Thursday, 15 March 2012

Cambridge MP Quizzes Lord Chancellor On Laws Stifling Scientific Debate


The Lord Chancellor has admitted that academic and scientific debate is being stifled by defamation laws after he was quizzed on libel reform by MP Julian Huppert.

Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke reassured Julian that the government wanted research to be published freely without fear of court action for defamation.

The move would be a major step forward following a number of high profile libel cases where scientists and doctors were sued for publishing their work.

Julian asked Mr Clarke: “Does he agree that it is in the public interest that scientists and other academics should be able to publish bona fide research results without fear and that, unless their publication is maliciously false, they should be protected from defamation actions?”

Mr Clarke told him that one of the main reasons for publishing the draft Defamation Bill was to look at the law in the area of research for fear that “genuine academic and scientific debate was being stifled by the use of the defamation laws”.

“We propose that peer-reviewed research should be protected,” he said.

Julian had called for libel reform to be a key element of the Queen’s Speech in a motion he raised at the Lib Dem Spring Conference last weekend.

Mr Clarke said that if a Defamation Bill could be included one of its principal objectives would be to deal with the problem Julian had identified.

Julian said later: “I am delighted that the government will be pressing ahead with a defamation bill - our current libel laws give too much to the wealthiest to silence their critics. I am also pleased that the government has recognised that currently scientists and academics face a real dilemma when it comes to revealing their research for fear of being sued.

“We need to give them the freedom to speak out when their work makes discoveries that challenge ideas and concepts even if that research is controversial.

“For far too long researchers have had to weigh up the extortionate costs of challenging a libel action against the importance of publishing their findings; this is not acceptable.”

Julian’s question and the minister’s response read as follows:

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): What recent progress he has made on his plans to reform libel laws; and if he will make a statement.

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke): The Government’s response to the report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Defamation Bill was published on 29 February. It set out the Government’s position on all the key issues. A substantive defamation Bill will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Dr Huppert: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and hope that there will be time for the Bill in the Queen’s Speech. The Joint Committee recommended that qualified privilege should be extended to

“peer-reviewed articles in scientific or academic journals.”

Does he agree that it is in the public interest that scientists and other academics should be able to publish bona fide research results without fear and that, unless their publication is maliciously false, they should be protected from defamation actions?

Mr Clarke: One of the main reasons for publishing the draft Bill and looking at the law in that area was the fear that genuine academic and scientific debate was being stifled by the use of the defamation laws. We propose that peer-reviewed research should be protected and are now considering the draft of the final Bill in the light of the Joint Committee’s report. I will not anticipate the Queen’s Speech, but if we can include a defamation Bill, one of its principal objectives will be to deal with the very serious problem that the hon. Gentleman has identified.