Thursday, 1 July 2010

Two private member's bills

There is usually very little opportunity in the House of Commons for anyone other than the government to present legislation. A rare opportunity for an ordinary MP to put forward changes in the law is the Private Member's Bill. Only at most 20 MPs a session can put forward a bill this way (chosen randomly), and usually not all of those will get a chance.

Even when a bill is put forward, it is of course extremely unlikely that it will pass - or even get beyond the Second Reading stage for further consideration - without government support. Nevertheless, they are a guaranteed way to get an issue debated at some length in Parliament, and depending on the support, can influence future government policy or even on rare occasions pass into law.

A couple of the ones that have got onto the list this session:

A lot of focus has been on the proposed Face Coverings (Regulation) Bill from Philip Hollobone MP (Conservative, Kettering), which according to to the BBC would make it illegal to wear full-face Islamic veils. Oh, and balaclavas. Mustn't look too racist. Operation Black Vote has more analysis of why this is a terrible idea.

I don't have anything substantive to add to that, except to say that living in the colder North of England, as opposed to Mr Hollobone's more southerly constituency, I often go out during the winter wearing a hat and a scarf pulled over my mouth and nose, exposing much the same area of skin as a full-face veil does. I have not once been criticised for this, told I should keep my face uncovered in public, or had MPs challenge my right to dress in that way. I expect that if I did wear a full-face veil, however, I would get all three. So, the MP's attempt to hide his racism (and indeed sexism) by also criticising my dress really doesn't work.

Fortunately, his Bill is 17th on the priority list, so it's unlikely to get the time it needs scheduled.

At 6th on the list, however, where it might actually get debated, is Anna Soubry MP's (Conservative, Broxtowe) bill: Anonymity (Arrested Persons). The Second Reading has been scheduled for the 4 February 2011, and it's unlikely that the full text of the bill will be available until shortly before then. For now, there's the summary:

A Bill to prohibit the publication of certain information regarding persons who have been arrested until they have been charged with an offence; to set out the circumstances where such information can be published without committing an offence; and for connected purposes.

It's already not police practice to reveal the names of pre-charge suspects who they have arrested, so the times this occurs generally break down into the following categories:

  1. The arrest took place in public and the suspect's allies are encouraging the reporting to draw attention to what they view as a wrongful arrest. Arrests of people who were protesting, for instance.
  2. The suspect's name or identity has already been revealed, because the police needed to do so to locate them. People who've been arrested after a stand-off, for example, or after an appeal to locate someone alleged to be a dangerous criminal.
  3. The crime is incredibly high profile, and half the neighbourhood already knows who has been arrested for it. The press don't even have to ask the police, except to get confirmation that a "37-year old man" was arrested.
  4. The suspect is very famous for other things, and someone in the police leaks the information to the press (directly, or more likely indirectly via a friend).

In the first case, no-one actually wants anonymity, except perhaps the police and the government, of course. In the second case, their identity is already public and there's no point in avoiding revealing that they've been arrested. In the third case, the rumours will spread fast enough anyway, and it's probably best to stop any incorrect rumours that someone else was arrested by allowing the press to report on the matter.

The fourth case is less clear - this shouldn't really happen, and celebrities shouldn't have less of a right to privacy than other people, true. It could also make it easier to find a jury who haven't been influenced by press reporting. I can't, however, think of a way to rule out this case that doesn't take out the third case as well, which could be a problem. Perhaps the Bill, when the full details appear for Second Reading, will have found a clever way to draft the details.

I wonder why this Bill was introduced. I can't work out whether it's been introduced to give more support - and possibly bring forwards - the proposals to give anonymity to rape defendants, or if it's been introduced as a way to distract from them by introducing something that looks good and would keep certain people happy without actually interfering with police operations.

If it's the former, of course, it'll bring the plans forward quite a bit, which means there's less chance of the coalition government collapsing or deciding they have better things to do, and that would be very bad indeed.

If it's the latter, I think it's in theory quite clever - between arrest and charge is a maximum of 24 hours (if they're arrested and released, it's fair enough not to report their name, I think), so that's not really time for the police to do anything useful with publicising their name, so they won't. Pre-arrest it won't cover, so it won't interfere with police investigations and evidence gathering. Post-charge it won't cover, so it won't interfere with the CPS preparing a case. So it can be debated and passed, the coalition can feel that it's achieved enough of the anonymity proposal to count it as done and avoid a bigger fight, and in practice very little will actually change.

There is of course the catch that having been introduced the government or the Lords could easily amend it into something more unpleasant, so if this is the idea I don't think it's a particularly safe way of doing things.

The full text of the Bill, which might give some clue as to what the intent is, probably won't be available until shortly before the Second Reading. The Bill's sponsor is a new MP, so doesn't really have any voting or speaking record to analyse yet. I'll keep monitoring it to see what happens.