As has been said, the court is already able to strike out a case that has no merit; indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, conceded that. It is right at the heart of these reforms that the Government propose to introduce an early resolution procedure in the rules, so I cannot see why the amendment should be necessary.

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Lord McNally: My Lords, I am unused to getting such unanimous support from all sides of the House. I am grateful for the interventions from my noble friends Lord Lester, Lord Faulks and Lord Marks and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. As has been pointed out, we are being asked here whether there should be provision in the Bill requiring the court to strike out actions that do not meet certain thresholds, unless the interests of justice require otherwise.

The noble Baroness has made clear that the intention underlying the amendment is to make the law as clear as possible for the ordinary citizen. We share that aim, and have tried as far as possible to make the Bill accessible and readily understandable to those who may need to refer to it. However, the provision that she proposes is simply unnecessary, and could itself cause confusion and unnecessary cost.

As the Government have made clear in previous debates on this point, the courts already have a power in Rule 3.4 of the Civil Procedure Rules that permits them to strike out all or part of a claim where there are no reasonable grounds for bringing it or they consider it to be an abuse of process. The courts are very familiar with that power and we have no doubt that they will use it more often in defamation cases once the new higher threshold of serious harm is in place.

The noble Baroness expressed concern that the Civil Procedure Rules were couched in permissive rather than mandatory terms. We do not consider there to be anything in this point. We see no reason why a court would allow a case to continue if the threshold test were not met.

6.30 pm

In speaking to an amendment on this issue in Committee, the noble Baroness referred to the fact that my noble friend Lord Lester included a similar provision in his Private Member’s Bill on defamation. However, as my noble friend has just pointed out, by introducing the serious harm test in Clause 1 we have simply taken a different approach to achieve the same result. We have chosen to make a substantive change to the law rather than a procedural one, but the result is the same: if the court decides that the serious harm test is not met, it will use its power under Rule 3.4 to strike it out.

We believe that that is perfectly clear and that there is no need to create a new strike-out power, which could itself create confusion by largely duplicating the existing power. The amendment would also mean that the court had to assess whether the serious harm test had been met in every case, regardless of whether that was a matter of dispute. That would be unduly burdensome on both claimants and the courts.

Finally, I emphasise again what my noble friend Lord Ahmad said in the previous debate: that we are making progress in relation to our proposals on early resolution procedures. We will be bringing proposals before the Civil Procedure Rule Committee shortly to enable key issues to be brought before the court at the earliest possible stage. We will also be encouraging the courts to be more proactive in managing cases to ensure that a tight grip is kept on cases that proceed to trial. I assure noble Lords that we are committed to

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addressing these issues and will ensure that appropriate provisions are in place for when this legislation comes into force. I hope that on that basis and on the overwhelming arguments deployed from all sides of the House, the noble Baroness will withdraw this amendment.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: I thank all noble Lords who contributed to this debate. I reassure the Minister that it was not just because they all feel so sorry for him about the last two votes that they all suddenly rallied to him. Theirs were genuine views, not sympathy.

All noble Lords who spoke are lawyers. They are very familiar with Civil Procedure Rules. Those of us who get caught up in defamation are not, so this amendment is less about the procedure than about signalling to people that they can apply for strike out. That is the essence of the amendment. It is because of that that I am cheered by the Minister’s response and his encouragement to courts to manage cases. That is undoubtedly half of it.

In Committee, the Minister spoke about new guidelines to go with the Bill. I hope that they will refer to the ability outside the Bill to get a strike out, because most people do not know about that but think the matter has to go to trial. That was the point we were really making. However, I know when I am not going to win a vote. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 3 withdrawn.

Clause 3 : Honest opinion

Amendment 4

Moved by Lord Lester of Herne Hill

4: Clause 3, page 2, line 7, leave out “basis” and insert “subject matter”

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I move Amendment 4 essentially on behalf of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, who cannot be here this evening. In the light of what has just been said by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, I am hoping that when the Explanatory Notes to the Bill are brought up to date when the Bill becomes law, some of these points will be dealt with in them, which is an authoritative way of doing so.

There are two ways in which I can move this amendment: the long way and the short way. Since I detect in my noble friend Lord McNally’s previous reply not exactly bitterness but a sort of cynicism about certain attitudes, I shall do it the short way because I think we can cut the cackle on this by coming to the point that was troubling the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, and Sir Brian Neill.

The amendment turns on a case called Telnikoff in the context of the honest opinion defence in Clause 3. In Telnikoff, the House of Lords decided that it was insufficient for a letter commenting on a newspaper article to refer to the article in order to establish that it was opinion, not fact. The letter had to be recognisable

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as opinion on its own rather than in the context of the article. My noble friend wrote to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, on 9 January. I shall not repeat what he wrote, nor will I repeat what was said by the Minister. It did not satisfy the noble and learned Lord, which is why he wished to come back to it on Report.

I suggest that if the Minister in his reply can clear up any further confusion by making it clear that in the light of the Bill the Government do not regard Telnikoff as good law, so that if the same facts were to come before the courts under Clause 3(3), a reference to the original newspaper article on which the letter was commenting should be enough to establish the first and second conditions in Clause 3, that would be most helpful. When the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, returns, if he does not find the answer sufficiently clear I will leave it to him to decide what to do at Third Reading. I beg to move.

Lord Browne of Ladyton: I support of this amendment and do so by adopting the argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, which, I think, in turn adopts what I described as the compelling argument put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, in Grand Committee on 19 December at col. GC 522. I commend the recommendation of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to the Minister.

In rereading the debate in Grand Committee, I am reminded that he offered a very similar opportunity to the Minister on that occasion, which the Minister scorned. I think that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, was awaiting the letter that became the letter of 9 January 2013. I recollect that in col. GC 528 in the same debate the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, indicated that he might be able, in the same vein as was suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to give the comfort that the noble and learned Lord was seeking. I have to say—this should not surprise anybody—that we were all, I think, persuaded by the noble and learned Lord’s argument in relation to Telnikoff and why it should not still be considered to be the law in the same circumstances. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to the opportunity that he has on this occasion to resolve this issue once and for all.

Lord McNally: My Lords, I indeed hope that this will be resolved once and for all. If my noble friend is going to withdraw under the temptation that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, can bring this back at Third Reading, I would rather that he tested the opinion of the House. I will try to make as clear as possible on the record the Government’s opinion on this, but I cannot start trying to rerun 20 year-old legal battles.

Clause 3 provides for the honest opinion defence to be available if three conditions are met. Amendment 5 provides that the second condition in subsection (3)— that the statement complained of indicated, whether in general or specific terms, the basis of the opinion—is met if the defendant indicates the subject matter of a letter or article appearing in a newspaper or other publication and the date when it appeared.

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On the basis of our discussions with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, on whose behalf my noble friend is speaking this evening, we understand that the core issue underlying the amendment relates to what should be taken into account in determining whether the statement complained of is one of fact or opinion. We consider that this goes to the first condition in Clause 3(2)—that the statement complained of was one of opinion—rather than to the second condition in subsection (3).

At common law, when deciding whether a statement is one of fact or opinion, the court can look at the statement only in its immediate context. So if the statement appears in a news story or in a letter to an editor, the court can look only at the particular news story or the particular letter. The intention behind Amendment 5 is to change this so that the court can also look at other documents that provide a context for the statement.

This is a difficult issue, as is evidenced by the varying judicial opinions that were expressed when this was considered by the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords some 20 years ago in the case of Telnikoff v Matusevitch, to which my noble friend has referred. However, on balance, and with the greatest respect to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, the Government believe that the current law is in the right place. We consider that it should be clear from the document in which the statement appears that the author is expressing an opinion, otherwise a reader cannot know that there is a judgment to be made. They must be entitled to accept as a fact something that is presented as a fact. It follows from this that we cannot accept Amendment 5. Although the Bill abolishes the common law, we can see no reason why the courts would depart from the current approach.

As I have said, a defendant who satisfies the first condition that the statement is one of opinion must also satisfy the second condition that the statement must indicate, whether in general or specific terms, the basis of the opinion. Amendment 4 would replace the word “basis” with the words “subject matter”. The provisions in the Bill reflect the test approved by the Supreme Court in Spiller v Joseph that,

“the comment must explicitly or implicitly indicate, at least in general terms, the facts on which it is based”.

We consider that the word “basis” more accurately captures the essence of that test.

I hope that, on that basis, not only will the noble Lord withdraw this amendment, but that when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, returns to these shores and reads Hansard, he will accept that he has had a good run for his money but that this is where the Government’s view is and where it will remain.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. The further the Bill proceeds through this House, the more I am convinced that he would have made a superb Queen’s Counsel. Maybe as a result of his experience, that will be his next career.

I have no idea whether the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, will be satisfied by the Minister’s

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answer. I cannot control or fetter him in any way. As I understand it, the Government’s position is that the second condition—

“that the statement complained of indicated, whether in general or specific terms, the basis of the opinion”—

was based on the judgment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, in Spiller v Joseph, in which he held that it is not a prerequisite of the defence that readers should be in a position to evaluate the comment for themselves. My understanding is that the Government’s position is that Clause 3(3) has been prepared on that basis, and that the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, is therefore unnecessary.

I see the Minister nodding. I hope that the ministerial nod, which I now record in Hansard, will cause the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, to treat it as sufficient for his purposes and for those of Pepper v Hart. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 4 withdrawn.

Amendment 5 not moved.

6.45 pm

Clause 4 : Publication on matter of public interest

Amendment 6

Moved by Lord Taverne

6: Clause 4, page 2, line 37, leave out “reasonably” and insert “could reasonably have”

Lord Taverne: My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 7. I have taken no part in Committee. I should explain why I am moving this amendment today. I tabled my amendments at the request of Sense about Science, a charity which I founded just over 10 years ago, and from which I have recently retired. It has certainly played a prominent part in the proceedings on the reform of libel law, and I have followed its progress with keen interest. I first thank the Government for their helpful approach throughout, and say how much I appreciate the changes which they have made.

However, there are still some improvements to be made. I was encouraged to table Amendment 7 because it is based on the advice of senior counsel. The point can be made briefly. Under Clause 4, the defendant must show that he, she or they, as the case may be,

“reasonably believed that publishing the statement complained of was in the public interest”.

The amendment would replace “believed” with “decided”. I submit that it would make the clause clearer and simpler. Belief is subjective, much more so than decision. It is often hard to prove belief. It would be open to, possibly endless, argument and discussion, and could well lead us back in the direction of the checklist, which I am sure that all noble Lords wish to avoid.

Further, it may be the case that the defendant is a newspaper. That could make belief even harder to prove. For these simple reasons, I hope that the Government will favourably consider these amendments.

Baroness Bakewell: My Lords, in speaking to Amendments 6, 7 and 9, I declare an interest. I am a member of PEN, the defender of writers’ rights, and

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have been briefed by it in the matter of public interest defence. However, I speak as a journalist of some four decades’ experience, schooled in what were at the time the exacting standards of BBC journalistic behaviour. If that sounds rather smug or perhaps even naïve, following the earlier debate on Leveson today in which enormous generalisations about the nature of the press and its wickedness passed unchallenged, I am aware and proud of the many high standards of journalism in this country, which has served in part to disclose the scoundrels in the industry whom we wish to call to account.

It is against that background that I seek to make the matter of public interest foolproof against capricious and expensive litigation and extended and opportunistic probing of journalists’ subjective motives.

The advantage of the small but significant changes proposed in these amendments is that the defence can still benefit from a subjective element that would require the court to consider the defendant’s state of knowledge at the time of publication, but would limit the claimant’s ability to spin a long and expensive case by probing the defendant’s motives. It is the decision to publish rather than the belief that is critical.

Matters of public interest require objective judgments reasonably arrived at. Journalists must be held to such judgments. The issue of subjective motives is simply not relevant to the case. As Lord Justice Dyson found in the case of Flood:

“The mere fact that an article is published because the journalist or publisher wants to hurt the subject of the article is not material to whether the publication is in the public interest”.

As long-serving practitioners in the area of defamation law have advised the Libel Reform Campaign, an opportunity on the part of an aggressive, outraged claimant to use the litigation to probe into, to prise open and to seek to expose as flawed the motives and good faith of a defendant, including editors and journalists, may be readily exploited. As a writer of fiction, I am well aware of the complexity of human motive and its expression, including my own. But as a journalist, I acknowledge that my examination and exposure of a story must answer the strictest tests of reason and objective judgment. The law must safeguard my right to do so. In leaving open the option of what I might believe and why, some major intentions of the Bill—to reduce the length of cases and their prohibitive expense so as to enable those without means to get redress—would be damaged. I support the Bill.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, the Government are to be commended for having dropped the checklist in Clause 4 and for introducing instead the generic test, which I think was very much the test that Sir Brian Neill, as an adviser, recommended. There are three separate issues here. I am not sympathetic to widening the reasonable test to one which “could be” rather than “is”. I think that the objective test of reasonableness is right. I am sympathetic to substituting the word “decided” for “believed”. It is about whether what was decided was reasonable and, therefore, it seems to me that decided is a better word. It is not just I who say that: as has been said, it also has been said by leading libel counsel with experience.

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I very much hope to persuade the Government to drop altogether Clause 4(2) on rapportage. Rapportage was introduced in my Private Member’s Bill originally—then, with good reason. But now that we have a good public interest test in Clause 4(1), I do not understand why we need the complexity of subsection (2), which I regard as difficult to understand or apply and unnecessary. Reading Clause 4(2) and asking oneself as a lawyer or a human being what it means makes my point. Clause 4(2) states:

“If the statement complained of was, or formed part of, an accurate and impartial account of a dispute to which the claimant was a party, the court must in determining whether it was reasonable for the defendant to believe that publishing the statement was in the public interest disregard any omission of the defendant to take steps to verify the truth of the imputation conveyed by it”.

I think that I understand what is being said but I do not understand why it any longer needs to be in the Bill.

Rapportage, or reportage, covers cases in which the very fact that certain allegations are being made, or that a certain controversy exists, will constitute a matter of public interest. It is in the public interest to report what is being said, irrespective of whether it is true. In such cases, the defendant may be relieved of the normal obligation to seek appropriate verification of allegations before publishing them because the newspaper is a mere reporter. It is not adopting a defamatory position. In light of the amended Clause 4, there is no longer any need to make specific provision for rapportage because the elements of this subset of Reynolds privilege is covered by the general test of whether the statement published was on or part of a statement on a matter of public interest and the defendant reasonably believed that the publication was in the public interest.

Clause 4(2) as drafted is confusing and opaque. It has the potential to cause further confusion in the light of the redrafting of the rest of the clause. Clause 4(2) states that the court must,

“disregard any omission of the defendant to take steps to verify the truth of the imputation”.

The reference to taking “steps to verify” is there because in the checklist in the previous version, one factor was,

“whether the defendant took any other steps to verify the truth of the imputation”.

However, as Clause 4(2)(g) has now gone from the Bill, there is no need to provide that the court should disregard it. To refer to taking “steps to verify” in subsection (2) is confusing.

I very much hope that we can get rid of this altogether. We do not need it. The general standard in Clause 4(1) is good enough to cover rapportage as well. I do not expect the Minister to give me other than a bleak and wintry reply this evening but I would like to think that by the time we come to Third Reading, the shoots of spring may shoot out of the earth.

Viscount Colville of Culross: My Lords, I support Amendment 7. I welcome the Government’s amendment to Clause 4. However, if the change from “believed” to “decided” guarantees that the checklist does not return

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and that authors will not be exposed to long and expensive cases in libel courts, I as a journalist think that that must be a good thing and I support it.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: I wish to make a short point. I wholly agree with what my noble friend Lord Lester said about the confusing drafting of Clause 4(2). It is a most barbaric concoction and, coming in an age when we are all trying to make legislation as accessible as possible to other than legal experts, it really will not do. One particular aspect adds to its inadequacy; namely, reference to,

“an accurate and impartial account of a dispute to which the claimant was a party”.

I do not quite see why this clause should apply only to a dispute to which a claimant was a party. Why would it not apply to a matter in which the claimant had an interest? There may be no dispute there but it could be to do with a campaign where again there is no dispute. Apart from the generality, that is a bit of a drawback.

Lord Browne of Ladyton: My Lords, I have no amendment in this group but I wish to speak partly in support of Amendments 6 and 7. I am persuaded, I think, that Amendment 7 may bring more to the clarity of this legislation than Amendment 6. I also wish to express some concerns about Amendments 6 and 7, which require clarification. I hope that we will be able to get that clarification from the Minister and perhaps reflect during the rest of the process of this Bill on whether the total effect of Amendments 6 and 7 will be as is being argued.

I approach this from a slightly different perspective. My reading of the effect of these amendments is that they are designed to improve Clause 4, which I accept, but that they would remove the element of subjectivity in the test of whether the publication was in the public interest. The clause has been substantially amended and, in fact, it has been recast. That has been welcomed, particularly by the promoters of these amendments, as the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, made clear at the outset. This is a much improved clause but, as I understand it, the aim has been to move away from Reynolds but to reflect the case of Flood in the law.

7 pm

The note by a senior counsel who is experienced in this area of the law in support these amendments is being presented—at least in my experience of those who approached me about these amendments—as supporting the argument that they would move the position in the Bill closer to Flood than it presently is. That argument is presented by reference to,

“some of the speeches in



Unfortunately, because of other commitments in the few days since this matter was brought to my attention, I have not had the time to examine carefully whether this general claim that Flood is not being properly represented in the clause as presently drafted is correct. If it is correct, I would support the amendments to the extent that they bring us closer to the decision in Flood. If, however, looking beyond “some of the speeches” in Flood to the actual decision made in that case, it favours more the drafting of the current clause

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than if it were amended, particularly by Amendment 6, then I would support the clause as presently drafted. I have not had the time to consider that, and I confess that that was entirely due to commitments that took me out of the country over the past weekend. I regret that I am unable to come here with a more precise approach to this.

The Libel Reform Campaign is undoubtedly not convinced that the clause reflects Flood and says that these amendments will improve it. If that is right, the campaign has my support, but I would like to hear whether that is the Government’s view and then, in whatever parliamentary processes are available in the Bill, I and my party will reflect on and consider the issue more carefully. We will throw our weight behind these amendments if Flood is not being properly represented. If it is, we will not be prepared to do that and would therefore consider that the amendments were still open to debate, although I favour Amendment 7 because I agree with my noble friend Lady Bakewell that the important element in this process is the decision point.

In anticipation that the Minister will move it, I turn my attention to government Amendment 8 because, as those who were present in Grand Committee will understand, it is an adoption of my Amendment 23 which I then moved and which was not accepted by the Government. However, Ministers agreed that they would reflect upon it and I am delighted that it has been brought back. I am even more delighted that the amendment has been tabled because my argument was not that it was necessary in law or that I did not trust the judges who would be required to decide cases on the amended law to take into account all the circumstances of the case. Rather, my argument, which I thought was convincing and I am glad convinced the Government, was that if we were not making the law clear, the move away from lists to all the circumstances of a case should be reflected precisely in the Bill and the Act. Some powerful voices, particularly those of noble and learned Lords, in Grand Committee suggested that that would not be necessary. As I argued then, with respect, the law is made not only for judges but for ordinary people. In this area of the law in particular, people who have no legal training ought to be able to understand what the law is.

Due to my success in relation to government Amendment 8, I have a slight difficulty in supporting Amendment 9 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. His argument is that it should be accepted because these provisions are no longer necessary. If the provisions made the law clearer, I might support them; however, they are slightly confusing and for reasons relating to the restrictions in them we attacked them, without success, in Grand Committee. They are not the clearest provisions in the Bill, which is in many senses much clearer than the existing law and is helpful but, for all the reasons that I supported in Grand Committee, put forward by the noble Lord, they are now unnecessary and the Bill would be improved if they were removed.

Lord McNally: My Lords, I am grateful to the contributors to the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Taverne, expressed the concerns of Sense about Science, and

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the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, spoke on behalf of, or was briefed by, PEN. These are organisations that I have listened to, and have had contact and dialogue with, throughout the two years’ gestation of the Bill. My aim remains to get as close as possible to the aspirations of those organisations. I suspect that in the end they will still say that we have fallen short but, particularly in Clause 4, we have tried to move in a direction that makes the law better and clearer. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Browne, for his comment on our work on recasting it.

Amendment 8 is a government amendment that owes its authorship to the noble Lord. I am grateful for that and I hope that our acceptance of it is a demonstration of my willingness to listen as the Bill has proceeded. Our amendment provides for the court to have regard to all the circumstances of the case in deciding whether the requirements for the public interest defence under Clause 4 to be satisfied have been met. This amendment responds to concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, in Committee that following government amendments to Clause 4 which, among other things, removed the list of factors for the courts to consider, there was a risk that the courts would simply invent a new checklist in interpreting and applying the new defence—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne.

In the context of that debate, I indicated that we did not believe that a provision requiring the court to consider all the circumstances was strictly necessary, because the courts would do this in any event. I also indicated that in developing a body of case law the courts may inevitably decide that particular factors are relevant in determining whether the defence has been established in a case. That remains our view. However, on reflection, I believe that it would be helpful to send a signal to the courts and practitioners to make clear the wish of Parliament that the new defence should be applied in as flexible a way as possible in light of the circumstances.

Amendments 6 and 7 would change the second limb of the test for establishing the public interest defence under Clause 4, whereby it would be satisfied if the defendant could show that he could reasonably have decided that publishing the statement was in the public interest, rather than that he reasonably believed that that was the case. This is intended to make the test more objective, as noble Lords have indicated. It reflects concern that the provision as currently drafted could lead to claimants seeking to introduce arguments relating to the defendant’s motive, which the courts have indicated is not relevant in relation to the common-law defence. While a claimant might seek to introduce arguments about the defendant’s motive, given the strong signal given by the courts in cases such as Flood to the effect that such considerations are usually irrelevant, we think it highly unlikely that the courts would entertain them.

Let me say here—the noble Lord, Lord Browne, has indicated that he is listening carefully to this—that my absolute intention is for this part of the legislation to embrace and reflect Flood. We are concerned that adopting the wording of the amendment could shift the focus more towards what a hypothetical defendant might have known or what steps they might have taken.

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This would not reflect the Flood judgment. In Flood, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, said that the courts were examining whatever the defendant,

“knew (and did not know) and whatever they had done (and had not done)”.

To paraphrase, the courts have to focus on what the defendant’s state of knowledge was and what steps they took prior to publication. We consider that the current wording in Clause 4(1) better captures this test and better reflects Flood.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: Perhaps the Minister could be referred by his officials to what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, actually said in paragraph 113 of the judgment, where he said that there was a single question, which was,

“could whoever published the defamation, given whatever they knew (and did not know) and whatever they had done (and had not done) to guard so far as possible against the publication of untrue defamatory material, properly have considered the publication in question to be in the public interest?”.

As I read that, it is very close to Amendment 6. I mention it because this is a question purely of what was meant, as the noble Lord, Lord Browne, indicated.

Lord McNally: I shall certainly draw that intervention to the attention of my officials. My briefing poses the question: does the new reasonable belief test reflect the current law or change it? It then goes on to say that our intention is to reflect the current law as articulated in cases such as Flood and we believe that it does so. It states that the test draws in particular on the way in which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, approached the question in Flood. It then quotes exactly the same section of the judgment. As an innocent in this jungle of legal jargon and judgments, it does not surprise me that two sides of the case should quote the same judgment. We think that we have got it right and that what we have reflects the view of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown. We were doubly blessed in our Committee because we had both the noble Lord, Lord Browne, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, to give us wise legal advice. It is interesting that, in anticipating a question on that, my briefing should draw on exactly the same quote from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, to defend what we have done as my noble friend Lord Lester claims for his amendment.

On Amendment 9, my noble friend Lord Phillips joined my noble friend Lord Lester in general castigation, and the noble Lord, Lord Browne, gave them some qualified support. I have warned my noble friends to be wary of qualified support from the noble Lord, Lord Browne; it leads them only into bad ways.

The amendment would remove Clause 4(2), which deals with reportage. “Reportage” has been described by the courts as,

“a convenient word to describe the neutral reporting of attributed allegations rather than their adoption by the newspaper”.

Subsection (2) is intended to catch the core elements of reportage as articulated by the courts. These are that where the defendant publishes an accurate and impartial account of a dispute between two or more

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parties, the defendant does not need to have verified the information reported before publication. This would not, however, absolve the defendant from the need to satisfy the court that, in all the other circumstances of the case, it was reasonable to believe that the publication was in the public interest.

7.15 pm

In Committee, the Government tabled amendments to recast the public interest defence contained in Clause 4 so that the second limb of the test focuses on whether the defendant reasonably believed that publication of the statement complained of was in the public interest. The list of factors which the court could take into account has been removed from the clause in response to concerns that it could operate as a checklist and lead in practice to litigants and practitioners adopting a risk-averse approach and gathering detailed evidence on all the factors listed in case the court were ultimately to consider them relevant. As it now stands, the clause is no longer open to criticism that it could lead to a rigid interpretation. This is now supported by government Amendment 8, which requires the court to consider all the circumstances of the case in deciding whether the public interest defence is established.

My noble friend’s amendment would go even further and remove the provision in the clause relating to reportage. That would effectively abolish the doctrine, as the clause expressly abolishes the common law defence with which it is linked. Our intention with Clause 4, as I have said, is to reflect the law as set out in the Flood judgment. In determining whether a defendant reasonably believed that publication was in the public interest, the courts will, as they did previously, very often want to see whether the defendant took any steps to verify the truth of the statement at issue. The need to verify was an important part of the Flood judgment. The common law makes it clear that this is not a necessary step in a reportage case. We think that it is important to make that clear. We also believe that doing so sends an important signal that a defendant may need to take steps to verify a statement when it is not a reportage case. However, we do not consider that this will prevent the court deciding in a non-reportage case that there is no need to verify. It will look at all the circumstances of the case in deciding whether this is appropriate. We are therefore not convinced of the need to change the clause further.

On the other hand, I take on board the comments of my noble friends Lord Phillips and Lord Lester about the elegance of the clause. Without any indication of a change of mind, I say that I will look at it again. However, I have fully explained our reasons for retaining it and I stand by them. In the light of my reply, I ask the proposers of Amendments 6, 7 and 9 not to press their amendments. At the appropriate time, I shall move Amendment 8.

Lord Taverne: My Lords, I appreciate my noble friend’s determination to give effect to the Flood judgment. I am not sure that the advice that he has received from his department on interpretation is the right view and I hope that he will not just look at the elegance and the style but consider the remarks made by my noble

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friend Lord Lester. In the circumstances, I shall withdraw the amendment but it may be a matter to which we will return.

Amendment 6 withdrawn.

Amendment 7 not moved.

Amendment 8

Moved by Lord McNally

8: Clause 4, page 2, line 38, at end insert—

“(1A) Subject to subsections (2) and (3), in determining whether the defendant has shown the matters mentioned in subsection (1), the court must have regard to all the circumstances of the case.”

Amendment 8 agreed.

Amendment 9 not moved.

Clause 5 : Operators of websites

Amendment 10

Moved by Lord Phillips of Sudbury

10: Clause 5, page 3, line 9, leave out subsections (1) to (5) and insert—

“(1) It is a defence for the operator to show that—

(a) it was not the operator who posted the statement,

(b) the operator took reasonable care in relation to its posting,

(c) the operator did not know and had no reason to believe that what it did caused, encouraged or contributed to the posting of the statement, and

(d) the operator responded to a complaint about the statement with expedition and took such action in relation to the statement as was reasonable in the circumstances.

(2) In considering the reasonableness of a defence under this section, a court shall take into account any steps taken by an operator to establish or adopt, and then to enforce or implement, any anti-defamation code of practice, any complaints procedure and any system for ascertaining and making available to a claimant the identity of any person posting any statement sufficient for the claimant to bring proceedings against the person.”

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, there has been an understandable preoccupation thus far with the traditional media, but, of course, the web is becoming an increasingly dominant player in the world of communication. Clause 5 deals with websites and in particular with the position of operators of websites. As fellow Peers will know by now, the Defamation Bill preserves primary liability, fairly, to the author of any defamation and protects and gives a blanket protection to the operators up to the point that a notice of complaint is lodged—and for a period after that.

As we have all said endlessly, it is extraordinarily difficult to strike a balance in this difficult field between on the one hand preventing censorship by threats of libel actions and on the other hand protecting an individual’s personal reputation. The chill factor, mentioned a great deal in Committee, operates on both levels, so to speak. At Second Reading, my noble friend Lord McNally said,

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“The Government want a libel regime for the internet that makes it possible for people to protect their reputations effectively but also ensures that information online cannot be easily censored by casual threats of litigation against website operators. Clause 5 of the Bill sets out a framework for how we wish to achieve this”.—[Official Report, 9/10/12; col. 935.]

Fair enough, but my noble friend Lord Faulks and I do not think that the balance has been quite well enough struck—or we would not have put down the amendment. At a previous stage of the Bill, I talked about the position of the little man and we talked earlier today about the position of those without resources in trying to protect their reputations.

One needs to acknowledge that the web is so different from traditional publishing via newspapers and magazines as to be almost another world. It provides a conduit for libel that enables defamations to be carried to the ends of the earth simultaneously at no cost. The libels will not be erased and they are universally and instantly accessible. It is interesting that in Committee my noble friend Lord Allan of Hallam said that,

“there are so many millions of pieces of content being posted by so many millions of people within the United Kingdom and elsewhere that to be able to operate these platforms at scale and not have some kind of defence becomes unworkable”.—[

Official Report

, 19/12/12; col. GC 574.]

I agree with him on “some kind of defence”, but that has to be a fair defence or it will reverberate unfairly against the individuals libelled.

I remind all noble Lords that Clause 5 says that the operator of the website cannot be liable for any defamation posted, however grotesque or damaging, unless and until a notice of complaint is filed and the operator fails to deal with that notice in accordance with the Bill and the regulations yet to come. That is not sufficient or adequate. Under Clause 5 as it stands, the web operator loses his defence only, as I say, once the notice of complaint has been given and he fails to respond in accordance with the regulations. I am happy that Amendment 17, to be moved shortly by the Government, will put into the Bill the amendment that I moved in Committee that would defeat a defence if there is malice on the part of the operator. The onus will be on the person defamed to prove malice, which is a high bar.

One needs to recognise that sometimes, not infrequently, the primary person responsible for the libel—the author of the statement posted—may not be accessible. I do not want to elaborate on what was said last time except briefly to remind the House that often these libels are anonymous, and behind one anonymous libel is another and so on. It is a commonplace for those affected by the defamations to go to court and get one order, only to find that another is required, and another and another. It is vital that the role and responsibility of the operators should be fair to both sides.

Just consider for the minute what the defamed citizen has to do under the Bill as it stands even to get a notice up on the web. First, he or she will need to get legal advice about what to do—we have spoken a lot about the complexity of this whole web of arrangements. That will be expensive—just that will be too expensive for many citizens—but so be it. There then has to be drafted a complaint notice that satisfies Clause 5(6),

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explaining why a statement is defamatory—fair enough. There will then be extra tests, or at least extra requirements, under the regulations when passed that may add substantially to the complexity of drawing up and lodging a notice. Other amendments tonight would impose yet more complicated tests on the defamed citizen—Amendment 14, for example. Then and only then, when the notice of complaint has been duly drawn up and served, will the operator of the website have to act to preserve his immunity and defence. There will still be time—I think probably 14 days—after all that when he can consider whether to take down the statement complained about. In that time—we could easily be talking about a month—the libel will be up and will have spread across the globe and back. The more grievous the libel the further it will have travelled and the more damage will have been done.

It is against that background that Amendment 10 is drafted. I suggest to noble Lords that it is neither unfair on nor unduly restrictive of operators. It will for example provide that if an operator was aware that the person posting the defamation had his knife out for the person defamed then it could well be falling foul of proposed new subsection (1)(b) of our amendment, namely that,

“the operator took reasonable care in relation to its posting”.

It could also fall foul of proposed new paragraph (c), which states that,

“the operator did not know and had no reason to believe that what it did caused, encouraged or contributed to the posting of the statement”.

Take another situation, where the operator had a stake in this and was maybe a partner or had some business association with the person posting the defamatory statement. Surely then the operator should be under a special duty to keep an eye on what that person or company was doing. Otherwise, as I say, there could be an unfairness to the person defamed and the operator would not be entirely at arm’s length or wholly unaware. It would not be in a position where it could not anticipate some potentially malign action on the part of the person who posted the defamation. It could be, for example, that it was part of a joint campaign. It could be that the website operator itself had an agenda. More and more websites are campaigning websites and have an axe to grind. Our amendments would at least ensure that where that was the case and the court felt that the operator had not taken reasonable care, and had knowledge or anticipation of what was likely to be posted by the individual or company concerned, it would not be able to hide behind the provisions of Clause 5(2) as it stands.

I think I will cease at this point, except to say that the uncontrolled use of the web is, as many would agree, coarsening our culture. There is a great deal of matter put on to websites every minute of every day that is unseemly, often bullying and sometimes pornographic. There is, as I say, a coarsening of our culture. This amendment will not change all that fundamentally, but it will at least control to some extent what is posted by dint of making the blanket immunity of the operator subject to reasonable and fair conditions.

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I leave my noble friend Lord Faulks, who has put his name to this amendment, to deal with the relationship between it and the Defamation Act 1996, and to talk about the flexibility that the amendment will introduce into the defamation regime.

7.30 pm

Lord Faulks: My Lords, the law has been struggling for a little while now, both here and across the world, in trying to find the correct solution to the question of whether, and the extent to which, website operators should be liable for defamation. At the moment, there is no bespoke provision dealing with website operators.

Section 1 of the Defamation Act 1996 was passed to deal with the position of wholesalers, booksellers, newsagents and libraries. It provides a possible defence for website operators, but this defence failed in the case of Godfrey v Demon in 2001 when a website operator did not remove the posting immediately upon being aware of its defamatory content. There is also a potential answer provided by the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002, but there is doubt about the level of protection this provides for so-called hosting. There is equally considerable doubt as to what does or does not constitute publication. Therefore, I congratulate the Government on not simply ducking the issue but seeking to address specifically the position of the operators of websites in the Bill.

I also generally applaud the Bill for the reasons that have been given in the course of debates. However, I am concerned that in the provisions of Clause 5 it is too generous to website operators. There is no doubt in my mind that these provisions are the most significant in the Bill. As we were reminded in Committee, nowadays the internet is the main form of communication used by people under a certain age. Even e-mails are something of a thing of the past. So that we can be confident that what we provide by this clause is going to be central in relation to defamatory communications in future, it is particularly important that we get this right.

The terms of Clause 5 leave much to regulations. I would not relish the role of parliamentary draughtsmen in trying to come up with appropriate regulations. It is almost certain that whatever emerges will be out of date almost immediately because of the fast-moving nature of this form of communication. The Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House, in paragraph 15 of its report on the Defamation Bill, was wise when it said:

“We consider that, as a matter of constitutional principle, the relevant provision should be to the greatest extent possible on the face of the Bill, so allowing full legislative amendment and debate. Moreover, only by seeing the proposed obligations to be imposed on operators will Parliament be able to consider whether the regime proposed is fit for purpose”.

That is why our amendment leaves much to the judge, so as to prevent obsolescence in the law.

The amendment attempts to provide a special defence to website operators, acknowledging the vulnerable position that they may be in but none the less specifically echoing the legislative language of the 1996 Act, placing the burden upon the defendant to show that he, the website operator, exercised reasonable care. What worries me about the current drafting is that the burden is very much on the claimant to surmount a series of hurdles

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before he can overcome the prima facie defence provided to the operator of a website. This seems to me to be getting the balance wrong and places the website operator in a unique position in the law of defamation.

When the Law Commission in 2002 examined the law of defamation on the internet, it came up with various recommendations, including amending the 1996 Act which is effectively what this amendment does. It also recommended that the industry should adopt a code of practice. My noble friend Lord Phillips and I think that is critical, and it is unfortunate that no such code of practice has emerged. As our amendment is framed, it would place a considerable onus on website operators in general to arrive at a code of practice which, if sensible and reasonable and followed in an individual case, would provide a solid defence to claims in defamation.

There is I think consensus that we should be trying to keep defamation claims out of court, if at all possible. The position after this Bill becomes law means only a well funded claimant with a serious complaint can even dream of bringing proceedings. In respect of that rather small risk, it is clear that website operators can take out insurance in respect of which only modest premiums would be payable. That seems to me a small price to pay for the protection of those who are genuinely aggrieved at defamatory content being posted on a website. In Grand Committee I gave the example of a teacher being accused of being a paedophile—almost certainly fatal to their career and their life.

Nobody should under-estimate the power exercised by website operators. I was a member of the Joint Committee subjecting the Data Communications Bill to prelegislative scrutiny last year, and we heard a great deal of evidence from website operators. It was impressive in terms of the quality, and no doubt expense, of those assigned to advance their position. They did not want to have to store any information which was not commercially useful to them even if it helped government agencies to track down and prosecute criminals. Much was made of their users’ rights to privacy. This is something of an irony since the information that users of websites provide is of course extremely valuable commercially. Website operators now say that it is very inconvenient to take down potentially defamatory material and that it compromises free speech. It is perhaps a little easy to deploy free speech in this context, but let us not get too misty eyed about this in the light of the careless and often ill thought out comments that find themselves on websites.

I fear that this clause as currently framed favours the powerful—namely, the website operators—who have a strong lobby, as opposed to the much less powerful, who might be defamed in the future. Our amendment does something to try and redress the balance. On considering the respective positions of the very powerful and the almost powerless, I know which side I am on.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I have the misfortune to be opposed to the amendment, and I shall try very briefly to explain why this is so. As I said in Grand Committee, there is across the world a

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fundamental difference between on the one hand the Chinese and, on the other, the United States. The Chinese position on the world wide web is to create the great firewall of China and the Chinese intranet and to do whatever it can to be able to censor the use of the web by dissidents of one kind or another. The position of the United States, ever since Bill Clinton’s statute, gives an absolute immunity to United States internet service providers. The European compromise is contained in the e-commerce directive, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, indicated, and seeks to strike a fair balance between freedom of speech and personal privacy and reputation in the structure of the regulations. Although it is vague, it is fairly balanced.

The world wide web is, on the one hand, of vast benefit not only to website operators but to the public and the citizens of the world in terms of free expression, which it enhances. On the other hand, the web creates much more capacity to damage reputation and personal privacy. That is the other side of the story. The puzzle is, given that this is a transnational, worldwide problem, what can any one country do to try to strike a fair balance? How can we devise a system that will encourage operators such as Google and Yahoo in this respect, given that they have no particular commercial interest in keeping up anything they post which is controversial? For example, if they post criticisms of Ruritania as a corrupt, disgraceful and oppressive Government, and then a threat is made to them to take it down, they have no commercial interest in keeping it up, even though we as citizens have every interest in their doing so. That is the free speech side of the argument.

I perfectly agree that one must do what one can to provide effective remedies in privacy and defamation claims. I admire the boldness of this amendment, which seeks to take out of the Bill altogether subsections (1) to (5) of Clause 5—that is, the entire carefully formulated procedure, including, in subsection (5), the regulations and what they may provide—and to put in place instead a structure which it is suggested will tip the balance better in favour of the claimant. I will not take the time of the House in going through that except to say that the more I read the burdens that the amendment would place on the operator, the more unbalanced I think they are in what they seek to do.

Furthermore, words such as “reasonable care”, with the burden being on the operator, or,

“did not know and had no reason to believe”,

comprise burdensome tests. I fully realise why my noble friends think that that wording is better than what is in the Bill. However, I do not think that it is. I think that it would give rise to litigation and would unduly fetter freedom of expression not for the website operators—I do not mind about them—but for us, the people who receive information and ideas on the web.

I like what the Government have done which I think strikes a perfectly fair balance. It is a good scheme. I am glad that they will introduce regulations. I very much hope that they will not accept this amendment.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: My Lords, I have not taken part in debates on the Bill so far, so I shall be brief. However, I want to say a word or two in support of Amendment 10 in the names of my noble

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friends Lord Phillips and Lord Faulks. I do so on the non-legalistic issue of equality of arms, which I do not believe currently exists on my reading of the Bill and the comments that my noble friends have made. There is an important issue to be addressed here. Rather to my shame, I had not until recently realised that the Bill provided an opportunity to address this growing challenge.

I have raised this issue before at Second Reading of the Protection of Freedoms Bill on 8 November 2011. I said then:

“It is a small issue, but one that is growing in importance. In future, how are we going to ensure the accuracy of information placed on social networking websites and who will be responsible for this? This is a freedom which is increasingly going to need protecting. … A situation can now arise where people and their businesses can be irredeemably damaged by completely inaccurate statements that are put up on these websites and for which they can obtain no redress. … People are entitled to some clear way of challenging these statements and, where appropriate, of obtaining redress. I would be interested to hear whether my noble friend”—

that was the noble Lord, Lord Henley—

“has any policy developments under consideration to deal with this issue, one that is surely going to increase in importance in the future”.—[

Official Report

, 8/11/11; cols. 187-88.]

I am afraid that answer came there none. Therefore, I am glad that my noble friends have taken up the cudgels to try to achieve a better equality of arms, as I said.

My noble friend Lord Faulks referred to the power of website operators. I have seen the power of website operators in interviewing talented young people; I can think of one or two who had disobliging statements posted about them which have had a very deleterious effect on their career. The website operators—this is perhaps more the case now than it used to be—have not been too quick to try to remove this information and cleanse the websites.

As I was preparing my speech on the aforementioned Second Reading debate, a case arose of a Portsmouth plumber whose business had been completely wrecked because he was accused of being a paedophile. It turned out that the statement had been posted by a competitor firm. Holiday companies and hotels have been damaged in the same way. However, I have to admit that on certain occasions people have written bullish accounts of their own hotel in an attempt to increase trade.

It was in connection with this last category that I mentioned in my Second Reading speech the role of the website TripAdvisor. A short 24 hours passed before it asked for a meeting. Its approach in discussions with me showed the challenges the Government face—challenges which I think they have not so far tackled but which my noble friends’ amendment does.

First, the TripAdvisor representatives argued that there was no problem and that their customer surveys showed a high level of customer satisfaction. Secondly, when pressed about the response to those who were unhappy, even if they were a small minority, it seemed that for every solution there was a problem: a problem of jurisdiction, given the international nature of website operators, as my noble friend Lord Lester said; a problem of identification—who posts what about whom; a problem of competitive disadvantage as a result of a

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checking system which could be portrayed as intrusive; and, finally, when all else failed, a problem of data protection, the reasons for this being slightly less clear to me. I said to the representatives that in my view there was an issue of increasing public concern and that the industry—if that is the right collective noun for website operators—needed to agree to establish, publicise and enforce a code of practice which had a suitable element of representation of the public interest in any disciplinary procedures.

So, in enthusiastically supporting this entire amendment, I particularly support its provision in subsection (2) regarding the value to be placed on the defence of having an anti-defamation code of practice.

7.45 pm

Lord Lucas: My Lords, as a website operator, I urge my noble friend the Minister to take no rubbish from website operators. I have great sympathy with the purpose of this amendment. There are a lot of people out there who are essentially defenceless when things appear about them on the web. We need to make sure that the regulations enable them to get easy redress and relief and that we do not allow long timescales to suit operators when short timescales would suit the people who have been defamed. At the same time, as my noble friend said, we have to balance that with our freedom to be rude about people who we need to be rude about and to say nasty things about Ruritania or anywhere else, and to keep the powerful under control. It is a difficult balancing act. I think that the right way to deal with this is in the regulations under Clause 5(5), which can go into some detail and some precision about this. I would hate to be subject to this amendment. As a website operator I really would not know where I was, or what I was or was not allowed to do, particularly with no supporting regulations. Therefore, I cannot support the amendment but I very much support the spirit behind it.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I particularly thank my noble friend Lord Lester for his intervention.

Clause 5 provides a defence to website operators if, upon receipt of a notice of complaint, they follow a process designed to ensure that the issue is resolved with the poster of the material. My noble friends Lord Faulks and Lord Phillips raised concerns in Committee about Clause 5, and my noble friend Lord McNally and I met them to discuss those concerns. I am pleased to say that, as has been acknowledged, as a result of those discussions the Government have been able to bring forward Amendment 17 on the issue of malice, which I shall speak to in the next group of amendments. However, this amendment takes a different approach to that taken by the Government in Clause 5. As has been said, it would replace the Clause 5 defence and the accompanying process with provisions which substantially replicate the defence for secondary publishers currently found under Section 1 of the Defamation Act 1996 but with one important addition. New subsection (1)(d) would require the operator, on receipt of a complaint, to respond with expedition and to take such action as is reasonable in the circumstances.

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This additional requirement would mean that, in order to have a defence, the operator would, on receipt of a complaint, need to make a judgment on what action it was reasonable to take. This would inevitably involve them reaching a view on the merits of the case, which in most instances they would not be in a position to do. The fact that they would lose the defence if a court decided that they had not acted reasonably would create a great deal of uncertainty for website operators, and we believe that in practice it would mean that many operators would simply choose to take the material down. That would result in exactly the same situation that we have now—an approach which has been criticised as unsatisfactory not only by a large majority of the responses to our public consultation but by the Joint Committee on the draft Bill and by the Law Commission in its 2002 scoping study on defamation and the internet.

Subsection (2) in the amendment would require the court, in considering whether or not the defence was made out, to take account of any steps taken by the operator to have and comply with a code of practice in relation to defamation, a complaints procedure or a system for providing identity details of posters to claimants to enable them to bring proceedings against the poster. I totally understand the intention behind the proposed subsection but Clause 5 already sets out a simple process in relation to the handling of complaints and the provision of identity details. In the event that a complainant brings proceedings against a website operator, the court will be able to assess whether the operator has complied with that process. This will ensure that the court takes into account how the operator has responded to the complaint. Perhaps I may also inform noble Lords that we will be publishing specific guidance on how the new process will operate for all those involved.

We have heard a great deal about balance. This new approach is about striking the correct balance and also providing protection to website operators. It is about striking a fair balance between those who have allegedly been subject to defamation and freedom of expression and speech. We believe that the defence in Clause 5 strikes a fair balance between all the interests involved. It will help freedom of expression by giving the poster of allegedly defamatory material an opportunity to stand up for it if they wish to do so, and it will give greater certainty to website operators. At the same time, it will enable claimants to secure take-down of the material on a short fixed timescale in the event that the poster does not wish to defend it. Where the poster does wish to defend it, it will also ensure that the Norwich Pharmacal process is more likely to give the claimant the information they need to pursue proceedings. I hope that on that basis my noble friend will be prepared to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: I am grateful to those who took part in this debate. I heard what the Minister said but I fear that I remain completely unassuaged. I think that we will rue the day that the Bill goes through in this form. All I can say is that I hope very much that when the regulations come to be drafted and debated, they will in some way compensate for

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what seems to my noble friend Lord Faulks, myself and indeed others to be a serious misbalance. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 10 withdrawn.

Consideration on Report adjourned until not before 8.53 pm.

NHS Bodies and Local Authorities (Partnership Arrangements, Care Trusts, Public Health and Local Healthwatch) Regulations 2012

23rd Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

Motion to Regret

7.53 pm

Moved by Lord Collins of Highbury

That this House regrets that the NHS Bodies and Local Authorities (Partnership Arrangements, Care Trusts, Public Health and Local Healthwatch) Regulations 2012 (SI 2012/3094) fail to guarantee sufficient representation of local patient interests and, despite Government assurances given to the House at Committee stage of the Health and Social Care Bill on 15 December 2011, have through restrictions on campaigning deliberately tied the hands of Local Healthwatch bodies from giving public voice to those patient interests.

Relevant document: 23rd Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.

Lord Collins of Highbury: My Lords, this is my second Motion of Regret in relation to the regulations on Healthwatch, the body—or perhaps I should say the brand—created in the Health and Social Care Act.

A central theme in the Act is that local people should be able to influence improvements to local health and social care. To succeed, Healthwatch needs the trust and confidence of the public. To win that trust and to become an effective organisation for patients, it must have independence from the providers, commissioners and regulators of health services, because a patient’s complaint may involve the need to challenge any or all three of those interests. It must also have genuine grass-roots representation from groups and individuals, no top-down organisation, and work and comments derived from sound local information.

In our previous debate on Healthwatch England, I welcomed the appointment of Anna Bradley as its new chair. She has the right skills and experience, and I do not doubt her commitment to try to make the organisation work. However, the fact remains that it is a sub-committee of the CQC and it does not have anywhere near the same levers to pull or incentives to use to drive changes in the system. It simply does not have the power and authority of the three big players in the NHS: the Commissioning Board, the Care Quality Commission and Monitor.

In the regulations that we are considering tonight, that problem is mirrored locally. Local Healthwatch is potentially a powerful mechanism, but it is structurally

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weak because it relies on local authorities for funding, and it is local authorities that provide the social care that it is meant to monitor.

However, my real concern tonight is that, when local Healthwatch eventually opens its doors, it will be bound and gagged by these regulations. This is contrary to the comments and commitment given by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, to my noble friend Lord Warner on the sixth day of Report of the Health and Social Care Bill, when she made the following statement:

“The noble Lord, Lord Warner, asked again about campaigning. I said in Committee that HealthWatch England and local healthwatch can campaign. I followed that up with a letter confirming that, which I hope he got—but perhaps he did not—and I reiterate it here. I hope that that is of help to the noble Lord”.—[Official Report, 8/3/12; col. 1958.]

No one would condone a local Healthwatch campaigning against or for a political party but these regulations go well beyond that. They effectively ban local Healthwatch from leading campaigns to change poor services and amend legislation. As Healthwatch England has said in its briefing today, its independence is crucial to ensure that patients and NHS users can share their views and experience and to ensure that those will be acted on appropriately without undue influence.

The noble Earl the Minister will no doubt tell us tonight that the words used in the regulations do not have the meaning that I am placing on them—that in Section 36(2) local Healthwatch has the necessary freedom to undertake campaigning and policy work related to its core activities. However, I am not alone in expressing concern at the actual wording of the regulations. Healthwatch England’s briefing states that paragraphs (a) and (b) of Section 36(1):

“should have been worded more appropriately to avoid any potential confusion around the active role local Healthwatch will have in undertaking policy and campaigning work on behalf of consumers of health and social care services in their areas”.

It goes on to say:

“Healthwatch England would welcome that these concerns be resolved in future statutory instruments. In the interim, Healthwatch England proposes that it works with the Department of Health and the Local Government Association to produce guidance for local Healthwatch and local authorities to assist them to correctly interpret the regulations”.

I say: for once, why can we not have regulations that mean what they say?

Coming just before the publication of the Francis report on the disasters at Mid Staffordshire hospital, in moving these regulations the Government are putting at risk the one prerequisite that Healthwatch needs to do its job, which is the trust of patients and the public. It will undermine the effectiveness of local Healthwatch as the people’s watchdog in health and social care.

8 pm

Where, too, is the level of independence in the governance of local Healthwatch, promised to this House, again by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, on Report of the Health and Social Care Act, when she said that,

“we will use the power of the Secretary of State to specify criteria, which local healthwatch must satisfy, to include strong involvement by volunteers and lay members, including in its governance and

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leadership. This will have the effect that a local authority cannot award a local healthwatch contract to a social enterprise unless this condition is satisfied”?—[




8/3/12; col. 1990.]

Do the regulations meet those intentions? Section 34(1) gives two definitions for lay involvement: one that excludes health and social care professionals, but not paid managers and other staff in those services; and volunteers, as unpaid members of the governance of local Healthwatch or its contractors. The definition of a volunteer fails to define who might or might not be included as a volunteer, so could include staff employed at any level in health, social care or local government. If the Government intended that only members of the public who are engaged in seeking out the views of the public about services and monitoring of services should have designated governance roles, these regulations fail.

There are a number of questions that I want to put to the Minister before I conclude. Who was consulted before the draft regulations were published? At what point were the views of Healthwatch England sought? If they were sought, what consideration was given to those views? Will the Minister accept the proposal that the department should work with Healthwatch England and the Local Government Association to produce guidance for local Healthwatch and local authorities to assist them to interpret the regulations correctly?

I conclude with the issue on which I started: public perception, understanding, and confidence in the independence of local Healthwatch. We need local Healthwatch bodies that everyone can rely on to be genuine patient representatives. I am afraid that these regulations, as presently worded, will fail to deliver that.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I am becoming increasingly of the view that the Government have mis-sold the concept of Healthwatch. When we first started on this long journey and the Health and Social Care Bill was coming before Parliament, the Government promised that we would get an effective patient-user voice. They promised that we would have a coherent structure. They promised that Healthwatch would ensure that patients’ interests and the voice of users would be heard centrally in the new NHS structures. But that is not what we are getting.

I spent 12 years as director of the national statutory body representing patients’ interests in the NHS and I learnt a number of things during that experience, one of which was that however well argued or well informed the case made on behalf of the users of services in the National Health Service might be, it is not automatically listened to. The powerful vested interests within health militate against that. Let us be clear: there is a power imbalance between the user and the provider of the health service. There is an imbalance in information and in what they can do. For the voice of the users to become as central as repeated government policy has said it should be, that voice has to be substantial and loud. That means that the bodies representing the interests of users have to be able to make waves. They have to make people listen and, on occasion, they have to be a nuisance. That is why, when the Bill was going through Parliament, we asked repeatedly in your Lordships’ House whether Healthwatch would be able to campaign in the interests of the users of the service that they were representing.

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We asked in Committee, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, assured us that users would be able to campaign. We asked again on Report, and again the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, assured us that that would be the case—Healthwatch would be able to campaign in support of the interests of local health service users. As is widely known, I defer to no one in my respect for the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. To mis-speak once may be regarded as a misfortune; to mis-speak twice begins to look like carelessness. Either the noble Baroness was being extremely careless—repeatedly, both in Committee and on Report—or policy has changed. Despite the intent that these would be vibrant, effective, campaigning voices on behalf of patients, somewhere along the line someone in the Department of Health took a decision and said, “No, we mustn’t allow them to have any sort of effectiveness whatever. They mustn’t be allowed to make waves; they mustn’t be allowed to cause trouble; they mustn’t be allowed to be a nuisance”, because that is what the regulations do.

What are we to make of Regulation 36(1)(a)(ii)? It is unequivocal. Healthwatch will not be allowed to do anything that promotes or opposes changes in,

“the policy adopted by any governmental or public authority in relation to any matter”.

I find it difficult to know what a local Healthwatch organisation will say about the change in the organisation of, say, diabetes services in a particular area that will not be “in relation to any matter”, or determined by a “public authority” or a “policy adopted by” a public authority, so the local Healthwatch cannot object or campaign against it.

I am sure that in trying to defend the extraordinary wording that is placed before us tonight the Minister will try to tell us that paragraph (2) makes it all right. I am aware that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, is with us, so I hesitate to say that it seems to be a lot of legal gobbledegook. Apparently it will be all right if it,

“can reasonably be regarded as incidental to other activities, which a person might reasonably consider to be activities carried on for the benefit of the community in England”—


“those other activities cannot reasonably be regarded as incidental to activities of the descriptions prescribed in paragraph (1)”—

which is the bit I read out.

That is very clear. I am sure that all the guidance that can emerge from the Department of Health in the future will make it clearer still. But even if you take that as trying to mitigate a blanket effect of forbidding any campaigning that might conceivably be regarded as a,

“policy adopted by … any … public authority on any matter”,

what does it actually mean? What is incidental to other activities? It is not incidental to other activities to say that the reorganisation of diabetes clinics in a particular area is inappropriate. That is what the Healthwatch organisation is there to say on behalf of local users; it is not incidental to something else that it should be doing. What is this meant to mean?

Healthwatch England, all of three hours ago, sent us its comments on the regulations. It said that they could have been worded more appropriately. There is

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an understatement. I wonder what it really meant. I do not think that the question is one of more appropriate wording. I wonder how much room for manoeuvre Healthwatch England had—given how independent we know that its structure enables it to be—to say what it really thought about the nonsense of the wording. It did feel strongly enough to tell us that it hoped that future regulation in statutory instruments might get it right. That is very interesting.

The definition of an institution that is a political campaigning organisation is any person carrying on or proposing to carry on activities to promote or oppose changes in any law applicable in the United Kingdom. Healthwatch England, by the definition in these regulations, is a politically campaigning organisation. Therefore, no local Healthwatch organisation will be allowed to act in support of a policy that has emerged from the national body representing patients.

I am sure that, however malign the intent was of those who drafted these regulations and of the Ministers who instructed them to do so, they did not mean them to be quite so destructive. I do not know who writes these things. I do not know what they are trying to achieve. However, we should be clear that there will not be one point of contact so that a local Healthwatch would know where to go to be given clear and consistent guidance, because the structure that the Government are creating is fragmented. Each local authority will commission an organisation to provide local Healthwatch services. Individually, around the country, people will try to interpret what the regulations mean—yet they are virtually incapable of being sensibly interpreted.

Of course, there is an answer to this. Ministers could decide, having listened, not to press on with the regulations. They could say that they should be withdrawn. There are two good reasons why they should do that. First, the regulations are appallingly drafted and in practice unworkable—and will be unworkable when they are interpreted in several hundred different ways around the country. The second good reason is that tomorrow we will hear the report on Mid Staffordshire. I suspect that one of the strongest lessons that will emerge from the report is the need for strong, local representation of the interests of local users of the health service. That means strong and effective local Healthwatch organisations. These regulations will not give us strong and effective local Healthwatch organisations, so if the Government are serious in whatever they say in response to tomorrow’s Francis report, they ought to withdraw the regulations tonight and come forward with sensible regulations that will give us the sort of local Healthwatch organisations that the country needs.

8.15 pm

Lord Warner: My Lords, I support the points made by my two noble friends in their eloquent speeches. I speak as someone who was given assurances about campaigning on Report by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. My filing system is not up to discovering whether she sent me a letter, but I have no recollection that she withdrew her assurances in any way. The set of regulations in Regulation 36(1) and (2) of Part 6, taken together, totally neuter the ability of local Healthwatch organisations to campaign effectively.

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As my noble friend said, the extraordinary thing is that the Government have chosen, with absolutely brilliant timing, to bring this before the House on the day before publication of the Francis report. My noble friend was wise. He did not know when the Francis report was coming out, but the Government had an opportunity to offer the chance to defer these regulations. It is very odd that we are having this debate when no doubt tomorrow there will be an unleashing—a positive avalanche—of rhetoric about the need to put the patient at the centre of the NHS. There was a warm-up on “Newsnight” yesterday. We can see it coming. Now we have a set of regulations that will set up local Healthwatch alongside Healthwatch England. The organisations will be totally unable to campaign against policies that they regard as not in patients’ interests.

I will spend a few moments on the text of the regulations. The Explanatory Note on page 38 of the regulations states:

“Regulation 36 sets out certain political activities which are not to be treated as carried out for the benefit of the community”.

This is an extraordinary statement, but Regulation 36(1) and (2) go rather wider than that. The Explanatory Note does not accurately reflect what is in the regulations. Consideration needs to be given to the quality of the drafting of either the Explanatory Note or of Regulation 36(1)(a) and (b), interrelated with Regulation 36(2). Regulation 36(1)(a) and (b) prevents a local Healthwatch organisation promoting or opposing changes in the policy adopted by any governmental or public body in relation to any matter, including the promotion of changes to the policy, unless under Regulation 36(2)(a) they can reasonably be regarded as incidental to other activities which are acceptable. So it is left to a multitude of small local social enterprises around the country to make a judgment, day by day, about whether what they are doing offends the provisions in Regulation 36(1)(a) and (b), as modified by Regulation 36(2)(a).

Even if we assume that there is some scope under that wording for them to campaign—which I very much doubt on any reasonable interpretation of the words—they will be in a state of uncertainty, and they will be expected to resolve that uncertainty with the minuscule amounts of money they have to carry out their operations. So if the Government want them to be effective with the small amounts of money there is likely to be, why do they want them to be tied-up by and concerned about obscure regulations which call into question their right to do the sane and sensible thing on behalf of patients in their area?

This House operates on the basis that one can accept assurances from government spokesmen while legislation is going through and we do not pursue matters when we are given them. However, as an individual Member of this House, I take umbrage about the assurances we were given on our ability to campaign. And not only me—the point about campaigning was repeated by my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley and again we were given assurances. We did not press this point further at Third Reading but, had we not been given those assurances, I am sure we would have come back to this issue at that stage. The

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Government have some explaining to do about why those assurances were not reflected in the wording of these regulations.

I support the point made by my noble friend Lord Collins about the extraordinary definition of a lay person. As other interests said to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, this definition of lay person and lay involvement creates a situation in which it is possible to have people in local Healthwatch organisations who could be said to be in a position to manipulate discussion and debate on behalf of the very people that a local Healthwatch organisation is supposed to be monitoring and looking into.

Finally, I draw attention to the requirement provisions in Regulations 40 to 43. If one looks at these as a normal human being, they again pose a bureaucratic nightmare that will be excessively burdensome for the small organisations which will have to understand what it all means. I do not think it is beyond the wit of the Department of Health, Ministers and civil servants to produce proportionate regulations in relation to small bodies which spend relatively small amounts of public money.

These regulations are totally disproportionate to what they are trying to regulate in the interests of patients. The best thing the Government can do is graciously to withdraw the regulations, think about what is going to happen tomorrow, reflect on this and, after further consultation with stakeholders, come back with regulations which live up to the promises that the Government made and are more appropriate for the organisations being regulated.

Baroness Jolly: My Lords, just under a year ago on 8 March 2012 we were asked, during the passage of the Health and Social Care Act, to accept a last-minute change of structure of local Healthwatch because, as the Minister put it at the time, on reflection the Government realised that greater flexibility was needed over the organisational form of local Healthwatch. It was not entirely clear what lay behind this sudden realisation, which happened after the Bill had been through the Commons. The House was given only five working days within which to make sense of 50-plus government amendments that were put down at the time to achieve this change.

This was a very unusual action for the Government to have taken and very little explanation was given. Stakeholders in patient and public engagement were not consulted; we were asked, effectively, to give the Government the benefit of the doubt. We continued to put our faith in the Government’s intention as stated in the White Paper, Equity and Excellence, which aimed to strengthen the collective voice of patients through a new independent consumer champion within the Care Quality Commission, manifested at a local level as local Healthwatch with a strong local infrastructure.

During the debate on Report, the Minister described Healthwatch as, indeed, the voice of the people. At that time, we were dealing with the third reform of the way in which local communities influenced their NHS in three years, and there was a general view that, for their sake, we needed to get on with it. To avoid switching off the power for local communities to have

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a say in local services for too long, we felt the turbulence of further reform needed to be kept to a minimum. We hoped that secondary legislation would give the system its real shape and we would have an opportunity to ensure that the essentials were in place, changes in structure notwithstanding. This secondary legislation, which is among the most difficult to fathom, really fails to reassure.

My noble friend Lady Cumberlege will deal with freedom of speech and action. I would like to ask my noble friend the Minister about two issues relating to who will make local Healthwatch’s decisions on what it does and how it does it, and what type of involvement lay people or volunteers will have in those decisions.

Local Healthwatch must be a social enterprise contracted by a local authority and may have many subcontracts with other organisations—which may or may not be local or social enterprises—to support or carry out its statutory functions. To try to cut through this structural tangle and preserve the essence of local Healthwatch as the Minister intended it to be—the “collective voice of patients” operating through a “strong local infrastructure”—in March 2012 we focused on who would be involved. We debated the independence of local Healthwatch from the local authority that contracts it, and similarly the independence of Healthwatch England from the CQC, of which it is a committee.

We felt that if local people wholly outside the health and social care system were leading this new structure, they would make it work properly, despite any inherent inadequacies which we were not afforded the time to correct. Therefore, we were pleased when on Report the Minister gave a clear and unambiguous undertaking on behalf of the Secretary of State. She said:

“I have listened to the concerns expressed about the need for local healthwatch to have strong lay involvement. I completely agree. This will be vital to the success of local healthwatch. Therefore, I confirm to the House today that we will use the power of the Secretary of State to specify criteria, which local healthwatch must satisfy, to include strong involvement by volunteers and lay members, including in its governance and leadership. This will have the effect that a local authority cannot award a local healthwatch contract to a social enterprise unless this condition is satisfied. I hope that that provides reassurance to noble Lords”.—[Official Report, 8/3/12; col. 1990.]

Despite the evident good intentions behind this undertaking, something seems to have gone wrong with its execution. There is a serious legal contortion in the regulations around the definition of “lay persons and volunteers”. Suffice to say, it can include staff of health and social care commissioners or providers, as long as they are not clinicians.

This brings me to the role of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee of your Lordships’ House. It considered this SI on 15 January and its 23rd report draws these regulations to the specific attention of the House,

“on the grounds they give rise to issues of public policy likely to be of interest to the House and that they may imperfectly achieve their policy objective”.

The committee noted that staff could be decision-makers in local Healthwatch. The department did not dispute this in its response to the committee, which therefore concluded that,

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“the current wording may leave Local Healthwatch vulnerable to manipulation”.

The committee has been unequivocal in highlighting the errors it perceives in the secondary legislation, saying:

“The Department has offered a legal and policy response, but that may not be enough: the Department needs to address urgently the points raised to the satisfaction of the public because without trust in the basic structure the Department simply may not get the volunteers it wants”.

These regulations do not deliver on the undertaking we were given. There is no assurance of independence, credibility or a strong collective voice for patients. Local Healthwatch could be a mere proxy voice spoken by others—indeed, those others are the very people against whom that voice may wish to speak.

To help reassure both this House and the committee, perhaps the Minister could help me with two scenarios. First, could the manager of a care home sit on its local Healthwatch? If he or she did so, how confident would local people be in the conclusions of that local Healthwatch about the quality of services both at that care home and others? Secondly, could a local profit-making provider of primary care be a local Healthwatch contractor? If so, could its manager sit on the local Healthwatch decision-making group? How confident would local people be in the information they obtained from local Healthwatch in helping them choose a GP?

Moving on, what exactly constitutes “involvement”? The regulations require,

“a procedure for involving lay persons or volunteers”,

although the distinction is unclear. As the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee points out, “involvement” is not defined. The main problem is that in paragraph 38 the regulations deliver,

“the involvement of lay persons and volunteers in the governance”,

but not participation in decision-making, which one would have expected to see in Regulation 40(4).

We know from Sections 23 and 26 of the Health and Social Care Act, which relate to the national Commissioning Board and CCGs, that involvement in the context of patient and public involvement may simply mean giving information. There are no criteria for when more is required.

8.30 pm

The department advised the committee that although involvement does not necessarily require full consultation or participation in all aspects of an activity, it still requires the taking of steps by the body on which the obligation to involve falls. The appropriate level of involvement will depend on the matter in question, so, in most cases, the plain provision of information would not be sufficient to comply with the obligation to involve. The committee notes the qualifying phrase, “in most cases”.

The department’s interpretation of lay involvement in leadership and governance boils down to the foot soldier role, with the grown-up work of making decisions about what matters to patients and the public and what to do about it left to paid staff, including those to whom those decisions may relate. Those arrangements

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contrast sharply with the community rights created by the Localism Act, described by the Department for Communities and Local Government’s community rights website as,

“a set of powers which give you more control over your community. You can now have a say in what happens to important local amenities such as shops, parks and pubs”.

We seem to have given local people a say in how their pub, but not their health and social care, is run.

I pose a final question to my noble friend, within the framework of the regulations, to try to obtain further assurance that this is not so. Could the decisions listed in paragraph 42 be made by a decision-making body within a local Healthwatch composed of a majority of people who happened also to be health or social care managers in their day job, provided that they sent copies of the minutes to the people in the local Healthwatch?

I conclude as I started. All of us in this House are committed to a strong patient voice. Those who will be that voice and the public whom they will serve need clarity in the areas of governance that I have outlined to the House. I hope that my noble friend will be able to allay my concerns.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, it is with regret that we are here this evening regretting that the Government have, through restrictions on campaigning, deliberately tied the hands of local Healthwatch bodies from giving public voice to those patients’ interests.

The regulations seem muddled and unclear. I am surprised that the noble Earl, Lord Howe, has not managed to do better. Over the years, he has witnessed the difficulties that the bodies representing patients have had, ever since the closure of the community health councils. This time around, I feel that the Government are missing an opportunity. I support the view—I always have—that it is essential that local Healthwatch be independent and led by the service users and the public if it is to have credibility and influence. It must not be a tool of those whom it monitors and inspects.

With the Francis report to be published tomorrow, I am sure that it will become evident that a clear, independent voice supporting patients and users of care homes is vital. There should be trust. The dangerous culture of cover-up and not listening to family and friends must be rectified. At the moment, the Patients Association is asked to comment when there is a problem. We need good, dynamic Healthwatches to ensure that disasters do not happen. We need people who know the needs of their local population. We need safety and a good standard of all health and social care. Healthwatch England is there to help and support local groups, but the local Healthwatch should have freedom to do the very best for those whom it should be protecting and supporting. I hope that the Government will realise what is needed and do better before it is too late.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I suspect that my noble friend has got the message now that we are not totally enamoured of these regulations. I think back

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to when we had the White Paper, which was published in July 2010. I remember, as my noble friend Lady Jolly has said, how excited I was then by the fact that in local Healthwatch we were to have an organisation that really would be the collective voice of patients. There was a mechanism so that it would have a very strong infrastructure at the local level.

So far so good, but throughout the passage of the Bill Members of your Lordships’ House fought strongly to get that policy enacted. We were given assurances, as noble Lords have said, and they were given in good faith. Yet now we have the regulations in this statutory instrument, we are not only disappointed but deeply concerned. I share the grave concern of the House’s Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which says that there is a very real possibility that local Healthwatch is in danger of being manipulated, but our concerns do not stop there.

The Government are right to want local people to have control of local Healthwatch but there is a genuine fear about it being subjected to such complex and draconian restrictions on what it will be able to say and do. It is not entirely clear to us what value local Healthwatch can add to the accountability framework of the NHS. This view is shared by Healthwatch England which, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, has said, suggests that this could be dealt with by guidance. However, the trouble with guidance is that it does not have any statutory force. However, it could use its powers to sharpen the way in which local Healthwatch operates—as an independent champion through the trademark which all local Healthwatches must have and have to own. I have not given my noble friend any notice of this, but perhaps he might like to think about that and take it away.

Paragraph 36 of the regulations prohibits local Healthwatch from opposing or promoting changes to any national or EU law, any national policy, any policy by a local public authority—including both local authorities, the NHS or “any organ or agency” of either—and any planned or actual changes in any of these. In addition, it prohibits influencing,

“voters in relation to any election or referendum”.

These prohibited activities may be undertaken only if they are incidental to what could be called the core purpose of local Healthwatch—that is, giving people a say in local health and social care—unless that core purpose is incidental to the prohibited activities. This is mind-stretching. That seems to be something of a circular definition whereby X is allowed if it is incidental to Y, unless Y is incidental to X. This is pretty difficult. I have said that it is mind-stretching but I really fear that it will be unworkable. What is certain is that it will be incomprehensible to local people, who are expected to participate in local Healthwatch.

The impact of this provision is likely to have a chilling effect and to negate the aims of Healthwatch. Why should any committed volunteer get involved in local Healthwatch, giving freely of their time and energy to try to influence things for the better, if they risk being penalised for doing so?

I shall describe three situations to the Minister to test this with him, and I hope that he will reassure me on these points. First, say that there was a controversial

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policy to close an A&E department in order to save money. Would local Healthwatch be permitted to provide evidence to campaigners of how good the patient experiences had been at that threatened department? Would that be banned under Regulation 36 as the promotion of changes to a policy that a public authority proposes to adopt? If the Minister says no, how could local Healthwatch be confident that the local NHS decision-makers would share this view?

Secondly, could people who had been active in a national campaign to improve quality and accountability in the NHS be decision-makers in local Healthwatch? Would local Healthwatch have to avoid any connections to an organisation seen as intending,

“to affect public support for a political party”,

that was in power? Again, if the Minister says no, and decisions on such matters are to be delegated to local authorities, how could local Healthwatch be confident of that?

Thirdly, during a local election campaign, would local Healthwatch be subject to purdah, like democratically elected bodies such as local authorities or the Government themselves? Would that apply even if it discovered serious abuses of vulnerable people with learning disabilities in a residential home during this period? Such a discovery would not reflect well on the local authority commissioners, who are “an organ or agency” of local government under the regulations. Would the local Healthwatch have to keep such concerns secret or risk being penalised by that very same local authority?

The very fact that we have to ask these questions demonstrates that we do not have the right set of safeguards for the independence of local Healthwatch. The fact that local Healthwatch is funded and controlled by local authorities, which it is supposed to be scrutinising, is pretty uncomfortable. The added constraints of Regulation 36 threaten its freedom to speak and to act in the interests of patients and the population. These very complex restrictions seem designed to protect those in politics or in the provision of services who have something to hide. They impoverish the debate on health and social care, whether it is about controversial reconfigurations or a Baby P tragedy. Patients could not care less about politics and just want someone to speak up for them when they themselves cannot.

I urge my noble friend to consider modifying, redrafting or, if possible, removing these restrictions, or to find a mechanism to ensure that they are not implemented in the way that I have outlined and the way that I fear. To me, it is not clear whom they are really designed to protect, but I fear that it is certainly not patients.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Earl Howe): My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for raising his concerns and other noble Lords for following in his footsteps in sometimes very trenchant terms. A number of concerns have been raised about these regulations during the course of the debate and I will now do my best to address them in turn. A number of noble Lords reminded us of the critical importance of lay involvement in local Healthwatch and questioned why the wording of the regulations does not therefore prohibit employees of a local authority or indeed of the NHS from taking roles in the leadership

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and governance of a local Healthwatch. Indeed, your Lordships’ scrutiny committee suggested that this might leave a local Healthwatch in some way vulnerable to manipulation or threaten its independence. That concern was picked up by one or two noble Lords. I can, I hope, provide reassurance on this. Indeed, I am sorry that despite the department’s clarificatory submission to the scrutiny committee, it still remains a source of concern.

We completely recognise the importance of local Healthwatch being truly local organisations that are led by local people and involve volunteers. That policy aim is reflected in the way the regulations are drafted. They impose explicit requirements relating to the involvement of lay persons and volunteers. Both those terms are defined. The definitions of “lay” and “volunteer” are designed to be as inclusive as possible. Essentially, they aim to cover those who wish to give up their time for something they feel passionately about to influence change and service improvement. In practice, very often lay people and volunteers are the same group of people, but we thought it important not to frame a definition in a way that would exclude other people who might not define themselves in precisely those terms. The definition should, and does, apply as much to those who have paid jobs but who wish to do their bit for the community in their spare time as to those who do not work or who are retired.

8.45 pm

That means that certainly a person with a professional health or social care background could be a member of a local Healthwatch, but unlike some noble Lords, I do not view that possibility as in any way unhelpful or sinister, quite the reverse. A person with insight and expertise on good ways to influence and build relationships in a local community could be an immense asset to those leading a local Healthwatch organisation. I do not regard it as giving rise to an automatic conflict of interest. In most circumstances the person’s paid work would be complementary to the work of the local Healthwatch. Yes, one could certainly imagine circumstances where a conflict of interest might arise, but conflicts of interest are capable of arising in any walk of life and there are well established ways of dealing with them. For me, the upside of enabling local Healthwatch membership to be as diverse and inclusive as possible in relation to its local community far outweighs any potential downside. To say that inclusivity leaves a local Healthwatch vulnerable to manipulation is, I think, an entirely wrong way of looking at things.

I say that particularly in the light of the way that the regulations tighten up the requirements around the role of lay people and volunteers. Regulation 38 makes it a requirement that lay people and volunteers are involved in the governance arrangements of a local Healthwatch. Regulations 40 and 41 specify the involvement of lay people and volunteers in the contractual requirements for local authorities. Regulation 40 also makes clear that the making of relevant decisions by a local Healthwatch must involve lay people and volunteers. Those are mandatory provisions. Taken together, they mean, in simple language, that a local authority will not be allowed to contract with a local Healthwatch

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unless its governance arrangements include lay people and volunteers. The contract will have to include provisions on lay and volunteer involvement. It is worth noting that these provisions go much further than the regulations that govern the operation of LINks published in 2008, which did not contain any such requirements. We have considerably strengthened this element of the legal underpinning.

Noble Lords asked about the use of the word “involvement”. The term “involvement” here is being used in its ordinary sense. We quite deliberately did not want to define this any further. The appropriate level of involvement in a given situation would depend on the matter in question. In some cases, the simple sharing of information might suffice, but in many, if not most cases, this would be insufficient. Therefore the provisions require a local Healthwatch to involve lay people and volunteers in the making of relevant decisions. That is set out in Regulation 40(1)(a) read together with Regulation 40(2), (3) and (4). That is as far as it is sensible to go, because it would not be reasonable or helpful to insist on a given level of involvement for each and every decision taken by a local Healthwatch.