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17 Mar 2003 : Column 732—continued


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With the leave of the House, I shall put together the Questions on motions 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6)(Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Local Government Finance

Question agreed to.



10.7 pm

Annabelle Ewing (Perth): I am pleased to present what could not be a more timely petition on behalf of my constituents in the Strathearn Coalition for Justice Not War, who have collected 444 signatures from people across Strathearn in a short time. At this eleventh hour, my constituents are making a direct appeal to this House to exert its influence over Tony Blair and the UK Government to step back from the brink of war.

To lie upon the Table.

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Press Complaints Commission

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]

10.8 pm

Ian Lucas (Wrexham): I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this important issue. I approach the debate with some trepidation, because there is often a great difficulty in raising issues that relate to confidentiality and children. It is very important to try to respect the anonymity of children in any description of their difficulties, so I shall refer to actual cases, but not to any names, although I trust that all the facts that I lay before the House will be entirely correct.

By common consent, children are one of the most vulnerable groups in our society and are deserving of special protection. The Children and Young Persons Act 1933 affords the protection of anonymity to children who are suspected of committing criminal offences and, indeed, to those who are convicted of committing criminal offences. For the most part, that legislation is uncontroversial. It is well recognised and accepted that adverse publicity can prejudice children's futures and that the press could affect those children's futures if names were to be reported. Generally speaking, the press respect the law and do not publish the names of suspected young offenders. However, some recent cases have highlighted a very serious discrepancy in the way that some children are affected by adverse publicity. When children are victims of a crime, they may be protected by the law. The court can make an order that such children should not be identified. The position is much less satisfactory, however, in two particular circumstances.

The first of those circumstances is where an offence may have been committed, but no charge has been preferred. The court has no power to issue orders in such circumstances. Equally, if an offence is committed abroad the legal protections do not apply. In both cases, the law does not protect the child involved. It is fair to say, however, that an intended measure of protection is offered by the Press Complaints Commission code, which includes a section that specifically relates to children. It recognises, as does the law, that children deserve special protection. In the light of recent cases, however, I am not certain that the code offers sufficient protection.

It is worth pausing to consider how profound can be the effect of media attention on an individual in the modern world. In a previous role, when I was a solicitor, I represented an individual who was the victim of a crime that attracted worldwide media attention. The press are absolutely relentless in such circumstances. Many members of the press believe that they have a right to question such a victim, to highlight and invade their personal life and to tell the world about it. Some reporters do not seem to understand that the long-term effect that such attention can have on a person is very potent. When the story no longer has "legs", the press move on, but the victim still has to deal with its aftermath.

The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport is investigating the subject, and I look forward to seeing its report. I have attended one of its evidence sessions because of my particular interest. I hope that some of

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the press reports that I have read, which suggest that the Government will reject its concerns out of hand, are inaccurate.

I want specifically to concentrate on how press reporting can affect children. In two recent cases, young girls under 16 appear to have been the victims of crime. I will not identify them, although at all stages the newspapers and broadcasting media have done so. One girl disappeared in this country and the other disappeared abroad. Both appeared to be having relationships with older men. The Press Complaints Commission code says at paragraph 7.1:

In one of the cases to which I refer, a national newspaper seemed to have no doubt as to the nature of the adult's relationship with the child. It interviewed other women who had had a sexual relationship with the man concerned and published their findings. One, who was identified as having been "bedded" by the same man, said:

I believed that a series of articles about the child were in breach of the Press Complaints Commission code, especially when I read in its preamble that it should be

I therefore wrote to the PCC.

I was surprised by the letter that I received in return, which stated:

The code does not specify that. I was also told that I should have complained about the story within one month of publication. The code does not state that, either. When I read the letter, as a former solicitor, I took the view that it was a good defence response to an allegation by the prosecution. I had not understood that that was the PCC's role. Its objections were further undermined by additional reporting of the same story within two weeks of my complaint.

The further reporting provided the additional detail that the child had been put on a school "runaway watch". The child's comments about her treatment at school were quoted and the school was identified. Even the timing of her private tuition lessons was published.

In the second case, the child's school was identified after she had been traced. Her home address was also identified. The central irony is that if either girl had committed a criminal offence rather than been the victim of such an offence, it would have been illegal to print all that information.

I decided to take a different tack and write to two of the editors. They took the view that as the children's names were in the public domain, their obligation was simply to inform their readers of the facts. They had no comprehension of or sympathy for the interests of the child. Those interests were irrelevant to them.

I should therefore like the Minister to consider the discrepancy in the law and examine two possible courses. In the first instance, I have been dissatisfied with the response from the PCC. I acknowledge that legislation on such matters is sensitive, difficult and a step that no Government wish to take. Freedom of the

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press is intensely valuable. However, it is limited by law in the case of individuals, including children, who commit criminal offences.

I believe that the press should accept that it is in the general public interest not to broadcast or publish the names of children who are victims of crime. I hope that that argument is uncontroversial. The press work within such limits regularly when they report from the courts, and I believe that they appreciate that children need special protection. I ask the Minister to join me in making representations to the PCC and to consider carefully the way in which it reports cases that involve children, especially when such cases are salacious, have a sexual element or have a profound effect on the individuals.

Those young people have the rest of their lives to experience what the press has told the general public about them. When the press moves on to the next story, it does not appreciate the way in which the publication of the private affairs of young children can remain fresh in their community, town and life for all their days. If we are to be honest and straightforward about deciding that we have an obligation to the youngest and most vulnerable people in our society, we have an obligation to act and to try to persuade the press to be more responsible in the way in which it reports these matters.

I sincerely hope that the Press Complaints Commission will see the validity and strength of these arguments, but if it does not, and if it takes the view that the victims of crime deserve less protection than those who commit crimes—even though they may be juveniles—the Government should look closely at amending current legislation to ensure that the protection given to those who commit criminal offences is extended to the victims of offences, whether the offences are committed in this country or abroad.

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