Before I call Mr Davis, I should inform the House that Mr Speaker has authorised a waiver under the terms of the sub judice resolution to allow reference in this debate to certain cases which would otherwise be subject to that resolution. This is because the issues to be debated relate to matters of national importance. The right hon. Gentleman is aware of the cases covered by the waiver.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of lawfare and the UK court system.
I am grateful to Mr Speaker for his having issued a waiver for this debate. I of course recognise why it is important that Members of this House do not seek to influence the outcome of cases that are before the courts, and if these matters were before a jury, I would be wary of raising them, but they are matters of national importance and I am grateful for the opportunity to raise them.
We are rightly proud of our legal system in this country. Britain is home to some of the fairest and best courts in the world. Centuries of jurisprudence mean that London is among the most respected cities from a legal perspective. However, what is attractive to legitimate businessmen is also attractive to those with nefarious intentions: there are those with exceptionally deep pockets and exceptionally questionable ethics. These people use our justice system to threaten, intimidate and put the fear of God into British journalists, citizens, officials and media organisations. What results is injustice, intimidation, suppression of free speech, the crushing of a free press, bullying and bankruptcy. It results in protection from investigation and gives encouragement to fraudsters, crooks and money launderers. It has turned London into the global capital of dirty money. In extreme cases, it can undermine the security of the state by allowing people to act as extensions of foreign powers.
This is lawfare—lawfare against British freedom of speech, lawfare against the freedom of the press, and lawfare against justice for our citizens. Lawfare is the misuse of legal systems and principles by extraordinarily rich individuals and organisations to destroy their critics and opponents. In many cases, our reporters face reputational and financial ruin in defending themselves from these malevolent cases; even if they win, the expense and impact are huge. The chilling effect on a free press is extraordinary. Some newspapers hesitate to cover certain topics, such as the influence of Russian oligarchs, for fear of costly litigation. In at least one case I know, the publication avoids the subject outright.
These sorts of cases, designed to silence criticism, are so prolific that they now have an acronym: SLAPPs, which stands for strategic litigation against public participation. Such lawsuits are based on laws on defamation, privacy, data protection and—ironically—harassment. In the UK the cost of defending a case, no matter how well sourced and how great the public interest, can run into millions of pounds. These cases are so time-consuming and costly because a disclosure process before trial can be dragged out by deep-pocketed claimants for years to financially hobble the defendant, even before they get to the ruling.
The issue is not just the financial and reputational damage inflicted by these cases; lives are also being destroyed. Defendants are unable to work. Every waking moment is spent looking over their shoulders, wondering who or what is just around the corner. This is not about legitimate recourse against journalists making mistakes—because, as we know in this House, they can and they do; it is about shutting down scrutiny through fear.
Early in 2021, Russian Opposition leader Alexei Navalny published a video investigation into President Putin’s palace on the Black sea. In the video, he waved a copy of “Putin’s People” by Catherine Belton, a much respected Financial Times journalist at the time. Just two months later, Belton and her publisher were suddenly served with a series of lawsuits, filed over the course of six weeks by four Russian billionaires and the state-run company Rosneft—that, I think, gives away that the Russian state is involved.
Media lawyers with decades of experience in such cases said that they had never seen a legal onslaught of such scale and intensity. Those cases dragged on for over a year, and the cost of that year alone ran into the millions—£1.5 million for Catherine Belton alone. If the case had gone on, it would have cost millions more.
One of those suing Belton—the final one—was Roman Abramovich, the multi-billionaire owner of Chelsea football club. Abramovich claimed that Belton’s book alleged that he had a corrupt relationship with the Russian President and was making payments into Kremlin slush funds. An identical suit was also filed in an Australian court by Abramovich, to effectively double the cost of defending the case and to further intimidate HarperCollins.
It is worth reminding people of Mr Abramovich’s background and the character of the man. We are speaking here of the man who manages President Putin’s private economic affairs, according to the Spanish national intelligence committee. This is a man who was refused a Swiss residency permit, due to suspected involvement in money laundering and contacts with criminal organisations. Abramovich was also deemed a danger to public security and a reputational risk to Switzerland.
Abramovich initially came to the UK on an investor visa. In 2015, the Home Office tightened the rules around those visas, so that applicants could be required to prove the origins of their wealth. In 2018, when his visa was up for renewal, Abramovich withdrew the application. When he bought Chelsea FC, Abramovich was the governor of the Chukotka region of Russia. It was alleged by associates of his that the purchase was done at the behest of the Kremlin. As a result of the purchase, he now has enormous soft power and influence in the UK. I ask the House to come to its own conclusion about whether this man is acting at the behest of the Kremlin or Putin’s Government.
Belton’s case is now settled. Interestingly, there was a huge spin to suggest that Abramovich had won hands down, and he had not, but that is another matter. But for her colleague on the Financial Times, Tom Burgis, the author of “Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World”, his legal battles are just beginning. Burgis is being sued by the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation, a privately owned Kazakh multinational mining company. Since April 2013, ENRC has been under investigation by our Serious Fraud Office for fraud, bribery and corruption. The investigation is one of the longest-running and most complicated cases that the SFO has on its books. This case, and its reporting, has prompted a wave of legal proceedings by ENRC in the United States and the UK against journalists, lawyers and Serious Fraud Office investigators.
In May 2015, two former employees of ENRC turned up dead on the same day in a Missouri hotel. They were due to be witnesses in the SFO case. The cause of their death was recorded as malaria, but the chances of two people dying from malaria on the same day and at the same time, broadly—within hours of each other—is vanishingly small. The next year, a geologist associated with the company was found dead in the back of a burned-out Audi in Johannesburg. Burgis outlined these facts in his book, but he is now facing the wrath of ENRC, which alleges that passages in the book are “untrue” and “highly damaging”—the reason? Because ENRC interpreted the reporting of the deaths as Burgis suggesting
“murder to protect its business interests, or alternatively, there are strong grounds to ‘suspect’” that ENRC had them murdered.
Even given the waiver, I should not comment on the substance of the ongoing legal proceedings, but what I will say is that the FBI takes these allegations seriously enough that it is now investigating the Missouri deaths. Take from that what you will, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Amazingly, when the FT reported the FBI’s action, ENRC then took action against that paper. Are we now to understand that journalists are not allowed to publicly report the deaths of witnesses for fear that someone may deduce that they were murdered by a company like ENRC?
My right hon. Friend is making a fantastically important speech, and I look forward to joining him to talk about these many important subjects. What does he think about those London-based law firms that are so willing to sell intimidatory legal threats as part of their services?
My hon. Friend alights upon a very important point. It is very clear that some London-based law firms have found an incredibly profitable niche that they are willing to pursue without too much concern about the outcome. I think the professional bodies for those law firms should be looking very hard at them, as should the Government. It is an important point, which I am sure others will develop.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. On the point of the lawyers who are facilitating all this—the army of lawyers doing the dirty work of the Russian Government and of oligarchs and the Governments of other hostile regimes—does he agree that were we to introduce a foreign agents registration Act in this country, lawyers acting on behalf of those people should be included in such a registration process?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important and persuasive point, but I suspect there are other people in this room at the moment—I am looking to my left here—who have stronger authority on this me. What I am trying to argue today is that this issue requires Government action that will involve a whole series of things from reorganising how civil cases are dealt with, through how we license private investigation to the sort of reporting arrangements for foreign agents that the hon. Gentleman is talking about. This is a whole area that the Government will have to take on in toto.
“a form of legal harassment used by those with deep pockets to silence journalists”.
That same coalition is
“deeply troubled by the chilling effect this wave of legal action has on legitimate investigative and anti-corruption work by journalists, law enforcement officials, and others”.
This is not just about the financial costs; these actions take an emotional toll on those who are targeted.
Sometimes it does not stop there. Lawfare is often buttressed by other methods of harassment and intimidation. John Gibson, a former Serious Fraud Office case controller, was sued by ENRC for allegedly leaking information to Tom Burgis, the journalist. Why did ENRC suspect that? In cross-examination, ENRC’s lawyer described in detail a meeting between Burgis and Gibson—a meeting that both had gone to extreme lengths to keep secret. It was organised over an encrypted messaging service and held in an underground car park with no telephone signal. So the only explanation for how ENRC’s lawyer had details of this clandestine meeting would be if Burgis, Gibson or both were being actively watched.
This is a private company putting a journalist under aggressive surveillance. It is a private company putting a Serious Fraud Office employee under aggressive surveillance. It is a private company, in essence attempting to undermine the freedom of the press and frustrate the legitimate workings of the state. It is immoral, it is intimidating and it is unethical. Frankly, the entire industry needs to be looked at, and powers need to be put in place to tame the wild west of private intelligence work.
It is not just journalists who are targets for this kind of bullying, and it does not just involve international billionaires. Our former colleague Charlotte Leslie, the director of the Conservative Middle East Council, is facing legal challenges from the multi-millionaire Mohamed Amersi. The court documents outline how Mr Amersi tried to pressurise his way to becoming the chair of the Conservative Middle East Council. It has been suggested that that was because he saw it as a route to a knighthood or other honour, and that Ms Leslie rejects his attempts. In response, he tried to form his own group, the Conservative Friends of the Middle East and North Africa. Ms Leslie then compiled a due diligence note on his background, and it was sent to Conservative headquarters by Sir Nicholas Soames. That memo outlined details about Amersi’s past, his associates and his dealings with Russia. As far as I can see, it was compiled from open source research.
Mr Amersi got hold of this memo. In response, he had his lawyers send demanding letters to both Soames and Leslie. He claimed that the memorandum was defamatory and inaccurate. However, despite the issue rumbling on for over a year, he filed his defamation case only last month. In the meantime, he used data law to take Ms Leslie to court. This is a growing tactic for those using SLAPPs to silence their critics. In November, Ms Leslie appeared in the Royal Courts of Justice. The contention was that she had not responded properly to a data subject access request from Amersi. Usually, the Information Commissioner deals with such disagreements, but when a rich man wants to silence and destroy someone, they go to the courts. The claim was dismissed and Charlotte and CMEC were awarded 65% of the costs, but Amersi is bringing the claim back and a four-day trial has been scheduled for the spring, further ramping up enormous costs.
So, who is Mohamed Amersi? On his website, he describes himself as
“driven by a desire to create a world that’s better for everybody”.
Let’s test that against public domain facts, shall we? In 2005, he made £4 million helping a Luxembourg company to buy a Russian telecoms business. The following year, a Swiss judge concluded that that company was secretly owned by a top crony of Vladimir Putin, Leonid Reiman. In 2006, Amersi was accused in a separate lawsuit of trying to extort a $2 billion payment, not on behalf of himself but on behalf of a Russian oligarch.
Four years later, in 2010, Amersi advised on a transaction in Uzbekistan that was found to be a $220 million bribe to the daughter of the country’s brutal dictator. When he was embroiled in a dispute in the early 1990s, a UK High Court judge described his conduct as “lamentable” and his evidence as “unreliable”, “unconvincing” and “unsatisfactory”.
All that information is available in public court records. I cannot make an authoritative judgment on the matter, so I will leave it to the House to decide for itself whether that served to create a world “better for everybody”. In the latest instance, Amersi has used his wealth and influence to try to bully Charlotte Leslie into silence.
As a former colleague of Charlotte Leslie, I think she has been treated appallingly just for doing her job efficiently and in good faith. I am glad that my right hon. Friend has exposed the appalling tactics that have been used against her.
Is there no way to stop repeated legal actions, or the threats of legal actions, being brought? It is the attrition effect of clearly vexatious complaints that intimidates people into submission or silence or, effectively, bankruptcy. Surely there should be some measure that says, “You have one shot at it, at best, and then there is no further recourse to the courts or such legal action.” Would that be a way to stop the appalling actions that my right hon. Friend has been describing?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. The way that it happens is that there are legal firms that now specialise in making that sort of intimidating tactic work, and it is based on multiple different laws—as I said earlier, on everything from defamation to data protection and privacy. Therefore, we have to find a way to govern how the courts work to ensure that exactly what he says does not happen and that there are not multiple attempts. After all, someone can be charged only once for a crime, so why can someone be sued multiple times for another sort of misbehaviour?
It is not only Amersi who is engaged in bullying and egregious behaviour, and it is not just law. For instance, Mr Carl Hunter was in contact by phone with Ms Leslie to attempt to informally broker peace between her and Mr Amersi and to urge her to apologise. He told her:
“You need to consider your position—being able to walk the dog at night, being able to sleep well at night.”
He said that she was looking at a “world of pain” on it. Those are clear and unacceptable threats, of which recordings are available, made in an attempt to intimidate. Those recordings contain other rather sinister comments as well.
To reinforce a point that other hon. Members will probably make, although the lawyers—the Carter-Rucks and the Mishcon de Reyas—will say, “Everything that we do is legal,” this is part of a really corrupt and intimidatory practice that veers well into the criminal. Even if the lawyers are obeying the law, other parts of these sorts of campaigns are, frankly, purely criminal.
I take my hon. Friend’s point. He will understand that I am picking my way carefully through my speech, given Mr Speaker’s ruling, so as not to trip into pre-empting the case. I am trying to present facts to the House so it can make its own judgment.
Charlotte Leslie has tried to settle the issue. After that intimidatory approach, she agreed to apologise to Mr Amersi and he rejected it. He is used to getting his way. He justified the use of money to get access to members of the royal family as “access capitalism”—that is his phrase. He has taken the same approach in this case. He throws money at a problem in an attempt to make it go away.
While Ms Leslie has been subject to legal harassment for a year, Sir Nicholas Soames has avoided the brunt of Amersi’s attack. Why? This is not a comment against Sir Nicholas, who is a very good man, but in Amersi’s own words—his rather odd English—it is because of his “grandioseness”. Charlotte, on the other hand, is not seen as grand and is therefore fair game. There is a simple non-legal word for that, which is bullying. That is what we are seeing.
So what do we need to do about SLAPPs? Members of this House will have many more ideas than me, and many of them are much more skilled and knowledgeable than me in these areas, but the clear fact is that there needs to be balance. Dealing with SLAPPs is an issue of balance. It is not wrong to sue journalists—sometimes they make serious mistakes or behave maliciously—but billionaires and multimillionaires should not be able to use the law to shut down legitimate criticism. Even if someone defends their case successfully, in this day and age they face material costs so huge that they will further deter others from following a story, and they can even destroy lives. Just to go off on a tangent, Charlotte Leslie, if she has to meet the costs of all of this, will probably have to sell her home and lose all her savings, and that is what an ordinary person faces in this context.
In the United States, 31 states have passed anti-SLAPP laws offering varying degrees of protection—remember that the US already has the first amendment—and in some cases allowing journalists and media organisations to file motions to dismiss such suits at an early stage on the grounds that the case involves protected speech on a matter of public interest. Such a protection does not exist in the UK, enabling the process to be dragged out at great expense to both parties. That is fine for those with deep pockets, but for an ordinary person it is immensely damaging financially and emotionally. It destroys the entire concept of equality under the law.
Other countries are already addressing this issue, and as they do, the problem for London will only grow as more and more ultra-wealthy individuals come here to exercise lawfare. If London is to remain the envy of the legal world, then we need to get a grip on the problem and stop this rampant abuse of our system. If we do not, we will continue to face these kinds of attacks on the freedom of our press—the foundation of our state—and we will leave our people subject to grotesque injustice in the face of this outrageous lawfare.
It is a real privilege and an honour to follow Mr Davis to help open this debate and to follow on from his arguments.
“Follow the money” is the oldest and wisest advice given to journalists who are pursuing the corrupt, shining lights where they need to be shone and hunting the truth, yet this dictum, which has served us so well since Watergate, is now being smothered, suffocated and strangled in courts by allies, associates and friends of President Putin, who is pursuing a hybrid war against the west and against us. That is the context for the debate that we are holding this afternoon.
Many of us in this House have been warning for some years that it is time for this country to wake up to this new threat. Hybrid war is a novel kind of conflict. Once upon a time, wars were fought on land, in the air and at sea, but no more. Hybrid war is a battle for minds as much as it is for land—for influence and narrative, not simply territory. That means it extends the battlefront to space, to cyber-space and, now, to law space. It is fought with tweets as well as tanks, and now it is being fought with writs as one more weapon in the armoury. Of course, the reason for this is simple: what totalitarians, autocrats and kleptocrats fear most is the truth, so what they are seeking to do is to murder the truth, and we are letting them do it in English courts.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and I congratulate him on securing this debate. On the point of cyber and hacking, is he aware of cases in which these Russian-backed interests are hacking people’s private data, leaking it and then suing them for libel, and does he agree that that is an utterly absurd and unacceptable position to be in?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I will come on that in a moment.
The truth is that the truth is under attack by oligarchs with Russian connections because they are seeking to disguise the origin of their fortunes, their methods of business and, of course, their networks of friends. The result is that the frontline of this hybrid war now stetches from the streets of Donbass and Crimea and the troll farms of St Petersburg to the law courts of Britain—our courts, in England, here in London.
It was the Intelligence and Security Committee—whose distinguished Chair, Dr Lewis, is present—that made clear on, I believe, page 22 of its landmark report on Russia that the interests of Russian business are now so closely entwined with the interests of the Russian state that it is impossible to unravel them. It is these honourable folk who are now using English courts as their preferred location for the business of truth silencing. According to a survey of 63 journalistsin 41 countries, more cases were brought against journalists in the UK than in America and Europe combined.As theright hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden said, the United States and Europe are now moving to shut this down, but we are not. That is why we are now becoming the global capital of the lawfare industry.
There are now so many cases that today we can reveal—it was evident in the right hon. Gentleman’s speech—what might be described as the oligarch’s playbook. Step one is to target the individual, not the organisation, because the individual is most vulnerable, and take aim at the slightest error. Arron Banks did not go for The Guardian or The Observer; he went for Carole Cadwalladr, and took aim at a single sentence in her TED talk. As we have heard, ENRC went after Tom Burgis personally after he flagged up the information that witnesses to its crimes were being murdered. Paul Radu, who happens to be Romanian, is being pursued in English courts by corrupt Azerbaijani politicians. We have to ask: why are powerful interests from far away suing journalists who are not English and do not write for English titles? Why are they being sued in English courts? Surely that must tell us that something in our country is going badly wrong.
Step two is to maximise intimidation, using covert surveillance if necessary. As we have heard, investigators and journalists are now being inundated with data subject access requests so that people who are up to no good can smoke out what they are up to. ENRC agents surveilled Tom Burgis, who was in a meeting that had been arranged on an encrypting messaging app; how on earth did it know about that? The Financial Times journalist Dan McCrum, who helped to break the Wirecard story, was subject to online abuse, hacking, electronic eavesdropping and physical surveillance. These people know no boundaries. They are completely out of control.
At one stage, I have been told, Elizabeth Denham, who was the Information Commissioner at the height of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, was warned by counter-terrorism officers that MI5 had evidence that she was under active intrusive surveillance ordered by Mr Arron Banks, so her office had to be swept. Others have told us about the “hack and leak” technique whereby systems are hacked into, and information is then leaked to serve as a trigger for defamation proceedings.
Step three is then to file the most ludicrously exaggerated claims. Mr Abramovich’s attack on Catherine Belton took completely out of context what Ms Belton had actually written. We know that Tom Burgis has been attacked because he is alleged to have said that a corporate entity had ordered the murders. There are extraordinary exaggerations and twisting of what has actually been written.
Step four is to co-ordinate the claims with others to maximise intimidation and, indeed, legal costs. Catherine Belton was subject to an onslaught first from the Alpha group, then from Abramovich, then from Mikhail Fridman, then from Shalva Chigirinsky, then from Pyotr Aven, and then from Rosneft—and we are being invited to believe that somehow this was unco-ordinated. They must think we are complete idiots.
Step five, as we have heard, is to file claims in multiple jurisdictions—an example is Mr Abramovich’s suit against HarperCollins in Australia—to maximise the cost for journalists, writers and their publishers. The impact is the creation of legal bills that are so big that they chill and kill the truth. Catherine Belton’s case cost well over £1.5 million, and it would have cost millions more if it had gone any further. Carole Cadwalladr’s case is costing hundreds of thousands of pounds. Major Karpov’s case against Bill Browder left Mr Browder with a bill of £600,000, which the plaintiff has not paid because when he lost his case, lo and behold, he subsequently disappeared.
Democracy’s watchdogs are having their tongues cut out and our writers are having their writing fingers broken. The result is that suspicion multiplies and the risk of corruption grows. I am so glad that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden has put before the House details of Mr Mohamed Amersi, which is a case in point. On Monday I shared intelligence with the House from sources inside the Kremlin and the Russian Government, including information about one of Mr Amersi’s business partners, a man called Leonard Bogdan, who sources tell me has “a definite FSB background.” I now learn that Mr Bogdan’s daughter works for the Conservative party’s central office and—surprise, surprise—was briefly secretary of Conservative Friends of the Middle East and North Africa.
We then learned, as the right hon. Gentleman said, that Mr Amersi’s associate, friend, colleague and lunching partner, Carl Hunter, threatened a former Member of Parliament, Charlotte Leslie, that without an apology to Mr Amersi the case had “all possibility of going further to a really gruesome stage.” What on earth is going on in this country when people like this are able to issue threats to anyone, never mind former Members of this House? And still Mr Amersi thinks he can go to a four-day trial and take Ms Leslie to court.
We still do not know the origin of Mr Banks’s donations to Leave.EU. When the Electoral Commission warned about the poor National Crime Agency investigation, Mr Banks sued the Electoral Commission and forced it to take down a statement about his lies. We have heard from regulators who fear judicial review because a subject access request might come in from representatives of organised crime groups that are seeking banking licences. This is complete madness. Perhaps there are perfectly innocent explanations for all this, and maybe I have too suspicious a mind, but I would like to know the truth. I want newspapers and investigators to be able to hunt down the truth and, where necessary, publish it.
That is why we need action and we need it now. We are still governed by the great European Magna Carta that we wrote in the 1950s, the European convention on human rights. It establishes a positive obligation to safeguard the freedom of a pluralist media and to create a favourable environment for participation in public debate. We are failing to uphold that duty.
It is not simply libel law being abused, as Bill Browder was attacked using cross-border insolvency legislation. We have heard how GDPR is now being misused by oligarchs. I was the shadow Minister on the Public Bill Committee on the Data Protection Act 2018, and I can expressly tell the House that it was not the intention of the previous Parliament for the Act to be used in this malicious way.
The new anti-corruption strategy and the economic crime plan that the Government have to refresh need to include five quick provisions. First, we need what are known as SLAPP-back laws so that a judge can rapidly dismiss a case if it is designated as strategic legal action against public participants. Secondly, we need a public figure defence, as America has, so a person who sues a public figure has a much higher bar to clear and needs to be able to prove actual malice. Thirdly, we need a sanctions regime against vexatious litigants, which could include paying 100% of costs or even punitive costs, to deter the misuse of our courts that we are now seeing. Fourthly, we need a defamation defence fund on the lines proposed by President Biden, and I humbly suggest that it should be funded by a windfall tax on the law firms making millions from the misuse of our courts.
Time and again, we have heard in our research about the behaviour of Hugh Tomlinson, Geraldine Proudler, Carter-Ruck, Mishcon de Reya, Schillings, CMS and Olswang, and it is now time for the regulatory body to pass new rules to ensure these firms follow a good model of litigation principles that ensures rules of good conduct and even liability for clients who refuse to pay their bills when they lose their case, like Major Karpov.
This is yet another great speech. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that these solicitors’ bodies and barristers’ bodies should be more concerned about the very questionable ethics and behaviour of individual lawyers and individual law firms? They seem to be able to get away with whatever they want and offer whatever service, however questionable.
The hon. Gentleman is right on that. When we welcomed the integrated review and the rhetoric of “global Britain”, what none of us intended was that “global Britain” meant London becoming the capital of the global lawfare industry, yet we know about the profits that are being made by some of these firms, which, as the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden eloquently said, are now carving out a big fat niche for themselves.
In conclusion, once upon a time Mr Churchill warned about an “iron curtain” descending across our continent, from Stettin in the north to Trieste in the south. The challenge for our generation is very different. A kleptosphere is taking shape, stretching from Kaliningrad in the west to Kamchatka in the east. Every day, urgently, incessantly, patiently, friends of Mr Putin are trying to push the frontiers of that kleptosphere into Ukraine, the Balkans, Cyprus, Malta and the Baltics, and, yes, into Britain. It is pushed forward by attacking the weakest brick in our defences, and we in this House must ensure that our courts never become vectors for our country’s opposition. For nearly 1,000 years, our courts have been sanctuaries of justice, but now they are becoming arenas of silence, places in which the truth is killed. It was Václav Havel who said that the greatest defence against totalitarians is to live “in truth”. That is also the greatest defence against kleptocrats. I want to live in truth, which is why I say to the Minister: it is now time for the Government to act.
Before I call Sir Robert Neill, let me just remind everybody that the sub judice waiver is not a general waiver; it relates to specific cases. If people wish to seek guidance, the Clerks at the Table will be able to guide them properly so that they do not stray, which I know Sir Robert Neill will not do.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I promise that in my brief remarks I will endeavour not to do so. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend Mr Davis for securing this important debate and congratulate him on doing so. This is a significant topic, one with constitutional importance. I wish to confine most of my remarks to the position of the legal system in the UK, bearing in mind that just as living in truth is a great defence against evil, so, in practical terms, is the independence of the judiciary the greatest defence of our constitution. Abuse undoubtedly occurs, and I am grateful to him for highlighting some of the cases. The one case I will refer to is the appalling treatment of our friend and former colleague Charlotte Leslie; this is the worst type of intimidation of a thoroughly good person, as many of us would know, but there are many other such cases. When we deal with that abuse, we have to be wary of not doing so in such a way as to undermine the ability of the courts of this country to act utterly independently. That will sometimes involve the right of an unattractive litigant to seek access to the courts; that is fundamental too. That is probably why it is right that if action has to be taken, this House and Government must do it. We cannot place the judiciary in the invidious position of having to make judgments as to the political acceptability or otherwise of those who might seek to bring a claim before the courts—provided, of course, that there is at least a prima facie legal basis to bring the claim in the first place.
Liam Byrne mentioned some sensible measures that we might take to enable courts to protect themselves. The anti-SLAPP law is worthy of consideration because it could involve an early strike-out mechanism that would speed up the means of dealing with cases without any substantive merit that have clearly been brought for the purposes of intimidation through a war of attrition.
It is useful to know that many lawyers and judges have raised concerns about the matter. Only at the end of last year, there was a very useful conference in which it was considered by the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom, which is chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Neuberger, the former President of the Supreme Court. The panel, of which Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws is also a member, recommended that the Ministry of Justice move towards a consultation on anti-SLAPP laws, perhaps taking up some of the best practice found in the States. We do not have to take up all suggestions—I would have some concerns about the practical impact of the defamation fund suggested by President Biden—but other issues that have been raised are well worthy of consideration.
My hon. Friend is infinitely more expert than I am in these matters, but the point has been raised very clearly indeed on a couple of occasions that the regulatory bodies dealing with these law firms appear unwilling or unable to take any action. Can he suggest any way in which the law firms themselves can be brought to heel?
Let us be very clear: there are very significant regulations relating to the conduct of law firms in the United Kingdom. There are two separate regulatory regimes. Very properly, there are much greater checks in place on money laundering and source of funds for the solicitors profession, which handles client money, than for the Bar, which does not; it acts on the instructions that come via its professional client, the solicitors. That distinction is important, and I will digress briefly to deal with it.
We have to bear in mind that one of the key strengths of the independent Bar in England and Wales, in Scotland and in Northern Ireland is that barristers operate on the cab rank rule: if they hold themselves out as having expertise in a particular field of law and are available to take on a case when a proper fee is offered, they are professionally obliged to do so, regardless of their opinion of the client. That is utterly fundamental. Barristers do not and should not have the luxury of making moral choices about the people for whom they act; that is the essence of independence and objectivity at the Bar.
If Mr Tomlinson practises in that field, it is open to him to take those cases—I have to say that bluntly to my hon. Friend. It would be a very dangerous thing if Parliament ever sought to interfere with the rights of any lawyer in respect of which clients they do or not take on. That would be a very dangerous and slippery slope; actually, it would go in the direction of the jurisdictions that we are rightly criticising in this debate.
I am sorry to press my hon. Friend on the point, but is there also a requirement on the law firm—the practice or the man—to establish the source of the funding that is being used to persecute people?
Absolutely. The regulations dealing with the solicitors profession have very considerable requirements to track the source of funds. They apply from the basic level of a conveyancing transaction, all the way up to funding for the most complex litigation. We should not mischaracterise the position by saying that there is a high level of cynicism in the legal profession; there is not, and I do not believe that there is a failure of regulation either.
As has already been said, my hon. Friend is infinitely more expert in these things than most of us. May I bring him back to the matter of Mr Hugh Tomlinson and other firms? The answer to this may be to look very closely at the tactics put together by these firms, which put them in the very profitable commercial niche that I was talking about. If we were to judge that those tactics were unfair and unjust, that would solve the problem of firms or individuals appearing in more and more of these oppressive cases.
Let us put it this way: Parliament may decide as a matter of policy that certain behaviours are undesirable and should be constrained by law. The courts would faithfully apply any law on the subject that Parliament passed. That is the right way, in my judgment, to deal with this. That relates, too, to the law regulating the professions. For the reasons I gave, we should be very wary of fettering lawyers’ ability to defend unpopular clients, which is not the same as unmeritorious clients. Remember why that is: there are many instances where injustice has been prevented by lawyers taking on an unpopular client and an unpopular cause. That is the point on the other side that we have to weigh in the balance before we go entirely down the path of saying that because we disapprove of someone, we should deny them redress in law.
The hon. Gentleman is doing an immense service to the House by bringing his expertise to this debate. I agree that we need to be circumspect, and to empower judges to deal with abuse of courts. Judges know an abuse of court when they see one. In Major Karpov’s case, he was being paid £15,000 to £20,000 a year in Russia, but could somehow afford lawyers who cost £600 an hour. There must be some kind of weakness there, which we need to fix if we are to ensure that lawyers can genuinely understand the source of the money that is paying their bills.
Obviously, I am not in a position to consider the facts in that case. If people have suggestions, or examples that suggest a failure in the regulatory environment, of course they should bring them to the attention of the regulatory authorities; my experience has been that they take their job very seriously, and I know that the Ministry of Justice is very aware of this matter. Of course, one should never be afraid to look at specific examples to see if anything could be improved; I am very open to that. I would not, however, want to throw out the baby with the bath water in our approach to this issue, and that is why I argue for a balanced approach.
My hon. Friend is making fantastically important points, and we are testing our arguments on him out of respect for his background and experience. Much as we like or dislike individual cases or lawyers, we all agree that lawyers should be independent, but we are talking about systemic failure that allows this corrupting industry to grow. On the point made by Liam Byrne, Bill Browder has directly alleged that CMS took instruction from Russian organised crime via middlemen, but nothing much seems to have been done about it, and there does not seem to be huge interest in where the money came from.
We must always make sure that the regulatory regime is kept up to date and fit for purpose. That applies to a number of the tools we have for dealing with this type of corruption. It also applies to resourcing of the Serious Fraud Office, which has been mentioned. We should make sure that it has the technology and manpower to deal with complex investigations, and that the courts and certain regulatory bodies have the technology to deal with complicated matters; there is no problem with that at all. The key thing that we must do, however, is preserve the independence of the regulatory bodies, and that is best done by our setting a proper legal framework—that is our responsibility—and giving them the tools to do their daily job in an independent fashion. As far as I can see, there is no dispute about that in the Chamber.
It is important, too, that we look at practical measures. I hope that the Ministry of Justice will consider consulting on anti-SLAPP laws that broadly follow the form of those in the United States. That is something that distinguished jurists such as Lord Neuberger think is well worth considering. It would be a sensible and constructive step forward. The High-level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom also suggested that reform of the civil procedure rules could be fairly regularly undertaken. That is something we could ask the judiciary themselves to look at, because they must be master of their own rules, rather than us dictating them.
It has been suggested, for example, that civil procedure rule 24.4 on summary judgment could be adjusted to make it easier to deal with such unmeritorious claims where they are being pursued for abusive reasons, such as deliberately stretching out proceedings to run up the costs. Perhaps greater use of security for costs could also be undertaken. Those are practical things that I have no doubt that the courts would be willing to do and we could ask them to consider. The broader legislative framework of the anti-SLAPP law, as I said before, is down to this House. I, for one, would be open to looking constructively at that. That is the balance that I wanted to get into the equation. How do we ensure the reputation that we have in this country as a jurisdiction of choice for litigation—that exceptional benefit?
Only yesterday, Justice Committee members and I met the Justices of the Supreme Court, across Parliament Square, because we thought it would be useful to start more of a dialogue between the legislature and the Supreme Court on matters of importance. We have there men and women of the highest integrity and intellectual ability. They reminded us of the very high percentage of cases that they deal with, even at the final appellant level, that involve international parties. Of itself, that is not a bad thing and we should not ever allow anyone to think that is ever a bad thing. Generally bona fide commercial organisations or individuals choose to litigate under English law precisely because it is trusted more than that anywhere else, because of the independence and because of the rigour. How do we preserve that and at the same time update, where necessary, the tools to prevent abuse of the system? That is the trick that we have to pull off. I am sure, with good will, that that can be done.
The final thing I was going to say in this context was referred to by other speakers in the debate: the importance of our continued engagement in the international sphere on this. I, for one, in particular stress the absolute importance of our continuing within our obligations to the Council of Europe and the convention on human rights. I regard that as an absolute red letter in our constitutional and legal position and a massive benefit to the UK.
I had the honour to serve in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for a number of years, before I became Chairman of the Justice Committee, and in that role I represented the Parliamentary Assembly on GRECO, the Group of States against Corruption, on which the Ministry of Justice has officials sitting on a permanent basis. Admirable work is done there, including, interestingly, by some of the emerging democracies in eastern and central Europe, which recognise the need to clean up their own systems and reputations. That is important.
The hon. Gentleman is being incredibly generous. I underline that the Ministry of Justice is out for consultation on reform of the Human Rights Act 1998, which helps to enshrine the ECHR. Does he agree that it is absolutely essential that there is no backsliding on our obligations to preserve a pluralist media environment with vigorous public debate and the cherishing of free speech?
Protection of the media and the right to free speech are fundamental to our convention obligations. We must never do anything that resiles from those. There is a separate debate about the mechanisms with which we in our domestic courts enforce the convention obligations, but our commitment to the convention itself must be absolutely crystal clear and so, too, must be our commitment to the institutions put in place to assist, on a co-operative basis, with those matters. I referred to GRECO, which does excellent work, as does—particularly in terms of dirty money, which is without doubt a real problem—Moneyval, the Committee of Experts on the Evaluation of Anti-Money Laundering Measures and the Financing of Terrorism. They are not the catchiest of acronyms, but they do valuable work.
We could also look at what we do on the issue of cross-border insolvency. That is not one that is easy to fix because, again, the cross-border insolvency regime stems from a number of international agreements that we have entered into, which in many respects bring considerable commercial value to British companies and individuals. However, there is no harm in looking at that, if it is an issue where there is potential abuse.
This has been referred to in discussions I have had with practitioners and judges. As well as the cross-border insolvency issue—we need to protect from abuse—we need to look at potential loopholes in the data protection legislation. Again, that is for us to do because, we, as a House, passed that legislation. If time has shown that there are areas of defect that need to be addressed, then, absolutely right, we should move to address that. Again, if we address that, I have absolute confidence that the judiciary will enforce the policy decision that we take in this place under our constitutional rule. They will play their constitutional part to enforce it.
This is an immensely important debate and I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden for securing it. Our international reputation is critical. The reputation of our judiciary is critical. I get the sense that no one for one second is calling that into doubt, but we have to find a sensible, balanced and proportionate means of making sure that, while we uphold that and the judiciary’s fundamental independence, we do so in a way that prevents abuse. That is an objective that certainly warrants further debate and consideration. I hope the Minister will take that on board as we go forward.
Litigations against public participation are abusive lawsuits that are pursued with the purpose of shutting down acts of public participation and, as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, they can come in many guises, covering many different areas of the law.
The House will be aware that I was completely cleared and vindicated in Snaresbrook Crown Court last year after what I and many in my constituency and around the UK viewed to have been vexatious litigation pursued with the purpose of shutting down my public participation as a democratically elected socialist Member of Parliament and as a survivor of domestic abuse. To put it very simply, I do not believe that I would have had to endure such an ordeal if I had not stood up against domestic abuse, harassment and intimidation and if I had not had the audacity to put myself forward as a socialist to represent the area in which I have lived all my life.
The use of courts to try to pull down political opponents is fundamentally undemocratic and against the public good. First, my case raised questions about the independence of local bureaucrats and whether they can be trusted to deal with imprisonable offences, because, of course, the legal action pursued against me was not taken by the Crown Prosecution Service, but brought by my local council, spending more than £90,000 of public taxpayers’ money. Nobody, absolutely nobody, involved in pursuing this trial seems to have found it remotely odd that the complaint was made by my ex-husband’s brother-in-law, submitted after I was selected to be Labour’s parliamentary candidate and coincided with the day when the nomination papers had to be formally submitted; or that the people who were opposed to me being selected as the candidate, including my ex-husband, were in positions of political oversight. Surely, given such conflicts of interest, at the very least the case should have been referred to the CPS.
Secondly, my case demonstrated problems with the way the legal system deals with domestic abuse and, indeed, the increasing prevalence of cases such as mine where the legal action taken against me was an extension of this abuse and the ongoing intimidation and harassment subsequent to my escaping a very bad situation, which continues.
I found it bizarre that such a spurious case could be pursued against me when I had been told that too much time had passed regarding the abuse that I had suffered, despite the period in question being the same. Indeed, the local authority was made aware of the abuse from day one and that was never challenged by the prosecution during the trial. A list of agreed facts was read out at the trial, including medical records and police records. Perversely, the domestic abuse was so accepted that, in cross-examination, it was used against me in order to suggest a motive for the alleged crimes. My ex-husband, also a sitting councillor, was tellingly not called to give evidence by the prosecution. Throughout, the message that came across again and again was that my being a survivor of domestic abuse had no bearing on how this investigation was being conducted. But how can that be? How many other women is this happening to?
I had to be aggressively cross-examined and humiliated in front of the world, with political opponents and my ex-husband’s brother-in-law sitting in the public gallery, about issues of such personal pain and trauma. The case felt as though it was about destroying me, and at times it very nearly did. The complaint was leaked to the media even before I was made aware of it, and there appeared to be a regular source of information flowing to keep the media updated. To be clear, when I won my selection, I was a divorced 29-year-old of modest means. I did not own anything, not even a car, and had been struggling for years to rebuild my life. Suddenly, I had a target on my back for the far right to throw all their bile and hatred at. However, the media did not let truth and decency get in the way of a good story and the opportunity to bring down a socialist feminist Muslim woman who would go on to become the first hijab-wearing MP in this House. Why is it the case that almost anything is allowed to be written and said about me, fuelling Islamophobic abuse and death threats over social media and leading to the judge in my case to issue warnings for my protection?
I want to make an important point about the legal system and access to it. I grew up in the reality of the world out there. I did not know how, and did not have the means or connections, to pursue cases against various outlets. Defamation is an area of law that is rarely accessible to working-class people. It is important for the purposes of this debate for us to have that in mind. Equally, while I agree that media freedom is paramount, media accountability still needs to be addressed more fundamentally. I am not interested in defending elites from justified criticism or in preventing the public from scrutinising those who represent them, including myself. However, I am interested in defending the fundamental structures of political freedom and democracy. In that sense, the media are also in positions of power and leadership in public life, and as such should have regard to how their tone is likely to shape public debate.
However, in my case, so-called scrutiny was not even well researched, well written or accurate. It was derogatory and dehumanising. I always wonder whether the outlets publishing that stuff ever thought about what they were doing to my life, the risk that their actions were placing me under or what my case meant for survivors of domestic abuse and Muslims across the country. Do they ever consider what their intimidation—based on prejudice or hate, which disproportionately negatively impacts women, ethnic minorities, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and other candidates from minority groups—does to people’s mental health and wellbeing? Clearly, my ex-husband and my political opponents thought I would just submit and be intimidated into going away and hiding, but via the solidarity of local people and Labour party members, including my hon. Friend Bell Ribeiro-Addy in particular, I knew that I could not let that happen to me. I found the strength to survive, not least because I felt a duty to socialists and women everywhere to defend myself and pursue justice.
People might think that being vindicated is the end of it, but the smears continue and my reputation has been damaged. More importantly, claims of defamation and libel were being fired at me and people supporting me. I could not believe it at first—it seemed so ludicrous. I remember how heartbroken I was, when I was finally able to tell my story after the trial, that the media felt it necessary to uncritically print a disclaimer from my ex-husband. I felt that they were highlighting it as his warning to me.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. I was not aware of all the details of what she has been through. Obviously, I do not share her politics, but I commend her for speaking about domestic abuse in the House, as my hon. Friend Kate Griffiths, my personal friend, did recently. The more women who do that and share their stories in this place, the better it is for women across the country.
I thank the hon. Member for his strong point. I followed very closely the case he mentions of his colleague, Kate Griffiths. She is incredibly brave to come forward.
This experience is not unique to me. We know that powerful men use their power and the law to silence women. Southall Black Sisters says it almost had to withdraw from a 2017 documentary on domestic violence because of the insistence that the husbands of the unnamed women alleging abuse and abandonment be given the right to reply in ways that negated the women’s accounts of abuse and exposed them to risk of reprisals, and we know of a series of libel cases where wealthy men have sought to protect their reputations from women who accused them of abuse. Under the Defamation Act 2013 the defendant in libel cases can argue a public interest defence, but this is not available to survivors. I never wanted any of this; I was forced into a situation where I had to speak out and now I feel an obligation to continue to do so because this must never happen again. What does what happened to me say to survivors of domestic abuse when we know how difficult it is to come forward?
I believe in democracy, which means that people from all walks of life and backgrounds can put themselves forward to be considered in democratic processes. This is a question of public good. The increasing prevalence of intimidation of parliamentary candidates and others in public life should concern everyone who cares about our democracy. This is a question of public good. It is important to be clear: lobbying, campaigning, disagreeing and opposing representatives is not what I am talking about. Actually, I am talking about the opposite: intimidation is about seeking to use undemocratic and underhand means, often deploying establishment power, to destroy someone’s life. Finally, I believe no one should suffer domestic abuse and anyone in such a situation should be supported in speaking out. This is a question of public good.
We have come a long way since the late Robert Maxwell sought to persecute Private Eye through his bank account. We are now dealing with a wholly different scale of abuse, and it is saddening to hear the extent to which London has now become perhaps the money laundering capital of the world. We know—because we do know—that there is investment in football clubs, property and businesses that is bought by dirty money, and we have a very fair idea of where that dirty money has come from. It comes not only from the Russian Federation but from Azerbaijan, other countries of the former Soviet Union, and countries in the middle east; it is the oligarchy—the kleptosphere as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill said.
Having spent, as others have, some time with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I am in no doubt of the extent of this influence, and, more importantly, of the direct link between those carrying the money bags and Putin’s Kremlin, and that is unacceptable in a civilised society. It is a disgrace that there are law firms in London aiding and abetting those seeking to use the law to suppress the voice of truth, which is why I ask my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill to what extent those in the legal profession take trouble to try to identify the source of the money they are being paid with. I cannot help but feel that the regulatory bodies of the solicitor profession and the Bar need to ask some rather more searching questions.
The convention on human rights is founded on the principles of free speech, a free press and free democracy. If we allow our country to be used as a base to suppress free speech, we will be on a very slippery path. All I want to say to Front Benchers is that the case has been made and the Minister has heard that. We cannot allow this to go on any longer. We have to take action to ensure that anti-SLAPP laws are introduced, that proper controls are exercised to prevent the abuse of our courts and to try to protect those who seek to investigate and then publish the truth.
I congratulate Mr Davis and my right hon. Friend Liam Byrne on securing this debate. I chose to speak because, like many others, I have growing concern about the use of SLAPPs to silence those who try to shine a light on wrongdoing. As my right hon. Friend said, there is a growing problem of a global kleptocracy in which those with enormous wealth, who may have gained that wealth through dubious means, seek to manipulate our legal system to avoid scrutiny of how they assess their wealth and use it.
Our legal system is respected throughout the world and we are respected for fairness and justice in this country. It is designed to defend our rights and to protect ordinary citizens from being adversely affected by those who would break the law or would seek to take their rights away. It defends our need for freedom of speech and a free, independent press. We in the UK pride ourselves on the sophistication of our democratic system, our legal systems and our free press, so when we see one part of the system being used to diminish another essential part of it, in the form of a free and independent press, we undermine ourselves and the status of our country.
It is important in a democracy such as ours that we can speak truth to power and that we know what is being said and done so that we can form our own opinions. However, the increasing use of strategic lawsuits against public participation—SLAPPs—is undermining that important part of our democracy. It is concerning that one pillar of our democracy, in the form of the legal system, is being used to silence those who would expose wrongdoing.
There are too many disturbing examples of investigative journalists, for example, being silenced by those who are immensely wealthy and who have issues about the way in which they want to be held publicly accountable. They silence individuals through abusive lawsuits. Such lawsuits threaten huge damages and constantly require responses for disclosures, which, in turn, saps the resources of organisations or individuals who are subject to those abusive lawsuits.
This is not just about journalists, whistleblowers, activists, academics and non-governmental organisations. More disturbingly, even our regulatory bodies are not exempt and individuals in those regulatory bodies are targeted in order to silence them. If the organisations and bodies that are set up by the legislation that we pass in this House through our democratic processes are allowed to be undermined by the imposition of SLAPPs on individuals who are carrying out their duty in those organisations, our democracy itself is undermined.
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden went into detail about the case of the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation, which raised legal action not just against the Serious Fraud Office that was investigating its activities, but against the individuals who worked there. If individuals feel as though they are exposing themselves to that type of action by carrying out their duty, they are bound to think twice about whether they should do so. As he said earlier, the investigation has gone on since 2013 and has not even reached the courts, but ENRC has issued several SLAPPs to silence and stop that investigation. We cannot allow that to go on.
I listened closely to the speech of my neighbour, Sir Robert Neill, for whom I have enormous respect. Despite what he said, however, it seems that a significant number of firms in the law profession turn up to defend organisations and individuals who are using SLAPPs. I fully understand the taxi ranking system—I operated it for many years—and I also understand the concept of brooming, which other hon. Members may not, but I bet they have all experienced it. It is the sound of a vehicle’s accelerator being pressed when somebody does not want the job and they broom off. I am sure that it also exists in the legal profession, because a number of individuals seem to turn up in these law suits, which cannot be coincidental. There is clearly something in the legal profession that needs to be examined.
We have to accept that there is a problem and I suggest that two areas need to be examined. First, we must accept that London is becoming a centre for laundering dirty money. The Prime Minister, through one of his spokespeople, has claimed that London has some of the strongest control systems in the world, but that does not explain the criticism of the regulatory regime. The Financial Times said:
“Becoming a money laundering centre is an inevitable risk of being a global financial centre. But UK authorities have for too long been reluctant to adopt or enforce tougher safeguards against dirty money for fear of harming Britain’s image as an easy place to do business.”
I would say that becoming the international centre for dirty money is far more damaging to Britain’s image as a place to do business than exposing the activities that are taking place. More harm will come to Britain as a consequence of doing nothing or delaying action. What does that say about post-Brexit global Britain? Surely part of making Brexit work must be setting the highest standards here in Britain. After all, we have had that reputation for many generations and we should defend it even more vigorously now that we are global Britain on our own after Brexit. We have to act.
I do not want to demand that SLAPPs are introduced that might end up defending huge media corporations that took away or abused the freedoms of individuals through the hacking scandal. To create a system that would contain a loophole for those organisations would be a huge mistake, but neither do we want to enable our legal and financial systems to be abused by criminals who want to buy influence through political donations and silence those who would expose their illegal activities through the use of such abusive legal actions. The Government need to review the issue of SLAPPs and think about regulating in that area without delay. We should also take action to protect individuals who work for agencies that should be investigating such cases—particularly those who may be threatened with legal action.
I wanted to contribute to this debate to demonstrate to the Government the most important thing of all: the growing concern about the use and abuse of SLAPPs by extremely wealthy and powerful people who may have obtained their wealth by dubious means. That voice is growing and the time for action is now.
I thank Clive Efford for his speech; I agree with many of his points. Normally, when people agree on stuff across the House, a bit of virtue signalling may be going on—but in this case, agreement shows serious concern about a really serious issue. I thank both Liam Byrne and my right hon. Friend Mr Davis for securing this debate; for many of us, it will be one of the most important that we have spoken in.
The abuse of UK courts by organised crime, oligarchs and authoritarian states and their wretched proxies is, I believe, a significant threat when it comes to the corruption of the UK legal system, to freedom of speech and, as the hon. Member for Eltham was saying, to the conduct of due diligence against potentially corrupt actors who would threaten the health of our institutions.
I agree wholeheartedly with what my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill was saying—that nobody here is questioning the independence of UK courts and nobody is saying that we do not want that independence to continue. It is also true that London is a very important financial and legal centre, and long may that continue—it brings a great deal of money, wealth and employment into London and the UK—but I hope the Minister will understand that bad money drives out good and bad law will do the same. If we allow the cancer of the selling of intimidation services by high-end legal firms, it will not do us any good in the long run, just as in the long run letting mafias launder money would also be bad for us.
Let me be clear. Although these tactics are sold by law firms to many different actors, including organised crime and corrupt corporations, I think they are very much part, as some Members have said, of the Russian state playbook and Russian hybrid war tactics: the tools of non-military conflict in the west against the west. I will argue for significant reform of this corrupting cottage industry, which enriches the few at the expense of the whole. We need to bring in anti-SLAPP legislation, and we need to go after those lawyers—dare I call them slappers—who use such tactics. We need anti-slapper legislation. We also need a much more robust public Act of defence. The United States has one and we have to bring one in here as well.
Finally, I will make the case that we need a foreign lobbying law—or foreign agent registration Act, as some call it. In that way, the law firms that sell services such as reputation management, and related industries such as commercial spying and dirt digging on people, have to be clear about their business models. When they sell those services to overseas entities such as the major and questionable corporations that are Mr Putin’s proxies, they need to give us that information and put it in the public domain, so that the foreign lobbying law can help us identify who works for foreign actors and what they are doing.
We have discussed the various definitions of lawfare so I will not go into that, but there appear to be two important elements that I would like to address specifically. The first is when the law is used to intimidate, wear down and financially destroy journalists and campaigners, and the second, as the hon. Member for Eltham said, is when the law is used to intimidate organisations into failing to conduct due diligence. There is a massive potential issue if we allow bad actors into our energy, food or telecommunications markets.
From 1990 to 1994, I lived in the Soviet Union and in post-Soviet states, and in my academic work have studied as hard as I can types of Russian hybrid war. Let me give a little bit of background. In Russia, the ultimate outcome for a journalist who crosses the rich and powerful and cannot be silenced is death. They are murdered—and nearly two dozen have been murdered under Mr Putin’s leadership of the country. In this country, the murder of UK officials and journalists is not yet part of the oligarch organised crime playbook, although it is in some EU countries, so it is a danger. Instead, other methods are used, two of which are, as we have heard today, the use of libel law and the use of data protection law to intimidate and destroy financially. Reporters, campaigners and activists in our state are threatened not with physical destruction but with financial destruction.
The kompromat corruption industry has sadly been exported to our country from Moscow and St Petersburg. As well as journalists, publishers are intimidated into silence. I congratulate massively HarperCollins for fighting its cases. If HarperCollins has to pay out £5 million or £2 million in court costs every time, the message is clear: do not write about Russia, about those close to the Russian leader or about those state oligarchs who hide their dodgy dealings in plain sight. For the UK and the wider world, the result is that, as many of us have said, freedom of speech has been stifled and journalistic investigations remain unlaunched.
Does the hon. Member agree that if the Government are to tackle the type of Russian interference that he has been giving examples of, we must contend equally with the actions and activities of the US Government? Does he appreciate that the case of Julian Assange is relevant? It has been reported that the US had plans to assassinate him on British soil, and at this moment he languishes in prison.
I am not quite sure of the case that the hon. Lady talks about but the principle is clear: SLAPP legislation applies not just to one country, one industry or one person; it is there to prevent the use of lawsuits against public participation and is in favour of good journalism, good campaigning and good activism. As the hon. Member for Eltham said, SLAPP legislation would not support rich companies that hide their hacking activities—that would not be purposeful—and would prevent bad actors from trying to prevent important information from coming out.
In recent years, several high-profile examples have exposed slightly different tactics in each case, including those of Catherine Belton and HarperCollins, Tom Burgis, Chris Steele, Bill Browder and former Member of Parliament Charlotte Leslie. I thank them all for fighting their battles. Allegedly, the firms that offer and sell—dare I say it?—legal intimidation services to the corrupt, to organised crime or to the Russian state or its proxies include, so we are told, some of the many names that have been mentioned thus far: CMS, Mishcon de Reya, Skadden, Carter-Ruck, Schillings and Harbottle & Lewis, which services Mr Abramovich’s needs.
What do the tactics look like? The Carter-Ruck strategy against Charlotte Leslie appears to be to ratchet up exorbitant costs in the hope of achieving a technical victory on data law and then inflicting the costs on Charlotte and her team in the hope of bankrupting her and her organisation. Last summer, in one week alone, she received 12 letters. Carter-Ruck then threatened other of her directors, despite the fact that they have not taken part in any way in any of the relevant activity.
As we have heard, Catherine Belton and HarperCollins were hit by multiple suits from oligarchs close to President Putin.
In Bill Browder’s well-known case, as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill said, a relatively lowly official in the Russian Interior Ministry, who was allegedly part of a campaign to steal tens of millions of dollars and linked to the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, hired Olswang, which is now part of CMS, to go after Bill Browder via a bogus bankruptcy claim. If the internet is correct, the lawyer in question, Geraldine Proudler, used to serve on the Scott Trust, which oversees The Guardian, and apparently now serves on the Guardian Foundation board. I will come back to that, because I have questions for the editor of The Guardian, but I do not support any side that takes questionable funding, whether they are political parties—mine or others—or lawyers. This is not about score settling; I am glad when The Guardian has pointed out where we are not living up to those standards, if indeed that is the case.
With Tom Burgis, we have heard about the Kazakh mining company ENRC issuing 18 legal proceedings in the UK and US against lawyers, investigators and—seriously—the Serious Fraud Office. When the journalist Dan McCrum was being investigated and chased, all those people came out of London. Potentially the most important case in some ways is Daphne Galizia, the murdered Maltese journalist, who was facing 47 lawsuits at the time of her murder. According to her sons, Mishcon de Reya
“sought to cripple her financially with libel action in the UK courts”.
They also said:
“The campaign for justice in our mother’s case cannot be disentangled from the abuse that she suffered at the hands of Mishcon de Reya’s lawyers. The firm sought to cripple her financially with libel action in UK courts, on the instruction of...Henley &
Partners. Had our mother not been murdered, they would have succeeded.”
They added that the firm
“has consistently threatened and harassed not just our mother, but countless other journalists worldwide”.
Effectively she was about to be financially destroyed before she was, by others, physically destroyed, but the principle was the same: she was to be silenced at all costs.
We look at the websites of all these big fancy posh firms that apparently charge double or triple rates for doing this sort of work, and one would think butter would not melt in their mouths. I am sure they do pro bono work. This sort of work, offering these sorts of services to some of the most unsavoury human beings and organisations on the planet, is deeply immoral and is deeply corrupting to those otherwise upstanding firms, which should be doing more to protect and not corrupt our legal system. What is being offered is a cottage industry of lawfare—legalised intimidation by some of the most deeply unpleasant individuals and organisations on the planet. These companies are going out trawling for business because it is so well paid. The lawyers who do this sort of work should, to put it bluntly, be deeply ashamed of what they do, because they destroy the integrity of the UK legal system, not uphold it. They charge double or triple, but it is a moral abuse of the law, and they know it.
I want to make one specific point about Geraldine Proudler. I look at her reputation and her lovely website and all that. Bill Browder told me that CMS takes effective instruction via middlemen from Russian organisations and from individuals who have since been sanctioned under Magnitsky. My question to Katharine Viner, who is the editor of The Guardian, is: what on earth is Geraldine Proudler doing on the Guardian Foundation, if she is still a member? What on earth was somebody who was engaged in a case defending a person sanctioned under Magnitsky doing on the Scott Trust? What on earth has the Labour party said about that? Again, I do not defend one side or the other, but there are folks on the Opposition Benches who should be saying to The Guardian, “What on earth are you doing?” I am sure there are other examples that can be thrown our way, and I will not defend anybody.
The board of English PEN, which campaigns to defend writers and freedom of speech, decided in 2018 to retain the libel lawyer Anthony Julius as a trustee. Mr Julius is, I am sure, a fine and upstanding man, but he was also a senior at Mishcon de Reya, the firm that hounded Daphne Galizia to her financial destruction, prior to her physical destruction. I find it unspeakable that these people have got away with this behaviour with absolutely no reputational damage to them at all, yet they are doing things that are actively bad for freedom of speech, any concept of truth and the UK legal system.
I will not go on for too much longer, but I will raise just a couple of other points, if I may. There is a second element here that is critical, which is the intimidation, using data protection laws, of people who are doing due diligence work on our behalf as civil servants. We have seen that ENRC, as part of its wave of lawsuits, has started proceedings against the Serious Fraud Office, or was threatening to do so. I understand that threats of judicial review have also been made in relation to decisions made by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission. We are getting into very serious territory when the functioning of Government, as well as the exposing of truth—and, dare I say, concepts such as justice—is being severely hammered and severely damaged.
However, we then move on to another aspect, which is not only the financial destruction, but the reputational destruction facing journalists. I understand that in the Carter-Ruck and Charlotte Leslie case, PR agencies were working hand in glove with the law firms Phil Hall Associates and Kroll, as well as K2 Integrity, a company that helps with “litigation support” and “reputational defence”—also known as digging dirt on other people. I think we are importing too much of the Russian tradition, and it is a specific Russian tradition, of kompromat—the collection of compromising material—which started under the Soviets and is now a huge industry there. Komprometiruyushchiy material, as it is called, is material that is found and then used to blackmail or destroy individuals. In this country, it happens at the same time as racking up extraordinarily large legal bills.
I believe this cottage industry of corrupt activities is actually pretty vile. I think it undermines rather than supports the legal system in this country, and it undermines rather than supports freedom of speech, so what needs to be done? The Government apparently want to restart or to reboot, and I congratulate them on that. I think they need to do so. May I humbly suggest that one of ways that we could be supporting higher standards in public life is by gripping this issue?
The first point is that libel tourism should effectively be outlawed. Secondly, let us look at bringing in a robust public actor defence that raises the bar for the rich and powerful taking on campaigners and journalists. Thirdly, let us have statutory regulation of private investigators and firms that take on the collection of kompromat. Fourthly, let us bring in SLAPP legislation. Fifthly, I again say that we need a foreign lobbying Act as part of the updating of our lobbying laws in this country, which are not fit for purpose. That explains why the UK remains an influence pedlar’s paradise. I have been urging this for four years, and I produced a study of options for the Government about 18 months ago. Corruption scandals, sleaze scandals and lobbying scandals will continue ad infinitum in this country until we grip this issue and do something about it.
I do not want to get in the way of client confidentiality, but I want to know what these firms are doing working for these oligarchs. I want to know how many hours they are billing—I would not mind knowing at what rate as well, to be honest—and what they are doing, as well as which bits of those companies are doing what and why. We need this in the public domain for the good of all of us. We need this cottage industry if not shut down, then severely limited. I will continue to fight for this, as I know others will, because it is very important to the law and to the legal system in this country. Although it is a highly paid industry, it is a corrupting one. It seeks not to strengthen freedom, but to destroy it. It seeks not to defend justice, but to undermine it. It is a growth industry, but in the same way that cancer can be inside a body politic, and it needs to be cut out. I believe that those who work on behalf of foreign states, proxies and organisations betray our values, and the values of our legal system and our nation.
It is pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Bob Seely, and to contribute to this excellent debate secured by my right hon. Friend Mr Davis. I am very grateful to him for securing it, and I am also very grateful for the briefing that he arranged for Members earlier this week to explore some of the issues behind this.
I want to touch on the really big issues that we have already discussed, but I also want briefly to mention a local low-level lawfare issue in my constituency. Walleys Quarry landfill, which I have referred to many times in this House, is a landfill run by Walleys Quarry Ltd. It is owned by Red Industries, which is controlled by Mr Adam Share, a convicted criminal. He went to jail for bugging the Environment Agency in the 2000s over another landfill, which had remarkable similarities to Walleys Quarry, with the odour overcoming many residents in the local area. Residents were bugged, as were the Environment Agency and the local councils.
Walleys Quarry Ltd is a very litigious company: it has tried to sue me; it has sent legal letters to my council leader, Simon Tagg, and to county Councillor Derrick Huckfield; it tried to secure an injunction against protestors at the last minute the other day, only to be defeated by a woman on Zoom at the High Court on her own—Audrey Young, with no legal representation, defeated that injunction, and I pay tribute to my constituent for that today. This is a slightly lower-level case and I will not go into any further detail for the House today, but I hope that the journalists who want to publish what they know about what has been going on at Walleys Quarry are able to convince their lawyers to stand up to the lawyers employed by Walleys Quarry Ltd.
We have heard today about how our libel laws are being used to silence journalists; how the Data Protection Act and the general data protection regulation are being used to harass investigators; and the abuse of subject access requests to try to obtain special personal data. As Stephen Kinnock, who is no longer in his place, said in his intervention, when that fails there is the hack and leak approach, where people hack in, publish someone’s data and then sue them for having that data in the first place. Surely that is absolutely ludicrous. We also hear about how judicial review is used to threaten our Government, our Government agencies and our regulators, such as the Serious Fraud Office. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism described how City law firms acting on behalf of those under investigation are “completely outgunning” the SFO in ligation tactics and resources, and raised concerns that an “imbalance of arms” is allowing some oligarchs and powerful corporations to “buy impunity”. That is what is happening to our regulators right now, in our courts, and it is ludicrous that that is permitted.
What do we need? My hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill described the independence of the judiciary as one of our essential bulwarks of freedom of speech and liberty, but another is parliamentary privilege. Therefore, first, we need a parliamentary inquiry into all of this. I hope that he will read the Hansard record of my saying this, because such an inquiry would be very valuable. It could look into legal intimidation and into SLAPPs, and it would have the added advantage of giving key figures such as Ms Leslie—I did not serve with her, but I know that most of the Members in this Chamber did—the opportunity to come to this House and say things that are true but that she is worried about saying in any other place because she is frightened of losing her home and of all the other things that were described in the excellent opening speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden.
My hon. Friend makes an important point on whistleblowers. They get privilege if they give evidence to a parliamentary Committee, but the act of coming to give evidence is not necessarily privileged and they could face legal action for choosing to reveal information. We should look seriously at the idea of extending privilege so that any whistleblower invited to come to a parliamentary Committee will be protected in the act of giving evidence.
I thank my hon. Friend, who speaks with experience as a former Chair of a Select Committee. The Procedure Committee, on which I serve, has been looking at what is covered by parliamentary privilege, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley will hear what he has said today and make sure he examines whether that is something we could look at.
On privilege, occasionally we get the use of it wrong and everyone talks about abusing it, but actually it is fundamentally so important. We need to update it. We need absolute clarity on Committees, on broadcast, and on the relationship between talking about things here and being able to discuss them outside. That urgently needs to be looked at, and if we need new primary legislation, let us get it. If my hon. Friend would keep on looking at this, we would all be very grateful.
One thing that came up when we were discussing the strategy of this debate was the question of whether people are using subject access requests on this House. The advice the House authorities give is that we should respond to subject access requests. I told my office, “No, you don’t. I will go to prison before you give away any information on the debating of things in this House.” We need to update those rules, too, so that we are properly protected in future.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I will ensure that all three of those interventions are brought to the attention of the Procedure Committee, because there is a lot to consider here and it is worrying that those tools could be used against Members of Parliament. We should have full protections in all aspects of our job, not just in what we say in this Chamber.
As a former Chair of the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, I know from experience that Committee Clerks and staff of the House are often sent repeated requests for information about data they hold. Some information is exempt, with respect to the main business of the Committee, but some is not. A huge amount of Clerks’ time and Committee time is taken up with processing those requests.
Yes, I quite understand the position that Clerks are in; our staffers can be in the same position. We need protections for everything that goes on in and around this place in the proper exercise of our duties.
What else do we need, as well as the things we can do in Parliament? Fundamentally, we need a change of the legal rulebook. Many of the tactics deployed by unscrupulous claimants are becoming increasingly commonplace, so much so that they constitute a rulebook of tactics and strategies to thwart corruption investigations. They need to be countered by an opposing rulebook, in the ways that have been described: anti-SLAPP laws and a reorientation of the legal profession, private investigation and PR firms to abide by fair standards of litigation and stop pre-trial manoeuvres designed simply to drain resources and intimidate counterparties. Such a reorientation would involve an overhaul of all regulations applicable to the legal profession on the conduct of litigation. As many hon. Members have said, the legal professional bodies need to look hard at what they are permitting to take place under their auspices.
Let us look at anti-SLAPP laws and at what happens elsewhere. In the USA, as Liam Byrne mentioned, there is the public figure defence. Protection of Public Participation Acts were passed in Ontario in 2015 and in the Australian capital territory in 2008. There are off-the-shelf models in other countries that we can adapt to work in the United Kingdom.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden began by praising our courts. Of course he was right to do so, but the best infrastructure in the world, and all our best infrastructure, can always be abused—people can drive at 110 mph on our motorways and flush whatever they like into our sewers. We must not let dirty money flush through our courts. We must find a way to prevent the perversion of justice by people who mean us harm.
I congratulate Mr Davis on securing this fascinating and crucial debate and Liam Byrne, who is not currently in his place, on his work to bring it to the House so quickly and persuade others to contribute. I also congratulate Apsana Begum and thank her for sharing her very compelling personal testimony about how she has personally been on the receiving end of many of the bullying tactics that we have heard about this afternoon.
The golden thread running through our discussion is that freedom of expression is one of our core values. People should have the freedom to say what they think, to share information and ideas, and to challenge received wisdom and the behaviour of others. It does not come as an unalloyed freedom, however: we place limits on freedom of expression. People are not entirely free of its consequences, nor should they be. We quite rightly allow recourse through our legal systems to those who have been defamed through people’s use of freedom of expression, so that redress may be sought appropriately.
It is often said quite cynically that the Ritz hotel is open to all, just like the law courts. The truth is that, yes, the law courts are open to all, but it can be ruinously expensive to resort to law, whether for the more routine transactions we make in our lifetime or for going to court to seek a remedy for defamation. It is well beyond most people’s reach even if matters do not get to court.
Thankfully, the Scottish courts have never been a very popular destination for libel tourism. There are doubtless many reasons for that, but I suspect that the lower costs of some—I emphasise “some”—Scottish lawyers and the often lower rewards for successful defamation actions have played a role. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the courts in England, which are increasingly becoming the venue for David and Goliath struggles and actions, or simply the threats of actions, that allow the powerful and the wealthy, whether they are from the UK or elsewhere, to silence, intimidate, cow, browbeat and otherwise silence anyone with something to say, with information to share or with criticisms that run counter to the interests of those wealthy and powerful people. London already has a highly unenviable reputation as the launderette for much of the world’s dirty money and, through its burgeoning public relation and public affairs industry and the comparative accessibility of the courts to those with enough money and financial stamina to make use of them, it is sadly also increasingly becoming a launderette for the sullied reputations of individuals and their corporate entities.
The best courts are the ones that serve the population best in terms of accessibility, fairness of process, transparency, consistency and the justice of the outcome. That is the sort of legal system we should be looking to have, rather than simply having the best legal system that money can buy. London is obviously a massive global centre for many things, including culture, finance, politics, diplomacy, business and commerce, and whenever power, money and influence intersect, it is no surprise that attention is focused on that, with people commenting and reporting on it and discussing it in the various public and private forums. It is important that that power, influence and passage of wealth should be scrutinised and held to account.
Liam Byrne spoke earlier about the actions of the Russian state, particularly in the areas from Ukraine to the Baltics. I would hope that, even domestically, we are becoming increasingly aware of the menace and impact of the misinformation and disinformation in that area, all of which aims to mislead, to anger, to influence values and, ultimately, to change behaviour. We might want to apply the same focus to how party political funding is being used to change the nature our debates and some of our democratic choices, but I do not have enough time this afternoon to talk about that, and to do so would be to stray off topic.
Obviously, the antidote to this is openness, truth, the rule of law and having a free flow of information. For the courts to be used as a venue for the vexatious, the speculative and the downright malicious use of the law to hinder that process of the free flow of information simply serves to harm legitimate business interests, to harm democracy, to harm our lives and, ultimately, to harms our ability to live our lives in the manner that we would otherwise choose. That is why this is so important. This afternoon, Members have been able to use parliamentary privilege to highlight many examples of concern, and it was good and useful that that was able to be done, to illustrate for anyone who reads or watches our proceedings the pernicious nature of how the courts and the legal system are being used to silence, intimidate, cow and otherwise get people to vacate the space of public discourse.
The UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition has a number of proposals, some of which have been mentioned in the debate. I would like to highlight three of them. The first seems to be fairly fundamental, and I hope that the Minister will address it directly. Should not an accelerated process be put in place to dispose of SLAPPs at the earliest possible opportunity, so that a judge can take an early decision on the merit or otherwise—let us be honest, in most cases it is otherwise—of these kinds of actions? We should also be looking at what sanctions can be put in place to deter and delegitimise the use of SLAPPs in the courts. Also, we should be looking at what protective measures can be put in place to safeguard individuals and those who act as public watchdogs to protect them from SLAPPs and to ensure that where the legal process advances, they are able to fight back on something approximating to a level playing field. I would not want to be overly prescriptive about that, however, because this is just the start of the debate.
While today’s debate has given us a very useful and necessary opportunity to highlight this issue, the issue requires much more than what each of us has been able to say this afternoon. It requires much more than a Backbench Business debate. It requires the Government to act, and it requires them to do so in a way that sets aside all private interests.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate, and congratulate Mr Davis on securing it and on his excellent speech. He is rightly renowned as not only an advocate but a practitioner of free speech, as, indeed, we saw in the House yesterday.
On that subject, I should add, very briefly, that as the right hon. Gentleman knows his history, perhaps better than the Prime Minister, he will be aware that both Leo Amery and Oliver Cromwell secured the results that they desired in short order with the departure of Chamberlain and the Rump Parliament—although we should not stretch these analogies too far: Cromwell required a company of musketeers to clear out the Rump, which included pulling the Speaker from his chair, and in any event the Rump was back six years later quickly followed by the restoration of the monarchy, which I do not think is what Cromwell had intended. But I digress.
May I—personally, but I am sure that I speak for a number of other Opposition Members—send our solidarity to Charlotte Leslie? I worked with her on middle east matters, and still do, although she is no longer a Member of Parliament. I wish her well, and hope that she is successful in resisting the appalling bullying conduct against her. Let me also congratulate my right hon. Friend Liam Byrne, who is a co-sponsor of the debate and who has also been assiduous in raising this matter inside and outside Parliament.
We heard many passionate speeches this afternoon, from, for example, Sir Roger Gale, my hon. Friend Clive Efford, and the hon. Members for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) and for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell). I want to praise, in particular, my hon. Friend Apsana Begum, who made a difficult speech on a sensitive subject. She raised not only important issues relating to this debate and to domestic violence, but other issues as well, including one on which I will not elaborate because it is not a subject for today, but which I consider important none the less. I refer to the nature of prosecutors. We saw something of that in the instance of the Horizon scandal and the post offices, but my hon. Friend made the point again about prosecutors other than the Crown Prosecution Service. She also mentioned the role of the media and their disproportionate power, and I will address that in a moment, because I think it is relevant to the debate. First, however, let me make some general comments about lawfare, or SLAPPs, while trying to avoid descending too much into jargon.
SLAPPs are an increasing feature in the UK court system—or perhaps “the English court system” is a better way of putting it—and are an abuse of that system. Their intention is to silence legitimate interests not by merit or argument but by process and oppressive conduct, and they prevent journalists, investigators and even regulatory bodies from shining light on issues of great public interest. Over the last few days, I have attended briefings from lawyers, investigators and writers to hear about their first-hand experience of SLAPPs, and I am grateful for that. They allege that the English court system is being used to play out this tool of legal harassment. The purpose of this debate is to discuss the evidence for SLAPPs and the reason they are prevalent in this jurisdiction. Is it that our legal system favours them, or is it that those who employ them are over-represented in the UK? I think it is probably both.
That said, we need to get the balance right. Freedom of speech is central to our values in the UK—the Lord Chancellor has made that clear with his proposed Bill of Rights—but inequality of arms and abusive conduct in litigation can work both ways. For every David sued by Goliath—for every oligarch chasing an investigative reporter—there may be a tabloid newspaper willing to libel an innocent citizen knowing that they can afford neither the cost of bringing a claim nor the risk of losing one. I will be happy today if the Minister first acknowledges we have a problem, and secondly undertakes to go and look for a solution. I do not have one that I think is bullet-proof, and I do not immediately expect him to. On the other hand, I hope he will not bury his head in the sand and deny that this is a substantial problem that is bringing our internationally revered justice system into disrepute. I doubt he will, having heard the compelling testimony of earlier speakers and the case histories they have presented.
We have heard from several speakers about the case of Tom Burgis and the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation. Since the publication of his book, “Kleptopia”, Tom, his publisher HarperCollins and the Financial Times, for which he writes, have been subjected to a torrent of litigation by the ENRC. I have a copy of the book here that I have borrowed from the House of Commons Library, as I am afraid I have not had time to get to Waterstones, but I have promised that I will buy a copy to even up that case’s financial balance a little.
The ENRC, as we have heard, is subject to an ongoing investigation by the Serious Fraud Office focused on allegations of bribery, fraud and corruption, which resulted in the procurement of mineral assets in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But the ENRC has not just brought a legal case against Tom Burgis and the Financial Times; it has also brought proceedings against the SFO.
I have my own quarrels with the SFO, as do the Government, and the Attorney General announced last year that she will investigate its mishandling of the Ziad Akle case—I found out this week from a parliamentary question that the investigation has yet to start. Many of the SFO’s problems come from a lack of resources. The ENRC spends as much on litigation each year as the SFO’s entire budget. The fact the ENRC feels so emboldened as to sue a UK Government Department when that same Department is currently investigating it for bribery, fraud and corruption should concern the Minister.
I received an email about a week ago from a company called Riverside Advisory, which describes itself as a private client communications service and reputation management company. Riverside Advisory is acting on behalf of the ENRC, and the email asked whether I wanted to meet it, perhaps because it believes I am still a member of the Justice Committee. The Chair of the Committee may have received a similar email.
I see the hon. Gentleman in his place, and I commend him for his learned speech. Riverside Advisory wishes to piggyback on the Select Committee’s inquiry into fraud and the justice system to tell us about its exasperations at its treatment by the SFO. Riverside Advisory filed a high-profile civil claim at the High Court last summer on an allegation of misfeasance in public office and it has offered to brief me, so I might take up that briefing. Other hon. Members may want to join me, I do not know.
I will now speak to the inequality of arms. SLAPPs have several identifying features, but a common thread in all SLAPP cases is the ability of the claimant to continue the lawsuit for many months, sometimes years, due to their enormous financial resources. The defendant then spends money trying to defend the action, which can prove financially ruinous even if they win, or if they win on most points. If they risk losing the case, the costs are such that it is tempting to concede at an early stage. This self-censorship or chilling effects means we never hear about most SLAPPs, let alone the information that has been supressed.
That disproportionality also feeds into the number of claims filed against a person or organisation, and claimants are increasingly pursuing individuals. As we have heard, they are pursuing journalists rather than newspapers, which gives a clue to their motivation. Why sue an impecunious writer rather than a media group? Because intimidation is more important than damages. Similarly, by bringing multiple proceedings the claimant seeks to overwhelm the defendant. SLAPPs are not a tool to set the record straight or to protect a previously unblemished reputation; they are a tool to silence public participation, to bully and to halt public criticism.
As far as I am aware, there is currently no judicial guidance or legislation expressly dealing with SLAPP cases, although, of course, English judges will take a robust line with parties they think are abusing the court process. Just this week, the High Court threw out a five-year-old negligence case for warehousing—maintaining a suit while doing the bare minimum to progress the litigation—but that is a long way from the position in many US states that have specific anti-SLAPP laws in place. London is already seen as friendly to SLAPPs and the people who bring them. If other jurisdictions are proactive in being anti-SLAPP, even more actions will be commenced here. The Foreign Policy Centre surveyed 63 investigative journalists across 41 countries and found that the UK is the most frequent international country of origin for legal threats.
I await the Minister’s telling us whether he recognises the problem and the scale of it and any ideas he has to fix it—particularly how we can rein in the oligarchs, their corporate vehicles and rottweiler law firms without further limiting the ability of genuine victims of press vilification and intrusion to get justice. I fear that the Government have a poor record on both points. The lurid stories of Tory donors that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill recounted in the Elections Bill debates earlier this week suggest that the Tories are not ready to take on vested interests, and the shameful way they sidelined the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry, which sought to provide low-cost litigation for claimants and defendants in media cases, proved they are not prepared to offend the media barons.
Investigative journalists are a key component of a democratic society, which is why they are anathema to repressive regimes around the world. They risk their reputations, their assets and sometimes their lives to expose corruption. All they ask from the Government, who purport to believe in free speech, is to make the rules of the game fair. It is not only writers and journalists but investigators and even public bodies, as we heard, that are prevented from carrying out their functions; and it is not only defamation suits but privacy, data and even judicial review claims being perverted to this end.
There is more the Government can do to protect people against SLAPPs and to ensure that freedom of speech and expression is not curtailed by an unelected, seriously wealthy few and their agents, including, shamefully, some of the best-known law firms in this country. We could start with clearer judicial guidance and better regulation of the legal profession, and indeed measures to control costs, but we may need legislation. We cannot continue to do nothing—for the sake of victims of SLAPPs, but also the court system in this country and the Government’s reputation.
I will make two points about the sub judice ruling. First, as the Minister for the courts in the Ministry of Justice, I would not want to comment on any live or recent cases, for obvious reasons, including the case of Apsana Begum, although like the SNP Front-Bench spokesperson, Richard Thomson, I pay tribute to her bravery and courage in talking as she did on her experience of domestic abuse. The other point concerns the 17th century, where the shadow spokesman, Andy Slaughter, lingered briefly. My hon. Friend Aaron Bell made the point that we are all incredibly privileged, under article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1689, to have the right to stand up in this House under parliamentary privilege, knowing that we cannot be taken to court for what is said. That means we all enjoy the freedom to speak out without fear of those powers and those rich people we have been talking about. It is important that we have been able to put that on the record. It shows Parliament at its best when we have these sorts of debates, with colleagues showing what I think is consensus on these matters and speaking with great passion. I pay tribute to all the speeches we have heard.
Let me set out our position. All of us can be proud of the respect that the UK judiciary and legal profession attract around the globe. One of this country’s great exports is the common law system and rule of law principles which are fundamental aspects of our constitutional arrangement. My hon. Friend Bob Seely spoke about the value of legal services and he is absolutely right. In 2019, the sector contributed over £29.6 billion gross value added to the economy and generated revenue of over £36 billion—that is many jobs in our constituencies.
Transparency and integrity are key to the proper functioning of the courts and to the law. Those values underpin public scrutiny of the powerful and maintain confidence in our laws. Let me be clear: today’s speakers are right to highlight the rare instances where the law is being weaponised as lawfare. SLAPPs represent an abuse of the legal system—let me be clear about that—as they rely upon threatening tactics to silence free speech advocates who act in the public interest. Public participation enriches all our lives and our democracy.
Having said that, I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden, who, towards the end of his speech, spoke about the question of balance. We do have to approach this in a balanced way. We must be cautious to respond to SLAPPs in a proportionate way that continues our tradition of balancing individual rights with the public good.
Let me talk about actions we have taken and are taking at home and abroad in this area. I want to reassure the House of the Government’s commitment to act whenever the rule of law is under attack. We acted decisively in 2013 to introduce reforms to the Defamation Act 2013 to curb the practice of what is called libel tourism, which had allowed a number of overseas claimants to use our courts to challenge publications with small circulations in this country. A number of colleagues, including the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, spoke about how England and London in particular had become a centre for international libel, but under section 9 of the Act the courts must now be satisfied that England and Wales is the most appropriate jurisdiction in which to hear a claim. The courts have robustly interpreted this test, notably in the Court of Appeal case of Wright v. Ver. While these reforms have succeeded in tempering international libel litigation in the UK, we are now exploring further whether further reform may be necessary when litigation targets public participation specifically.
I note that, according to the most recent Royal Courts of Justice statistics, defamation cases in the High Court in 2020 were in line with the average number for the past decade, at 152. That suggests we must not be premature in launching a response to SLAPPs but instead grow our evidence base through careful monitoring, as Lord Wolfson, my ministerial colleague in the Ministry of Justice, undertook to do in the House of Lords last June.
I want to commend the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition for its support and advocacy in this field. Ministry of Justice officials are monitoring anti-SLAPP efforts in neighbouring nations. This is a fast-evolving jurisdiction which none the less warrants a considered response.
Open justice and free speech must be a core feature of any democracy. The Ministry of Justice recently launched the Bill of Rights consultation with an explicit aim to strengthen protection of the key British value of free speech. Our proposals intend to provide statutory guidance to the courts on the utmost importance attached to the right to freedom of expression. This is particularly important when considering whether an interference with the right to freedom of expression is proportionate
“for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others” or when set against the wider public interest.
The right to freedom of expression is protected by article 10 of the European convention on human rights, which is given effect in domestic courts by the Human Rights Act 1998. We are signatories to the ECHR and I can assure colleagues we will remain so. Our proposals for a Bill of Rights will go even further to promote this country’s proud tradition of freedom and reinforce the democratic prerogatives of elected Members in this House over the legislative process in respect of the expansion of human rights.
It must be said that free expression is not an absolute right. There is a delicate interplay involving the need to protect security, the right to a private life, keeping citizens safe and taking steps to protect against harm to individuals. Our ongoing human rights consultation closes in March 2022, after which we will set out detailed plans to reinforce our great tradition of free speech.
A number of colleagues spoke about investigative journalism. We recognise that it plays an important part in keeping us all informed and promoting accountability where there is wrongdoing. Officials from my Department are monitoring threats against journalists in the form of SLAPPs, working closely with civil society stakeholders who tirelessly support journalists under threat to understand the immense financial and psychological burden that a few have endured when faced with these actions. Where journalists face physical threats, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s national action plan for the safety of journalists exists to support their security and wellbeing.
We are not alone in combating SLAPPs. The Ministry of Justice is collaborating with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to ensure a united stance on international engagement and media freedom around the world. I am pleased to announce that the UK will be a member of the Council of Europe’s inaugural working group on SLAPPs thanks to our diplomatic collaboration. The working group is comprised of experts in law and media policy who will begin working this year on an anti-SLAPP draft recommendation for member states due in December 2023.
We have also met the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s representative on freedom of the media’s team to discuss common objectives in addressing SLAPPs. Meanwhile, the Media Freedom Coalition has continued to expand since its foundation in 2019 and consists of 50 members who have pledged to improve media freedom at home and abroad. It has also issued 20 statements on the deteriorating situations for media freedom concerns in various countries, including Yemen, the Philippines, Belarus, Egypt, China, Hong Kong, Myanmar and Russia.
The Government recognise that global media freedom increases security and prosperity for all, which is why that was a cornerstone of our G7 presidency. Misinformation can undermine public order and even health, particularly during the covid-19 pandemic. To that end, the UK has supported UNESCO’s global media defence fund by committing £3 million over five years and encouraging contributions from others.
Further, the UK has provided more than £400 million in official development assistance to the media and free flow of information in the past five years. We are consistently in the top five aid donors to the media sector globally. I recognise the strength of feeling in the House today, given the importance of the principles at play. In the light of the evidence provided in today’s debate, I will be giving SLAPPs in UK courts urgent consideration.
I have been here purely to listen to the debate, but I have one question for the Minister. Does he accept that both Government and Opposition parties are targets of systematic attempts to buy political influence? If so, does he accept that the people who are trying to check the legitimacy of such donations must be properly protected?
My right hon. Friend, who has a track record of scrutinising such matters, makes a very good point. I would simply say one thing: the Opposition spokesperson mentioned donations to our party, but we should all be concerned about recent stories of certain donations from an individual connected with the Chinese Communist party to a Member of the House.
As I said, I will be giving SLAPPs in UK courts urgent consideration. I want to make it clear that the Government are committed to a robust defence of transparency and freedom of speech. We will not tolerate anything that risks tarnishing the integrity of our judicial and legal profession.
I am sorry to come back, but that was not a reply to my intervention. I made it quite clear that parties on both sides of the House are subject to the problem. I am looking for a commitment from the Government that when people are trying to do due diligence and check on behalf of their party or any other organisation within their party that donations are legitimate—when they are trying to see whether a donation is clean money or dirty money—the Government will recognise the need for them to be protected and not sued. Will the Minister give a straightforward answer to that question?
Let me be clear to my right hon. Friend. I was simply referring to the debate as a whole. I recognise that he referred to all parties; I was just putting in some balance because we had only heard about one party. On his point, I am more than happy to meet him and look at the detail of what he proposes, because I do not think it is directly relevant to the matters that we have been debating.
It is important to consider lawfare threats in the broader context of Government action to curb abusive foreign influence. Last year, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy brought in the National Security and Investment Act 2021 precisely to target foreign state interference in our economy.
I am grateful to the Minister for listening to the debate. He says that the intervention of my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis was not directly relevant but, with great respect, it was, because we need to protect people such as Charlotte Leslie, who are trying to do due diligence; we need to protect officials at the SFO to ensure that they are not hounded individually; and we need to protect journalists and people here. We need to protect quite a lot of people in this debate. He says that the Government will do everything in their power, which is great, but we need to get on and act because there is a real specific problem at the moment.
I recognise that there is a lot of concern about sources of money. Clive Efford and a number of other colleagues have talked about the source of funding. I do recognise its importance, but stress that the legal profession has a robust due diligence mechanism in place to prevent dirty money corrupting our courts. Anti-money laundering regulations exist to combat illicit financing. The suspicious activity reporting regime requires legal professions to report to the UK financial intelligence unit within the National Crime Agency where terrorist activity or money laundering is suspected. Law enforcement officials must act safe in the knowledge that the Government defend their investigative remit as we all collectively rely on their industry. There has been a lot of talk about following the money. I just make the point that we do have robust regulations in place, as my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Justice Committee said earlier.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I know that he is working very hard on these issues. He is right to talk about suspicious activity reports. The problem with them is that, for far too long, we have prioritised quantity over quality. Will he focus on this with his colleagues at the Home Office to make sure that we make this a meaningful process? May I gently say to him that the point made by my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis is germane? It is a clear SLAPP. If somebody is trying to do the right thing in the public interest, and, in effect, a litigation stops that, then that is a classic SLAPP and something that we should all be concerned about.
I certainly recognise it from what my right hon. and learned Friend said. I apologise to my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis if I misinterpreted his question. I was seeing it perhaps in a different context—
I did not want to mention Charlotte Leslie specifically, but we have spent plenty of time hearing about the Charlotte Leslie case, so I will now mention her specifically. The fact is that she was trying to see whether the money that was being offered by somebody who wanted to take over a political organisation within the Conservative party was clean or dirty. As a result of her doing her duty, she is threatened with financial ruin. If my hon. Friend the Minister cannot see the relevance of my asking for protection for such people in this debate, then he needs to go back and restudy his brief. I am sorry to put it in those terms, but I cannot put it in any other way.
I will respond to the intervention first, because this is important. I said at the beginning that I would not comment on specific cases no matter how—
Order. We will be very careful about specific cases. I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making, but the Minister is being rightly careful. There are perhaps some discussions that might better take place not here in the glare of publicity.
I will come to what I think is one of the most important points—my final substantive point—which is about costs. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight and a number of other colleagues have talked about the way in which costs are used—I think his words were to “financially destroy” journalists. As has been made clear, SLAPPs often threaten journalists with ruinous cost claims. In recent years, civil litigation costs, including defamation, have been subject to greater control. The Government commenced the no win, no fee conditional fee agreement—the CFA reforms—in part 2 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, for defamation and privacy cases. This meant that the lawyer’s success fee was no longer payable by the losing party. This further controls the costs of these cases and gave effect to our legal obligations under the MGN v. UK judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in 2011. We are keeping the existing costs protection regime in place for the time being. This means that after-the-event insurance premiums are recoverable for defamation and privacy cases as the CFA reforms are in force. The ATE regime enables parties with a good case to litigate and discharge their article 10 rights for freedom of expression without the fear of having to pay potentially ruinous legal costs if their case fails. This approach controls costs but protects access to justice, as parties with good cases can still benefit from recoverable ATE insurance in respect of adverse costs.
We also introduced a rule that means that costs that are disproportionate will not be recoverable even when they are reasonably or necessarily incurred. The rule is intended to control the costs of activity that is clearly disproportionate to the value, complexity and importance of the claim, as is the case in SLAPPs.
Let me be absolutely clear, however: if more action is needed, I am happy to look at it. I recognise that this is an important issue. [Interruption.] I thought that was another phantom intervention—I apologise. I will wrap up.
This country will always support vigorous debate, here and abroad, and our rule of law requires it. Where we see proof that foreign sources seek to undermine our values, using the law against our national interests, the Government are poised to act. I ask today’s speakers to work with us as we consider the full sweep of legislative and regulatory reforms available to stop lawfare on our soil. The debate has had an impact, and we will respond. I am grateful to all speakers who have taken part.
I have to say that before we started I did not necessarily expect this debate to be a particular success, because it deals with an industry that hides evil in plain sight and it is pretty difficult to deal with something that can do that, yet we have had a formidably effective debate. Whether it was the detailed, astonishing insights into how the Russians operate from my hon. Friend Bob Seely, the localised issue raised by my hon. Friend Aaron Bell, or the courageous exposition by Apsana Begum of what happened to her, the contributions have demonstrated the impact on ordinary people: the simple people we aim to represent.
At a grander level, Liam Byrne made the best speech I have ever heard him give—I hope he will forgive me for saying that. It was formidable, passionate and went right to the point. It was then picked up, of course, by my right hon. Friend Sir Roger Gale, who talked about the kleptosphere and how we have to deal with that.
To come to the substance of the debate, the SNP spokesman, Richard Thomson, rightly said that it needs much more than a Back-Bench debate. There is no two ways about that. It is difficult and will be difficult. Andy Slaughter crystallised the whole thing when he rightly said that we need to make the rules of the game fair, in a game where one side has enormous resources—even measured against the resources of Government—and the other side does not. We have to think about whether we are putting enough effort into it.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight made clear, these people have made an industry out of devising incredibly complex tactics to exploit the Human Rights Act, using all the articles, one against the other. I say this to him: I welcome what he said about recognising that, but I think the difficulty he had in answering the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis, demonstrated the complexity and detailed nature of the problems. We must please not rely, therefore, on the consultation on the Bill of Rights or whatever. The matter requires a special look and careful attention.
The huge authority of the day was of course the Chair of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill. I will simplify everything he said, which was basically a tutorial for all of us, down to the last point he made: we can pick the best of the anti-SLAPP legislation in the States and other places. That is the way to go. We have to start with a proper, detailed and tight investigation, and deliver off the back of the best practice elsewhere. That is my request of the Minister. He has done a sterling job of dealing with a difficult issue and I hope that he will carry on in that direction.
The right hon. Gentleman has already spoken, but he has the leave of the House to speak again.
This has been one of the most remarkable debates that I have sat through in 18 years in the House. The issue is extremely serious, there has been a high level of cross-party consensus and immense practical detail has been offered. I have been in the Minister’s position, when there is turbulence at the top. I urge him to keep his head down and to plough on. We cannot afford anything less.
Thirty-two years ago, President Gorbachev came to the Council of Europe and talked about his dream of a common European home and a single legal space, our great gift to the world. That dream is now shattered, but that means that we have a special obligation in this country, as the home of the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights, to be a beacon and a champion of freedom, rights and free speech. That is the challenge to which the Minister must now rise.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman had the leave of the House to speak again.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the matter of lawfare and the UK court system.