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20 Nov 2002 : Column 686—continued

5.58 pm

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Sadly, because of time, I will not be able to pursue the issues that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) raised.

I want to focus on the anonymity of defendants in trials relating to sexual offences, and I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) placed such emphasis on the presumption of innocence and on the prosecution proving its case beyond reasonable doubt. I was reassured that the Home Secretary also endorsed the importance of those cardinal principles. However, if one's reputation is destroyed, it is of little consolation that one remains technically innocent. I hope that the House also paid attention to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee and to the report that he has published.

The Government addressed this issue in a White Paper and said:

Of course the Government are still prepared to listen. That is the purpose of Parliament. However, I also hope that it means that they are prepared to be persuaded by the arguments of hon. Members who feel as strongly about this issue as I do.

Sex offences and the way in which we deal with sex in the United Kingdom provoke extremism and a hysteria peculiar to us. The atmosphere in which sex offences are considered is uniquely charged because of the press coverage of such cases. The recent history of our media bears that out. We have only to consider the press frenzy following the Burrell trial, the television presenter whom the press accused of rape, and the police officer in the Soham case—mentioned by the hon. Member for Cambridge—whose name appeared on a list from the United States, to realise that those people are convicted in the eyes of the nation before there is any question of a trial.

Those are national figures and their cases are known to us, but the local press causes just as much damage. In 1998, 700 people attended the funeral of a 31-year-old teacher in my constituency called Nick Drewett. He was a popular and committed teacher, but he took his life when faced with charges of behaving improperly with pupils in his care. The master who was charged with him was acquitted. A significant factor in his decision to commit suicide was the sensational publicity that attended the investigation of the charges.

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Nick Drewett is not alone. I presented a ten-minute Bill in 1999, which the NASUWT helped me to prepare. It gave me the statistic that between 1991 and 1998 there were 974 police investigations into abuse allegations against its members. No grounds were discovered for prosecution in 792 of those cases. The publicity in any one of those 80 per cent. of cases would do serious injustice to an innocent teacher.

My Bill attempted to protect teachers from injustice. I managed to convince my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who was our Education spokesman, to include similar measures in our manifesto at the last election. However, the principle does not apply only to teachers; it goes wider than that. I was slightly concerned about the Home Secretary referring to the will of the people. The fourth estate frequently claims for itself the will of the people and that it operates on behalf of the will of the people.

In the last Parliament, the Government introduced advanced measures to help complainants in sex offence cases. They are listed on page 19 of the White Paper. Although in 1985, 25 per cent. of complaints about rape resulted in a conviction, by 2000 that figure had fallen to 7 per cent. So 93 per cent. of those people who have to defend themselves against such complaints are innocent. That is what the presumption of innocence means. I notice the expression on the faces of Labour Members, but people are innocent until they are proven guilty. We cannot allow reputations to be destroyed by the publicity that accompanies cases in which people are innocent.

The decision-making process in the prosecution of sex offence cases is uniquely tilted. As a result of the atmosphere surrounding such cases, there is a tendency to press on with them. When the Crown Prosecution Service or the police decide whether there is a complaint to answer, the sensitivity of such cases, especially those involving children and, I now believe, in the more general case of rape, the tendency is to proceed to prosecution.

Vera Baird: Is not the hon. Gentleman aware of the joint publication by the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate and police inspectorate, which came to the opposite conclusion? Cases do not go on when they are difficult. Instead, they are stopped when there is the slightest difficulty. The hon. Gentleman needs to get his facts straight.

Mr. Blunt: How does the hon. and learned Lady explain the fact that the same number of people are being convicted 15 years later when the number of complainants has quadrupled? I have not read the document she mentions, and I will do so, but my experience—and no doubt that of others—and the statistics cast doubt on its conclusion. The tendency to continue with a case is more extreme if the complainant is a child, and the loss of reputation of the people concerned is also extreme. Such cases result in extreme and tragic consequences, such as my constituent's decision to end his life.

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It was decided in 1998 to end the anonymity of defendants in such trials, but we have moved on from that. The White Paper gives an example of a practical difficulty. It states:

That is a pretty thin practical justification for the measures. The judge is plainly able to lift restrictions if someone is thought to be a danger to the public, and he would be right to do so. The balance of the argument has changed since 1998.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): I accept that the hon. Gentleman is raising some difficult issues. Although I would not support sensational accounts in the newspapers, by the same token does he agree that the public's awareness of a person who has been charged with rape or paedophilia has often led to other victims coming forward who might otherwise not have done so?

Mr. Blunt: I accept that sensational publicity around a case may encourage other people to complain, but there has to be a balance. The charges that are brought against people in such circumstances are serious. The public take them very seriously and the publicity that can result from people's names becoming known serves to destroy their reputations whether they are proved innocent or guilty. I believe that the balance of the argument has changed since the decision was taken in 1998 to remove anonymity from defendants.

Measures have been introduced to assist people who complain about such crimes to give evidence. They are protected from a defendant cross-examining them in court and there are powers to enable complaints to be made. We must properly balance those measures, especially in the light of the atmosphere that our media create around such cases, by giving defendants the anonymity to which they are entitled, in what is a unique set of circumstances, until they are convicted and found guilty of the crime. If we do not do that, the presumption of innocence amounts to mere words for the people who are on the receiving end of such allegations.

6.8 pm

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): I trust that the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and the House will forgive me if I do not cover the points that he raised, because I want to concentrate on the important issue of the misuse of drugs. I am pleased that it is covered in the Queen's Speech, which I welcome.

The misuse of drugs is at the heart of the Government's strategy on social deprivation, health, environment and the quality of life of our constituents. People in my constituency would expect me to say that they share my opinion that the problem is serious. There is barely a family or a street that has not experienced the trauma that arises from drug addiction. Of course, those people expect the House and the Government to address their concerns.

The objectives in the Queen's Speech, including economic growth, an improved environment, a better quality of life for our people and investment in public services such as education and transport, are very noble and welcome, and so too is the regeneration of our

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towns and cities. Hanging over those noble objectives, however, is a big cloud in the shape of drug misuse. If that is an aspect of globalisation—and I believe that it is—it is right that we act both domestically and internationally. In the short time available to me I should like to make some points which I trust are relevant.

We should be seen to be tackling the problem along all parts of the chain, acting over the long term domestically and internationally. It is my firm belief that the sophisticated and complex nature of drugs issues requires the Government to be equally sophisticated and nuanced in their approach. Joined-up government is essential and must be to the fore, involving almost every Department in facing this serious challenge.

I am glad that the Queen's Speech refers to measures to deal with drug trafficking. Customs and Excise employees are important in that. I want to put on the record a point about those personnel, and I should perhaps declare my interest as a former civil servant and union activist. In 2000–01, we employed 22,803 people in those posts, and at 22,854 the figure for 2001–02 is hardly different. I am not alone in thinking that, with millions of people coming into the country and billions of tonnes of freight arriving, that is inadequate. There is a case for increasing Customs' number, and I believe that that would be effective.

I say that because, domestic though this problem is, it would hardly arise were it not for the fact that drugs are arriving here from other parts of the world. In the past year or so, the House has rightly spent a great deal of time dealing with Afghanistan, and we were reminded that over 90 per cent. of heroin on the streets of Britain comes from that country. I encourage the Government to continue their observation of what is happening in Afghanistan; to bear in mind what is taking place in other developing countries; to do their utmost to discourage the production and export of heroin; and to offer other job opportunities to those who are tempted to become involved.

At home, I want to deal with demography and with the environment and its impact on those sad, and very often lonely, people who are tempted to use and deal drugs. The use of hard drugs is far more prevalent among the unemployed than among the employed, and in a constituency such as mine, where in many places there is serious deprivation, that fact has to be borne in mind. We simply do not see the bigger picture. Do employment programmes in such deprived neighbourhoods take account of that? I am not sure that they always do.

Treatment, which has been mentioned, often focuses on drugs per se, but should we not also take on board wider issues, including obvious social exclusion? Drug misuse is not merely about statistics, important though they are; it is about people and families. We all see in our surgeries and elsewhere people who are traumatised by the antisocial activities of others or, sadly, by their discovery that young people in their own families, including well-educated young people who have been to college or university, have succumbed to the menace of drugs. I want to put an end to that and to the revolving-door syndrome whereby people move between institutions and hospitals without a solution to the problem. Prison has been mentioned. I have taken the view since I came to the House that we send far too

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many people to prison, and certainly too many who are mentally ill or have learning disabilities. To add the issue of drugs, without addressing it, is mistaken.

I thank the House for listening. I welcome the inclusion of this serious issue in the Queen's Speech, and I hope that we can return to it when legislation comes before the House.

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