Plans to water down libel reform blasted as ‘outrageous’

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Proposals to reform Britain’s ‘chilling’ libel laws and prevent large companies silencing their critics look set to be blocked this afternoon.

In a blow for freedom of speech, the Government is to water down the Defamation Bill when it returns to the House of Commons today.

The move, which will remove proposals which would have meant companies would have to show financial damage before they could sue a journalist, academic or blogger, is being put forward by the Conservatives and backed by their Liberal Democrat coalition partners.

The support of the Lib Dems comes despite a promise in the party’s election manifesto to persue libel reform.

Today, Labour’s Parliamentary spokesman for Milton Keynes South, Andrew Pakes, blasted the move calling it ‘outrageous’.

Liberal Democrat councillors in Milton Keynes reacted to the news by saying they were ‘disappointed’ and ‘ashamed’.

Britain’s libel laws are recognised as among the most stringent in the world, with big companies able to threaten legal action with the backing of powerful lawyers.

If today’s vote is passed it will 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. It would also block proposals that would prevent private companies which provide public services paid for by the taxpayer from suing.

That would mean that while 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.

Ahead of the debate Tory MP for Milton Keynes South, Iain Stewart, said: “I will listen carefully to the arguments made in the debate today. This is a complex matter that deserves thoughtful consideration. The Bill addresses the chilling effect on freedom of expression caused by threats of libel action, while ensuring that people can continue to protect their reputation when they are genuinely defamed.

“It is a delicate balance to strike. I am concerned that some of the changes made by the Lords are unnecessarily costly and restrictive but I will reflect on the concerns that have been expressed.”

But Mr Pakes told the Citizen: “I am deeply worried that at this late stage the Government is trying to manipulate the Defamation Bill. The Tories are trying to force these reforms through without any regard for the public interest or what it will do to free speech.

“It is outrageous that the Tories are seeking to reform our libel laws to protect big firms from criticism.

“It is even more incredible that Lib Dem MPs are going to march into the voting lobby behind the Tories despite their manifesto commitment to protect free speech. This is not a form of liberalism I recognise.”

And when we asked via social networking site Twitter what Liberal Democrat members on Milton Keynes Council thought, they were critical of their party’s stance.

Member for Linford South, Councillor Ric Brackenbury, wrote: ‘Disappointed of course but persuading Tories to put free speech ahead of big business always a challenge. We can compromise.’

And Councillor Derek Eastman, who represents Newport Pagnell North, responded with one simple word: ‘Ashamed’.

The case for reform is championed by The Libel Reform Campaign, whose supporters include comedian Stephen Fry, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and editor of Private Eye Ian Hislop.

On the campaign’s website, Jo Glanville, the director of English PEN, said: “Our libel laws allow the rich and powerful to silence their critics and stop the general public from receiving vital information in their interest.

“We need to reform our libel laws now to protect the freedom of speech of every citizen.”

A Liberal Democrat spokesman said the party would be instructing its MPs to vote with the Government.

He said: “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.”

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, while “ensuring people can continue to protect their reputation when they are genuinely defamed.”