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Vera Baird: The hon. Gentleman dealt with one aspect of my point, in that as we are discussing the Sexual Offences Bill and nothing else, we cannot look more widely now, but he did not deal with the other aspect of it, and I now invite him to do so. If one confines anonymity for defendants to sexual offences, as he proposes, there is a real danger of stigmatising complainants in cases involving sexual offences as likely to be liars, and not to be believed.
Mr. Grieve: The hon. and learned Lady raised that point powerfully in Committee, when she said, as I recollect, that she was concerned about the prospect of anonymity being granted to a defendant throughout the trial process because the underlying implication appeared to be that because the allegation was of a sexual nature, it was more likely to be disbelieved.
That point had more force in relation to the trial process, but I do not consider that it has force in relation to the investigatory process. As I have said, I am sympathetic to the idea of legislating, if necessary, to cover all criminal offences, which would get rid of the problem that the hon. and learned Lady has identified. In the meantime, however, the level of publicity that we have seen in the press means that there is no doubt that that particular problem has crystallised around sexual offences.
Applying pragmatic principles, therefore, it seems to me that we should address that matter in this Bill. Of course, I have no way of knowing what will happen when the Bill goes back to those in another place, but they originally amended the Bill to extend anonymity throughout the trial process, and if we do not address the issue before charge, they may choose to do so again.
Considering carefully what has taken place, and applying the general principle that this House should consider carefully what the other place does and come back with its own opinion, it seems to me that the greatest force in what was done there applied to the pre-trial period. The Minister has said several times that he accepts that there is a problem with the pre-charge period, and I think that this House can do something about that.
I accepted at the outset that, for technical reasons, it will not be possible to do that by using the very words of my new clausebut there is a principle here. I think that it is possible to take on board the point made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) about his anxieties concerning any change, and to perfect the new clause so as to ensure that it still allows for publicity when required, and that the change will not be detrimental to the defendant if he legitimately requires publicityfor instance, to provide himself with an alibiyet at the same time to send out the message that a practice that is becoming all too common in this country is simply unacceptable.
Mrs. Brooke: It should come as no surprise that we support the principle in the new clause, because we led on a similar new clause in Committee, when the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and his colleagues were pursuing a slightly different line. We do not therefore have much sympathy for any errors that may have been inadvertently transcribed from our new clause to this one.
More seriously, this is an important matter and we wholeheartedly support the principles behind the new clause. We had a good discussion in Committee and examined the main issues that we are addressing now. We clearly made the point that of course it would be possible to amend the general principles so that in certain circumstances reporting restrictions could be lifted. We appreciate that there may be urgent reasons for catching a suspect who is a potential danger to the public. Equally, as has been mentioned, sometimes a person might want to waive the right to anonymity because it was in their interests to do so. Those two aspects could be taken on board through a properly drafted amendment.
We also need to address the question of why we are considering just sexual offences, rather than all cases; in fact, we need anonymity pre-charge for all cases. However, the Bill provides an opportunity to start the process, and there is an argument for doing so as long as we include all sexual offences. I agreed with the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) when we discussed the issue of rape alone. In the case of certain sexual offences, there have been dramatic instances of whole careers being destroyed. If we wait for the right timewhen there is room in the Government's timetablefor the issue to be considered fully and legislated on, many people will suffer. We have an opportunity to help today. The point has been strongly made that under the current provisions the guilty party might not be convicted because a fair trial will be impossible. So there are various good reasons why we should start the process now.
As I pointed out in Committee, I am following a line that the Home Affairs Committee took not just with the Bill, but during its investigation of abuse in children's homes. In both respects, it strongly recommended anonymity up to the point of charge. In the light of some powerful debates on the Floor of the House and in Westminster Hall, it seems that the trawling of cases of potential abuse in children's homes may have caught the
Vera Baird: I am very alarmed by what the hon. Lady says. If she is moving towards preventing the police, when they have a couple of complaints from children, from trying to locate other potential complainants, I would be extremely concerned. There have been many rightly brought convictions in which the press have played a powerful role in promoting, in the interests of justice, the allegations made in the interests of looking for others. The hon. Lady is in danger of calling into question too readily an entire tranche of police prosecution, and mixing that up with the issue before us.
Mrs. Brooke: I thank the hon. and learned Lady for that intervention; I thought it right to refer to that issue. Of course, if an application were made for reporting restrictions to be lifted, the case would be put before someone who makes a judgment; the matter would not be dealt with in an uncontrolled way. In such circumstances, there would be an evidence-based reason for making public the particular names.
We are particularly concerned about information coming from the police and its subsequent publication by the media. We welcome the fact that the Minister is having discussions on the latter issue, but we have no confidence whatsoever that any voluntary agreement that is reached will necessarily be upheld in high-profile cases. Of course, there have been many recent such cases, that of Matthew Kelly being one that we might consider briefly. His arrest, after a pantomime performance, was well publicised. Indeed, an enormous amount of publicity was generated, including headlines such as, "Matthew Kelly held over child sex." He was accused of sexually attacking boys and all sorts of things, but at the end of the day the police took no further action. That shows the power of the media: they sell papers on the basis of such stories, so will a voluntary agreement ever be enough?
The discussions going on with the police are doubly welcome because there are processes available on the basis of which the police can take strong action. If police officers are found guilty of providing information to the press during the pre-charge process, the Liberal Democrats feel that the strongest action should be taken against them. Of all the points that I have raised, I should like to emphasise that it is right to consider the principle of anonymity at the pre-charge stage.
Mr. Hogg : I shall be brief. I approach the matter with considerable caution for four reasons. First, I am reluctant to make a distinction between sexual and non-sexual offences. I recognise, of course, that the House has previously made that distinction, but I am very cautious indeed about it. In my view, the distinction is not well made.
Secondly, as argued earlier, it is frequently the case that the police know who they want to interview and the only way in which they are likely to get that individual is by providing a description in the press that is sufficient to identify him. Of course, the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) stands in the way of that.
Thirdly, a further and related problem applies particularly to sexual offences alleged to have been committed some time previously. Quite often other complainants come forward to allege that the person against whom the allegations were made committed the same offence against them perhaps 10 or 15 years previously. If the course of action identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield carries the House, that particular problem will become substantial and I should not have thought that the House would want it to be a consequence of the legislation.
Fourthlyand I touched on a further point in an earlier interventionfrom time to time, perhaps not very frequently, a person against whom an allegation has been made will want to gain publicity in order to assert that he or she is not the person in respect of whom certain rumours are current. I do not read football publicity very much, but I have a feeling that a footballer did just that about three weeks ago. He sought out publicity to say that he was not the footballer in respect of whom allegations had been made.
I also want to make the point that I am rather cautious about anonymity post-charge and during a triala point that has been ventilated in the debate. I know of a recent case in the east midlands where a witness came forward during a murder trial to assert that he had seen somebody else at a particular place at the critical moment. That evidence was, in the end, discredited, but it is not wholly unusual for witnesses to come forward as a result of evidence given in a publicised case where the defendant has been identified.