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Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, because the possibility exists that this could conflict with competition issues, it is clearly right that we should put the matter before the commissioner. So far as concerns the costs involved, I cannot believe that these will be particularly significant in relation to the size of the total project.
Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, can the Minister clarify for me two small, simple and specific matters? Further to the Minister's comments to my noble friends, can he confirm that, at the point when the Performance and Innovation Unit announced its rescue plan for rural sub-post offices, stating at that time that one element would be a universal bank, and at the point when the Minister repeated a Statement made by his honourable friend the Secretary of State in another place announcing the Government's total commitment to ensuring a network of rural post offices, the Department of Trade and Industry at that stage had not sought the approval of the EU? If that is the case that would mean that, when the Statement was made, it could not have been possible for the Government to confirm their plans.
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I am always worried about a specific question, particularly when it is described as being "small". I did say categorically that we made information available to the European Commission subsequent to the publication of the PIU report.
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, we are committed to these proposals. We shall try to get them agreed with the European Commission. Furthermore, we shall ensure that the financial assistance to be offered will be compatible with state aid regulations.
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, this is a matter that the noble Baroness and I have discussed on many occasions. The idea of a universal bank has nothing whatsoever to do with the legislation, which related to the status of the Post Office. This is a separate issue concerned with the services that will be offered. It in no way relates to the legislation, which, so far as I remember, does not refer to a universal bank.
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:
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
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 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.