Sunday, 25 July 2010

I'll believe it when I see it

[trigger warning]

The Telegraph is reporting that "Coalition plans to give anonymity to men accused of rape are to be abandoned".

Well, maybe. The report is based on this speech by Crispin Blunt MP in which he says:

[...] it was agreed on both sides of the House when the Sexual Offences Act 2003 went through Parliament that all people charged with offences ought to have their identity protected until the point of charge. That is the guidance that the Press Complaints Commission put into effect in 2004. There is an issue around the strength of that guidance and, as I said in the debate 12 days ago, we are not satisfied that it is strong enough. We want in the first instance to try to find a non-statutory solution [...]

I don't think this is an abandoning of the plans as such. It doesn't surprise me that they want a non-statutory solution, since it was made clear that they probably didn't have the votes for it. The coalition has a majority. The male coalition MPs (not all of whom support this either) do not on their own form a majority. They might still want to do it, but they're not going to risk "government defeated in Parliament" headlines over it while the opposition to it is so strong.

It probably doesn't have universal support even in the Cabinet, which may be where the talk of "fairly free" votes is coming from.

I can't find the Press Complaints Commission guidance referred to - this one is close but not the right one. At any rate, they could ask the media to self-regulate, it could refuse (though contempt of court laws make most of the pre-trial reporting that might cause problems somewhat risky for journalists)

Given that there are so few cases reported, naming a suspect, pre-charge (or indeed pre-trial) this would however provide the coalition with an easy way out. They can talk to the PCC, the PCC can bring out some guidance, the papers can ignore the guidance (because the PCC has no useful enforcement power), hardly anyone will actually be named in reports pre-charge anyway (because they aren't being at the moment) and the government can claim victory for doing nothing.

The Telegraph also notes:

The MoJ had planned to bring out a report this week giving statistics on false allegations of rape – the main reason put forward by campaigners for letting men charged with serious sexual offences remain anonymous

This appears to be the promise of the report, which was supposed to contain "an independent assessment of the current research and statistics on defendant anonymity in rape cases". That's not what the Telegraph reports it as being, though. Either way, it's not surprising that it's been delayed while they look for actual evidence.

Parliament returns from recess in September, so it should definitely be available after that. The contents of the report will probably be a far better indication than the Telegraph article of what the coalition really intends.

Given that the government so far has not managed to get its Ministers to give consistent answers - it will be for all sexual offences - it will be for rape only - it will be until conviction - it will only be until charge - it will be legislated on soon - it will be a "fairly free" vote but not soon - it will not be a matter for legislation - then I'm not going to take the anonymous sources and inferences from speeches as a definite sign that it will be abandoned either.

It might be a "U-turn", or it might just be more of the coalition's total lack of coherence on the issue. Either is good news, of course.