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"helps ensure that trials are properly conducted",
"puts pressure on witnesses to tell the truth",
"can result in new witnesses coming forward",
which is an important point made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South. It also
"provides public scrutiny of the trial process",
which is also an important factor, and
"maintains public confidence in the administration of justice".
I am a big believer that the more information the public knows the better. Finally and crucially, it
"reduces the likelihood of inaccurate and uninformed comment about proceedings".
That final point is one of the most crucial. Following a high-profile case, no matter what laws the House decides to pass, we cannot prevent people from speculating on what has happened, on who was involved, on who might be guilty or on who they think it is. I am sure it happens in many households around the country following a crime; I am sure that every household has its resident Inspector Clouseau listing who they think is guilty-"It must be somebody they knew," "It's probably a relative," and all that kind of thing. That is not going to stop, no matter how many laws we pass.
Mr Buckland: I am pondering whether my hon. Friend meant Clouseau or Poirot-but it does not matter. He is right to mention open justice, but I think that the document from which he takes those important points was a Judicial Studies Board document on reporting restrictions in the criminal courts and relates only to proceedings in court. However, the Bill deals with the period between arrest and charge. It is a stage before that and is a different issue.
Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. However, my point is that these principles are just as important at this stage of the process as they are at the court stage. I personally do not see any great distinction; I do not see why these principles should not apply at this stage too.
It is inevitable that this sort of frenzy will follow a high-profile case. However, it can be more damaging for certain individuals to be the victim of rumour and innuendo in their local community based on no facts whatsoever; and it can be more damaging to have their character unfairly vilified because nobody actually knows what is going on. A simple factual statement by the police in the media stating that a certain individual has been arrested might not be liked by the particular individual, but it might come as a great relief to the lots of other people in the local community suffering from smear and innuendo-"Was it them who was arrested?", "Have they been arrested?", "Why haven't they been arrested?" and so on. In more cases than not, the media help rather than hinder the progression of cases. The fact that the media can put information in the public domain does more benefit than harm.
As a matter of principle, I do not think that people who have been arrested by the police or other authorities should be anonymous. That is a vital principle of open justice. As I said, it is also in the interest of the arrested person. That principle has been gained over many years. The opposite principle is much more likely to be seen in a totalitarian regime, where people are taken from the streets, arrested and never seen again, without anybody ever knowing what had happened to them in the first place. I do not want to see the worst aspects of that kind of regime introduced in this country.
That principle is particularly important at a time of high interest in crime and fear of crime. I cannot speak for my hon. Friends, but whenever I do surveys across my constituency and I ask people what their biggest concerns are, whatever else happens to be in the news, the fear of crime tends to be at the top of the list. Against that backdrop, it would be extraordinary for the public not to have a right to know who might have been arrested for certain crimes in their area. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South said, the naming of suspects can also enable further evidence to be gathered to help the administration of justice, by encouraging people to bring it forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe made the perfectly fair point that her Bill would allow people to appeal to a court to provide for an exception to the reporting restrictions. I certainly welcome a step in that direction, and some people may well be satisfied with that safeguard, but I do not see how it will work in practice. The Government have just gone through a process of closing down a number of courts around the country. The capacity of our courts system will be less than it is currently. At a time when we are closing courts down, I do not see why we would want to introduce legislation that would only have the effect of clogging up the courts, as individuals, local communities, the police or the media went to court to ask for exceptions to the reporting restrictions.
My hon. Friend might have mentioned this when I was not here-I apologise profusely for missing the first part of her speech-but I did not hear her say how many extra cases she thought would be heard by the courts, as people applied for exceptions to the reporting restrictions. I do not know whether she or the Government have made any such assessment, but if the Minister has done so, it would be particularly interesting to know what his assessment is, because I fear the courts being clogged up with people asking for reporting restrictions to be lifted. Such applications may or may not be granted. However, if very many applications were granted, that would indicate that the law is an ass and it would need to be changed anyway, and if not very many were granted, I would argue that that would amount to an unfair restriction on the public's right to know and the media's freedom of speech.
It would also be interesting to know what the possible costs of running such cases. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) said that newspapers could go and represent themselves, and that there would not be a great legal bill at the end of such cases. However, I am slightly cynical about these things, because whatever happens, there always tends to be a big legal bill at the end of such cases. However, even if there is no great bill to the newspaper, there will be a cost to the Government of cases being heard in court and the courts system being clogged up. I would be interested to know what that cost would be, who would meet it and whether anyone applying for an exemption to the restrictions would be expected to contribute. If they were expected to contribute, it is quite extraordinary to imagine that people would put themselves forward for such cost on a regular basis, especially given what we have heard about the dire financial straits of many newspaper groups, and particularly of local newspapers. Therefore, even though there is a safeguard, in practice I do not see how it would be fashioned.
Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a good point. Does he share my concern that if someone is arrested and they wish for their identity to be revealed, we would be interposing an enormous bureaucratic burden on them before it can be revealed?
Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not know whether it is envisaged that reporting restrictions would be lifted in most cases. If so, would it not be more sensible to have a legal framework in which there is a presumption that everything could be published and in which people could apply for their details not to be published in exceptional circumstances? That would be a more sensible way forward than doing it the other way round. The proportions in the Bill are the wrong way round. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe might be right to say that some cases have particular issues, but it is those cases that should be treated as the exception, rather than the vast majority that take place without incident. The Minister will know the figures better than I do, but let us think about the number of people who are arrested in this country every year. How many of them give rise to concern? It seems completely disproportionate to make a presumption that reporting restrictions should apply in all cases and that people would need to apply for an exemption. All the evidence suggests that it should be the other way round.
Mr Buckland: My hon. Friend is making some very fair points in his practical analysis of the matter. Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), may I suggest that the Bill could be amended to allow for the arrested person to give their consent to the release of their details? They could sign a consent form or give their consent through a solicitor at the police station for the publication of their name in the newspapers or on the internet. That would be a practical solution.
Philip Davies: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestion. That would certainly make the Bill better than it is now, but I am not entirely sure that it would totally address my concerns. I shall certainly take his intervention in the spirit in which it was intended, however, because his suggestion would be a helpful step in the right direction.
I want to talk about the effect that a blanket restriction would have on local papers. National papers cover all sorts of gossip and showbiz, but local papers are all about providing information on issues of massive importance in the local area. If a massive event had taken place in an area, attracting a great deal of local interest, the local paper would be at a huge disadvantage, compared with the websites that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) mentioned, if it could not publish all the information that the public needed. Such a restriction would certainly not prevent all the rumour and innuendo from being published on the internet, perhaps on websites in other countries and all sorts of different backdrops. It would put local papers at a huge disadvantage if people in the local community could not find information in the paper that was readily available from other sources.
Not being able to name an arrested person would place a huge restriction on anything being reported about a case, because there could be a danger of
inadvertently identifying the person by publishing other information. There could therefore be a danger of not reporting crimes that people ought to know about, and that would previously have attracted huge media interest. Such restrictions could have a "chilling" effect on local newspapers. They might not actually fall foul of the provisions in the Bill, but their fear of so doing could have a "chilling" effect that would prevent genuine informative reporting from taking place. That could force local communities to get their information from other sources. It would be incredibly sad if we were inadvertently to put another nail into the coffin of local newspapers, but I fear that that could happen.
I again commend to the House the Select Committee's report on press standards, privacy and libel, and our other report on the future of local media, which will give hon. Members a feel for the dire straits that many of the regional and local media are now in. We should be very wary of doing anything that could have a negative impact on them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North made an important point about the rules applying only to England and Wales and the effect on media in other countries, especially in the United Kingdom, and I am not sure whether his exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe on the matter was resolved satisfactorily. How would reports in newspapers in Scotland and Scottish editions be tied in? As the laws apply only to England and Wales, The Scotsman might feel emboldened to print the name of somebody who had been arrested for a high-profile crime in England that was newsworthy in Scotland. That would be an extraordinary situation, given that we live in the United Kingdom.
The fact that many Scottish editions of papers are sold in England is an added complication. The Scotsman is also sold in London, as many people here want to buy it. Is the market for which that paper was intended the key factor? Would the law be breached by a newspaper that was intended for a Scottish market but that had somehow found its way into England? Would there be a due diligence defence? The Bill is unclear on that. We might end up with a strange anomaly whereby information that people are not allowed to know in England is available through print or broadcast media in Scotland. There is neither rhyme nor reason to such circulation being legitimate in Scotland, but not in England.
Anna Soubry: The Contempt of Court Act prohibits any publication that could prejudice a fair trial in current court proceedings. Therefore, the press in Scotland do not print anything that could fall foul of that Act, as the publication concerned might be sold or made available in England and Wales. With great respect to my hon. Friend, he is putting a complete red herring into the pond.
Philip Davies: The hon. Lady seems to be arguing for the Government to change the Contempt of Court Act. If so, she should say that. I do not know whether the Minister would be receptive. However, we are discussing not that, but whether to introduce a new piece of legislation, which is entitled to be seen in isolation. She might know how matters will be interpreted by the courts, in which case she is in a better position than I am: I never cease to be amazed by how the courts interpret certain pieces of legislation.
Mr Chope: Does my hon. Friend know whether the Contempt of Court Act applies throughout the United Kingdom? Even if it does, Scotland has a different system, whereby the Advocate-General for Scotland is responsible for enforcing the Act there, and the Attorney-General is responsible for enforcing the Act here. There is already that distinction.
Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is right. There is the added complication that the law might be applied differently depending on the characters of the individuals who happen to hold the positions, so there is scope for tension.
Mr Nuttall: Regardless of the outcome of the debate on the extent of the Contempt of Court Act, one thing of which we can all be sure is that it does not apply to Australia, for example. The Australian, which is on sale in newsagents in London, could easily publish the kind of information under discussion.
Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One need only visit any newsstand in London to see a huge number of foreign newspapers being sold. Because they are being sold in this country, those editions might well be covered by the Bill-
Philip Davies: But it is a question of how effectively that would be enforced. I do not know whether a claim that the paper that had been caught out had been intended for a foreign audience might serve as a "due diligence" defence. It is impossible to know that at this stage.
Mr Buckland: I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) that the Contempt of Court Act does apply in Scotland: it contains provisions dealing with penalties relating to offences in that country. It is important to note that it has that cross-jurisdictional application.
Philip Davies: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. The Bill, of course, does not have that benefit, as it applies only to England and Wales.
As the vast majority of newspapers throughout the United Kingdom have signed up to the code of practice of the Press Complaints Commission, there is bound to be some uniformity in their behaviour, whether they happen to be in England, Scotland or Wales. There is no way that the press would sign up to the provisions in the Bill as part of their code of conduct, and the Scottish papers would therefore feel no need to observe those provisions. I still feel that there is a potential for anomalies. Indeed, such anomalies already appear frequently in the newspapers.
Barely a week goes by without the appearance of some salacious story about a celebrity-a footballer, a broadcaster or some wealthy individual-who has issued an injunction with the aim of preventing the publication of information that has been passed to the newspapers. More often than not, after a few days the identity of the person concerned comes to public recognition through the internet. The story is published in a foreign country, and then turns up in chat rooms and rumour mills.
I do not know a great deal about websites of that kind, being a fully paid-up member of the Luddites, but what I do know is that, by one means or another, the names of such individuals tend to come to the surface at some point. It has always struck me as extraordinary that when everyone in the pub-virtually everyone everywhere-knows the identity of some individual who is involved in one thing or another, the only place where no one can discover it is the newspaper, because of some bizarre injunction.
Anna Soubry: I struggle to believe that the hon. Gentleman can believe-and I am sure that he will correct me-that the coverage that we saw in the media of events in Bristol in relation to that first arrested man was right.
Philip Davies: My hon. Friend made a very good point about the case in Bristol. As I said at the beginning of my speech, I am not claiming-and I do not believe that anyone is claiming-that the media are without flaw, and never make mistakes. The media have made some horrendous mistakes, as they themselves will accept. We need only consider the case of Madeleine McCann. The press made some horrific mistakes in their reporting of that case, and I think that they would be the first to acknowledge it.
No matter how hard my hon. Friend tries, we will never have a system in which the media are perfect, and everything that is reported is accurate and for the public good. There will always be instances in which the media make mistakes, and we make mistakes. We all make mistakes in life. The only people who do not make any mistakes in life are those who do not make any decisions. Anyone who makes decisions makes mistakes, and the press are just as liable to make them as the next person-as are politicians, I might add. The thrust of my argument is about the bigger picture: a free and open press and an open justice system are far more worth while than attempts to try to restrict them, no matter how good the motives behind that restriction.
Mr Chope: Does the problem not stem from the fact that the Bill is premised on a number of hard cases? We know from our experience in the House that if we begin to legislate for those hard cases we are likely to make bad law. As the phrase goes, hard cases make bad law.
Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is entirely right. There are a number of examples of people being appalled by an event in a certain part of the country. We have rushed to do something about it with a general feeling of "Something has happened; the Government must do something about it." As a result, we have introduced laws that, with hindsight, were rushed and, from a wider perspective, did not serve any particular good. The thing that those cases have in common is that they are all well intentioned and are all based on highlighting a real or perceived problem that matters to many people.
I return to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe has hit on something about which many people are concerned, and which they regard as a problem. I therefore commend her on opening the debate. We are all interested to hear the Minister's reply, so I do not intend to detain the House any longer. Whatever the merits of my hon. Friend's argument and the problems that are out there, whether perceived or real, we should tread very carefully indeed, because we
restrict the freedom of the press and the information that we give the public at our peril. I hope that the Minister will show caution in his response to the Bill, and it would be far better if my hon. Friend went back to the drawing board and returned with something much more limited in scope that might be more acceptable to all concerned.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): I shall begin with the usual courtesy of congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) on her success in the ballot and on introducing a proposal that has produced an interesting and thought-provoking debate. I applaud in particular her commitment to this issue, which is founded on a depth of relevant experience and genuine concern about the damage that inappropriate or excessive media coverage can do under certain circumstances. Very few hon. Members have her combination of qualifications and experience to address the issue with such authority, so it is not surprising that her success in the ballot should result in her introducing this Bill.
Before I come to the substance of the Government's position, I shall reflect on the debate. We heard an admirably concise contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who made clear his support for the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) made his usual learned contribution on the law in this area, and made an excellent contribution to our debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) is no longer in the Chamber, but he made it clear that the subject ought to receive consideration. Indeed, it received such consideration from my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), who made what I understand is his usual contribution to the examination of matters on a Friday.
The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), made clear his concern about the Bill. On reflection, he may reconsider the wisdom of taking interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe in future. We saw the first part of his argument exploded because of his misunderstanding of the Worboys case. Rather unwisely, he decided to take a another intervention on the point that he was making about the role of a bereaved family in an active case and the possibility of them having direct influence on the issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe delivered a one-two to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that I do not provoke her too much in the course of my remarks, or ever find myself on the wrong end of a cross-examination by her if she returns to being a barrister.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) made an admirably liberal contribution-wholly commendable though, from my point of view, marginally unexpected, and with admirable regard for the need to respect the fiscal position of the Government and the taxpayers' interest. He, like the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, made clear the attachment to the principle of open justice. I noted the attachment of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley to full transparency, public knowledge and the need to avoid
"inaccurate and uninformed comment about proceedings."
As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe explained, her Bill aims to protect members of the public from media reporting where they have been arrested but not charged with an offence. This proposal responds to public concern about an issue highlighted in a recent high profile case. Clearly, the Bill touches on a controversial area of law and policy, with potentially wide implications for the way in which our press, our courts and our wider justice system work. It is the sort of area that, I am sure Members will agree, needs to be approached with some caution, forethought and careful deliberation.
With that in mind, I want to respond to my hon. Friend's proposals in a thorough and structured way. I will look first at the current legal position, which is more complicated and detailed than is sometimes realised. I will examine in more depth previous proposals to change the law, which are highly relevant to the Bill. These include previous measures explored by the coalition to address the vexed issue of anonymity in rape cases. I will then turn to the substance of the matter-the general issues raised by the Bill, and its evidence base. In conclusion I will say a little about its detailed contents and make the Government's position clear.
Let me say now that we do not at this time think that we can support a statutory prohibition on the reporting of arrests pre-charge, but I will go on to say what measures we will be taking, and I hope that they will provide my hon. Friend and her supporters with a degree of comfort.
Under the present law, the media are broadly free to report the identity of suspects at all stages of the criminal process-when they are under investigation, when they are arrested, and when they are charged. The media are free also to report criminal trials, subject to a range of statutory and common law reporting restrictions, which are designed to protect the integrity of criminal proceedings. There are protections in the law to try to stop individuals being pilloried in the press, including libel provisions and, where comment may be prejudicial to any future proceedings, contempt.
Taken together, these arrangements reflect our long and proud common law tradition of open justice and article 6 of the European convention on human rights, which guarantees the open justice principle. In its words, in
"the determination of his civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law. Judgement shall be pronounced publicly".
However, article 6 permits exceptions to the general rule of open reporting, as follows:
"the press and public may be excluded from all or part of the trial in the interest of morals, public order or national security in a democratic society, where the interests of juveniles or the protection of the private life of the parties so require, or the extent strictly necessary in the opinion of the court in special circumstances where publicity would prejudice the interests of justice".
It has long been the statutory position under our law in cases involving national security, for example, that the judge has the power to exclude the public and media from the courtroom during the trial.
There have been a number of proposals for changing the law in modern times, and this is one of those areas of recurring interest to Parliament. The real starting point was section 6 of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976, which granted anonymity to defendants in rape cases. Of course, that measure applied only after
charge, whereas the present Bill would grant anonymity between arrest and charge. The 1976 Act does, however, usefully flag up at the outset the fact that different options are available where the timing of the anonymity is concerned, and I will return to that subject later.
The 1976 Act's provisions were duly repealed in 1988 and one has to jump forward 11 years, to 1999, for the next important developments. In that year the previous Administration enacted the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, section 44 of which imposed anonymity at the pre-charge stage to persons under 18 years old who are involved in criminal investigations, including suspects. Thus, the 1999 Act provides a statutory precedent to the measures in the Bill-a precedent expressly limited to children and young persons-but it is also important to understand that this legislation has never been brought into force.
It was also in 1999 that I introduced the Sexual Offences (Anonymity of Defendants) Bill. As I reminded the House last summer, I have some form in this area. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe referred to it, but in the context of the debate about rape anonymity, and as I will come to reflect on, we have proposals that achieve the objective that I set out in the Education Bill that is before the House. The purpose of my Bill was to protect teachers from the consequences of accusations by children who have anonymity, and from the subsequent reporting of such allegations. As some hon. Members may recall, my Bill was prompted by the suicide of a constituent, Nick Drewett, a teacher who took his own life after being accused of behaving improperly with pupils in his care. This was a tragic example of the cost of unfounded allegations. The headmaster who was accused alongside him was subsequently acquitted. My experience here is one reason I am delighted that the coalition is bringing forward legislation to deal with the problem of false allegations against teachers.
The subject was then debated in great depth during the passage of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Even before those debates developed, the Home Affairs Committee had recommended granting pre-charge anonymity to suspects in sexual offence cases. It will be noted that on this occasion the anonymity would have dealt with a narrow class of offences where there was thought to be particular difficulty-namely, sexual offences-and would not have applied to all criminal offences as the present Bill does.
The subject was debated in very great depth in this House and in the other place during the passage of the Act. As I hope some hon. Members will recall, matters began on that occasion when the Cross Bencher, Lord Ackner, the late former Law Lord, tabled an amendment to the Sexual Offences Bill in the other place. Lord Ackner's view was that defendant anonymity in rape cases had worked well between 1976 and 1988. He had, as he said,
"heard nothing to suggest that during those 12 years there were occasions when it worked to the disadvantage of justice. I have not limited my request to pre-trial because pre-trial is only part of the issue."-[ Official Report, House of Lords, 2 June 2003; Vol. 648, c. 1095.]
The anonymity proposed by Lord Ackner would, in terms of his amendment, have been the same as that enjoyed by the complainant. It would therefore have
applied from the point of the allegation for life, unless of course the defendant was convicted.
There was then, as I say, considerable debate in both Houses, not least about the point at which the anonymity should apply, pre or post-charge. The Government of the day accepted the desirability of pre-charge anonymity in sexual offence cases in principle, but preferred a non-legislative solution. Concerns raised during the passage of the Bill about media reporting in certain cases did not lead to a substantive change to the editors' code of practice, which continues to contain no steer against pre-charge reporting of the identity of those suspected but not charged. The media's guidelines accordingly differ somewhat from the approach taken in the guidance from the Association of Chief Police Officers, which makes it clear that police officers should not normally disclose the identity of suspects under investigation. That remains the position today. There has been some development in that guidance. ACPO's media advisory group produced clear guidance and advice in December 2000 and in 2002, paragraph 1.1 of which states:
"Generally people under investigation should not be named but they can and will, with certain exceptions, be identified once they have been charged. This approach balances the principle of open justice with the rights of the individual to privacy, a fair trial and damage to the reputation of an individual if no charge is made against them".
ACPO, in conjunction with the media, has produced an updated statement on the position today. It does not contain that paragraph, but that is because it is really a statement of what the position is. I have been careful to take advice and want to make it clear that the guidance to police remains exactly as it was in 2000 and 2002.
Most recently, our coalition programme for government contained two commitments on anonymity: first, to extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants; and, secondly, to give anonymity to teachers accused by pupils and to take other measures to protect against false allegations. The first was of course the subject of much debate inside and outside the House, and the question of the timing of anonymity in criminal cases again came to the forefront, as did the kinds of offences to which anonymity might apply.
Very properly, the examination in Parliament of our coalition agreement proposal helped to trigger a careful re-examination of the evidence base for the proposition set out in the election programmes of both coalition parties, and the role of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe in that debate was not insignificant, as was made clear in her excellent speech of 8 July. It was a very good debate, showing the House at its best. Using the resources of the excellent team of analysts in the Ministry of Justice, we reached the conclusion, which I announced to Parliament on 12 November, that the evidence base was not strong enough for the Government to proceed with the proposals.
However, our commitment to giving anonymity to teachers is being taken forward in the Education Bill, which I hope Members on both sides of the House will welcome. On that subject, we have said:
"We will give teachers the strongest possible protection from false accusations. We will give anonymity to teachers facing accusations from pupils. This Government want to put an end to rumours and malicious gossip about innocent teachers which can ruin careers and even lives."-[ Official Report, 7 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 12WS.]
In the case of the Education Bill, the anonymity will apply from the point of allegation to the point of charge, so again there is a difference from what my hon. Friend's Bill proposes. The anonymity set out in the Education Bill applies to only a limited range of offences that are particularly likely to attract false allegations against teachers. Again, that represents quite a difference from my hon. Friend's Bill.
Having summarised the somewhat convoluted background, I believe that it casts important light on the Bill in a number of areas. First, there is the question of the evidence base. Some people will no doubt argue that recent events, about which I will make no specific comment, prove that there is a case for replacing media self-regulation in this area with a statutory prohibition, such as that set out in the Bill. My hon. Friend herself has been quoted in the press as saying that
"since the media don't seem able to regulate themselves, Parliament should do something about it",
which puts the point with commendable directness.
I urge a degree of caution. The Government only recently withdrew our commitment set out in the coalition programme to grant anonymity in rape cases to defendants, having discovered on closer examination that there was insufficient evidence either for or against the proposal. That ought to alert us to the sensitivities of intervening in this area. We need to be a little wary of assuming that individual hard cases, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) said, however hard or egregious they might seem, constitute evidence of a widespread or pressing social problem sufficient to justify interference with long-standing freedoms.
This country has a long and proud tradition of media independence, an important part of which is self-regulation. It is not impossible to question how effectively that self-regulation is operating, but we should not interfere with it lightly. Any interventions on the subject need significant reflection and widespread consultation, and they should proceed as far as possible on the basis of consensus.
Secondly, it is noticeable that, compared with previous initiatives, the Bill imposes anonymity on an all-crime basis, applying to all criminal offences alike, including purely summary offences. That represents a departure from the view, evident in previous proposals, that anonymity may be justified only to address specific difficulties-for example, where particular kinds of offence are concerned.
Thirdly, on timing, the Bill applies the anonymity from the point of arrest to the point of charge only. That interesting approach has received little if any attention in the past, and I shall reflect on the detailed contents of the Bill by looking more closely at the issue of timing.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe has explained, the Bill's intention is to impose a general restriction on reporting from the point of arrest to the point of charge. The choice of the point of arrest as the starting point for anonymity means that a person who attends the police voluntarily for interview will not be subject to reporting restrictions, whereas there will be a media blackout for a suspect who is arrested. At first sight, the comparison is a little worrying, and it certainly prompts further thought.
Perhaps more importantly, as I have noted, the Bill prohibits the reporting of any arrested person's identity, whatever the offence, without a court order. That is
perhaps the greatest question raised by the Bill's contents: whether there should be a prohibition on purely factual reporting merely by virtue of the fact that it concerns an arrest. There is clearly an argument that, in some cases at least, the media should have the right to report the facts unless there is a court order to the contrary. Again, we would like to reflect further and deliberate fully ahead of taking action on a clear issue of general principle.
I commend my hon. Friend for the safeguards that she has incorporated in her Bill. Clause 2 enables the restrictions to be waived either by the court itself or on an application by the person who has been arrested, the police, a prosecutor or any other person with a sufficient interest, which we take to include the media. That helps to address the admirable liberal arguments that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) advanced in an intervention concerning potential police access. I am looking to see whether he is in his place, but he is not, which is a shame, because I have one or two things to say about another of his interventions, in that case on our hon. Friend the Member for Bury North, which was not quite as helpful or as accurate.
Reflecting on the determination of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley to avoid inaccurate or uninformed comment about proceedings, I want to put on the record the fact that his statement about the Government being in the business of releasing prisoners before they have ended their sentence is wholly and woefully inaccurate. He has misunderstood the admirable speech in June by my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, who made clear the inefficacy of short sentences in rehabilitating offenders. It led to the conclusion that we would not have short sentences at all and all those people would otherwise be released. That is wholly and woefully wide of the mark.
If one is going to try to avoid-in some circumstances-short sentences, one is going to be taken in two directions. One will need more effective community punishment, with more public confidence in the idea that people can be punished effectively and rehabilitated more effectively in the community; but at the same time one might need longer sentences, particularly for the sort of people to whom my hon. Friend referred. That does not mean I spend my time in the Ministry of Justice signing Executive release orders to drive the prison population down. That is not the case.
We estimate that by the end of this Parliament the prison population will be 3,000 lower than it is now. I want to make it clear that that is an estimate, not a target. This Government will continue to incarcerate those whom the courts send to prison. I hope that that clarification will serve my hon. Friend well when he reads it in the record, and that we will not hear any more of the inaccurate nonsense suggesting that our proposals on offender management-
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. I have given the Minister a bit of latitude, but could he now get back to the Bill?
Mr Blunt: I am extremely grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker. Given that our policy is so widely misrepresented, I intend to take every opportunity to make it clear what our actual policy is until not only am I bored rigid by it, but so is everybody else.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley expressed concern about the cost to the courts and the Prison Service of all the people who would be arrested and locked up under the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe. I am happy to say that that is not one of the Government's objections. However, these are very difficult times economically, and we would want to consider carefully the practical implications of the application procedure and whether the Crown court or the magistrates court would be the appropriate venue.
The criteria for lifting the restrictions on a case-by-case basis, as set out in clause 2, are very broadly drawn. They would enable the restrictions to be lifted on human rights grounds, in the interests of justice, or in the public interest. The fact that the exceptions to the reporting restriction are so broadly drawn highlights once again the central question of principle-that of whether the default position of a prohibition on factual reporting is the right one. Again, we would like to reflect further on that.
Turning to the territorial extent of the provisions, the Bill would apply to England and Wales only. This point was made by my hon. Friends the Member for Bury North and for Carshalton and Wallington. The more usual position is for legislation imposing reporting restrictions to apply on a UK-wide basis. It is a question of enforceability, as we heard repeatedly during the debate, and also of policy consistency between the three jurisdictions.
Clause 3 raises the interesting question of consent. It would require the Director of Public Prosecutions, the director of the Serious Fraud Office or the director of Revenue and Customs Prosecutions to give their consent before anybody could be charged with an offence under the Bill. Other legislation gives the power to consent to certain highly sensitive prosecutions to the Attorney-General, and the coalition would need to take its own view on which the appropriate consenting authority should be.
In summary, I warmly welcome the debate that this Bill has prompted on a matter about which I recognise there has been recent public concern. However, I think that Members will not be surprised to hear my overall conclusion. Largely for the reasons I have set out, I regret that the Government are unable to lend the Bill their support. This is, in part, a matter of the detail of the proposals, be it on timing or on the precise nature of the safeguards. More substantively, it prompts the question of whether the use of legislative solutions is the right answer or whether more proportionate approaches are available.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe shares my concerns about the quantity of legislation that has been passed here in the past 13 years. There have been 21 criminal justice Acts of one sort or another in that period. Of all the people in this House, my hon. Friend, as a former practising criminal barrister, will have been the victim of all the changes imposed on the law and will have kept up to date with it. I am sure that she would wish it had been otherwise.
The question was posed as to how many thousands of new criminal offences have been created in the past 13 years. I fear I must tell the House that there have
been so many thousand new criminal offences coming from so many different Government Departments of one sort or another that it is difficult to get a wholly and reliably accurate answer about the exact number that have been put on to the statute book. It is tricky getting it to the nearest one or two when there are so many thousands, particularly as they come from all sorts of different legislation brought to Parliament by several different Departments. I am reminded of St Bernard's maxim, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." Perhaps another relevant aphorism is, "Legislate in haste, repeal at leisure."
Although I thank my hon. Friend for airing these issues, we cannot support them today. What is at stake is the balance between competing interests and we need to get that right. I support the idea that we need to avoid unfounded slurs and speculation damaging the lives of innocent people. Punishments before and without trial are wrong. Equally, the media have raised the prospect of a world of
"secret arrests and anonymised justice".
That is not where we would like to end up either.
What I can say, which I hope will offer a degree of reassurance to my hon. Friend, is that the Government do not intend to ignore the issues she has raised. We intend to consider whether the laws on contempt and pre-charge reporting contain gaps that may impede justice. I note the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Bury North and for South Swindon on the operation of the Contempt of Court Act. The laws on contempt and pre-charge reporting merit further consideration because of the complexity of the regulation in this area and the interests that need to be balanced carefully. This debate is important enough to deserve clarity, not confusion. That may take some time. I know that there are strong views on all sides of this debate and I look forward to debating it further in due course, having had the benefit of further consideration by the Attorney-General.
Anna Soubry: I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, even those who could not support the Bill.
I want to make it clear that the Bill was not born of the events in Bristol. It received its First Reading last summer. It was born of the debate on the anonymity of people accused of rape. I have heard all the arguments today, and I am not afraid to say when something does not fit the situation or circumstances. I accept that there are flaws in the Bill and that it therefore does not address the problem, which has been so accurately identified by Government and Opposition Members.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) and, obviously, to the Minister. It is clear from the debate that we want to ensure that what happened in Bristol does not happen again. I am happy to hear about the review of the Contempt of Court Act that the Government will undertake, and about the thoughts and feelings of the Attorney-General on this matter, which I know he takes seriously.
I want to make it quite clear that we are not proposing a formal review. The Attorney-General will examine this area and we will see what the fruits of
that examination are. I am not undertaking to the House that there will be a formal process. I am quite sure that my hon. Friend shares my confidence that the matters will be considered properly by the Attorney-General.
Anna Soubry: I am exceptionally grateful to the Minister for making that clear. In the circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am grateful for the opportunity to present the Coinage (Measurement) Bill to the House. Hon. Members may not be aware that coins have a special resonance for my constituency of Milton Keynes North. Despite being a very modern city, Milton Keynes is an area of rich historical findings that span a timeline of approximately 4,000 years. Indeed, it was near Milton Keynes that possibly the oldest known gold coin in Britain, a gold stater from the second century BC, was discovered. Numerous discoveries of iron age, bronze age and Roman coins have been made in Milton Keynes and the surrounding area. It is exactly that sort of historical legacy that the Bill is intended to address.
My two-clause Bill would make a minor technical amendment to the Coinage Act 1971, which governs the striking of coins by the Royal Mint and contains various standards in respect of weight, fineness, composition and dimensions that coins struck by the Royal Mint must comply with. It also makes provision for permitted variations from those standards. Section 1(6) requires that the variation from the standard weight of any coin
"be measured as the average of a sample of not more than one kilogram of that coin."
That is perfectly fit for the purpose for which it was originally conceived. The current weights of UK circulating coins range from the 5p coin at 3.25 grams to the £2 coin at 12 grams, so a sample of a kilogram would contain 307 5p coins or 83 £2 coins, an ample number to fulfil the requirement to measure average weight. Having seen the Royal Mint's impressive production line in action on Monday, with presses that typically strike about 750 coins a minute with less than 0.08 mm variance in diameter and less than 0.238 grams variance in weight, I know that a sample of kilogram is therefore a perfectly reasonable measure of the tolerated variation from the standard weight. It was not until 1992, 21 years after the Coinage Act was introduced, that the first 1 kg coin was minted.
Members may well be interested to know what the environmental impact of minting coins is. All the Royal Mint's operations are conducted under an environmental management system certified to ISO 14001, the internationally recognised standard for the environmental management of businesses. It prescribes controls for activities that have an effect on the environment, including the use of natural resources, the handling and treatment of waste, and energy consumption. Furthermore, in June last year the Royal Mint became the first mint in the world, and the largest UK manufacturer, to achieve SA 8000 accreditation, the international standard for socially responsible businesses.
Circulating coins is just one part of the Royal Mint's business, and as with all good businesses, it is constantly seeking to evolve, expand and explore new technologies and commercial opportunities. I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury in her place. As the Minister responsible for the Royal Mint and coinage policy, no doubt she will be able to elaborate on recent developments in the Royal Mint's commemorative
coin activities. From its 2009-10 annual report, I see that the commemorative coin division had a turnover of £89 million in that year, with an operating profit of some £5 million. That was due in part to the commencement of the London 2012 Olympic coin programme, with the 2009 £5 countdown silver proof and silver proof piedfort coins selling out.
The full range of 2012 Olympics products is available on the Royal Mail website, but some of the features of the coin programme are the countdown collection, the London 2012 sports collection, the "Celebration of Britain" collection and the "Gold Series: Faster, Higher, Stronger" set. On its current trajectory, and on the assumption that the Bill successfully completes its passage through this House and the other place and the planned kilogram coins are issued, the programme for London 2012 is on course to be the biggest Olympic coin programme to date.
Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): My hon. Friend mentions the motto of the Olympics, "Faster, Higher, Stronger", which I think in Latin is "Citius, Altius, Fortius". Given that we are likely to have the heaviest coin ever circulated in the United Kingdom, would it be sensible to add "Gravius"-heavier-to the motto on the coins?
Mark Lancaster: I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent suggestion, and I think it probably would. Perhaps we should put that suggestion to the International Olympic Committee. I am sure that he would like the Economic Secretary to do that on his behalf, but we will see what she has to say about it.
That brings me to the purpose of the Bill. As part of the Olympic programme, the Royal Mint is keen to strike those kilogram coins that my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) mentions. As I said earlier, the current wording of the Coinage Act would effectively prohibit that. It is not possible to measure the variation from the standard weight in the case of the proposed Olympic coins because the weight of each coin is likely to be equal to or greater than the 1 kg aggregate limit for a sample under section 1.
Clause 1 therefore amends the Coinage Act so that the variation from the standard weight can be specified by royal proclamation, for which section 3 provides. That would grant the flexibility to adjust the size of the sample for the purposes of the section 1(6) weight variation test. I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate that that removes a technical legislative obstacle to the proposed Olympic coins, allows the Royal Mint to continue to develop new and innovative designs and provides exciting opportunities to push coinage boundaries.
Striking kilogram coins has recently become part of the Olympic games tradition. Most host nations in recent years, for example, Australia, Canada and China, issued such coins, and they proved extremely popular with collectors internationally. The Bill would allow the Royal Mint to continue that tradition in commemoration of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games.
The large size means that the kilogram coins will be an exciting, artistic and eye-catching part of the Olympic games. The intention is for them to be significant works
of numismatic art. The Royal Mint will approach high-profile British artists to prepare the designs-that is already under way.
After royal and ministerial approval, a commitment to strike kilogram coins was given to the International Olympic Committee during the United Kingdom's bid to host the 2012 games. If the Bill is not passed, the kilogram coin element of the Olympic coin programme will unfortunately have to be scrapped. The Royal Mint, in consultation with the London Organising Committee, would need to consider an alternative product to fill the gap in the programme. However, none of the alternatives would have anything like the appeal of the 1 kg coin. There is a global expectation that the Royal Mint and the London 2012 Olympic coin programme will follow in the footsteps of London's predecessors.
Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Will my hon. Friend assure the House that none of the coins will be given free to members of the International Olympic Committee, who seem to go in for lots of freebies?
Mark Lancaster: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I would like to think that that would be the case. It is my understanding that the coins will be put up for sale-and sale only.
The Royal Mint wants to ensure that the two commemorative kilogram coins will crown the range of coins. Judging from the reception of similar coins around the world, and after consulting representatives of the coin trade and collectors, the Royal Mint is confident that the UK kilogram coins will be well received-but hopefully not by the IOC.
Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill. Does he agree that the coins, as well as being of interest to collectors around the world, could usefully serve as prizes for different communities, which will try to emulate the Olympic games by hosting, for example, inter-village competitions? A kilogram coin would be a fitting award to the community that triumphed in those sporting contests.
Mark Lancaster: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Indeed, the coins will be for sale, and there is an opportunity for doing what he suggests.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is making a serious case. Has he had any discussions with vending machine manufacturers about whether they would want to use the coin?
Mark Lancaster: There will be coins in the range that vending machine manufacturers may want to use, but I am not sure whether they will want 1 kg coins. That could prove something of a challenge and perhaps rather expensive.
Christopher Pincher: On the design of this coin-or should I say "paperweight"-is my hon. Friend aware of whether the College of Arms will be consulted over the design on the reverse? He might be aware that the college and its former head, Sir Peter Gwynn-Jones, were concerned about the design of the smaller coinage in 2008.
Mark Lancaster: The Royal Mint has an advisory committee made up of a number of distinguished gentlemen and ladies in this field. I am not sure whether the College of Arms was consulted, but I am more than happy to find out and come back to my hon. Friend. We would like to think that the quality of these coins would be something of which the nation can be proud, and hopefully the committee will ensure that that is the case.
The Royal Mint proposes to make its kilogram coin from 22-carat gold and fine silver-so there would be two separate coins. They would be the largest ever UK coins, with a diameter of 10 cm and a face value of £1,000 for gold and £500 for silver. Based on demand from previous Olympic games, we anticipate minting 60 of the gold coins at an estimated cost of about £40,000, and 14,000 silver coins at an estimated cost of £1,250. However, the exact price of the coins will depend on the cost of gold and silver at the time.
Christopher Pincher: Will the coins be solid gold or mixed with baser metals? My hon. Friend might know the story that the first inflationist in our country was King Stephen, who debased the coinage in the 1140s-a rather inglorious path trod by several Governments down the centuries, notably the Attlee, Wilson and the Callaghan Governments. Will we have gold in our coins, or will they be debased?
Mark Lancaster: Having seen the production line for myself, I am confident that they will indeed be 100% gold and 100% silver. I would hate to think that what my hon. Friend describes would happen again, and after my visit I am quite confident that that will not be the case.
It may interest hon. Members to hear that there is a common misconception about the meaning of legal tender. The face value of the coins will be very different from the cost of buying them. The parties involved in a transaction are free to agree the means of payment, whether bank notes, credit card or other payment arrangements. However, in the absence of any such agreement, the creditor is entitled to require payment in legal tender. Conversely, the debtor is entitled to use it. Bank of England bank notes are legal tender in England and Wales, but not in Scotland or Northern Ireland. However, Scottish and Northern Irish bank notes are not legal tender anywhere in the United Kingdom. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) nodding. I am sure that he has suffered from this. Coin is also legal tender throughout the UK, although in most cases only up to certain specific limits.
The Olympic programme would generate royalties for London 2012 and the Exchequer, because the Royal Mint corporate entity is 100% owned by Her Majesty's Treasury. Of course, the royalty payable would depend on sales and the final price of the coins, which will be determined by the price of gold, as I have said. However, as I mentioned, it is expected that demand will be on a similar, if not greater, level to previous Olympics. It is also important to note that the project is self-funding. The coins form just part of a wide range of products the Royal Mint is issuing to commemorate the 2012 Olympics. As Lord Coe, the London 2012 chairman, said in 2009:
"we're thrilled to be working with the Royal Mint to commemorate three years to go. As the excitement builds over the next three years, it is fantastic to know that the Royal Mint will be alongside us, helping the whole country to join in with our celebrations."
It is important to remember that the sporting, cultural and historical significance of London 2012 is not limited to within the M25 boundary. The athletes aspiring to compete under the Great Britain banner come from all over the United Kingdom. I would particularly like to recognise those from my own constituency and its environs: Greg Rutherford, Nathan Robertson, Bobby White, Joey Duck and Mervyn Luckwell are just a few of the Buckinghamshire athletes hoping to take part in the Olympic and Paralympic games in 2012. Furthermore, in recent weeks, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South and I have been to a number of local events organised by Roger Fennemore and his wife, Sally, helping to raise funds for our local athletes and their training for the Olympic programme. I pay tribute to them. I am pleased that Milton Keynes has also been selected as the site of one of the 2012 Olympic training villages, owing to its strategic location and strong infrastructure, offering training for five Olympic and four Paralympic sports. Her Majesty the Queen planted the first tree on the Olympic park-next to the waterways, adjacent to the stadium-a mature willow tree grown in Milton Keynes, the first of more than 300 that will be planted on the stadium site.
Iain Stewart: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the significance of the Olympic games to towns, villages and cities throughout the United Kingdom. As well as supporting the elite athletes who will be competing in the games, an important part of the Olympic legacy will be inspiring young people to take part in sport and to develop their talents. This Bill, in addition to the measures that he has mentioned, will be instrumental in inspiring that new generation.
Mark Lancaster: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The whole programme is excellent, particularly the 50p coins, of which I think there are 29 versions, celebrating each individual sport. One of those coins was designed by a "Blue Peter" viewer, so we have indeed managed to engage the whole country in the programme. That is important if we are to continue to inspire young people to take part in the Olympic programme.
Let us not forget the Paralympic mascot, Mandeville, named after the Buckinghamshire village where the precursor to the Paralympics was born. I would also like to mention Dr William Penny Brookes, the founder of the Wenlock Olympic games, which have been held almost every year since 1850 in the historic town of Much Wenlock, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne). As the House knows, the Wenlock games were the inspiration-here, in England-of the modern Olympic games, which started in 1896 in Athens, after Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a Frenchmen, had witnessed them. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games has recognised Much Wenlock's place in British Olympic history by naming the London 2012 mascot Wenlock. That is an excellent tribute to my hon. Friend's constituency town.
The striking of kilogram coins will not be limited to commemorating the Olympics. Future events of cultural significance and historical anniversaries, as well as sporting occasions, could all be celebrated in that way. The Coinage (Measurement) Bill therefore presents an exciting
opportunity, with far-reaching implications. I am looking forward to a lively debate, but would urge hon. Members to let the Bill pass unopposed to the Committee stage.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) on introducing this Bill. It is perhaps not the most exciting Bill for someone who has succeeded in the highly competitive private Member's Bill ballot, but I appreciate that legislation is needed if we are to keep our promise to the International Olympic Committee and if the Royal Mint is to fulfil its agreement to mint an Olympic coin weighing 1 kg. If he will excuse the pun, the hon. Gentleman has done a sterling job of making the issue seem more exciting than perhaps it is, enthusing those Members who are present about the prospect of purchasing a 1 kg coin. I must confess that I am not entirely convinced that the coin needs to be quite so substantial and weighty. Perhaps he or the Minister could comment on online speculation that the coin will become known as the Boris, on the grounds that it will be overweight and not an awful lot of use. However, it is welcome that the design will be put out to British artists, to see whether we can come up with the best design. I hope that the design meets with rather more public approval than the 2012 Olympics logo did when it was first launched, but we shall see.
In a week in which I, along with many other MPs, have received hundreds of e-mails from constituents determined to save our forests from the Government's sell-off-I have received more than 200, while my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams), has received more than 900 and one of my colleagues in the north-east has received more than 1,200-I would like to think that the complete absence of any e-mails from concerned constituents lobbying me about the Coinage (Measurement) Bill is not a sign of apathy or lack of interest, but a sign of the overwhelming consensus and the warm glow of approval that radiates across the nation when people consider the contents of the Bill and the prospect of being able to purchase a supersized coin, even if it will be beyond the means of most, if not all of my constituents.
I can confirm that we are happy to support the Bill. I do not want to underplay its importance-I have made it quite clear how supportive I am-but the next Bill on the Order Paper deals with illegally logged timber. Bills dealing with that issue have been brought before the House on a number of occasions without proceeding through to their final stages. In the last Parliament, a similar Bill was introduced by my former hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, Andrew Dismore, one of the veterans of private Members' Bills Fridays. In the interest of ensuring that the next Bill gets an airing today, I will draw my remarks to a close and look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD):
Having made a rather facetious intervention on the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), I thought I should make a brief but serious contribution to the
debate as well. I am in favour of his Bill, although, like the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), I am slightly intrigued by the thought process that he must have gone through to arrive at this as his choice of private Member's Bill out of all the subjects that he could have run with.
I want the Olympics to be the event of a generation, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does as well. The coins that he has described will be unique and widely sought after by collectors, and I am sure that they will contribute to making the 2012 Olympics an event to be proud of and one that we will all remember for the rest of our lives. I hope that all hon. Members will allow his Bill a swift passage, so that we can see those coins minted and available in small numbers, if not in a vending machine near you.
Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) on bringing forward the Bill. It might not have generated many e-mails-in fact, I have not received any at all on the subject-but that does not detract from its merit. I rise to support it and I wish it well at the start of its long parliamentary journey.
The eyes of the world will be on the United Kingdom next year as we host the 2012 Olympics. Great as the games will be, however, they will be over in two or three weeks; after all the hype and the years of planning, I am sure that they will pass all too quickly. It is therefore right that we should concentrate as much on the legacy that the games will leave behind as on the games themselves, and a crucial part of the Olympic legacy will be the sale of commemorative coins. If there is one item that people are likely to save and treasure, it is a commemorative coin. I can see such items being left in people's wills as legacies to future generations, perhaps for centuries to come.
We know that the 2009 "Countdown to London 2012" coin collections sold out due to the huge demand for them. On 1 April last year, more than two years before the start of the games, the Royal Mint confirmed that the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic commemorative coins would be the best-selling coins in the history of the Royal Mint. That is testament to the great work that the Royal Mint has done in the build-up to the Olympics. In addition to ensuring that the country is left with a great sporting legacy following the Olympics, it is important to ensure that the games and the legacy provide value for money. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North said, the Royal Mint contributes considerably to the Treasury coffers, and this commemorative coin will add to that revenue.
Among the existing coins available on the Royal Mint website, there is already a "Countdown to London 2012" £5 silver proof coin, available at £65.99-a snip. Also awaiting stock are a gold three-coin set-in a four-coin case, for some reason I do not understand-at £4,499, and a gold proof £5 coin at £1,599. Perhaps Members will be more interested in the 50p coins available at £2.99, which are provided for all 29 individual sports: shooting, taekwondo, table tennis, judo, volleyball, table tennis, handball and so on. Alternatively, if people want to splash out they can get a bumper pack for all 29 sports, plus a free album, for £85.
When the coins were issued, the Royal Mint's director of commemorative coins, Dave Knight, said that they will
"become treasured mementos of the biggest sporting event to happen on UK shores for over half a century and we hope will encourage a new generation of collectors."
I am sure that they will. His view was backed up by an Olympic gold medallist, Rebecca Adlington OBE, who, when launching the "Countdown to 2012" commemorative coins, said that the Olympic games is just around the coiner- [Laughter.] A Freudian slip there. She said:
"The Olympic games is just around the corner and this coin is a great way for the British public to show its support for the sports men and women who are already preparing for this ultimate sporting challenge."
The issuing of gold coins representing the ethos and history of the Olympic movement has been a key part of the build-up to the Olympic games for centuries. To celebrate the 30th Olympiad, the Royal Mint has already begun issuing its gold coin collection, with the distinction of being the only coins to feature the Olympic rings as part of their design. The complete collection will eventually contain nine coins, comprising three separate three-coin sets inspired by the famous Olympic motto, to which we have already heard reference, "Citius, Altius, Fortius"-faster, higher, stronger. The Faster series, inspired by the classical heritage of the Olympic games, presented in a luxurious hardwood walnut case, is already on sale and available. Each of the three coins features a different Roman god, representing and inspired by the classical heritage of the Olympic games. The 1 oz coin features Neptune, god of the sea, who will look after the sport of sailing. The 1/4 oz coin features Diana, goddess of hunting, who will look after the sport of cyclists. The other coin represents Mercury, the god of speed, who will look after the athletes.
I end on one small point of concern about the Bill: the reference to a "kilogram". Although I support the Bill and its intentions, I would much prefer it to refer to 32.1507466 troy ounces, because gold is normally dealt with in troy ounces.
Tom Brake: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that that is precisely why it will be a 1 kg coin?
Mr Nuttall: I do not accept that point. I see no reason why coins could not be minted in troy ounces, as gold bars are. There is no difficulty in selling gold bars.
With that one small point, I commend the Bill to the House and wish it well through the parliamentary process.
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Justine Greening): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster). I think it fair to say that he has definitely had his money's worth, for the Bill has plainly captured the imagination of the House.
In many respects, this is an historic day. Bills relating to coinage do not come along very often, but here we have a private Member's Bill that will change the way in which we can create coinage for our country. It is not complicated, it is not really controversial-except perhaps in the respect cited by my hon. Friend the Member for
Bury North (Mr Nuttall) at the end of his speech-and hopefully it will not lead to division, but will receive universal support from all parties.
British coinage has a rich and colourful past, stretching back beyond the memories of even our most seasoned parliamentarians. The Royal Mint alone is nearly 1,100 years old. Having journeyed from its first home in the Tower of London to Tower Hill, it now resides in Llantrisant in Wales. Equally interesting are the many intricate laws that govern our currency, defining appearance, weight, size and scale. Each of those laws is important in its own right, and each is steeped in tradition dating back many centuries.
King Offa, the King of Mercia who was considered to be the greatest Anglo-Saxon ruler of the 8th century, was responsible for the establishment of a new currency based on the silver penny, which, while undergoing many design changes, was the standard coin of England for many centuries. In 1060 AD, a coin shaped like a clover was minted in England. The user could break off any of the four leaves and use them as separate pieces of currency. Perhaps more worryingly, until 1790 every woman convicted of counterfeiting gold or silver coin of the realm was sentenced to be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution and there
"to be burned with fire till she was dead".
For reasons that have been made clear, protection of the coinage is paramount in the value of a nation's currency. Over the next few days, the Royal Mint will be conducting the Trial of the Pyx, with which Members may not be familiar. It dates back to 1282, and is used to verify that the gold, silver and cupro nickel coins made through the ages meet the required specifications, to guarantee that the Master of the Mint has not been stealing any of the state's precious metals, and-perhaps most relevant to our modern times-to ensure that Britain's coins satisfy the standards set by the Coinage Act 1971. Following all those centuries of tradition, the 1971 Act brought together and rationalised some of the ancient laws that I mentioned earlier. It was instrumental in the creation of the modern coinage system, because decimalisation began at that time, and it is the legislation on which we are seeking to build today.
While reinforcing the historic pageantry of the Trial of the Pyx, the 1971 Act also did away with some of the more unusual provisions that had developed over the decades. I am sure that Members are relieved to learn that, thanks to the Act, there is no longer a provision which allows, by means of proclamation and without any control by Parliament, the introduction of foreign coins to the currency of the United Kingdom. Although the Act allowed the Chancellor to remain Master of the Mint, he was no longer to be known as its Warden or Worker, those roles and titles having fallen into disuse. Before they did so, however, they were positions of significance which were held by some formidable historical figures.
For instance, Sir Isaac Newton served as both Master and Warden of the Mint. Apparently he took his position as Warden with the utmost seriousness, going to great personal lengths to tackle the counterfeiting of coins following the Great Recoinage of 1696. He reportedly disguised himself to pursue the counterfeiters before personally interrogating them. I am sure that the present Master of the Mint would not hesitate to go to such
lengths, and it is probably just as well that the Serious Organised Crime Agency shoulders that burden in modern times.
Newton also brought about the move from silver to the gold standard for pound coins-further evidence of the long, historical evolution of this country's coinage. As I have said, 1971 was the year of another great innovation, as that was the year in which the UK adopted a decimal currency, although Parliament first considered and rejected the idea nearly 150 years earlier. With the Olympics just around the corner, let us hope that we can make faster progress on the proposal in the Bill, which would allow the Royal Mint to play a part in the success of London 2012. The linkage of an historic institution with the chance for London and the UK to host an historic sporting event makes a huge amount of sense, as the Royal Mint's mission statement makes clear:
"The Royal Mint will be a national treasure, at the heart of every momentous personal occasion and coin collection".
By supporting the Bill, we support the Royal Mint in achieving that mission, helping to place it even closer to the heart of what will surely be a momentous national occasion while it continues to be a valuable asset to the British economy.
Speaking without any sense of irony, even in this challenging economic environment the Royal Mint has continued to make money for this country. For the fourth year running it has produced a substantial profit, and it continues to deliver on its five-year strategy. Its first responsibility is to make and distribute United Kingdom coins, blanks and official medals, but it also makes coins and medals for an average of 60 countries every year. In fact it makes coins for countries as diverse as Macau, Malawi, the Maldives, the Falkland Islands, Guernsey, Hong Kong, Iceland, Ireland, Jamaica, Jersey, Bahrain, Botswana and other countries all over the world. Last year, it was able to expand its international coin business against a backdrop of tough business conditions. Critically, it provided the Treasury as shareholder with a dividend of about £4 million.
I am proud to say that the Royal Mint is the first mint in the world to be awarded accreditation to the international social accountability standard SA8000, which is designed to ensure safe working conditions and fair management practices. Last year, after becoming Economic Secretary, I was keen to go to Llantrisant to meet the people who work at the Royal Mint and take a look at their production line, so I have seen in person how the Mint meets those high standards. It was fantastic to meet the management team and staff, and to have the chance to see the benefits of investment in the business. Like any normal person, I found it amazing to see so many freshly minted coins in huge boxes waiting to be packed and bagged up so that they could go into circulation. The machines that produced them were incredible-a bit like the reverse of a slot machine when people win-spitting them out at a fast pace. It was an incredible place to go, and I look forward to my next visit.
The Minister mentioned new coins and their reverse. Out of deference to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, should we not consider putting the Welsh dragon on the back of our coins? We have just about
every other symbol, and may well have some more as a result of the Olympic games, yet the Welsh dragon is missing from the reverse side of our coins. Will the Minister take up that issue?
Justine Greening: I am sure that the Royal Mint advisory committee will have listened to my hon. Friend's comments with interest. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Royal Mint changes the themes of its coins from time to time, which is one of the interesting things about UK coinage. Doubtless, it will want to take on board his suggestion.
Today our focus is not only on the Mint's industrial and commercial achievements, but on its services to the promotion and celebration of British sport. From the 50p sports series, to the Celebration of Britain coins, to the Faster, Higher, Stronger gold sovereigns, the Royal Mint has a wide-ranging Olympic coin programme that caters for children, sports fans and professional coin collectors alike. We are concerned today with allowing the production of coins that will be of great interest to professional collectors and others.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North, very large coins have become a part of many countries' commemorative coin offerings. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) expressed concern about a slot machine big enough to take a 1 kg coin. He would probably have even greater concerns for the Canadian Royal Mint, which produced a 100 kg fine gold coin with a face value of 1 million Canadian dollars. Different countries take different approaches. The French Monnaie de Paris produced a glamorous diamond-studded gold coin. Those coins are, of course, exclusive products for a limited number of customers. That does not mean that the proposal before us is not worth while.
Although the Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North is promoting is intended to help the Mint to create kilo coins for the 2012 Olympics, it will also allow coins of that size to be struck for other significant events in future. It is important to do all we can to create a level playing field on which the Royal Mint can compete, appealing to collectors worldwide, even at the top end of the market. However, the Olympic coin programme has been designed to ensure the widest possible levels of participation.
Coins of many denominations will be produced, providing an accessible opportunity for those just starting their collections to own a commemorative Olympic coin for as little as £2.99. That is one of the reasons why it was fantastic that "Blue Peter" was able to be part of the design process. I shall come to that in a moment. The non-numismatists will not miss out; we all, I hope, look forward to seeing Olympic coins in our pockets as they enter general circulation between now and 2012, and we will have them as a reminder of a fantastic event long after our games have finished.
I am happy to report that the Royal Mint has opened up the design process to a wider group than ever before. Design competitions have been organised by "Blue Peter". Designs have been submitted by countless secondary school children, art and design colleges, and members of the public. Although not all the results of the contests have been decided, I remind the House of one further competition winner-the Royal Mint. Following a competitive tender procedure, the Royal Mint has, as we
heard, secured the honour of producing our Olympic and Paralympic medals. That further cements the important relationship between the London 2012 Olympics and our world-class export Mint.
I urge hon. Members across the House to take a look through the brochure that the Royal Mint has produced, showing the 50p coin collection that will be issued. There are some wonderful designs. My personal favourite is No. 12, the athletics 50p, which is the one designed by "Blue Peter" viewers. It is brilliant. It will make everybody who sees it and uses it over the coming years smile every time they fish it out of their wallet or purse.
We all want the 2012 games to be a resounding success. I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North, have strong constituency ties to the Olympics. Those include potential Olympians such as Jessica Harper, who has been identified as a future champion by British Swimming's disability swimming section. Locally, Southfields underground station will be a key Olympic gateway for people to get to the All England club, where the Olympic tennis events are to be held. We are delighted in my constituency that last year it became the 60th station to be step-free. We will have the experience of one of the Olympic events just down the road from us. We are used to having Wimbledon every year, but June and July 2012 will be even busier than we are used to. I am delighted that during the rest of the year Southfields station will be accessible to all of my constituents in a way that it just was not before, and there have been further improvements to make it safer and easier to use.
The Olympics are fantastic for our country and we must make the most of the opportunities that they bring. The Bill is part of enabling us to do that-enabling the Royal Mint to be part of the process.
Christopher Pincher: We have heard a lot this afternoon about the Olympics and their being the driving reason for a 1 kg coin to be struck, but next year we will also enjoy the diamond jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen. Does my hon. Friend think that when we mint an Olympic coin, it would be appropriate to mint a similar coin in honour of Her Majesty's jubilee?
Justine Greening: My hon. Friend raises a very good point. I am sure that future events of national cultural or historical significance, such as the one that he describes, could be commemorated in this way. However, the final decision would be taken by Her Majesty the Queen and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on the advice, as I have said, of the Royal Mint advisory committee on the design of coins, medals, seals and decorations.
The background to this issue is twofold. First, the Royal Mint has more than 50 years of experience in the international commemorative coin market, and secondly, historical data from previous Olympic games show that the kilogram coins are big sellers. In fact, 14,000 were sold at Sydney 2000 and 20,000 were sold at Beijing 2008, and we have high hopes that we will see that figure rise when the Royal Mint issues its coins for London 2012.
The Royal Mint regularly attends international seminars with other Mints, numismatists, collectors and trade partners from which it is clear that there is a sizeable international market for kilogram coins. As I said, they first featured in the international commemorative coin market in 1992. They tend to be attractive to numismatists across the world, not just due to their size and the high-profile artists who design them, but because ultimately they become works of art as well as an investment opportunity. During the past 10 years, more than 40,000 Olympic kilogram coins have been issued around the world and their ongoing popularity makes them an important addition to any international Mint's commemorative coin range.
Not only does the Bill give us the benefit of being able to continue what seems to be becoming a tradition by having an Olympic kilogram coin for London 2012, it will mean that we strengthen the Royal Mint's ability to compete further in the commemorative coin market. We all need to do our bit to make the 2012 Olympics a games that we can be proud of. The Royal Mint wants to do its bit, and that is why the Bill is necessary. It is good for the games, good for the Exchequer and good for the country too.
I repeat my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North for promoting the Bill, which the Government wholeheartedly support, and I look forward to further discussions on it.
Mark Lancaster: I start by thanking hon. Members on both sides of the House for their support for the Bill, and in particular my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), from the Opposition Benches, who also supported the Bill, although her comments about the Mayor were a touch cruel, not least since I have seen him out jogging recently and that weight problem is coming down rapidly.
I am afraid that I make no apologies to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for promoting the Bill. Milton Keynes is a fantastic sporting city. We were set to be a host city for the 2010 World cup, had we got it. We have a fantastic football team, a basketball team, an ice hockey team and the country's largest indoor snow dome. We are also home to the National Badminton Centre. Having worked very closely with many of my young people, I know that they are absolutely captivated by this Olympic programme and I make no apologies for doing my bit to ensure that there will be a strong Olympic legacy.
I have great sympathy with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), but as the coin is set for international markets it is appropriate that it should be struck as a 1 kg coin. This is an uncontroversial and short Bill. I thank hon. Members for their support and commend it to the House.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second Time.
This Bill should be a Government Bill, but the coalition appear to have dropped their commitment to legislate on illegal timber. This week saw the launch of the international year of forests at the UN General Assembly in New York. It saddens me that instead of championing their promises on illegal timber, the coalition instead seem prepared to abandon them. Shortage of time prevents me from talking at length about the importance of our rain forests, with regard to biodiversity, their capacity to regulate our climate and mitigate climate change and their importance for indigenous people, but I will note that in the past 24 hours there has been news that extremely worrying droughts have been killing the Amazon rainforests, leading them to becoming a net emitter of CO2 in 2005 and 2010.
I will explain a little of the background to the Bill. In 2009, the United States introduced the Lacey Act, which made it illegal for a person or company to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire or purchase timber or timber products that have been illegally taken, harvested, possessed, transported, sold or exported. The current Foreign Secretary promised voters before the general election that the Conservatives would do the same.
Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Will the hon. Lady tell us how successful the Lacey Act has been in the two years since it was introduced?
Caroline Lucas: It is early days, but there is every indication that the Lacey Act has been successful. More to the point, it demonstrates that that kind of legislation is perfectly possible.
I want to talk about why the Conservatives promised that they would bring in a prohibition on the possession or import of illegally logged timber. Let me quote the following words:
"The earth's rain forests are not only one of the greatest wonders of the natural world; they are the green lungs of the planet. They are also the source of the forest resources that help to support the livelihoods of nearly 1 billion of the world's poorest people."-[ Official Report, 16 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 737.]
To those Members who were here last March and have good memories, those words might sound familiar: they were the opening words of the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), now the Minister of State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, in a speech to support his ten-minute rule Bill-Illegally Logged Timber (Prohibition of Retail, Wholesale and Distribution)-just weeks before the general election. It was a Bill that I would have strongly supported. The reason I repeat his words is to highlight my dismay at the contradictions that are there for all to see of a party saying and promising one thing, but not acting once it has the power to do so.
Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?
Caroline Lucas: The hon. Gentleman has spoken an awful lot today, so I will not give way.
Christopher Pincher: Will the hon. Lady give way?
In his speech on his ten-minute rule Bill, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle did an excellent job of explaining why UK legislation was needed, stating that
"it is clear that action at European level will not go far enough".
Quite correctly, he went on to describe the problem with the EU legislation:
"It lacks an explicit overarching prohibition on illegal timber in the EU market... Loopholes are therefore created whereby all downstream companies-the majority of EU traders-are exempt from even the bare minimum of due diligence requirements. A prohibition on illegal timber needs to apply to all companies that make timber available to the market, whatever their position in the supply chain."-[ Official Report, 16 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 738.]
Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?
Caroline Lucas: I will not, because of lack of time.
That is all good stuff, and I of course agree with it. A commitment to just such a prohibition was repeated on page 17 of the coalition agreement, which states that the coalition will bring forward
"Measures to make the import or possession of illegally logged timber a criminal offence".
Given the critical need to act now and the Government's clear commitment to go further than the EU, I was alarmed to receive a letter last July from a DEFRA Minister stating that
"we will not be pursuing further UK legislative action at this stage".
Indeed, another Back Bencher showed me a similar letter that went further by dropping "at this stage" and bluntly stating that
"we will not be pursuing further UK legislative action."
Christopher Pincher: Will the hon. Lady-
The Deputy Speaker interrupted the business (Standing Order No. 11(2)).
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 10 June.
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 14 October.
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 11 February.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. -(James Duddridge.)
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): New MPs see many cases of human suffering, and people daily write to and contact new MPs with all kinds of difficult stories; but, of all the cases I have come across since being elected last year, this is the one in which I see the most injustice.
I am hugely grateful to the Speaker for allowing this debate, as I have cared about and campaigned on the issue for many months. Today, I want to recount a story of two utterly decent, salt-of-the-earth individuals, who do the right thing, obey the law, have worked hard, saved hard all their lives and suffered unnecessarily-pointlessly-because of the actions of state agencies. Don and Anita Horton have not just suffered; they have experienced an enormous injustice, which has caused misery to themselves and to their immediate family and neighbours. Worst of all, their suffering has been completely in vain.
Anita Horton was employed by the Benefits Agency from February 1994 until her retirement in May 1999, aged 61. She returned to work for Jobcentre Plus in April 2001 until April 2003, aged 65. She was a dedicated public servant with an honourable record of helping people to return to work. During her employment, she became aware that an individual was claiming disability benefits, and there was strong evidence to suggest that the individual's claim was fraudulent, so she reported it to the fraud team. She was told that, "due to staff problems", an investigation would not be possible.
The individual was witnessed on several occasions carrying heavy objects, such as bed bases and bags of cement. He was often seen climbing nimbly up ladders to trim tall trees, and he reportedly worked as a cash-in-hand labourer and gardener. The Hortons felt that this threw some doubt on his disability benefit claims, so as citizens they felt obliged to report this to the Jobcentre Plus fraud team.
On 14 March 2006, Don and Anita Horton and many neighbours gave witness statements to Paul Carlisle, who then spent several days making video recordings and interviewing the individual concerned. As a consequence, however, personal details on the statements by Don and Anita were passed without their permission to the suspect individual. Those statements were made in good faith, and Don and Anita had thought that they would be protected by the Data Protection Act 1998.
During the period when the individual was in receipt of benefits-and it is believed that he continues to receive some-there are anecdotal reports of him purchasing a four-bedroom house, two new cars and significant refurbishment work on his house, such as new central heating, and of him boasting that his bank balance was £148,000. Evidence of this is held by Essex police. After this, the individual began to walk occasionally with a stick. However, he has been regularly seen in the town centre carrying several heavy shopping bags without a stick, climbing across ditches in the local park, and, of course, continuing to work in a manual job.
For the past four years-that is, 48 months-Don and Anita, and their neighbours, have been continually harassed, intimidated and, in some cases, physically
assaulted by the said individual. Their cars have been damaged. They have been constantly verbally abused, and many attempts have been made to break their windows or damage their property. Don and Anita were provided with personal alarms by the police following regular threats of violence, and even death threats, by the individual.
It took three years of this ordeal before a court date was set-29 June 2009. The individual was due to appear at Harlow magistrates court, but the witness care office informed Don and Anita that the individual was too ill to attend. A new hearing was set for 19 October 2009, but this in turn was subsequently postponed. On the same day that the individual was "too ill" to attend the magistrates court-29 June 2009-it transpired that he was in Harlow county court with his wife issuing a summons against Mr Horton for the sum of £5,000, citing "loss of benefit", "using the police as harassment" and a range of other claims that did not hold water. As a result, Don and Anita, who are an elderly couple, had to employ a solicitor and a barrister to defend themselves. This has cost them a considerable amount of money-nearly £8,000 to date, which is a significant portion of their life savings.
But it gets worse. On 5 October 2009, Don and Anita were in Harlow town centre and saw the individual coming towards them. He appeared physically very fit, was walking without a stick or crutches, and was carrying many heavy bags of shopping. Paul Carlisle, the fraud investigator, had previously suggested that photographic evidence would be crucial in court. However, when Don tried to take a photo, both the individual and his wife attacked him and pushed him to the ground. They pushed his face into the concrete and dug their knees into Mr Horton's back to try to keep him crushed into the ground. There were many witnesses, and the individual was subsequently arrested.
The following day, however, the police came and arrested Mr Don Horton instead. The individual had alleged while in custody that Mr Horton had been harassing him. Don's health had been seriously deteriorating all this time, and his daughter had to accompany him to the police station. They then spent several hours waiting in a cold police cell. A duty solicitor attended and a recorded interview was made. Don's daughter had to stay by his side for many hours before the official wheels turned and the case was dismissed as nonsense.
Of course, no further action was taken, but the incident was symptomatic of this case: the public justice system was malfunctioning and failing to protect the most vulnerable and the good people who do the right thing. In the meantime, the stress and strain had a severe impact on Don's health from which he is still recovering. I ask you, Mr Deputy Speaker, what kind of country we are living in when the criminal justice system can be abused in such a way. The state exists, at its most basic level, to fight crime, to protect vulnerable and good people, and to uphold the rule of law; that is why we pay our taxes. What is so deeply depressing about this case is that time and again, whether from long delays, incompetence, or sheer calculating indifference, the state has failed to do its most basic job.
Today, Mr and Mrs Horton have withdrawn as witnesses out of despair that the court case will never happen. The individual is still free and is reportedly still claiming disability benefit. Mr and Mrs Horton are still living in fear.
Since I was elected as MP for Harlow and the surrounding villages, I have tried unsuccessfully to raise this matter with the authorities. On the crucial point of data protection, I wrote to the Information Commissioner's Office setting out the years of torment, fear and suffering that have afflicted Mr and Mrs Horton. On 13 August 2010, the ICO's head of complaints resolution, Mr Laing, replied. He was kind enough to inform me in detail about the
"eight principles of good information handling".
"section 42 of the Data Protection Act, an individual can ask the Commissioner to conduct an assessment as to whether it is likely or unlikely that an organisation has complied with the Data Protection Act.
If we consider it is unlikely that an organisation has complied with the Data Protection Act, our aim is to ensure that the organisation understands its obligations and takes any steps necessary to help ensure compliance, either in that particular case, or in the future".
"Whilst it appears that the Data Protection Act may have been breached in this case, we do not have enough information to make a formal assessment of this matter.
If your constituents would like us to assess it, they should complete and return the complaints form at the back of the enclosed leaflet".
That is more PC Plod than Batman and Robin. After more than four years of hitting a brick wall, what confidence should Mr and Mrs Horton have that completing and returning a complaints form on the back of a leaflet will lead to anything other than more bureaucracy and delay?
I feel a sense of frustration in this case in particular because when I have tried to deal with it by writing to the agencies concerned, all I have received is the inhuman and cold response of Sir Humphrey at his most dull, lethargic and indifferent. Soon after receiving the letter, I spoke to the Information Commissioner himself, Mr Christopher Graham, in my office and raised the case with him, but nothing has happened. Quite simply, what is the point of having an Information Commissioner's Office to police the Data Protection Act if the response is worthy of the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens? To quote from that book:
"The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government... If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office... Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving-HOW NOT TO DO IT."
Under different circumstances, the sloth of public agencies might be cause for a wry joke or mere annoyance, but in this case the state stood idly by for four years while an elderly couple were systematically persecuted. Don and Anita have been forced to spend a substantial chunk of their life savings to defend themselves against baseless legal claims from the individual in question. What is the result? Nothing.
There are three problems in this case. First, Don and Anita's identities were released by Jobcentre Plus. Secondly, the judicial system has not brought the individual to justice. There are multi-agency difficulties in due process, but we must have a justice system that is concerned with justice-victims should be protected and criminals prosecuted. Thirdly, had Don and Anita gone to trial, their identities would have been released anyway because of our rules on witness anonymity.
We must protect decent people who do the right thing. That applies not just to Mr and Mrs Horton, but to others in the future. There is no compensation in sight for the Hortons. However, the issue is not with what they are technically entitled to if they had the strength and finance to fight tooth and nail through every court in Europe; it is that nobody seems interested or is bothered to help. What is the point of coming to Parliament and making laws if when people do the right thing they suffer? What is the point of laws at all if the good and decent suffer because of incompetence and bureaucracy? We should know that the character of the state is revealed not in its ambitions but in its actions, not in its policy but in its implementation. The characters of Jobcentre Plus and the courts system have been woeful.
I know that Mr and Mrs Horton are in the House today and will want to hear the Minister's reply. Before I sit down, I should add that I have been very grateful for the Minister's concern in this matter, particularly in my discussions with him. I also very much appreciate the fact that he is going to meet Mr and Mrs Horton after the debate.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for the way in which he has helped me and my officials prepare for the debate, so that I can give him as constructive an answer and advice as possible. I understand the restrictions that apply to my dealing with an individual case, but his constituents are extremely well served by the way in which he has raised their case. They have an extremely doughty champion on their behalf.
My hon. Friend raised a number of issues, including on criminal evidence, the handling of witness statements made for the purposes of criminal proceedings and the protection of witnesses from intimidation and harassment. I will respond to those points in my capacity as the Minister responsible for criminal justice issues. He also mentioned the process followed by the Department for Work and Pensions in relation to the investigation of benefit fraud and expressed concern about the processes adopted by the Information Commissioner in dealing with allegations of the mishandling of data. I will deal with those two points later.
It is not appropriate for me, as a Minister, to comment on any particular case, but I wish to make it absolutely clear that I wholly share my hon. Friend's concern that those who perform a public duty by informing on people who commit benefit fraud or any offence should not be subjected to harassment. Society depends on courageous people who witness crime coming forward, reporting it and giving evidence. Witnesses are vital to our criminal justice system, and it is crucial that they receive appropriate support when they give evidence in criminal proceedings to ensure that justice is done.
However, justice also requires us to ensure that the defendant has a fair trial. When someone gives evidence about an alleged offence, they may be asked to make a signed witness statement, which will contain their name and address. Once the statement has been made, what happens to it depends on whether anyone is charged with an offence and prosecuted in the courts. I understand that when taking a witness statement, DWP investigators explain to those giving it that they may be asked or required to give evidence in court. The signed statement includes wording to that effect.
If no charge is brought, the matter will go no further, but if someone is charged, the prosecutor may wish to use the witness's evidence as part of the case against the accused. In those circumstances, the prosecutor must give copies of all the prosecution evidence to the defence in advance of the trial. Any witness statements will have the address of the witness removed, but not their name. That reflects the general long-standing principle of English common law that defendants have the right to know the identity of their accusers and to challenge the evidence against them.
The Government take the issue of witness intimidation very seriously. It is a criminal offence under section 51 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, punishable on conviction in the Crown court with a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment, or a fine, or both. On conviction in a magistrates court, the maximum penalty is six months' imprisonment, or a fine, or both.
It is also an offence under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 for someone to pursue a course of conduct that amounts to harassment of another, and which he knows, or ought to know, amounts to that. The offence is punishable on conviction by a maximum of six months' imprisonment or a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale. There is also a separate, more serious offence that is committed when the offender pursues a course of conduct that he knows, or ought to know, will cause the victim to fear violence. That carries a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment, or a fine, or both. A court sentencing someone convicted of either offence may also impose a restraining order prohibiting specified forms of behaviour such as deliberate communication with the victim, and breach of a restraining order is a criminal offence also punishable by up to five years' imprisonment.
However, a civil remedy, which enables a victim of harassment to seek an injunction against the person harassing them, is also available under the Act. That can be obtained without securing a conviction for harassment. Investigation of allegations of intimidation or harassment is, of course, a matter for the police. Any decision to prosecute is the responsibility of the Crown Prosecution Service.
When witnesses fear intimidation and harassment, they can be supported in several other ways before and during the trial. Before the trial, intimidation should be reported to the police, who can provide appropriate advice and support. Police forces can arrange for a witness and their family to relocate temporarily or permanently to a different neighbourhood in the area through the local housing authority. When witnesses remain in their homes, several target-hardening measures are available to improve home and personal security.
They include additional locks, alarms, sensors, fire-proof letter boxes, panic alarms, CCTV cameras and mobile phones.
In addition to the criminal offences that I have mentioned, bail conditions can be imposed to prevent the accused from approaching any witness. In appropriate cases, police forces can apply to the court to grant an injunction or an antisocial behaviour order against anyone intimidating a witness.
We have invested in a programme of training that is available to all officers, and the victim's code and the witness charter require all agencies to identify vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, and to work together to provide them with an enhanced service. If the witness is asked to give evidence orally in court, and he or she considers that he or she needs assistance when giving oral evidence because they are in fear of testifying or in distress, the prosecutor may apply to the court before the trial for special measures to enable them to give their best evidence.
Special measures include giving evidence by live link from outside the court room or giving evidence with a screen round the witness box. Both measures prevent the witness from viewing the defendant. In cases of intimidation, an application may also be made for the public gallery to be cleared so that witnesses can give evidence in private. Decisions on special measures are a matter for the court, after taking the witness's views into account.
When a witness fears that they will be harassed and intimidated in the court building, if the court is notified in advance of the particular needs of the victim or witness, it will endeavour to meet those needs wherever physically possible, for example, by arranging for them to enter the court by a different entrance from the public, and providing separate seating inside and outside the courtroom.
If certain criteria set out in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 are met, the court may permit a witness to give oral evidence anonymously. The defendant retains the right to cross-examine the witness to test their evidence, but the identity of the witness is concealed. The legislation imposes three strict conditions before a witness anonymity order may be made. They are: that the measures are necessary to protect the safety of the witness or another person; to prevent serious damage to property or real harm to the public interest; and that they are consistent with a fair trial, and an "interests of justice" based test.
Additionally, before making an order, the court is required to take into consideration the general right of a defendant to know the identity of a witness. Although the legislation does not stipulate that witness anonymity is an "exceptional measure", in practice it is considered to be so. The Court of Appeal in the case of R v. Mayers explicitly refers to
"the exceptional circumstances permitted by the Act."
I hope that my hon. Friend can see that the Ministry of Justice takes witness protection very seriously. I appreciate that the measures that I have described did not come into play because the case that he described did not proceed to trial. However, I hope that it gives his constituents some reassurance to know that witness intimidation and witness protection is taken seriously and that we have significant powers to try to provide that protection.
Robert Halfon: I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks so far. However, will he confirm on the record that he agrees that it was wrong that the details of my constituents, who had reported what was going on, were subsequently handed to the accused?
Mr Blunt: That is a probing intervention, so let me deal with issues that are related to that. The Department for Work and Pensions operates a scheme whereby members of the public can report benefit fraud anonymously. That can be done online or by telephoning the national benefit fraud hotline.
The Department for Work and Pensions does not disclose the details of people who report fraud but make it clear that they wish to remain anonymous. They are treated as informants and their identities will be revealed only if the court orders disclosure. I appreciate my hon. Friend's concern for his constituents. They feel that they have suffered as a consequence of their willingness to perform a public duty. I am very sorry if they feel that they have experienced profound difficulties and understand their concerns about the way in which they believe that the Department for Work and Pensions has dealt with their case. Of course, this disappointment will be redoubled by the fact that Mrs Horton was a former employee.
If anyone is not satisfied with how Jobcentre Plus has dealt with their case, it is open to them to contact the independent case examiner for a review of the case. The independent case examiner acts as an independent referee for people who feel that a number of Government agencies or businesses have not treated them fairly or dealt with complaints in a satisfactory manner. These agencies or businesses include Jobcentre Plus. If the independent case examiner accepts the complaint for action, and if it cannot be addressed without full examination, an investigation undertakes a review of the paper evidence provided by the agency or the business concerned. The officer then considers whether the complaint can be settled through mediation. If mediation is not appropriate, a report is submitted to the independent case examiner, who will consider whether there is any evidence of maladministration. If there is evidence of maladministration and the agency or business concerned did not offer redress before the referral to the examiner, the complaint will be upheld.
Complainants must approach the independent case examiner within six months of receiving a final reply to their complaint from the agency or business they consider to be unsatisfactory. In the case of my hon. Friend's constituents, I understand that the final letter was sent
by the chief executive of Jobcentre Plus on 31 August last year. This letter explained that the independent case examiner offers a free, impartial resolution service and gave details of how it may be contacted. Therefore, his constituents have until the end of the month to initiate the complaints procedure, should they wish to do so. If a complaint is made, and should the examiner find that there was maladministration by Jobcentre Plus that caused them hardship or suffering, I understand that the agency can consider making an ex gratia payment.
My hon. Friend also complained about how the Information Commissioner's Office responded to allegations of breaches of data protection legislation and about how information about his constituents was handled by Jobcentre Plus. The Government take the protection of personal data and the effectiveness of public bodies, such as the ICO, very seriously. However, the ICO is an independent public body set up to uphold information rights in the public interest. Because of its independence, it would be inappropriate for me, on behalf of the Government, to comment on the ICO's handling of any particular case.
If having exhausted the ICO case review and his own service complaints procedure, however, a member of the public remains dissatisfied with the ICO's handling of a case, the parliamentary and health service ombudsman has responsibility for undertaking independent investigations into complaints about Government Departments and a range of public bodies that include the ICO. It is open to my hon. Friend and his constituents, therefore, to pursue his concerns about the ICO with the ombudsman. Complaints procedures may appear formal, but they provide a way for members of the public to have their complaints against the actions of public organisations and agencies reviewed by public bodies.
I hope that my hon. Friend's constituents will feel that they are still able to pursue their complaints through those routes, and that those opportunities will be of some comfort and use to them. I understand from the difficulties that his constituents have faced; the heart of anyone hearing those stories will obviously go out to them. However, they are fortunate enough to enjoy the good advice of my hon. Friend, and I am quite sure, whatever course of action he and they deem appropriate, that he will pursue the matter with his customary vigour and skill.