Government suffers defeat over defamation commission
The government has been defeated as peers voted in favour of creating a low-cost arbitration service for defamation claims.
Under the plans put forward by Labour, crossbench and Conservative peers, an independent body would certify the new arbitration system; and while it would be voluntary, newspapers that did not join could be punished by courts awarding greater damages and costs and defamation cases.
Lord Puttnam, the Labour peer and film producer, introduced the amendment in response to the Leveson Report's recommendations, as Lords debated the Defamation Bill at report stage on 5 February 2013.
He said the service would provide "an arbitration system that would allow ordinary people to get redress if they are defamed under the new definitions we are passing into law" and that the original bill "has nothing to say on access to justice".
Baroness Boothroyd, a crossbencher and former Commons Speaker, accused the government of inaction over Leveson: "It will no longer suffice to be told that there will be an announcement 'tomorrow'... We have run out of tomorrows - tomorrow never comes."
Archbishop of York, the Right Reverend John Sentamu, also spoke in support of the amendment, asking: "If trust is absent, what do you do? We all want to trust our newspapers, but what happens when there is no trust?"
But human rights barrister and Lib Dem Lord Lester of Herne Hill argued against it, saying the bill already "balances reputation and free expression" and the commission's extra-judicial status is "manifestly incompatible with the [Geneva] convention and the Human Rights Act".
Director of the Telegraph Media Group and Conservative Lord Black felt the amendment was "counterproductive" since it "would stall the initiative by the newspaper industry, which wants to deliver real change that will be of lasting benefit to the public".
The Labour front bench lent its support to Lord Puttnam's proposal.
Shadow culture spokesman Lord Stevenson of Balmacara said his party's "offers to meet and renew talks in light of today's amendments were rebuffed" and that the commission is "what the people of this country want and the victims want".
Justice Minister Lord McNally voiced his fear that "this discrete bill dealing with defamation would be engulfed by the Leveson tsunami".
He stressed that the government's aim was to reach a consensus on a response to Leveson: "Tripartite agreement is the prize... we shouldn't abandon hope but these amendments risk pre-empting cross-party talks."
His announcement that a draft Royal Charter that could be used to underpin press regulation will be published next week was not enough to see off a division, and the amendment was agreed by 272 votes to 141.