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House of Lords

Monday, 22nd November 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Blackburn.

Lord Hennessy

The Right Honourable David James George Lord Windlesham, having been created Baron Hennessy, of Windlesham in the County of Surrey, for life, took the oath.

Newspaper Success Fee Contracts

Lord McNally asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they plan to outlaw the practice of national newspapers offering "success fee" contracts to witnesses in criminal trials; and what discussions have taken place with the Press Complaints Commission about the matter.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, the Government's overriding concern is to maintain an appropriate balance between, on the one hand, the due and fair administration of justice and, on the other, freedom of speech and of the press.

On 27th February 1998, by Written Answer, I announced that the Government accepted in principle the recommendation of the National Heritage Select Committee that there should be legislation forbidding payments to witnesses in criminal proceedings. That remains the Government's position. Legislation will be brought forward when parliamentary time allows.

By "success fee", I take it that the noble Lord refers to a promised payment to a witness, contingent on the conviction of the defendant. That would certainly be covered by the legislation. As for the Press Complaints Commission, officials maintain a regular dialogue with the commission on a range of issues. DCMS officials discussed the Gadd, (Gary Glitter), case with PCC officials to ascertain whether they intended to investigate the circumstances surrounding it. The PCC--I note that the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, is sitting in his place--has since announced its own inquiry into whether there was a breach of the press code of practice. We await with interest the outcome of that inquiry. To my knowledge, no Ministers have spoken to the PCC on this subject.

Lord McNally: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack for that reply, which is welcome as far as it goes but lacks urgency. Does the noble and learned Lord agree that circumstances in which Mr Max Clifford is free to pimp his stories around Fleet Street, Fleet Street editors are seemingly willing to ignore the code of the Press Complaints Commission with impunity and juries are now taking

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evidence so tainted as evidence really put in jeopardy our whole system of justice? Can I urge the noble and learned Lord not just to promise legislation some time in the future but to bring forward urgent legislation to deal with a real problem about public confidence in our system of justice?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, it begs the question to say that the press treats "with impunity" the decisions made by the Press Complaints Commission. There is an inquiry taking place and it is not for me to anticipate what the outcome will be. However, I have no reason to suppose that a newspaper would not abide by a decision of the PCC.

It is true to say that the circumstances surrounding the Gary Glitter case are very serious. On 18th November I wrote to the trial judge, Mr Justice Butterfield, asking him to report to me. He did so fully on that very day. Your Lordships may be interested to know that the jury was shown the agreement of 20th November 1997, brokered on behalf of the complainant, Miss Allison Brown, by Mr Max Clifford with the News of the World. Clause 1 promised £10,000 for a story about her relationship with Gary Glitter to be published on Sunday 23rd November 1997, and--I quote from the agreement--

    "a second payment of £25,000 to be made on publication of a story should Gary Glitter be convicted of possessing child porn or any other charges relating to sex with under aged girls".

The jury was shown that contract, along with the News of the World story that had been published on 23rd November 1997. The complainant was cross-examined at trial almost exclusively on the basis that she was a gold-digger giving false evidence for reward. The jury acquitted. I do treat this as a grave matter.

Lord Wakeham: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is right to state that the commission is conducting a very serious investigation; indeed, if it is a breach of the code it will be a very serious breach. We shall reach a conclusion very shortly. Is the noble and learned Lord aware that, on a number of occasions, I have made it quite clear that the considerations of justice are more important than any code of the Press Complaints Commission?

If there is evidence to show that justice has in any way been mis-used in the matter, I believe it right for legislation to be brought forward. However, I should point out to the noble and learned Lord that, as far as I know, this is only the fifth case in the past 40 years where such an allegation has ever been made. The other cases were those of Brady, Thorpe, Sutcliffe and West. To my knowledge, each case was investigated by the Law Officers, who found that there had been no interference with the course of justice. That does not mean that this is anything other than a very serious matter, but we ought to recognise the perspective in these cases.

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I am sure that the first half of the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, will be as welcome to your Lordships as

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it will be welcome in the country. However, I am not in a position to confirm how many proven cases there may have been in time past. I am sure that everyone would agree that any case of interference by cheque-book journalism in the due administration of justice, risking perhaps a miscarriage of justice, is one too many.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that because of the seriousness of his remarks and those of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, and because the payment was at least in part contingent on a guilty verdict, he might advise the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General to consider taking proceedings under the present common law of contempt of court?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I have read reports in the press but I have no actual knowledge that certain inquiries by a police force may be under way. I intend to say nothing that could in any way prejudice any proceedings that may occur. My noble and learned friend the Attorney-General needs no advice from me.

Lord Annan: My Lords, I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord can comment on this question: what confidence can the public have in the Press Complaints Commission when the code of practice is drawn up by a sub-committee consisting of the editor of the News of the World, the editor of the Daily Mail and the chairman? Is this not a case in which newspapermen are making the rules for newspapermen, of the regulations being written by the regulated, who then proceed to break those rules with impudent insouciance? I have one further question to ask. In this Gary Glitter case would the noble and learned Lord have expected--or perhaps, like me, he would not have expected--the editor of the News of the World to have resigned from the commission following the comments by the judge on this matter?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, as far as I am aware, the Press Complaints Commission has a majority of lay members upon it. I am not in a position to say whether the drafting of the current code of practice was confined to press men or extended to the lay members, but I should rather have thought that it was the latter. In fairness to the Press Complaints Commission it has strengthened Clause 16 of the code in this area. Whether it is sufficiently strong remains to be seen. We await the outcome of the current inquiry.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that many of us will welcome his strong words about this issue which strikes at the very heart of the system of justice in this country? Is he further aware that some of us feel that

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certain editors of newspapers will never abide by codes of conduct but they might just abide by the law of the land?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, with his customary economy puts the case for legislation.

Nuclear Power Plants: Year 2000 Compliance

2.46 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether nuclear power plants in the United Kingdom are fully year 2000 compliant and whether adequate emergency measures are in place in the event of power failures affecting cooling systems.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Health and Safety Executive's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, as the independent safety regulator, has been working with UK nuclear operators on the issue of year 2000 compliance since 1997. The inspectorate is satisfied that UK nuclear power plants will continue to operate safely over the millennium period and that appropriate contingency arrangements are in place to deal with power failures affecting cooling systems.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply but given that disasters in the nuclear industry happen so quickly can the Minister tell us whether the emergency generator systems have been tested regularly over the past two years and how many times they have failed during that period? Further, as we have learnt from the Chernobyl disaster that nuclear disasters know no national boundaries, does the compliance apply to our neighbours in Europe, eastern Europe and Russia? Is the Minister satisfied that all nuclear power plants throughout Europe are year 2000 compliant?

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