HL Deb 13 March 1992 vol 536 cc1496-503

11.27 a.m.

Lord Henderson of Brompton: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

I should like to begin with an apology to the House in that on the Order Paper the Bill is adorned with a paragraph symbol indicating that the recommended interval between the First and Second Readings has not been observed. At a time like this when we are up against an imminent Dissolution I hope that the House will agree that that is an unfortunate necessity. I ask the House to agree to expedite the passage of the remaining stages of the Bill for that reason. It is a Bill which is immensely worth while and it is also politically non-controversial, or so I believe.

The purpose of the Bill is to extend the law giving statutory anonymity to victims of rape to victims of other sexual offences. It implements, with minor improvements, a recommendation of the Calcutt Committee on Privacy and Related Matters. Incidentally, I am very pleased to see that the Lord Privy Seal, the noble Lord the Leader of the House, is in his place because I believe that it was he who gave a welcome in the other place to the report of the Calcutt Committee when he was Home Secretary.

It is, in short, a Bill to give anonymity to alleged victims of sexual offences. That power is given in Clause 1 and the sexual offences are listed in Clause 2.

I must confess that, in order to make the subject matter of the Bill immediately intelligible, I should have preferred to entitle it "Victims of Sexual Offences (Anonymity) Bill". However, like other Members of your Lordships' House I must exercise self-restraint and not propose any amendments. The Bill is a model of the draftsman's craft. I am happy to say that it is free-standing. Perhaps one of the reasons that it is so easily intelligible is that it is not drafted by reference to the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976. In due course I hope that the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act will be consolidated.

In the House of Commons the Bill was most skilfully handled by Mr. Brandon-Bravo. He was supported by six other Conservative Members, four Labour Members and one Liberal-Democrat. Their names are listed on the back of the Bill. That indicates the extent of support in the House of Commons where the Bill had an unopposed Second Reading and remaining stages.

The guts of the Bill are in Clause 1 which confers anonymity on victims who have been subject to the offences listed in Clause 2. There are special rules in Clause 4 for anonymity when the complaint is one of incest or buggery. Clause 3 allows the judge—the House may feel quite rightly—to lift the reporting restrictions imposed in Clause 1 in certain circumstances, which I can briefly encapsulate in the phrase "in the interests of justice". Clause 5 provides for the offence and also for defences and follows the 1976 Act. Clause 6 is the interpretation clause. Clause 7 follows the 1976 Act and makes provision for courts-martial to follow the proceedings which apply in the civil courts.

I am happy to answer any questions on the detail when I reply. At this stage I should say that I am entirely satisfied with the Bill. The Bill provides anonymity where it is absolutely necessary. It also provides suitable safeguards. Undoubtedly it stops the exposure of innocent victims to the public press and the media. Such exposure may ruin their lives in the case of sexual offences. That should be stopped and that is the effect of the Bill. I ask the House to support it. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Lord Henderson of Brompton.)

11.34 a.m.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on introducing the Bill and explaining it with a reasonable degree of thoroughness. Its general principles are to be commended. Ever since 1976 it has seemed to me to be illogical that the protection of anonymity should be confined to the victims of rape. To be a victim of enforced oral sex or sodomy must be every bit as traumatic and humiliating, if not more so. For that reason it is absolutely right that the Bill should be given a Second Reading.

However, having said that and despite the explanation given by my noble friend, I feel that to rush the Bill through all its stages in a single day is a different matter. What is the pressing urgency? Where are the impassioned public pleas? Over the past 16 years there have been any number of measures dealing with criminal justice, into which provisions such as those contained in this Bill could have been inserted, after the thorough scrutiny to which the other place and even more so your Lordships' House, with noble Lords' great fund of legal expertise and experience, normally subject any Bill which involves criminal justice. One has only to think of the perfectly justifiable passions aroused very recently in our lengthy debates on the Aggravated Vehicle-Taking Bill.

Yet, in sharp contrast, noble Lords effectively are being asked to rubber stamp this Bill. I know that the Calcutt Committee made most of the recommendations on which this Bill is based. But it is not the habit of Parliament automatically to rubber stamp recommendations of committees, Royal Commissions or anything else. Perhaps it may come to that eventually but, thank goodness, it has not yet done so. We are being asked to rubber stamp this Bill without considering amendments of any sort, even drafting amendments of an improving nature—your Lordships are quite adept at putting forward such amendments —since any such amendments would effectively postpone the passage of the Bill until later this year, assuming that it were to be reintroduced at the beginning of the next Session, as it almost certainly would be.

But, why not? Why should it not wait for another six months or so? After 16 years will another six months be too long to wait to make sure that the Bill is absolutely right in every detail? Perhaps we should contrast this Bill with the Timeshare Bill which is to be introduced later this morning. The idea of putting through the Timeshare Bill without proper scrutiny —let us not forget that the raison d'être of this House is the proper scrutiny of Bills—to some extent also sticks in the gullet. But at least it helps to remedy a long-standing abuse about which there has been almost continuous public concern and debate over the years. The provisions of that Bill merely bring timeshare sales into line with other forms of salesmanship, such as life insurance and consumer credit, so far as compulsory cooling-off periods are concerned.

Moreover, although I am not sure that this is appreciated, the Timeshare Bill was at least debated for a total of three hours and 25 minutes in another place, whereas the total time given to the Bill now before your Lordships was a mere 35 minutes, of which less than 30 minutes was devoted to the subject matter of the Bill.

This Bill, albeit with the best of motives—I do not doubt that for one moment; as I said, I support the general principles—undoubtedly affects the freedom of the press, the freedom of the media generally and freedom of speech. I think that we were all, when young, taught that justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done. The more that anonymity is extended to those involved in criminal trials, the less demonstrably is justice seen to be done. In other words, it is not simply a question of what some might consider to be airy-fairy abstractions, such as freedom of the press. It is a question of justice for particular individuals.

The kindness to victims or alleged victims that anonymity gives might result in a very substantial unkindness to an individual who has been unjustly accused of a sexual offence, possibly a minor sexual offence. Let us consider the law as it stands. Suppose, for example, that an individual living hundreds of miles away from the scene reads in his morning newspaper that a Mr. Bill Jones has been committed for trial on a charge of indecent assault for assaulting a Miss Sharon Smith. One must remember that for forensic reasons indecent assault is even more difficult to prove conclusively than rape, in the absence of witnesses. The person who has seen the report happens to know that Sharon Smith is an inveterate liar, inveterate fantasist and possibly an occasional extortionist and consequently he or she may be prepared to give evidence for the defence. Conversely, he or she may happen to know that Sharon Smith is a person of the utmost integrity, truthfulness and virtue and accordingly may be prepared to give evidence for the prosecution. However, neither of those courses of action will be possible if the unamended Bill becomes law.

There is also the question of the definition of indecent assault, which is an extraordinarily wide-ranging offence. It ranges at its worst extreme from forced oral sex to the other extreme of putting one's arm around a fellow employee at an office party against the wishes of the employee. Is it really to be the case that in the least serious of the offences the protection of anonymity should be conferred when the accused person may be pilloried or ridiculed whether or not he or indeed she is found guilty? (Of course a woman can also be charged and found guilty of indecent assault.) I believe that this provision probably goes a little too far in that respect.

There may be perfectly conclusive, good answers to all these reservations but they would take time to develop. Once again, I do not oppose the Bill. However, in the normal way we would have Committee and Report stages and those reservations could be debated; but that is not possible under the procedure that we adopt today. The Bill is well intentioned and admirable but we are being deprived of our right to act as a revising Chamber in this instance. While I thoroughly approve of the Bill being given a Second Reading, I believe it premature and unnecessary to rush it through all its stages today.

11.41 a.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, for explaining the Bill very clearly and making us understand how useful its provisions will be. I agree with him about his preferred title. It would certainly describe the Bill better. However, as he said, we shall have to accept the existing title.

As the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, said, it is a well drafted Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, also made a fair point. However, we on this side of the House do not agree with him. He objected that there will not be time to discuss the Bill's provisions further as it is being pushed through all its stages this morning. But we believe that the provisions of the Bill are useful. Further anonymity has been requested from many in this respect for a long time. We believe it right that the measures should be on the statute book although, as the noble Lord, Lord Monson, stated, that means there will be no further discussion.

The Bill makes useful additions to the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976. We note that it implements a subsidiary recommendation of the report of the Calcutt Committee on privacy and related matters. Equally, we note and fully recognise that the balance between giving anonymity and not creating a problem for the police in the investigation of an alleged offence is delicate to achieve. However, I believe that that issue is dealt with well in Clause 1 which gives two levels of different protection and seems to avoid that problem.

There is little doubt that the Bill deals with an area of the greatest sensitivity. Indeed, Clause 2, listing the offences to which the Bill applies, makes very sorry reading. However, I entirely agree that it is right that the Bill should include indecent conduct towards young children among the offences listed, although the Calcutt Report did not do so.

Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, will give his opinion on whether the Bill will help in these areas. The anonymity of a victim is sometimes lost because reports in different newspapers pick up different details, but not all of them, and jigsawing (as I understand it is called) then takes place. From such details the identity of the person can be established. One paper might give an address and another might give the date of return home.

Perhaps I may cite examples from the report of the Press Complaints Commission. The Director of Social Services, near Manchester, complained that the Manchester Evening News had published prominently a story and picture likely to lead to the identification of children involved in an alleged gang rape at a children's home. The Director of Social Services said that the council's legal department had asked the newspaper not to publish the name or picture of the home as the children were all wards of court. However, in its first edition the paper published a picture of the home. Two of the boys had been charged with rape and a third with aiding and abetting. But the editor of the newspaper said that it could not possibly be argued that a publication of a photograph of the children's home could lead to the identification of the children. However, the complaint was upheld by the Press Complaints Commission on the basis that the details were sufficient details for the victims of the sex crime to be identified.

I shall not give further examples but there are many borderline situations. A complaint against the Sport newspaper was upheld by the commission. It related to a rape victim. The paper published an inaccurate report of the girl's rape which contributed to her being identified as a rape victim. Such jigsawing effect seems to pose a problem. Will the provisions in the Bill help in some small way towards preventing the identification of certain victims of sexual crime?

We are happy to support the Bill. We believe that it will be useful. We support its rapid progress onto the statute book. We very much hope that the additional anonymity which the Bill provides will prevent the untold suffering which must occur to so many when sexual offences are identified as relating to a specific person.

11.49 a.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I find myself in the unusual but happy position of agreeing wholly with the noble Baroness. I hope that your Lordships will decide to allow the Bill to go through.

I make only one further comment in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Monson. He stated that if we do not do so the Bill will go through in six months' time. I believe that that would be a very optimistic assumption. The new Parliament will not be opened until 6th May. There will be the usual proceedings at the opening of a new Parliament, with the Queen's Speech and so on. By the time that those are completed there will be two months before the Long Recess. It is undoubtedly the case that if my noble friend's party, to which I belong, is victorious at the election there will be a flow of wise, beneficent and constructive measures. Equally, if the noble Baroness's party succeeds there will be a great many subversive and highly damaging measures. However, on both hypotheses the procedure would take a great deal of time. It is most rash to assume that the Bill will necessarily pass through Parliament in six months.

Most people outside this House, and I am sure most of your Lordships, agree that this is a sensible extension of the already accepted principle of preserving the anonymity of victims of various offences. If that is so, why delay? Why for months and years expose people to this most unpleasant publicity when we can stop it by carrying the Bill? I hope that we will.

11.50 a.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, perhaps I too may say a few words. The noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, has made out a powerful case for the Bill. I have no difficulty with it and I hope that it will soon be on the statute book. I am in favour of proceeding in the way suggested by the noble Lord largely because the Bill is based on the report of the Calcutt Inquiry. The issues involved have been carefully reviewed, and on that basis it is reasonable that the Bill should go through today under the terms of this accelerated procedure.

However, I am bound to make one qualification. This is the first of three Bills with which we shall deal today where this course of action is recommended. I believe that some of the anxieties expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, are more appropriately applied to one of the other measures largely because the issues in respect of this Bill have been considered by a serious committee of inquiry. As a revising Chamber the House must be careful about allowing Bills to go through on the nod. I believe that on this occasion the procedure is desirable but I hope that we shall be careful about doing so in the future.

11.53 a.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, on introducing this Bill. Modest though the reform may be, it will provide some much-needed further consideration for victims of sexual crimes and will, we believe, also help to encourage victims to report such crimes to the proper authorities. The Bill is thus good for victims and good for the administration of justice. I am glad to be able to assure your Lordships of the Government's support for the Bill. It comes to us from another place unamended and will, I hope, receive similar broad support in your Lordships' House.

The noble Lord, Lord Henderson, has already perfectly described the Bill's aims and clauses. I am sure that your Lordships would deplore, as I think do all decent people, the graphic—one might almost say pornographic—reporting of cases of sexual assault, complete with the unfortunate victim's name and sometimes even his or her address. The net effect of such identification is of course to add further suffering and humiliation. Sexual offences are by definition peculiarly embarrassing and intimate. The victim who comes forward should feel that he or she can do so with confidence that the authorities will spare him or her unnecessary public degradation.

Of course the Bill will not prevent salacious reports. But it will prevent the naming of victims. Your Lordships may consider that it would be better additionally to prevent salacious reports altogether. I confess that there are occasions when I too have seen some merit in that proposal. But we are not in the business of censoring the reports of the facts of court cases. The basic principle of open justice which this Government uphold demands that justice is normally to be seen to be done. But the principle, like all good principles, must be tempered with mercy and balanced with the interests of the victim and the administration of justice.

The noble Lord, Lord Monson, asked why it was urgent. I must remind him that the Bill is based on the recommendations of the Calcutt Inquiry published in 1990. It is a simple but important Bill. It has been considered in another place and your Lordships have been able to study it. I agree with my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter that if it were lost today there would be no guarantee that it would find a place in the ballot in the next Parliament. If it did not find a place in the ballot there would be no guarantee that it would pass through.

Perhaps I may point out to your Lordships that even yesterday a newspaper reported: A self-confessed student-hater was jailed for seven years yesterday for a savage sex assault on a young graduate". The paper published the name, the age and a picture of the unfortunate victim. We support the Bill; victims need the protection that it offers.

Lord Monson

My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down perhaps I may question his remark that the Bill might not find a place among the Private Members' Bills next Session. Is there any reason why the Government, of whichever party, should not introduce their own Bill?

Lord Annan

My Lords, is it not a fact that that is a dubious proposition? How can the noble Viscount give an assurance for his party, still less for any other party which might form a government, that this Bill, which is a small measure, will find a place at the beginning of the next Session?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for explaining clearly what should have been my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Monson.

11.56 a.m.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, I am extremely grateful for the reception that the Bill has received in this House, even from the noble Lord, Lord Monson, who commended its general principles. He was entirely right to raise the question of taking a Bill through all its stages. However, we are under a constraint of time to which we must have regard.

The noble Lord, Lord Monson, asked what was the urgency. We have waited too long for all the recommendations of the Calcutt Inquiry to be implemented and therefore the Bill is overdue. Secondly, if the noble Lord could put himself in the position of an innocent victim he would say that there was indeed urgency. One has only to think of the disgusting Beck case in which the wretched young boy victims had to give evidence. They are now in their thirties, married and happily living in their communities. The trial resulted in their necessary evidence being made public. The press followed the youths. One in particular who is now in his thirties was photographed in his village and in his home. That is an incident which we cannot afford to allow to happen again. It must be stopped as quickly as possible, and the Bill will do that. Therefore, it is a matter of urgency.

As was said so eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, there is no guarantee that the Bill will be reintroduced in a subsequent Session of Parliament, let alone in the first six months. Anyone who has had anything to do with the business of Parliament will know that that is so. But I do not object to the noble Lord, Lord Monson, having raised those points and I believe that he was adequately answered during the debate.

I welcome the favourable reception which the Bill received from the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs. I recognise the difficulty of jigsawing, as she called it. I may be wrong but I believe that that may be a matter for the presiding judge and that Clause 3 deals with it. If there is a case of the press contravening the judge's decision about anonymity, I imagine that they will be in contempt of court. I have not been able to consult on the matter but I believe that to be the answer.

Having disposed of those few matters I have no need to refer to any other questions which have been raised. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time; Committee negatived.

Then, Standing Order No. 44 having been suspended (pursuant to Resolution of 12th March), Bill read a third time, and passed.