I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am grateful, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity, which arose as a result of my being drawn in the ballot for private Members’ Bills, to introduce the Bill in the House. It is important that I begin by explaining where the Bill comes from and what I seek to achieve, because I hope to cure a real mischief. Hon. Members will recall what happened last summer, and I am not keen to rekindle that debate. The coalition Government proposed that anonymity be given to people when they were arrested and subsequently charged with the offence of rape. There was much debate; many of us did not think that it was a good idea and, in various ways, we made it clear that such a change in law was not required.
We made representations both in private and in public, and it is very much to the credit of the Government and of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), that there was a change of heart. I say that, because I know that he had a long-held belief born quite properly out of a constituent’s case with which he had dealt many years ago, and which had stayed with him. I hope all hon. Members would wish to act when they come across something that they think is wrong, and we have the great benefit of having a place in the Chamber and a process that we can use to succeed in righting a wrong. I should like to play a part in righting what I believe is a serious wrong.
The Bill comes from that debate. Many of us, even though we did not necessarily support the coalition’s proposals, felt that we could all come together and agree that there was a serious problem that had evolved over the years and that needed to be solved. In the past, the press did not publish the name and address of someone when they were arrested, but waited until they were charged to do so. Over the past few years, that has all changed. The press not only publish the name and address of someone when they have been arrested but they give more details. As we have recently seen with events in Bristol, it has reached the stage where many of us believe it has got to stop. A great wrong is being done, and it is time that it was righted. That is what I seek to do—to stop this sort of reporting.
The problem with publicity arrangements when someone has been arrested is that the media can refer to all kinds of detail that they are not allowed to refer to once a charge is brought. Is my hon. Friend trying to fill that gap?
My hon. Friend is quite right—that is exactly what I am trying to do. I do not want to turn this into a debate about press freedom, because it is not as simple as that.
I should like to explain where I am coming from—a dreadful modern expression, but it is an accurate description. About 30 years ago, I first became involved in student politics—you may remember those times, Mr Speaker. I was a student reading law—you were probably at kindergarten—and I became involved in student politics. I then trained to become a barrister. Student politics, rather bizarrely, took me to Scotland, because I won an election. I blame not just the good students of Stirling university for that but my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer)—we, too, go back many years. I ended up as the honorary president of Stirling university, and I was in need of a job.
It had always been my intention and ambition to work in the broadcast media, for reasons that I do not need to divulge to the House. The only good advice that I ever got about how to achieve my ambition was to start on a local newspaper and learn my trade as a journalist. I did that. I worked for a year on a newspaper called the Alloa and Hillfoots Advertiser and Journal. It was a great publication. It employed at least two reporters, and I was one of them. I covered everything, from the fortunes of Alloa Athletic right through to the editing of the pigeon club—one of my greatest moments in journalism. In all seriousness, I honed a trade there. I learned a great deal. At that time we never published the name and address of anybody who was arrested, because a convention existed.
In due course I was lucky enough to go into television. I worked in television for many, many years, not just as a presenter, but as a reporter. I have always been very proud of my membership of the National Union of Journalists. I was shop steward. That does not make me a good journalist, but I hope it explains where I am coming from, and I do not want my remarks to be seen as an attack on all the people with whom I had the great honour to work and whose skills I still admire.
If we look at what is happening in Egypt, we know that it is because of the courage of the media there that not just all of us know what is going on there, but most importantly, the people of that country, notwithstanding the oppression in place, know what is happening. We sometimes forget the invaluable work that the media do, and how brave and courageous many reporters are, especially in such situations. I am keen to emphasise that this is not an attack on the media, but it is a serious criticism of the antics that have prevailed for too long among certain sections of the media. That is what the Bill seeks to address.
I mentioned events in Bristol. Let me make it clear that I do not intend to name anybody, and I am sure that hon. Members will also be keen not to name anybody, save for this: I do not think there is anybody who is not aware of the publicity and media coverage that was given to the first man who was arrested following the murder of Joanna Yeates. It is right and fair to say that everybody with any sense of decency and sensibility has accepted that the coverage of that individual was, if not outrageous, as I believe it was, certainly unacceptable and plain wrong. It is as if we had forgotten that one is innocent in this land until proven guilty. Unfortunately, it is not the first time that that has happened, but it is the most extreme case that we have seen.
Everyone tends to forget that on being arrested, a person suffers the trauma of the arrest. It is difficult to imagine a worse accusation than to be accused of taking somebody’s life, raping someone or doing something horrible to a child. There is the trauma of the process and the nature of the allegation, and on top of that, the person’s name and address appear in the local paper. If it is a high-profile case, they appear in the national papers.
It is not just the naming of someone as a person of interest. If we recall the landlord in Bristol, it was the castigation, the crawling over of that gentleman’s background, the questioning of his looks, his eccentricity and his sexuality that were abhorrent and that will follow him around for ever. Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem is not just the naming, but the castigation that follows such people around afterwards?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes exactly the point that is most pertinent. It is the vilification. I have used the expression and I do not hesitate to use it again. What we saw in Bristol was, in effect, a feeding frenzy and vilification. Much of the coverage was not only completely irrelevant, but there was a homophobic tone to it which I found deeply offensive. The slurs on the man were out of order. All good and decent people in this country accept that. I include in that number fellow journalists.
I am grateful to all the people who have contacted me by letter or e-mail. Among them have been journalists, some of whom wanted to speak privately. Among good, sensible journalists there is a desire now for clarity. I will deal in due course with the Contempt of Court Act 1981. It as if those journalists want us, as Parliament, to help them in a way that they cannot do themselves. They cannot self-regulate because of the financial pressure that is being placed especially on our newspapers and on our broadcast media. I shall deal with that point later.
Enough is enough. We must do something about the matter and stop it. It is not just ordinary members of the public and journalists who want clarity and who want the present practice to end; it is also the police. I shall touch on that as I go through my speech. The man who was first arrested in Bristol was not the first, but I want him to be the last. There are other examples. Again, I am grateful for the e-mails that I have received and the information that I have been given from various sources to remind me of other people who have found themselves in a similar position.
Another aspect is that people will maliciously accuse someone of a crime in the hope they will do damage to that person. The person may be entirely innocent, but the fact that they are arrested and their name possibly publicised could have a hugely detrimental effect on their lives and future career. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing the Bill.
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. Of course I agree. There is a long-term effect. If we go on to the internet and put in a name, as I have done, or certain key words, we find that a host of people have been in a similar situation to that of the first man who was arrested in Bristol. It has been put to me by all sorts of people—I am grateful for the information and the comments—that once something like that has happened, because of the great power of the internet, it is there almost for ever more. If we google a name or an incident, the information that comes up might go back 10 or 20 years.
The slur on somebody will remain for a very long time, even though they have never been charged, even though they have been exonerated and even though it has been accepted that there was no substance to the allegation. That means that people who put themselves into public life—television personalities come to mind, as do soccer players, even councillors, and those who have chosen a certain profession or job, such as teachers or clergymen—are highly susceptible to false allegations. There are many examples of people who have had an allegation made against them and who have then found that their name and address, the charge and more have been published both locally and nationally.
We have to ask ourselves how all this came about. There is a growing acceptance that a cult of personality exists. The rise of the celebrity has gone into territory that none of us find acceptable any more. Somebody who might have been on television suddenly finds themselves plastered all over every newspaper and magazine. Sometimes their agent or others want that, in order to advance their career. The downside is that they then become almost a free hit—fair game—for anything salacious about them to be published at any time, particularly if they have the misfortune to be arrested for something.
As a society we increasingly have a desire to pick over the intimate and salacious details of too many people. Perhaps we have an unhealthy interest in other people’s private sex lives. We also have the declining fortunes of newspapers. Why do newspapers and magazines find themselves in a position whereby they have to print almost anything in order to keep up their circulation? One reason is the 24-hour rolling news with which all hon. Members will be familiar. The simple truth is that it is sometimes a struggle to fill 24-hour rolling news, and in the endless rolling round of that news, stories are repeated, so something new, something fresh— breaking news—is needed, and everything becomes highly sensationalised and great drama is created.
A recent example was when the congresswoman was shot in that unfortunate incident in Arizona and the BBC 24-hour news service reported that she had been killed. It was wrong on that, but it was working off two reports that it claimed to have verified. I watched with care some of the following analysis and, rightly, criticism of the coverage of the story and how that happened. The BBC said that it had checked it out and done everything that it should have done in following the various procedures. But, with respect, underlying that was a real desire to have a new headline, to break some news, to put something sensational into it, to increase its ratings and keep up with the opposition given the proliferation of channels that we have seen. In many respects it can be said that the old solid principles that I was taught when I trained as a journalist have been eroded in the endless search for higher ratings and greater circulation. I do not think that 24-hour rolling news has assisted us in making our press one of the finest in the world.
We have also seen a decline in advertising. All hon. Members in the Chamber will know their local newspaper, if they still have one. Many of them are suffering quite dramatically from declining sales, for which, as I say, there are many reasons. I have a great deal of sympathy for local and regional papers in these difficult times, but I urge them to be true to the good solid principles of journalism, including not to sensationalise.
My local newspaper, the Loughborough Echo, has started a new column of reports from the local magistrates court about those brought up and charged with offences. That is an old-fashioned style of reporting, but it is good to read about those who have been charged with committing an offence. However, that is the right time for the public to become aware of the fact that people have committed offences. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to ask for a period of anonymity earlier in the charging process.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. I am familiar with Loughborough Echo. For reasons that I shall not go into because they are completely irrelevant, I buy it and I read it. It is an example of a good local paper, but it is also an example of a paper that is struggling with its circulation. I am delighted that it has such a column. When I worked on the Alloa and Hillfoots Advertiser and Journal, one of the great sources of our stories was the sheriff court. As a trainee journalist, I was duly packed off to sit with my newly acquired shorthand skills, which were extremely limited, and report on what was happening there. One of the problems in our society is that because so many newspapers find themselves in a position where they cannot afford to employ the staff that they used to employ, they are not covering the magistrates courts or the Crown courts in the way that they did. I know that from my experiences at the Nottingham Evening Post, which had a reporter in almost every court.
I am interested to hear about my hon. Friend’s experiences in Scotland. Can she explain whether the procedures in Scotland were the same as in England and Wales? The Bill affects only England and Wales, and perhaps she can enlighten us on whether the code was the same in Scotland.
I thank, I think, my hon. Friend for that intervention, although it is the sort of intervention that is not terrifically helpful, in that unfortunately I do not know the answer and I will not pretend that I do. But I do know that throughout the United Kingdom the convention used to be not to report the name and address of someone when they were arrested. When they were charged, it was completely different.
To return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), because people who committed offences, especially in their local community, were dealt with in the magistrates court where there was a reporter from the local press, upon conviction or a guilty plea, their name would be publicised locally. People would know that Bloggs down the road had had his hand in the till, or that Mrs Somebody had smashed the bus shelter. It was almost part of the punishment that people’s names would be in the local paper and that neighbours would know who had committed a criminal offence. It is a great shame that, for perfectly understandable reasons, so many of our newspapers now simply do not have the reporters to cover such cases. There is also a very good argument that they are missing a lot of good cases that they should be covering for reasons that I have explained, and also because they provide good copy.
The other reason why our newspapers and television networks are suffering a decline in circulation and are engaged in a war of ratings is the internet. All hon. Members, especially those of us who are new to this place and fought in marginal seats, are more than aware of the great power of the internet, Facebook, Twitter—truly not my bag; I leave that to people considerably younger than I am. But we are all urged to have our websites and update them regularly, and to send out our e-mail newsletters. We recognise the fantastic benefit that the internet has given to society, but there is a downside. With all good things, there is always a downside. The downside of the internet is that there is an abundance of information; as I have said, for false slurs can stay on the internet in perpetuity. The internet is a genuine alternative for sources of information, including news, to newspapers and television. I have a great deal of sympathy for newspapers that put a lot of their news on their website, which is free.
I have to make this point, because it is important. To their credit, by challenging effectively the financing of the BBC, the coalition Government are asking whether it is fair that its website is completely free to view. The BBC website is an outstanding source of news, but it means that newspapers in particular, as well as other broadcasting companies, operate their websites with one hand tied behind their back, because they do not have the advantages that the BBC has through the licence fee and the other freedoms that it enjoys which allow it to produce such an excellent website.
I clear my throat by saying that I do not agree with what appears to be a suggestion that the BBC should not be excellent in producing its website. Could the convention that my hon. Friend grew up with be reintroduced, and would it be possible for the Press Complaints Commission to agree to what she is going for, or do we really need this legislation?
I was going to deal with precisely that point. I would much prefer the profession that I was once a member of to self-regulate in the way that it used to. I am grateful that a member of the PCC contacted me to talk about the code of conduct. I think that in 2003 there was much consideration of a change to the code of conduct following the arrest, under the Terrorism Act 2000, of various people, I think in Birmingham. Unfortunately, that never resulted in anything. With respect to those whom I used to work with, and the profession that I am proud to have once been a member of, I am afraid that we have gone way beyond self-regulation.
I wish that the media would regulate themselves. To be blunt, I wish that people would not buy the newspapers or watch the television news programmes that they then condemn for the type of coverage given to the first man arrested in the Bristol case, but unfortunately that will not happen. We could just wait for common sense to prevail and for the previous convention to be returned to, but my fear is that other people will suffer in the meantime in the way that he has suffered. That is why I believe that it behoves this place to look at how we can improve the law to ensure that this mischief is cured once and for all.
I might have to explain, although perhaps not to everyone in this place, why it is wrong for people who are arrested to have their names published in the newspapers. A slur is placed on them, because the attitude that there is no smoke without fire always prevails. At this juncture, I should explain that the police must have reasonable suspicion before arresting someone, but there is a good argument that they are perhaps a little too keen to secure an arrest. Members may remember the expression, which was used in newspapers and on television and the radio, that a man of such and such an age was “assisting the police with their inquiries”. There now seems to be more of a tendency in those circumstances for the police to arrest someone to secure their attendance at the police station and ensure that the provisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 are abided by, because being an arrested person gives that individual certain rights once they are in the police station. The police need only a reasonable suspicion to arrest someone.
However, individuals are charged only when there is at least a prima facie case, and charging normally comes towards the end of an investigation when all the evidence has been gathered and considered. In serious cases, the charging decision is shared with the Crown Prosecution Service, sometimes with leading counsel brought in so that the right charge is decided upon. The CPS and the police will have gone through various tests to decide, for instance, whether it is in the public interest to charge an individual, whether there is a reasonable chance of conviction and so on. By the time they come to charge the individual, therefore, they are a long way down the track in an investigation, and hopefully closer to securing the right person to be placed in the dock, because once someone is charged, they are very swiftly in court.
I do not happen to agree with my hon. Friend on the Bill, but I certainly commend her for initiating the debate. Does she not accept that the ability of newspapers and the media to publish the names of people who have been arrested is a great control on potential abuse by the police? If the police can go around arresting people and the media are not allowed to report it, that could lead to the police in certain circumstances arresting more people than is necessary, and no one would ever find out about it.
My hon. Friend will have read the Bill and will know that it makes provision for the police, the arrested person and the press to be able to apply to a Crown court judge for leave to publish the name and address of an arrested person if it is believed that that would be in the interests of justice or in the public interest. I will move on to the detail later, but I want to make it clear now that there are exceptions in the Bill to ensure press freedom in the right circumstances and so that the police, or the arrested person, can have a name and address published if they so wish.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that explanation and think that this sort of debate is helpful. Would it not be better to have the presumption that those details can be reported, but that in exceptional circumstances they should not be? Surely, in the natural course of events, that is the more proportionate way around.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I started by saying that I think we all agree that we have gone too far and that a great wrong needs to be righted. As I said from the outset, I am more interested in correcting that wrong by whatever device is best able to do that, rather than simply commending the Bill all the way through and urging Members to vote for it. Of course I want it to succeed, but my real aim is to ensure that what happened to the man in Bristol never happens again. I do not much mind by what device that is done. The Bill could perhaps be changed in Committee if we find that a presumption of publication with exceptions is the better way to do it, but my reservation is that by the time the name has been published and salacious details have been put into the press, there is not much time to go to a court to have that stopped. I want to stop it happening in the first place.
There is a great deal of merit in the general thrust of my hon. Friend’s Bill, which is to protect people who have been arrested, but would not a better approach be to equalise the sub judice rules that apply post charge, which generally seem to work, with those that apply pre charge, so that individuals can be named, but without the sensationalist reporting that concerns her most of all?
I am again grateful, because that is a good point well made. There is a good argument that the way to cure this mischief is by amending the Contempt of Court Act 1981. I will in due course deal with why that Act is inadequate. If it were adequate, I have no doubt that the Attorney-General would have used it to stop the salacious and vilifying nature of the coverage of the man arrested in Bristol.
To return to why it is wrong for someone to be named and vilified after being arrested, we should also consider the distress caused to that person, which I touched on earlier. During the course of my research, I looked at the case of a much-loved television personality—I will not name him—who appealed to people of all ages and was a true family entertainer. I did not know, because it does not matter to me, that he is gay. He had been married and had children, but the reality is that he was a homosexual. In due course he came out, which was a matter for his private life, and got on with his life. Most importantly, he continued to be an extremely good television presenter and entertainer. One evening, he was arrested as he came off stage following an allegation of a misdemeanour some years earlier. As a result, his name and the details of the allegation were published.
What followed was not quite a media feeding frenzy, but the details of the man’s private life, his sexuality and such matters were written about extensively in the press. A few weeks later, when he returned to the police station, the police said that they would not be charging him and he was accordingly exonerated of the allegation. He always maintained his dignity, and issued a statement through his solicitor which said:
“I was always confident my name would be cleared in due course. However, it’s been a very anxious and upsetting time for me and my family, not least because of press coverage at the time of my arrest.”
I quote that statement because it is important to remember that we are talking about real people who somehow have to pick up the pieces of their lives. Knowing what has been published about the first man who was arrested in Bristol, we must ask how on earth he will pick up his life after what has been said and written about him.
The issue affects not only the individual, but other people such as their family—particularly their children—and work colleagues. My hon. Friend talks about the media interest, and she will remember that in the Bristol case the media, rightly seeking to profile the initial person who was arrested, went to the school where he had taught. The head or deputy head teacher had to go on television to talk about the individual, and such experiences are distressing if one has never been in the glare of the media spotlight before. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that, and I completely agree. That is the difficulty. In the newspapers we see the headlines and the story but never what is behind them or, most importantly, what happens in the wake of them.
I was describing how, by googling on the internet or doing any research through newspapers—although googling is the quickest and smoothest way—I came across several cases of football players who had been arrested on allegations of rape. One case is relevant to my hon. Friend, because it involved a Leicester football player. I did not recognise his name, but that matters not at all. He received extensive media coverage when he was arrested on an allegation of rape, and again, within a matter of weeks, when he went back to the police station on bail he was told that he would not be charged and that was the end of the matter. The newspapers and local television station covered the arrest extensively, but the fact that no charges were brought barely received a mention. I have not found any case, anywhere, in which somebody’s not being charged has received exactly the same amount of publicity as their arrest.
There are cases of councillors—some might be known to Members—who have been arrested on all manner of allegations, be they fraud, corruption or sexual assault. Again, I have looked at the newspapers and on the internet, and their arrest often makes the front page of the local newspaper. The fact that they are never charged, however, does not get on the front page; if they are lucky, it might be on page 2 or 3 and amount to half a column, but it is never the same as the initial coverage they receive when they are arrested. That is not right or fair.
There was the case of a taxi driver who attacked female passengers, and when he was arrested other victims came forward. The publicity surrounding the case assisted other victims in doing that. What does my hon. Friend say to people who cite such instances?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, because he makes another important point. That is why the Bill, to cover exactly that situation, enables the prosecution to apply to a Crown court judge for leave to allow the media to publish the name and address of somebody if they believe it is in the interests of justice, which means a belief or a suspicion reasonably held that other people might come forward either to make a complaint or to assist the police in some way in their investigations.
The same exemption exists for the arrested person, because there are instances whereby somebody who is arrested might want their name published, especially in the local paper. For example, somebody might be arrested following an allegation by their employer that they have been stealing from work, and their defence might be not just, “I haven’t done it,” but, “I know my employer has made the same allegation against other workers and they haven’t done it. Somebody’s got their fingers in the till. It’s not me, but they’ve now pointed the finger at me because it suits them and is convenient, so I want my name in the newspaper and I am quite happy for my address and the fact that I work at such and such a place to be published, because I believe that x workers there or other people may come forward with information that will assist my preparation of my defence.” I have allowed for all that, because I do not like blanket bans on anything, and it is always important to recognise that there are exceptions to every rule.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) mentions police investigations, and we forget that in many instances the police are appalled by the sort of coverage that we all saw in relation to the first man’s arrest in Bristol. It is an injustice to the police to say that, in those instances where names and addresses have been leaked to the press, it is always their fault, because it is not. No doubt there are instances when the police give the name and address to a member of the media, and some cash might change hands. I do not have evidence of it, however; I am working only on what others tell me.
In a high-profile case such as the Bristol murder, however, with all the media attention it is almost inevitable that, if somebody is arrested, a neighbour, especially somebody in the proximity of either the deceased or the place where the crime occurred, will see or know that Bloggins has been arrested. The neighbour or somebody else will often just happen to know the person, as people do in any community, not just small ones, and they will give the name to the press. The police do not always do so, and it would be wrong to place all the blame on them.
I do not want to get into a blame game, but if anybody is to blame then responsibility lies with the media and, ultimately, all of us—everybody who buys newspapers, watches television and listens to the radio. If only we could gather together and say, “Enough is enough. I am not going to buy this newspaper, watch that television news programme, listen to that radio station or subscribe to that television channel,” we might make the progress that we all want and, as I have said, cure the mischief that we all oppose.
I very much want to deal with the Contempt of Court Act 1981, to which we have alluded. I shall tread carefully, because we do not want a debate about jurisdiction or to pick over the Act in detail, but, having read it, I and others take the view that in its current form it is not the device to cure the mischief that we all agree must be sorted out. Although the strict liability rule that it imposes—indeed, the whole nature of the Act—deals with people who have been arrested, the rule is clearly designed to deal with cases that, in effect, are in the court process. But if one is arrested, one might never go to court. That is the whole point: unless one is charged, one will not go to court. I hope I am explaining my point fully and in non-legal terms, because the Act does not cover the misdemeanours and wrongs that we all want righted.
With great respect to my hon. Friend, I wish it were as simple as that. The Act certainly deals with people who have been arrested, but it states:
“The strict liability rule applies only to a publication which creates a substantial risk that the course of justice in the proceedings in question will be seriously impeded or prejudiced.”
That is a very high test, and my understanding of its interpretation is that there have to be court proceedings that are likely to be impeded or prejudiced. When somebody is charged, they will go into court very soon afterwards—court proceedings are almost inevitable. At the moment, as soon as somebody is charged the sort of coverage in the press that we see when somebody has been arrested ends completely. That is because the press knows that subsection (2) deals with cases once somebody has been charged because, in effect, proceedings will have begun. There are no proceedings when people are arrested because they have merely been arrested. They can be arrested, taken to a police station but not interviewed, and “bailed back” to another day. That is why the Contempt of Court Act, as it stands, is inadequate.
Whatever happens to this private Member’s Bill, I very much hope that as a result of the publicity surrounding this debate and, particularly, that surrounding the first man arrested in the Bristol case, will turn the Government’s attention to the Contempt of Court Act. If that Act were amended, then people who are arrested could have their name and address published, but all the highly prejudicial material that we saw in the Bristol case would not be published because, in effect, it would be in contempt. Contempt is probably not the right word to use: to put it in lay terms, it is plain unfair and wrong. It may well be that through the Contempt of Court Act, or some other instrument, we can make things better and cure the mischief.
My hon. Friend makes her case very powerfully. Two things strike me about the Contempt of Court Act. First, it is 30 years since it was passed, and that is a long time in terms of criminal justice developments. The length of time between arrest and charge and trial has got longer and longer, so there is an issue about understanding what “active proceedings” means. Secondly, proceedings under the Act can be brought only with the leave of the Attorney-General, which is a time delay and a fetter on the discretion of individual trial judges.
I am grateful for that intervention by my hon. and learned Friend. I am sorry—he is not actually learned, although he is certainly an hon. Friend. He used to be learned, and is undoubtedly a far better lawyer than I am, as we have just heard. He makes the point far better than I have been making it.
The last thing that anyone wants—including Conservative Members—is more criminal offences. I do not want to make party political points, but there was an abundance of criminal justice legislation under the previous Government. I think that 44 such Acts were passed, and goodness knows how many thousands of new criminal offences were created. I am keen not to add to that burden. However, I am very keen that we sort out this problem. In yesterday’s debate about legal aid, my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) pointed out that in this country we prosecute 1 million more people than other comparable countries, so there is a good argument that we prosecute too much, perhaps because we have too many criminal offences—I know not. I am also keen to try to ensure that we, as a nation, spend less money, not more, and inevitably when we create new criminal offences there is a danger of spending more money.
I urge the House to support the Bill because I want this problem to be solved once and for all. I am getting to the stage where, frankly, it does not bother me so much how it is done, just as long as it is done. I would like the media to regulate themselves, but for reasons that I hope I have explained, that is unlikely.
I want to make a couple of points particularly to the Minister. This issue will not go away, whatever the outcome of the Bill. It is important that we remind ourselves that the Government are laying before this House the Education Bill, which will make it an offence for the name of a teacher to be published, following an allegation from a pupil, until such time as they are charged. It seems as though we have accepted that we have a problem that needs tackling and sorting out and the Government have already seized the nettle, so even if I am not successful today, I will have another opportunity when that Bill comes before the House. There is also the sentencing legislation that will inevitably follow. It is perhaps ironic that the Government, rightly, want to give anonymity to teachers in the circumstances I have described, and yet there is an ex-teacher in Bristol who has been afforded no protection from the vilification and feeding frenzy that we have all witnessed in recent months.
I thank everybody who has sent me an e-mail, written to me or supported me in other ways in introducing this Bill. In particular, I thank hon. Members for their advice and support. I commend the Bill to the House, and I hope that it can make progress today.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who made a measured and thoughtful contribution. I have not had an opportunity to have any dealings with her before, so I made some discreet soundings about her among my Liberal Democrat colleagues, and there was broad agreement that she is a very sound, responsible and dignified Member of Parliament. I am therefore pleased to have the opportunity to support some of her comments.
Like the hon. Lady, I will try to avoid mentioning any names. She did such a good job in disguising the details of one of the earlier cases that she mentioned, which related to a TV personality, that I am not sure whether she was talking about the person to whom I am going to refer, in very vague terms, who was also a TV personality and who, several years ago, received press coverage indicating that he had committed some very serious offences. Only yesterday, my researcher, who had been looking at the Bill, pointed out to me that that person was in fact found not guilty of anything at the end of the process. It was lodged in my mind, and I suspect the minds of millions of other people around the country, that this person was guilty of something, and that is what remained from that coverage. The hon. Lady’s point is therefore a very good one. The press leave people with the clear implication that people who have been arrested are guilty of a crime, and although that subsequently proves not be the case, the thought is lodged in people’s minds that they are guilty.
The hon. Lady’s Bill, as she has clearly stated, would prohibit the publication or broadcast of the name, address or image of a person arrested for an offence if such information would lead members of the public to identify him or her as the person suspected of committing the offence in question. She has set out the necessary safeguards to provide that a Crown court judge would have the power to direct that reporting restrictions should not apply in a particular case—for instance, where identifying a suspect in the press might lead to the coming forward of additional complaints or information that would assist the police investigation of the suspect. I wonder whether she thinks that that would have allowed the Crown court judge in the most recent case that she mentioned to have lifted reporting restrictions. Perhaps in a case such as that, as in many others, the lifting of reporting restrictions could lead to the coming forward of additional complaints or additional information of assistance to the police. It is therefore hard to see where the line would be drawn between assisting the police and protecting the individual who has been arrested but has not been charged. The Bill rightly makes it clear that existing constraints on reporting, such as those relating to people under the age of 18, would still apply. It proposes no changes to those constraints.
Some counter-arguments to the Bill have been expressed in interventions. One relates to the degree of protection for people who are arrested under the current arrangements and then have their name publicised. As I understand it, the Bill is flexible enough to allow an arrested person to seek to have their own name put into the public domain if they feel that it would help them to prove their innocence or to protect them by making people aware of their arrest, for example in cases where there are concerns about what might happen in police custody.
I promised to keep my remarks short, and I will keep that promise. To conclude, I think that the hon. Lady’s Bill has merit. She has explained succinctly, using much supporting information, what she is seeking to achieve. She has identified an area in law that requires greater clarity. We need to improve the protection for innocent people who are wrongly implicated by the press as potentially having committed a serious crime. It is clear from the comments of press editors that even they think the law is unclear in this respect. Perhaps they are using that as a protection or justification for some of the things that they do. However, if the law was clearer, they would not be able to fall back on that as a defence for the fact that they often put information into the public domain that should not be there.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that in many high-profile cases there would be no end to the speculation, rumour and gossip in the local community? In many cases, the media printing a factual piece of information giving the name of a person who has been arrested prevents gossip and rumours that would vilify other people in the local community who are not in any shape or form involved.
The hon. Gentleman highlights why this is not a straightforward issue. Although the hon. Lady’s short Bill makes an important contribution and moves the debate on, I suspect that it does not cover all the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, or, indeed, mine. There are other issues with the Bill, such as its non-applicability to Scotland. There is therefore the potential for matters to be raised in the Scottish press and thereby get some coverage here. Clarification is also required on how the internet and websites would be addressed.
The hon. Lady referred to the Press Complaints Commission. In responding, perhaps the Minister will update us on the PCC’s progress in relation to the most recent case to which the hon. Lady referred. We want to hear that it is taking the matter seriously.
I would be happy to see the Bill make further progress. However, if its fate has been sealed by a shadowy cabal of conspirators behind closed doors, I hope that the Attorney-General will consider its merits and take on board the hon. Lady’s legitimate concerns.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who has introduced this Bill at an important moment in the development of our media.
So far, the debate has concentrated, quite properly, on press and print journalism, whether in the form of the local newspaper that we read every day or the web pages of such newspapers, which are read increasingly widely. Therein lies the important development—the internet. The internet has had an effect not just through local newspaper websites, but through Facebook, Twitter and the myriad ways in which individuals can share and disseminate information, and spread false information. Therein lies the problem.
I have said before in this place that the issues relating to reporting restrictions go wider than those of justice and move into the area of media and communications, which is the province of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Although it would be Canute-like to try to hold back the tide of the internet, we have a lot of work to do with local press, national media and networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to get a degree of consensus about when it is inappropriate to allow the spread of misleading and false material. The Bristol case is but the latest and most extreme example of the mischief that my hon. Friend seeks to cure. None of us has all the answers on how to deal with the proliferation of modern media, but we have to acknowledge that it lies at the heart of this matter.
In my view, the Bill goes some small way to resolving what is an entirely grey area: the stage between arrest and charge. The current situation is mixed. Hon. Members have pointed out that we have the Contempt of Court Act 1981, and I will come back to that in a moment. More relevant to the stage between arrest and charge is the police guidance. The police guidance on the naming of adult suspects is simple. The police will not usually name a suspect until charge, but it remains a matter for individual discretion. In other words, there are no hard-and-fast rules. It is not advisable to name a suspect, but sometimes there will be good reason to do so.
The Bristol case is significant, because the police never confirmed the name of the man who had been arrested. The information reached the media by different means. That relates to my first point about the viral spread of alternative media and means of communication.
Of course, the other law that is in place to protect people is the law of libel, which prevents people from spreading untrue allegations. Is not the hon. Gentleman’s first point about the power of the internet one of the reasons why the Bill is flawed? In practice, the restrictions in the Bill would apply to newspapers, the broadcast media and perhaps some of the more responsible aspects of other media, but there would be no way of effectively controlling what was put out by websites based abroad—they are based all over the place.
I readily concede that my hon. Friend makes an important point about the practical implementation of the legislation. The Bill goes as far as it can to deal with the mischief. His point is sadly common in issues relating to the misuse of media. There are issues with cybercrime and with the use of internet sites that are based in far-flung places abroad, over which we have no control. This week, I heard about a nasty little website that deals with gossip among schoolchildren, which is based in Belize. It has caused a lot of misery for our schoolchildren, yet it seems that there is little we can do about it. My hon. Friend therefore makes a fair point about the natural limits of jurisdiction.
My hon. Friend is right to put a high degree of faith in the judgment and good sense of ordinary people in making the distinction between what they would see as authoritative sources of information and the sort of tittle-tattle that fills far too many social networking sites. A judge giving a direction to a jury can deal with such mischief and, if I may say so, my hon. Friend sounded a little judicial in his intervention, because I can imagine a judge saying to a jury at the beginning of a trial, “Please disregard any gossip you may see on websites. Don’t tweet. Don’t look at Facebook. Disregard all those websites.” There is a great difference between information and knowledge.
I am not a lawyer, so I do not profess to know the technicalities of the difference between information, gossip and libel, but can my hon. Friend confirm that the written media carry much more weight than the internet?
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) mentioned libel, but often, the points that are reported are facts. The gentleman in Bristol was gay, he was eccentric and he was a teacher, but it is the insinuation that is wrapped around such facts that causes the damage. That gentleman was referred to as a teacher at a school, within a mile of which a murder had taken place several years previously. All that is factual, but the insinuation that the media wrap around such facts causes the damage that needs to be controlled.
I agree with my hon. Friend about the assertion of facts that could be prejudicial to any future investigation, although I would say that I am now of the view that internet and print media are indistinguishable. The only difference between them is that today’s print is tomorrow’s firelighters—tomorrow’s chip paper, as I think I called it in another debate. The problem with the internet is that it is not just for Christmas, it is for life. I could give a number of examples of constituents who, years after having been exonerated and cleared of very serious allegations, still have to live with the fact that when a Google search is made against their name, a newspaper report about that false allegation comes up. It haunts people who are in that unfortunate situation. As I said earlier, that is a matter for DCMS input and for regulation, because we need consensus about how to deal with the sometimes baleful effects of internet reports that linger for years and years.
I return to what I regard as the grey area between arrest and charge, and the somewhat cumbersome nature of the Contempt of Court Act 1981. As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, the leave of the Attorney-General is needed before any prosecution is brought, which can often be a cumbersome way of doing things. Such things take time, because obtaining that leave can interrupt proceedings and lead to a delay before a decision is made, which can be damaging in itself. As she said, the test set out in that Act—whether there is
“substantial risk that the course of justice…will be seriously impeded or prejudiced”—
is a high one. It mentions the course of justice, however, and at the point of arrest we do not know whether there will be a course of justice in the sense of a charge. I can see many a clever lawyer—much cleverer ones than me, although I have received a degree of praise today that I perhaps do not deserve—taking that point firmly by the reins and running with it.
In short, the Act, which is celebrating its 30th year, needs revision, and here is my suggestion. We should consider the point between arrest and charge in a different way from the point from charge to trial or conviction. There should be a presumption against the publication of details of an arrested person prior to charge; then that presumption should be reversed post-charge. In other words, we should apply the interests of justice test, but with safeguards in place, acknowledging that the decision to charge is significant. It means that the prosecution has formed the view that there is a reasonable prospect of conviction, and that it is in the public interest to charge. That is an important and simple test that everybody can understand, both in this place and elsewhere, and it should trigger more disclosure.
Prior to that point, unless there are public interest reasons such as those clearly set out in the Bill, the presumption should be the other way around and there should not be publication unless there is a clear public interest such as that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) rightly referred to. I can imagine, and in fact I know of, scenarios in which there is a tight-knit local community or an estate in which a particular issue arises, and it would be in the local public interest to know that suspect A had been arrested. That person may well be known to local people, and it would give them a sense of confidence that the criminal justice system was working. Most importantly, if there were any perceived injustice at that stage, people in the local community could come forward and say, “We think you’ve got the wrong person—will you investigate why?” I can imagine a whole host of community and wider public interest reasons why publication could and should take place.
The observation that my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) made earlier about limiting the details that can be published to someone’s name and address has merit. In the spirit of the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe that the Bill is not necessarily the precise device needed to cure the mischief, it could well be that if the Bill proceeds further, or in the course of a wider review of the Contempt of Court Act, we should consider carefully whether setting out clearly in statute a provision for the publication of name and address could cure the problem of the grey area that I have been talking about.
I have mentioned the exceptions that my hon. Friend has set out in clause 2. I welcome them, with one caveat. Subsection (2)(c) and (d) state that it will be in the interests of justice to make a direction when
“it may lead to information that assists the arrested person”
“the conduct of the…defence at trial is likely to be substantially prejudiced if the direction is not given.”
I wonder whether we need the word “substantially”. Perhaps it would be far better to take it out and make the point that if the defendant wants the provision to apply, that is a matter for them. The burden of proof is not on the defendant, as we all know, so perhaps that word should be taken out.
I will hopefully have the chance to make this point in my own comments later, but does my hon. Friend agree that subsection (2)(c) and (d) could be removed from the Bill, so that we could have a far easier process whereby the defendant would sign some sort of statement, having taken legal advice, that they were happy for their name to be released?
I am always attracted by arguments that lead to simplicity, and indeed, that could work. I believe that an interests of justice test should be construed widely, and that when we list particular circumstances, lawyers tend to take a prescriptive view. There is a highly attractive aspect to what my hon. Friend says, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe would consider such an amendment carefully.
Perhaps we are getting into legalese, and I apologise for that. I shall move on to highlight an interesting local debate in my constituency. My local daily newspaper, the Swindon Advertiser, quite properly has an interest in reporting local crime and antisocial behaviour, and it does so in a largely responsible way. Once or twice I have taken issue with the editor, perhaps when a photograph has been a little insensitive, but broadly speaking I am very much in support of my local newspaper’s work. An interesting debate recently occurred in the paper about whether the names of young people who have been made subject to interim antisocial behaviour orders should be published. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
I thought that would arouse some interest. My view is that, whenever possible, the names of young people who are on full or interim ASBOs should be published. That goes back to my earlier point about the immediate local community and its clear interest in helping the police enforce ASBOs. As we know, enforcement of ASBOs has been one of the main criticisms of the mechanism, which has existed for the past 10 years. Far too often, ASBOs have failed because of poor implementation.
The problem arises with the interim ASBO. There is a legal halfway house between a full hearing, in which the evidence is set before the court, the court is satisfied to a high standard that the case has been proved, and an ASBO is issued—frankly, publicity should follow that because due process has occurred—and the interim stage, for which the test is whether the judge thinks that it is just to impose an interim ASBO. That is a wide test. In reality, a judge is faced with a wealth of documentary evidence, which the complaining authority in civil proceedings—usually the local authority—has amassed, and reached the view that there is a case to be made and that, in the circumstances, the interim ASBO is just. However, no formal findings of fact have been made at that stage. Again, it is a grey area, and I can see both sides of the argument. However, I believe that when we reach such a stage, the presumption should be in favour of publication. I hope that my analogy between civil proceedings and the criminal process after charge is clear.
I read with interest several leaders in national daily newspapers that either support or oppose the Bill. The Daily Telegraph’s leader struck me particularly as falling into the trap of eliding two issues. It brought together the Bill and celebrities such as footballers obtaining injunctions to prevent the publication of their names and details in relation to salacious stories about them. I see no correlation between that scenario and the purpose of the Bill. Why? In the celebrity scenario, we are dealing with behaviour that has not been denied. It is not a question of celebrity X saying, “Prove it. This never happened.” Instead, the celebrity is saying, “It’s my private life. I’m not getting into whether it happened; I’m not making a big fuss about that—I just want privacy.” That is different from the problem that the Bill addresses.
Did not, unfortunately, the article in The Daily Telegraph omit to mention that under the Bill, the press, the prosecution and the arrested person—notably, in this instance, the press—can apply to a judge for leave to publish a name and address if they believe it is in the public interest? The measure does not constitute a gagging order on the press.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is not about gagging the press. The Bill tries to strike a proper balance between the interests of justice and the wider public’s right to know about what is going on in their community. It is a sensitive balance. None of us can pretend to have all the answers, but it is incumbent on us as legislators to do our best to meet the pressures of modern life and the dangers and abuses that can occur, as happened in Bristol, and try to be the guardians of essential liberties.
The hon. Gentleman used the phrase, “sensitive balance”, and I want to bring him back to ASBOs and publicising the names of young people who are subject to them. I have no time for people who have an ASBO slapped on them, but does not the hon. Gentleman, like me, worry that in Britain, more than any other country in Europe, there is a negative attitude to young people?
That point is powerfully made. I have said many times, in my constituency and here, that we are in danger of demonising the younger generation. We have all, as Members of Parliament, had some encouraging experiences when we meet groups of young people in our constituencies. I find them to be engaged, alive to the issues that confront them as youngsters, keen to participate in their communities and interested in the world about them. In a way, despite our concerns about some aspects of the syllabus and the direction of education, they are much better prepared for the vicissitudes of life than perhaps people of my generation and previous generations were.
To counterbalance that and bring us back to the Bill, there was a case a few years ago of a young man who was accused of rape. During freshers’ week at university, an unfortunate incident occurred with a young lady, and it was unclear whether consent had been given. The charge was not proven, but—to revert to the point about young people—the young man’s life was ruined because he had been named. He was terrified about his future—his employment prospects, the misery of the next few years of university and so on. The Bill may particularly benefit young people against whom charges are not proven.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. As I said earlier, people can be haunted by internet stories about—worse than a charge that is not proven—an innocent person, against whom false allegations, which did not pass the test of the burden of proof, are made. We must hold on to our principles and remember that young people have their lives before them.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) about demonising young people, but, sadly, as with adults, there is a majority of good young people and a minority of bad apples. I therefore make no apology for a robust approach to the miscreants in our communities, some of whom are, sadly, young people, who cause genuine misery to some of my residents, and those in constituencies throughout the country. It is perhaps a little too glib to say that we should not publicise the names of young people who are given ASBOs. I mentioned the difficulty with interim ASBOs, but the presumption should be in favour of publication.
My hon. Friend seems to place great faith in people applying to a court for a reporting restriction. Is he not concerned about the courts being clogged up with such cases, given that the Courts Service is already under pressure? What does he envisage happening if a newspaper won its case? Who would meet the costs? If the newspapers are for ever expected to pay the costs of the case, very few will want to go through that expense regularly.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about the practicalities. Let me take the opportunity to tell him something that he may know—I ask him to forgive me if I am teaching granny to suck eggs. There is already a procedure in place in the Crown court for dealing with young people. Section 39 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 allows a reporting restriction to be granted on application when dealing with those who are under 18. It is the norm when a young person comes into the Crown court—obviously, for a more serious offence—that the application will have been made in the magistrates court, with a through-order carrying the restriction to the Crown court. Nine times out of 10, no objection is made to that, but there are occasions when local newspapers—reporters or the editors themselves—come to court and are allowed to speak directly to the judge and make representations.
It is very seldom, other than in cases of real public or national significance, that counsel and a panoply of lawyers come down to the court to represent, for example, a local or regional newspaper. It is quite a simple procedure. In my experience, many judges will hear a newspaper’s representations and then make a ruling. It is actually quite a short procedure and not unduly cumbersome, so I am not as concerned as perhaps my hon. Friend is about the possible clogging of our court system. He is right to make the point, however, because I have seen the baleful effects of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which suddenly filled the courts with loads of applications and led to lots of paperwork and lots more time and—frankly—money being spent by lawyers on procedures that could have been dealt with in a far more streamlined way. So it is an entirely proper point that we should all bear in mind when we consider the mechanisms of this procedure.
The one area where I could envisage some growth is in applications made to a court between arrest and charge. I accept that, but I would urge on those listening and the Government that if we are to make that change we ensure that we do it in a streamlined way that allows for simplicity. I want to emphasise the fact that these things have to be done quickly, and the idea of elongating and complicating proceedings should not form part of a court’s considerations.
Clause 13 of the Education Bill is highly germane to today’s Bill. That is the only reason I want to talk about it—I hope you accept that, Mr Deputy Speaker. It relates to a proposed reporting restriction on the publication of the details of teachers—as I understand the explanatory notes, that includes supply and peripatetic teachers—arrested for “relevant” criminal conduct following a complaint made by a “registered pupil” at the school where the teacher works. I welcome that long overdue proposal. We have seen some horrendous cases. My hon. Friend the Minister has had constituency experience of the problem, and I well remember quite a sensational case in south Wales about 10 years ago that resulted finally in either an acquittal or a variation of sentence on appeal. It was a highly publicised case that caused a lot of angst and anxiety for everybody concerned.
There is a strong public interest in preserving the privacy and reputation of teachers, who sometimes—sadly—are falsely accused of various criminal acts. However, like every exception to every rule, the boundaries and parameters of the restriction become quite difficult on closer examination. Let us consider the school environment. Clause 13 covers teachers, and the Government say that supply and peripatetic teachers are included in that, which is good news, but what about teaching assistants? They have a day-to-day role in the care and conduct of pupils and students. Are they to be treated differently? On the face of the proposal before us, it seems so. What about other members of the school staff, such as caretakers or people working in the canteen, who will come into contact with pupils and could be put into that vulnerable category? They are not included within the parameters of the Bill.
I make those points in the spirit of constructive criticism—but criticism none the less—because, as Members might acknowledge, there is a difficulty when we try to restrict these principles to one area of either the law or the community. That was the problem that we got into when we discussed the rape reporting restriction last summer. People could see the danger in singling out that type of offence, and the question was well put: if it is to apply to rape, why should it not apply to other sexual misconduct and types of conduct—violence, for example—between men and women? Quite rightly, the Government acknowledged that essential flaw as a result of quite a few debates in the House.
I am not saying that clause 13 creates the same level of problems as the rape proposals, but it is a problem none the less. I urge the Government to consider, in its widest context, the impact of the clause as well as the operation of the Contempt of Court Act 1981. I urge them to consider the problem on a more global basis and to come to a reasoned conclusion along the lines of the proposal in Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe.
It is astonishing that, having reached the second decade of the 21st century, with a criminal justice system that has, certainly since the late 19th century, developed to quite a high level of sophistication, we still have a lack of clarity when it comes to the reporting of the details of arrested persons before charge. I say “astonishing”, because we have in this country developed—to far too great an extent, some of us would say—regulations to deal with all sorts of other types of perceived mischief. As a Conservative, I would say that a lot of those regulations have proved to be disproportionate and unnecessary. However, here we have an area where we have a fundamental balance to maintain—between the liberty of the individual and his or her reputation, and the wider public interest in knowing about the course of justice and the principle of open justice that has to underpin all criminal court proceedings. It is astonishing that we have allowed this grey area to prevail for so long. That loophole needs to be closed, which is why I commend the Bill to the House.
I do not intend to speak for too long, but I feel the need to be here to support my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), not only because her constituency is adjacent to mine, but because her Bill has great merit. She will be aware of how busy I am in my constituency office, given the debate over the forestry proposals and the fact that my constituency is Sherwood. None the less, I feel the need to be here to support her Bill. This matter truly requires more debate. Although I am committed to supporting the Bill in the hope that it can make further progress, today’s debate has shown that there clearly is a balance to be struck. I will try to address that balance during the next few minutes.
The case in Bristol, which my hon. Friend mentioned, was a good example of how the furore around such cases can develop its own momentum and take on a life of its own. Of course, this was not a good thing in that case, but we have heard of cases in which the opposite was true. I recognise that the Bill aims to limit the ability of the media to go off on their own mission, but I also like the fact that other clauses would assist people in getting names out in the media, if that would be of benefit. That is really important. There have been a number of cases in which an accused individual received publicity that allowed other members of the public to come forward and say, “Actually, I have been affected by this individual as well.” That enabled the police to build a case against that person.
Fundamentally, this debate comes down to a balance between what is interesting to the public and what is in the public interest. That is very difficult to legislate for. When I was a teenager in Nottingham in the 1980s, there was a real issue with the red light district in the city. Nottinghamshire police ran a great campaign to arrest people who were kerb crawling. The Nottingham Evening Post would then print the names of the individuals who had been arrested, and I could never resist buying it just to see whose names were in it that week.
Unfortunately, as a 15-year-old boy, I could not get there on my scooter. Clearly publishing those names was interesting to the public, but was it in the public interest? The honest answer is: probably not. Did it add anything to the criminal justice system? Probably not.
I, too, recall that; indeed, I reported on a number of those cases. I can still remember some of the names of those people. One was quite a senior police officer in Lincolnshire, and there was another who was connected with the law. However, if my memory is right, was it not the case that those people had not just been arrested, but almost immediately charged? I am reasonably confident in saying that their names were published only because they were charged immediately after they had been arrested. That is why the press reported those names. If those people had merely been arrested with a bail back, I doubt whether the press would have reported their names.
I concede that my hon. Friend’s knowledge about this issue is superior to mine. I merely make the point about what is interesting to the public and what is in the public interest.
My hon. Friend has referred to celebrities and TV personalities. The recent case that comes to mind is that of the Sky football commentators. Although they were not charged with any crime, there was large furore around those individuals. As I understand it, she is proposing a complete separation of such cases from those that end with a criminal prosecution. That is an important distinction to make. It is also one that leads me to support the Bill and to allow it to progress through the House so that we can debate its merits further. Many other points have been made, and I do not want to prolong this debate any further than is necessary, so I shall commend the Bill to the House and will support it during its progress.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) on her success in the ballot for private Member’s Bills and on securing the right to bring the important matter addressed by her Bill before the House this morning. Let me also remind Members that I have an interest to declare, as a solicitor and notary public, although I am non-practising and have not practised in criminal law. This debate deals with matters that I have not previously been engaged with.
Let me pick up one or two matters mentioned by earlier speakers. My hon. Friend seemed almost to be suggesting that the Bill should amend the Contempt of Court Act 1981. I can well see from the arguments that have been brought out this morning that there is perhaps a good case for doing that, although that is not what we are being asked to consider this morning. What we are being asked to consider is the Anonymity (Arrested Persons) Bill. However, the whole problem is that the people concerned are not anonymous. We know exactly who they are—or some people do. The difficulty is this: how we do, as a legislature, try to control what other people gossip about? I hope to set out some reasons why I think this will be a very difficult task, indeed, if not nigh impossible.
In reply to an intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland)—who I see is just leaving the Chamber—was drawn into considering the respective strengths and merits of newspaper reports, as compared with the believability of internet reports. As the years progress, it seems to me that there is increasing parity between the two. Indeed, I submit that what often tends to happen is that something will immediately be released electronically and disseminated on the internet, and then the next day—or perhaps a day or two later—it will be picked up by the mainstream media and the printed newspapers. It does not seem sensible to suggest that the initial disclosure of that information—in this context the name, address and details of an accused person—is any less likely to be believed because it is read on the internet than it is because it is read in a newspaper a few days later, because ultimately that information may have come from the same source.
There can be no doubt that, if passed, this Bill will have an important and wide-ranging impact on the lives of those accused of committing criminal offences. It will also have a substantial impact on the media and, in particular, their crime reporters, one of whom, in a previous life, was my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe—
Does my hon. Friend accept that all I am asking for is that we revert to what used to happen? In the past, the name and address of an arrested person—not an accused person: an arrested person—was not published. All I seek to do is to revert to the old convention, which means that we would not have the sort of reporting that we have seen in Bristol.
I think that that could be dealt with by the code of conduct for newspapers, which I understand already exists. There is no reason why that could not happen. In any event, the difficulty nowadays lies with the explosion of information on the internet. Therein lies the real problem. Everyone would agree that it is entirely laudable and sensible to ensure that the innocent accused should have their right to anonymity protected. The difficulty is whether we can achieve that in this day and age.
The issue that my hon. Friend seems to be coming to is that people are not just innocent until they are charged, but innocent until they are convicted. Does he not think that what is being proposed could become a Trojan horse, and that the next move could be to say that nobody’s details should be released, not just until they are charged, but until they are convicted of something?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Bill seeks to suggest that someone who was accused of a criminal offence and then arrested should be entitled to anonymity, but that that anonymity would be lost the moment that a charge was brought. Logically, if the reason for going down that road is the rule that someone is innocent until proven guilty, we ought to maintain the anonymity of the accused right up to the trial, although I can appreciate that there may be reasons why they may not want that.
Surely the distinction is that, as soon as someone is charged, the Contempt of Court Act 1981 comes into full force. The Act prohibits any publication that would prejudice the court proceedings. The point about the material published in the Bristol case was not only that it breached that man’s privacy but that it would undoubtedly have prejudiced any trial. We all want to ensure not only that justice is transparent but that it is not prejudiced.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I submit that the reporting in that case fell foul of the Contempt of Court Act. As I said earlier, this raises the question of whether these matters would be better dealt with by an amendment to that Act. Such an amendment, combined with a strengthened code of practice enforced by the Press Complaints Commission, could be the way to address what we all accept is a genuine problem.
Every year, thousands of cases would be affected by this proposed change in the law, and, as with any law that we pass, it is imperative that we should get it absolutely right for the sake of everyone who would be affected by it. The basic tenet of English law that everyone is presumed innocent until they either plead guilty or are found guilty in a court of law is one of the cornerstones of our criminal justice system. I suspect that few, if any, people would dispute the sense of that basic principle. It is perfectly sensible that the Bill should seek to protect any innocent individual who runs the risk of having their character blackened, possibly for the rest of their life, merely as a result of having been arrested by the police. That arrest could well have come about as a result of the malice of someone who was entirely ill-intentioned, and the arrested person could be entirely innocent of having committed any crime.
My concerns about the Bill lie not so much in the principle behind it or in the fact that it seeks to put right an area of the law that is clearly wrong; they lie in the problem of enforceability. My first question is: why should there be a change in the law now, when we have managed without one for centuries? The answer lies in the development of the media. I am not just talking about the printed media—sometimes rather unfairly referred to these days as the “dead wood” or “dead tree” media—or the radio and television; we are now in the age of the internet and the social media.
In the past, it was relatively easy to monitor the media, and I suspect that the media were rather more deferential in their reporting of the private lives of individuals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe has said, in the past, the reporting simply of a name and address would have been sufficient for many newspapers. Nowadays, we have the 24-hour rolling news service on radio and television that we all enjoy, although I am not sure that many politicians would use the word “enjoy” in connection with the demands of those news media. There is now an insatiable desire for more facts, of even the smallest nature, that can be released to keep the whole show on the road.
Is my hon. Friend saying that we should not seek to update the law to reflect those momentous changes in the way in which information circulates on social networking sites? Does he think that we should just abnegate responsibility for the content of the internet, saying, “Well, actually, the law can’t deal with this, so we should not seek to update it to protect the interests of the public”?
My hon. Friend raises a crucial point. The difficulty that I have with the Bill is that I am not sure how enforceable it would be. I am not suggesting for a moment that we should not attempt to deal with the problem merely because it is difficult. However, because of the nature of the internet, it might not be possible for us sensibly to enforce the law in any meaningful way. The fact that the media in all their forms—particularly, in this context, the electronic media—publish the identity of an accused person has led to the Bill being brought to the House today. That is also what gives rise to one of the Bill’s potential flaws.
May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the weight that the public attach to a news report? If that report is on Sky News or the BBC, or in a newspaper, the general public will attach great merit to it and expect it to have been researched. However, if it has been posted on a social networking site by, say, my brother’s uncle’s mate’s niece, it will simply be viewed as gossip and will have no impact on someone’s ability to get a job in the future.
The initial release of such information could well come from someone who had seen their neighbour being taken away by the police in the early hours of the morning, and who had used a social media platform such as Twitter to tweet the news to their followers. Would their friends think, “This information has come from Fred, and I don’t believe it”? I suspect that their friends would think, “Yes, I do believe that.” One of those friends could be a journalist at Sky, who might think, “This has come from Fred, so it must be true,” and, within minutes, the information could be on Sky News. I am not sure that my hon. Friend’s scenario works.
I tend to agree. Does my hon. Friend accept that when certain websites about which we know very little are competing with the more respectable end of the media and the press to report a particular case, people might choose to say, “I believe the stuff that’s on the BBC and in the newspaper that I read, rather than the stuff on that website”? If, however, there were no information about the case on the BBC or in the respectable press, the public would not be able to differentiate in that way, and they would have to accept that what they were reading on the website was true.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. That raises the question of whether the BBC and the other outlets would then have to release a story denying what was on that website. These issues would all arise from the operation of the Bill. I referred to the case of someone who tweets that their next-door neighbour was taken away in the early hours by the police. Would that be caught by the Bill? I am not sure. The Bill has been released without explanatory notes, so I apologise if I refer to matters that might have been clarified in them.
How far must publication go before an offence is committed? Does one tweet count as publication, or is it only published when a neighbour passes it on or when the tweet is picked up by mainstream media? It is a minefield.
With great respect to my hon. Friend, one tweet would not amount to publication. Many statutes prohibit the publication, notably, of a child’s name. There is no difficulty with somebody tweeting a name. However, there is profound difference in publication. Such details can be thrashed out in Committee, but should not impede the Bill’s progress.
I raise such matters for the very reason that they could be considered in Committee, and I am sure that they will be.
As the House will be aware, before an individual can be charged with a criminal offence, the police must consider whether there is a reasonable prospect of securing a conviction. That is far less onerous than having to decide on the civil law standard of balance of probabilities, or having to apply the test of “beyond all reasonable doubt” that will ultimately be applied by the court and, in more serious cases, by a jury. That raises the question of whether the Bill goes far enough. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) referred to the fact that amending the Contempt of Court Act might be another way of dealing with the matter. In the case of persons who are arrested and subsequently charged, but for whatever reason the charges are dropped—whether because of new evidence coming to light, some other person confessing to the crime, or the prosecuting authorities changing their minds about the prospects of success—their identity would already have been revealed, so they would not benefit from the operation of the Bill.
We should ask ourselves this question: in this modern era, is it possible to afford any individual the protection that the Bill seeks to provide? Within minutes, any article published on an individual private website can spread to millions around the country and indeed the globe. I am conscious of the intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, and if one tweet does not constitute publication, how many tweets would do so? As with the spreading of rumour, that is the problem. Such people will have no knowledge of any media code of conduct or concern about the concept of genuine public interest, which we are discussing. They will be concerned not about legality, but about simply passing on an interesting titbit of information that has come their way. It is the modern-day equivalent of a good gossip over the garden fence.
As all Members will be aware, a rumour that has started to circulate is very difficult to stop, and the damage is already done. An allegation might damage a person’s reputation for the rest of their life, especially if it relates to child abuse or a crime of a sexual nature. For anyone who wishes to protect the identity of an arrested person, the challenge is how to prevent an individual who is in possession of the information about the suspect’s identity from passing on that information. The Bill would deal with publication but not subsequent dissemination, especially by social networks. In essence, it is virtually impossible for the House to pass effective legislation against the spreading of rumour. I doubt that it would ever have been possible, even in the past when rumours would have spread mainly, if not exclusively, by word of mouth. With the prevalence of the internet and the almost universal use of mobile electronic communication devices, such legislation would be virtually unworkable.
Clause 1 states:
“Where a person is arrested for an offence then neither their name nor address, nor any still or moving picture, of that person shall—
(a) be published in England and Wales in any publication available to the public in written, electronic or any other form; or
(b) be included in a relevant programme for reception in England and Wales”.
Immediately, we see another of the potential pitfalls and problems with the Bill, which can extend only to England and Wales. Consequently, we could have the bizarre situation in which a newspaper can publish in its Scottish or Northern Irish edition the full details and photograph of the arrested person, but not in England and Wales.
That is because Scotland continues, rightly, to have its own system of justice. The provision has been lifted from all the other Acts that deal with such issues. Exactly the same argument could be made about the Contempt of Court Act, which works extremely well to ensure that once somebody is arrested there is no prejudicial reporting. With great respect to my hon. Friend, the issue that he understandably raises is a red herring.
My point is that we have two co-existing systems of law that work well together. We have a Contempt of Court Act that prohibits prejudicial material being printed and published in this country, and it does not have an impact on Scotland in relation to any publications up there that prevent someone from having a fair trial. We already have laws that protect individuals after they have been charged, that ensure non-prejudicial trials and so on. All the Bill would do is extend that protection to people who are arrested.
I accept that, but I still think that the Bill leaves open the possibility that media outlets will publish information outside England and Wales, although perhaps not in Scotland or Northern Ireland. There are international news agencies nowadays, and the Bill makes no reference to publication by foreign media outlets. It is fairly easy for anyone with access to the internet to access any foreign media publication. The identity of the person concerned might well be a secret to people in England and Wales, but billions of people around the planet would know exactly who that person was.
As well as the problem of how to control the worldwide media, another problem would almost certainly arise if the Bill were passed: that of piecemeal identification, which is apparently also known as “jigsaw identification”. Clause 1 would not prohibit the publication of any information at all about the arrested person; it merely prohibits the prohibition of the person’s name or address or
“any still or moving picture”.
So what will happen? One newspaper will publish, perfectly legally, the information that the suspect is a male, thus promptly halving the number of possible suspects. A radio station will then broadcast the fact that, although it cannot broadcast any information, it knows that the suspect owns a dog. Another newspaper will publish the fact that although it, too, cannot reveal any information, it does know that he is a prize-winning daffodil grower. We can see where this is going. It is clear that, taken together, those pieces of information will narrow the field of identification to a point at which it is possible to identify the person concerned. We will know everything about that person’s lifestyle, gender, age, hobbies and interests and even—possibly—workplace.
The whole of the protection afforded by clause 1 commences only when a person is arrested: in other words, when a police officer says to the suspect, “You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.” The clause provides no protection before that point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe said earlier that nowadays, because of the use of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the old phrase “helping police with their inquiries” is used less frequently than it once was, but I think she would agree that in those circumstances the Bill would not cover people who were “helping police with their inquiries”, because they would not have been arrested. Anyone can, of course, choose to help the police with their inquiries, and if someone did so of his or her own free will, the Bill would offer no protection.
Clause 2 sets out the exceptions to the reporting restrictions specified in clause 1. As I said briefly earlier, my concern relates to paragraphs (c) and (d) of subsection (2), which refer to the ability of the person who has been arrested to make an application if
“it may lead to information that assists the arrested person”
“the conduct of the arrested person’s defence at trial is likely to be substantially prejudiced if the direction is not given.”
The direction referred to is that given by a Crown court judge under clause 2(1)
“that section 1 shall not apply to a person who has been arrested where satisfied that such a direction is—
(a) required to comply with the Human Rights Act 1998;
(b) in the interests of justice; or
(c) otherwise in the public interest.”
It seems to me that it would be easier and, perhaps, better for the accused person if, rather than going down that route, he could simply sign a written statement to the effect that he was happy for clause 1 not to apply in his particular case. He could be afforded protection from some over-zealous and over-keen media outlet that wanted simply to push the piece of paper in front of him by requiring it to be witnessed by an independent legal adviser, who would have to certify that he had advised the accused person of the effect of giving up his rights under the Bill.
Clause 3 states:
“If any matter is published or included in a relevant programme in contravention of section 1, the following persons shall be guilty of a summary offence—
(a) in the case of publication in a newspaper or periodical, any proprietor, any editor and any publisher of the newspaper or periodical;
(b) in the case of publication in any other form, the person publishing the matter”.
Therein lies a potential difficulty. Although “publication” is defined in clause 7, which deals with interpretation, “publisher” is not. I submit that there could be some difficulty in establishing the identity of the publisher involved, especially in the case of an internet publication. The question arises of whether an internet service provider or a domain host would be caught by the provisions. I accept that the answer to that question may well be found in clause 4, which states
“A defence is available to a person charged under section 3 where at the time of the alleged offence they were not aware, and neither suspected nor had reason to suspect, that the publication or programme in question was of, or included, the prohibited matter in question.”
In clause 5, the Bill goes on to provide for criminal penalties. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe said that she had a general aversion to creating new criminal offences, so I wonder whether she has considered whether the problem might have been addressed with a civil procedure and damages, rather than by creating another criminal offence.
It is right that the man in Bristol, for example, can use the civil courts in relation to what has been printed about him, should he believe—and I think that there is a good argument—that he has been defamed, and in due course he might receive damages. My argument, however, is that the damage has been done, so I am seeking to prevent publication in the first place. That is how we should cure the mischief, as we put it.
I do not know off the top of my head the maximum fine in the magistrates court for a summary offence, but it will be in the range of thousands. I do not know what scale is used. We need the assistance of my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), who unfortunately is not in the Chamber at the moment.
Does my hon. Friend not see great irony in the fact that, while we appear to be moving in the direction of letting lots of people out of prison, and allowing people to commit multiple burglaries and violent crimes without being sent to prison, the Bill could send a newspaper editor to prison simply for stating a fact?
There is a risk that someone convicted under the measure could be sent to prison, as the Bill provides for that, and it is possible that it could happen to an editor. Clause 6 helpfully sets out exactly who might be affected, and applies
“if an offence under this Act is committed by a body corporate”.
“the offence is proved to have been committed with the consent of connivance of—
(a) a senior officer of the body corporate, or
(b) a person purporting to act in such a capacity,
the senior officer or person (as well as the body corporate) is guilty of the offence and liable to be proceeded against and punished accordingly.”
Clause 3(3) provides the relevant definitions:
“In this section—
‘director’, in relation to a body corporate whose affairs are managed by its members, means a member of the body corporate,
‘senior officer’, in relation to a body corporate, means a director, manager, secretary or other similar officer of the body corporate.”
The term “manager” is rather vague, because there are lots of managers in an office, and we would not want all of them to be affected by the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley is right that, theoretically, the editor of a publication could be imprisoned if their publication was found to have contravened its provisions.
My hon. Friend will be aware that a breach of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 can result in a maximum sentence of two years. The corporate bodies identified in my Bill are merely copies of what exists in other pieces of legislation without any difficulty, to make sure that when it is right and proper, the anonymity of certain people is maintained. I am sure that he will agree that it is not the Government’s intention to release from prison people who have repeatedly committed violent offences or who have repeatedly committed offences of dwelling-house burglary.
I do not want to stray from the debate into the general subject of the prison population. Suffice it to say that the Bill would, if enacted, create an additional offence—we can all agree on that. The basis of enforcement would rest on the threat of sending individuals to prison, so there is a theoretical possibility of the prison population increasing.
My argument so far has focused on the impact of the internet and its role in media coverage. The matter was considered by the Government last year, following the suggestion that anonymity should be provided in rape cases. The report issued in November 2010 stated that anonymity for those accused of rape has implications for media reporting. We know that under section 2(3) of the Contempt of Court Act, media coverage of active proceedings must not create a substantial risk of serious prejudice to the case by unduly influencing jurors.
Concerns are often raised about such influence in high profile cases, some of which have been mentioned, so I will not refer to them again. Legal judgments about whether media coverage amounts to such strict liability as contempt are usually based on what is called the fade factor—the idea that media reporting is less likely to affect the jurors, the further away it is from the trial. One of the ways that we could consider to right the perceived wrong is to reduce the fade factor, and give a definition in law to try to eliminate it as a factor to be taken into account in contempt cases.
The availability of rolling 24-hour news on demand presents new challenges to media coverage of criminal cases. When a jury is sworn in, the judge will often tell jurors not to look for information about their case on the internet, and will repeat at the end of each day that they are not to go on the internet and make inquiries into the case. Nevertheless, the internet exists, the explosion in its use is likely to continue, and therein lies the greatest difficulty in trying to enforce such a Bill. I shall now allow others to contribute to this important debate.
It is always a pleasure to see the Chairman of Ways and Means in the Chair.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) on introducing the Bill. I know all too well the pressures involved in choosing a suitable topic, and this Bill is worthy of the opportunity brought by being drawn in the ballot. I appreciate how much thought the hon. Lady has given to the matter. I am sure her heart sank when certain hon. Members entered the Chamber. The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) will forgive me for saying that seeing him walk in is always an interesting indication.
Many Members have mentioned or alluded to the tragic Joanna Yeates case, which happened over Christmas, and the media’s dreadful treatment of her landlord. The shameful way in which that man was portrayed in the press—from “weird-looking” to “strange”, and with questions raised about his sexuality, his teaching practices and even his hairstyle—should embarrass and shame our media.
The phenomenon is not new. Countless other examples spring immediately to mind—for example, the speculation, which I believe we heard again this morning, about a well-known actor and television presenter back in 2003, which has done untold damage to his career, despite the fact that no charges have ever been brought, or the American press treatment of Richard Jewell as a suspect in the 1996 Olympic park bombing, although in fact he was a hero on the day who saved countless lives through his actions.
As I think everyone listening to the debate will know, on 17 December 2010 Joanna Yeates left her place of work and joined her colleagues in a Bristol pub for a drink. On 20 December, Avon and Somerset police launched their first appeal for information about Joanna’s disappearance. It was around this time that the national media, perhaps because of the Christmas period, when there is generally considered to be little for the media to report, began to pay attention to the case. Over the next few days, it was given ever-increasing media attention, and more details emerged about Joanna’s final movements.
A key part of the case became a pizza that Joanna was seen buying in Tesco Express, but of which there was no trace in her flat, and the police used the media to ask the public whether they had seen anything relating to this. Joanna’s parents made a number of public appeals at this stage, believing that she had either gone missing or perhaps been abducted, and the media carried those appeals and contributed a huge amount to efforts to find Joanna safely. It is important to remember, as we discuss this Bill, that the media have traditionally played a huge role in such situations, and there are countless examples of missing people having been found as a result of information that has been obtained following appeals.
Tragically, on Christmas morning, a body was found in an area of north Somerset that was quickly confirmed to be that of Joanna. Over the next few days, the media concentrated on the reaction of the family and friends, before, on 29 December, the police interviewed Joanna’s landlord. He advised that he saw her leaving the flat with two people on the night that she was murdered. But the next day, Avon and Somerset police confirmed that a 65-year-old man had been arrested on suspicion of murder, and it was rapidly reported that this was her landlord.
At this stage the media turned their attention to what can be described only as a detailed character assassination of this man. Papers revelled in the nickname used by students at the college where he formerly taught, and a particular tabloid—I will not mention which one, but I think it will become apparent—ran a story entitled “Weird, posh, lewd, creepy”, in which it described him as “weird-looking” and ran quotes from a number of former pupils in which the overriding comment seemed intent on painting a very negative picture of this man. This continued over the following few days as police obtained further time to question the gentleman in question, and more of his former acquaintances came forward with stories about his apparently odd behaviour.
On new year’s day, this man was released on bail, at which point the tone of the stories changed. He was no longer weird or strange, with the newspaper in question now preferring to describe him as “wild-haired eccentric”, and most attention in the article reporting this being paid to comments from his aunt and former colleagues who supported him, expressing their view that they would never think him capable of such a crime.
I am very grateful for the exceptionally helpful comments that have been made thus far by the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that at the point when this gentleman was arrested and there was a media feeding frenzy attacking his character, it would be fair to say that there must have been women in Bristol who concluded that the police had him and that therefore they were safe? If events are proved right, women were effectively made more vulnerable in the mistaken belief that the attacker was no longer on the loose.
I fully understand what the hon. Lady says, and I have a great deal of sympathy for her view. However, if the media had simply published the name and address of the individual concerned, some people might still have drawn that conclusion. The problem comes from the vilification rather than the simple reporting. There is a lot of merit in what she says, but there is also an alternative view on it.
It is safe to say that the now positive comments coming from the media had been mentioned in all but the briefest of ways in articles in the previous days, and the media’s fixation on the landlord did not lead to him becoming any less strange or weird in their eyes, but the tone of their reporting changed markedly once he was released on bail. It can be assumed only that the papers concerned considered such information to be important only while he was being treated as a murder suspect. This will become more relevant later in my speech when I refer to the fact that the media are required by the Contempt of Court Act 1981 to make no speculation about an individual’s guilt and avoid comments that might interfere with the course of justice.
The hon. Lady rightly made the point that the media cannot be relied upon to police themselves. The sad fact is that stories such as that of the man in Bristol sell papers and keep people tuned into 24-hour news channels. I appreciate what she has said about it being incumbent on all of us not to buy those newspapers or watch those TV programmes, but I suspect that, unfortunately, the vast majority of us have that failing in our character that makes us interested in such cases. It is hardly surprising that there is a race between news outlets to uncover the most outrageous and startling rumours about an individual, to the extent that having blue hair or looking slightly eccentric suddenly become an indication of criminal activity.
With the costs and difficulties of bringing a case of libel or defamation before the courts, which are often perceived as a barrier, there is little reason for media outlets to temper their vitriol and innuendo. The Bill has great benefit, therefore, because it at least explores a possible remedy. At face value, it could address precisely the problems raised and protect individuals such as the man in Bristol.
The problem is that it is unfair to portray the entire media as simply feeding on such cases. There are countless examples of the media helping the police hugely by providing details of an arrested individual. For example, after an individual has been brought to the attention of the public, other victims have been known to come forward and either reveal more details about the crime under investigation or show that the crimes were more extensive than first thought.
Perhaps the most high-profile recent case in which media coverage has had that effect is that of John Worboys, the serial rapist, as the true extent of his crimes was known only after the police made an appeal and encouraged the media’s involvement. The case is well known. Mr Worboys was a licensed London taxi driver who was given an indefinite sentence in April 2009 on 19 charges of drugging and sexually assaulting women. He would pick them up in the centre of London or Bournemouth in the early hours of the morning and targeted victims who looked as though they had been drinking. He would then rape or sexually assault them. On waking, many victims could not remember the events.
In the years leading up to Mr Worboys’s arrest, 14 women notified the police that they had been sexually assaulted in taxis, but no link was ever made. He had previously been arrested and released in July 2007, allowing him time to attack many more women. At the time of his conviction, detectives suspected Worboys of being responsible for 83 horrific crimes. Although it was not the coverage of his arrest in particular that led to huge numbers of women coming forward, it was the efforts of the police and media following his conviction that led to the number of women that police suspect were attacked by Worboys rising to more than 100. That would make Mr Worboys possibly the most prolific sex offender in British history.
The purpose of mentioning that case is to highlight the benefits to victims of identifying an individual who has been arrested. Women who had perhaps lost hope of ever getting justice following their experience at the hands of people such as Worboys were able to face their attacker and could at least achieve some closure. We must always have in mind the victims of crime when discussing measures such as this. We, as parliamentarians, cannot pass a law that would impact on those who commit crimes without giving a great deal of thought, indeed probably more thought, to those who are subject to those crimes.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, research suggests that victims of rape and sexual abuse require more support than victims of other crimes, and people arrested for such crimes seem particularly likely to be subject to the kind of media attention that we are discussing. Therefore, we need to be particularly careful during this debate. I fear that there is not enough mention of the victims during discussions of the Bill, both today and in discussions in the wider media. I would have liked to hear more reaction from victims groups, which are in a much stronger position to provide evidence on how the matter is viewed by the people who suffer the crimes.
Yes, indeed. The widespread view is that the Bill is well intentioned, but, as I hope to tease out from the rest of my speech, as hon. Members have already said and as comments to come will show, either there are other ways of dealing with the matter or further work is needed.
I can see the arguments from both sides. I can see that for the victim of a crime, seeing their attacker or someone accused of being their attacker on the front page of a newspaper or in other news coverage would undoubtedly be painful. I can see also, as in the John Worboys case, that it would provide an opportunity for a victim to achieve some closure and make police fully aware of the extent of an individual’s crimes.
None of the women whom John Worboys assaulted and attacked knew his name. They came forward because there was publicity about his modus operandi, not because of his name. That is a big flaw in the argument, and it occurred last year in the debate about anonymity for people accused of rape. The victims came forward because they knew a taxi driver who operated in that criminal way had been arrested by the police, but it is a big mistake to put that argument forward as a reason for naming somebody who has been arrested.
I understand where the hon. Lady is coming from, but I am trying to make the important point that the media have a significant role. The publication of an individual’s name or face, or a detailed description of the circumstances in which they operate, can lead to more people coming forward, but we do not want to see vitriol, innuendo and shameful behaviour. That is the nub of what I believe the hon. Lady’s Bill tries to address.
Equally, I can see that, for the family of someone who has been murdered or subjected to some other horrendous crime, seeing the suspect’s identity revealed and feeling that the police are making strides in bringing the killer to justice could come as a great relief. Some people, however, might find it painful to see details of a case spread across the papers.
In an ideal world, perhaps the victim or their family could play a greater role in deciding whether an individual’s identity is revealed. I suspect the hon. Lady suggests such a situation in the part of her Bill that deals with the grounds for revoking anonymity, but in practice it is likely to be far too complicated to provide for affording as much importance to the views of the victim or their family as many of us would want. Indeed, the circumstances would be so emotive and distressing that they would undoubtedly have an impact on the family.
With great respect, I think we are moving into really difficult territory, because Joanna Yeates’s family did not know whether the man who had been arrested was the person who had murdered their daughter or fiancée, so in those circumstances it would be fallacious to argue that the victim’s family should be involved, in any way, in the publication of an arrested person’s name.
The point, however, is that we are looking at proposed legislation born of several high-profile cases, and trying to find a way of addressing how the victim and their family feel and the impact of any publication are important elements in the situation. It is an incredibly complicated situation, however, and that is the point.
Another example is that of Harold Shipman, because it was only when other cases and family members of other deceased individuals came forward with their experiences that the extent of the horrific crimes committed was truly known. As the promoter of the Bill has stated about her efforts, I, too, am not trying to bash the media out of hand or to lay the blame for the situation solely at their door. As I develop my speech, I shall try to deal with how the current situation has come about, but the point is that, without the media, public knowledge of the justice system would be much worse. As well as accepting that there are many unsatisfactory aspects, we should be thankful for their coverage of court proceedings. I am pleased, therefore, that the hon. Lady’s Bill addresses this matter in clause 2, where powers are in place for certain individuals to disapply the restriction on the naming of an individual if it were felt that the reporting would be
“in the interests of justice”
or “in the public interest”. The clause goes on to give some examples of where the former might be applied, such as when it
“may lead to additional complainants coming forward”
or to the provision of
“information that assists the investigation of the offence”.
My discomfort results from the fact that the provision arguably makes the system more complex and puts the decision in the hands of a judge, and therefore relies on the view of the judge being correct. It may not be immediately apparent that the publication of a name would lead to further complainants coming forward. There can be no tried and trusted method of knowing in precisely which cases further crimes are likely to have been committed, but rather only a suspicion on the part of the investigating officers.
There is therefore a discussion to be had about whether it is better that the names of all arrested persons are reported in the knowledge that, in some cases, further information or complainants would come forward, or better that the names of no arrested persons are reported and we have faith that opportunities will not be missed by judges. I think that the hon. Lady would agree—I am sure that she will leap to her feet if she does not—that this is not really about anonymity but about the vitriol and appalling behaviour of some parts of the media.
That is a very important point. Although the title of the Bill uses the word “Anonymity”, it is really a “Reporting Restrictions” Bill, which as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, is a different thing. We should emphasise that point, because that was the mistake that we got into in the debate about rape; it should always have been about reporting restrictions.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point very well, and I will return to it shortly.
I should like to touch on other concerns that I have about the Bill, some of which relate to whether it is necessary and some to how it would work in practice. First, it is worth mentioning again the current legislation relating to contempt of court. The Contempt of Court Act 1981 is the most important piece of legislation in this field and, if used properly, it should be sufficient to deal with the problems that the Bill seeks to address. Section 2(2) of the Act states that the press are prohibited from the reporting of information which
“creates a substantial risk that the course of justice in the proceedings in question will be seriously impeded or prejudiced”.
In the Joanna Yeates case, the Bristol man would almost certainly not have had a fair trial if he had indeed been guilty of the offences. Therefore, use of the 1981 Act should have been looked at more closely.
Of course, the simple reporting of an individual’s arrest would not impede or prejudice an investigation. I suspect that few Members have a strong objection to the simple reporting of an arrested person’s name; we have pretty much heard agreement on that today. Indeed, this reporting is crucial to the rule that administration of justice should take place in the public eye. Simple reporting of a name ensures that speculation is avoided and protects other individuals. The problem has arisen from the fact that the simple reporting of a name has grown and mutated, in a ridiculous and appalling way, into in-depth investigations about an individual’s past jobs, hobbies and actions.
The media are expected to refrain from reporting on a suspected person’s previous convictions or making any sort of speculative comment about an individual’s guilt or otherwise. I would argue that in the Bristol case, and in others, a number of press outlets were indeed guilty of precisely that—effectively carrying out their own investigations into the case and speculating as to why the person would carry out this crime with only the merest of efforts to mention that no charges had been laid. This mutation has been allowed to happen because of the failure of various bodies, including Ministers, to ensure that the law is implemented properly.
In the Bristol case, I am afraid to say that the reaction of the Attorney-General was not what I would have expected of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. His so-called warning to newspaper editors consisted of little more than the gentlest of reminders of the law as it stands and the importance of nothing taking place that might prejudice a fair trial. Indeed, according to reports of this “warning”, the Attorney-General was very careful not to address precisely the coverage of the Joanna Yeates case. I dare say that had the Attorney-General taken a stronger view and warned media outlets that some of the reporting was at great risk of being in contempt—I think that hon. Members agree that it probably was in contempt—a slightly more measured approach might have been taken.
I would not criticise the Attorney-General. That is not just because I support him as a Government member, but because the Contempt of Court Act simply does not address this problem in the way we all want it to be addressed. I am grateful that hon. Members agree about the way it should be addressed. The fault is not with the Attorney-General but with the Act, whether because the test is too high or because it does not address the pre-charge situation.
We might just have to disagree on that point. I think that a gentle warning was insufficient, and that the Contempt of Court Act could have applied. Perhaps we will discuss that on another occasion. I would feel some trepidation about enacting further legislation before we are sure whether the existing legislation could be made to work in the way we would like the Bill before us to work.
My second major concern is that although the Bill would address concerns with the print and TV media, it would not address the largest problem—the internet. Hon. Members have commented on this point at length. I appreciate that the hon. Lady has included the prohibition of electronic publishing and transmission in the Bill, but it is almost impossible to police these things in cyberspace. It is not impossible, but under current legislation it is all but impossible. It is all very well individuals’ identities being kept secret from the traditional media, but it would be almost impossible to stop rumour and speculation revealing those identities. Much comment has been made about Twitter, and I know that Mr Speaker has his own views on Twitter in this Chamber. However, many people believe that if something has been tweeted, it is fact. It is a very public method of disseminating information. It is not like a conversation over the garden fence, as has been said; it is more like a conversation over a garden fence in the middle of a football field on a crowded Saturday afternoon using megaphones.
In my view, that is the strongest argument against the Bill. Although the media may not have covered themselves in glory in reporting the arrest of the gentleman in Bristol, if an individual’s identity will be known anyway, I would much rather place my faith in traditional media than in the self-policed world of internet blogs and news sites, where there are countless examples of uninformed comment and speculation. To deny the traditional media the ability to report an arrest when the identity of the individual is well known on the internet would be deeply unfair and would risk even worse coverage than we have seen in the past few months. If we cannot find a way to make the Bill address the problems of the internet, it might be almost impossible to implement. No good comes from passing a Bill that solves one problem while creating an arguably more difficult one.
If we are to pass the Bill on the basis that we do not feel it is fair for someone to be identified when they are simply being questioned by police, should we not also consider the fundamental issue that someone is innocent until proven guilty? That point has been made by a couple of hon. Members. Just as much damage can be done to a person’s reputation if they are vilified when charged but subsequently found not guilty as if they are arrested and then not charged. If the Bill leads us down the road towards anonymity throughout the legal process, which would be almost impossible to achieve and which flies in the face of justice being seen to be done, that might be a dangerous move.
Finally, I am interested to know what discussions the hon. Lady has had about the Bill with Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. She may wish to intervene on that point.
Although the Bill is mainly of concern to the Ministry of Justice, much of the day-to-day regulation of what we see on our screens and in our newspapers is done by the DCMS. There is a strong argument that were Ofcom or, heaven forbid, the Press Complaints Commission to take a more proactive approach to such issues, perhaps citing the Contempt of Court Act where necessary, we might not have to make a law such as this. That would warrant further investigation were the Bill to pass to Committee stage.
Although at face value it appears simple to change the law, a multitude of issues complicate the matter and turn it into a difficult question that affects a huge number of areas. We must balance the view that the most important thing is that justice is seen to be done with the view that we must ensure that everything possible is done to ensure that justice can be done. We must balance the idea that the press should be free to report as they see fit with the fact that an individual should be considered innocent until proven guilty and has a right to be able to continue with their life unmolested if police inquiries prove that they are not linked to the crime and no charges are made. We must also consider the fact that although we might not like the way in which the media have reported some of the more high-profile cases in recent years, there are also many examples of their having made a huge contribution to justice being done and criminals being brought to justice.
The Bill addresses a crucial problem and a particularly unsavoury aspect of the way in which crime is reported in our press. However, I feel that as it stands, it does not address the problem as thoroughly as I would like, and it would certainly need significantly more work to become a successful law. Ideally, I should like the themes of the Bill to be incorporated into a wider Bill that also addressed a number of other points on the subject. I say to the Minister that perhaps that should be considered as part of the forthcoming libel and defamation Bill.
If the Bill receives its Second Reading today, I hope it will receive more detailed scrutiny in Committee, and I hope that we will ultimately be left with a Bill that satisfies and respects the rights of the victim, the accused and our law enforcement bodies alike.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), and I find myself in the unusual position—no doubt he will find it an uncomfortable position—of agreeing with an awful lot of what he said.
It is only fair that I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) on introducing the Bill. Although I do not particularly agree with it and take issue with many parts of it, I wish to make two points at the outset. First, she has touched on an issue of concern to a great number of people around the country. I am sure that a lot of people in both my constituency and hers accept that there is a problem and that something should be done. Secondly, I was incredibly impressed by her speech and thought that she made her case incredibly well. I am sure that many people listening to it who were neutral beforehand were persuaded of the merits of the Bill simply by the quality of her speech and argument. Unfortunately, I was not persuaded of its merits, but that probably reflects more on me than on her.
The main point on which I wish to focus is the importance of having a free press, free media and open justice. The hon. Gentleman touched on that by saying that although the Bill was considered a Ministry of Justice matter, many of the issues that it covered related to the DCMS. He was right, because an awful lot of the debate that we have heard today has been about the activities of the media as opposed to the activity of the law. As a member of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, I feel strongly about that, and I commend to every hon. Member who is here today the report that the Committee published only last February, “Press standards, privacy and libel”. We looked in great detail at people’s concerns about the standards of the press.
The press are clearly not flawless—none of us is. We all make mistakes. I probably make dozens every day, some of which I do not even know about. The press are no different, and we should not expect them never to make mistakes. They will acknowledge that from time to time they get things wrong. Given the vast number of matters that they report on each day, and the vast number of articles in every newspaper, it would be extraordinary if they did not make mistakes from time to time.
However, whatever flaws there may be in the media, and whatever inconveniences those flaws occasionally cause us in politics, the principle of a free press and media in this country, operated by self-regulation rather than statutory control, is good not just for us but for the country at large. We should be wary of any attempt to interfere with that free press and media. One of the media’s great roles is to act as an essential check and balance on the state and its power. We would be in a far worse position if the media were increasingly restricted.
I made the point, to which I hope to revert in more detail, that I foresee a dangerous situation of trying to go down a route whereby the police could go around arresting people, and nobody would know about it because the media would be unable to report it. I do not know what type of country has a system under which the police can go around arresting people and it cannot be reported by the media, but it is certainly not the sort of country I want to live in.
No, I do not agree. I do not want the decision about whether to name people who have been arrested to be left in the hands of the police. I like the fact that the media are out there, investigating what the police are doing and holding them to account and in check to ensure that their power is not being abused. The media are an essential control on the state.
The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) makes is that we want to revert to the position that existed some years ago, whereby the press said, “A local man has been arrested,” or, “A local man is helping the police with their inquiries,” rather than going into the further detail that causes the mischief about which we are concerned.
I am not a fan of restricting the information that people can give when it comprises simple fact. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South made the point particularly well. These things normally work through reports such as “A 25-year-old man from Hastings has been arrested for a crime.” I do not understand how that damages the judicial system. In many respects, the Bill is a solution looking for a problem because, in the vast majority of cases, crimes tend to be reported in the way in which my hon. Friend wants.
My hon. Friend probably acknowledges that I yield to nobody, not even him, in defending people’s rights against unlawful arrest. His case would stand up better if what was being argued was for no naming whatsoever rather than naming at the point of charge. Since we have limitations on detention without charge—about which I am quite expert—my hon. Friend’s case would fall after two or three days.
My right hon. Friend knows that no one in the House admires him more than I do, although we do not always agree. Indeed, many people have said that he did not become leader of the party because my support for him was disclosed far too early. There is some truth in the assertion that his candidacy went downhill from the very moment that I declared my support for him. The fact that he still talks to me is testimony to his courtesy.
However, if it is damaging to someone who is arrested that their name is mentioned, because they can be vilified through a “no smoke without fire” approach, that applies not only to them, but to those who are charged with an offence, those who go to court and those who are acquitted. I am sure that my right hon. Friend would acknowledge that, in many cases, people go to court and are acquitted, and local people still say, “He must have been up to something; they wouldn’t have arrested him for no reason.” In dealing with the “no smoke without fire” issue and in arguing that people should not be vilified just because they have been arrested, the ultimate logic of the Bill is that we should not name anybody charged with something until they have been convicted. My right hon. Friend might consider that desirable, and it is a perfectly respectable view to hold—although I do not know whether he does hold it—but it is not one I agree with. It would not be a positive, but a negative development.
The thing that I most wish to defend is not just the freedom of the press—although that is important—but the important principle of open justice in this country. A Government research paper last November entitled, “Providing anonymity to those accused of rape: an assessment of evidence”, helpfully included the reasons why an open justice principle is so important to this country. It is important because it
“helps ensure that trials are properly conducted”,
“puts pressure on witnesses to tell the truth”,
“can result in new witnesses coming forward”,
which is an important point made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South. It also
“provides public scrutiny of the trial process”,
which is also an important factor, and
“maintains public confidence in the administration of justice”.
I am a big believer that the more information the public know the better. Finally and crucially, it
“reduces the likelihood of inaccurate and uninformed comment about proceedings”.
That final point is one of the most crucial. Following a high-profile case, no matter what laws the House decides to pass, we cannot prevent people from speculating on what has happened, on who was involved, on who might be guilty or on who they think it is. I am sure it happens in many households around the country following a crime; I am sure that every household has its resident Inspector Clouseau listing who they think is guilty—“It must be somebody they knew,” “It’s probably a relative,” and all that kind of thing. That is not going to stop, no matter how many laws we pass.
I am pondering whether my hon. Friend meant Clouseau or Poirot—but it does not matter. He is right to mention open justice, but I think that the document from which he takes those important points was a Judicial Studies Board document on reporting restrictions in the criminal courts and relates only to proceedings in court. However, the Bill deals with the period between arrest and charge. It deals with a stage before that and covers a different issue.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. However, my point is that these principles are just as important at this stage of the process as they are at the court stage. I personally do not see any great distinction; I do not see why these principles should not apply at this stage too.
It is inevitable that this sort of frenzy will follow a high-profile case. However, it can be more damaging for certain individuals to be the victim of rumour and innuendo in their local community based on no facts whatsoever; and it can be more damaging to have their character unfairly vilified because nobody actually knows what is going on. A simple factual statement by the police in the media stating that a certain individual has been arrested might not be liked by the particular individual, but it might come as a great relief to the lots of other people in the local community suffering from smear and innuendo—“Was it them who was arrested?”, “Have they been arrested?”, “Why haven’t they been arrested?” and so on. In more cases than not, the media help rather than hinder the progression of cases. The fact that the media can put information in the public domain does more good than harm.
As a matter of principle, I do not think that people who have been arrested by the police or other authorities should be anonymous. That is a vital principle of open justice. As I said, it is also in the interest of the arrested person. That principle has been gained over many years. The opposite principle is much more likely to be seen in a totalitarian regime, where people are taken from the streets, arrested and never seen again, without anybody ever knowing what happened to them in the first place. I do not want to see the worst aspects of that kind of regime introduced in this country.
That principle is particularly important at a time of high interest in crime and fear of crime. I cannot speak for my hon. Friends, but whenever I do surveys across my constituency and I ask people what their biggest concerns are, whatever else happens to be in the news, the fear of crime tends to be at the top of the list. Against that backdrop, it would be extraordinary for the public not to have a right to know who might have been arrested for certain crimes in their area. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South said, the naming of suspects can also enable further evidence to be gathered to help the administration of justice, by encouraging people to bring it forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe made the perfectly fair point that her Bill would allow people to appeal to a court to provide for an exception to the reporting restrictions. I certainly welcome a step in that direction, and some people may well be satisfied with that safeguard, but I do not see how it will work in practice. The Government have just gone through a process of closing down a number of courts around the country. The capacity of our courts system will be less than it is currently. At a time when we are closing courts down, I do not see why we would want to introduce legislation that would only have the effect of clogging up the courts, as individuals, local communities, the police or the media went to court to ask for exceptions to the reporting restrictions.
My hon. Friend might have mentioned this when I was not here—I apologise profusely for missing the first part of her speech—but I did not hear her say how many extra cases she thought would be heard by the courts, as people applied for exceptions to the reporting restrictions. I do not know whether she or the Government have made any such assessment, but if the Minister has done so, it would be particularly interesting to know what his assessment is, because I fear the courts being clogged up with people asking for reporting restrictions to be lifted. Such applications may or may not be granted. However, if very many applications were granted, that would indicate that the law is an ass and it would need to be changed anyway, and if not very many were granted, I would argue that that would amount to an unfair restriction on the public’s right to know and the media’s freedom of speech.
It would also be interesting to know the possible costs of running such cases. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) said that newspapers could go and represent themselves, and that there would not be a great legal bill at the end of such cases. However, I am slightly cynical about these things, because whatever happens, there always tends to be a big legal bill at the end of such cases. However, even if there is no great bill to the newspaper, there will be a cost to the Government of cases being heard in court and the courts system being clogged up. I would be interested to know what that cost would be, who would meet it and whether anyone applying for an exemption to the restrictions would be expected to contribute. If they were expected to contribute, it is quite extraordinary to imagine that people would volunteer to pay such a cost on a regular basis, especially given what we have heard about the dire financial straits of many newspaper groups, and particularly of local newspapers. Therefore, even though there is a safeguard, in practice I do not see how it would be fashioned.
My hon. Friend is making a good point. Does he share my concern that if someone is arrested and they wish their identity to be revealed, we would be interposing an enormous bureaucratic burden on them before it could be revealed?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not know whether it is envisaged that reporting restrictions would be lifted in most cases. If so, would it not be more sensible to have a legal framework in which there is a presumption that everything could be published and in which people could apply for their details not to be published in exceptional circumstances? That would be a more sensible way forward than doing it the other way round. The proportions in the Bill are the wrong way round. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe might be right to say that some cases involve particular issues, but it is those cases that should be treated as the exception, rather than the vast majority that take place without incident. The Minister will know the figures better than I do, but let us think about the number of people who are arrested in this country every year. How many of those cases give rise to concern? It seems completely disproportionate to make a presumption that reporting restrictions should apply in all cases and that people would need to apply for an exemption. All the evidence suggests that it should be the other way round.
My hon. Friend is making some very fair points in his practical analysis of the matter. Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), may I suggest that the Bill could be amended to allow for the arrested person to give their consent to the release of their details? They could sign a consent form or give their consent through a solicitor at the police station for the publication of their name in the newspapers or on the internet. That would be a practical solution.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestion. That would certainly make the Bill better than it is now, but I am not entirely sure that it would totally address my concerns. I shall certainly take his intervention in the spirit in which it was intended, however, because his suggestion would be a helpful step in the right direction.
I want to talk about the effect that a blanket restriction would have on local papers. National papers cover all sorts of gossip and showbiz, but local papers are all about providing information on issues of massive importance in the local area. If a massive event had taken place in an area, attracting a great deal of local interest, the local paper would be at a huge disadvantage, compared with the websites that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) mentioned, if it could not publish all the information that the public needed. Such a restriction would certainly not prevent all the rumour and innuendo from being published on the internet, perhaps on websites in other countries and all sorts of different backdrops. It would put local papers at a huge disadvantage if people in the local community could not find information in the paper that was readily available from other sources.
Not being able to name an arrested person would place a huge restriction on anything being reported about a case, because there could be a danger of inadvertently identifying the person by publishing other information. There could therefore be a danger of not reporting crimes that people ought to know about, and that would previously have attracted huge media interest. Such restrictions could have a “chilling” effect on local newspapers. They might not actually fall foul of the provisions in the Bill, but their fear of so doing could have a “chilling” effect that would prevent genuine informative reporting from taking place. That could force local communities to get their information from other sources. It would be incredibly sad if we were inadvertently to put another nail into the coffin of local newspapers, but I fear that that could happen.
I again commend to the House the Select Committee’s report on press standards, privacy and libel, and our other report on the future of local media, which will give hon. Members a feel for the dire straits that many of the regional and local media are now in. We should be very wary of doing anything that could have a negative impact on them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North made an important point about the rules applying only to England and Wales and the effect on media in other countries, especially in the United Kingdom, and I am not sure whether his exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe on the matter was resolved satisfactorily. How would reports in newspapers in Scotland and Scottish editions be tied in? As the laws apply only to England and Wales, The Scotsman might feel emboldened to print the name of somebody who had been arrested for a high-profile crime in England that was newsworthy in Scotland. That would be an extraordinary situation, given that we live in the United Kingdom.
The fact that many Scottish editions of papers are sold in England is an added complication. The Scotsman is also sold in London, as many people here want to buy it. Is the market for which that paper was intended the key factor? Would the law be breached by a newspaper that was intended for a Scottish market but that had somehow found its way into England? Would there be a due diligence defence? The Bill is unclear on that. We might end up with a strange anomaly whereby information that people are not allowed to know in England is available through print or broadcast media in Scotland. There is neither rhyme nor reason to such circulation being legitimate in Scotland, but not in England.
The Contempt of Court Act prohibits any publication that could prejudice a fair trial in current court proceedings. Therefore, the press in Scotland do not print anything that could fall foul of that Act, as the publication concerned might be sold or made available in England and Wales. With great respect to my hon. Friend, he is putting a red herring into the pond.
The hon. Lady seems to be arguing for the Government to change the Contempt of Court Act. If so, she should say that. I do not know whether the Minister would be receptive. However, we are discussing not that, but whether to introduce a new piece of legislation, which is entitled to be seen in isolation. She might know how matters will be interpreted by the courts, in which case she is in a better position than I am: I never cease to be amazed by how the courts interpret certain pieces of legislation.
Does my hon. Friend know whether the Contempt of Court Act applies throughout the United Kingdom? Even if it does, Scotland has a different system, whereby the Advocate-General for Scotland is responsible for enforcing the Act there, and the Attorney-General is responsible for enforcing the Act here. There is already that distinction.
Regardless of the outcome of the debate on the extent of the Contempt of Court Act, one thing of which we can all be sure is that it does not apply to Australia, for example. The Australian, which is on sale in newsagents in London, could easily publish the kind of information under discussion.
But it is a question of how effectively that would be enforced. I do not know whether a claim that the paper that had been caught out had been intended for a foreign audience might serve as a “due diligence” defence. It is impossible to know that at this stage.
I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) that the Contempt of Court Act does apply in Scotland: it contains provisions dealing with penalties relating to offences in that country. It is important to note that it has that cross-jurisdictional application.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. The Bill, of course, does not have that benefit, as it applies only to England and Wales.
As the vast majority of newspapers throughout the United Kingdom have signed up to the code of practice of the Press Complaints Commission, there is bound to be some uniformity in their behaviour, whether they happen to be in England, Scotland or Wales. There is no way that the press would sign up to the provisions in the Bill as part of their code of conduct, and the Scottish papers would therefore feel no need to observe those provisions. I still feel that there is a potential for anomalies. Indeed, such anomalies already appear frequently in the newspapers.
Barely a week goes by without the appearance of some salacious story about a celebrity—a footballer, a broadcaster or some wealthy individual—who has issued an injunction with the aim of preventing the publication of information that has been passed to the newspapers. More often than not, after a few days the identity of the person concerned comes to public recognition through the internet. The story is published in a foreign country, and then turns up in chat rooms and rumour mills.
I do not know a great deal about websites of that kind, being a fully paid-up member of the Luddites, but what I do know is that, by one means or another, the names of such individuals tend to come to the surface at some point. It has always struck me as extraordinary that when everyone in the pub—virtually everyone everywhere—knows the identity of some individual who is involved in one thing or another, the only place where no one can discover it is the newspaper, because of some bizarre injunction.
My hon. Friend made a very good point about the case in Bristol. As I said at the beginning of my speech, I am not claiming—and I do not believe that anyone is claiming—that the media are without flaw, and never make mistakes. The media have made some horrendous mistakes, as they themselves will accept. We need only consider the case of Madeleine McCann. The press made some horrific mistakes in their reporting of that case, and I think that they would be the first to acknowledge it.
No matter how hard my hon. Friend tries, we will never have a system in which the media are perfect, and everything that is reported is accurate and for the public good. There will always be instances in which the media make mistakes, and we make mistakes. We all make mistakes in life. The only people who do not make any mistakes in life are those who do not make any decisions. Anyone who makes decisions makes mistakes, and the press are just as liable to make them as the next person—as are politicians, I might add. The thrust of my argument is about the bigger picture: a free and open press and an open justice system are far more worth while than attempts to try to restrict them, no matter how good the motives behind that restriction.
Does the problem not stem from the fact that the Bill is premised on a number of hard cases? We know from our experience in the House that if we begin to legislate for those hard cases we are likely to make bad law. As the phrase goes, hard cases make bad law.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. There are a number of examples of people being appalled by an event in a certain part of the country. We have rushed to do something about it with a general feeling of “Something has happened; the Government must do something about it.” As a result, we have introduced laws that, with hindsight, were rushed and, from a wider perspective, did not serve any particular good. The thing that those cases have in common is that they are all well intentioned and are all based on highlighting a real or perceived problem that matters to many people.
I return to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe has hit on something about which many people are concerned, and which they regard as a problem. I therefore commend her on opening the debate. We are all interested to hear the Minister’s reply, so I do not intend to detain the House any longer. Whatever the merits of my hon. Friend’s argument and the problems that are out there, whether perceived or real, we should tread very carefully indeed, because we restrict the freedom of the press and the information that we give the public at our peril. I hope that the Minister will show caution in his response to the Bill, and it would be far better if my hon. Friend went back to the drawing board and returned with something much more limited in scope that might be more acceptable to all concerned.
I shall begin with the usual courtesy of congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) on her success in the ballot and on introducing a proposal that has produced an interesting and thought-provoking debate. I applaud in particular her commitment to this issue, which is founded on a depth of relevant experience and genuine concern about the damage that inappropriate or excessive media coverage can do under certain circumstances. Very few hon. Members have her combination of qualifications and experience to address the issue with such authority, so it is not surprising that her success in the ballot should result in her introducing this Bill.
Before I come to the substance of the Government’s position, I shall reflect on the debate. We heard an admirably concise contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who made clear his support for the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) made his usual learned contribution on the law in this area, and made an excellent contribution to our debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) is no longer in the Chamber, but he made it clear that the subject ought to receive consideration. Indeed, it received such consideration from my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), who made what I understand is his usual contribution to the examination of matters on a Friday.
The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), made clear his concern about the Bill. On reflection, he may reconsider the wisdom of taking interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe in future. We saw the first part of his argument exploded because of his misunderstanding of the Worboys case. Rather unwisely, he decided to take a another intervention on the point that he was making about the role of a bereaved family in an active case and the possibility of them having direct influence on the issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe delivered a one-two to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that I shall not provoke her too much in the course of my remarks, or ever find myself on the wrong end of a cross-examination by her if she returns to being a barrister.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) made an admirably liberal contribution—wholly commendable though, from my point of view, marginally unexpected, and with admirable regard for the need to respect the fiscal position of the Government and the taxpayers’ interest. He, like the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, made clear the attachment to the principle of open justice. I noted the attachment of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley to full transparency, public knowledge and the need to avoid
“inaccurate and uninformed comment about proceedings.”
I may return to that later.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe explained, her Bill aims to protect members of the public from media reporting where they have been arrested but not charged with an offence. This proposal responds to public concern about an issue highlighted in a recent high-profile case. Clearly, the Bill touches on a controversial area of law and policy, with potentially wide implications for the way in which our press, our courts and our wider justice system work. It is the sort of area that, I am sure Members will agree, needs to be approached with some caution, forethought and careful deliberation.
With that in mind, I want to respond to my hon. Friend’s proposals in a thorough and structured way. I will look first at the current legal position, which is more complicated and detailed than is sometimes realised. I will examine in more depth previous proposals to change the law, which are highly relevant to the Bill. These include previous measures explored by the coalition to address the vexed issue of anonymity in rape cases. I will then turn to the substance of the matter—the general issues raised by the Bill, and its evidence base. In conclusion I will say a little about its detailed contents and make the Government’s position clear.
Let me say now that we do not at this time think that we can support a statutory prohibition on the reporting of arrests pre-charge, but I will go on to say what measures we will be taking, and I hope that they will provide my hon. Friend and her supporters with a degree of comfort.
Under the present law, the media are broadly free to report the identity of suspects at all stages of the criminal process—when they are under investigation, when they are arrested, and when they are charged. The media are free also to report criminal trials, subject to a range of statutory and common-law reporting restrictions, which are designed to protect the integrity of criminal proceedings. There are protections in the law to try to stop individuals being pilloried in the press, including libel provisions and, where comment may be prejudicial to any future proceedings, contempt.
Taken together, these arrangements reflect our long and proud common law tradition of open justice and article 6 of the European convention on human rights, which guarantees the open justice principle. In its words, in
“the determination of his civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law. Judgement shall be pronounced publicly”.
However, article 6 permits exceptions to the general rule of open reporting, as follows:
“the press and public may be excluded from all or part of the trial in the interest of morals, public order or national security in a democratic society, where the interests of juveniles or the protection of the private life of the parties so require, or the extent strictly necessary in the opinion of the court in special circumstances where publicity would prejudice the interests of justice”.
It has long been the statutory position under our law in cases involving national security, for example, that the judge has the power to exclude the public and media from the courtroom during the trial.
There have been a number of proposals for changing the law in modern times, and this is one of those areas of recurring interest to Parliament. The real starting point was section 6 of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976, which granted anonymity to defendants in rape cases. Of course, that measure applied only after charge, whereas the present Bill would grant anonymity between arrest and charge. The 1976 Act does, however, usefully flag up at the outset the fact that different options are available where the timing of the anonymity is concerned, and I will return to that subject later.
The 1976 Act’s provisions were duly repealed in 1988 and one has to jump forward 11 years, to 1999, for the next important developments. In that year the previous Administration enacted the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, section 44 of which imposed anonymity at the pre-charge stage to persons under 18 years old who are involved in criminal investigations, including suspects. Thus, the 1999 Act provides a statutory precedent to the measures in the Bill—a precedent expressly limited to children and young persons—but it is also important to understand that this legislation has never been brought into force.
It was also in 1999 that I introduced the Sexual Offences (Anonymity of Defendants) Bill. As I reminded the House last summer, I have some form in this area. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe referred to it, but in the context of the debate about rape anonymity, and as I will come to reflect on, we have proposals that achieve the objective that I set out in the Education Bill that is before the House. The purpose of my Bill was to protect teachers from the consequences of accusations by children who have anonymity, and from the subsequent reporting of such allegations. As some hon. Members may recall, my Bill was prompted by the suicide of a constituent, Nick Drewett, a teacher who took his own life after being accused of behaving improperly with pupils in his care. This was a tragic example of the cost of unfounded allegations. The headmaster who was accused alongside him was subsequently acquitted. My experience here is one reason why I am delighted that the coalition is bringing forward legislation to deal with the problem of false allegations against teachers.
The subject was then debated in great depth during the passage of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Even before those debates developed, the Home Affairs Committee had recommended granting pre-charge anonymity to suspects in sexual offence cases. It will be noted that on this occasion the anonymity would have dealt with a narrow class of offences where there was thought to be particular difficulty—namely, sexual offences—and would not have applied to all criminal offences as the present Bill does.
The subject was debated in very great depth in this House and in the other place during the passage of the Act. As I hope some hon. Members will recall, matters began on that occasion when the Cross Bencher, Lord Ackner, the late former Law Lord, tabled an amendment to the Sexual Offences Bill in the other place. Lord Ackner's view was that defendant anonymity in rape cases had worked well between 1976 and 1988. He had, as he said,
“heard nothing to suggest that during those 12 years there were occasions when it worked to the disadvantage of justice. I have not limited my request to pre-trial because pre-trial is only part of the issue.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 June 2003; Vol. 648, c. 1095.]
The anonymity proposed by Lord Ackner would, in terms of his amendment, have been the same as that enjoyed by the complainant. It would therefore have applied from the point of the allegation for life, unless of course the defendant was convicted.
There was then, as I say, considerable debate in both Houses, not least about the point at which the anonymity should apply, pre or post-charge. The Government of the day accepted the desirability of pre-charge anonymity in sexual offence cases in principle, but preferred a non-legislative solution. Concerns raised during the passage of the Bill about media reporting in certain cases did not lead to a substantive change to the editors’ code of practice, which continues to contain no steer against pre-charge reporting of the identity of those suspected but not charged. The media’s guidelines accordingly differ somewhat from the approach taken in the guidance from the Association of Chief Police Officers, which makes it clear that police officers should not normally disclose the identity of suspects under investigation. That remains the position today. There has been some development in that guidance. ACPO’s media advisory group produced clear guidance and advice in December 2000 and in 2002, paragraph 1.1 of which states:
“Generally people under investigation should not be named but they can and will, with certain exceptions, be identified once they have been charged. This approach balances the principle of open justice with the rights of the individual to privacy, a fair trial and damage to the reputation of an individual if no charge is made against them”.
ACPO, in conjunction with the media, has produced an updated statement on the position today. It does not contain that paragraph, but that is because it is really a statement of what the position is. I have been careful to take advice and want to make it clear that the guidance to police remains exactly as it was in 2000 and 2002.
Most recently, our coalition programme for government contained two commitments on anonymity: first, to extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants; and, secondly, to give anonymity to teachers accused by pupils and to take other measures to protect against false allegations. The first was of course the subject of much debate inside and outside the House, and the question of the timing of anonymity in criminal cases again came to the forefront, as did the kinds of offences to which anonymity might apply.
Very properly, the examination in Parliament of our coalition agreement proposal helped to trigger a careful re-examination of the evidence base for the proposition set out in the election programmes of both coalition parties, and the role of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe in that debate was not insignificant, as was made clear in her excellent speech of 8 July. It was a very good debate, showing the House at its best. Using the resources of the excellent team of analysts in the Ministry of Justice, we reached the conclusion, which I announced to Parliament on 12 November, that the evidence base was not strong enough for the Government to proceed with the proposals.
However, our commitment to giving anonymity to teachers is being taken forward in the Education Bill, which I hope Members on both sides of the House will welcome. On that subject, we have said:
“We will give teachers the strongest possible protection from false accusations. We will give anonymity to teachers facing accusations from pupils. This Government want to put an end to rumours and malicious gossip about innocent teachers which can ruin careers and even lives.”—[Official Report, 7 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 12WS.]
In the case of the Education Bill, the anonymity will apply from the point of allegation to the point of charge, so again there is a difference from what my hon. Friend’s Bill proposes. The anonymity set out in the Education Bill applies to only a limited range of offences that are particularly likely to attract false allegations against teachers. Again, that represents quite a difference from my hon. Friend’s Bill.
Having summarised the somewhat convoluted background, I believe that it casts important light on the Bill in a number of areas. First, there is the question of the evidence base. Some people will no doubt argue that recent events, about which I will make no specific comment, prove that there is a case for replacing media self-regulation in this area with a statutory prohibition, such as that set out in the Bill. My hon. Friend herself has been quoted in the press as saying that
“since the media don’t seem able to regulate themselves, Parliament should do something about it”,
which puts the point with commendable directness.
I urge a degree of caution. The Government only recently withdrew our commitment set out in the coalition programme to grant anonymity in rape cases to defendants, having discovered on closer examination that there was insufficient evidence either for or against the proposal. That ought to alert us to the sensitivities of intervening in this area. We need to be a little wary of assuming that individual hard cases, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) said, however hard or egregious they might seem, constitute evidence of a widespread or pressing social problem sufficient to justify interference with long-standing freedoms.
This country has a long and proud tradition of media independence, an important part of which is self-regulation. It is not impossible to question how effectively that self-regulation is operating, but we should not interfere with it lightly. Any interventions on the subject need significant reflection and widespread consultation, and they should proceed as far as possible on the basis of consensus.
Secondly, it is noticeable that, compared with previous initiatives, the Bill imposes anonymity on an all-crime basis, applying to all criminal offences alike, including purely summary offences. That represents a departure from the view, evident in previous proposals, that anonymity may be justified only to address specific difficulties—for example, where particular kinds of offence are concerned.
Thirdly, on timing, the Bill applies the anonymity from the point of arrest to the point of charge only. That interesting approach has received little if any attention in the past, and I shall reflect on the detailed contents of the Bill by looking more closely at the issue of timing.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe has explained, the Bill’s intention is to impose a general restriction on reporting from the point of arrest to the point of charge. The choice of the point of arrest as the starting point for anonymity means that a person who attends the police voluntarily for interview will not be subject to reporting restrictions, whereas there will be a media blackout for a suspect who is arrested. At first sight, the comparison is a little worrying, and it certainly prompts further thought.
Perhaps more importantly, as I have noted, the Bill prohibits the reporting of any arrested person’s identity, whatever the offence, without a court order. That is perhaps the greatest question raised by the Bill’s contents: whether there should be a prohibition on purely factual reporting merely by virtue of the fact that it concerns an arrest. There is clearly an argument that, in some cases at least, the media should have the right to report the facts unless there is a court order to the contrary. Again, we would like to reflect further and deliberate fully ahead of taking action on a clear issue of general principle.
I commend my hon. Friend for the safeguards that she has incorporated in her Bill. Clause 2 enables the restrictions to be waived either by the court itself or on an application by the person who has been arrested, the police, a prosecutor or any other person with a sufficient interest, which we take to include the media. That helps to address the admirable liberal arguments that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) advanced in an intervention concerning potential police access. I am looking to see whether he is in his place, but he is not, which is a shame, because I have one or two things to say about another of his interventions, in that case on our hon. Friend the Member for Bury North, which was not quite as helpful or as accurate.
Reflecting on the determination of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley to avoid inaccurate or uninformed comment about proceedings, I want to put on the record the fact that his statement about the Government being in the business of releasing prisoners before they have ended their sentence is wholly and woefully inaccurate. He has misunderstood the admirable speech in June by my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, who made clear the inefficacy of short sentences in rehabilitating offenders. It led him to the conclusion that we would not have short sentences at all and all those people would otherwise be released. That is wholly and woefully wide of the mark.
If one is going to try to avoid—in some circumstances—short sentences, one is going to be taken in two directions. One will need more effective community punishment, with more public confidence in the idea that people can be punished effectively and rehabilitated more effectively in the community; but at the same time one might need longer sentences, particularly for the sort of people to whom my hon. Friend referred. That does not mean I spend my time in the Ministry of Justice signing Executive release orders to drive the prison population down. That is not the case.
We estimate that by the end of this Parliament the prison population will be 3,000 lower than it is now. I want to make it clear that that is an estimate, not a target. This Government will continue to incarcerate those whom the courts send to prison. I hope that that clarification will serve my hon. Friend well when he reads it in the record, and that we will not hear any more of the inaccurate nonsense suggesting that our proposals on offender management—
I am extremely grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker. Given that our policy is so widely misrepresented, I intend to take every opportunity to make it clear what our actual policy is until not only am I bored rigid by it, but so is everybody else.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley expressed concern about the cost to the courts and the Prison Service of all the people who would be arrested and locked up under the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe. I am happy to say that that is not one of the Government’s objections. However, these are very difficult times economically, and we would want to consider carefully the practical implications of the application procedure and whether the Crown court or the magistrates court would be the appropriate venue.
The criteria for lifting the restrictions on a case-by-case basis, as set out in clause 2, are very broadly drawn. They would enable the restrictions to be lifted on human rights grounds, in the interests of justice, or in the public interest. The fact that the exceptions to the reporting restriction are so broadly drawn highlights once again the central question of principle—that of whether the default position of a prohibition on factual reporting is the right one. Again, we would like to reflect further on that.
Turning to the territorial extent of the provisions, the Bill would apply to England and Wales only. This point was made by my hon. Friends the Member for Bury North and for Carshalton and Wallington. The more usual position is for legislation imposing reporting restrictions to apply on a UK-wide basis. It is a question of enforceability, as we heard repeatedly during the debate, and also of policy consistency between the three jurisdictions.
Clause 3 raises the interesting question of consent. It would require the Director of Public Prosecutions, the director of the Serious Fraud Office or the director of Revenue and Customs Prosecutions to give their consent before anybody could be charged with an offence under the Bill. Other legislation gives the power to consent to certain highly sensitive prosecutions to the Attorney-General, and the coalition would need to take its own view on which the appropriate consenting authority should be.
In summary, I warmly welcome the debate that this Bill has prompted on a matter about which I recognise there has been recent public concern. However, I think that Members will not be surprised to hear my overall conclusion. Largely for the reasons I have set out, I regret that the Government are unable to lend the Bill their support. This is, in part, a matter of the detail of the proposals, be it on timing or on the precise nature of the safeguards. More substantively, it prompts the question of whether the use of legislative solutions is the right answer or whether more proportionate approaches are available.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe shares my concerns about the quantity of legislation that has been passed here in the past 13 years. There have been 21 criminal justice Acts of one sort or another in that period. Of all the people in this House, my hon. Friend, as a former practising criminal barrister, will have been the victim of all the changes imposed on the law and will have kept up to date with it. I am sure that she would wish it had been otherwise.
The question was posed as to how many thousands of new criminal offences have been created in the past 13 years. I fear I must tell the House that there have been so many thousand new criminal offences coming from so many different Government Departments of one sort or another that it is difficult to get a wholly and reliably accurate answer about the exact number that have been put on to the statute book. It is tricky getting it to the nearest one or two when there are so many thousands, particularly as they come from all sorts of different legislation brought to Parliament by several different Departments. I am reminded of St Bernard’s maxim, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Perhaps another relevant aphorism is, “Legislate in haste, repeal at leisure.”
Although I thank my hon. Friend for airing these issues, we cannot support them today. What is at stake is the balance between competing interests and we need to get that right. I support the idea that we need to avoid unfounded slurs and speculation damaging the lives of innocent people. Punishments before and without trial are wrong. Equally, the media have raised the prospect of a world of
“secret arrests and anonymised justice”.
That is not where we would like to end up either.
What I can say, which I hope will offer a degree of reassurance to my hon. Friend, is that the Government do not intend to ignore the issues she has raised. We intend to consider whether the laws on contempt and pre-charge reporting contain gaps that may impede justice. I note the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Bury North and for South Swindon on the operation of the Contempt of Court Act. The laws on contempt and pre-charge reporting merit further consideration because of the complexity of the regulation in this area and the interests that need to be balanced carefully. This debate is important enough to deserve clarity, not confusion. That may take some time. I know that there are strong views on all sides of this debate and I look forward to debating them further in due course, having had the benefit of further consideration by the Attorney-General.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, even those who could not support the Bill.
I want to make it clear that the Bill was not born of the events in Bristol. It received its First Reading last summer. It was born of the debate on the anonymity of people accused of rape. I have heard all the arguments today, and I am not afraid to say when something does not fit the situation or circumstances. I accept that there are flaws in the Bill and that it therefore does not address the problem, which has been so accurately identified by Government and Opposition Members.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) and, obviously, to the Minister. It is clear from the debate that we want to ensure that what happened in Bristol does not happen again. I am happy to hear about the review of the Contempt of Court Act that the Government will undertake, and about the thoughts and feelings of the Attorney-General on this matter, which I know he takes seriously.
I want to make it quite clear that we are not proposing a formal review. The Attorney-General will examine this area and we will see what the fruits of that examination are. I am not undertaking to the House that there will be a formal process. I am quite sure that my hon. Friend shares my confidence that the matters will be considered properly by the Attorney-General.