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Criminal Justice: Anonymity

Volume 767: debated on Tuesday 17 November 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they propose to protect those who have not been charged with any offence from being named as under investigation.

My Lords, decisions to release the name of a suspect in an investigation are for the police to take. Such decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, and the police should not release the names of those who are arrested or suspected of a crime except in exceptional circumstances.

While I thank the Minister for that Reply, does he realise that in the case of our late and respected colleague Leon Brittan, the CPS told the police not once but four times that, in respect of an alleged case of rape half a century previously, he had no case to answer? However, that did not prevent his name being critically plastered over the media, even on the very day that he died. There have been similar cases, such as that of Paul Gambaccini, who, again, was named but never charged with any offence. Rigorous investigation should clearly take place in cases of rape and sexual abuse, but surely that should not be at the price of public injustice to innocent men and women.

My noble friend is absolutely right to draw attention to this. When accusations of this vile nature are made against people who are subsequently found to be not guilty, it is a matter of incredible distress to them and their families. The police guidance on this is very clear. It says that the police should not release the names of those who are arrested or suspected of a crime unless there are clear circumstances to justify it. That means that such a decision should be taken by a chief officer and should not be the subject of informal press briefing: it ought to be communicated above the line. I am aware, as is my noble friend, that the Metropolitan Police has itself looked into this and has issued a letter of apology to Lady Brittan in respect of some allegations and conduct. It has also invited another constabulary to review its procedures. In this case, as in any other, there is also the possibility of referral to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

Does the Minister agree that the strictures on naming people in these circumstances should apply not just to the police but to the public and Members of the House of Commons and House of Lords? Is he aware of the evidence given to the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee by Detective Chief Inspector Paul Settle, the senior investigating officer for Operation Fairbank? When commenting on the activities of Mr Tom Watson MP, who had called for the investigation into Leon Brittan, he said that it was a “baseless witch hunt”. Does the Minister also agree that Mr Watson’s letter to the DPP undermined the police and that his conduct was very damaging to future investigations into child abuse? Surely, Mr Watson’s activities were wholly reprehensible. He had a duty to inform the police, and then keep quiet.

I appreciate my noble friend’s feelings, but he will understand that, because some aspects of these issues are the subject of ongoing review and investigation, it is not possible for me to comment further. Suffice it to say that, because of the seriousness of the allegations, it behoves every person in public life, wherever they are, to apply the most rigorous and judicious process to the words and language they use and to the accusations they make.

My Lords, from detailed personal knowledge of the Paul Gambaccini case, from the beginning, it appears that the police feel under political pressure to investigate such cases to the nth degree, even when it becomes immediately apparent that a prosecution is unlikely. Does the Minister believe it is time for the Government to call on the police to exercise a more proportionate approach to such cases?

This is a very difficult issue. We have historic cases in which very serious allegations were made, and in places such as Rotherham, Manchester and Oxford, there is often a public outcry and a feeling that the police have not taken the claims seriously enough. That has to be balanced against the right to fairness and due process throughout. In the past, child sexual exploitation has far too often been swept under the carpet; it needs to be brought out into the open and reviewed. That is why we set up the inquiry and why we have told the police that they need to investigate all allegations based on their credibility, rather than that of the complainant.

The Minister referred to the ACPO guidelines. If I understand them correctly, the guidelines accept that in exceptional circumstances, the police may release the name of a suspect if it is considered to be in the public interest to do so. Also, when a media organisation has already discovered a suspect’s name through investigative journalism and seek confirmation of it, the police are permitted to confirm the name. Do the Government believe that the ACPO guidelines should be amended or reviewed?

The College of Policing guidelines on the relationship with the media are currently under review. A number of the points raised during this Question would merit submission to that review.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned apologies and the machinery for handling police complaints, but frankly, that does not go far enough. If I correctly sense the mood of your Lordships’ House, while all of us perhaps understand that there is some advantage on some occasions to publicising the identity of a person subject to inquiry, that is massively and frequently outweighed by the considerable reputational damage not only to those already in the public eye—public figures, if one likes—but to those who hitherto enjoyed anonymity. Is the Minister willing to explore with me and others introducing legislation at the earliest opportunity to prevent personal identification until the preferment of a charge by the police?

That specific idea was raised by the Home Affairs Select Committee in one of its recommendations. As the noble Lord will know better than most, it gives rise to particular issues and difficulties when applied across the board in all cases. But it is certainly something we should look at, and there will be legislative opportunities, most notably in the Police and Criminal Justice Bill, to consider such issues further.

My Lords, if injustice can occur in these circumstances, how is it justified to release names when there is no charge?

The police very much need to deal with such issues on a case-by-case basis. I am struggling to think of particular circumstances, but they might include a threat to life, the prevention or detection of a crime, or public interest and confidence. Those are the tests that the police have to pass before it is done, and when it is done, it should be done in a formal way, not by leaking—which, of course, was the subject of another inquiry by Lord Justice Leveson, into the culture and ethics of the press.