Commons Amendment

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 13th November 2003.

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Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Conservative 5:45 pm, 13th November 2003

My Lords, this group includes Amendment No. 1B, which stands in my name. It proposes a different anonymity in cases involving sexual offences. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, pointed out, my amendment proposes anonymity running only until a defendant has been charged.

We debated the issue in your Lordships' House on Report, what seems almost half a lifetime ago. The case was made forcibly then that defendant anonymity in rape cases throughout the process could prevent other victims of rape or sexual offences coming forward. That was a very powerful point, which, on reflection, has led these Benches to propose the variant of pre-charge anonymity. We do not believe that justice would be served sufficiently by total anonymity for defendants as proposed in the amendment tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner.

My amendment and that of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, allow publicity to ensue once the police have established that there is a case to answer and to charge the individual. But if there is not enough evidence to warrant a charge, publicity of any kind would be against the law. The Minister will argue that sexual offences should be treated no differently from other serious offences, such as murder, where defendant anonymity does not apply. But, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, has already pointed out, society is obsessed with sex, and for that reason, a particular social stigma is attached to those accused of sexual crimes. The celebrity cases that we debated when we discussed the issue previously are very pertinent and reputations have been damaged unnecessarily.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, whose legal abilities are infinitely superior to mine, tells me that his amendment is superior to mine. Both amendments are directed at granting anonymity pre-charge, but the precise wording of each differs. Given that I am surrounded by very eminent lawyers, as a mere accountant, I am extremely humbled and bow to all their legal expertise. I did, however, put one non-lawyer's question to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, yesterday. I asked him why his amendment, unlike mine and that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, had no prescribed penalty. I think that I managed the beginner's luck of scoring a bull's eye. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, will address that point when he speaks to his amendment.

The Minister may argue, as did her honourable friend Mr Goggins in another place, that serious discussions are in train between the Home Office, the police and the media to try to find a solution based on self-regulation. I am sure that if a self-regulatory solution could be found and made to stick, that would be the most satisfactory way forward. But I hope that the Minister will forgive the touch of cynicism on these Benches, as the plain fact is that sex sells and the pressures on a self-regulatory system would be very intense.

I hope that the Minister will be able to accept pre-charge anonymity for defendants in sexual offences cases. In accepting that, it need not imply early commencement. Indeed, we would be more than happy if the Government did not commence a new section to deal with the issue if that was the result of a self-regulatory system that actually worked. But we believe that the offence as set out in my amendment or that of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, should be available to the Government in case their discussions break down or if a future self-regulatory system breaks down.

Let me conclude by saying for the guidance of my noble friends that we do not support the amendment tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner. As between my amendment and that of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, I am persuaded that his formulation of the offence is preferable, subject to the issue that I have raised concerning the penalty. Subject to that point, which I believe the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, intends to address, I shall advise my noble friends to support Amendment No. 1C.