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General Committee Debates
Coroners and Justice Bill

Coroners and Justice Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Frank Cook, † Mr. Roger Gale
Bellingham, Mr. Henry (North-West Norfolk) (Con)
Boswell, Mr. Tim (Daventry) (Con)
Brown, Mr. Russell (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab)
Eagle, Maria (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)
Garnier, Mr. Edward (Harborough) (Con)
Gray, Mr. James (North Wiltshire) (Con)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Howarth, David (Cambridge) (LD)
Howarth, Mr. George (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab)
Iddon, Dr. Brian (Bolton, South-East) (Lab)
Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
Lucas, Ian (Wrexham) (Lab)
Michael, Alun (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine (Bridgend) (Lab)
Prentice, Bridget (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)
Robertson, Angus (Moray) (SNP)
Willott, Jenny (Cardiff, Central) (LD)
Wright, Jeremy (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con)
Alan Sandall, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee


Keir Starmer, QC, Director of Public Prosecutions
Mark Stobbs, Director of Legal Policy, Law Society
Linda Lee, Deputy Vice-President, Law Society
Peter Lodder, QC, Chairman, Criminal Bar Association
Harriet Wistrich, Justice for Women
Sandra McNeill, Justice for Women
Richard Thomas, Information Commissioner
David Smith, Deputy Information Commissioner

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 5 February 2009


[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Coroners and Justice Bill

1 pm
The Committee deliberated in private.
1.7 pm
On resuming—
The Chairman: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I remind the Committee and our witnesses, those immediately with us and those who are joining us later if they are already in the room, that we are bound by the internal knives agreed by the Committee on Tuesday afternoon. That means that the first session has to end at 1.40 pm, the second at 2.30 pm, the third at 3 pm and the fourth at 4 pm. I have no desire to interrupt Members, as I am afraid I had to on Tuesday afternoon, but if someone is speaking and the clock ticks past, I will have to stop them and move them on.
Without further ado, let us hear the first evidence from the Director of Public Prosecutions, Mr. Keir Starmer. Good afternoon and thank you for joining us. We are deeply grateful to you for coming.
Keir Starmer: It is a pleasure.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): My hon. and learned Friend Mr. Garnier will ask about clauses 41 and 42. May I ask you some quick questions about clauses 49 to 52? Those clauses contain various definitions, such as “reasonably be assumed,” “impression conveyed” and “legitimate reason”. Do you think that such terms might be too subjective and might make it difficult to obtain prosecutions for the new offence? How will you interpret those terms in practice?
My second question is about the fear and concern that have been expressed by people in the arts world that there may be items of genuine historic interest that could be brought within the scope of the Bill. I do not think that anyone—certainly no one I have spoken to—has any truck with or time for the warped, depraved individuals who want to look at these things. However, if one looks back in history, some works of art are pretty pornographic. What is your estimate of the likely number of prosecutions annually for the offence of possession of a prohibited image of a child?
Keir Starmer: The interpretation would obviously be a matter for the courts. In so far as this is bringing pseudo-photographs and images into alignment, there have been no practical difficulties with these provisions. I do not anticipate that there will be. In so far as there are artistic considerations, they are obviously recognised. These provisions will inevitably fall within the framework of article 10 of the European convention on human rights and therefore, in so far as any interpretation is needed to comply with article 10, that will be done by the courts in due course. That, I anticipate, will enable defences to be run that are consistent with article 10. May I come back to you on the question of the number of likely cases, as I am not in a position to give you an answer now?
Mr. Bellingham: That is very helpful.
Q243 Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Briefly, I understand that under clause 49 there will be a requirement for consent by the relevant Director of Public Prosecutions. One would assume that if the image is a prohibited image of a child it should be a fairly open and shut matter of fact. Do you need the safeguard of the DPP and why? What is the thinking there?
Keir Starmer: That goes to the heart of the question of what the consent provisions are for generally. One purpose of the consent provisions is to enable the Crown Prosecution Service, through the DPP, to look at these provisions and to ensure that private prosecutions are not brought in inappropriate circumstances. So there is that additional safeguard.
Q 244Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): I want to go back to Mr. Bellingham’s question. You may need to cover this in supplement too. The UK has been particularly successful in taking down images of child abuse online, but that whole operation and the co-operation between industry and non-governmental organisations and the enforcement authorities has thrown up a lot of evidence and cases to be investigated—the actual abuse, as distinct from the images online. The likely number of prosecutions and the extent to which success is being achieved in both the investigation and the follow-up of those cases arising out of the identification of images where they are sourced within the UK are important issues. Could you clarify that for us, both in terms of what is happening at the present and the projections?
Keir Starmer: Yes, we will do whatever we can to assist on both those issues.
Q 245Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): May I ask you a detailed question in relation to clause 49(2)(c)? Does the word “disgusting” add anything useful to the Bill and does it make your life as the Director of Public Prosecutions easier?
Keir Starmer: It is a familiar formula. It certainly does not make life any more difficult. That is exactly the sort of law that would be subject to article 10 consideration.
Q 246Mr. Garnier: The last time you and I met on a formal occasion was when you were giving me a lecture on the European convention under the Judicial Studies Board, for which I was extremely grateful. I still am. What is the difference between “disgusting” and “grossly offensive” in this context, or
“otherwise of an obscene character”?
Keir Starmer: There is some case law to suggest that the two are slightly different. I accept that in practical reality there are unlikely to be many cases that are sufficiently disgusting but not grossly offensive, but I would not for that reason suggest that it was an unhelpful formulation.
Q 247Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): An issue that came up the other day when we were talking to the Internet Watch Foundation is how the use of the internet relates to possession. Clearly, if you are downloading images on to your computer, the computer retains a record of the image being in your possession. However, the equivalent of YouTube videos are actually streaming, so they are never on your computer. Is there a legal loophole that means that people would be able to watch those kinds of images without technically being in breach of the measures, when if they watched the same image in a format that involved downloading, they would be in breach?
Keir Starmer: Not that I am aware of. I do not think that that loophole is in this provision.
Q 248Jenny Willott: But if someone is watching streaming images online, there would be no actual copy on their computer, so they would not technically be in possession.
Keir Starmer: It would be for the courts to interpret the meaning of possession. We would proceed on the basis that there should be no such loophole.
Q 249Jenny Willott: On the question of the definition of “image,” I think that the various references to pseudo-photographs are reasonably clear, and capture the original intention that the Government laid down—to include cartoons or computer-generated imagery that are so lifelike as to look like photos of real children. However, the definition of image—
“a moving or still image...produced by any means”—
seems extraordinarily broad to me. If I scrawl a pornographic image on a piece of paper, would it be covered by that definition?
Keir Starmer: I anticipate that it would be.
Jenny Willott: Is there anything to ensure that what is picked up was originally intended, or is the net so broad that a much larger group than was originally intended could be caught be the provisions?
Keir Starmer: In that regard, the safeguard is in clause 49(2) and the three conditions that have to be satisfied whatever the form of the image.
Jenny Willott: I am not quite satisfied with that answer, but it is not Mr. Starmer’s problem so much as the Minister’s. I will come back to the issue later.
Q 250Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): May I talk about encouraging or assisting suicide in the context of the internet? When we talked to the Internet Watch Foundation, its representatives said that they felt there would be a problem with many of the sites that are hosted outside the UK. I do not know whether you have ever seen the content of any such sites. Often, they are not only explicit in setting out the methods used, but explicit in almost hounding an individual to take their life. How difficult do you think it would be to prosecute when a site is hosted outside the UK?
Keir Starmer: The act must be within the jurisdiction, and it depends what the act of encouragement is. It is anticipated that such encouragement would be covered by the provision. Certainly, that is the basis on which we would approach the matter.
The Chairman: Do we have any further questions relating to images of child sex abuse? I just want to ensure that we have dealt with that.
Q 251Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I want to refer you, Mr. Starmer, to clause 46, entitled, “Encouraging or assisting suicide (England and Wales)”. The language has been rewritten, according to the explanatory notes,
“with the aim of improving understanding of this area of the law”.
In your opinion, does it change the law in any way, or will the law be just the same with the new expressions? In other words, is there any likelihood of increasing prosecutions with the new wording?
Keir Starmer: We have approached this on the basis that the measure does not extend the existing law, and I am therefore not anticipating that there will be a greater number of prosecutions resulting from the rewording of the offence. That is how we are approaching it.
Dr. Iddon: Are you happy with the rewording? Does it make life more or less difficult than the existing wording?
Keir Starmer: No, it certainly does not make life any more or less difficult than it currently is.
Q 252Dr. Iddon: I have one further question, about young people who write morbid poetry or song lyrics and might post them up on a social networking site. That would not be done with the intention of getting another young person to think morbidly—hence leading to suicide—but if it happened, could it perhaps be seen as encouraging another young person to take their own life?
Keir Starmer: The answer to that is in clause 46 (2)(b), which states that in those circumstances there would not be the necessary intent. Therefore, on the face of such an example, there would not be a prosecution.
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