Skip to main content

Sexual Offences: Anonymity

Volume 798: debated on Wednesday 3 July 2019

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the petition calling for anonymity for those accused of sexual offences until charged.

My Lords, the Government believe that there should in general be a right to anonymity before the point of charge in respect of all offences, but there will be exceptional circumstances where there are legitimate policing reasons for naming a suspect.

My Lords, does not this petition bring home to us all the misery and distress endured not just by well-known figures but by scores of innocent men and women up and down our country, whose lives have been ruined because police officers decided that allegations of child sex abuse should always be believed and divulged their names before charges were laid? In one notorious case, the police went further. Who can forget the truly shocking spectacle of a senior police officer standing outside Sir Edward Heath’s house in Salisbury and appealing for evidence through which his reputation could be destroyed? It is an injustice which continues to cry out for the independent inquiry which the Government have shamefully denied him, in defiance of the wishes of this House. Surely action should now be considered in response to the petition to strengthen protection for that precious fundamental right: the presumption of innocence.

My noble friend will know that once a petition reaches 10,000 signatures, the Government can consider it for debate—I know I do not need to tell him that. He will also know that the release of suspects’ names by the police is governed by the College of Policing’s guidance on relationships with the media. Although I absolutely recognise the points made by my noble friend about some high-profile cases, we are not aware of any recent evidence to suggest that the police are not adhering to the guidance.

My Lords, does not the noble Lord raise a very important point about the frail basis that the police rely in arriving at the facts in these matters and how it is desperately necessary to have an independent view? In the case of Sir Edward Heath, the police said that the evidence was compelling and true; we now know that it was essentially made up. Is it not deplorable that in cases such as these the police are acting not as the custodians of civil liberties and the rule of law but as a major threat to them?

My Lords, first, I should apologise: I said that 10,000 signatures were needed; I meant 100,000 signatures. On the noble Lord’s point about independence and the presumed culpability of those who have been accused, the report stipulated that no inference of guilt was to be drawn but that the individual would have been interviewed under caution.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that being accused of many offences, including those of dishonesty, can have a devastating impact on someone’s reputation? Will she meet me to discuss whether the Government will support my Private Member’s Bill that would provide anonymity after arrest, which gives allegations credibility, until someone is charged for all offences unless a judge orders otherwise?

My Lords, may I say to my noble friend, in support of what has just been said by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, that the best way forward is to have a presumption in favour of anonymity but to provide the courts with a right to disapply the presumption in the event that the court is satisfied that there is good reason, on application by either party; for example, to obtain evidence that might assist the prosecution or the defence?

It might assist my noble friend if I say that the College of Policing’s authorised professional practice guidance on relationships with the media highlights the importance of respecting a suspect’s right to privacy. It states:

“Police will not name those arrested, or suspected of a crime, save in exceptional circumstances where there is a legitimate policing purpose to do so”.

The naming of an arrested person before they are charged must be,

“authorised by a chief officer”,

who must ensure that the Crown Prosecution Service is consulted.

My Lords, how can the Government ignore this petition, which has been signed not by 10,000 people in the last 24 hours, as the Minister said, but by nearly 20,000 people? In the Janner case the police, before charge, placed an advert in the local media, with a phone number, calling on so-called Janner accusers to come forward. They did, with the result that there was a flood of compensation claims under the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme from people, most of whom had criminal records, all of which have now been withdrawn. There is something wrong with the arrangements as they currently exist and this petition, signed by all these people, is very important. It should be taken seriously by the Government.

My Lords, I am not suggesting at all that the petition is not being taken seriously. The independent inquiry into historical child sexual abuse is taking a very robust approach to the institutional responses to those historical allegations of child sexual abuse.

My Lords, are there any circumstances in which this Government will commission a judicial review into the handling of the case against Sir Edward Heath?

I think I have made it clear to the House that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary does not intend to institute such a review.