HL Deb 26 July 2000 vol 616 cc419-21

3 p.m.

Baroness Harris of Richmond asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether any Minister of the Crown has been in contact with the Press Complaints Commission following the publication in the News of the World of a list of child sex offenders.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)

My Lords, no. I understand, however, that the Press Complaints Commission has received and will be considering complaints relating to the News of the World article. Responsibility for disclosing information about sex offenders or any other dangerous offenders rests with the police. They will do so if public safety requires it. The Government believe that in these matters the press ought to act on the advice of the police.

Baroness Harris of Richmond

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, is he aware of the statement by the Association of Chief Police Officers, whose spokesman on these matters is the Chief Constable of Gloucestershire, Tony Butler, who said: The News of the World's action in publishing a list of alleged sex offenders amounts to irresponsible journalism … Past evidence suggests that the publication of such information causes serious breaches of child protection"? Does the Minister agree that if the News of the World persists in this appalling campaign it is certain that innocent people will be attacked, as happened recently in Manchester in the case of Mr Ian Armstrong?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, first, I should like to associate myself with the noble Baroness's comments. I agree with her; and I entirely agree with Tony Butler, the Chief Constable of Gloucestershire. He was right to describe this as irresponsible journalism. The noble Baroness has rightly drawn attention to the sad case of Ian Armstrong who was attacked by vigilantes. Not only was his personal safety put at risk but also that of his two sons when thugs gathered outside his home. It is greatly to be regretted that the News of the World has decided to conduct this campaign in this way. It should listen carefully to the advice not just of Tony Butler but of all chief constables, who have an important role to play in these matters.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Press Complaints Commission will hold a preliminary meeting this afternoon to consider these issues? However, we shall not be able to adjudicate until we have heard the evidence from both sides and both parties. Then, we shall adjudicate in accordance with a published code of practice, taking into consideration the European Convention on Human Rights, which contains important provisions on both privacy and freedom of information.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am sure that all Members will welcome the noble Lord's statement. The Press Complaints Commission is right to consider the matter in that way. It is perhaps time for the commission to consider what further advice it might give on such matters, where clearly there must be sensitive handling of information such as that which the News of the World decided to publish.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, "naming and shaming" has a dubious history. There are instances where the perpetrators of crimes can become vulnerable—though obviously not as vulnerable as those who have been their victims. Are the Government aware of the extent of the concern about this kind of journalism? The spin-offs for the perpetrators' family and friends and for a whole network of relationships in the community are of a profoundly destabilising kind.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am aware of that. Again, I associate myself closely with the right reverend Prelate's comments. We must approach these matters carefully and sensitively. The police have an important role to play. It is best left to them to make the kinds of judgments that are necessary in these circumstances. There may be occasions when it is right to provide additional public information when public safety is of paramount concern—but only in those circumstances.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the purpose of the Sex Offenders Act 1997 was to enable the proper authorities to keep track of sex offenders, which is right and proper? Does he agree that the register is probably the most successful in the world, with a 97 per cent "take-up"'? Does he further agree that the publication of the list by the News of the World is an abuse of press freedom, and that its threat to continue to publish jeopardises a very good record and, sadly, puts more children at risk?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the great difficulty is that the approach adopted by the News of the World may well put children at risk because it will drive sex offenders underground. What we need is for the authorities to know where they are. The noble Lord is right to draw attention to the Sex Offenders Register, which has 12,000 names on it. It has a 97 per compliance rate, compared with the best register abroad, with an 85 per cent compliance rate. We can take comfort from that. I believe that our approach in these matters is right. The Government's approach has been balanced and proportionate. I believe that Members of this House will look forward to the additional measures which it is our intention to introduce by virtue of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Press Complaints Commission would be infinitely more effective and more satisfactory to its members, this House and the people of this country if it could impose substantial fines? At present, the News of the World will laugh at any penalty imposed on it.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it would be wrong of me to direct the Press Complaints Commission on how best to operate. The noble Lord makes an important point. But in this country we greatly value press freedom. The PCC does an excellent job in that regard and strikes a difficult balance. It is worthy of our support.