New Clause 4 — Anonymity Of Suspects And Defendants In Certain Cases (No.2)

Part of Sexual Offences Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 5:00 pm on 3rd November 2003.

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Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield 5:00 pm, 3rd November 2003

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.