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Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) rose—

Mr. Hogg: I want to conclude this part of my speech and then I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

All that makes me rather cautious about the approach proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield. Of course it is right to debate the matter and an important issue is at stake, but I am sceptical about my hon. Friend's particular approach.

Simon Hughes: Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that one of the answers to the valid criticisms that he makes is that there is a significant time lapse between trial and charge, and that other people can come forward, bring evidence or make complaints. It is not as though that opportunity is lost. In many cases where there has been a pattern of offences, there may be more than one trial governing offences over a long period. What the right hon. and learned Gentleman says is a concern, but need not be a complete objection.

5.45 pm

Mr. Hogg: I am not trying to say that the arguments that I advance constitute, collectively or individually, a complete objection, because we should debate this issue.

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It is a proper issue to address, but I am cautious about it. I have a strong feeling that there are more objections to this approach than right hon. and hon. Members have fully identified at this stage. I suspect that we will not put the matter to a vote tonight and we will have further opportunities to debate it, so I wish to do no more at this stage than express tentative doubts.

Simon Hughes: I understand those doubts, but how would the right hon. and learned Gentleman deal with the mischief caused by so much publicity about possible charges which, in many cases, prevents a fair trial?

Mr. Hogg: I agree that that is a problem. Indeed, as the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) said, that is not only a problem in cases of sexual offences, but extends to all criminal cases. I would continue attempts to reach a voluntary agreement. Failing that, I would give serious consideration to enlarging the categories of case in which the Attorney-General may apply for an injunction.

I do not pretend that I have come to a concluded view. I do not know—the outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions did not tell us—how many cases have been voided as a result of pre-trial publicity. I suspect that the number is relatively small, partly because of the long gap between charges being laid and trial, which the hon. Gentleman himself mentioned. I have tried abuse of trial arguments in cases that have received pre-trial publicity. I have managed to have the venue of trials changed. But I cannot recall having a case voided as a result. It happens less often than we fear, but I accept that it may happen.

The injunction process may be the right approach to address the issue, but that may be more suitable for debate on another day. I am cautious about the approach recommended by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, but I am sure that he is right to identify it as an issue to be addressed.

Vera Baird: This issue was discussed extensively in Committee and few new matters have been raised, so I shall direct my attention to the point made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that the category of sexual offences is as good a place as any to start. In fact, it is a bad place to start. As a lawyer, he will know that one cannot separate sexual offences from their history.

How we attempt to solve this problem is not only of academic interest, because it is not so long ago that we had anonymity for defendants in sexual offence cases only. It lasted for only a short time and was introduced in the teeth of the Heilbron recommendations. It was widely seen as a slight on complainants in sexual offence cases, because it seemed to suggest that they could be so little relied on that the defendant was expected to be acquitted and was therefore given extra protection that no other offence merited. At that time in our history, it was not even an offence for a man to rape his wife, and women rape complainants were considered so unreliable that they had to be corroborated or else there could be no conviction. That history has resonance for women today and we must not revisit it by adopting the hon. Gentleman's proposals.

The issue is not only one of history. The current conviction rate in rape trials is some 5.7 per cent., which is hopeless, especially given that it is generally thought

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that only 10 per cent. of those who are raped complain formally. The conviction rate for the bulk of offending is very low. The police, the Crown Prosecution Service and even judges, to some extent, have done a good deal to try to rectify that. They have tried to give complainants confidence that they will be supported, that every piece of evidence that can be looked for will be looked for, and that there is a real chance of obtaining a conviction when complainants go to court with a true allegation. To what extent will all that effort be undermined if we announce from this Chamber that Parliament thinks that rape complainants are unlikely to get convictions and that defendants should therefore be given a very special protection?

Mr. Andrew Turner: I appreciate that the hon. and learned Lady speaks from experience, but will she address a point that I have not yet heard anyone deal with? There are those whose professional lives depend on their not being faced with such allegations. A head teacher in my constituency appears to have committed suicide after being suspended when an allegation was made by one child. I cannot tell whether that head teacher was guilty—no one will ever know—but there are arguments beyond that which the hon. and learned Lady is making.

Vera Baird: The hon. Gentleman, even if he cites an example that I assume has to do with a sexual offence, simply makes once again the point in favour of the need for an adequate balance of protection for anyone against whom a nasty allegation is made. For example, surely he does not think that Mrs. West did not suffer from bad publicity, or that if, by some strange quirk of fate, she had never been prosecuted, she would not have suffered much assassination of her character when she was freed. The danger that he raises goes across the board and is not confined to sexual offences.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): There is something slightly different about sexual offences. In the case of Mr. and Mrs. West, there were dead bodies and disappeared girls who had to be accounted for. There was extra evidence suggesting that a criminal offence had taken place. In the case to which my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) referred, an allegation was made by a child, perhaps for vexatious reasons. Yet the man involved has died. He may have been guilty; we do not know. There is something different about sex, and the motives involved may be different.

Vera Baird: The hon. Lady made the same point in Committee; I thought it interesting but inconclusive then, and I do now. Is she saying that, because there tends to be physical evidence in some kinds of case and not in others, those cases in which there is not usually any physical evidence should have the protection of anonymity for defendants? She would find that a hard test to apply: the element of evidence differs widely in case after case. Frequently, evidence is available to be looked for and found by the police in child sex allegations and rape allegations. Sometimes, because the police share the tendency to think it unlikely that a conviction will follow, they do not look for that evidence with the vehemence with which they would look for

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evidence in other cases. The new clause would add to that tendency by saying that even we in Parliament do not think it worth their putting a great deal of effort into pursuing such evidence because the conviction rate is so low that we think that people must be protected against its ever being known that they have been charged.

The Minister and his colleagues have sought a voluntary agreement to try to stop leaks and to make it a serious disciplinary offence for police officers in particular to be involved with leaks. That is the right—indeed, the only—way to proceed.

Paul Goggins: We have had an excellent debate, as we did in Committee. I had spotted the technical point made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), and I am glad that it did not prevent our being able to debate such an important matter. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) said, it involves the public interest, and it is right that the House should debate that.

This issue takes us to the heart of the balance between living in an open and free society and the need to protect individuals. Some, of course, would argue that anonymity should be provided throughout the whole judicial process. As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield pointed out, that idea was built into an amendment that we rejected in Committee. There is considerable evidence to show that benefits come from openness after a charge has been made, and I am pleased that debate on the issue seems now to focus on the pre-charge period of the process. That is a step forward, because it means that we share some common ground. In most cases, individuals should be able to expect anonymity up to the point of charge. There are exceptions to that rule, such as serious cases in which the police may need to warn the public that a particularly dangerous person is on the loose so that people may be on the lookout. We all know that people who are wrongly accused—people who are merely under investigation—can lose a great deal in terms of their standing and reputation, in their jobs and in their own personal feelings and self-confidence. Given that there is some common ground between us, the central question is whether we take the legislative route or continue to pursue self-regulation.

We, as legislators, and the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, as the mover of new clause 4, must deal with another question: why anonymity should relate only to sexual offences. Clearly, other serious offences would not be covered, including murder, serious fraud or even the case of a sex offender who was accused of grievous bodily harm as well as rape. Anonymity cannot relate automatically to sexual offending; that would be a very dangerous move.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made it clear on Second Reading that we were determined to continue towards self-regulation rather than taking the legislative route. We adhered to that position in Committee, and we adhere to it today. Ministers and officials have been in discussion with the police and the media about their respective systems of self-regulation in this area. Guidelines from the Association of Chief Police Officers already make it clear that information

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that is in the hands of the police is confidential. It is not to be used for personal benefit or given to third parties. It is absolutely implicit in the guidelines that fairness and impartiality are essential in all dealings with the public.

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