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Mr. Grieve: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I was about to deal with precisely that matter. I accept that there are two areas in which one might consider it perfectly proper for a public allegation to be made. First, it would be proper where, for whatever reason, a serious allegation of a sexual offence was made against an individual, but for reasons that no one could understand, the authorities appeared to refuse to act upon it. I fully appreciate that there would be sound public policy reasons why a newspaper might want to publicise the allegation if it considered that the police were failing to take action. I accept that that matter would touch on the right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression.
Secondlythe hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) was right to raise this pointthere might be a circumstance in which publicity was necessary to arrest somebody for a serious offence. Again, he makes a good point.
Mr. Hogg: There is also a third situation: a person against whom an allegation has been made might want publicity, if only to establish an alibi that he might otherwise have some difficulty in establishing. He might want to identify people who saw him in a particular place. The new clause contains no defence of the consent of the person against whom the allegation has been made.
Mr. Grieve: I am most grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for that additional example. That precise area was considered in Committee. The view that I expressed thereI continue to hold itis that if a saving clause were introduced to allow a person to waive that right, I would not object to it.
The debate highlights the fact that we are considering a complex area. The issue before the House this afternoon is what message we should send back to the other place, which widely amended the legislation in the first place, about our attitude to the issue both in its totality and in particular in relation to anonymity before charge.
I refer the House to comments in a newspaper today by the outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir David Calvert-Smith, on matters of great importance. When the issue was raised with him of the coverage of recent rape allegations made against premiership
Of course, one of the issues is the use of the internet, where one sees, if I may put it this way, a circular process by which the media start by not saying very much but are egged on by the fact that the information soon starts to appear on the internet. The barriers break down and the adverse publicity and identification of individuals start to follow.
I am mindful of the fact that the Government have indicatedand I dare say the Minister will indicate again this afternoonthat they are seeking to arrive at a measure of agreement with the media to try to curb the excesses that have undoubtedly taken place. I entirely welcome that, and I say that to the Minister now. It is possible that it may provide a way forward but, clearly, it will not entirely provide a way forward, because it will still be possible for individuals to put all sorts of information on the internet. Although I am mindful of the fact that that may be done from abroad, the reality is that persons who take such interest in these matters are likely to be nationals and that, if they engage in such activity abroad, they are likely to come back here. If there were penalties for such behaviour, some of the mischief that we are seeking to deal with could be curbed, although I accept that it may not be possible to eradicate it entirely.
Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley): My hon. Friend will be aware that many of the western nations that are among the main sources of the internet and internet data are watching the Bill with considerable interest. If we got the right approach in the Bill, along the lines that my hon. Friend is referring to, there would be some reaction among the other nations, and therefore a thinning of the sources of such placing of material on the internet.
Vera Baird (Redcar): The hon. Gentleman is making some excellent points, which it is in the public interest to raise, and I readily accept that. Of course, the points that he makes about adverse publicity pre-charge apply to all offences, not just to sexual offences. Would not his arguments be better applied in some different quarter and not specifically to the Bill? He knows that I have real concerns about stigmatising complainants in sexual offences cases alone as we are likely not to get convictions. Is not that the unfortunate consequence of what he is advocating, when what he should be doing is looking at the problem in the round?
Mr. Grieve: The hon. and learned Lady makes an extremely good point. It would probably be a good thing if the Under-Secretary indicated that the Government were minded to propose legislation across all offences. There is a clear argument that those accused of serious offences other than sex offences ought perhaps to enjoy the same protection; I emphasise that this is not about protecting the defendant, but about protecting the administration of justice. If this process continues, there will come a time when the principles under which justice has been administered in this country will become difficult to maintain because of the amount of prejudicial material circulated pre-trial. That causes me real anxiety. The hon. and learned Lady is right and her suggestion would be a way of approaching the matter.
However, this is a sexual offences bill, and it provides us with an opportunityone that I fear we will not get again for a considerable periodto consider this particular issue. I am also bound to say, and the hon. and learned Lady may agree, that in reality this type of problem seems to arise particularly in relation to allegations of sexual misconductnot solely, but the examples that we have seen in the last decade centre upon it. That is partly because allegations of sexual misconduct and impropriety justifiably excite a great deal of public opprobrium, as well as a degree of public prurience and interest. We cannot argue that we should abandon the scrutiny of sex offences just because we ought to be considering the matter in its totality.
I am a believer in incremental legislation. If the House sends a signal over this matter, the Government may well start to heed that signal in the wider context. It will be unfortunate if that does not happen. My fear is that we will simply carry on as we have done, but with a deteriorating situationpartly because of the sheer number of opportunities that exist to disseminate widely information that may turn out be prejudicial to a subsequent trial.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I agree that the provision should apply more widely. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the evidence from the editor of one of the tabloids to the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, in which she made it plain that it was common practice to pay police officers for information about the point of arrest. Does he agree that, irrespective of the virtues of the current proposal, it should be an absolute disciplinary offence to advise the press about the point of arrest and that, where money changes hands, it should be a corrupt act and punishable as such?
That this process should exist is deeply corrupting to the police, because there is clear evidence to suggest that it is done in return for cash. The media are participating and it is for their benefit that it takes place. The public interest does not appear to be considered one jot. This is why I am so anxious that self-regulationfor which we might wish in an ideal worldwill prove to be completely impossible to achieve. If it is impossible to achieve, we must look further.