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Criminal Justice: Anonymity

Volume 776: debated on Tuesday 25 October 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they are planning to give anonymity to sex abuse suspects before they are charged.

My Lords, as noble Lords will be aware, an amendment on this issue has been tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, in Committee on the Policing and Crime Bill, which will be debated in early November. The Government’s position is that there should be a presumption of anonymity prior to charge for any sexual offence, but that there will be circumstances in which the public interest means that a suspect should be named.

In relation to allegations of sexual abuse, does my noble friend agree that many people are asking themselves and Members of both Houses of Parliament whether the presumption of innocence until proved guilty is still in existence? Is it not our duty to take action—either by instituting anonymity until the point of charge, as backed by the Director of Public Prosecutions last week, or by other effective means—to reduce the terrible toll of suffering caused by false and malicious allegations against innocent people in all walks of life? Finally, do the Government agree that the institutions of both state and Church need to show much greater concern for the reputations of eminent people from the past who cannot speak for themselves? I refer to statesmen such as Sir Edward Heath, traduced by Wiltshire Police without a shred of evidence, and the great bishop, George Bell, who died in 1958 and whose reputation has been severely damaged by today’s Church authorities as a result of a secret process—a kind of private trial, which was widely deplored in a debate in this House earlier this year.

I totally agree with my noble friend that the strength of our legal system is that people are innocent until proved guilty, and I hope that that always stays the case. I also completely sympathise with his point about the terrible suffering that people can go through when their names are made public but they are not in fact guilty of anything. I will not talk about individual cases but he mentioned people against whom the accusations were found to be groundless. It is important to say that there is a very fine and difficult balance to be struck. The voicing of victims’ concerns and the naming of people in the public interest to allow further evidence or further victims to come forward needs to be balanced with the right to privacy and protection of the person who is suspected.

My Lords, in view of the manifest injustice that can result from the publication of the names of a wide range of suspects, is it not time to have a complete review of the law and practice in this field? Will the Government consider referring the whole issue to the Law Commission?

I can tell the noble and learned Lord that guidance and reference material is published by the College of Policing on its Authorised Professional Practice website. It discourages the naming of suspects save in clearly identified circumstances. The College of Policing is consulting on that guidance and we look forward to reading what that throws up.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, although there is a principle of being innocent until proved guilty, when it comes to sexual offences the attitude of many of the perhaps irresponsible media, and certainly the attitude of many members of the public, is that the principle is that there is no smoke without fire?

I certainly agree with the noble Lord, and in fact we spoke about this very point yesterday. We talked about the need for balance, as well as the responsibility of the media. We can all think of cases where the media have reported in perhaps totally irresponsible ways, so in that sense I concur with what he says.

My Lords, in her responses to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, the Minister referred to the public interest, on which this whole argument now turns in my mind. Is she absolutely satisfied that the process by which people determine the public interest is the correct one, and is it not there that the law should be amended?

As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas—sorry, to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris; I will be in trouble twice now with the noble and learned Lord—there is a need to look at the guidance through the consultation, and we will take great interest in what that consultation says. However, the balance of public interest comes when the police need to publicise a person’s identity to allow other witnesses to come forward or further evidence to be brought forward.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is at least equal importance in the anonymity of victims? Is she aware of the amendment standing in my name to be moved at the later stages of the police Bill to address the difference of interpretation of the law from police station to police station in releasing names? Will the Government give a fair wind to the amendments that are before the House?

My Lords, not only will the Government give enough time to the amendments, but I am sure that, given the prominence of the issue both in Parliament and the media, the debate will be substantial and will benefit from all the expertise in your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, does my noble friend think it is entirely fair—though it may be expedient in the early stages—that while anonymity is not granted to the accused it is granted to the accuser? Is there not a point at which that becomes unfair and should be revisited according to what the motivation of the accuser may be?

My noble friend is absolutely right. There may be cases in which the accuser’s intentions are not entirely honourable. However, it is important that somebody who comes forward with an accusation gets a fair hearing and is not discouraged from coming forward because they are too frightened.

My Lords, did I read correctly in the newspapers recently that the person in charge of prosecutions said that the fact that charges are not proceeded with certainly does not prove innocence, but simply that there was insufficient evidence to proceed with the charges? How does that sit with the issue of innocent until proven guilty?

I am not entirely sure I heard everything that the noble Lord said. However, he mentioned the Crown Prosecution Service. It supports the principle of anonymity for a suspect pre-charge but recognises that there may be exceptional operational reasons for the police to name a suspect pre-charge—but that is a decision for the police.