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Sexual Offences Legislation

Volume 791: debated on Tuesday 22 May 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have, if any, to reform sexual offences legislation.

My Lords, the Government recognise the importance of keeping sexual offences legislation under review. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 was amended in 2015 and again in 2017. We are currently reviewing the law around upskirting and considering the wider law on non-consensual photography.

My Lords, given that Mr Harvey Proctor has launched a civil action in the High Court, revealing in his particulars of claim the full name and identity of the man “Nick” who trashed the international reputation of Sir Edward Heath and others, and in so far as the public interest provisions under court procedure rules, which deny anonymity in the Proctor action, are in conflict with anonymity provisions in sexual offences legislation, surely the cloak of lifetime anonymity should not be extended to false accusers such as “Nick”, whose full name is now plastered across the internet worldwide. This was never, never, never the intention of Parliament. Is it not about time that we reviewed the law on anonymity?

My Lords, lifetime anonymity that is extended to complainants may be removed. Indeed, those complainants who are found to have made false and misleading claims regarding sexual conduct may be subject to prosecution.

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware of the case, highlighted on Channel 4 last night and again in the Times this morning, of a defendant who was arrested for rape in 2015, charged 18 months later, suspended from his job without pay and whose case was dropped by the CPS yesterday? Are such cases the result of a failure in the law to protect the innocent—to uphold the principle of being innocent until proven guilty—or are they a failure of the police and the CPS properly to investigate such cases? What do the Government intend to do about it?

I am not going to comment on the particulars of an individual case. However, police guidance is clear that the name of a suspect should not be released before they are charged. The naming of people who have been charged with a sexual offence is consistent with the principle of open justice.

My Lords, I draw the Minister’s attention to an item in today’s Times, which states:

“Google is helping its users to uncover the identity of rape victims whose anonymity is protected by law”.

What action will or could the Government take?

Again, I am not in a position to say what action the Government will take with regard to such a matter, but clearly such conduct could potentially be regarded as a contempt of court.

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that when, in cases such as those of Sir Edward Heath—there would be many others such as Cliff Richard and Paul Gambaccini—people’s names are leaked or made public because the police are on a public fishing expedition and no charge is made, there is no formal way in which they can be acquitted? Therefore, their reputation is permanently damaged.

We quite recognise the danger to a person’s reputation where their name is leaked prior to charge. That should not occur, as I indicated before. That does not mean that they do not have civil means of redress. The noble Lord referred to the case of Cliff Richard, who I understand has undertaken a civil course for redress in these circumstances.

Further to my noble friend’s question, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, informed the House recently that the Government have the power to establish an inquiry into Operation Conifer. Since the hopeless Wiltshire chief commissioner has made it clear that he will not take any action, will the Government now establish this inquiry so that the reputation of Sir Edward is not left in intolerable limbo?

My Lords, that would be a matter for the Home Office and not for the Ministry of Justice to consider. However, I am sure that Ministers in that department are listening.

My Lords, can I take the Minister back to the question asked by my noble friend Lady Corston? His answer seemed rather complacent. If on Google women who have been victims of rape can be identified and help is being offered to do that, surely the Minister would want the Government to take some action and not just accept it.

With respect to the noble Baroness, there was no complacency in my previous answer. Clearly, we will look at the facts and circumstances of any complaint and then determine what action it is appropriate to take. However, it would not be appropriate to anticipate prosecution or other action without a proper investigation of the facts. Indeed, that underlies many of the complaints made here today.

My Lords, will the Government make the change whereby, when people are not prosecuted, the police do not say “because of insufficient evidence” but use the phrase “a lack of evidence”? There is a very important distinction.

I am not sure that I would necessarily draw a strict distinction between those two terms, but clearly no charge will made unless the police have an element of evidence. Where a case is not proceeded with by way of prosecution, that may be because of an absence of a sufficiency of evidence.

Further to the answer that I understood my noble and learned friend to give earlier on, will he recognise that many people who have faced such accusations have spent many hundreds of thousands of pounds dealing with lawyers and seeking representation to clear their name before any decision is taken about no further action? To suggest that they should then pursue redress implies that they have the resources to pursue that claim. For many of them, that is just not financially practicable.

My Lords, I entirely agree with the observations of my noble friend: it may well be that some of those who are charged and indeed prosecuted and found not guilty of an offence do not have the means to take civil action in order to vindicate a complaint about the way in which they were treated.