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Commons Amendment

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 13th November 2003.

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Photo of Lord Ackner Lord Ackner Crossbench 6:15 pm, 13th November 2003

My Lords, at the outset of the debate on Report, I drew attention to the gap between 1976 and 1988, 12 years during which the defendant enjoyed anonymity. I said in terms that there had been no evidence of that giving rise to injustice or causing any problem at all. That was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, for whose speech I am much indebted. Where is the problem? We have had a situation where the defendant enjoyed anonymity. What is the anxiety about putting that back? I will tell noble Lords what the anxiety is. It is the fear of criticism by the press.

In a speech which I and all other High Court judges had to make once a year at the University of Birmingham, I said in terms that the greatest problem facing any democracy is how to achieve a responsible press. Your Lordships may agree that recent events concerning the Prince of Wales make that position even clearer today.

This Government, like any other, refuse to face up to the need for legislation on privacy and they have left it entirely to self-regulation. One of my critics was the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy. She said that one would lose the willingness of people to come forward, but she also said this about the press:

"The editor of one of our tabloid newspapers recently gave evidence before the Home Office Select Committee and said that her newspaper had paid money to police officers for information. It is well known that there are leaks from the police, particularly when the people involved have a public profile or an eminent position, whatever it might be. There are frequently leaks because it makes for good tabloid coverage".—[Official Report, 2/6/03; cols. 1092-3.]

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, made a strong point on the subject. She said:

"The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, said that others may come forward. If someone has a complaint, he or she should make it. It is rare for people to come forward when there is publicity. It is much more important that both the defendant and the complainant are treated equally in these exceptional circumstances".—[Official Report, 2/6/03; col. 1086.]

That is why she supported the amendment.

Returning to other matters that have been raised, perhaps I may deal first with the law on rape as it is now. An obligation on the judge to give the jury a warning about the absence of corroboration has been removed. I suppose that that was because pressure groups said that it was rude to suggest that women make up false allegations.

I have had the pleasure of listening, in Privy Council in particular, to the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, but I have never had the pleasure of leading him. I am grateful to him for being an efficient junior by pointing out the fact that there are frequently cases that are made up. Your Lordships may recall that they are made up not only maliciously, but also by an illusion. That was firmly demonstrated in that fine drama, A Passage To India. A wretched Indian was put into prison, but while he was being tried, the situation suddenly became clear to the complainant. The penalty deficiency can easily be put right as has been properly pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, during the course of his observations.

That completes the points I want to raise because it deals with the various criticisms which have been made. I do not believe that the timid reliance on self-regulation, in order to ensure that you do not fall out with the press, is any argument at all. It is the Government's function primarily to stand up to the press. Until they do so, we shall continually have an irresponsible press.

Having listened to what has been said, I believe that this is an appropriate case in which to test the opinion of the House.