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Sexual Abuse: Harassment of Suspects

Volume 777: debated on Thursday 8 December 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the answer by Baroness Williams of Trafford on 9 November concerning the report by Sir Richard Henriques into Operation Midland, what guidance they have given to police forces about measures to prevent the harassment by third parties of suspects under investigation in connection with claims of sexual abuse.

My Lords, the protection of suspects experiencing harassment is an operational matter and one that forces should consider on a case-by-case basis. However, I can confirm that the College of Policing is currently developing general guidance on stalking and harassment and updating existing guidance on police relationships with the media.

Do the Government share the widespread feelings of disappointment that the Metropolitan Police’s response to the truly damning Henriques report has so far been—to use polite words—rather muted? In the aftermath of Operation Midland and other scandals, do we not need to be sure that certain misdeeds will never be repeated—for instance, that the BBC and the police will never again collude in the manner that they did in the case of the wholly innocent Sir Cliff Richard? Do we need a binding police code of conduct to which all those unfairly and falsely accused—indeed, everyone— can have ready access?

I hope I can reassure my noble friend that the Metropolitan Police will be consulting on all the review’s recommendations with the National Police Chiefs’ Council, police and crime commissioners, the College of Policing, and the statutory and voluntary partners in the criminal justice system. In addition, police investigations into persons of public prominence and institutions are now nationally co-ordinated under Operation Hydrant.

My Lords, is there not a short answer to this problem—for the police not to publish names of suspects before charging?

My Lords, there is a general presumption of anonymity pre-charge but there are operational reasons why the police might wish to release names. I must say, however, in the context of this week, that if the legislation on pre-charge anonymity recommended in the review was in place today, it would have prevented the UK media reporting the claims that we have heard this week and last of some of those alleged victims where there had been no arrests.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that pre-charge anonymity, and legislating for that, is one potential solution to the problem, but that pre-charge anonymity is a complex issue, with passionately held views on both sides, and that it cannot be adequately dealt with in an Answer to an Oral Question?

I agree with the noble Lord in that we have debated this issue during the passage of the Policing and Crime Bill. We have had some very good debates on it and I understand that there are strong feelings on both sides. However, the point here is that we need to get the balance right. There should be a presumption of anonymity, but in cases where it may allow evidence to come forward or where new victims could feel comfortable in coming forward, it should be the police’s operational decision to release names.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in 2003, when there was a Division in this House on this very matter, the whole of the Conservative Benches voted in favour of not only pre-charge anonymity but anonymity post-trial in the event that someone was found innocent, and up to conviction in the event that they were found guilty? If that is the case, how can the Minister possibly sustain the position that the Government are now taking on the Bill going through Parliament?

My Lords, very strong feelings on pre-charge anonymity have been expressed, and I have not in any way sought to dismiss them. The law has changed and we have moved on. However, in the light of some of the allegations of historical sexual abuse—and, as I say, in the light of some of the allegations made this week and last in connection with football—it is important in certain circumstances, bearing in mind that presumption of anonymity, for those names to be released.

We have already made clear from this Dispatch Box our position in respect of pre-charge anonymity in the debates we have had on the issue during the passage of the Policing and Crime Bill. We will continue that debate on Monday. I believe the Minister referred to guidelines being drawn up by the College of Policing. Does the Home Secretary intend to have any input at all into those guidelines? Will she see them before they are published, or is it her view that she has no role at all in relation to the content of those guidelines?

I can tell the noble Lord that the College of Policing is developing the new authorised professional practice on media relations, which covers the release of suspects’ names. It has consulted extensively on this. The existing guidance is clear that we expect forces to adhere to this. However, responses are being analysed. The APP is due for publication in the new year and the Government will reflect on it.

In so far as, in 2003, the Conservative Benches voted in the way they did, why do not Ministers arrange for a free vote on pre-charge anonymity on Monday, which is the lesser position?

My Lords, as I say, over time views on this have changed, and views within parties have changed. The Labour Government had a clear view on pre-charge anonymity. I recognise that it is a very difficult issue. However, I stress that it is important to get the balance right between people’s personal liberty and the need to bring people who might be guilty of perpetrating such crimes to justice.