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 5:15 pm on 3rd November 2003.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield 5:15 pm, 3rd November 2003

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.