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Convicted Criminals: Memoirs

Volume 589: debated on Thursday 30 April 1998

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3.21 p.m.

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What discussions they have held with book and newspaper publishers and radio and television companies about payment to convicted criminals for memoirs and related material concerning their criminal past.

My Lords, I am not aware of any recent discussions between the Government and book and newspaper publishers or radio and television companies about this issue, although I understand that my honourable friend Joyce Quin, the Home Office Minister of State, has recently written to Richard Charkin, the Chief Executive of Macmillan General Books, in her capacity as the Member for Gateshead East and Washington West, about the payment made to Mary Bell for her contribution to Cries Unheard.

My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has asked the Attorney-General whether anything can be done about the payments which have been made to Mary Bell. I understand that it is not clear whether the Attorney-General has any power to take action. None the less he is examining the possibility.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that when a 14 year-old child is driven from her home into protective police custody by the harassment of journalists, that is shaming and shameful to us all? Will the noble Lord assure us that the inquiry which the Home Secretary announced today into these matters will deal with the question of loopholes in the present law and whether the present law is being pursued with due rigour? Will the noble Lord also ensure that the Press Complaints Commission looks into the matter of cheque-book journalism by proxy, by which newspapers can enter into contracts with authors who can then pay convicted criminals for their stories? These are matters of great concern. Problems coming down the track mean that this issue should be dealt with with due urgency.

My Lords, I join the noble Lord in saying that it is repugnant that a 14 year-old girl should be hounded in this way. She is going through a severe trauma at the moment. I am sure that the whole House will join me in saying that our thoughts and heartfelt sympathies also go out to the parents of the child victims. We are examining the law as it stands. I refer to the Proceeds of Crime Act 1995, which was designed primarily to deal with offences which themselves generate profits. It is not clear whether its provisions would apply to Mary Bell because it can apply only within six years of a defendant's conviction if new evidence comes to light that the defendant has benefited from criminal conduct. That is why my right honourable friend is considering a review. This is a difficult area, raising complex issues. My right honourable friend has asked that the review begins immediately to see whether any steps can be taken to deal with any such cases that may arise in the future. The review will be completed as soon as possible but, as I am sure that noble Lords will agree, it is important to ensure that the issue is looked at thoroughly and that sufficient time is allowed for that.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that both payments to convicted criminals, either directly or indirectly, and harassment by journalists, are serious breaches of the Press Complaints Commission's code of conduct? I can confirm that we have received a complaint; that we are conducting an investigation and that our report will be published as soon as it is available.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that. I am sure that the whole House welcomes what he said. We look forward to receiving the Press Complaints Commission's report in due course.

My Lords, was it not unusual and perhaps unwise for No. 10 to take up this case? Was not that bound to increase the mass hysteria which has been whipped up by the popular press? Might it not have been better to have considered the consequences of raising this matter rather than going for some cheap, immediate, populist publicity?

My Lords, I reject immediately the noble Lord's comment about cheap publicity. There was no such intention. I am sure that the Prime Minister was right—he was asked a Question on this in the House of Commons yesterday—to point to the gravity of the matter and to say that it is repugnant that anyone should benefit from such terrible crimes. The Prime Minister was portraying the fact that this Government are determined to ensure that no one else can benefit similarly in the future.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that many of us feel pleased that the Prime Minister had the courage to speak out against that vile practice? Many of us are very glad that he did. I do not consider that the Prime Minister was seeking cheap publicity.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for agreeing that the aim was not cheap publicity. This is a serious matter and it is extremely important that we consider the issue as quickly as possible to ensure that no one else can similarly benefit.

My Lords, if investigations show that nothing can be done and that no prosecution can be laid against the people who perpetrated these matters, do the Government intend to introduce legislation to correct the position?

My Lords, as I said, we are undertaking a review. Although this is a difficult area, the Government intend to try to ensure that in the future no one else can benefit from such crimes.

My Lords, when the Minister and his colleagues are looking at whether the present law or any future legislation might prevent such payments being made, may I invite the noble Lord to ensure that there is nothing in the provisions of the Human Rights Bill to prevent such a law being enforced?

My Lords, we shall, of course, consider that. This is a difficult area raising complex issues. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has asked his officials immediately to begin a review to see whether any steps can be taken to deal with such cases in the future. We shall certainly bear the Human Rights Bill in mind in such a review.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that where criminals participate in the publication of articles or the production of programmes, such publications or programmes have a strong tendency to exaggerate understanding of, and sympathy for, the action of the criminal and must therefore be seen as unfair to the victims and their families and that on that ground alone, quite apart from the question of profiteering, some law should be introduced to prevent it happening?

My Lords, the review is taking place and we shall look at all matters relating to it.

My Lords, referring to the answer given by the Minister to the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, does the noble Lord agree that the Government are not under exactly the same constraints as the previous government to attempt to pacify the press in the run-up to the last election? Therefore, might not the present Government feel a little braver in approaching a privacy law in these important matters?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an interesting point. He says that the previous government had to pacify the press in the run-up to the election. I can tell the noble Lord that the present Government do not lack courage in dealing with any issue whatsoever.

My Lords, does the Minister particularly welcome the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, since there have been attempts to dress up this exercise as an academic study when it has been hawked around Fleet Street to the highest bidder and marketed and cross-marketed very successfully by the promoting newspapers?

My Lords, like the noble Lord I welcome the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, this afternoon that immediate action is being taken in relation to this matter. We must await the outcome of the deliberations. But, like the noble Lord, it is a sorry matter that this has been the subject of a press war in relation to circulation and that this matter has been hawked around to find the highest bidder.