Deputy PM’s announcement follows the beginning of legal action against Mike Hancock, MP for Portsmouth South
Nick Clegg will take disciplinary action against a Liberal Democrat MP accused of sexual assault, the party announced in a statement.
Mike Hancock, MP for Portsmouth South, will attend a meeting with the party leader as well as Simon Hughes, the deputy leader, and Alistair Carmichael, the chief whip, before a disciplinary inquiry takes place.
Clegg’s announcement follows the beginning of legal action against Hancock by one of his constituents who is suing him for sexual assault, harassment and misfeasance in public office. Hancock denies all her accusations.
The woman has described how Hancock allegedly pursued her after she sought his help in a dispute with neighbours.
She first met Hancock in October 2009 at his constituency office in Southsea. She told him about problems with neighbours, respite care for her son and about her mental health problems which were a result of being sexually abused as a child.
She visited his office twice before Hancock wrote to say that the best way to help with her housing problems would be if he was to visit her at home. He turned up in 2010 to look at a garden, which was part of the dispute with her neighbours.
Hancock visited the woman regularly and, in March, even gave her and her son a tour of the parliament and invited them to dine with him in one of the restaurants.
During these meetings, the woman alleges that Hancock touched her, kissed her without her consent and exposed himself.
Hancock was arrested by police in October 2010 but the Crown Prosecution Service decided there was not enough evidence to press charges.
A spokesman for the Liberal Democrats confirmed that the deputy prime minister was convening an urgent meeting under the disciplinary procedures of the parliamentary party.
The statement said: “Following Mike Hancock’s receipt of legal papers in a high court civil action, Nick Clegg has asked the chief whip to convene an urgent meeting under the disciplinary procedures of the parliamentary party between Nick Clegg, Simon Hughes, the chief whip and Mike Hancock.
“Mike Hancock strenuously denies the accusations made in the civil action. We are not prejudging the outcome of the case, but given the seriousness of the allegations, Nick Clegg has instructed the chief whip to invoke the disciplinary procedures of the party.”
If the parliamentary party finds against Hancock, the party whip could be withdrawn.
Hancock was previously the subject of controversy when his parliamentary assistant, Russian Katia Zatuliveter, was accused by security services of being a spy passing information to Moscow. However, the 26-year-old, who admitted to having an affair with the MP while he sat on the defence select committee, was granted leave to remain in the UK by the special immigration appeals commission in November 2011.
Labour pays tribute to former member for Glasgow Provan and Glasgow Baillieston, describing him as ‘formidable’
The former MP Jimmy Wray has died following a long illness, Labour has announced.
Wray, who died on Saturday morning aged 78, served as MP for Glasgow Provan and Glasgow Baillieston for 18 years. He stepped down in 2005 after a spell of ill health. He is survived by his four children.
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said: “I remember Jimmy fondly for his personal kindness and generosity but most of all for his love of the Labour party, which he served with distinction for a great many years. Even after he stepped down as an MP, he continued to support the party in any way he could.
“Jimmy was a formidable man, growing up in the Gorbals and known to be a good boxer. He never forgot his roots and used his experience to fight hard for those who needed someone to speak up for them.”
Google and Amazon face fresh attack over claims that their multibillion-pound UK-facing businesses should not be taxed
Google and Amazon came under fierce attack from MPs and tax campaigners after fresh whistleblower allegations put further strain on claims by the internet giants that their multibillion-pound UK-facing businesses should not be taxed by Revenue & Customs.
Margaret Hodge, chair of the public accounts committee, told Google’s northern Europe boss, Matt Brittin, that his company’s behaviour on tax was “devious, calculated and, in my view, unethical”.
He had been recalled by MPs after being accused of misleading parliament over the firm’s tax affairs six months ago. Hodge said: “You are a company that says you ‘do no evil’. And I think that you do do evil.” Hodge was referring to Google’s long-standing corporate motto, “Don’t be evil,” which appeared in its $23bn US stock market flotation prospectus in 2004.
The attack on Google is likely to be echoed if, as Hodge has hinted, Amazon is also recalled to clarify evidence in the wake of a Guardian investigation into the world’s largest online retailer and its UK tax arrangements.
More suppliers have told the Guardian of extensive negotiations with Amazon staff in Slough, adding to the impression that the company carries out important trading activities in the UK and so could be liable for tax.
One music publishing executive said: “I did millions of pounds of sales to Amazon. All buying and marketing was negotiated and run through Slough. I never heard anything from Luxembourg.” A spokesman for the company said: “Amazon pays all applicable taxes in every jurisdiction that it operates within.”
Google and Amazon insist that sales from the UK are invoiced from other territories and any resulting profits should not be taxed in Britain, despite US bosses telling investors that they took sales from UK customers last year of £3.2bn and £4.2bn respectively. The latest published accounts for their most substantive UK companies showed tax paid in Britain of just £3.4m and £3.2m respectively.
The UK is one of the most successful markets for Google and Amazon, with British customers generating more than one in every 10 dollars of sales. In both cases UK sales grew by about 20% last year.
Lin Homer, chief executive of HMRC, also appeared before Hodge’s committee and was asked why she appeared not to be taking a tougher line with internet multinationals. She replied: “We see – but understand more fully – some of the information that might seem to the general public to be surprising.”
Earlier MPs had revealed that several Google whistleblowers had approached them with detailed evidence demonstrating sales activities taking place in the UK. One former Google staff member had contacted MPs claiming he had earned bonuses of three to four times his salary for “selling and closing deals”.
Brittin maintained that no one working for Google UK had the authority to close a sale – that power lay only with Google Ireland. “Calling someone a ‘sales rep’ is not the issue here,” he said. He denied misleading parliament in November when he told MPs: “Nobody [in the UK] is selling.” But in an extraordinary series of admissions – during almost an hour of testimony – he said he understood how MPs, the public, some large advertisers on Google and even some of the 300 Google UK staff dealing with British advertisers might feel the group was negotiating and closing deals in the UK.
Nevertheless, Brittin repeatedly insisted that, for tax purposes, all such transactions were with Google Ireland. “The UK team are selling, but they are not closing … People here [in the UK] cannot sell what they don’t own,” he said.
John Dixon, head of tax at Ernst & Young, said tests to determine whether an Irish company should be taxed in the UK were broader than that. An Irish company also became liable for UK tax if agents on its behalf were in effect negotiating and closing a deal. He said he could not comment directly on Google’s affairs because the search company was a client.
Dixon said E&Y auditors meticulously reviewed what functions were being carried out by multinational companies in each of its territories, especially if there was a question mark over its taxable presence – or, in tax jargon, whether it was a “UK permanent establishment”. He said the teams carrying out this work were always separate from E&Y’s tax advisers. The accountancy firm made $6bn from tax advice last year.
Brittin told MPs that HMRC had been examining Google’s tax affairs since 2009. He had been interviewed by tax inspectors, as had many staff who had provided detailed answers to questions in relation to the extent to the company’s sales activity in Britain. Asked why, as vice-president of sales and operations for northern Europe, he was not based at the firm’s European HQ in Ireland he replied: “I happen to be British. I like living in Britain.”
David Cameron came under pressure to remove Eric Schmidt, the head of Google, as a senior business adviser to send a message that the government was serious about cracking down on tax avoidance by multinationals. Lord Oakeshott, a former Lib Dem Treasury spokesman, said Schmidt’s position was “the height of hypocrisy”.
He said: “If the British government is serious about tax dodgers, David Cameron must remove him from the business advisory council which is a personal appointment. Clearly Google are driving a coach and horses through the spirit of the law.”
Hodge said: “If I was David Cameron, I would consider Eric Schmidt’s position.”
George Osborne has made tackling the practice a priority for Britain’s chairmanship of the G8. In an interview with the BBC in April, Schmidt defended Google’s practice, suggesting that its contribution to the UK economy was more important than the tax it paid to the exchequer.
Andrew Sparrow‘s rolling coverage of all the day’s political developments as they happen, including the private members’ ballot and Google giving evidence about tax avoidance to the public accounts committee
Equalities minister Jo Swinson recovering after going into shock from an allergic reaction, according to reports
Equalities minister Jo Swinson is recovering after almost dying from an allergic reaction to a biscuit, it has been reported.
The Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire was driving home from a charity cake sale in Glasgow on Saturday when she unknowingly began eating a biscuit that contained nuts.
He body “almost instantly” began tingling and before long went into anaphylactic shock, she told the Scotsman.
Her mother drove her to Glasgow’s Southern General hospital, where doctors injected her with own EpiPen, an emergency adrenaline injector, after she collapsed, struggling for breath.
“I had taken the precaution of writing out what had happened in case my throat swelled up so much I couldn’t speak,” she told the newspaper.
The 33-year-old said her life was saved by doctors at Glasgow’s Southern General hospital, who injected her with an EpiPen containing adrenaline to reverse the shock after she collapsed, struggling for breath.
She has suffered from a peanut allergy for 30 years but said this was the worst reaction she had suffered.
“It’s difficult to always know whether something contains nuts or not – and this time I got it wrong,” she said.
“It was a very scary experience. Luckily, once you get the right treatment you recover very quickly from it – but the bottom line is that if you don’t get help, you can die.”
Swinson later took to her Facebook page to praise hospital staff and warned other allergy sufferers always to carry their EpiPen.
In the 13 years he has represented the Lancashire seat, Evans has established himself as a jovial, enthusiastic and capable MP
On the day three years ago that Nigel Evans announced he was gay, there was barely a ripple of interest in his Ribble Valley constituency.
The MP’s quiet take on his homosexuality was well known locally. It didn’t matter that he was gay. It was just an accepted fact. Move on, people thought.
It was not always so for the newsagents’ son from Swansea. Evans, now 55, was initially resented when the Conservatives parachuted him into a constituency where it is said a pig could win an election, as long as it had a blue rosette.
He had tried to fit in; perhaps too hard. On one occasion, for example, local farmers scoffed at him when he turned up at an auction wearing a pair of designer Wellingtons.
There was also the issue of his “girlfriend”, a young party worker those in the Westminster hierarchy thought might help him win over the tweed and blue rinse bedrock of the constituency.
Despite their initial reserve, locals gradually took to him, ignoring the Welsh lilt in his voice as best they could, and – after one false start in 1991 – elected him as their MP the following year.
In the years since then he has endeared himself as a jovial, enthusiastic and capable MP who likes a pint and isn’t averse to sharing a number of them with his constituents.
At the New Inn in Clitheroe, he is still lauded for having helped a former landlord, Big Al, stand up for real ale against the might of its owners, Enterprise Inns.
Paul Derbyshire, 47, a music promoter, said: “It’s true you could put a pig in this town and get it elected as a Tory MP, but we’ll give him credit for that.”
While sceptical about the possible motives of Evans’ accusers, Derbyshire could not resist a small dig at his MP.
“He’s well known as a career politician who goes with the wind,” he said. “And we know he doesn’t give a damn about us really. It’s always been clear he’s in it for himself.”
Outside the pub, Denise Laurence-Beard, 57, a careers teacher, was racing up the hill to deal with the aftermath of the town’s weekend jazz festival.
“I vote Lib Dem because Labour is a wasted vote here, but for a Tory I have to say he’s a great MP. He turns up to events, he’s acceptable, and he’s very responsive when ever there’s a local issue. And he always supports the beer festival.”
Those who had heard or seen Evans’ firm rebuttal of the allegations against him appeared perfectly prepared to accept the plausibility of his words.
“He’s not stupid,” said one. “And he’s always been very discreet about his private life. I wish him well.”
Shirley Holden, 86, a retired medical receptionist, had just come from church. “I hope he’s going to be alright, because he’s a lovely, caring man,” she said.
“Some of the ladies from church have met him, and we’ve always found him to be very pleasant. So we were all quite shocked to hear what he was being accused of.”
In WH Smith a shopper said: “It’s too easy these days to say that so-and-so’s guilty.
“I think people round here will continue to support him and see what comes of it all. At the moment he’s not even be charged – and it may stay that way.”
Evans is a popular figure in Pendleton, where he has a simple stone-built cottage beside the village pub, the Swan With Two Necks. But staff were maintaining a strict silence – even though their only utterances would have been positive.
“I’ve been told to say nothing,” said the landlady.
Once the throng of journalists and broadcasters had begun to dissipate, Evans slipped away from the village, perhaps to find an explanation for what he clearly feels is a betrayal of two long-held friendships.
Evans posted a simple Facebook message to his supporters. It read: “Thanks for the amazing, overwhelming support at this difficult time.”
Tory MP makes statement following his arrest over claims he raped one man and sexually assaulted another
Nigel Evans, the deputy speaker of the House of Commons, has vehemently denied that he raped one man and sexually assaulted another (video).
He issued his denial to reporters in the garden of the village pub beside his home in Pendleton, near Clitheroe, Lancashire.
He said: “Yesterday I was interviewed by the police concerning two complaints, one of which dates back four years, made by two people who are well known to each other and who until yesterday I regarded as friends.
“The allegations are completely false and I can’t understand why they have been made, especially as I have continued to socialise with one as recently as last week.
“I appreciate the way the police have handled this in such a sensitive manner, and I’d like to thank my colleagues, friends and members of the public who have expressed their support and – like me – a sense of incredulity at these events.”
Evans will not be making a statement to the House of Commons. He has told aides that he has no intention of standing down either as an MP or as deputy speaker.
A friend said: “This is an inquiry that is ongoing. He’ll be back in the house for the Queen’s speech on Wednesday.”
Evans issued his statement in the rear garden of The Swan With Two Necks. He is a regular at the pub.
Evans emerged from a large black door at the edge of the pub garden, having climbed the steps from his two-bedroom terraced cottage.
The deputy speaker stood beside an outdoor heater to read his statement. A cockerel was crowing in the croft beside his home and an ornamental squirrel sat on the wall in the background.
It was made clear beforehand that he would not be taking any questions. His only deviation from that decision was to said he was “OK” when asked how he felt.
A friend said later: “He’s obviously very shaken up by this.” Evans is understood to have spent the night at a friend’s house elsewhere in the constituency.
Evans spoke briefly to the media again later in the afternoon before going for his “Sunday lunch pint” in the pub next door to his house.
He said it had been – notwithstanding the “very recent loss” of his brother – “the worst 24 hours of my life”.
But he thanked his friends and supporters for their support.
He also paid tribute to his “wonderful” village and for all the messages of support he had received on Facebook.
He added: “I am so grateful and it’s that support that is really helping me get through this. I would just like to thank, from the bottom of my heart, everyone who has sent me a message. Thank you very much.”
Lancashire police arrested Evans on Saturday over allegations that he raped one man and sexually assaulted another man between July 2009 and March this year. He has been released on bail until 19 June.
A statement on the Ribble Valley Conservatives Association website said they expected Evans to continue with his duties in the constituency as normal.
It said: “Nigel Evans MP has represented the Ribble Valley Constituency with distinction for 21 years. He is widely liked and respected by his constituents for whom he has worked tirelessly.
“The officers and members of the Ribble Valley Conservative Association have got to know and respect him and are shocked about his arrest.
“We are believers in the rule of law and are aware that these are merely allegations.
“The police and CPS have yet to decide if they are going to press charges.
“Nigel has now made a statement that the allegations are ‘completely false and he cannot understand why they have been brought’.
“In our democracy everyone accused is innocent until proven guilty and therefore unless Nigel chooses himself to cease to be our MP or the electorate vote him out or justice system intervenes, we expect him to continue as normal to fulfil his duties in representing the people of the Ribble Valley.”
It was reported that Speaker John Bercow had agreed to a request from Evans that he should be excused his duties chairing the Queen’s Speech debate in the Commons on Wednesday due to the “inevitable added time pressure” that had been placed upon him.
Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, said he was “very shocked” by the allegations but suggested that it would be difficult for Evans to continue in the “sensitive and high-profile role” as deputy speaker while he fights the allegations.
Asked on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 what he had thought when he heard the allegations, Hammond said: “Very shocked. I know Nigel very well. I have known him for years. I am shocked as everyone else by the revelations in this morning’s papers.”
Asked whether Evans could remain as deputy speaker while he fights the allegations, Hammond said: “That is a very interesting question. That is essentially a question for the Speaker. Obviously Nigel is denying the accusations. I stick rigidly to the view that we should treat people as innocent until they are proven guilty. But it is quite difficult to carry out a sensitive and high-profile role while being under this kind of scrutiny.”
Speaking to Dermot Murnaghan on Sky News, the foreign secretary, William Hague, said: “Of course we are all very limited about what we can all say about this, it’s subject to legal proceedings.
“It’s right to point out, and for me as a long-standing friend of his, to point out that he is a very popular and well-respected member of parliament and deputy speaker – I think that is true across the House of Commons actually, for MPs of all parties, so we will all be very sorry to see this situation.
“It’s not possible for us to comment in more detail on something subject to legal proceedings.”
Evans has been MP for the Lancashire constituency since 1992. A popular figure at Westminster, in June 2010 he was elected as one of the three Commons deputy speakers. Later that year he came out as gay, saying that he was “tired of living a lie”.
Brian Binley, the Tory MP for Northampton South and a friend of Evans, said: “I was just deeply disturbed and shocked. I’ve known him ever since I’ve been in parliament, and I came in in 2005. I consider him to be a very good friend. I know him to be caring, compassionate and in no way would he inflict himself violently on any other person.
“He is a good enough friend to have come up last Friday to a fundraiser my partner, Sally, and I were holding for Macmillan nurses and so I do know him well. I just hope and pray that this thing is cleared up sooner rather than later.”
Michael Ranson, chairman of the Ribble Valley Conservative Association, said people in the constituency were “completely shell-shocked” at the news.
“He is a very popular MP and a very good constituency MP. He’s given assistance to a lot of his constituents over many years,” he told Sky News. “Everybody’s completely shell-shocked.”
Evans was a vice-chairman of the Conservative party from 1999 to 2001. When Iain Duncan Smith became party leader in 2001, he was promoted to the shadow cabinet as shadow Welsh secretary, a post he held for two years.
When he came out, Evans told the Mail on Sunday that he been threatened with exposure by political opponents. “I could not afford it to be used as leverage against me. I couldn’t take the risk. I don’t want any other MP to face that kind of nastiness again,” he told the paper. “I am sure there are other gay MPs who would like to be open about their sexuality but are fearful of the consequences.”
A Lancashire police spokeswoman said: “We take all allegations of a sexual nature extremely seriously and understand how difficult it can be for victims to have the confidence to come forward. As a constabulary, we are committed to investigating sexual offences sensitively but robustly recognising the impact that these types of crimes have on victims.
“We would encourage anyone who has experienced sexual abuse, or who has information about it, to have the confidence to report it to us knowing that we will take it seriously, deal with it sensitively and investigate it thoroughly.”
The strange story of the Labour MP who died twice
One of the joys of digging through the Guardian and Observer digital archive on a regular basis is in rediscovering the big stories of the day, which have sometimes been forgotten. Twenty five years ago this month, the Guardian published an obituary of John Stonehouse, the former Labour MP who, as the headline has it, managed to die twice. Going back to the newspaper reports that covered his disappearance in the 1970s reveals a story of deception and a fall from grace that manages to surpass Chris Huhne.
John Stonehouse became an MP in the 1950s, and had always been full of ambition. He was the last holder of the post of Postmaster General and oversaw the introduction of second class stamps in 1968. But all of his ambition appeared to come to an abrupt end when he was reported missing, presumed drowned, off the coast of Miami in November 1974.
In the UK, questions were being raised over the MP’s mysterious disappearance. His friend William Molloy claimed that the mafia were probably involved. A former Czech intelligence officer, Josef Frolik, had apparently made claims that Stonehouse was a Czech spy in the 1960s – rumours that led to the prime minister, Harold Wilson, denying the allegations in the House of Commons.
Astonishingly, it would later turn out that these claims were, in fact, true – although it would not be confirmed until 2010, when National Archive papers were released – although they were probably not the reason for Stonehouse’s disappearance. Attention at the time turned to Stonehouse’s financial affairs, particularly when stories began to emerge of inconsistencies in the accounts of a charity he was involved in.
John Stonehouse was found alive in Australia on Christmas Eve in 1974, where he had fled with his secretary, hoping to make a new life under the name of a deceased former constituent. Yet it still took over six months for him to return to the UK, where he faced charges of fraud, theft and forgery.
Upon his return, Stonehouse was remanded in Brixton Prison, yet he did not resign his post as MP. After being released on bail, he made an extraordinary appearance in the House of Commons in October 1975, explaining what he called his “bizarre conduct and psychiatric suicide.” He conducted his own defence at his trial and was convicted and imprisoned for seven years, finally resigning as MP. Stonehouse’s downfall would have ramifications beyond his own life – his resignation in 1976 came at a time of a minority Labour government, and his Walsall seat was consequently won by a Conservative. In 1977, the Labour government would be forced into a pact with the Liberal Party.
In the report above, Nikki Knewstub examined the extraordinary story of Stonehouse’s rise and fall – yet as shocking as the story is, there also seems something oddly familiar about the story of a man faking his own death by leaving his clothes on a beach. This is probably due to an entirely coincidental quirk of timing – Stonehouse’s troubles were taking place at the same time as The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was being shown on television.
Never backward about coming forward, Ian Liddell-Grainger strikes again
• With the breach between politicians and the public seemingly harder to fill than ever, someone needs to reconnect, especially with the disaffected young. Step forward the Tory MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, Ian Liddell-Grainger. We had reason to speak of him last year when he used his website to malign a butterfly conservationist. Students at the Richard Huish College politics society in Taunton were keen to speak with him last Friday; one politics student, Ciaran McDiamond, asked about the regrettable episode when Liddell-Grainger was found to have been writing emails to himself and then replying to them, allegedly to improve his “responsiveness rating” on a monitoring website. Why did you do that, asked McDiamond. There was a glitch with genuine emails not being represented and I was encouraged to, replied Liddell-Grainger. Do you not make your own decisions, said McDiamond, persistent. “You haven’t done your research so just shut up,” came Liddell-Grainger’s reply. “Get your brain in gear; gob shut.” The MP was unrepentant yesterday. “He was going on about nothing. His question was legitimate and I had answered it. We were all getting bored.” How would he cope with Paxman?
• Solid fellow, Sir Peter Hendy, the boss of Transport for London hailed for his gumption during the 7/7 attacks and lauded for making the trains run on time during the 2012 Olympics. But even he cannot live beyond the beady eye of scrutiny, and so has been forced to explain why there exists among his business expense claims a £180 receipt relating to his purchase of toy metal buses to give to Mayor Boris. When the website MayorWatch sought an explanation, none was forthcoming. Prodded by us, a TfL underling explained. “We bought models of the New Bus for London from Corgi so that the mayor could use them as gifts for visiting dignitaries and to promote investment in London during his foreign trips.” And it gives the mayor something to play with on the plane.
• On St George’s Day, knowledgeable types discuss the man himself and what he means in a modern context. Demos founder David Goodhart, author of the recent controversial history of immigration The British Dream, calls for St George’s Day to be a public holiday. But he also suggests too many immigrants have been allowed in and applauds the government’s attempt to cap the numbers. “Would he have let St George in,” asks Sunder Katwala, boss of the thinktank British Future. Max Wind-Cowie, head of the Progressive Conservatism project at Demos, takes the bait. “Well that would depend on whether we had a dragon-slaying skills shortage AND on how long he planned to stay,” he tweets. Ah yes, replies Katwala. “Occupation: Patron Saint and Dragon Slayer. Leave to remain. Yes (temporary; do not settle).” Goodhart himself has the final word. “No special favours for St George he must pass language/citizenship tests (and I doubt dragon slayers get asylum).”
• A trying week for George Osborne. Add to that, questions from John Humphrys yesterday about the chancellor’s tears at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. Do you cry often? “When I listen to the Today programme headlines,” replied Gideon. He makes poor folk weep most of the time.
• As crying Gideon benefits from lessons in economics from Justin Welby, the new-ish archbishop of Canterbury, what gives with Rowan Williams, Welby’s august predecessor? Busy, busy: opening an exhibition in Cambridge next week on 19th-century murder, mutilation, highway robbery and general villainy in England and Spain. It includes tales of Francisquillo el Sastre, who chopped up his victims with a giant pair of scissors; and Sebastiana, who killed her parents, fried their hearts and ate them. Still, less frightening than General Synod.
• Damn those priests. Further north, there’s another one getting uppitty. Whatever happened to the “big society”, asks John Sentamu, archbishop of York. “Vanished without trace,” he says. Brave man. He can always offer himself sanctuary.
Robert Buckland calls for reporting restrictions to be imposed as controversy over ‘secret arrests’ grows
Reporting restrictions should be imposed to prevent the routine naming of suspects by police until they have been charged, a prominent Conservative MP has urged. As the debate over so-called “secret arrests” intensifies following the naming of Rolf Harris last week, Robert Buckland, a member of parliament’s influential joint committee on human rights, has called for media organisations that name individuals without seeking permission from magistrates to face punishment.
His comments come as Acpo, the Association of Chief Police Officers, is drafting fresh guidance for police forces which is likely to advise against confirming the identity of those who have been detained.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, has also called for the “arrest anonymity” to be enshrined in law but admits she is not in favour of jailing journalists or bloggers.
Buckland, a barrister and the MP for south Swindon, was a prominent supporter of a private member’s bill put forward by the Conservative MP Anna Soubry in June 2010 that would have criminalised the identification of anyone who had been arrested without first seeking official permission. It proposed a punishment of up to six months in prison. Soubry eventually withdrew her anonymity (arrested persons) bill when the government failed to support it.
“There is a case for conferring greater anonymity [on suspects],” says Buckland. “There should be reporting restrictions but there should also be a mechanism which would allow reporters to request that they are lifted.”
The media would have to make an application before magistrates if they wanted to make an application, Buckland proposes. Media practices have changed, he says, and in the past newspapers were more prepared to talk about an “18 year old man” being arrested rather than identifying suspects before charges are brought.
Buckland adds: “If you think about someone who might be wrongly accused … that [accusation] is going to be on Google for the rest of his life and he will never be able to get away from it.
“I don’t want to be too draconian, but there would have to be some sanction [to prevent newspapers naming those arrested without permission]. The need for some reform is pressing. I have had conversations with the attorney general [Dominic Grieve QC] about this.”
Crook also wants the law changed. “There should be a presumption that people have anonymity at the point of arrest,” she says. “And there should be a proper decision-making process if there’s a reason to reveal their identity.
“People are innocent until proven guilty. It has to have the force of law. I’m reluctant to attach a criminal sanction to it and I don’t want to see more people going to prison – journalists or anyone else. People’s lives have been blighted when they have been named and [subsequently never charged]. It’s not just high-profile cases.”
Following the coining of the phrase “secret courts” to describe the restricted evidence hearings sanctioned by the justice and security bill, the term “secret arrests” is gaining currency.
Few of those involved in the latest debate sparked by comments in Lord Justice Leveson’s report, however, are suggesting that the media should be formally banned from naming suspects arrested by the police.
Stricter enforcement by the attorney general of contempt of court powers has resulted in a series of prosecutions of newspapers and may have reduced the political pressure for fresh criminal sanctions against the media.
The speculation has arisen from continuing concerns over the impact of media reporting on cases such as that involving the retired Bristol teacher Christopher Jefferies.
Jefferies was vilified by the popular press after being erroneously arrested in December 2010 for the murder of 25-year-old Joanna Yeates, a tenant in the building he owned. His name, he claimed, was disclosed by police to newspapers.
In Leveson’s report on the culture, practices and ethics of the press, the appeal court judge suggested that guidance about releasing names needs to be strengthened.
“I think that it should be made abundantly clear,” he wrote, “that save in exceptional and clearly identified circumstances (for example, where there may be an immediate risk to the public), the names or identifying details of those who are arrested or suspected of a crime should not be released to the press nor the public.”
The Law Commission, which last November put out proposals on refining the contempt of court laws for consultation, did not agree. It called for “greater certainty and consistency” in the way that police forces released information about those arrested.
But, it proposed, suspects should generally be identifed following a media request. “We consider that such policy should establish that, generally, the names of arrestees will be released,” it said, “but that appropriate safeguards will need to be put in place to ensure that some names are withheld, for example, where it would lead to the unlawful identification of a complainant, where the arrestee is a youth or where an ongoing investigation may be hampered.”
Spurred on by the debate, Acpo decided it should clarify its current guidance which allows police forces to adopt different approaches on whether or not to identify those detained.
Andy Trotter, chief constable of British Transport Police and Acpo’s lead officer on media policy, told the Mail on Sunday earlier this month that there should be a presumption of not confirming identities: “We are suggesting that people who have been arrested should not be named and only the briefest of details should be given.” Acpo is drafting fresh guidance which will eventually have to be approved by the College of Policing and chief constables.
Two senior judges, Lord Justice Treacy and Mr Justice Tugendhat, responding on behalf of the senior judiciary to the Law Commission’s consultation, recently endorsed Trotter’s and Leveson’s preference for withholding the identification of those arrested save in exceptional circumstances.
They commented: “If there were a policy that the police should consistently publish the fact that a person has been arrested, in many cases that information would attract substantial publicity, causing irremediable damage to the person’s reputation.”
The Home Office insists it is not involved in drafting the new Acpo guidelines and declined to comment on Leveson’s proposals on the grounds that it was not a “full-blown recommendation” in his report.
The free speech organisation Index on Censorship has expressed alarm at the prospect of “secret arrests” where officers decline to confirm identities of those detained. Its chief executive, Kirsty Hughes, says: “‘De facto anonymity for people who have been arrested would reverse the principle of open justice that we have in the UK and could lead to people being arrested and taken into custody without anyone knowing about it. Anonymity may be appropriate in certain circumstances, but sweeping powers for secrecy should not be the norm.”