Queen’s Speech promises libel reform and bill on adult social care

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 10 May 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e3333
  1. Nigel Hawkes
  1. 1London

Campaigners have welcomed a commitment by the government to reform the libel laws in England and Wales. Defamation will be deemed to have occurred only if “serious harm” has been caused, and the rules will be tightened to avoid libel tourism, under which foreign plaintiffs bring actions that would be unlikely to succeed in their home countries.

The announcement, made in the Queen’s Speech to parliament, which outlines the government’s intended legislation, is a response to a large campaign launched after the law was used in an attempt to silence critics.

One of them, science writer Simon Singh, who was sued by the British Chiropractic Association for an article he wrote, said: “The reform promised in the Queen’s Speech today is a welcome response to the intolerable effects of the current laws. I hope the government will now move forward rapidly to bring forward a bill that protects those writing about serious matters in the public interest.”

Peter Wilmshurst, who was sued by the medical device company NMT Medical after he criticised one of their products, said: “Patients have suffered because the draconian defamation laws were used to silence doctors with legitimate concerns about medical safety. . . . It is hypocritical for parliamentarians to expect ordinary citizens to speak out on matters of public interest and safety, when they do not allow ordinary citizens the same protection that MPs reserve for themselves to protect them from misuse of the defamation law.”

A draft bill was published for consultation last March, and some members of the libel reform campaign would like to see changes go further. Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN, said: “The government has responded to the public demand for change, and we welcome this long-overdue chance for reform.

“It must now ensure that the protections for free speech are as robust as possible. This means strengthening its current proposals on public interest reporting, and also reforming the procedures that judges use to apply the law.”

The Queen’s Speech also promised a bill on adult social care designed to make access to support clearer and more equal. But campaigners fear that it will not include a commitment to adopting the recommendations of the Dilnot Report, which recommended an upper limit on the amount anybody should have to spend on social care.

David Stout, NHS Confederation deputy chief executive, said: “The announcement of today’s draft Care and Support Bill will bring some hope to elderly people and their carers. But draft legislation means that political agreement on this issue is still some way off.

“Our current model of social care is broken and we desperately need a long term, sustainable resolution if we are to avoid further negative impact on local government and NHS services. We cannot emphasise enough just how critical it is to create a sustainable and high quality solution.

“The NHS and our social care systems are inextricably linked and each relies on the other working effectively to make sure people get the best care available. We need a system which provides the best possible care for older people and reduces crises leading to emergency hospital admissions.

“We urge the government to treat this issue as a real priority. None of us—patients, carers, staff or government—can afford for this to be kicked into the long grass again.”

Jeremy Hughes, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “The draft bill suggests real progress can be made. But we still have no definitive timeframe for when the millions of people being put at risk by the current crumbling system will get the fair deal they desperately need. Consultation is important but it can’t become a delay tactic. Action is needed now to support the most vulnerable in society.

“Underfunding of social crisis must be at the heart of reform yet this still isn’t being addressed. Millions of people—including people with dementia—are being stripped of their savings. We are also in danger of bankrupting the NHS as more people reach crisis point. There is no time to wait.”

Other bills promised include one to create a specific offence of driving under the influence of drugs, with a penalty rising to a maximum of six months in jail or a fine of £5000 (€6200; $8000) or both. The government will also bring forward legislation to establish Health Education England and the Health Research Authority. John Took, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said: “These two bodies will help ensure the UK has the workforce and regulatory framework to deliver maximum health and wealth benefits from research.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e3333

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