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No Publicity Before Finding Of Guilt

Volume 78: debated on Friday 10 May 1985

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'Pending or during any proceedings under this Act it shall be an offence to mention publicly, publicise or broadcast the name or names of anyone accused under its provisions before such time as such person or persons is found guilty.'.—[Mr. Marlow.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Bill, as hon. Members know, is important. One of the main concerns that has been exhibited so far is the potential problem of an innocent person being found guilty. Innocent people can suffer the damage of being found guilty even when they are not guilty. The purpose of the new clause is to prevent that from happening.

The Bill seeks to have fines of up to £400 for most offences. For those arrested, taken to court, prosecuted and then found to be innocent, their punishment would be many times worse than a £400 fine.

We are dealing with the sort of issue that, rightly or wrongly, can damage reputations in a particular way. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister, as a lawyer, will realise that there is not a verdict of guilty in every case that is taken to court, but I put it to him that when a person is arrested, taken to court, and found to be innocent, having had the case publicised in the newspapers, he will be regarded as guilty by many of his peers. There is an expression that there is no smoke without fire, and this is a very fiery issue.

The purpose of my new clause is to ensure that no publicity should be given in any shape or form to any purported offence until the person concerned has been found guilty. Without that provision, great miscarriages of justice could take place. I believe that the Minister would not wish that to happen any more than I would.

What is involved here in the relationship between a man and a woman is not illegal—the Criminal Law Revision Committee said in one of its papers that it is not even an immoral activity—yet somebody arrested by a policeman, prosecuted and taken to court suffers very grievously if the case is given publicity. It is wrong that such publicity should be given in advance of a verdict.

One can imagine some of the people who could be involved and some of the reputations that could be destroyed. It would not do us any good as Members of Parliament should we be picked up and charged with any of the offences dealt with in the Bill. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) said that when he was a probation officer he used to speak to people on the streets, and that some of them might well have been prosecuted. He might have been picked up inadvertently and wrongly. If publicity had been accorded to him in such circumstances, there would have been great damage to him. It could happen to a Member of Parliament, a lawyer, a judge, an army officer, or anyone from any walk of life.

There is not only the question of a person's professional reputation. There is the damage to the family when publicity is given after someone has been wrongly picked up by the police. It could happen to a husband after 10 years of married bliss. A husband could be going about his business in a proper and dutiful way and as a result of some mistake have his name and the purported offence emblazoned in the press for all the world to see. That would not be very nice for his wife, his marriage, his children, his relations or his friends.

The difficulty, as I have said, is that there is a feeling, deep in most people, that there is no smoke without fire. People have a feeling that if they read something in a newspaper it must be right. If people read about a case in the newspaper and the man is eventually found by the court to be innocent, the original banner headlines will not be repeated; there will simply be a small paragraph somewhere on the inside pages of the newspaper, where no one will read it. But the damage will have been done and the reputation destroyed. The position will then be irredeemable. That is why I hope that the new clause will be acceptable to the House. I remind the House that in rape cases, anonymity is granted in certain circumstances.

In the past, terrible problems could have arisen as a result of publicity. There was a theory at one stage that George V's elder brother, Prince Eddie, was Jack the Ripper. Think what could have happened if a case involving a member of the Royal Family—the next but one in line to the throne—had been emblazoned on the front pages of the press in relation to something that had not happened and of which he was found to be not guilty.

Other aspects of the Bill concern many hon. Members, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris) and myself. We are concerned about the evidence that will be needed and how it will be adduced, and what interpretation will be put upon the term "soliciting". There is uncertainty and concern that in some circumstances the police might be over-enthusiastic in their duty. People might be taken to court unnecessarily and then found not guilty.

I give an example from my own experience. I hasten to add that it did not concern the type of activity under discussion today but it concerned the role of the police. I was driving home behind a police car which was going fairly slowly. There is no law or rule against overtaking a police car, so I did so. Almost immediately after that, there was a hiatus further along the road which caused me to brake aggressively, causing the police car behind me to do the same. The police then pulled me into the side of the road, got me out of the car and started abusing me for dangerous driving, and so on. They said that they intended to prosecute me for crossing a double white line. I swear before this House that I did not cross a double white line. That would have been a very stupid thing to do, given that I was overtaking a police car, so I was ultra-careful. But there were two policemen and me. What was I to do? Should I go to court and testify against two policemen? That would not work. Their evidence would be accepted and mine would be rejected.

Precisely the same thing can happen in other areas, including that under discussion today. Over-zealous police, rightly seeking to sort out a local problem, to protect the neighbourhood and to provide a decent environment for the women of the area to live in without being pestered, might indulge in a campaign and wrongly pick someone up. In those circumstances, there is not just the danger of the person being wrongly found guilty but the danger that even if found innocent his reputation will be besmirched beyond redemption. I should like to hear the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes) on that aspect and I hope that she will accept the new clause.

I am not prepared to accept the new clause because it seems to me to run very much against the general way in which we treat those accused of crime, which is that justice should be seen to be done publicly. There is only limited exception to that and I do not think that it is warranted in this case. So my short answer is no, I am not prepared to accept the new clause.

I should add that I have been deeply disappointed, not to say angered, by the general line taken by my hon. Friends the Members for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) and Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris) in particular. A very reasonable compromise was offered, I found the Opposition very reasonable in their approach, and I believe that we could have done real business and gone on to put on the statute book a modest measure which would have been of real service to those women and residents who are being affronted and harassed at present.

I am sorry to have to say this, but there has been filibustering by my two hon. Friends. It is clear from the time that we shall not get the Bill through, so let us be blunt. The Bill has been killed off by the actions of two of my hon. Friends. I feel deeply hurt and very, very angry.

I share the view expressed by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes) about the new clause moved by the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow), which would run contrary to the way in which we expect our courts to behave. I am appalled at what has happened in the House today. All hon. Members who served on the Committee, and even hon. Members who did not serve on it, are aware that some aspects of the Bill caused anxiety. However, the Minister gave us a firm assurance, in response to my comments and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), that we respect the rights of all citizens who may find their way innocently into areas of prostitution—I have such an area in my constituency—but that we want to see safeguards. It was to the credit of the Minister that he gave an extremely-firm assurance that the matter would be referred back to the House within a reasonable time, and that detailed reports would be made about the legislation's effect on areas where kerb crawling exists about the types of action and numbers of prosecutions initiated by the police. I was more than willing to accept that.

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris) was actively involved in expressing his opposition. Although we may not accept all his comments, we respect hon. Members who have a record of expressing their views, whether we agree with them or not. I try to give him credit for having consistently expressed his reservations about the Bill since Second Reading.

However, the hon. Member for Northampton, North has done a grave disservice to the House today. We have witnessed a classic example of the destruction of legislation for which for many years many of our constituents have been crying out. I am not the only hon. Member who has received requests for such legislation from his constituents. Many hon. Members representing many parts of the country have received similar requests.

In response to an intervention, the hon. Member for Drake said that, regrettably, no legislation was 100 per cent. perfect, and that we could all make criticisms of it. I was convinced that at long last we had a genuine opportunity to start to tackle the problem. For many years and under successive Governments my constituents have asked me to try to get action taken. We had that opportunity. What is more, the Minister assured us that there would be detailed reports back to the House. I made it clear that if it was found from the reports that there were reason for serious anxiety about how the legislation was being implemented, I would tell my constituents that I could no longer support it. But, unfortunately, we have lost everything because of the actions of the hon. Member for Northampton, North. It is an utter disgrace. Constituents throughout the country look to their Members of Parliament to help them with this problem. We have lost that opportunity.

I wholeheartedly endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes) and the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox). It is extremely sad that today, because of the wrecking behaviour of one or two of my hon. Friends, innocent victims of the kerb-crawling nuisance have been denied a remedy for which they have long been looking. It is certainly a sad day for Southampton.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will introduce alternative legislation in the next Session, although he cannot support this Bill further during this Session. There is a desperate need for the problem to be solved by law, and I hope that the Conservative Government will not go easy on their efforts to achieve that objective.

There is a need for the problem to be addressed by law, but it should be addressed by the Home Office. The general law on prostitution must be reformed, and we need a Government Bill that deals with all the problems of prostitution at once. We must deal with how the prostitute meets her client, kerb crawling, and the keeping of a disorderly house—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.