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Sexual Offences: False Accusations

Volume 769: debated on Thursday 10 March 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to review the law concerning those making false accusations in relation to sexual offences.

My Lords, there are no plans to review the law in this area. It is a very serious matter to make a false allegation relating to a sexual offence and there are strong sanctions against those who do.

My Lords, should we not now consider the reform of the law which allows someone like this man, Nick, who, hiding behind a wall of anonymity, makes allegations of a sexual nature against reputable public figures such as Lord Bramall, the late Lord Brittan and the late Mr Edward Heath, the former Prime Minister, and others, with not a shred of forensic or corroborative evidence whatever? It is simply unjust. Is it not now time that the whole issue of anonymity for the accused, and in particular the defence of the falsely accused, was put back on the national agenda and considered here in Parliament?

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord will accept that this is a very delicate issue. Parliament in 1976 decided that there should be anonymity both for complainant and for defendant. Parliament then abolished that in 1988. In 2010, the coalition Government considered the matter and decided, in balancing the various public interests, not to take further action. The noble Lord refers to a well-known case, and of course legitimate criticisms can be made about the handling of that matter, although we must allow the police some operational freedom. But I can say that Sir Richard Henriques, a retired High Court judge, is looking into the matter, an IPCC complaint has been made, and in due course the Government will respond to any recommendations or publications on that matter. But one must remember how difficult it is to make these allegations, and while I entirely accept what he says about those people in high places, of course no one is above the law.

My Lords, to follow on from my noble friend and enlarge on his point about whether the accusation is ultimately proved true or false, and referring back to the 1988 decision, would it not be far more equitable if either both parties had anonymity or neither did?

I accept that there is a superficial attraction about that symmetry. But I suggest that one of the important things that the public policy demands is that making a complaint should not be discouraged. It is no easy thing to make a complaint about, for example, rape or sexual offences. The possibility not only that you will be cross-examined and traduced in court but will have your name emblazoned on newspapers or other means of communication is a considerable inhibition in making that complaint. That is one of the difficult factors that Parliament took into account when deciding to retain anonymity.

My Lords, I have stated elsewhere the reasons for my conviction that Sir Edward Heath was not a child abuser. The allegations that have been published in the media to that effect have no shred of credible corroboration. Wiltshire Police are conducting an investigation, which is forecast to last for 12 months or more and which involves interviewing an extensive range of Sir Edward’s friends, colleagues, staff and former crew members and searching through 4,500 boxes of his archives. I have suggested to the chief constable of Wiltshire Police that there can be no conclusive or satisfactory outcome to this investigation. Even if, as seems likely, the police find that there is insufficient evidence to have justified a prosecution, the cloud of suspicion which has been hanging over Sir Edward’s memory would not be definitively dispelled. In the unlikely event of a finding that there is sufficient evidence, that evidence could not be tested in a court of law because Sir Edward is dead and cannot be prosecuted. It seems as if Wiltshire Police are arrogating to themselves the role not only of investigator but also of prosecutor, judge and jury in this matter. Does the Minister not agree that the investigation is a travesty of justice and a prodigious waste of police time and resources?

I am sure that there will be a lot of sympathy around the House and elsewhere for what the noble Lord says. Of course, we must not interfere with police operational independence. However, the points that he eloquently makes about proportionality in view of the death of Sir Edward and the likelihood of any significant evidence one way or another being unearthed at this stage are valuable, and I take them on board.

My Lords, there are sound public policy reasons for keeping the anonymity of a complainant throughout the trial and beyond, but are there not also sound public policy reasons for giving the trial judge the discretion, after an acquittal, to consider whether the identity of the complainant should be released if he is satisfied that it is a false accusation and not tainted by mental illness?

The noble Lord makes an important point. But of course, he will know only too well that someone who has had a false complaint made against them is vulnerable to prosecution for perjury, perverting the course of justice or wasting police time, and that an individual has the right to sue for malicious prosecution or defamation. So remedies do exist.

My Lords, is not the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, absolutely right in what he said? Is it not quite clear that the present system of protecting the innocent from having their names plastered all over the media has broken down? Does justice not require that the Government take a fresh look at this whole issue and not just leave it to the police?

At the moment, as my noble friend will appreciate, this is a matter for the police, who consider that only in exceptional circumstances will it be appropriate to name suspects. Sometimes it is true that naming a suspect provokes people to come forward who they have kept quiet about allegations for fear that they will not be believed when they accuse prominent members of the so-called establishment. However, I accept my noble friend’s point. Clearly it is a matter to which any Government will give anxious consideration in weighing up these very difficult, conflicting issues.