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House of Lords

Thursday, 22nd June 1995.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Portsmouth.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Sexual Offences: Anonymity for Defendants

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will introduce legislation to provide that the same protection from publicity be given to defendants accused of sexual offences, unless and until convicted, as the law gives to complainants in such cases.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, we have no plans to do so. We believe that the present law, which affords anonymity for complainants in sexual offence cases but offers no special protection for defendants, strikes a balance between the principle of open justice and the need to ensure that victims of sexual offences are encouraged to come forward.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I am sure that the Minister appreciates the complexity of the issue. However, is she aware that it is simply not true that the acquittal of men charged with rape leads to the public vindication of them because of the overwhelming and often prurient publicity which scorches the lives of anyone named in a rape case whether he is innocent or guilty? While I am glad that the Minister mentioned anonymity for women, which is most important because of the unique nature of rape and the media's obsession with it, nevertheless, should not the same consideration be given to men? Otherwise they are being treated very unfairly indeed.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord in that, first, it is indeed a very complex matter; and, secondly, that I have much sympathy with some of the points made by him. However, I hope that he will agree that it is the balance that has to be struck between open justice and encouraging people to come forward who are complainants. Moreover, the Criminal Law Revision Committee, and others, have found it very difficult to conclude that there should be a separate and distinctive protection for sexual offences as opposed to all other crimes.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone: My Lords, would it not be an absolute absurdity to accord anonymity to defendants in sexual cases but to withhold it from cases of murder, high treason, cruelty to animals, physical assaults on women not involving sex, physical assaults on children, attempted murder and much more serious offences? Is there absolutely any justification for that form of discrimination in logic?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, my noble and learned friend, in his inimitable style, has actually put the case for

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me. It is precisely because of the very points put by my noble and learned friend that the conclusion was reached that a distinction should not be made in this case.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we all agree that this is a very complex situation and one for which there is no simple, right answer. However, I am puzzled by what the Minister said about victims coming forward. Will the Minister agree with me that the most important consideration in rape cases is that victims should be able to come forward without excessive suffering or discrimination against themselves? Why does the Minister think that anonymity—which I am not necessarily supporting for the defendants—should discourage victims from coming forward?

Baroness Blatch: No, my Lords; I am making the opposite point. I am saying that anonymity does in fact encourage them to come forward. But anonymity is afforded under the present system which we are supporting and which we are encouraging others to support. It is afforded to complainants in these cases; it is not afforded to the defendants.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I was referring to anonymity for the defendants. Why should anonymity for the defendants discourage complainants from coming forward? I ask that question not from any view of my own, but in order to ascertain the Minister's view.

Baroness Blatch: No, my Lords; I was not making that argument. In terms of arguing against anonymity for a defendant, I was simply querying why we should make a distinction for sexual cases and not for all the other crimes mentioned by my noble and learned friend.

Lord Molloy: My Lords, will the Minister look at one simple aspect of the matter; namely, do we approve of the fact that people who are found innocent are not able to show that they are innocent and not shown by the powers of the press to be so? We hold that there is a great difference between being guilty and not guilty.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, there is nothing clearer than a full acquittal. The system in this country means that, if someone is found innocent, then he is acquitted. That fact is very publicly made known to the press and, indeed, to all others.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, does the Minister understand—I am sure that she does—and realise that in cases of rape, as has already been pointed out, the press takes a great interest in such matters and, indeed, very often condemns the accused before the court case takes place? Even when the person has been found innocent, people still say, "Well, there is no smoke without fire". Further, are not the accused then in danger, because they have been named, of being the victims of spite in certain circumstances?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am not going to defend the behaviour of the press, not only in cases of sexual crimes but also as regards other crimes. Indeed, many people are pilloried by the press to the point where, very often, the issue as to whether they get a fair trial is very

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much in doubt. Sometimes cases have had to be dismissed simply because of the way in which the press has behaved prior to a case being heard.

I do not believe that that goes against my argument. It is very difficult—and wiser people than I have sat in judgment on the matter—to make a distinction between sexual offences and all other offences. If someone is accused of burglary, murder, violence, or whatever it might be, the same could apply.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, is the Minister aware that I appreciate her responses although I do not agree with them? Is the noble Baroness further aware that if the concept of anonymity for men is so absurd then Parliament was absurd when it passed a Bill in 1976 to give anonymity to men? Therefore, there is very little substance in the charge that it is an absurd proposition, unless one wants to condemn Parliament for being absurd. It was changed only recently, as the Minister knows.

It is not the case that murder is highlighted in the press. Unfortunately, murder is not unique now. Rape is covered by the press and not murder. It was covered by the penny dreadfuls in the days when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, was a boy, but not any more. However, as I said, rape is covered by the tabloids very regularly. That is why men who are named in rape cases suffer despite being found not guilty in a court of law. That is why the Government should go back to the old ruling passed previously by Parliament.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the history given by the noble Lord is absolutely right. But, again, following anonymity being given to both the complainant and the defendant, the Criminal Law Revision Committee considered the matter most carefully and recommended that anonymity should not be given to the defendant. At that time, the Government accepted that view and, so far, they have not changed their mind about it.

European Passport: Format

3.10 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have reached any decision on altering the style of the EC common format passport to incorporate the name and title of the holder on the front cover.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, technical and production difficulties which can be overcome only at considerable expense rule out the provision of a window panel in the front cover of the passport to record the holder's name and title.

Lord Glenarthur: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that rather disappointing reply. Does she agree that even if it is impossible to amend the passport because of the difficulty she has indicated, British people might be better disposed towards the European Union if they did not feel that it was removing from them one of their personal or national symbols of identity? Does she not also agree that the notion of subsidiarity could be

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brought into play in protecting such symbols where that protection cannot conceivably be at odds with proper European co-operation?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, we freely signed up to a common format and because of that we are bound by both the shape of the new document and what appears in the wording on the front. There is already a difficulty with the wording "European Community". I understand that steps will be taken to introduce the word "Union" for "Community". But having established a common format we are bound by the size and shape and what is contained within the document. Because of that there is no room to create a window on the front of the cover.

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