HL Deb 26 July 1999 vol 604 cc1332-4

16 Clause 43, page 31, line 24, leave out from beginning to ("cease") in line 28.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 16, and I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 17 and 25. The amendments ensure that the reporting restrictions provided in the Bill, which bite during police investigations before a suspect is charged and which restrict identification of children who are alleged to be victims or witnesses to the commission of an offence, should only be implemented if the draft order to that effect has been approved by affirmative resolution in both Houses.

We had several discussions about these issues. The noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, and the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, raised matters which I said at the time were of genuine interest and importance to the public and to those who discharge a public function by proper reporting. When the Bill was in the other place it was put to us that the media's own regulatory arrangements to protect children could be strengthened in a way that is specific to children who might be harmed by publicity in connection with a crime and that this would be preferable to the provisions in the Bill which restrict pre-trial reporting about child witnesses and victims. For the print media at least, any change to the regulatory arrangements is a matter for the industry as a whole to consult upon. For the broadcast media it is a matter for independent regulators.

I cannot fetter the discretion of this or any other Home Secretary by making any undertakings about what might happen if such regulatory changes were made. Our objective has not changed. We were prepared to consider the possibility that it might be achieved by other means, and we made these new amendments as a result. We shall need to keep the case for implementation under regular review. Should this, or any future Home Secretary, come to the conclusion in the light of the circumstances then prevailing that the provisions in Clause 43 should be extended to child victims and witnesses, a draft order to that effect will be laid before Parliament. Obviously, a most crucial consideration in such assessments will be whether we continue to have concerns about children being damaged by the media's reports of crime and can justify those concerns.

These matters were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley and the noble Viscount, Lord Astor. It was worth having those debates, on more than one occasion if my memory serves. We have listened carefully to what has been said by those who discharge a public function, and I wish to make: it clear that we shall not implement the provisions unless circumstances make it necessary in our judgment.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 16.—(Lord William of Mostyn.)

6 p.m.

Lord Windlesham

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether the voluntary organisations concerned with the interests of the child, in particular the NSPCC, with which he has had a previous connection, have been satisfied? They made representations which were raised by myself, among others, in Committee. At the same time the Minister was in negotiation with the much more powerful representatives of the media. We have heard that the accommodation reached was acceptable to the media. Can the Minister tell us whether the Bill, as it now stands, is acceptable to the voluntary organisations?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, they were consulted. It is my best understanding that they were content on the basis which I have indicated. I do not regard the media organisations as being more powerful than the voluntary organisations. The voluntary organisations—particularly within the field of child protection—have been extremely influential; first, in the way in which we cast the Bill in general structure and in the very helpful amendments and thoughts which have been put forward.

It is an extremely difficult balance to cast. We cannot have a free society without a free press. We cannot justify a free press which is wholly enabled and entitled, as it were, to do damage to children. That is why I believe that we have the balance about right. I repeat that—and I hope it will be a comfort to your Lordships and to the noble Lord who has asked this question—we want to keep the matter under constant review. Pan: of that constant review is a readiness always to listen to the voluntary organisations of the kind which the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, described.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, as the Minister says, it is a difficult balancing act to frame the legislation so that it both gives the protection that we all want for vulnerable witnesses and, for that matter, vulnerable accused, while at the same time retaining a free press. That is not only in the interests of a free press, but also because, as emerged from our earlier debates, sometimes press publicity given to an offence and its immediate circumstances may enable the victim to be identified and may also assist to catch the offender.

We did not want to make it more difficult for the police to catch an offender and bring him before the courts while trying to protect the victims of or other witnesses to an offence. The balancing act has been difficult. I believe that the current wording certainly goes in the direction that we wished. As the Minister says, it provides, as it were, a sword of Damocles which will hang over the press to try to ensure that its voluntary codes achieve what we all want in terms of protection, without overstepping the mark in the other direction of making things too difficult for the police to pursue their valuable role in this.

I am not keen on legislative swords of Damocles hanging over sections of the population, whether the. press or anyone else. Nevertheless, in this instance it provides a way out of an awkward drafting situation. I support the amendments.

On Question, Motion agreed to.