Blow to freedom of speech as key libel reform the Defamation Bill is blocked

Ministers to water down Defamation Bill, leaving big companies free to gag critics

The Government is to block plans to reform Britain’s “chilling” libel laws and to prevent large companies from silencing their critics with the threat of being sued.

The attempt by ministers to water down the Defamation Bill when it returns to the House of Commons tomorrow was condemned by academics, scientists and libel reformers. They warned it would allow big companies to continue to “hound” their critics with the threat of crippling libel fees and cement Britain’s reputation as the defamation capital of the world.

Their reaction came after ministers announced last night that they would seek to overturn a cross-party consensus in the House of Lords that companies should have to show financial damage before they can sue a journalist, academic or blogger. They are also seeking to block proposals that would prevent private companies which provide public services paid for by the taxpayer from suing.

The changes will mean that, while a prison run directly by the Government can be criticised without fear of defamation, a prison run by a private contractor such as G4S cannot.

The Conservative move is being backed by the Liberal Democrats despite the fact the party specifically supported the reforms in its manifesto. The amendment will replace a similar one tabled by the Conservative MP and libel barrister Sir Edward Garnier last week, which also met with anger from reformers.

Tonight Simon Singh, the science writer who led the campaign to reform Britain’s defamation laws after he was sued for criticising the “bogus treatments” offered by some alternative medicine providers, said he was deeply disappointed by the Government’s stance.

He pointed out that, if successful, the Government amendment would mean people like him would still have no protection to make similar statements. He was sued by the British Chiropractic Association, which is registered as a company.

“My own case is not atypical,” he said. “Lots of cases which people think are unfair and unreasonable have involved large companies suing individuals and corporations.

“The only clause in the Bill that would have helped me would have been if the British Chiropractic Association had had to demonstrate financial loss, because that would have been impossible for them. Corporations have huge influence on society and that’s why we need to tip the balance in favour of free speech.

“All we’re looking for is a moderate barrier and for the Conservatives to tear it out at this stage is appalling. For the Liberal Democrats to do it is even worse as they are going back on a manifesto commitment.”

Campaigners also expressed concern that private companies providing public services could potentially be able to use taxpayers’ money to sue their critics – even though public bodies cannot.

In 2011 the Government’s welfare-to-work contractor Atos successfully closed an internet forum run by the pressure group Carer Watch, after comments were posted criticising its state-funded testing of whether disability claimants are fit for work.

Index on Censorship said that Atos’s lawyers sent a legal threat to myfreeforum.org which hosted the site which – fearing an expensive libel action – pulled the plug.

Kirsty Hughes, chief executive of Index on Censorship, said: “At present we have an absurd situation where local councils and government departments cannot sue citizens, yet the companies who win outsourcing contracts are free to censor people who criticise their performance.

“The Defamation Bill had a sensible clause to correct this anomaly so why are Conservative MPs seeking to maintain the inequitable status quo?”

Labour’s shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan said it would oppose the Government’s plans. “It’s outrageous that at this late stage the Government wants to water down the Defamation Bill,” he said. “Labour will oppose attempts that would mean big institutions could continue to use their might to intimidate scientists and academics. And we’re calling on Liberal Democrats to honour their manifesto commitment and support us in protecting free speech.”

Jo Glanville, the director of English PEN, which represents writers, said it was vital the corporations demonstrate some tangible loss before being able to sue. “Companies do not have feelings, yet wealthy corporations routinely use the libel laws to silence any criticism, however slight,” she said. “It is reasonable to ask companies to show financial loss before they sue. It is bizarre that the Government may not countenance even this modest restraint on corporations.”

A Liberal Democrat spokesman said the party would be instructing their MPs to vote with the Government. “Unfortunately we are in a Coalition and this was one of those areas where we could not get our Conservative colleagues to agree with us,” he said.

The Department of Justice insisted that, even as amended, the Bill would address the “chilling effect” on freedom of expression caused by threats of libel action, whilst “ensuring people can continue to protect their reputation when they are genuinely defamed.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Suited and booted in the Lanvin show at the Paris menswear collections
fashionParis Fashion Week
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Kara Tointon and Jeremy Piven star in Mr Selfridge
tvActress Kara Tointon on what to expect from Series 3
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
An asteroid is set to pass so close to Earth it will be visible with binoculars
news
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project