'(1) Where an allegation has been made that a person has committed an offence listed in Schedule 3 to the Sex Offenders Act 1997, no matters relating to that person shall be included in any broadcast or publication that would result in his identification prior to such person being charged.
(2) If any matter is published or broadcast in contravention of subsection (1) the following persons, namely—
(a) the author or broadcaster, if the publication or broadcast took place with their consent;
(b) in the case of a publication in a newspaper or periodical, any proprietor, editor and publisher of such newspaper or periodical;
(c) in the case of any other publication, the person who publishes it; and
(d) in the case of matter included in any broadcast, any body corporate which is engaged in providing the service in which the broadcast is involved and any editor or controller of such broadcast
shall be guilty of the offence.
(3) Any offence hereunder shall be punishable
(a) on summary conviction by—
(i) a sentence of 6 months imprisonment,
(ii) a fine of Level 5 on the Standard scale,
(iii) or both;
(b) on conviction on indictment by—
(i) a sentence of 2 years imprisonment,
(ii) a fine,
(iii) or both.'.—[Mr. Grieve.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
This issue took up a considerable amount of time in Committee, and we need to consider it further before the Bill returns to another place. As the House will be aware, the Bill came from the Lords with an amendment, made against the Government's wishes, that would have ensured anonymity for those alleged to have committed rape and other offences right up to conviction and throughout the trial process. That was debated in Committee, where the Government argued forcefully that such a blanket prohibition on reporting might interfere with the interests of justice after charge and during the trial process, and that victims might not come forward if, while the police were attempting to identify other potential victims, they did not know that somebody had been charged with an offence. I fully accept the Government's second argument that anonymity went against the general principle that the trial process should take place in public, with the public being made aware of the identity of the person on trial.
New clause 4 does not seek to reopen that wider issue. However, a narrower issue received consideration in Committee—the publicity attached to those being investigated for sex offences prior to their being charged. Examples, some of them very recent, were given of individuals who had been subjected to great media scrutiny, adverse publicity, investigation and inquiry into their background, which was reproduced in the press, but who at the end of the day were not charged with anything at all. There has been a great deal of public disquiet about this issue, and one way of dealing with it would be to impose a prohibition on publicity, broadcasting or publication that identified the person under investigation once an allegation had been made to the police.
As the Under-Secretary of State is aware, the purpose of new clause 4 is to facilitate that debate and impose such a prohibition. I apologise to the House because, as currently drafted, new clause 4 does not meet that objective. I felt that new clause 1, which the Liberal Democrats tabled, was flawed, and did my best to correct it by drafting new clause 4. However, the reference to schedule 3 to the Sex Offenders Act 1997 is erroneous—it should be to schedule 3 to the Bill. However, I do not think that the Minister was misled, and I believe that he fully understands the thrust and purpose of the new clause.
New clause 4 would prohibit broadcasting or publication identifying a suspect or defendant and would make such activity a criminal offence for the author or broadcaster if it
"took place with their consent".
The provision would also impose penalties on newspapers, their publishers and owners for such publication or broadcasting. Punishment would be a fine or six months' imprisonment or, on conviction on indictment, two years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine.
Many hon. Members may agree with what the hon. Gentleman is trying to do, but how could the new clause be enforced in respect of overseas publications and the internet? In high-profile cases, the word on who is involved gets around rapidly. If the new clause cannot be enforced, why discuss it?
The hon. Gentleman is right that there is a limit on the territoriality of the jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales. It is therefore always possible to publish abroad material that cannot be published here. If someone published such material on the internet and it came into this country, however, they could be arrested and prosecuted if they subsequently happened to visit this country. I shall return to the issue of the internet in a moment, because it is important.
My hon. Friend will know that publishing can be defined quite widely and could extend to the vendors of newspapers. Will he confirm that the new clause is not intended to catch small shops that sell newspapers?
I understand my right hon. and learned Friend's point. Proposed subsection (2)(b) makes it clear that the intention is not to catch the vendor, since it refers
"in the case of a publication in a newspaper or periodical" to
"any proprietor, editor and publisher of such newspaper or periodical".
Let me make the point clear—this is a difficult area of legislation, but that is not to say that we should not consider it. I am conscious that the new clause may contain a number of flaws, some of which I shall return to in a moment. I can already see some other areas that may need to be examined, but that is not to say that we do not need to consider this area. A serious situation is developing, and it will get worse.
I have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but there may be a fundamental difficulty with subsection (1), which states that
"Where an allegation has been made that a person has committed an offence", they cannot be identified prior to their being charged. It strikes me that in a case in which the authorities were looking for someone who could be in any part of the UK—Scotland, England or wherever—a complete ban on identification could lead to difficulties in catching them before they committed further crimes.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I was about to deal with precisely that matter. I accept that there are two areas in which one might consider it perfectly proper for a public allegation to be made. First, it would be proper where, for whatever reason, a serious allegation of a sexual offence was made against an individual, but for reasons that no one could understand, the authorities appeared to refuse to act upon it. I fully appreciate that there would be sound public policy reasons why a newspaper might want to publicise the allegation if it considered that the police were failing to take action. I accept that that matter would touch on the right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression.
Secondly—Mr. Weir was right to raise this point—there might be a circumstance in which publicity was necessary to arrest somebody for a serious offence. Again, he makes a good point.
There is also a third situation: a person against whom an allegation has been made might want publicity, if only to establish an alibi that he might otherwise have some difficulty in establishing. He might want to identify people who saw him in a particular place. The new clause contains no defence of the consent of the person against whom the allegation has been made.
I am most grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for that additional example. That precise area was considered in Committee. The view that I expressed there—I continue to hold it—is that if a saving clause were introduced to allow a person to waive that right, I would not object to it.
The debate highlights the fact that we are considering a complex area. The issue before the House this afternoon is what message we should send back to the other place, which widely amended the legislation in the first place, about our attitude to the issue both in its totality and in particular in relation to anonymity before charge.
I refer the House to comments in a newspaper today by the outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir David Calvert-Smith, on matters of great importance. When the issue was raised with him of the coverage of recent rape allegations made against premiership footballers, and allegations made against the television presenter John Leslie, he said:
"I think there is a huge problem. As a prosecutor, I would be very happy to see the media exercise greater restraint, however interesting it may be" to their readers. He went on:
"Even if they are not technically breaking the law, they are either making it more difficult or actually impossible to bring offenders to justice. The clamour to reduce trial by jury will grow the more publicity gets out of hand, because it will be said you cannot trust a jury to try these cases so they must be tried by a judge alone who will not be overly impressed by pre-trial publicity."
The issue is not just about the protection of the individual in terms of the adverse publicity that he receives through the process. My anxiety, which the House must consider, is that we may get to a stage where a person against whom there may be very strong evidence that certainly merits going to trial and may lead to his conviction, ends up having the trial process discontinued because the level of adverse publicity that he received when he was investigated by the police was so bad that no fair trial was possible. What is clear from the remarks of Sir David Calvert-Smith is that he is intensely anxious about the current trends and the way in which pre-charge publicity is developing.
Of course, one of the issues is the use of the internet, where one sees, if I may put it this way, a circular process by which the media start by not saying very much but are egged on by the fact that the information soon starts to appear on the internet. The barriers break down and the adverse publicity and identification of individuals start to follow.
I am mindful of the fact that the Government have indicated—and I dare say the Minister will indicate again this afternoon—that they are seeking to arrive at a measure of agreement with the media to try to curb the excesses that have undoubtedly taken place. I entirely welcome that, and I say that to the Minister now. It is possible that it may provide a way forward but, clearly, it will not entirely provide a way forward, because it will still be possible for individuals to put all sorts of information on the internet. Although I am mindful of the fact that that may be done from abroad, the reality is that persons who take such interest in these matters are likely to be nationals and that, if they engage in such activity abroad, they are likely to come back here. If there were penalties for such behaviour, some of the mischief that we are seeking to deal with could be curbed, although I accept that it may not be possible to eradicate it entirely.
My hon. Friend will be aware that many of the western nations that are among the main sources of the internet and internet data are watching the Bill with considerable interest. If we got the right approach in the Bill, along the lines that my hon. Friend is referring to, there would be some reaction among the other nations, and therefore a thinning of the sources of such placing of material on the internet.
The hon. Gentleman is making some excellent points, which it is in the public interest to raise, and I readily accept that. Of course, the points that he makes about adverse publicity pre-charge apply to all offences, not just to sexual offences. Would not his arguments be better applied in some different quarter and not specifically to the Bill? He knows that I have real concerns about stigmatising complainants in sexual offences cases alone as we are likely not to get convictions. Is not that the unfortunate consequence of what he is advocating, when what he should be doing is looking at the problem in the round?
The hon. and learned Lady makes an extremely good point. It would probably be a good thing if the Under-Secretary indicated that the Government were minded to propose legislation across all offences. There is a clear argument that those accused of serious offences other than sex offences ought perhaps to enjoy the same protection; I emphasise that this is not about protecting the defendant, but about protecting the administration of justice. If this process continues, there will come a time when the principles under which justice has been administered in this country will become difficult to maintain because of the amount of prejudicial material circulated pre-trial. That causes me real anxiety. The hon. and learned Lady is right and her suggestion would be a way of approaching the matter.
However, this is a sexual offences bill, and it provides us with an opportunity—one that I fear we will not get again for a considerable period—to consider this particular issue. I am also bound to say, and the hon. and learned Lady may agree, that in reality this type of problem seems to arise particularly in relation to allegations of sexual misconduct—not solely, but the examples that we have seen in the last decade centre upon it. That is partly because allegations of sexual misconduct and impropriety justifiably excite a great deal of public opprobrium, as well as a degree of public prurience and interest. We cannot argue that we should abandon the scrutiny of sex offences just because we ought to be considering the matter in its totality.
I am a believer in incremental legislation. If the House sends a signal over this matter, the Government may well start to heed that signal in the wider context. It will be unfortunate if that does not happen. My fear is that we will simply carry on as we have done, but with a deteriorating situation—partly because of the sheer number of opportunities that exist to disseminate widely information that may turn out be prejudicial to a subsequent trial.
I agree that the provision should apply more widely. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the evidence from the editor of one of the tabloids to the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, in which she made it plain that it was common practice to pay police officers for information about the point of arrest. Does he agree that, irrespective of the virtues of the current proposal, it should be an absolute disciplinary offence to advise the press about the point of arrest and that, where money changes hands, it should be a corrupt act and punishable as such?
The hon. Gentleman is right. There is no doubt that the police ought to be investigating allegations and it is part of their code of conduct that they should do so confidentially unless they have to go to the public for a specific reason—for instance, when there is a suspect who they really must get hold of. Otherwise, it is part of their duty not to publicise the case before charge. Yet we know that that is happening routinely. Parliamentary answers show that police officers have been disciplined on numerous occasions for having carried out this act, and I fear that that is only the tip of the iceberg.
That this process should exist is deeply corrupting to the police, because there is clear evidence to suggest that it is done in return for cash. The media are participating and it is for their benefit that it takes place. The public interest does not appear to be considered one jot. This is why I am so anxious that self-regulation—for which we might wish in an ideal world—will prove to be completely impossible to achieve. If it is impossible to achieve, we must look further.
The hon. Gentleman dealt with one aspect of my point, in that as we are discussing the Sexual Offences Bill and nothing else, we cannot look more widely now, but he did not deal with the other aspect of it, and I now invite him to do so. If one confines anonymity for defendants to sexual offences, as he proposes, there is a real danger of stigmatising complainants in cases involving sexual offences as likely to be liars, and not to be believed.
The hon. and learned Lady raised that point powerfully in Committee, when she said, as I recollect, that she was concerned about the prospect of anonymity being granted to a defendant throughout the trial process because the underlying implication appeared to be that because the allegation was of a sexual nature, it was more likely to be disbelieved.
That point had more force in relation to the trial process, but I do not consider that it has force in relation to the investigatory process. As I have said, I am sympathetic to the idea of legislating, if necessary, to cover all criminal offences, which would get rid of the problem that the hon. and learned Lady has identified. In the meantime, however, the level of publicity that we have seen in the press means that there is no doubt that that particular problem has crystallised around sexual offences.
Applying pragmatic principles, therefore, it seems to me that we should address that matter in this Bill. Of course, I have no way of knowing what will happen when the Bill goes back to those in another place, but they originally amended the Bill to extend anonymity throughout the trial process, and if we do not address the issue before charge, they may choose to do so again.
Considering carefully what has taken place, and applying the general principle that this House should consider carefully what the other place does and come back with its own opinion, it seems to me that the greatest force in what was done there applied to the pre-trial period. The Minister has said several times that he accepts that there is a problem with the pre-charge period, and I think that this House can do something about that.
I accepted at the outset that, for technical reasons, it will not be possible to do that by using the very words of my new clause—but there is a principle here. I think that it is possible to take on board the point made by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg about his anxieties concerning any change, and to perfect the new clause so as to ensure that it still allows for publicity when required, and that the change will not be detrimental to the defendant if he legitimately requires publicity—for instance, to provide himself with an alibi—yet at the same time to send out the message that a practice that is becoming all too common in this country is simply unacceptable.
It should come as no surprise that we support the principle in the new clause, because we led on a similar new clause in Committee, when Mr. Grieve and his colleagues were pursuing a slightly different line. We do not therefore have much sympathy for any errors that may have been inadvertently transcribed from our new clause to this one.
More seriously, this is an important matter and we wholeheartedly support the principles behind the new clause. We had a good discussion in Committee and examined the main issues that we are addressing now. We clearly made the point that of course it would be possible to amend the general principles so that in certain circumstances reporting restrictions could be lifted. We appreciate that there may be urgent reasons for catching a suspect who is a potential danger to the public. Equally, as has been mentioned, sometimes a person might want to waive the right to anonymity because it was in their interests to do so. Those two aspects could be taken on board through a properly drafted amendment.
We also need to address the question of why we are considering just sexual offences, rather than all cases; in fact, we need anonymity pre-charge for all cases. However, the Bill provides an opportunity to start the process, and there is an argument for doing so as long as we include all sexual offences. I agreed with Vera Baird when we discussed the issue of rape alone. In the case of certain sexual offences, there have been dramatic instances of whole careers being destroyed. If we wait for the right time—when there is room in the Government's timetable—for the issue to be considered fully and legislated on, many people will suffer. We have an opportunity to help today. The point has been strongly made that under the current provisions the guilty party might not be convicted because a fair trial will be impossible. So there are various good reasons why we should start the process now.
As I pointed out in Committee, I am following a line that the Home Affairs Committee took not just with the Bill, but during its investigation of abuse in children's homes. In both respects, it strongly recommended anonymity up to the point of charge. In the light of some powerful debates on the Floor of the House and in Westminster Hall, it seems that the trawling of cases of potential abuse in children's homes may have caught the innocent, whose lives have been damaged as a consequence of their names being published. That is something that we cannot undo.
I am very alarmed by what the hon. Lady says. If she is moving towards preventing the police, when they have a couple of complaints from children, from trying to locate other potential complainants, I would be extremely concerned. There have been many rightly brought convictions in which the press have played a powerful role in promoting, in the interests of justice, the allegations made in the interests of looking for others. The hon. Lady is in danger of calling into question too readily an entire tranche of police prosecution, and mixing that up with the issue before us.
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for that intervention; I thought it right to refer to that issue. Of course, if an application were made for reporting restrictions to be lifted, the case would be put before someone who makes a judgment; the matter would not be dealt with in an uncontrolled way. In such circumstances, there would be an evidence-based reason for making public the particular names.
If I may, I shall move on.
We are particularly concerned about information coming from the police and its subsequent publication by the media. We welcome the fact that the Minister is having discussions on the latter issue, but we have no confidence whatsoever that any voluntary agreement that is reached will necessarily be upheld in high-profile cases. Of course, there have been many recent such cases, that of Matthew Kelly being one that we might consider briefly. His arrest, after a pantomime performance, was well publicised. Indeed, an enormous amount of publicity was generated, including headlines such as, "Matthew Kelly held over child sex." He was accused of sexually attacking boys and all sorts of things, but at the end of the day the police took no further action. That shows the power of the media: they sell papers on the basis of such stories, so will a voluntary agreement ever be enough?
The discussions going on with the police are doubly welcome because there are processes available on the basis of which the police can take strong action. If police officers are found guilty of providing information to the press during the pre-charge process, the Liberal Democrats feel that the strongest action should be taken against them. Of all the points that I have raised, I should like to emphasise that it is right to consider the principle of anonymity at the pre-charge stage.
I shall be brief. I approach the matter with considerable caution for four reasons. First, I am reluctant to make a distinction between sexual and non-sexual offences. I recognise, of course, that the House has previously made that distinction, but I am very cautious indeed about it. In my view, the distinction is not well made.
Secondly, as argued earlier, it is frequently the case that the police know who they want to interview and the only way in which they are likely to get that individual is by providing a description in the press that is sufficient to identify him. Of course, the proposal of my hon. Friend Mr. Grieve stands in the way of that.
Thirdly, a further and related problem applies particularly to sexual offences alleged to have been committed some time previously. Quite often other complainants come forward to allege that the person against whom the allegations were made committed the same offence against them perhaps 10 or 15 years previously. If the course of action identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield carries the House, that particular problem will become substantial and I should not have thought that the House would want it to be a consequence of the legislation.
Fourthly—and I touched on a further point in an earlier intervention—from time to time, perhaps not very frequently, a person against whom an allegation has been made will want to gain publicity in order to assert that he or she is not the person in respect of whom certain rumours are current. I do not read football publicity very much, but I have a feeling that a footballer did just that about three weeks ago. He sought out publicity to say that he was not the footballer in respect of whom allegations had been made.
I also want to make the point that I am rather cautious about anonymity post-charge and during a trial—a point that has been ventilated in the debate. I know of a recent case in the east midlands where a witness came forward during a murder trial to assert that he had seen somebody else at a particular place at the critical moment. That evidence was, in the end, discredited, but it is not wholly unusual for witnesses to come forward as a result of evidence given in a publicised case where the defendant has been identified.
I want to conclude this part of my speech and then I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.
All that makes me rather cautious about the approach proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield. Of course it is right to debate the matter and an important issue is at stake, but I am sceptical about my hon. Friend's particular approach.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that one of the answers to the valid criticisms that he makes is that there is a significant time lapse between trial and charge, and that other people can come forward, bring evidence or make complaints. It is not as though that opportunity is lost. In many cases where there has been a pattern of offences, there may be more than one trial governing offences over a long period. What the right hon. and learned Gentleman says is a concern, but need not be a complete objection.
I am not trying to say that the arguments that I advance constitute, collectively or individually, a complete objection, because we should debate this issue. It is a proper issue to address, but I am cautious about it. I have a strong feeling that there are more objections to this approach than right hon. and hon. Members have fully identified at this stage. I suspect that we will not put the matter to a vote tonight and we will have further opportunities to debate it, so I wish to do no more at this stage than express tentative doubts.
I understand those doubts, but how would the right hon. and learned Gentleman deal with the mischief caused by so much publicity about possible charges which, in many cases, prevents a fair trial?
I agree that that is a problem. Indeed, as Vera Baird said, that is not only a problem in cases of sexual offences, but extends to all criminal cases. I would continue attempts to reach a voluntary agreement. Failing that, I would give serious consideration to enlarging the categories of case in which the Attorney-General may apply for an injunction.
I do not pretend that I have come to a concluded view. I do not know—the outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions did not tell us—how many cases have been voided as a result of pre-trial publicity. I suspect that the number is relatively small, partly because of the long gap between charges being laid and trial, which the hon. Gentleman himself mentioned. I have tried abuse of trial arguments in cases that have received pre-trial publicity. I have managed to have the venue of trials changed. But I cannot recall having a case voided as a result. It happens less often than we fear, but I accept that it may happen.
The injunction process may be the right approach to address the issue, but that may be more suitable for debate on another day. I am cautious about the approach recommended by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, but I am sure that he is right to identify it as an issue to be addressed.
This issue was discussed extensively in Committee and few new matters have been raised, so I shall direct my attention to the point made by Mr. Grieve that the category of sexual offences is as good a place as any to start. In fact, it is a bad place to start. As a lawyer, he will know that one cannot separate sexual offences from their history.
How we attempt to solve this problem is not only of academic interest, because it is not so long ago that we had anonymity for defendants in sexual offence cases only. It lasted for only a short time and was introduced in the teeth of the Heilbron recommendations. It was widely seen as a slight on complainants in sexual offence cases, because it seemed to suggest that they could be so little relied on that the defendant was expected to be acquitted and was therefore given extra protection that no other offence merited. At that time in our history, it was not even an offence for a man to rape his wife, and women rape complainants were considered so unreliable that they had to be corroborated or else there could be no conviction. That history has resonance for women today and we must not revisit it by adopting the hon. Gentleman's proposals.
The issue is not only one of history. The current conviction rate in rape trials is some 5.7 per cent., which is hopeless, especially given that it is generally thought that only 10 per cent. of those who are raped complain formally. The conviction rate for the bulk of offending is very low. The police, the Crown Prosecution Service and even judges, to some extent, have done a good deal to try to rectify that. They have tried to give complainants confidence that they will be supported, that every piece of evidence that can be looked for will be looked for, and that there is a real chance of obtaining a conviction when complainants go to court with a true allegation. To what extent will all that effort be undermined if we announce from this Chamber that Parliament thinks that rape complainants are unlikely to get convictions and that defendants should therefore be given a very special protection?
I appreciate that the hon. and learned Lady speaks from experience, but will she address a point that I have not yet heard anyone deal with? There are those whose professional lives depend on their not being faced with such allegations. A head teacher in my constituency appears to have committed suicide after being suspended when an allegation was made by one child. I cannot tell whether that head teacher was guilty—no one will ever know—but there are arguments beyond that which the hon. and learned Lady is making.
The hon. Gentleman, even if he cites an example that I assume has to do with a sexual offence, simply makes once again the point in favour of the need for an adequate balance of protection for anyone against whom a nasty allegation is made. For example, surely he does not think that Mrs. West did not suffer from bad publicity, or that if, by some strange quirk of fate, she had never been prosecuted, she would not have suffered much assassination of her character when she was freed. The danger that he raises goes across the board and is not confined to sexual offences.
There is something slightly different about sexual offences. In the case of Mr. and Mrs. West, there were dead bodies and disappeared girls who had to be accounted for. There was extra evidence suggesting that a criminal offence had taken place. In the case to which my hon. Friend Mr. Turner referred, an allegation was made by a child, perhaps for vexatious reasons. Yet the man involved has died. He may have been guilty; we do not know. There is something different about sex, and the motives involved may be different.
The hon. Lady made the same point in Committee; I thought it interesting but inconclusive then, and I do now. Is she saying that, because there tends to be physical evidence in some kinds of case and not in others, those cases in which there is not usually any physical evidence should have the protection of anonymity for defendants? She would find that a hard test to apply: the element of evidence differs widely in case after case. Frequently, evidence is available to be looked for and found by the police in child sex allegations and rape allegations. Sometimes, because the police share the tendency to think it unlikely that a conviction will follow, they do not look for that evidence with the vehemence with which they would look for evidence in other cases. The new clause would add to that tendency by saying that even we in Parliament do not think it worth their putting a great deal of effort into pursuing such evidence because the conviction rate is so low that we think that people must be protected against its ever being known that they have been charged.
The Minister and his colleagues have sought a voluntary agreement to try to stop leaks and to make it a serious disciplinary offence for police officers in particular to be involved with leaks. That is the right—indeed, the only—way to proceed.
We have had an excellent debate, as we did in Committee. I had spotted the technical point made by Mr. Grieve, and I am glad that it did not prevent our being able to debate such an important matter. As my hon. and learned Friend Vera Baird said, it involves the public interest, and it is right that the House should debate that.
This issue takes us to the heart of the balance between living in an open and free society and the need to protect individuals. Some, of course, would argue that anonymity should be provided throughout the whole judicial process. As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield pointed out, that idea was built into an amendment that we rejected in Committee. There is considerable evidence to show that benefits come from openness after a charge has been made, and I am pleased that debate on the issue seems now to focus on the pre-charge period of the process. That is a step forward, because it means that we share some common ground. In most cases, individuals should be able to expect anonymity up to the point of charge. There are exceptions to that rule, such as serious cases in which the police may need to warn the public that a particularly dangerous person is on the loose so that people may be on the lookout. We all know that people who are wrongly accused—people who are merely under investigation—can lose a great deal in terms of their standing and reputation, in their jobs and in their own personal feelings and self-confidence. Given that there is some common ground between us, the central question is whether we take the legislative route or continue to pursue self-regulation.
We, as legislators, and the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, as the mover of new clause 4, must deal with another question: why anonymity should relate only to sexual offences. Clearly, other serious offences would not be covered, including murder, serious fraud or even the case of a sex offender who was accused of grievous bodily harm as well as rape. Anonymity cannot relate automatically to sexual offending; that would be a very dangerous move.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made it clear on Second Reading that we were determined to continue towards self-regulation rather than taking the legislative route. We adhered to that position in Committee, and we adhere to it today. Ministers and officials have been in discussion with the police and the media about their respective systems of self-regulation in this area. Guidelines from the Association of Chief Police Officers already make it clear that information that is in the hands of the police is confidential. It is not to be used for personal benefit or given to third parties. It is absolutely implicit in the guidelines that fairness and impartiality are essential in all dealings with the public.
Indeed. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to point out that that is a criminal offence. Disclosure of information on a suspect is clearly a serious matter, and it is almost certainly a breach of the ACPO code. It already leads to disciplinary action, and I can confirm that 61 cases were substantiated last year. ACPO is considering how to strengthen the guidelines.
The Minister touches on a point that I have already raised in an intervention. I have seen footage of police raids carried out with an accompanying camera and heard the chief constable applauding that fact and seeing it as an advertisement for his force that the footage shows people being carried away in handcuffs. That cannot be right, and ACPO needs to address the issue much more seriously.
There are instances in which that sort of thing happens because it is in the public interest. Clearly, no money changes hands in those cases, and that is the point. As Mr. Hogg said, that would be a criminal offence, which would not be the case with the circumstances outlined by Mr. Heath.
Discussions are also ongoing with senior media representatives. They are taking place in a positive atmosphere, although, like our debate tonight, they reflect the complexity arising from the fact that the media are not confined to our islands but are truly international—we live in the age of the internet. It is clearly a complex area, but the Government still believe that the self-regulation route is preferable and that it can help us to achieve our objectives.
The Minister says that self-regulation is preferable, but he has almost conceded that it is practically unworkable because of the internet and so forth. If in the long term the all-too-familiar examples continue to appear on the front pages of the media, will he review that route? On occasion, people's lives are ruined by the publicity that is generated. There will be a time when a story is so big that one of the tabloid newspapers—or even a broadsheet newspaper—will not be able to resist paying for an exclusive.
I have not conceded that that route is not possible. Indeed, I am involved in some of the discussions on it with the firm intention that they can be concluded positively. That is the spirit in which I am working, notwithstanding the fact that we live in the age of the internet and face many challenges.
I realise that my point comes on top of other pressure from the Opposition Benches, but as the Minister cannot yet tell us that he has delivered an agreement with the chief police officers and the media, will he tell us whether he expects to deliver much tighter, agreed guidelines before the legislation reaches the statute book? Will those be published, and will breaches be punished under criminal law if the media or the police breach the rules?
It is important to make the point that I shall not be the one who delivers. It will be the police and the media who deliver, and they understand the issue. They know that we are debating it in the House today, and they know that the pressure is building. Both are looking at their internal guidelines to see whether they can be strengthened in a way that helps us to achieve a solution that is short of the legislative route.
I shall reflect on the hon. Gentleman's point. Indeed, I was reflecting on his earlier point about the circumstances of the constituent to whom he referred, and the place of professional people who are suspended when such information comes into the public domain. We obviously need to safeguard against those connections. Again, I believe that such a safeguard can be achieved within the voluntary route.
I conclude by saying that, in a very good speech, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield conceded that the voluntary route may deliver the sort of solution that we all seek. He said that it might prove to be a possible way forward. He then speculated about the message that we are sending from this House to the other place. I hope that he will share that message, which is to ask those in the other place not to pre-empt the possibility that the voluntary route may work by trying to force the statutory route upon us. He concedes that the voluntary route may be possible. Let us see if it can be made to work.
We should send a united message to the other place: we want to see whether that route can work, rather than jump to the legislative solution too soon. In that spirit, I hope that, even at this stage, the hon. Gentleman will agree to withdraw the new clause and send that united message to the other place.
The Minister tempts me, and I put on record, as I have on many occasions, that my pleasure in the passage of the Bill has been the degree of consensus that we have been able to achieve and the rational debate that has taken place as a result. In that sense, it has been a remarkable piece of legislation to see through Committee, so I am sorry that I shall have to disappoint the Minister on this occasion.
As always happens with legislation, the problem is that we are running out of time. The Minister wants the legislation on the statute book by the end of the Session, which I support, but we have to send a message about the remaining areas of concern to us. This is the second reading of a new clause and, in the absence of concrete proposals from the Minister on self-regulation, the House ought to be very concerned about what I see as a deteriorating situation. I am mindful of what has been said and of the point that we make a distinction for sex offences if we go down this road. Having said that, it is noteworthy that this is the very point that the past Director of Public Prosecutions said should be of great concern. He has highlighted the fact that the current contempt of court provisions are not sufficient to meet that concern. In those circumstances, it is right that the House should pronounce on the principles in the new clause.