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Justice Questions

15th June 2010

Jonathan Djanogly answers questions on reform of libel law, compensation for people with pleural plaques, publication of expense claims of High Court judges and the level of legal aid funding.

Libel Law

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): What recent discussion he has had on reform of libel law. [2219]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We are committed to reviewing the law on defamation to protect free speech, and are currently considering the issues involved. In that context, Lord McNally yesterday met Lord Lester of Herne Hill to discuss his private Member's Bill on the subject, which was recently introduced in another place.

Tom Blenkinsop: I am sure the Minister is aware of the case of Dr Simon Singh, who was famously sued by the British Chiropractic Association for his research. Although the case was unsuccessful, Mr Singh will recover only 70 per cent. of his £200,000 legal costs. Will the Government support Lord Lester's private Member's Bill to reform our libel system, which at present stifles scientific research?

Mr Djanogly: We are considering Lord Lester's private Member's Bill. The issues involved in it are complex and of great breadth, so we will look at it carefully and respond at a later date.

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Pleural Plaques

Mr Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): What recent representations he has received on compensation for people with pleural plaques. [2229]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): Let me first recognise the hon. Gentleman's relentless campaigning on compensation for pleural plaques sufferers. I recently answered two written parliamentary questions relating to pleural plaques, and Ministers have received a number of letters from hon. Members and their constituents.

Mr Hepburn: I thank the Government for standing by the previous Government's commitment to compensate past pleural plaques victims, but will the Minister go one step further, as Labour did when in office, and give a commitment that if any new medical evidence comes forward on the condition, the issue will be reopened?

Mr Djanogly: The issue was considered extensively in the last Parliament. A public consultation was carried out, and authoritative medical reports were prepared by the chief medical officer and the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council. The Government consider that in the light of that evidence, it would not be appropriate to overturn the House of Lords 2007 judgment that the condition is not compensatable under the civil law of tort. However, of course, if the situation were to change, we would look at it again. If new medical evidence emerges that suggests that the existence of pleural plaques is an actionable cause and that the condition counts as compensatable damage, it will be open to claimants to pursue an action under the law of tort.

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Topical Question

David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): A High Court judge, sitting on the board of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, recently told all MPs that they should be treated in exactly the same way as every other public servant. Will the Minister therefore consider publishing the travel and accommodation expenses and allowances of High Court judges so that we can find out whether we are indeed matched pound for pound with their lordships?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Lord Chief Justice decided that, from the start of the new legal year in October 2009, the expenses claims of High Court judges and above should be recorded in such a way that they can be attributed to individual judges and published at regular intervals. The first set, covering October to the end of December 2009, was published in March, and the next set, covering January to Easter, is due to be published in July. Figures for the summer term will be published in the autumn.

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Mr David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What is the legal aid funding allocation per head in England and Wales, and how does it compare with legal aid funding in other countries?

Mr Djanogly: England and Wales have by far the most generous legal aid provision in the whole world. For example, Spain spends £2.55 a head, France spends £3.31, and Germany spends £4.69. Countries with a similar system, such as New Zealand, spend on average £8 a head, compared with £38 a head in England and Wales.

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John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): On the issue of pleural plaques, when does the Minister expect to make the first payments under the new compensation scheme?

Mr Djanogly: The mechanics of the scheme are being consulted on, and we hope to start making payments towards the end of this month.

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