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 5:45 pm on 3rd November 2003.

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Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office 5:45 pm, 3rd November 2003

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.