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Deceased Individuals: Allegations

Volume 788: debated on Monday 22 January 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to review the law governing the naming of deceased individuals against whom criminal allegations have been made.

My Lords, any decision to name an individual where that is considered to be in the public interest will necessarily be specific to the circumstances of an individual case. Accordingly, the Government do not have plans to review the law in relation to this matter.

I urge my noble friend to study a recent report by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, into the way in which a group within the Church of England investigated a single uncorroborated allegation of child sex abuse against one of the greatest of all Anglican bishops and a prominent Member of your Lordships’ House, George Bell, who died 60 years ago. While the noble Lord was precluded from reviewing the Church’s decision to condemn Bishop Bell, it is clear from his report that the case against that truly remarkable man has not been proved, to the consternation of a number of Members of this House including my noble friend Lord Cormack. I ask my noble friend to consider the recommendation from the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, that,

“alleged perpetrators, living or dead, should not be identified publicly unless or until the Core Group has (a) made adverse findings of fact, and (b) it has also been decided that making the identity public is required in the public interest”.

Should there not be a legal requirement in all cases to ensure that that is met before anyone, alive or dead, is named publicly? Does my noble friend agree that institutions of both Church and state must uphold the cardinal principle that an individual is innocent until proved guilty?

I thank my noble friend for that question. I am aware of the report by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, and the recommendations that it makes. The report itself was commissioned by the Church of England and the recommendations within it are for the Church, so it would not be appropriate for me to comment. However, as my noble friend says, there is a presumption of anonymity. People should not be named unless there is a legal reason for doing so. Of course the principle of innocence until proven guilty is a key tenet of English law, and it is not for me to tell the Church what to do.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there may be circumstances in which an accuser may have compensation in mind in making the accusation?

My Lords, given the difficulty of maintaining in the public’s mind the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, especially with the proliferation of social media, is there anything that we can learn from experiences in other countries or jurisdictions that have the same presumption?

My Lords, what we can certainly do is learn from some of the situations that have arisen in this country. I could not comment at this point on examples from around the world.

My Lords, I urge my noble friend to think again on this. It is a deeply shocking case. The reputation of a great man has been traduced, and many of us who are Anglicans are deeply ashamed of the way that the Anglican Church has behaved. This can surely be a spur to the Government to review the law to try to protect the anonymity of people who are accused of something years—decades—after their death with one uncorroborated alleged witness. Please will she take this on board and talk to the Secretary of State about it?

My Lords, as I said earlier, there is a presumption of anonymity. The report was a report to the Church of England, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment on it.

My Lords, this has been a very difficult case, but Bishop Bell is not the only person whose reputation has been severely damaged by such accusations—some are dead and some still alive. I urge the Minister and the Government to take very seriously the call for a major review of anonymity. In all cases where the complainant has a right to be anonymous, there seems to be a case for the respondent also to be anonymous, and in cases until there is overwhelming evidence to suggest guilt, it seems reasonable for people’s reputations not to be damaged in this public way.

My Lords, I could not disagree with anything that the right reverend Prelate says. We have had many debates on this issue, and the College of Policing recently updated its guidance on naming suspects. Of course, the media have named suspects in the past, and that is another matter altogether, but the guidance has been updated, and the College of Policing is also refreshing its guidance to provide clarity on naming of deceased individuals.

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that there could be a fairly simple rule, which would be not to publicise the name of anybody in such an event and not to accuse somebody until they are charged?

Until someone is charged, they cannot be accused, only questioned, in my limited knowledge of the law. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, made an eloquent argument that in some cases anonymity might prevent questioning and interviews from taking place and may be to the benefit of someone who may be guilty.

My Lords, it would be fair to say that this is a pretty knife-edge issue. There are circumstances in which it is appropriate to name a suspect. That is usually when the person is incredibly powerful. The naming of deceased people is a different issue, but I will give your Lordships two examples of live suspects and ask the Minister whether she agrees. The first is at home: Stuart Hall. If there had not been an announcement that he had been arrested, the chances of a number of other victims coming forward would have been very limited. He is now in prison for a long time. The other one, which is quite topical, is Harvey Weinstein.

I did not hear a question, but I agree with the noble Lord. He better puts the point that I was trying to make on the previous question—it may be in the interests of an investigation to name a person—but there is clear guidance on this.

My Lords, on the question of Operation Conifer, the investigation into Sir Edward Heath by Wiltshire Police, does my noble friend agree that there has been real public concern about the way that it has been conducted by Wiltshire Police and the chief constable of Wiltshire? What options are available for there to be an independent inquiry into the conduct of Wiltshire Police’s inquiry?

I certainly acknowledge the concern, and in terms of a public inquiry being set up, it would be for the chief constable, in discussion with the PCC, or indeed the PCC himself or herself, to set up an inquiry. I have written to the PCC to inform him of this. I hope that I have clarified the situation on the process for an inquiry.