§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Nicholas Baker.]8.58 pm
§ Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)
I rise to raise the subject of the operation of the law on contempt of court. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House would have wished to be in the Chamber and perhaps to speak in the debate, but, because the Government's business has been dealt with with more rapidity than they would have expected, they will be disappointed.
I am aware that a former colleague and writer on a national paper would have wished me to use my words with great care, but during the past few weeks Leicestershire has experienced the most horrific trial. I do not wish to deal with that trial, but something happened in the course of it which has astounded people and made them want to look again at the way in which we conduct ourselves and our trials in court.
In the course of that trial, one of the defendants, the major defendant, an evil man, chose to use the name of an honoured colleague in the House entirely for his own ends. He was determined, I think, to try to blackmail the—I almost put it in quotation marks—establishment.
I think that the defendant felt that, by naming persons who were in public life and putting them forward as people from whom children had to be defended—this was a child abuse case —he might frighten the authorities into not prosecuting or not pursuing the prosecution with the vigour that one might have expected. The defendant was wrong about that. He should have known that in Britain we conduct our prosecutions independently and fairly.
The defendant could not achieve his objective, but he sought to do so during the course of the trial, and anything said in the course of a trial is not subject to the laws of slander or libel when it is reported in newspapers. It was spread throughout the newspapers the length and breadth of the country, on the radio and on television.
The problem is that a person in that position has no way of defending his good name. If that person were immediately to issue a statement, which is the very least that one would expect could be done, he or she would be in contempt of court. The jury has to decide the case, and if anyone issued a statement denying that a witness or person is telling the truth, that would be a contempt of court. It would be interfering with the course of justice. It could be said that it would be trying to influence the jury to disbelieve the person who made the statement. So that person is in a hopeless and helpless position.
When such events happen so close to home, it strikes most hon. Members that this is an unjust and unfair procedure. There cannot be any justice in a person being pilloried, taken from pillar to post, by the press, when people are looking at him askance. The hon. Member concerned has not even been able to deny the allegations. He has not even been able to say that they are untrue. It affects himself and his family, and it must be a living hell.
Because that has happened to an hon. Member does not mean that it will not happen and has not happened to others who are not in the House. That is a danger into which any one of us could fall, and there is no way that one could stop it happening.
I recognise that, during any trial, it is absolutely necessary that the defendant and witnesses should be free 224 to give evidence—because if constraints were placed on them in that regard, it could not be a fair trial. Mr. Beck was certainly given a fair trial—and a run for his money.
Having said that, there ought to be a way of excluding gratuitous evidence affecting those who cannot protect themselves from newspaper, television, and radio coverage of a trial—such as is done in the case of rape victims.
§ Mr. Ashby
In most cases, I hope. I thought that, these days, such protection was given almost without exception. In blackmail cases—the trial to which I referred earlier was a form of blackmail—the judge directs that the name of the blackmailer's victim should not be disclosed in open court, but instead it is written down and presented to the court in that way.
That is a case in which the judge has a discretion—but I am not sure that the judge would always want to have that discretion. In any event, the identity of an individual who has no opportunity to defend himself should not be disclosed by the media. That would not affect the trial. Witnesses would be permitted to say what they wanted without fear or favour, but the innocent person would be protected.
It would require only a small clause in the next Criminal Justice Bill to provide that protection. Such a provision would be well in keeping with the most excellent policy of this Government of protecting the innocent. which has extended to withholding the identity of rape victims, and of children giving evidence in child abuse cases. We have a good history of improving the processes in our courts, of ensuring that injustices do not occur.
Needless to say, there must be justice for the defendant, and for the public, in terms of the defendant being properly prosecuted—but there must be justice also for innocent people who find themselves caught up in a trial and unable to control what is said about them. That would be well in keeping with everything that we have said over the years. Such an improvement should take place in our criminal justice system.
I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office will consider that it is time that their respective Departments started devising such a provision, so that it will be ready for the next Criminal Justice Bill and that further dreadful injustices will not be perpetrated.
I refer to the Member of Parliament for Leicester, West —as has my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham)—as my hon. and learned Friend. There have been times when we were adversaries, and we fought tooth and nail in this very Chamber when I first entered Parliament—but outside it, we are friends. In this Chamber, and on this matter, I call him my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner). I say that he and his family should not have been subjected to the ordeal that they were, and that we should strive to ensure decency in the courts in future.
§ Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)
Many hon. Members have a great regard for our hon. and learned colleague, the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner), with the accent on "honourable". Many of us are not lawyers—happily, or unhappily for our pockets—so will my hon. Friend confirm that any wretched creature, such as this awful man who lampooned and libelled our good colleague, can say whatever they like 225 about any of us, yet if we defend ourselves we are in contempt of court? If that is so, I am sure that the House and the other place will want to sweep it to one side straight away. It is a calumny that none of us should have to put up with.
§ Mr. Ashby
I thought that I had made it clear. Joe Bloggs, who may never have visited Cornwall, could go to Bodmin court and make what statements he wished about someone. It would increase the sentence, but when someone is facing a life sentence, or five life sentences, it does not make much difference.
I wish to draw my remarks to a close, so that other hon. Members may speak in this important debate.
§ Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)
I am deeply grateful to the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) for his friendship, for his kindness and especially for his courtesy in arranging this important debate. In the House, the enemy is sometimes behind one, but on this occasion it does not exist, and I am immensely grateful.
The hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West eloquently explained the laws on contempt and how they rightly protect those who are on trial. Wrongly, that law too often leaves those who are not on trial, but whose good names are unjustifiably savaged in court, totally unprotected. That is wrong.
Anyone involved in a trial can make any allegations they wish about anyone else—provided that the judge cannot disallow them as irrelevant—however harmful, horrendous and vile the lies may be. Those whose representations are attacked are forbidden even to deny the allegations. To do so would be a criminal offence—contempt of court.
As the House knows, Frank Beck of Leicester was convicted of a series of filthy and most serious crimes and received what must be a near record sentence—five life terms and a total of 24 years' imprisonment. He called Paul Winston as a witness. Long ago, when Winston was a deprived youngster living in a Leicestershire children's home, my family and I tried, unsuccessfully, to help him. Soon after, he was placed in a home run by Beck. After 15 years of Beck's influence—including a period when Winston lodged in Beck's private home—and after I had refused to provide Beck with references and shortly before Beck's trial was due to begin, they combined to make disgraceful, contemptible and totally untrue allegations of criminal conduct against me.
Their motive was made blazingly clear by a letter that I received only yesterday from a former cellmate of Beck's. I do not know the man, but he took it on himself to communicate with me. He writes that Beck told him that he—Beck —was going to frame me. According to Beck, that would take the light off him. To that end, Beck had enlisted the help of Winston. The former cellmate also wrote that the police knew that he was willing to give evidence to that effect if the Crown thought it necessary to call him. In the event, it did not, but the allegations against me were precisely as the prosecution alleged in Beck's trial —an attempted diversion from the reality of Beck's guilt. Both verdict and sentence showed—happily—that the attempt failed totally.
226 However, is it not horrendous that Beck and Winston were able to make such terrible and lying accusations against me in court and that the media could, and with honourable exceptions did, report these falsehoods, all under the cloak of absolute privilege? I had effectively no legal rights in the matter, and I was not allowed even to nail the lies. No wonder many people were mystified by my uncharacteristic silence —it was imposed by the cruel operation of the rules on contempt.
Happily, I am a fairly tough character. I have been able to ride out the agony on this ordeal in good heart. But it has not been easy. As a Member of Parliament, I am now well placed to fight back. That would not have applied to any of our constituents or to any other citizens placed by law in this impossible and unjust situation.
The injustice was both apparent and real. It imposed a special burden on my wife, on my children, on my mother and my sister and on all my family. I pay my loving tribute to them for their staunch and cheerful support during our shared ordeal. I also thank the many hundreds of people who have so kindly written, spoken to or telephoned us to express their affectionate encouragement. Several of them were themselves victims of Frank Beck. I salute their courage and send them my profound sympathy. We ourselves have received nothing but kindness, confidence and concern. We are very grateful. We are deeply blessed with our friends, not least those on both sides of the House and our friends in Leicester, West.
Surely there should now be a swift review of these injustices in our law and its practice. Surely it must be wrong for people who have no part in a trial to be open to venomous, preposterous attacks, with no remedy, no recompense and, above all, no right of reply. Surely others should not be forced to suffer as we have done. If such a review does lead to a just and useful alteration in the operation of the law of contempt, we shall not have suffered in vain.
§ Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)
It is a privilege to follow the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner), who has given distinguished service to the city and county of Leicester and Leicestershire for more than 21 years in this House. He has made it clear—yesterday and today—that there is absolutely no truth in the horrible allegations that were made against him in the Beck trial. The House, of course, immediately and unreservedly accepts that statement from him. It extends to him its affection and sympathy in the abominable ordeal which he, his beloved wife Myra and all his family have endured for so long.
The hon. and learned Gentleman's many friends in Leicestershire, of which I am very proud to count myself one, and indeed anyone in Leicestershire who knew anything about the matter, never believed any of the repulsive muck for one moment. However, it grieved us greatly that he had to endure it, and that there was no way in which he could clear his name and answer the vile accusations without prejudicing the trial of Beck. There must be a better system than that. Any public figure—indeed, any private figure—could find himself or herself trapped for months in the same nightmare as the hon. and learned Gentleman.
The House has a proud record of friendship and of closing ranks, irrespective of party allegiance, around 227 those of its Members who are unjustly attacked or threatened. I hope that that day has now dawned for the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West after the long night of despair, but we should now, as a matter of urgency, examine the existing procedures to ensure that such a horrible event, without any redress for those who have been so long and so unjustly traduced, can never happen again.
§ Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)
I first met my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) when, at his invitation, I came to the House with his son to see how Parliament operated. I would not have believed that a few years later I would have been selected as the prospective parliamentary candidate for Leicester, East, and would be his neighbour.
I am delighted to be here today to give my hon. and learned Friend my full support. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) cannot be here today because of his parliamentary duties in Northern Ireland, but he joins me in believing my hon. and learned Friend to be the victim of a cowardly and wicked attack by people who simply did not care what damage they did to him or to anyone else. I too wish to extend my good wishes to my hon. and learned Friend's wife and family, and to all his friends, who I know have stood by him during these terrible months. They have shared that terrible burden.
My hon. and learned Friend is a distinguished Member for Leicester, West. His family in intertwined with the history of the city of Leicester. Before he was elected in 1970, his father was the Member for Leicester, West. The people of his constituency do not believe the lies. They are with him now, and they will be with him in the future, because they know of his unstinting service to anyone who approaches him, for whatever cause. He has vindicated himself, and all of us, in what he has said tonight.
I remember a speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short), who is another brave Member of the House who has suffered at the hands of a certain newspaper. I worked in the corridor where she had her office, and we Miss her in the west cloisters—especially her use of our fax machine. I recall that, just before her speech, my hon. Friend went through an agonising time wondering whether she should come before the House to tell it what she felt. Courageously, she did so—and struck a blow for every one of us in the House.
My hon. and learned Friend, too, is a brave man in what he has done, said and endured over the past weeks and months. Every one of us should be grateful to him, because, as the hon. Members for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham) and for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) said, what has happened to my hon. and learned Friend could happen to any one of us, so we should all be aware of it.
During the course of that terrible ordeal, I suggested to the Lord Chancellor that there should be a change in the law to provide for the protection of the innocent. The Lord Chancellor said that he would consider the idea. The Solicitor-General is here today, and I make him an offer. I came 18th in the ballot for private Members' Bills. I know that that is not very high —and there are other subjects that I wish to raise. Nevertheless, I would happily 228 introduce a Bill to cover the point if the right hon. and learned Gentleman would promise it a safe passage through the House.
We should not wait for another Criminal Justice Bill. There is parliamentary time, and we should get on with the job. I foresee that many unscrupulous people in this country would be prepared to do exactly the same thing again. If it is possible to do so, I will happily give the Solicitor-General my place.
§ Mr. Martin M. Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South)
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I join in the comments made so far. I am drawn 15th in the ballot. I have already tabled a Bill to provide for the innocent victims of sexual offences. It may be possible, if the Bill receives an unopposed Second Reading, for an amendment in Committee to address the point. I hope that it may be so.
§ Mr. Vaz
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Is there any improvement on 15th?
The great thing about my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West is that he is a great survivor. Almost alone in some cases, he has taken up great causes and won them. I listened to one of the greatest speeches that I have ever heard in the Chamber when my hon. and learned Friend spoke during the passage of the War Crimes Bill. I was very moved by what he said. He is a survivor, and I am sure that he will survive this great ordeal. I and colleagues will be with him, and the people of Leicester, West, whom he and his family have served so well over the past few decades, will also be with him.
§ Sir John Farr (Harborough)
I support all that has been said about the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner). I have probably known him as long as any hon. Member of any party has. I knew, admired and respected his father, who was a distinguished Labour Member, as his son is today.
I support all that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) said about the law and about the need for change. I support all that has been said by Labour lawyers about the law being an ass. It is an ass, and in this case, it has been very damaging to the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West and to his family. It is wrong. We have the opportunity and ability to put the law right simply in this place.
I can probably say with more licence than many others here that this will not be the first time or the last time that the law in Britain has been an ass and has been proved to be an ass. We have an opportunity to put it right tonight, and I am pleased to be associated with the tribute to the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West and to his family. They must never be subject to such a threat again.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
The price that many hon. Members pay for their service in the House is frequently high. It is not always appreciated by those who do not closely understand the enormous pressures that are put not only on Members of Parliament, but on their families.
I have had the honour of knowing my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) for many years. I knew his father and mother before him. I 229 could almost say that I grew up with my hon. and learned Friend, except that he is far younger than I am. That means that I know him not only as an extremely upright, tolerant and charming man, but as a man who is trusted by people in all walks of life. He is trusted not only in his constituency and in the House, but by anyone in need of succour and support. Such a person can always go to my hon. and learned Friend and find understanding, tolerance and a real effort to help alleviate whatever difficulty that person faces.
I feel especially strongly about the ordeal that my hon. and learned Friend and his family have suffered because my own family went through a similar ordeal many years ago. People outside the House who, like myself, are not lawyers find it almost impossible to understand the byzantine intricacies of what people can and cannot do.
One of the frightening aspects of modern political life is the tremendous power in the hands of the press. Anyone could have found themselves in my hon. and learned Friend's position. The terrifying quality of the real and long travail that my hon. and learned Friend and his family have suffered was made 100,000 times worse by the behaviour of certain members of the press. As Members of Parliament we are never allowed to say the odd word of criticism of a free press because it is somehow felt that there is an interrelationship and a need for elected Members to get their views over.
That is true, but it is also true that those who seek to divert attention from their own open evil know that if they nominate or mention in a court case someone who is of interest to the press they will automatically receive publicity of a strength, breadth and constancy that they would not succeed in getting in any other way. Those who purport to be editors of responsible newspapers, news bulletins and television newscasts have a task to look carefully at the decisions they take and the manner in which they handle such matters.
It is no accident that it has taken a long time to take this case to court, and it is no accident that a long time passed before my hon. and learned Friend could make a statement and clear his name. All those things were aggravated, exploited and made 100,000 times worse by those who behaved as they did for the worst possible reasons—because they were concerned with the sale of newspapers and not with what they were doing to an honourable, learned and responsible man.
I hope that the House will seek to protect anyone who finds himself or herself in that position. I remember what it did to my family when they were named in a case many years ago and were unable to reply. I remember what that cost in personal unhappiness. It is too high a price for anyone who gives a commitment to this House as an elected Member. My hon. and learned Friend is a man of such stature that I can only pay tribute to him and give him one promise—that those of us who honour his friendship and look forward to enjoying his company for many years will not tell all Members of the House of Commons how many letters we have in our personal files signed, "Love, Greville".
§ Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford)
I am not a lawyer, so unfortunately I cannot speak with the eloquence of someone who is familiar with the law, but I can speak as a layman who has been disgusted in recent weeks by the press coverage and the pillorying of an innocent victim mentioned in a court case. Justice should be seen to be done in a court case, but where is the justice in British law when an innocent individual who is not even a party in the case can be dragged through the court and vilified day after day by someone who remains in the gutter? There is something inherently wrong when British justice condones that state of affairs and allows it to happen and to persist.
As hon. Members have mentioned, the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) is in a position to try to do something about the grave injustice inflicted upon him and his family, because he is a Member of this House. As my hon. Friends have said, there are probably thousands of other people outside who have similarly had their names defamed and their private lives wrongly dragged through the courts and into the newspapers. They are the little people. They do not have the power or the backing to get the justice that they, too, rightly and richly deserve.
Something must be done. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) mentioned rape and blackmail cases. If it is possible in a British court for names not to be mentioned in such cases, why on earth cannot something be done to change the law so that innocent bystanders do not have to have their names dragged through the courts? I believe that that protection is long overdue, and this case has highlighted the fact more than many in recent years.
It is a sad fact of life that there are, unfortunately, people who believe everything they read in the newspapers. I am afraid that by many people in this country the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West has been found guilty. They do not understand what reporting on the courts in a newspaper is all about. They see an accusation in the newspaper and take it as a fact; or it is a case, of "no smoke without fire", to use that dreadfully trite expression. We all know that it is not true, but for far too many people it is true and they believe it.
I hope that two things will come out of this debate. It has provided an opportunity for the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West for the first time to state the truth and to clear his name of these despicable accusations, so I hope that the newspapers which were ready to give as much coverage as they saw fit to the case when it was going on will tomorrow morning make sure that the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West gets just as much coverage so that people are left in no shadow of a doubt that there was not one scintilla of truth in the ghastly, grubby accusations that that horrendous man was prepared to make under the cloak of privilege in a court of law.
I should like to say one thing to my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, who is present tonight. I am sure that many other hon. Members would say the same. Surely there is now an overriding need not only to examine and look again at this aspect of the law and of our court proceedings, and not just to think about it but actually to do something. Something should be done quickly, though not in such a hurry that it fails to solve the problem, so that never again will anyone have to go 231 through the sort of nightmare that the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West and his poor, suffering family have had to go through. If something can be done quickly, it will not make it all worth while, but it will right a great wrong.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)
I rise to speak briefly—principally, like so many others, because of my high regard for my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) and his family, whom I know, including his father and mother. But that would not be enough, and I wish to make two further points.
In recent years—since the televising of the House, I suppose—people have asked me, as they have asked other hon. Members, why the House of Commons behaves so badly, like a bunch of yobs. One tries to explain that it happens on the odd occasion, at Question Time, which is not a great parliamentary occasion, and that is what the media pick up. What the media, whether television or the press, never pick up is an occasion such as this, when the House of Commons is at its best in terms of the relationships between people in all parts of the House.
I wonder to what extent this debate will be reported. If we were all shouting at one another, the media would be here. What the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) has done tonight, and what other hon. Members on both sides of the House have done, although in this respect principally on the Conservative Benches, is to their credit and to the credit of Parliament.
My second point is this. My hon. and learned. Friend the Member for Leicester, West has had his name in all the newspapers, and in one newspaper in particular. My right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General will be dealing with the question of contempt. I hope that he will not forget the newspapers, in particular. I wonder how many of them will fill their pages tomorrow or the day after in the way they have done in the past few weeks. There is a great deal of talk about freedom of the press. When I think of what went on in eastern Europe, and in fascist Europe before the war, when I was younger, I am glad that we have a free press.
§ Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)
I am delighted to take part briefly in the debate. The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner). whom I am pleased to call my hon. and learned Friend, and I entered the House on the same day, and we have been friends ever since. We worked together to form the committee for the release of Soviet Jewry, of which he was the first secretary and I the first chairman. We have not always agreed—I think that he was profoundly wrong on war crimes—but we have always respected and liked each other. I was as appalled as anyone at what happened in recent weeks. It was a terrible ordeal for my hon. and 232 learned Friend and for his family. I endorse everything that has been said from both sides of the House in support and admiration of him and of the courage and fortitude that he and his family have displayed.
I should like to address my few brief remarks to something else. I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend will endorse what I say. It has already been mentioned that those who serve in the House have an opportunity to put wrongs right. My hon. and learned Friend was able to apply for an Adjournment debate. When it was not appropriate to have it last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) made the facility available this evening. Had he not done so, another hon. Member would have obliged, and we would have had the chance to debate the matter and to make the points which have been made with such eloquence and fervour on both sides of the House.
What would have happened if the man who had been traduced and vilified had been a village schoolmaster? What if he had been a vicar, a Methodist minister or a rabbi? He would not have had this forum. He would not have had the opportunity to command the attention of the media. Although I endorse totally what the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) said and have doubts about how much of the debate will be reported, nevertheless, we have this privilege and opportunity, but our constituents do not.
Let us imagine the unspeakable agonies of horror that would have been suffered by someone in —I will not say a less exalted—a different position who had been similarly vilified. Perhaps in a moment of desperation he would have written to his local newspaper. Perhaps he would have gone to his Member of Parliament. As a result, there might have been some minor publicity, but how right my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) was: people would have talked about there being no smoke without fire. Mud would have stuck. A career of public service in a quiet and restricted environment might have been ruined.
There is something wrong with a law that allows that to happen. What we must do because of this horrific and terrible example—I use those words deliberately—is put the law right. In the high court of Parliament, we have a unique opportunity to put the law right. I look forward to a positive and enthusiastic response from my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General. Even though I did not draw even 15th in the ballot and can offer neither blackmail nor whitemail, I hope that there will be a firm commitment from my right hon. and learned Friend, endorsed by the Opposition parties, that the law needs to be amended, not to restrict in any way the freedom of those who are innocent until proved guilty but to prevent the vile calumny which we are discussing from being perpetrated again.
If that happens, the sufferings of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West, of Myra and of his family, whom many of us know and admire, will not have been in vain. This case will produce something that all of us want to produce —a positive improvement in the law. We can expect no more than that, and we can certainly ask for no less.
§ Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)
I can but echo the tributes that have been paid to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner). He is a man of determination and enthusiasm, whose integrity and will power have crossed party lines. I for one value the friendship that he has given me in the eight and a half years that I have been a Member of the House, despite the fact that we are in different parties and disagree on many issues.
Mr. Beck is an evil man. Perhaps more to the point, he is a corrupt man. Several hon. and hon. and learned Members who are present, some of whom have already spoken, have, like me, had the opportunity over the years in their professional lives to meet corrupt and evil people and to examine and sometimes cross-examine them in court. I am sure that those who share my professional experience will agree that those who have trodden in the mire of corruption all too easily become corrupt to the core. They cease to recognise the difference between what is good and what is bad and between what is honourable and what is corrupt.
They turn, like Mr. Beck, easily to more corruption and try to wheedle their way out of their own previous corruption—and that is what has happened in this case. That is why my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West was slandered with dreadful calumny by Mr. Beck. That is why it does not surprise me in the least to hear from my hon. and learned Friend about the letter that he received yesterday from Mr. Beck's erstwhile cellmate. It is common for such evidence to appear, but all too often only after a great deal of harm has been done.
I believe in jury trial and that, however evil they are, people should be entitled to present their defence to a jury if they wish to do so. Mr. Beck would have been extremely well advised to plead guilty. He would have been well advised not to drag the name of my hon. and learned Friend through the courts and an undiscriminating press. He would have been well advised not to compel—because he did compel—his own lawyers to regard what he said about my hon. and learned Friend as part of his case. However, he chose to do so.
I suggest to the Solicitor-General that a clear intellectual distinction can be drawn between evidence that relates to those who are parties to a trial and those who are not parties to a trial.
I can see the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) in his place across the Chamber. I know that he has shared my experience many times of being involved in what we lawyers call "cut-throat" trials. Those are trials in which the one defendant makes accusations against the other, and the other often makes even worse accusations against the one. The distinction between those cases and this is that the lawyer for the other can immediately attack the one—there is somebody there to protect the reputation of each defendant who is in the court—but in a case such as that which has affected my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West, there is no such opportunity to defend oneself. There is not even, as we have heard, any opportunity to make a realistic and meaningful statement in public, not even in the House, for to do so might affect the outcome of the trial.
Within the past few years, we have witnessed a case in which a senior Minister made a statement during a trial in which the defendants were convicted. In consequence, 234 those defendants had their convictions quashed on appeal. It was a trial of the greatest public importance, involving alleged IRA terrorism. It demonstrated clearly to all Members of Parliament the dangers of making even inadvertent and mild statements about a trial while it is taking place.
Therefore, I respectfully suggest to the Solicitor-General that a clear and simple change can be made to the law which would protect those who are not the parties to a trial—third parties outside a trial. It would in no way inhibit the right of a defendant to make his defence, however dishonest. It would in no way inhibit his right to instruct his solicitors, however egregiously. But it would prevent the press from publishing calumnies which cannot be answered, as in the Beck case, sometimes until weeks or even months after the allegation is made in the public arena of a court. I hope that we shall hear the Solicitor-General tell us shortly that such an amendment has the approval and support of the Government.
§ Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)
It is most unusual for an Adjournment debate at this hour, at the end of which there will be no vote, to attract so many Members into the Chamber. Come to think of it, it is most unusual at any hour for so many hon. Ladies and hon. Gentlemen in the Chamber to remain seated when I rise to speak. If the debate had started at 10 pm when it was scheduled to start, and if the normal business of the House had continued, many more hon. Ladies and hon. Gentlemen from both sides of the House would be here tonight.
The reason why so many of us are here is the immense regard which we all have for the hon. and learned Member, our friend, for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner). We have immense regard for the way in which he conducts himself not only in Leicester but in the rest of the United Kingdom and on behalf of the United Kingdom abroad. He is a famous personality. The number of people to whom he is a friend, if not because he has met them but because they know of the good works that he has done not only in Britain but throughout the world, must run into many hundreds of thousands.
It is precisely such a person who can be brought lowest by the hateful things that may be reported about him in a court of law. The matter that has given me most cause for admiration is the way in which he has conducted himself while the horrible events have gone on and been reported in the press. That shows an inner strength which must be the result of his deep religious conviction. We all have reason to regard him, the causes that he espouses and his beliefs highly.
We must address what can be done to stop this kind of thing happening again. It is difficult and probably impossible to allow people thus abused to make statements in the press which can only interfere with the process of justice by which someone is tried. However mean, miserable and undeserving a defendant is, he is entitled under our system to a fair trial and not to be the subject of attack, however justified, from someone who has no particular connection with the issue in the case, even if the defendant brought it on himself.
It would be almost impossible to ban such remarks in a court of law, but there is no reason why a judge should not be empowered to say that, in an appropriate case, the name of the person maligned should not be repeated in the 235 press. There does not have to be a statutory ban—it can be left to the good judgment of the court. As in so many other matters, the judge should be given the discretion to tell the press that they may not publicise the name of a person, because to do so would be in contempt of court.
I know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General is giving urgent consideration to the matter. Will he seriously consider whether that sort of amendment would be acceptable to everyone? I urge him not merely to consider the matter but, because of the strength of feeling shown here, to take action as soon as possible, so that our hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West and his family will not have suffered in vain.
§ Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)
Before I became a full-time politician, I was assistant director of social services in a large authority. Wicked episodes were often brought to my attention, but nothing either then or since has been as evil as the man Beck. In this short speech, I wish to think for a moment about all the youngsters who were so badly damaged and hurt by that evil man. He well deserved the sentence he got, but to many of us five life sentences do not seem quite enough for what he did to our youngsters.
Our hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) was also caused grave hurt. Having known him in this country and having travelled around Israel with him, I know that he is tough and resilient. I have a high regard for him, and I pay him tribute. I think especially of his family. When we come here, we know what we are up to, but our families, hundreds of miles away, suffer the most. We can rationalise and fight our way out, but they are often deeply hurt. I am sure that all hon. Members in the Chamber will be thinking not only of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West but of his wife and children.
§ Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) has asked to be associated with my unusually brief remarks.
I am happy to count the Janner family as friends. I congratulate them all on the quiet dignity and courage that they have displayed in recent weeks while vile, vicious and baseless allegations were made by a proven liar. The fact that such allegations could be made under the cloak of privilege, and the victim has had no right of redress or to cross-examine those making them, has been a blot on our system of justice. I hope that that basic injustice can be tackled. If it can, good will come out of the traumas that our colleague has suffered and that will be for the good of potential victims. We have been through a ghastly situation, and I hope that some good can come of it.
§ Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)
I rise to break my Trappist vow of six years to say how honoured and privileged I have been to attend and take part in this debate. We cannot always say that. Indeed, as Whips we must sometimes sit through long and tedious debates—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Many of my hon. Friends will take revenge on me for making that remark, because the 236 Whips hijack hon. Members into taking part in, and thereby lengthening, long and tedious debates. However, this has been a very special debate.
I wish at the outset to thank the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) for initiating the debate. It was a generous gesture on his part. Adjournment debates are hard won and precious to Back-Bench Members. We thank him sincerely for his generous gesture in allowing this debate to take place.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
§ Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Wood.]
§ Mr. Foster
It is a reflection on the unusual nature of relationships in the House that a member of an opposing party can make such a generous gesture. Again, we thank him deeply. I have rarely seen the House so unanimous in warmth and affection, and especially in its understanding of the severe ordeal that one of our colleagues and his family have had to endure for many months.
A Chief Whip is in a special position to be able to understand the many strains in the lives of colleagues that are unheard of beyond the bounds of Westminster, and often unheard of except within very small circles in this place. The strains of being a Member of Parliament are extremely great from time to time. The strains on families are also great, and their sacrifices are rarely known.
The way in which our hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) has conducted himself has been a model for all of us to follow, though we hope and pray that most of us will not have to undergo that sort of ordeal. If we do, we now have a model and can say that he and his family have been through it and have borne it with great fortitude, resilience and courage—as has been said, only through their deep religious faith—and that that has been a great lesson to us all. A powerful case has been made for a change in the law. I am sure that the Solicitor-General will address himself, as only he can, to those remarks.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition would have liked to be here this evening because I know well that he has been a tremendous support to my hon. and learned Friend and his family in many small and touching ways, which I know have been deeply appreciated.
§ Mr. Foster
If the Opposition could facilitate a change in the law—it would be widely welcomed, as is clear from what has been said in the debate tonight—I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends would be willing to do what they could to assist.
§ 10.3 pm
§ The Solicitor-General (Sir Nicholas Lyell)
It is absolutely clear that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) has done the House a service by raising this matter. I associate myself with the remarks made by hon. Members in all parts of the House about the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner), who has been through an ordeal that none of us would wish to share. I associate myself also with the remarks made by the Opposition Chief Whip about the dignity with which the hon. and learned Gentleman has borne himself in adversity.
237 When the House is unanimous on a subject, it is a moment to think deeply, particularly when profound principles are involved. As on so many occasions when we discuss matters in the House, we are faced with a conflict between principles, each of which is important, and with the question of how properly to resolve such a conflict. This is not the first time that this issue has reached the public domain, or will it be the last time that the House is asked to focus on the rights and duties of citizens in circumstances—from time to time inevitable circumst-ances—when the interests of one individual or one set of individuals necessarily impinge on and potentially damage the interests of others.
We have heard speeches not only by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West, who initiated the debate, and the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West but by the hon. Members for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham), for Harborough (Sir J. Farr), for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack), and for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) and the right hon. Members for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) and the hon. Members for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes), the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile), and the Opposition Chief Whip.
The speeches by and in support of the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West raised important questions of principle that govern three important matters: first, the need for open justice; secondly, the provision of proper opportunities for the defence in criminal proceedings to deploy the case on which the defence relies; and thirdly, the issue on which we focused most, the effect of the existence of those rights on third parties who necessarily can play no part in the proceedings and who consequently have no immediate opportunity to defend themselves or their reputations.
The principle that justice should, as far as possible, be open is central to our system of criminal justice. It is a fundamental requirement of any democratic and just society that the process by which individuals are accused, tried and, where appropriate, punished should be open, and exposed to public scrutiny and comment at an appropriate moment, other than in wholly exceptional circumstances—for example, where on grounds of national security the court must receive evidence about matters of security or intelligence; or where, for purposes of the administration of justice, particular matters must be dealt with concerning informants. The rule that criminal proceedings are conducted in open court would be hollow unless those proceedings could be freely reported by the press and television, and the media in general. For that reason, both Houses of Parliament deliberately built into the Contempt of Court Act 1981 a robust declaration of the right to report proceedings in open court, subject to one limited exception.
Section 4(1) of the 1981 Act provides:Subject to this section a person is not guilty of contempt of court under the strict liability rule in respect of a fair and accurate report of legal proceeding held in public, published contemporaneously and in good faith.The only exception is where it appears to a court that the reporting of the proceedings before it might prejudice the 238 administration of justice in other proceedings imminently pending in another court, or shortly to follow thereafter. Even then, there is no power to prohibit reporting of proceedings. All that the judge may order is a postponement until the risk to the administration of justice has passed. The law does not permit the right of the press freely to report proceedings in open court to be fettered, notwithstanding that such reporting may be or would be embarrassing, damaging or inconvenient to an individual who has featured in the case. That would be a major inroad into a constitutional safeguard and would expose the courts to the risk of pressure from interested third parties.
§ Mr. Cormack
Are we not dealing with something a little more serious than inconvenience? I respect what my right hon. and learned Friend is seeking to say, but surely no true freedom would be properly fettered if there were an inhibition on the publication of names.
§ The Solicitor-General
We are certainly dealing with matters much more serious than mere inconvenience. Perhaps I should have reordered my remarks and said "inconvenient, embarrassing or damaging"—sometimes deeply damaging. To take my hon. Friend's point, I ask the rhetorical question: is it possible to solve this grave difficulty simply by suppressing a name or ordering the press not to publish it? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] I hear a number of my hon. Friends saying yes, but I invite the House to reflect cautiously before interfering in what seems to be a small particular in the right of the press to make a fair and accurate report.
§ The Solicitor-General
Yes, the press or television.
Let us reflect on the matter for a moment. If one suppresses the name, one does not suppress the rest of what is reported, so it is reported that someone, or perhaps more than one person who has been defamed, has done something in the course of the case and it may be that he or she is not known to the public and is of no interest to the public. So far, I am happy to say that in the case of children —I was about to come to that exception—and in the case of rape victims, the balance that Parliament has chosen, in that it has granted exceptions in those cases, has proved to be an effective one. However, once we start to distort the operation of open justice and the consideration of the matters, we may very well, through the operation of rumour and all its insidious effects that are so damaging in libel cases—the only justification that I know for the high damages granted in such cases—inflict more damage on justice than we realise.
§ Mr. John Marshall
Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that in cases of blackmail one refers to Mr. X. Surely in a similar case such as this one, it would be fairer to the individual involved to refer to him or her as Mr., Mrs.,Miss or Ms. X.
§ The Solicitor-General
I ask my hon. Friend to reflect that, if Mr. X were a Member of the House, or Mrs. X were a member of the nobility—[HON. MEMBERS: "Lady X."] If she were a Lady, she would still be referred to as Mrs. X. If the person were a member of the nobility or someone in whom the press had an interest, rumour would 239 start to circulate, and damage could not be avoided. I have acknowledged the great damage done to the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West.
§ The Solicitor-General
No; otherwise, I shall not finish what I have to say. I apologise for not giving way, but I am sure that the House will understand.
When one conceals matters, one does not necessarily quieten them. The law does not permit the right of the press freely to report proceedings in open court to be fettered, notwithstanding that such reporting would be inconvenient, embarrassing or damaging to some individual who has featured in the case. That would be a major inroad into a constitutional safeguard and would expose the courts to the risk of pressure from interested third parties.
Anyone who has prosecuted in the criminal courts—I see a number of such hon. Members here —will know that, in case after case, it is necessary to bring in damaging things about third parties. They may be co-accused who have never been tried and are entitled to the presumption of innocence, or they may be people against whom the defendant has a grudge of any nature. Are all those names to be kept from the press? Is it always to be Mr. X or Mrs. X? I suggest—I put it no higher, and we shall resolve nothing tonight —that we should think very carefully indeed.
Parliament, which has considered the matter carefully, has decreed that the only exceptions should be children involved as victims and the victims of rape. The law of contempt is a doctrine of wide scope which manifests itself in a variety of types of contempt. Their common feature —if I can capture the interest of hon. Members—is that they seek to ensure the efficacy and integrity of the judicial process, which is of concern to us all, so that justice may be administered to all without interference from any quarter.
Proceedings for contempt of court are the means by which obedience to orders of the court and adherence to undertakings are ensured. Those minded to take reprisals against witnesses on account of the evidence that they have given can also be punished for contempt. Those who disrupt proceedings or undermine public confidence in the administration of justice by scandalising the judiciary are also liable to be dealt with for contempt of court. The media are also required, when reporting matters which are relevant to imminent legal proceedings, to ensure that their reports do not give rise to any substantial risk of prejudice.
§ Ms. Short
The mood of the House has changed since the Solicitor-General started speaking, and a mood of exasperation is now spreading widely. Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman anything positive to say to us, or will the rest of his speech simply seek to justify the status quo and say no to everything that has been put before him tonight?
§ The Solicitor-General
What I am putting before the House are serious considerations about the balance between the rights of individuals, which may be damaged 240 in the course of a case but where the record can subsequently be put straight, the rights of those who are before the courts, accused, to deploy their defence, and the rights of the public at large to scrutinise that process.
I ask the House to be careful when it has one of its own Members in its charge. We are right to sympathise with the hon. and learned Member for Leicester West.
§ The Solicitor-General
Exactly. My hon. Friend is entirely right: it is the principle that matters, and the ultimate principle is that there should be justice and that justice should be seen to be done.
§ Mr. Franks
There are many lawyers in the House, including myself, and we take a completely different view. I speak not as a lawyer but as a politician. It is just not good enough if the House does nothing. I have the greatest sympathy for hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner), but there is a principle involved and it is about time that my right hon. and learned Friend stopped speaking as a lawyer and started acting as a politician.
§ The Solicitor-General
I hear what my hon. Friend says. I have had many pleasant discussions with him, but I must say to him and to the House in all firmness that to ask us to talk about justice as politicians is to go down a very dangerous road. When we consider justice, we stand back as politicians and invite independent courts and wholly independent juries to consider hotly contested matters.
Right hon. and hon. Members are failing to remember in how many criminal trials it happens, often necessarily, that allegations are made by the prosecution or defence which are damaging to persons who are not immediately before the court.
§ The Solicitor-General
My hon. Friend says that we ought to deal with that point. The suggestion before the House is that, in such cases, it would be right and proper not to publish the names of the persons involved. The House has not focused its mind yet on whether any name should be published, or whether only some names should or should not be published.
§ The Solicitor-General
I ask the hon. Lady to relax for a moment. I am not saying that the country should not consider the matter. It will undoubtedly be one for public debate, and rightly so. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West and the ordeal suffered by the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West will make it a matter, rightly, for public debate. Nevertheless —
§ The Solicitor-General
I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West, who initiated the debate.
§ Mr. Ashby
I appreciate that one must approach the matter with considerable caution, and that we cannot go at it in a bull-at-a-gate fashion. It is important to hear the arguments on both sides, and to consider them carefully. I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for replying to the debate in the way that he is doing. I accept everything that has been said so far, but is it really necessary for the persons in question to be the subject of media coverage? I cannot see how it aids justice one iota for that to happen.
§ The Solicitor-General
What is reasonable and what the law should forbid are not necessarily the same. We have a very wide press in this country, and we count that as one of our freedoms. However, it embraces a whole spectrum —from a deeply responsible press that is extremely careful in what it publishes and which tries to balance one thing with another, to an element that many people regard, perhaps rightly, as frequently scurrilous or simply aimed at making a profit. I suggest, however, that that is part of a free society. Although it has disadvantages, it is a great deal better than the kind of society in which there is no free press, or in which the press is gagged by more and more complex and frequently unworkable rules.
I must move on, because there are one or two other points and safeguards that I want to mention. As I said, safeguards apply in the case of children and of rape victims, and they seem to have worked well. The judge also has the power, where the reporting of one case may affect the interests of justice in a subsequent case, to postpone the reporting of the earlier case.
§ The Solicitor-General
I shall not give way to my hon. Friend, as I believe that I have done so once already and I have only a little time left.
Professional safeguards apply to those who appear for the prosecution and the defence. The Bar code of conduct requires that those who appear should use their powers as responsibly as the interests of justice may reasonably allow. Paragraph 610 of the Bar code provides, first:Counsel must not make statements or ask questions which are merely scandalous or intended or calculated only to vilify insult or annoy either a witness or some other person; counsel must if possible avoid the naming in open Court of third parties whose characters would thereby be impugned; counsel must not suggest that a witness or other person is guilty of crime, fraud or misconduct or attribute to another person the crime or conduct of which his lay client is accused"—[HON. MEMBERS: "What about this case?"]—unless such allegations go to a matter in issue (including the credibility of the witness) which is material to his lay client's case and which appear to him to be supported by reasonable grounds.I hear hon. Members saying, "What about this case?" I am on common ground when I remind the House that this case was immensely serious. If someone is to be tried for matters as serious as those for which Mr. Beck was 242 tried and to receive the condign punishment that Mr. Beck received, it is essential that he should have a fair trial and that he should be given every opportunity to deploy his defence.
Hon. Members are saying, "We all agree, but what about the hon. and learned Member for Leicester. West?" I must remind the House of another important principle. If I may say so, I acquit the hon. and learned Gentleman of the misguided approach that some hon. Members are taking. He has deported himself with great dignity. That is the way in which we should deport ourselves. He was not on trial. His opportunity to answer necessarily had to be deferred until the trial was over, and he has now had an opportunity to be heard. [Interruption.] I hear the point that other people do not have the same privilege as hon. Members.
The suggestion is not that we should lift the laws of libel, which would be one other possible step to take, because if we were to do so witnesses would be inhibited and the opportunity for justice would be damaged.
§ The Solicitor-General
No, I am sorry, but I must conclude.
The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West is not on trial. He has had an opportunity to make his point, and I wish to end with one important point. As a result of a number of miscarriages, we are scrutinising our system of justice. I hope that the House will never forget that no one is guilty of an offence unless they have been duly tried and convicted and that everyone is entitled to the same presumption of innocence.
§ The Solicitor-General
I do tell that to the press.
If I may speak for the Law Officers of the Crown, we are scrupulous in bearing that vital principle in mind. We are right to be scrupulous to maintain our system of open justice, to require that people be tried for charges the purport of which is known, and in courts which are open to the public and to the press and can be fully and fairly reported. Despite the undoubted hardship, not only to the famous such as the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West and other hon. Members, but to those who are known only to their families—I know from correspondence that many ordinary people suffer hardship because of what is said and done in court cases—I suggest to the House that we interfere with this at our peril, and at peril to our liberties and system of open justice. I commend that principle most sincerely to the House.
§ The motion having been made at Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour,MR SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned at half past Ten o'clock.