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Lord Tordoff: My Lords, I am sorry to intervene twice in this timed debate, but one has to think of the party who is involved and whether that party wishes a complaint to be brought into the open. Someone may be aggrieved but nevertheless he or she may far rather not have the case brought into the public domain. That is the problem that we face.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, I understand the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. That is an aspect that the Press Complaints Commission would have to take into account before taking any decision, if indeed it decided to change its rules. In many cases the point the noble Lord has made may be a factor. However, that would not prevent the commission from considering the principles of the matter we are discussing. It addresses the newspaper industry regularly about principles; it could look at the matter in general terms and make its views known to the industry.

9.35 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, when one considers the issues that have been raised this evening, which go a good deal wider than the form of the Question--and rightly so--one feels a sense of infinite pity and sadness for those who are embroiled as innocents. After all, the daughter of Mary Bell was innocent of any wrongdoing, as were the relatives of the small children who were killed by her mother, and, indeed, the families of those who were murdered by Myra Hindley and Dennis Nilsen. They are innocent victims.

Let me deal specifically with the form of the Question and then turn to the wider issues which have been raised in such an interesting and moderate way. The short answer to the noble Lord's Question is that there have been no formal changes to the procedures for liaising between the Home Office and the Press Complaints Commission. As the noble Lord, with his experience, knows, primary responsibility rests with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, but of course the Home Office has regular contact with the Press Complaints Commission and others who have interests in this field.

Our stance is quite plain. I am happy to repeat it. A free press in a free society is a necessity, not a luxury. I can say with the agreement of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, that we have very close personal contact, not only in the context of the Human Rights Bill but in the context of the Data Protection Bill, where it was necessary in the wider public interest--and I use those words with care--to make

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sure that the position of the free media, broadcast or print, was safeguarded. It is an important, indeed essential, freedom.

We discuss things formally and informally. I am bound to say that I have never had anything other than a courteous and co-operative hearing, whether from the noble Lord as chairman or from his officials as they have changed over the years.

A number of specific questions were raised. I was very happy--if I may say so without being apparently patronising--to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, said. I do not think anyone could have been more robust in his condemnation of the harassment of Mary Bell's child. Nor could anyone have made it more plain that, had there been a complaint, there would have been the most rigorous condemnation of the allegations if proved. That is a very worthy public expression of what most people would feel, and I welcome it.

The noble Lord is also extremely generous in his offer of co-operation in the inter-departmental review of the law. I am more than happy to take him up on that. I do not know--it is a matter for the commission--but at the same time the commission might wish to consider any possible improvement to its own rules. I know that the noble Lord attended to such matters very promptly after the death of the Princess of Wales.

A question was raised about third party complaints. There is of course a further category of own volition complaints. I was chairman of the professional conduct committee of the Bar for two years and vice-chairman before that, and we did sometimes raise complaints of our own volition. One must bear in mind the cautionary note that the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, raised. One can sometimes have own volition complaints, and if the person adversely affected by the alleged conduct says, "I don't wish you to take it any further", you can discontinue at that stage.

I take the point of the two noble Lords who have PCC experience that without a complaint one sometimes cannot get the evidence. That is so. Sometimes, without further evidence, one can bring home own volition complaints. I am simply offering that as a question if we are going to review this exceptionally delicate and sensitive area. I am simply stressing my response to the noble Lord's very generous offer about co-operative approaches in this area.

A number of questions were raised about the injunctions relating to Mary Bell. What happened there was that the Official Solicitor, acting in the interests of the child, applied for and was granted a wider anti-solicitation injunction, in stronger terms than the original injunction, which was designed to protect the daughter. One needs to bear in mind that the commission itself has powers, as I read the rules, in two distinct contexts. First, paragraph 4 of the code, which specifically deals with harassment, states:

    "Journalists ... must neither obtain nor seek to obtain information or pictures through intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit".

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So the power is there, as the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, indicated, had there been a complaint. One has a specific protection for children in paragraph 6. Paragraph 16(ii) states:

    "Payment or offers of payment ... must not be made directly or through agents to convicted or confessed criminals or to their associates"--
and these are the important words--

    "except where the material concerned ought to be published in the public interest and payment is necessary for this to be done".
So, objectively looked at, that is a quite high hurdle which the PCC concluded The Times had been able to overcome.

The further specific questions that were raised relate in particular to what had happened in the period of time when Mary Bell was--I am taking the point made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally--known or was thought to have been writing a book. The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, set up an internal inquiry. The matter was taken very seriously. Indeed, he asked the Permanent Secretary to report. On 22nd July last year (at col. 550 of Commons Hansard) he gave a very full reply to a question for Written Answer asked by my honourable friend Caroline Flint. He said that it was clear that, with hindsight, on a number of occasions Ministers might reasonably have been informed of developments in the Mary Bell case. The Permanent Secretary has recommended to the Home Secretary procedural and other improvements to help guide Home Office staff in assessing future cases where Ministers might need to be kept informed of developments. I commend that very full Answer which sets out essentially all the conclusions that the Permanent Secretary came to.

I was asked about review of the law. I want to give your Lordships a little detail to indicate the seriousness with which we have approached this matter. The Home Secretary set up an interdepartmental body to look at these difficult issues: to look at the scope of existing powers, to consider whether, and if so how, the law might be amended, and to deal with the question of profits, and in particular the consequent distress that is caused to families. There is a legitimate distinction--quite a subtle one perhaps, but an important one--to be drawn between publication which causes certainly some distress and payment for such publication which may cause lasting, justifiable, understandable anger. I think there is a distinction there.

The interdepartmental committee has six representatives from the Home Office, two representatives from the Prison Service and representation from the Scottish Office, the Northern Ireland Office, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the Cabinet Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Association of Chief Police Officers. It is intended that it should carry out a comprehensive review. It is hoped that those conclusions by way of recommendations will be available by this summer. It is a very difficult area,

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as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, pointed out, he and I having been adversaries in the field of defamation, press freedom and contempt for a long period of time.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. On the issue of forfeiting or prohibiting profits, will the review take into account that that is an interference with free speech under Article X? There is a good deal of case law, American and otherwise, indicating that simply to deprive a writer of remuneration for the writing, even in the case of a prisoner, might well give rise to a breach of basic rights and freedoms where the public interest in publication is clear.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, that was the sentence that I was about to utter. One has to take into account all of the wider repercussions of Article 10, together with those questions of private and family life which are equally to be safeguarded by virtue of the incorporation of the convention into our law. They are exceptionally difficult answers to find.

The noble Viscount is quite right. The crimes of Mary Bell were committed 30 years ago. So most limitation periods would have expired after a maximum of six years whether in the context of the civil or the criminal law. One has to bear in mind that crimes vary. Is crime to be the subject of an attempted prohibition when it might be the murder of very small children? It might, on the other hand, be a question of political offences, for which, for example, Mr. Mandela was committed in South Africa. I do not put that point in any debating spirit. I merely raise the question that simply to attach the label "crime" or "criminal" will not eventually be sufficient to deal with the whole spectrum of matters that one is considering.

Perhaps I may offer another example. Albert Speer's memoirs were published. Ms. Sereny wrote a book about him. Similar complaints and troubles did not arise, as I recall it, in the context of what at that stage was perhaps regarded as historical memoir.

These are very difficult questions, and one has to separate them out as calmly, rationally and carefully as one can. I do not think that there is a Member of this House who has not felt the sense of shame and horror referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, in the context of the alleged treatment of Mary Bell's daughter. That, again, is different from the payment of criminals or their relatives. It is different again from whether they have a right to publish their thoughts or writings, as was referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill.

The noble Viscount raised the question of leaks. This is the second consecutive occasion when it has been alleged that improper leakage of police information has occurred. I do not know what the truth is. All I can say is that it is a disciplinary offence for a police officer to make an unauthorised disclosure. It is the sort of disciplinary offence that is exceptionally difficult to prove, because journalists will say--in some ways understandably--that they wish to protect their sources and therefore there is no evidence. In my experience it

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is very difficult to bring home disciplinary charges against a police officer. But it is quite wrong that such leaks should occur. The Government's attitude is plain: it is an improper divulging of confidential information if the allegations are true.

Not to be presumptuous, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Neill, on his maiden speech. Aspects of the difficulties in this area were admirably pointed out by the noble Lord. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has frequently urged the PCC to take stronger powers, including compensatory powers. From my discussions with the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, I am familiar with the difficulties of producing an over-formal tribunal for what is essentially intended to succeed by way of conciliation. In strict parenthesis, I remember that the Industrial Tribunal was originally set up to provide speedy, non-formal, "non-over-legalistic" remedies for those who had lost their work. I merely say: look what happened.

I am not sure that the proposals to be produced in the summer will satisfy everyone. The difficulties are significant. If we can encourage the Press Complaints Commission at least to review its present powers, to see whether or not they are working effectively, in the end that may be the best way forward to protect the interests of the innocents, of press freedom, and of what most people would regard as a decently regulated civil society. There is virtue in that course of action, if the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, is minded to have the review. It is only a suggestion that I make; I hope he will accept it as intended at least to be helpful.

As the noble Lord has often said many complainants want an explanation and an apology. He has told us in the past that in the overwhelming majority of cases, that is brought about to the satisfaction of complainant and

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newspaper. I know of no system in the discovered world that has found the answer to the questions. I repeat the sense of deep shame we all felt about the alleged treatment of that young child.

It is fair to say, without being unduly complacent, that the history of the press over the past 10 to 15 years has been of continued responsible improvement. A person does not need to be very elderly to bear in mind that the excesses of the press, which were rightly complained of 25 years ago, have significantly diminished. It is true and trite, particularly when one is not the immediate victim, that we cannot have a democratic, free society without a press which is free. A free press is bound, on occasions, to overstep the limits. The scheme that we need is for the Press Complaints Commission to remedy those wrongs which it can and for only the rarest of cases to need to be the subject of legal formalistic proceedings.

The debate has ranged quite widely, more widely than the strict terms of the Question. That was a necessary device--I put that with congratulation rather than condemnation--to open up the matter. There are deep questions of philosophical approach, jurisprudential approach and practical approach. What we want is a practical outcome for the protection of those who sometimes have insufficient protection from the commission by virtue of its role on complaints or from the law because the law is too rigid or does not offer appropriate remedies, or the remedies available are not what people want.

I believe that most people want an explanation, an apology and an expression of regret rather than anything further. I am grateful for every contribution made by your Lordships.

        House adjourned at eight minutes before ten o'clock.

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