After more than 2 hours of debate, the House of Lords today voted to accept Lord Puttnam’s amendments to the Defamation Bill to insert provisions for a statutory “Recognition Commission” into the Defamation Bill. The Government was defeated by the surprisingly wider margin of 272 votes to 141.
The amendments – in the names of Lord Puttnam, former Conservative Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay, former Speaker Baroness Boothroyd and former Attorney-General Baroness Scotland – were supported by the Labour Party and a wide range of peers from all sides of the House. Conservative peer Lord Fowler said that the amendment was “good for the press” and above all “good for the public”.
In reply to the debate the Minister, Lord McNally, indicated that the Government’s long-awaited Royal Charter would be published next week but gave no firm commitments on the implementation of the Leveson recommendations on press regulation.
The amendments have inserted the following new provisions into the Defamation Bill:
- A provision to established a “Defamation Recognition Commission” – this would be set up by the Lord Chief Justice and its role would be to “recognise” an Independent Regulatory Board (that is, a voluntary self-regulatory body) providing an “arbitration service” for defamation and related civil claims (a “Specialist Arbitration Service”).
- Provisions to the effect that a court should take into account when awarding costs or damages and exemplary damages whether the parties have refused to use the arbitration service.
- A schedule providing for a “Specialist Arbitration Service” which is free for complainants to use.
This means that, unless the Defamation Bill is amended at the Third Reading in the House of Lords – or when the Bill returns to the Commons – there will be a form of statutory implementation of the Leveson Report.
The Government may have considerable difficulties in removing this amendment – as there is a clear “pro-Leveson” majority in the House of Lords as well as in the House of Commons. As a result, it may be that the Government – as it has already threatened to do – will withdraw the Defamation Bill entirely.
In proposing this amendment Lord Puttnam intended to
“break the logjam that would appear to have afflicted both the talks between the newspapers and the Government and the talks between the three main political parties themselves”.
He has certainly provided an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of feeling among members of the House of Lords. The vote shows a very strong desire to move forward quickly with Leveson implementation. It remains to be seen whether the Government will be galvanised into action.