Digital Economy Bill - Committee (4th Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:30 pm on 8th February 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Hollins Baroness Hollins Crossbench 10:30 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, I declare an interest as I gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry and my family decided that I should give evidence on their behalf—believing undertakings by the former Prime Minister that Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations would be implemented. One of those recommendations, as we were all aware, was Section 40 of the Crown and Courts Act 2013, which Parliament enacted with cross-party support, but which the Government have so far failed to commence. This leaves victims of press abuse without affordable access to justice and leaves the royal charter hamstrung with no incentives for its use.

In response to the Government’s failure to follow through on their undertakings, I tabled amendments to the then Investigatory Powers Bill to replace Section 40 of the Crown and Courts Act with a similar provision. Government Ministers and others, in resisting those amendments, suggested that the Digital Economy Bill would be a better vehicle to resolve the matter—particularly because of the urgent nature of the Investigatory Powers Bill. Although my amendments were in scope and the Bill had been amended with a large majority by your Lordships’ House, I agreed to withdraw them when they were returned by the other place.

I will very briefly explain the effect of the amendment I am proposing today. It would make a similar provision to that in Section 40 in the Crime and Courts Act 2013 in so far as is possible within the scope of this Bill. Lord Justice Leveson recommended that all newspapers should join an independently approved regulator that is independent and effective, and that such a regulator would offer guaranteed, low-cost arbitration as a cheap route to justice for the press and free for the public. If a newspaper refused to join a system that Lord Justice Leveson set out and to offer low-cost arbitration, the judge said that, in order to prevent the power and work of newspapers being used to bully and intrude on ordinary members of the public, the newspaper would have to shoulder the court costs of any claim brought successfully against it. To avoid having to meet the costs of claims brought against it, and indeed to benefit from costs protection if sued in court, a publisher need only join a recognised regulator and resolve any claim far more cheaply through that regulator’s arbitration system.

It is this provision that the former Secretary of State decided not to commence. The amendment I am moving today would bring a Section 40 lookalike into effect for online publications. That would include, of course, the major print publishers, which all have significant news websites. Given that it relates only to the online publication of libels or other illegal abuses as they relate to online publication, it is slightly narrower in effect than the provision agreed by Parliament in 2013. It is a weaker substitute for Section 40. But in the absence of any of the access to justice which Section 40 would provide for families and individuals attacked unfairly by the press, it is far better than nothing at all.

The Government may argue that a consultation on these matters is ongoing. Lord Justice Leveson consulted publicly throughout 2011 and 2012. Section 40 was one of his many recommendations. My family and I went through the traumatic process of giving evidence at Leveson because we expected that his recommendations would be taken seriously. The consultation now being considered in private, with a government Minister presiding over it, does not, to be honest, inspire the same confidence.

My second amendment, Amendment 234A, simply provides for immediate commencement for reasons that I do not need to explain. I hope that the Committee will support these probing amendments. I beg to move.