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The Justice Secretary has been slapped down by Downing Street, just days after being sworn in to the role, over suggestions that suspected criminals should be granted anonymity if they have a reputation to protect.
Robert Buckland’s own department has also moved to distance itself from his comments, made in The Times.
The QC – who was sworn in as the latest Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary on Tuesday after being promoted to the role last week – was reported as saying those with reputations to protect should remain anonymous while suggesting this would be less justifiable for those who already had a criminal conviction.
This led to suggestions that he supports the campaign by singer Sir Cliff Richard and DJ Paul Gambaccini calling for sex offence suspects to remain anonymous until charged.
When asked by the PA news agency on Thursday for more information on the points Mr Buckland made, a Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “This isn’t departmental policy.”
He said the minister would not conduct any further interviews on the topic and Downing Street would handle any inquiries.
A Number 10 spokesman said: “This is not Government policy.”
In the interview, Mr Buckland said: “Let’s say you are a reputable local business person who is accused of fraud … Your good name is going to be really undermined by this mere accusation.
“That might be a meritorious case for anonymity.”
But he added: “Let’s say you are a person with a list of previous convictions … You’ve committed offences. There is intelligence out there that suggests that other victims might come forward.
“Is that a case where anonymity should be automatic?”
In a tweet posted shortly before 2am, Mr Buckland went further, saying particular crimes “should not be singled out” but adding that he had opposed previously scrapped 2010 government proposals to offer anonymity to rape case defendants.
Critics hit out at the suggestion, claiming this showed support for a “two-tier” justice system where people are treated differently based on their standing in society.
Society warns against Justice Sec’s proposals calling for anonymity for some people arrested on serious charges.
SoE: “We cannot have a state of affairs in this country where the rich and powerful are given more protection than the rest of society.” https://t.co/DiHlC3eLPE
— Society of Editors UK (@EditorsUK) August 1, 2019
The Society of Editors expressed “deep concerns” over the comments.
Executive director Ian Murray said: “It is absurd to suggest that, in a liberal democracy, we are going to create a system of justice that enables the rich, the powerful, and celebrities to be protected when they are under investigation for serious crimes but the ordinary man or woman would be offered no such protections.
“What would exist is a state of affairs where the actions of the police when investigating and arresting citizens cannot be reported on by the media. This is surely one of the worst aspects of a totalitarian state.
“Aside from the need to monitor the actions of the police, we cannot have a state of affairs in this country where the rich and powerful are given more protection than the rest of society.”
Ed Grange, partner at criminal defence law firm Corker Binning, said: “The thought that such anonymity would only apply to those that have a reputation to protect would risk alienating those who are not rich and famous who find themselves caught up in the criminal justice system.
“It is not only celebrities who have reputations to preserve.”
Chris Henley, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, told the Times: “The law must be applied equally whoever you are. Money and apparent status should never be a card that can be played by the powerful to hide behind.”
Daniel Janner QC, son of the late Lord Janner of Braunstone QC, founded the pressure group Falsely Accused Individuals for Reform (Fair), and both Sir Cliff and Mr Gambaccini support the group’s petition calling for sex offence suspects to remain anonymous until charged.
The petition, which so far has more than 27,000 signatures, is calling for an end to suspects becoming “targets of opportunist and deluded claimants” as well as preventing “police searches of the homes of suspects who have not been charged being publicised”.
Mr Janner said: “I am delighted that Robert Buckland has supported the general principal of anonymity. However, I disagree that the issue should be considered on a case by case basis but that the default position should be anonymity until charge.”
He added: “I also disagree that the anonymity should be extended to all offences. It should be restricted to sexual offences given the anonymity provided to complainants; and the unique stigma attached to sexual allegations.”
Sir Cliff and Mr Gambaccini were both falsely accused of historical sex offences, while Lord Janner faced allegations of child sex abuse before his death.
The family of the former Labour peer have always maintained his innocence.
MP Anna Soubry said on Twitter she would welcome a meeting with Mr Buckland on the topic, adding that no suspects should be named until charged except in exceptional circumstances.
MP Michael Fabricant also backed the minister, saying: “Too many young and old innocent lives have been hurt by false accusations.”