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Government aims to "give people's freedom back" in 2011

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - 7 January 2011 - ARTICLE 19 welcomes the UK coalition government's programme to "restore" Britain's civil liberties, including the freedom of expression and the right to information, in 2011. The programme, which was announced by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in a speech today, includes plans to "turn English libel laws from an international laughing stock to an international blueprint" and to extend the application of the Freedom of Information Act.

Following Nick Clegg's speech, ARTICLE 19 urges the UK government to publish as soon as practically possible specific details of each one of the aspects of the programme, meaningfully consult with civil society organisations and ensure that implementing laws and policies are adopted.

Nick Clegg pledged today that the government would "end practices of closed and secretive government, giving people the information and freedom they need to hold the government and other institutions to account." ARTICLE 19 is encouraged by the rhetoric of Clegg's speech and hopes that it can be matched with the reality of reform through 2011 – and beyond.

Two major aspects of the package of proposals are the reform of the libel laws of England and Wales and the extension of Freedom of Information Act to cover many more organisations. However, there are other important proposals which have positive implications for the promotion of the right to freedom of expression, the right to information and transparency in the UK. All of these proposals are identified and differentiated below.

The Right to Freedom of Expression

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the government's aim to make "sure that, where people discover injustice and bad practice, they can speak out against it too". Clegg reiterated his opposition to the English libel laws because of their "chilling effect on scientific debate and investigative journalism" and because of the development of "libel tourism" whereby foreign claimants bring cases against foreign defendants to English courts. ARTICLE 19 supports the government's ambition to "restore the [UK's] reputation for free speech."

ARTICLE 19 notes three specific elements of the government's programme in relation to freedom of expression, as outlined by Clegg. These are:

• The "restoration" of the rights to non-violent protest;
• The reform of the English libel laws through a draft defamation bill to (i) provide a new statutory defence for those speaking out in the public interest and clarification on the existing defences of fair comment and justification; (ii) to ensure that claims are not brought on trivial grounds, but show substantial damage; (iii) to combat the phenomenon of libel tourism; (iv) reflect the challenges of the internet;
• Addressing the high costs of defamation proceedings to make the allocation of costs fairer, following the consultation paper on proposals to reform civil litigation funding by Lord Justice Jackson.

Transparency and the Right to Information

ARTICLE 19 also welcomes the government's aim to "maximise transparency in the public interest - moving from a closed society to an open society". In his speech, Nick Clegg emphasised the public interest in holding accountable a "whole range of organisations who, for example, benefit from public money and whose activities have a profound impact on the public good, yet who cannot be properly scrutinized". He recognised both the progress on transparency achieved by the Freedom of Information Act 2000 as well as its shortfalls.

ARTICLE notes five specific elements of the government's programme to "transform" governmental openness and the right to information in the UK. These are:

• New transparency rules for government departments which ensure that they publish much more information on the money they spend and the private companies awarded government contracts;
• The establishment of a new Public Data Corporation which would be responsible for disseminating a wealth of government information;
• The extension of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to cover a range of other bodies and organisations whose decisions have an impact upon the public good – including the University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), the Association of Chief Police Officer and the Financial Services – and those which are owned by more than one public authority (which are currently exempt from the scope of the legislation);
• The reduction of the "30 year rule" – that is the legal arrangements under which official records are made available to the public through the National Archives after 30 years - to a "20 year rule,"
• The monitoring of the implementation of legislation on the right to information through post-legislative scrutiny by the Justice Select Committee.

ARTICLE 19 supports the introduction and implementation of these and other aspects of the UK government's programme on civil liberties as being important not only for the protection of freedom of expression and the right to information in the UK, but also for the protection of these human rights internationally given that the law of England and Wales is often referred to as an example and source in many countries, particularly in Europe, the Commonwealth and the Common Law world.

ARTICLE 19 will be closely monitoring the UK government's actions to implement its programme on civil liberties, particularly with respect to freedom of expression and the right information.

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