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Northern Ireland: Defamation Law

Volume 765: debated on Wednesday 14 October 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have held with the Northern Ireland Executive about the reform of defamation law in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, there was contact both before and shortly after the Defamation Act 2013 was passed to establish whether the Northern Ireland Executive wished to extend its provisions there and to commend its benefits. In the event, the Executive have not as yet chosen to extend this legislation to Northern Ireland. As the matter is devolved, this is a decision for the Executive.

The 2013 Act significantly improves the legal rights of the people of England and Wales. Were not the Northern Ireland Executive seriously at fault in failing to give a single reason for their refusal to implement the legislation in Northern Ireland, which means that for the first time in history it has a different libel law from that which exists in England and Wales? Were the Executive also not at fault in closing down the independent Northern Ireland Law Commission while it was in the middle of a consultation exercise on this very subject? If the Executive persist with their inexplicable opposition to reform, will the Government take action to bring the benefits of this new legislation to the people of Ulster?

I appreciate my noble friend’s concern and frustration about the law in Northern Ireland becoming out of step with that in England and Wales. However, as I explained earlier, the law on defamation is a devolved issue and so it is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive. However, the Executive asked the Northern Ireland Law Commission to conduct a review of defamation law in Northern Ireland, and following the closure of the commission, which my noble friend mentioned, I understand that the acting First Minister has recently confirmed that Dr Andrew Scott has been asked to complete its review.

My Lords, one of the strange, paradoxical but not unusual things about this was that it was a Unionist DFP Minister, Sammy Wilson, who refused to allow harmonisation with the rest of the United Kingdom. Is it not a little disappointing that when something such as this happens, the Government simply sit back and wait until the Administration come to their senses? Is it not possible for the Government to engage with all the political parties in the Executive and press them to understand the importance of this matter, rather than simply sit back until people hopefully wake up, perhaps too late?

I am very aware that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who may or may not be in his place, was instrumental in pressing the benefits of the Defamation Act on the Northern Ireland Executive. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, will be more than aware of the Sewel convention and to that extent, Parliament remains sovereign. However, the UK Government will not normally pass primary legislation relating to areas in which a devolved legislature has legislative competence except with the agreement of that devolved legislature in the form of an LCM.

Is it not strange that we are pressed in this Parliament to grant devolution to other parts of the kingdom, and when those other parts of the kingdom take a view about their law which is different to that held by members of this Parliament, we become all indignant about it? Surely that is what devolution is about. People may take odd decisions. So what? That is the consequence of devolution.

I agree with my noble friend. He is correct that it is a consequence of devolution. However, there is a little more to it than that in that the civil law on defamation is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland. It remains the case that it is a matter for the Executive and we will see what happens with the Andrew Scott review.

My Lords, the Minister says that this is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive. Does he not recognise that publishers tend to produce one edition for England, Wales and Northern Ireland? Publishers tend to adopt a lowest common denominator approach for practical reasons, and therefore the antiquated defamation laws of Northern Ireland are having a very adverse effect on freedom of speech in England and Wales. What are the Government doing about that?

I have already explained that but I understand the point that the noble Lord makes. We believe that the Defamation Act 2013 has its benefits in giving greater legal clarity and free speech protection to the extent that the bar is set higher. A higher hurdle is set by the law. Again, it is up to the Northern Ireland Executive to decide whether or not to take this forward.

My Lords, to my delight and slight surprise I totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit. Occasionally devolution will present issues and problems but the principle of devolution must be preserved. Will the Minister please confirm again that the present Westminster Government have no intention of legislating for Northern Ireland on this issue?

My Lords, does the Minister understand that the question of the libel law is connected to the form of government in Northern Ireland? Since 2007 we have had a five-party coalition with no opposition. Where there is no opposition the freedom of the media is even more important. That is something that Her Majesty’s Government might discuss as a principle because devolution and the Sewel convention rules should be an issue of debate with the Government of Northern Ireland. We have had a spectacular number of scandals in recent years—most recently the NAMA scandal—and it is hard to believe that this is unrelated to the level of press freedom.

I understand the point that the noble Lord makes. It relates perhaps to issues such as serious harm, truth and honest opinion, but I can respond only by saying that we hope that Dr Andrew Scott’s review will cause the Executive to rethink and maybe some change may come about from that.

My Lords, is there not a serious risk that the present ludicrous position might violate the European human rights convention guarantee of free speech and equality, which is written into the Northern Ireland Act and which the Secretary of State ought to ensure is complied with? Is it not the case, therefore, that the Government have it within their power, if they so wish, to impose equal protection of a fundamental right across the Irish Sea in Northern Ireland?

I am aware that the noble Lord put in an awful lot of work to the Defamation Act, but I have referred already to the Sewel convention. It is up to the Northern Ireland Executive to decide whether the rules remain within the ECHR.