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Lord Monson: My Lords, although I tend to prefer the amendment tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, when considering realistically the voting strengths in this House, we probably ought to go for one of the other two.
I listened with great interest to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, in speaking to his amendment. I do not know whether the noble Lord is allowed to respond to me, but is he absolutely certain that, if the other place declines to add the prescribed penalties to his amendmentwhich it is perfectly entitled to do, assuming that his amendment is accepted this eveningit will be technically possible to add the penalties, with no slip-ups, when the Bill
Baroness Mallalieu: My Lords, I rise to support every word just spoken by my noble friend Lord Corbett, and to reassure the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, that I have not got cold feet since the last occasion on which we discussed this matter. I am sorry about the approach that has been taken by both the Front Benches opposite because the principle is clear and I do not think that either of the proposed amendments will cover the full position.
I can quite understand that no government would want to be seen either by the press or by the public as trying to stifle proper public knowledge and discussion, but no one in this House or anywhere else could argue that self-regulation has worked effectively. As my noble friend has just pointed out, which of us would put money on even sabre-rattling in a measure such as this producing any better effect? The reality is that sex and well-known people sell newspapers. The temptation will always be there and usually people will give in to it in order to print the story.
If we go along the line of, in a sense, taking a small bite at this, as is suggested in the amendments from both the Front Benches opposite, we shall still be left with the very considerable difficulty that now arises in almost every case involving either someone well known or something notorious. I speak of the applications that are made before the trial can even begin to try to deal with the prejudicial publicity which has taken place. As we know, the tip-off startsperhaps sometimes it is given by the police themselves; who knows?before anyone even arrives at the door and knocks on it to arrest or question the suspect.
It is said that we should restrict ourselves in order that there can be publicity which may bring forward other complainants. Over the past few years, in that area we have seen a number of miscarriages and potential miscarriages of justice where, by publicising, people have in a sense been trawlingthe police particularlyfor additional evidence to back up cases which they know to be lacking in strength. Those who are attracted to come forward may, in some cases, be genuine complainantsbut there may also be those seeking attention.
I do not accept the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. His amendment seems to me to be second best. If he moves it later, as he said he will, I shall support it, but only if the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, is either not pressed or fails. We are in danger of letting go an opportunity which will not come again in the near future, and certainly will not come again until other people's reputations have been destroyed, jobs lost and untold distress caused to people who should not have suffered.
I agree that there is an urgent need to protect innocent people from undesirable press publicity and intrusion. I am not persuaded that the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, are sufficient to outweigh the potential danger of false accusation, as the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, clearly explained. I should need to be persuaded that there was a sufficient reason for limiting anonymity to the point of charge rather than to the point of conviction. I should be grateful if the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, or the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, could be rather more persuasive on that before I have to make up my mind one way or the other.
I hope very much that the Minister will understand the extreme strength of feeling that there is on this matter and that the Government will accept, at the very least, the lesser amendment, but I hope the greater one.
Lord Carlisle of Bucklow: My Lords, I have listened carefully to the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, but there is one genuine problem: what do you do during the course of a trial if the anonymity of the defendant is to remain at that time? You will be immediately accused by the press of interfering with its right to report public trials. If there is a sensational trial taking place, say, at the Old Bailey, and you attempt to retain anonymity, everyone will know effectively who the defendant is. He will be seen walking to court and coming back from court. Or, if he is not recognised, rumours will start that it is someone else being tried.
Obviously the ideal would be to have anonymity all the way through but there is a practical argument that the time when it is really effective is up until charge, when there is no reason, if anonymity is imposed, for people to get round it. In other words, anonymity would work until charged, but I wonder whether it would work during the course of a trial.
I do so because I have met quite a number of people who have been accused falsely of sexual offences. The moment the accusation was madeor before even the accusation became public knowledgethe fact that they had been accused was in the public domain. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, made the point about the police giving such information to the press and to the media, sometimes before even the so-called accused has any knowledge of what is about to overtake him.
I have met men whose lives have been completely ruined as a result of what has taken place, yet when the facts have been impartially examined, or when their case has gone to trial, the accused has been shown to be innocent. We ought not to allow this sort of situation to continue.
I take the point that my noble friend made about the difficulty of retaining anonymity during the course of a trial. However, by notifying the media in this way, I believe that there will be at least some restraint imposed upon the reporting that might take place. I think it is illusory to expect any form of self-regulation in cases of this kind. That will not happen, for the reasons advanced by my noble friend Lady Noakes when she said, in effect, that sex sells copies. It does, and the media will got out of their way to find opportunities to give publicity to such cases. Therefore, I support what has been said by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, and noble Lords who spoke from the Benches opposite. Like them, if the noble and learned Lord's amendment should not pass, I shall support the amendment standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford.
Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, I, too, am moved to support the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, if he seeks the opinion of the House, for the reasons which have already been given.
I have heard the argument from the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, that there might be some difficulty in persuading peopleor hoping that there will be volunteersto complain of such sexual attacks, if publicity were not available. However, in the event of there being a conviction, it appears to me that publicity of a kind would certainly be released at the conclusion of the trial which would encourage others who had experienced comparable events to come forward. It does not seem necessary to have the long, protracted, prurient reportage of these cases in order to achieve the result that the noble Baroness had in mind.
My noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford described his amendment as a step. It is indeed a step, but it does not go far enough to deal with the mischief that was eloquently described by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner. Like other noble Lords, I would support my noble friend's amendment if it were to follow that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, and an opportunity presented itself. However, I am bound to say that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, has put forward an irresistible case.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, as I said in moving the government amendment, we very much recognise the difficulties associated with this area of law. As the noble Lord, Lord Eden of Winton, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford and my noble friend Lord Corbett have made plain, it is a matter which can carry great stigma and difficulty.
I have a word of comfort for the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, who drew attention to the flaws identified in her amendment. Each of the amendments has fundamental flaws, but for different reasons, so she need feel no anxiety that her skill has in any way
It might assist if I identified why we believe that each of the amendments moved by noble Lords opposite, and by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, is flawed. The noble and learned Lord's new amendment would extend anonymity to defendants up to the point of conviction. It is the only amendment of the group that does so. I recognise that it is supported by many in the House, the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, being the last to speak in support of it.
The previous amendment proposed by the noble and learned Lord suggested that the defendant should have the same right to anonymity as complainants. In effect, that would have provided life-long anonymity, regardless of whether a defendant was convicted. This amendment would amend the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992, which provides anonymity for victims of some offences. Although the amendment is similar to his previous amendment, which was narrowly successful in your Lordships' House, it does not reflect the general sentiments expressed so far in both Houses.
The main concern in this matter relates to the pre-charge period. For that reason, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and the noble Baroness limited their amendments. It would appear that the noble and learned Lord's amendment does not cover the pre-charge period at all. It provides for anonymity from the point where the defendant is accused of an offence. It does not define what is meant by a person being accused of an offence, but the definition in the 1992 Act of "being accused" is essentially "being charged". Thus the amendment appears to cover the post-charge period but not the pre-charge period, which is of most concern.
Amendment No. 1B would provide anonymity to persons suspected of an offence listed in Schedule 3, up to the point of charge. The schedule lists a wide range of offences that trigger registration on the sex offenders' list. That amendment would also introduce a penalty, including a maximum of two years' imprisonment. There are various deficiencies to the clause; I do not know whether they were all enumerated by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, but it may assist if I do so.
First, it imposes criminal liability on proprietors, editors and publishers, regardless of whether they are aware that the person's identity is being revealed. That unfairness is compounded by the risk of a fairly lengthy term of imprisonmenta deficiency also arises in Amendment No. 1C. If that provision had been in force at the time of the unexpected revelation of the identity of John Leslie by a TV presenter on a live show, the editor of the broadcast would have been liable and could have faced a prison sentence.
Secondly, the proposed penalties are inconsistent with reporting restrictions relating to persons under 18 in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 and anonymity of complainants in the Sex Offences (Amendment) Act 1992, and in the Criminal Justice Bill. A level 5 fine, which is a maximum of £5,000, is sufficient for those purposes.
Thirdly, the proposal makes no provision for lifting reporting restrictions in exceptional circumstances, such as when a dangerous suspect is at large and the public needs to be warned or if a suspect needs publicity for alibi purposes. Failure to provide the defence with the ability to waive anonymity, for, say, the purposes of obtaining alibi information may in certain circumstances impede the right to a fair trial thereby making this amendment in contravention of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Similarly, the fact that the courts have no discretion whatever to lift reporting restrictions is likely to make the provision incompatible with Article 10 and the right to freedom of expression. Finally, this amendment and Amendment No. 1Cthe noble Baroness can feel comforted that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, shares this position with herrefer to applying the measure to offences listed in Schedule 3 of this Bill.
If I may respectfully say so, referring to an offence listed in Schedule 3 does not make sense pre-conviction as it would bring in all the thresholds in Schedule 3 which would include those relating to imprisonment. For example, Schedule 3 applies only to a young person who commits a child sex offence if he is sentenced to a term of imprisonment of at least 12 months. It is difficult to see how that would be applied at the pre-charge stage.
I turn to Amendment No. 1C. This amendment seeks to improve Amendment No. 1B by adding exceptions to reporting restrictions. The exceptions would provide that a suspect may waive his right to anonymity and that a court may lift the restrictions on application by a police officer at least of the rank of inspector. Such a delay in making an application to a court could still leave the police with operational difficulties which could put the safety of the public at risk. Furthermore, it would still mean an application to a court in any case where a TV programme such as "Crimewatch"I am sure that noble Lords will be familiar with that programmeor a newspaper asked to give publicity involving identifying the suspect in order to apprehend him. This amendment does not make provision as to the test that should be used by the magistrates' court for disapplying anonymity. We believe that the court should have power to disapply anonymity only if it would be in the interests of justice to do so. There is also no provision for allowing the press to apply for the lifting of reporting restrictions.
The term "publication" is left undefined in this amendment. Yet what constitutes a publication is critical to the scope of the amendment. We believe that it should be defined in the same way as it is for the purposes of the reporting restrictions in the Youth
Finally, this amendment does not spell out the appropriate mode of trial or penalty for this offencea point which the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, with her usual acuity, alighted upon. The effect of this is that the offence would be triable on indictment only with a limitless penalty meaning that a defendant in such a case could, at least in theory, face an unlimited fine and/or a term of life imprisonment!
We have listened very carefully indeed to representations from those concerned about the very real harm that can be caused through the reporting of defendants' details. We also recognise that much concern in these cases arises from the damaging publicity that is often generated pre-charge.
We believe that informed and strengthened guidance to the police and the media is preferable to any change in legislation. The police code of conduct provides that information which comes into the possession of the police should be treated as confidential. It should not be used for personal benefit and nor should it be divulged to other parties except in the proper course of police duty. The code also demands that police officers have a particular responsibility to act with fairness and impartiality in all their dealings with the public and their colleagues. Regardless of whether on or off duty they should not behave in a way which is likely to bring discredit upon the police service. Unauthorised disclosure of information on the suspect by a police officer is likely to be considered a breach of the code. Such a breach means that an officer's conduct has not met the appropriate standard for the purposes of the police conduct regulations, and disciplinary proceedings may commence.
An officer could face dismissal or even prosecution, depending on the circumstances of the case. In 200203, approximately 61 such cases were substantiated. An agreement has been reached with ACPO that it would amend its media and disciplinary guidelines to all forces, to give greater prominence to the rules that govern the release of information about anyone suspected but not yet charged with an offence. That stronger guidance has already been put into effect, bringing the importance of the issue to the attention of police officers.
The Government have also engaged in detailed discussions with the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. As a result, the press is now looking at its code of conduct to see how that can be strengthened to ensure that those suspected but not yet charged with offences are not named in the media.
The Government have gone much further than the amendments would do. They are limited to certain sexual offences under the Bill. We have made it clear in our dealings with the police and the media that we expect them to apply such self-regulation in relation to all offences, including the heinous crime of murder. The Government have never been of the view that sexual offences should be singled out in the way proposed by the amendments.
Of course I have listened with great care to what has been said. The noble Lord, Lord Carlisle of Bucklow, was right in saying that the matters might be capable of being contained pre-charge, but that there would be a terrible hornets' nest if one were to extend further than that. There is a balance between the freedom of the press to report in a proper way and liberty in that sense, and the interests of the parties concerned.
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