Lord Corbett: MP who helped ensure rape victims' anonymity

 

Robin Corbett, who has died of lung cancer, was always a man of the people. When he was two, his family was deported from Australia because of his father's political beliefs. This inspired a fire and determination to fight injustice and fundamentalism, whatever the climate. As Labour MP for Hemel Hempstead, then Birmingham Erdington, he proved to be a combative campaigner.

Possibly his greatest achievement in parliament came in 1976, when he sponsored the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act, which provided anonymity for rape victims, and for defendants until convicted. In later years Corbett would complain that the right to anonymity had been "given away", as he put it, by the 1988 Criminal Justice Act, which kept anonymity for victims but not for those accused of rape. He believed, he said, that it was "wholly wrong for men accused of rape to be identified before they are found guilty".

In 1986 he urged the prosecution of The Sun for breaching the anonymity of a rape victim in the Ealing vicarage case and the following year said that Parliament would be forced to clean up the "sewer end" of the press unless newspapers did it themselves.

With this in mind, he supported Clive Soley's Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill in 1993, and criticised the merger of Sky Television and British Satellite Broadcasting to form BSkyB, calling for an investigation by the Monopolies Commission in 1990. He also objected to Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of the newspaper Today. He had been appointed shadow broadcasting minister in 1989, and he led Labour in criticising the Tories' broadcasting bill; given power, Labour, he said, would force Murdoch to choose between Sky TV and News International.

The 1990 Calcutt Report recommended the establishment of a new Press Complaints Commission to replace the Press Council. Corbett said that an incoming Labour government would have no hesitation in moving towards statutory control if newspapers had not moved towards some form of regulation within Calcutt's suggested deadline of 18 months. The code drawn up by the press itself diluted the Calcutt recommendations, he believed.

Robin Corbett was born in Fremantle, Australia in 1933, to where his parents had emigrated. The family, though, including his older brother and twin sister, was deported back to England thanks to his father's union activity. He would later describe his bewilderment as he saw all the family's household goods being thrown on to the street, wondering why the family was being treated like criminals.

After grammar school in Smethwick he went into journalism, working on the Birmingham Mail eventually becoming deputy editor of Farmer's Weekly, then head of training at IPC Magazines. Before becoming an MP, he joined my practice of environmental and energy engineers in St Albans. Here he became engaged in educating prime-movers and the public in the emerging problems of climate change. It was a sharp learning process that he never forgot. He was forever networking and achieved much through his warmth, sense of fun, and sense of humour.

He had a great facility for networking, which he raised to an art-form when he was elected as MP for Hemel Hempstead in October 1974. But the Trotskyist hard left within the Labour Party saw to it in 1979 that although Corbett had the support of the majority of local Party members he was de-selected by back-room take-over. In the 1983 election the Hemel Hempstead-born Paul Boateng stood in his place, only to lose his deposit. Meanwhile busloads of Hemel Hempstead Party members travelled to the West Midlands to help return their man to the House of Commons; they duly did, with a majority of 261. When he left the Commons in 2001, that had increased to 12,000.

In the Commons, he was opposition spokesman on home affairs from 1979 to 1992, then for national heritage, broadcasting and press until 1995. He was a Labour Whip from 1984 until 1987 and chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee from 1999 to 2001.

Corbett served on the agriculture and communications select committees, and on various other Commons bodies, Labour groups and outside organisations; he was a board member of Rehab UK from 1996, and a sponsor of the Terrence Higgins Trust from 1987 to 1999. Ennobled in 2001 as Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, he became a popular chair of the Labour Peers Group, and was the long-serving chairman of the Friends of Cyprus and of the Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom, for which he had worked since 1981.

As chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Penal affairs,he backed a campaign in 2004 bythe Prison Reform Trust and Unlock, the National Association of Ex-Offenders, to overturn "the outdated ban" on prisoners voting in elections. He was also interested in education for prisoners and his family are to establish an annual award in his name.

Bill Holdsworth

Robin Corbett, journalist and politician: born Fremantle, Australia 22 December 1933; MP for Hemel Hempstead 1974-79, for Erdington 1983-2001; cr. Life peer 2001; married firstly (one son, one daughter), 1970 Val Hudson (one daughter); died 19 February 2012.

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