HL Deb 16 February 1994 vol 552 cc199-201

2.48 p.m.

Lord Denham asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider it acceptable for a member of the police to pass details to the media after arresting or charging a person.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, the responsibility for authorising disclosure of information to the press rests with chief officers. Home Office guidance suggests that no names should be published at the point of arrest or charging. Unauthorised disclosure of information is a disciplinary offence and could lead to dismissal.

Lord Denham

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for that reply. Does he agree that the passing of any privileged information by any member of the public service to the press for money is in fact the start of corruption?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, my noble friend asked the same question and added "for money". That puts quite a different interpretation on the matter. There are occasions when disclosure to the press is appropriate. It is acceptable if it is has the approval of the chief constable and there can be a proper public interest in investigating crime. Therefore, there is no ban in general on mentioning names once a person has been arrested. That is a matter hr the police. If my noble friend is suggesting that police officers deliver information to the newspapers in return for money, that is a very different matter.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, can the noble Earl tell the House the position once an offence has been committed but before anybody is arrested? Does he agree that it is unhelpful when details, for example of burglaries, are let out which simply tell other criminals where to go?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, these matters are very complicated and that is why they must have the approval of the chief constable. The guidance which the Home Office gives on these matters specifically relates to the effect with regard to contempt of court. It may well be that the issuing of information about people could prejudice a subsequent court hearing.

Lord Peston

My Lords, in answer to his noble friend, the Minister referred essentially to the position of the police. Is he aware that it is commonly believed that there is always money on offer from the media to people who will provide them with such information? Has the Minister any comment to make on his view of the media's behaviour in this regard as well as the behaviour of the police?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I do not feel that it is appropriate for me to comment on the media's behaviour in how they dispose of their money. What is important is whether police officers are in receipt of money for divulging information. If that happens, they are subject to disciplinary procedure.

Lord Airedale

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a distinction to be drawn between the case where an arrest is made and not followed by a charge, in which case it is not proper for the police to disclose the information about the arrest, and, on the other hand, the case where an arrest is followed by a charge, in which case it is quite proper for the police to release the information if they consider it proper to do so?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it is impossible to make clear distinctions of when it is proper and when it is not proper to issue that kind of information. That is why it is up to the chief constable to state the conditions on which information should be released officially from the police by their press office. I believe that that is the correct position. As I said, the guidance issued to the police particularly warns of the dangers of interfering with contempt of court.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that at all events the present situation does not appear to be wholly satisfactory, that the Question is well founded, and that some further investigation should be made? Does he further agree that far too much of such information and too many details are being published by the media irrespective of whether they do, or do not, pay the police for it?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the situation may be unsatisfactory in your Lordships' minds as to what emerges in the newspapers. I do not dissent from your Lordships' holding views on that. What is important is whether the law is adequate. At the moment we are not convinced that the creation of a specific criminal offence is required for something that can be adequately dealt with by existing means. If, behind all this, my noble friend is suggesting that police officers are divulging, for money, information which they should not divulge, that is an extremely serious charge. If there is evidence of that, it will be taken up by the chief constable or the commissioner as appropriate.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, if money is passing from the media to those who work in police stations, whether they are police officers or civil employees, in order to induce them in breach of their contract to disclose unauthorised information, is not the prime responsibility both morally and legally with the media rather than with the police?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, whether or not people should invite others to disclose information for money is a matter of concern for those offering the sums of money. It is a matter of individual choice whether anyone accepts that offer. If they accept the offer, the responsibility is theirs. It would be difficult to frame a law which would forbid newspapers offering money for information.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, the Minister more than once said, "if' something happened. There is no evidence that anything did happen of that nature. If we are not careful, are we not in danger of casting aspersions by innuendo on the police force, or on the police officers involved? That is not the sort of Question we ask in this House unless we can produce positive proof.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, makes a helpful and valuable point. Behind all this is an inference regarding certain cases that occurred in the past. All I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Dean, is that on the occasions in question action was taken to ensure that proper propriety was, and will continue to be, accorded by the police.

Viscount Mountgarret

My Lords, does not my noble friend agree that perhaps the Question is directed principally at the police? Does he not agree also that there are more bodies and authoritative councils which might also be embraced, not least, unfortunately, dissemination of information from the Cabinet?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, if my noble friend wishes to table a Question on dissemination of information from the Cabinet, somebody will be delighted to answer it. But that has nothing to do with the Question on the Order Paper.