“However, I knew that I could not bring up my concerns on the editorial floor for fear of being seen as a troublemaker. Any writer who questioned the morality of these methods would have been a marked man. It seemed that any method that could stand a story up was fair game.”

Witness after witness gave evidence to say that if they had stood up and spoken out, they could have been sacked. Rupert Murdoch’s response was to suggest that they could have resigned, to which Lord Leveson said that they could have done so, but they wanted to keep their jobs.

Leveson has recommended that the editors and proprietors now consider adopting a conscience clause. Bizarrely, when Rupert Murdoch was interrogated, he accepted that proposal and now supports it. There should therefore be no reason for such a clause not to form part of a journalist’s contract. The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister also said last week that the matter should be given serious consideration, as did the Leader of the Opposition.

The NUJ has now written to proprietors proposing the commencement of discussions on the introduction of a conscience clause in the contracts of all journalists. The Secretary of State is meeting the proprietors, and I congratulate her on involving the NUJ in those discussions. She is meeting representatives of the union as well, and they will be part of the overall discussions. It would be extremely helpful, now that we have cross-party consensus on the need to consider a conscience clause, if she could seek assurances from the proprietors that they will take the matter seriously and engage in discussions and negotiations on the issue and on the contractual changes that would need to take place for existing and future journalists. This could form another part of the architecture of a cultural change in journalism in this country, as well as protecting those who want to stand up for higher standards.

I want to raise another important matter. A conscience clause in a contract can be enforced by the individual, but in this culture, even if they have the ability to resort to law, they often do not feel that they have the capability or the strength to protect themselves. That is why they look to collective action and collective bargaining by their union on their behalf. However, the loopholes in the existing employment legislation have been used by News International, in particular, to enable it to refuse to recognise the NUJ.

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The union had a large number of members working for News International, and it approached the management to request recognition in the normal way, but News International set up its own staff association. The trade union certification officer refused to certify the staff association as an independent trade union, because it was not seen as independent of Rupert Murdoch. Nevertheless, a loophole in the law allowed News International to refuse to recognise the NUJ as a licensed, certified, independent union. Instead, it recognised the staff association, denying NUJ members the necessary recognition that would allow them to engage in collective bargaining. That loophole in the law needs to be closed if we are to ensure that the terms of a conscience clause are enforceable not only in law but as a result of collective bargaining.

I conclude by urging the House to listen to the practitioners, the people who have endured the intimidation and bullying and the people who have had to operate in this culture, which has so denigrated their profession. I think the NUJ needs to be integrally involved in designing and implementing the new reform architecture. I am pleased that the Secretary of State has made a start on engaging with the union and ensuring that the whole industry will design our reform procedures.

9.34 pm

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): The Government were right to arrange this debate so speedily after the Prime Minister’s announcement and statement last Thursday. It has provided an opportunity for the House quickly to express a view on the important issues of the Leveson report. We have heard 31 Back-Bench speeches over the last six and a half hours. I think that they have been exemplary, raising a range of issues and clearly examining those at the nub of Leveson’s report, which have focused largely on statutory regulation.

The mood of the House has been thoughtful. I believe that we have been trying to edge towards consensus. If it was the Government’s intention to have an early debate for those reasons, they have been successful. I can reflect, however, that there are certainly two different sets of views on the regulation issues.

I hope I do all those concerned a service when I say that my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier), the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) and the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech)—whose very good contribution highlighted the irony of his article being censored by the Manchester Evening News —coupled with the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) and my hon. Friend for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) made extremely good contributions supporting the tenor of the Leveson recommendations. I was particularly pleased to see them joined by the hon. Members for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), for

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North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and, not least, my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). They all said that the points made by the noble Lord Leveson are worthy of consideration and either have their support or need to be examined in detail to help to secure tighter regulation of the press. I also believe that my right hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) were edging towards that position, having considered these matters in some detail.

There is obviously a range of other views. The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), the hon. Members for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) and for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce), the hon. Members for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray), for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and, indeed, the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) have some concerns about the Leveson approach. I understand that and I can see where they are coming from. I do not share their views, but they made a passionate case for them today. The hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) focused particularly on the role of the Crown Prosecution Service, without supporting either side of the debate.

I will be honest in my opening strategy. I begin by sharing the starting point of the noble Lord Leveson. I do so because of the way in which the press can act, as Members will have heard from the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East, in ways that I would not wish to support.

I support Lord Leveson’s opening statement in the executive summary:

“For the seventh time in less than 70 years, a report has been commissioned by the Government which has dealt with concerns about the press. It was sparked by public revulsion about a single action—the hacking of the mobile phone of a murdered teenager. From that beginning, the scope of the Inquiry was expanded to cover the culture, practices and ethics of the press in its relations with the public, with the police, with politicians and, as to the police and politicians, the conduct of each. It carries with it authority provided personally by the Prime Minister.”

I think we have tested that first premise in a positive debate. My hon. Friends and the Members on the Government Benches who have spoken in support of Leveson’s recommendations have done so with that first element of the executive summary at the forefront of their minds.

I express my view from this side of the House, but I am pleased to say that it has been expressed by the majority of Members on both sides of the House who have spoken today. I support the core recommendations of the Leveson report: I believe that there should be a new system of independent regulation of the press, guaranteed by law. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) have always said that they would support Leveson’s recommendations if they were sensible and proportionate, and I believe that they are.

Mr Lilley: For the sake of clarity, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Opposition would accept a package of measures identical to those proposed by

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Leveson, except in one respect? Would they accept a powerful independent regulator, with powers to demand apologies, redress and corrections of inaccuracies, the only difference being that it would apply to this House rather than to the media?

Mr Hanson: I respect the way in which the right hon. Gentleman put his case today, but I believe that the debate is about the need for statutory underpinning of a regulatory system. Lord Leveson said clearly in his report that this was the seventh time in 70 years that we had examined the issue. I feel very strongly that we need to have cross-party talks and share what has emerged during today’s necessary debate, but also that we should reach the conclusion which—as the Secretary of State will see when she reads the report of the debate—was reached by the majority of Members on both sides of the House, who have spoken in support of the Leveson recommendations.

Alun Cairns: I respect the right hon. Gentleman’s view, although I disagree with the element relating to statutory underpinning. Is he saying that if legislation to that effect is not passed in the present Parliament, it will be a Labour manifesto commitment for the next general election?

Mr Hanson: I think that the hon. Gentleman, who has dipped in and out of today’s debate, will know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said that he wants action urgently. He wants action by Christmas; he wants action in the next few weeks. I too want to see statutory underpinning of Leveson’s recommendations as a matter of urgency, and I hope that we can achieve consensus. When the hon. Gentleman—who has not been present for the whole debate—reads Hansard, he will see that his hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon, his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough and others have supported some of Leveson’s recommendations.

I accept that there are concerns about state regulation. In a letter to me, the editor of my own regional newspaper, the Daily Post, said:

“I am strongly opposed to statutory regulation of the press.”

However, I say to that newspaper editor, and to others who share her view, that we need to consider what that means. In his summary of recommendations, Lord Leveson says:

“An independent self regulatory body should be governed by an independent Board”.

Is that state regulation of the press? He continues:

“The appointment panel… should be appointed”

in a “fair and open way” with “an independent process”. Is that state regulation? No. He continues:

“Funding for the system should be settled in agreement between the industry and the Board, taking into account the cost”.

Is that state regulation? No. The code and the board should

“subscribe to an adequate and speedy complaint handling mechanism”.

Is that state regulation? No.

“The Board should not have the power to prevent publication of any material, by anyone”.

Is that state regulation or censorship? No, it is not. It is, by statute, the underpinning of a voluntary agreement between the press and the state in relation to regulation

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of those areas. It is no different, dare I say it, from the legal services body that was set up by statute to look at solicitors, or the Judicial Appointments Commission, which was set up by statute to appoint judges, or the General Medical Council, which was set up by statute to be the independent regulator of doctors, or Ofcom itself, or the Advertising Standards Authority. All those were established by Parliament, and they are all independent of Government and Parliament, but they all fulfil a regulatory role across the board. Those matters are important. We need to have that independence, and we need to underpin it with statutory regulation.

As the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice will be winding up for the Government and I am the shadow Police Minister, it is important to place it on record that Leveson’s recommendations are important in respect of policing. I believe we can do more, but it is right that the term “off the record briefing” should be discontinued. It is right that all senior police officers should record their contacts with the media for the sake of transparency and for audit purposes. It is right that there should be guidance to police officers on who can speak to the press and when. It is right that we should have an audit of who uses the police national computer and when. It is also right in respect of the police that we should examine guidance and spell out the dangers of hospitality, gifts and entertainment.

Mark Reckless: The police have been traduced in this matter by a number of commentators, including Members of this House. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is good that Leveson has given such a positive report on the police, certainly in terms of the initial investigation, although there were problems later with not reopening it?

Mr Hanson: Lord Leveson has done so in terms of the initial investigation. There are further elements to come in part two, however, and we will learn what he says about them. He has recommended certain measures, and I hope the Government will accept them in due course.

The Government must not only examine what the Opposition have said, but take on board the comments of Members from the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the Democratic Unionist party, the Social Democratic and Labour party and, last but not least, their own Conservative Members. They have strongly said right across the board that the Prime Minister should act on the Leveson challenge. Failure to do so will show that the Prime Minister is looking for good headlines, but he will ultimately be on the wrong side of the argument.

For the victims of these terrible intrusions, there can only be one outcome, and that has been put very ably by Members of all parties this evening. The long grass is not an option. The Prime Minister has said he is not convinced of the need for statutory underpinning, but the majority of this House has said tonight it is in favour of statutory underpinning of Leveson’s recommendations. The Prime Minister must act. I hope the Government will reflect on what has been said tonight, and on the comments of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. They must continue to work on a draft Bill and bring one forward

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before Christmas. If they do not, the Opposition will give all Members of this House the opportunity to give their opinion early in the new year.

9.47 pm

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Damian Green): We have heard many thoughtful contributions from Members on both sides of the House, and I am sorry that I may not be able to do justice to all of them in the time available to me.

The Government recognise the strength of feeling on these issues both in the House and more widely among the victims of phone hacking and the public. As Lord Justice Leveson noted, some of the behaviour of the press has “wreaked havoc” with the lives of innocent people and

“can only be called outrageous”.

The central issues of this debate—press regulation and the relationships between the press and the police or politicians—are central to the confidence that people have both in how the country is run and that the rule of law is being upheld with impartiality and integrity.

As the shadow Police Minister has just said, there has been a degree of consensus across the House tonight. I am glad that the official Opposition have moved from the position of the Leader of the Opposition, who said that the Leveson recommendations should be accepted in their entirety, to the position that the shadow Police Minister stated: that he would accept the core recommendations. That is a sensible move.

As Lord Justice Leveson pointed out when publishing his report, the relationship between the police and the public is central in our system of policing by consent. The media have a vital role to play in facilitating this relationship, but there is a trust that goes with that role. That trust has been damaged and needs to be repaired as quickly and effectively as possible.

On the central issue of media regulation, as the Prime Minister made clear on Thursday, we accept completely the central principles of Lord Justice Leveson’s report, namely that an independent regulatory body should be established, and it should be a body that is independent both in its appointments and its funding; it should set out a code of standards by which the press have to live; it should provide an accessible arbitration service for dispute resolution; it should provide a mechanism for rapid complaints handling; and it should have the power to impose million-pound fines where there have been flagrant breaches of the code. The culture change that my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) mentioned is certainly needed.

Mr Slaughter: What system is the Minister going to put in place to give victims of the press protection in costs—is it Leveson or something else? Does the Minister agree that this will need legislation? What is his vehicle for that—is it the Defamation Bill or something else?

Damian Green: I will come on to answer the point that the hon. Gentleman made in his speech, if he can be patient.

The Prime Minister made it clear that we have serious concerns and misgivings that the recommendation to underpin this body in statute may be misleading. Such

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concerns were echoed by hon. Members from both sides of the House, including my hon. Friends the Members for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) and for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). They were also echoed with inimitable eloquence by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). We should be wary—this House is wary—of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press. That point was also made eloquently by the hon. Members for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) and for Falkirk (Eric Joyce), and by my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) and for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray). We should be wary about whether legislation is truly necessary on this point.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport said in opening the debate, it is right that we should take the time to look at the details. I agree with many of the points made by hon. Members on both sides of the House. For instance, my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) made a good point in saying that many of the failures were breaches of the criminal law; my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) was right to warn against regulatory creep in these things; and the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) was exactly right in saying that the ball is in the press’s court now, that they have to take the immediate decisions and that it is up to them.

Zac Goldsmith: I am just wondering whether I misheard my right hon. Friend. For the record, I made the case that I do not believe that effective regulation will be possible without legislation. I will send him a copy of the Hansard record of my speech later.

Damian Green: I listened to my hon. Friend’s speech carefully and I thought he made it clear that he had misgivings—that is the point I was making. If he does not have misgivings, I apologise to him.

Obviously, further cross-party discussion will be needed on this and some of the other recommendations, particularly on the proposed changes to the Data Protection Act. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House agreed that the Leveson proposals were pretty inadequate on data protection and its effect on investigative journalism, and I assume that that lies behind the nuanced change in the Opposition’s position. It is important that we look at these proposals carefully, particularly in the context of the negotiations on the broader European Union framework to which the Data Protection Act gives effect.

Lord Leveson himself said that these changes need to be considered with great care and he also admitted that this was something that had not been aired extensively during the inquiry or received much scrutiny generally. I believe that the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) made that point very well. We agree that this matter needs careful analysis. We must not make haste to amend the Data Protection Act only to find that responsible investigative journalism, holding the rich and powerful to account, is unduly hampered because of some wide-reaching amendments, even ones made with good intentions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins) talked about how the press had helped him in his council work on child protection. Several hon. Members spoke eloquently and passionately about the effects on

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their local community of press malpractice. They included the hon. Members for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) and for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain). My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will return to the House on all these issues following the cross-party discussions.

Some specific questions were raised in the debate. The right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) asked about the timetable for decisions, and we look forward to the press coming forward with their new proposals after tomorrow’s meeting. People have said that we should not delay; the meeting with editors is actually happening tomorrow. Lord Hunt has suggested a timetable that starts this week with that meeting and proposals that will come in the early months of next year.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) asked about the LASPO Act changes and defamation. We believe that good cases can still be brought after the LASPO reforms come in, but we clearly want to ensure access to justice for those such as the Dowlers who may feel that they have been denied it in the past. That is why we have referred the matter to the Civil Justice Council. That is the appropriate body to consider the details of the proposals, which are both important and complex.

I agree with the shadow Police Minister that although most of the debate has been about press regulation, the issues around the police and their handling of the investigations into phone hacking as well as their relationship with the media and police integrity more widely are equally central to the debate—

Mr Straw: Will the Minister give way?

Damian Green: I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman —[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Let me talk about the police first, and then I will certainly deal with his point.

I welcome the fact that Lord Justice Leveson has noted that he has not seen any evidence that corruption by the press in relation to the police is a widespread problem. I appreciate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) about particular instances, but it is also important to note what Lord Leveson said about this matter. In particular, I want to emphasise two additional points.

First, the Government believe that Lord Leveson’s analysis of the issues and problems with the police is correct, but as he notes, it is very important for the scale of the problem to be kept in proportion. The vast majority of police officers in this country maintain standards of the highest integrity and they also often need to maintain a relationship with both local and national media in order to do their jobs properly. There is no place in our police forces, however, for those who do not meet those high standards or who abuse their relationship with the media. We will ensure that there is no longer any place for them in the police.

Secondly—

Mr Straw rose

Damian Green: I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman if he stops standing up—[Interruption.] I want to deal with the police first.

Secondly, there is a much-changed policing landscape since the issues highlighted by Lord Justice Leveson came to light. He recognises not only that, but the continuing improvements that are being made. We have

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created the college of policing to drive up police standards across the board and it will have a particular focus on working to ensure police integrity—

[

Interruption.

]

I feel sorry for those Labour Members who do not regard police integrity as important. They are completely out of touch with what the public want.

Police and crime commissioners are now in place to hold chief constables and their forces to account on behalf of local people and to ensure that they meet the high standards that people demand—[Interruption.] Apparently, Labour Members are also not interested in democracy, unlike the various Labour police and crime commissioners I met earlier today.

On the failings identified in the operational decisions made by the police in their investigations into phone hacking, there is now a new senior leadership team in place in the Metropolitan police to play its part in taking forward the report’s recommendations.

Mr Straw rose

Damian Green: I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr Straw: I am very grateful to the Minister. The Irish Defamation Act underpins the Irish Press Council and it works. Why will that not work here?

Damian Green: The Irish system has not been in place for very long and it is impossible to claim all the virtues for it that the Opposition wish to claim. It is sensible for discussions to continue on the points on which there has been widespread consensus in the House this evening, and jumping immediately into another system would be the wrong way to go about this.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Seventy years!

Damian Green: The hon. Lady, from a sedentary position, talks about 70 years but the Leveson report was published last Thursday. We are debating it today, a Monday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is meeting the editors tomorrow and we will produce proposals in the coming months.

We will consider carefully the other recommendations in Lord Justice Leveson’s report and respond in due course. The Government will ensure that the central principles of Lord Justice Leveson’s report will be taken forward in cross-party talks as quickly and comprehensively as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the matter of the Leveson report into the culture, practices and ethics of the press.


Business without Debate

Delegated legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Legal Aid and Advice

That the draft Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Amendment of Schedule 1) Order 2012, which was laid before this House on 29 October, be approved.—(Nicky Morgan.)

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The Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the Division was deferred until Wednesday 5 December (Standing Order No. 41A).

Legal Aid and Advice

That the draft Civil Legal Aid (Merits Criteria) Regulations 2012, which were laid before this House on 29 October, be approved.—(Nicky Morgan.)

The Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the Division was deferred until Wednesday 5 December (Standing Order No. 41A).

Charities

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

That the draft Charitable Incorporated Organisations (Consequential Amendments) Order 2012, which was laid before this House on 30 October, be approved.—(Nicky Morgan.)

Question agreed to.

Charities

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

That the draft Charitable Incorporated Organisations (Insolvency and Dissolution) Regulations 2012, which were laid before this House on 30 October, be approved.—(Nicky Morgan.)

Question agreed to.

parliamentary privilege (joint committee)

Resolved,

That this House concurs with the Lords Message of 28 May, that it is expedient that a Joint Committee of Lords and Commons be appointed to consider the Green Paper on Parliamentary Privilege presented to both Houses on 26 April (Cm. 8318).

Ordered,

That a Select Committee of six Members be appointed to join with the Committee appointed by the Lords.

That the Committee should report by 25 April 2013.

That the Committee shall have power—

(i) to send for persons, papers and records;

(ii) to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House;

(iii) to report from time to time;

(iv) to appoint specialist advisers; and

(v) to adjourn from place to place within the United Kingdom; and

That Sir Menzies Campbell, Mr William Cash, Thomas Docherty, Tristram Hunt, Mr Bernard Jenkin and Mrs Eleanor Laing be members of the Committee.—(Nicky Morgan.)

Committees

Mr Speaker: With the leave of the House, we will take motions 7 to 11 together.

Administration

Ordered,

That Simon Kirby, Dr Phillip Lee, Sarah Newton and Mike Weatherley be discharged from the Administration Committee and Karen Bradley, Mr Marcus Jones, David Morris and John Penrose be added.

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Environmental Audit

That Sheryll Murray be discharged from the Environmental Audit Committee and Dr Matthew Offord be added.

Regulatory Reform

That Ben Gummer, Brandon Lewis and Mr Robert Syms be discharged from the Regulatory Reform Committee and James Duddridge, Richard Fuller and Rebecca Harris be added.

Science and Technology

That Gareth Johnson be discharged from the Science and Technology Committee and David Morris be added.

Welsh Affairs

That Mr Robin Walker be discharged from the Welsh Affairs Committee and Simon Hart be added.—(Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)

Petition

Regeneration of Chatsworth Gardens (Morecambe)

10.2 pm

David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con): I am presenting this petition tonight on behalf of over 600 people in Morecambe who want to see the town’s west end regenerated.

By way of background, the Housing and Communities Agency allocated Lancaster city council £1.9 million in May 2012. In order to bid for the funding, the council had to pledge to match-fund the HCA contribution. This money was to be used to bring a cluster of empty homes in Chatsworth Gardens into use. Everything was fine, or so we thought, until I received a letter from the chief executive on 17 September stating that there was

“a very real prospect that the Council will have to send the money already allocated back to the Government”

because the council could not afford the £1.9 million match funding.

People in the west end of Morecambe got very angry and concerned indeed. Since the petition was signed, the council has miraculously claimed that there was never any danger of the match funding not being in place. In fact, one council officer said he was “bemused” by the suggestion that the money may have to be returned. Lancaster city council wrote to me saying that it did not have the match funding, and now it does. I have spent some time trying to get to the bottom of this, only to unearth even more questions.

The petition demands that the west end of Morecambe be regenerated without delay, using the money allocated by the Government. I thank Mr Steve Swithin for collecting the names, and the people of the west end of Morecambe for fighting back. I commend the petition to the House and hope that Lancaster city council will take note of my constituents.

Following is the full text of the petition:

[The Humble Petition of residents of Morecambe,

Sheweth,

That the Petitioners support the campaign by Steve Swithin to regenerate the West End and the Petitioners understand that Lancaster City Council will receive £1.9 million to tackle clusters of empty homes in their area bringing 114 empty homes back into use.

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Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your Honourable House urges the Department for Communities and Local Government to spend all of the mentioned £1.9 million on redevelopment for Morecambe’s West End.

And your Petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray.]

[P001143]


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Sexual Abuse Offences

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Nicky Morgan.)

10.3 pm

Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon) (Con): In February 2011, my constituent Margaret Felwick contacted the police to report a serious sexual abuse offence carried out on her by her brother, Mr Geoffrey Genge. The offence had taken place 50 years before, but Mrs Felwick had never felt able to bring the incident to light. On discovering that her sister and cousin had also been abused by Mr Genge, Mrs Felwick could be silent no longer. All three victims contacted the police.

The police handled the allegations with professionalism. They were sensitive in their approach, thorough in their investigation and also very reassuring. My constituents were concerned that it was too late to prosecute. The police assured them that it was not; although the incidents might have occurred 50 years before, there was strong evidence to support the case and an attempt to prosecute should be made.

The case was referred to the local Crown Prosecution Service. The CPS assessed the evidence and, in August 2011, notified Mrs Felwick that the prosecution would go ahead. The CPS believed that there was enough evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction. It believed it to be more likely than not that Mr Genge would be convicted. Mr Genge was summoned to attend a court hearing and charged with five offences of rape and sexual abuse between 1957 and 1961 relating to Mrs Felwick and her two relatives. He pleaded not guilty. The case was scheduled for trial on 27 March 2012.

Then, on 10 January, my constituents were told that the case against Mr Genge had been dropped. The announcement was made in a letter from the CPS that came out of the blue. There was no attempt to discuss the matter with the victims. From that moment onward, the handling of the case was a disaster. In explaining its decision, the CPS told Mrs Felwick that she had a strong case and described her as a respectable and believable witness. It even confirmed that the number of victims making a complaint against Mr Genge made the prospect of prosecution more likely.

However, there was a problem. The CPS had discovered that the defendant’s solicitor was preparing an abuse of process defence. He would argue that there were barriers to obtaining the evidence needed for a fair trial. He would say that too much time had passed since the abuses had occurred. The defence, he would argue, would not have a proper chance to put up the evidence they wanted to present.

The CPS then decided that, in view of the abuse of process defence, Mr Genge might well be acquitted. A casework lawyer wrote to my constituents explaining that

“it is not certain that this would happen and as I have said it is no reflection on your evidence. But it does mean that the Code for Crown Prosecutors requires me to stop the case rather than pressing for trial”.

Therefore, the police believed the victims and the CPS found them to be credible, but the case was stopped because of consideration for Mr Genge. No reference was made to the victims at all.

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Why did the CPS give my constituents hope that the case would go ahead, charge the defendant, thus bringing the matter into the public domain, and then change its mind at the last minute? Abuse of process is not a novel concept; lawyers deal with these types of issues fairly regularly. If there was a problem with the evidence, and if the defendant’s application was likely to be successful, why did the CPS not think of that sooner?

The result of the decision was devastating. On 11 January, the much respected Plymouth Herald reported that Mr Genge had been wrongly accused of rape. It said that the prosecution had offered no evidence and so the case had been thrown out. The paper carried the comments of Mr Genge’s solicitor. He described my constituents’ evidence as “weak” and their charges as “odious”. He said that the case was

“a shocking waste of taxpayers’ money”

and claimed that the CPS had undermined

“the integrity of the criminal justice system”.

Naturally, my constituents felt like victims all over again. The CPS made no attempt to refute the outspoken and scandalous claims or to make it clear that the case was not stopped due to a lack of evidence. Not only had my constituents lost their chance for justice; now their reputations were being battered as well.

The upshot was as follows. My constituents were abused as girls by Mr Genge. They suppressed the damage and the injustice for 50 years. They discovered that others had suffered the same fate and so plucked up the courage to come forward. The police believed them. The CPS believed them. The case started. Proceedings were issued. Nothing changed except that the CPS discovered a law that it should have known about at the time proceedings were commenced, and the case was dropped. A local solicitor, whose rhetoric was truly disgraceful, was allowed to drag my constituents’ names through the mud. They came to me for help.

I set up a meeting with the deputy chief Crown prosecutor for the south-west to discuss the case. My constituents and the barrister who had advised the CPS not to proceed were also present. It was not an edifying experience. The barrister tried to talk us into submission. He clearly did not understand how much damage had been done to the reputation of my constituents, or their genuine distress. He gave the impression of complete indifference to their plight. I left the meeting very angry indeed. One of the claims that the barrister made was that the CPS wanted to protect the victims from the ordeal of a trial—but the victims were desperate for a trial. They wanted the hearing to take place so that the truth could come out after all these years. If the CPS had truly wanted to protect the victims, it would have pushed for justice. If justice could not be done, the CPS should have made a decision not to prosecute when it first considered the evidence.

This debate has come at a timely hour. Public interest in sexual abuse cases has been sparked by the shocking revelations about the late Jimmy Savile. For the first time, many victims have felt able to come forward and talk about the abuse they have suffered, and their stories have shocked people across the country. A full police investigation into abuse allegations is now under way. The police are being encouraged to follow the evidence

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where it leads them, and in recent weeks they have not been hesitant to arrest people in connection with allegations as and when they have arisen. Mr Freddie Starr was questioned about an incident relating to a young girl in the 1970s, Mr Wilfred De’Ath was questioned over allegations of abuse dating back to 1965, and Mr Dave Lee Travis was held over accusations of sexual assault relating to the late 1960s.

Of course it is right that these investigations take place. It is right that justice is done for victims whose lives have been damaged by abuse. However, if action can be taken in relation to offences by Jimmy Savile, who is dead, and if others are in the firing line about incidents relating to 30 or 40 years back, why can a prosecution not take place against Mr Genge? There is now a strong public interest in sexual abuse cases being investigated and prosecuted. The CPS must get its act together. It must make sure that prosecutions are dealt with in a sensitive, thorough and professional way. Every effort must be taken to ensure that justice is done.

The Felwick case is one of the worst I have come across in 20 years of doing this job, so let me ask the Solicitor-General some very specific questions. First, if abuse of process is a well known defence in cases of this kind, why did the CPS not consider it when it first decided to prosecute? Why was it suddenly so certain that the defence’s application for an abuse of process would be successful? Secondly, if prosecutions cannot be brought for cases which have occurred 30 years or more in the past, how can progress be made in investigating other historical offences? Thirdly, when the CPS decided to change its mind halfway through Mr Genge’s prosecution, why on earth did it not consult my constituents before the case was dropped? Finally, why did the CPS not do more to protect the reputation of my constituents? Why did it not make it clear that the prosecution was not stopped on the basis of weak evidence, as was claimed by the defendant’s solicitor, but because of a legal technicality and CPS timidity?

I have met Mrs Felwick many times. She is a gentle, reasonable and decent human being. I cannot think of a single motive she would have to raise this matter after all these years if it were not so that the truth could be told. Why would she want to put herself through the trauma of a trial if not for justice to be done? I have utter faith in Mrs Felwick and her relatives. I have absolutely no doubt that Mr Genge abused my constituents when they were children, and he is getting away scot-free. This is not British justice. I ask the Solicitor-General to review this case and the decision not to prosecute, and to ensure that justice is done.

10.14 pm

The Solicitor-General (Oliver Heald): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) on securing this debate. He is one of the most respected Members of the House—a solicitor who has practised in the courts and who is known for his passion and his commitment. I pay tribute to the active role he plays in supporting his constituents.

This evening my hon. Friend has pointed to issues about a specific case and the decisions taken by the Crown Prosecution Service, and he has also raised some wider matters about the approach that prosecutors take. He raised four key areas of concern about the case: whether the original decision to prosecute was right; the

3 Dec 2012 : Column 701

later decision to offer no evidence; how that decision was communicated to the complainants; and the effect of the decision on them.

My hon. Friend has been in correspondence with Barry Hughes, the chief Crown prosecutor for the south-west, and I believe that a meeting has been arranged for tomorrow to discuss these matters further. My hon. Friend is right to be concerned for his constituents, who after many years plucked up the courage to report serious sexual offences to the police. It is in the public interest for such reports to be made, however long ago the alleged offences occurred.

The charges in the case relate to a number of serious sexual offences, including rape. The prosecution was commenced and preliminary hearings took place in September and October 2011. The decision not to proceed with the prosecution was made in early January 2012, following further consideration, and the case was dismissed when the CPS offered no evidence at the plea and case management hearing on 9 January 2012.

My hon. Friend will be aware from his experience that the code for prosecutors provides a test in two parts as to whether a case should be pursued. The first is the evidential test and the second the public interest test. There is also a duty for the prosecutor to keep the issue under review as the case proceeds. If at any time the code test is not, or is no longer met, a prosecution cannot proceed.

In this case the allegation was a serious one and related to offences more than 50 years ago, which is a long passage of time, but the reviewing CPS lawyer was mindful of that delay and the potential difficulties. He gave careful consideration to the matter and authorised the police to make charges. At that point, counsel was instructed to conduct the case and advise, which is entirely normal procedure, and he did. He looked at the issue of the potential difficulties with the age of the allegations.

The assessment of how likely it is for a prosecution to succeed in such circumstances is not entirely straightforward. The prosecutor has to consider, on the particular facts of the case, the likelihood of the court deciding that the delay may prejudice a fair trial, and the prosecution has to be stopped if it is felt that there is a risk that an application on abuse of process would succeed.

In this case, once the CPS specialist rape prosecutor who was dealing with the case had the benefit of advice from counsel, he considered that a defence application to the court to stop the proceedings would be likely to succeed. The prosecution was, therefore, no longer satisfied that the test in the code for Crown prosecutors was met and the decision not to continue was taken reluctantly by the CPS, mindful of the distress that it could cause the complainants. It does not follow from that decision, however, that the complainants were or are not believed. Put simply, the decision was taken because, in this particular case, the passage of time may have undermined the fairness of proceedings on the individual facts.

I understand that on 5 January 2012, the police informed the complainants that no evidence would be offered at court and then confirmed to the prosecutor that this had taken place.

No evidence was offered at court and the case was dismissed on 9 January. Within 24 hours, the CPS wrote to the complainants informing them of the outcome

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and offering a face-to-face meeting. Two of the three complainants accepted the offer and a meeting took place on 27 April 2012. My hon. Friend has attended such a meeting with the complainants, the CPS and counsel, and I have learned with regret that the meeting was not satisfactory and did not provide the reassurance sought about the decision making in the case.

Before I come to my hon. Friend’s four points, I will deal with the wider issues. The CPS has made a huge effort over recent years to improve the prosecution of offences of serious violence and violence against women and girls. Since 2001, it has produced a great deal more guidance on domestic violence, rape and sexual offences, prostitution, human trafficking, and children and young people. There is a major effort to offer support to victims and witnesses. I have a particular interest in this area as a member of the inter-ministerial group formed to discuss these issues.

Between 2007-08 and 2011-12, the CPS prosecuted almost 20,000 more cases each year involving violence against women and girls. The number of convictions has risen accordingly and we now have the highest conviction rate on record. In rape prosecutions, there has been a 4% increase in the conviction rate year on year. That rate is continuing to increase. Rape cases are now prosecuted by specialist rape prosecutors in all CPS areas, who must satisfy a set of criteria that include attending compulsory training. Rape and serious sexual offences training is based on real-life evidence and includes experts from outside the CPS, including from the voluntary sector.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Savile case and the prosecution of cases of child sexual exploitation. The investigation and prosecution of such cases is particularly important to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who has led a review of the Rochdale case, which my hon. Friend will recall was particularly concerning. The DPP recently held a meeting with the CPS, the police and the third sector. Guidance on how such cases should be dealt with by prosecutors is due in the new year.

I will now turn to my hon. Friend’s specific questions. The initial decision to prosecute was taken by a specialist rape prosecutor. It is important to bear it in mind that abuse of process is complex and is dependent on the individual facts of the case. An initial view of a case can change during the course of the prosecution and, as the case develops, it must be kept under review. That is what happened here.

My hon. Friend asked what this case means for other allegations of abuse that took place 30 years ago or more. The CPS decision in this case was based on its individual facts. The CPS regularly prosecutes cases that go back more than 30 years. The Attorney-General and I refer cases in which the sentence is unduly lenient to the Court of Appeal and we have done that recently in abuse cases that go back many decades and that involve defendants who are over 70 years of age.

On the consultation with the complainants, the police informed the complainants of the decision before the prosecution was dropped and face-to-face meetings were offered, as I have said. However, I accept that those meetings did not provide the reassurance that my hon. Friend would have wanted.

The final point relates to the CPS’s subsequent handling of the explanation of the decision. In response to the comments of the defendant’s representative to

3 Dec 2012 : Column 703

the

Plymouth Herald

, the CPS district Crown prosecutor made a statement in general terms about the CPS’s decision making in the case, and there was also a statement by a police spokesman. However, I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concern on behalf of his constituents that more might have been said to correct the impression, created by the comments of others, that the CPS’s decision was based on anything other than the factors to which I have referred.

I would like to make it clear that I, the Attorney-General and the DPP are determined that cases of sexual violence are prosecuted robustly, with proper consideration for victims and witnesses. Although we do not direct the

3 Dec 2012 : Column 704

DPP on how to act, we meet him regularly to discuss these matters. I was sorry to hear the concerns that my hon. Friend outlined, but I am grateful to him for bringing this case to my attention. Although it is not possible to reopen the case, I will ensure that these matters are drawn to the attention of the DPP. I hope that my hon. Friend has a positive meeting with the chief Crown prosecutor tomorrow and I invite him to discuss the matter with me further after that if he wishes to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

10.25 pm

House adjourned.