HL Deb 03 April 1995 vol 563 cc7-9

2.55 p.m.

Lord Wigoder asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether it is police policy to disclose in advance to the media details of the time and place of the imminent arrest of suspects, and, if not, what steps are taken to deal with unauthorised leaks of such information.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, it is not the policy of the police to disclose to the media details of the imminent arrest of named suspects. Any unauthorised disclosure of information by police officers is a disciplinary offence and could lead to dismissal. The responsibility for the authorised disclosure of information to the press is an operational matter for chief officers.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her reply. Will she confirm that the most recent incident involved a well known footballer? Would she agree that there has been a whole series of such incidents in which persons who are at that time presumed by law to be innocent have been arrested at an unearthly hour in the morning and simultaneously have found that not only they but their wives and children have been surrounded by a horde of photographers and journalists? Does she agree that that is not only a gross invasion of personal privacy but is a very real threat to the public peace?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am able to agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord. Even where there is not a complaint, the police are so concerned that they start investigations. They do so with or without a complaint. In the case mentioned an investigation is taking place. If it is found that a policeman has breached a confidence, it can lead to his dismissal.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, if there is only a tiny minority of forces in the country which are not behaving in the normal way and which possibly committed the offences outlined by the noble Lord, would it be worth while having them investigated so that the excellent name of Britain's police forces throughout the country is in no way damaged?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. It does not matter whether it is one or many incidents. If there has been a breach of confidence which prejudices or intrudes on the privacy of people who are innocent until proven guilty, it will be regarded as a very serious matter and will he investigated.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that she gave virtually the same reply to virtually the same Question a little time ago? Is she further aware that nothing has been done about the matter, that something has to be done about it, that these investigations are absolutely futile and useless, and that it is rather like trying to track down government leaks? What do the Government propose to do about this scandal?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am sorry that my noble friend feels that my repeating an answer is somehow or other a sign of weakness. These cases will continue to be pursued. It must be said that it is very difficult to pin down who released the information. Very often there is an assumption that it has come from the police. Indeed, it could come from other people—perhaps journalists on the look-out being very speculative about what may happen. In these days of modern communications, information passes over mobile phones and so on. Where there is a breach of confidence and it leads to intrusion of privacy, or, even worse, prejudices someone's trial, it is regarded as very serious and investigations take place.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that, quite apart from the unauthorised disclosure of information, the acceptance of a gratuity in these circumstances is also a disciplinary offence? To take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, is the Minister able to indicate how many disciplinary charges have been brought in respect of such matters in, say, the past three years?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am not able to answer the specific question asked. Those statistics are not held centrally. I can confirm what the noble Lord said and that it is indeed a very serious offence under the Public Bodies Corrupt Practices Act. Giving information for money is an offence and receiving it is an offence. It is also an offence and a disciplinary matter if a policeman, or indeed a civilian member of a police authority, gives information, whether or not it is for money.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, if there is no reason whatever to suppose that the person concerned is likely to abscond, why do not the police simply ring him up and ask him to report to the station?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, matters surrounding the arrest of someone are operationally very much for the police themselves.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, am I right to conclude from my noble friend's original reply that there are circumstances in which information is released with the necessary authority? If so, can she say what circumstances create that situation, and when information is released with authority?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the best example of authorised information leaking was Operation Bumble-bee. That was a successful operation on the part of the Metropolitan Police force when it engaged public support to help in reducing the number of burglaries in London. It was successful. Very often the press, the other media and the general public can help in tracking down a criminal. Sometimes chief constables will authorise the release of information in order to apprehend the people who are guilty. But in every case the protection of innocent people until proven guilty is at the heart of what they do.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I do not think I made my question clear. Can my noble friend say what are the circumstances in which information about the impending arrest of a suspect, as described in the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, is released with authority?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I refer again to the example of Operation Bumble-bee where people were apprehended in the course of burgling. If that is public information, protecting the anonymity of the person doing the burglary until proven guilty is very much in the public interest to reduce down the amount of criminality in our community.