Simon Singh wins libel case

British Chiropractic Association drops its case against science writer.

I've just heard the fantastic news that the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) has dropped its libel case against Simon Singh.

The scientist, who has contributed to the NS in the past, was sued by the BCA after he wrote a piece for the Guardian describing the association's claim that spinal manipulation could be used to treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding conditions as "bogus".

But it always looked likely that Singh would triumph after the appeal court ruled earlier this month that he could rely on a defence of "fair comment".

This case became a cause célèbre ("Simon Singh" is currently trending on Twitter) precisely because it highlighted the chilling effect that Britain's libel laws have had on free speech and scientific inquiry.

Jack Straw's libel reform plan, which would have capped lawyers' success fees at 10 per cent, fell victim to the Parliamentary 'wash up' but all of the three main parties have now committed to libel reform in their manifestos.

Reducing the cost of libel cases, as Straw promised, is a necessary reform but it is not a sufficient one. London has become the libel capital of the world, not just because of the sums claimants can win, but because it is easier to win a case here than in any comparable democracy. Only English libel law places the burden of proof on the defendant, meaning the odds are stacked against authors and publishers from the start. Any future government should shift this burden from the defendant to the plaintiff as a matter of urgency.


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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.