Tories press for answers over drugs arrest

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The Independent Online
The Tory home affairs spokesman yesterday raised questions about the arrest of a journalist after she exposed the alleged drug dealing of a cabinet minister's son.

Michael Streeter, Legal Affairs Correspondent, says the affair has provided a new festive guessing game - who is the minister?

Sir Brian Mawhinney wrote to both Dame Barbara Mills, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and Sir Paul Condon, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, yesterday seeking reassurance that the case of the cabinet minister's son accused of dealing in cannabis was being handled in the same way as any other. They, like him, he wrote "will want the public to know that these is no question that different rules are being applied in this case because a minister's son is involved".

He cited the claim that a police officer told the reporter, Dawn Alford, that the decision to arrest her - in connection with possession of the drug she was allegedly sold - had been taken out of his hands. It emerged yesterday that the police arrested the reporter after asking the Crown Prosecution Service for advice. But CPS sources dismissed suggestions that there had been political involvement in their advice as "nonsense". Police point out that the drug was not immediately surrendered and they had no prior knowledge of the newspaper's plans.

Last night, the Attorney-General, John Morris QC, obtained an injunction banning News Group Newspapers, publishers of the Sun, from naming the teenager. The order was granted by Mr Justice Moses at 6.30pm, within hours of the print deadline for this morning's Sun.

A spokesman for the Treasury Solicitor's office said: "The basis of the Attorney-General's application, which was upheld by the judge, was in summary that publication of the young person's name would be a contempt of court, in that there is a likelihood that it would interfere with the course of justice." The Attorney-General's office added: "The Attorney was acting independently of government and in his capacity as guardian of the public interest."

Some lawyers believe the judge's ruling went beyond the terms of the 1933 Children and Young Persons Act which refers to "proceedings". They felt that if the case goes to full hearing and appeal, the judge's ruling could well be overturned and the Government will need to bring in fresh legislation to cover what is a grey area.

A source close to the minister said that he would be prepared to be identified but was prevented by law. "It's never been an issue for the minister - if identification was possible, the minister would be happy to speak," he said.

It was confirmed yesterday that a second teenager had been arrested by police investigating the minister's son. The 17-year-old attended a London police station and was arrested in connection with alleged possession with intent to supply cannabis.

But until yesterday's last-minute injunction the question remained, why have newspapers and broadcasters avoided publication of such tantalising information as the minister's name? Internet speculation and the rush for Who's Who to find out which ministers have teenage sons point up the intriguing question.

There seems on the face of it no real legal reason why the 17-year-old cannot be identified. The main law applying is section 49 of the 1933 Children and Young Persons Act, updated by a 1994 Act, which forbids identification of juveniles concerned in court proceedings. The crucial phrase is "proceedings". It seems hard to argue that proceedings have started in a case where the 17-year-old - who is said to have sold cannabis to the reporter - has been arrested, but not charged, and where no file has yet been sent to the CPS.

Tom Welsh, editor of the journal Media Lawyer, said: "In my view, there is no legal inhibition on naming this boy." He said he had never come across a case where a newspaper had been prosecuted for identifying a youth before court proceedings had begun.

At best it would seem to be a grey area of law, something which has not usually inhibited newspapers in the past. Another obstacle may be the industry's code of con- duct about naming of juveniles just because of a relationship with a prominent person - but there seems to be strong grounds for a public interest defence. The most likely reason for caution is a reluctance to antagonise ministers over an issue that could lead to tighter media controls.

If section 49 does already apply in this case, the maximum fine for breaching it is pounds 5,000. Although there has been much talk about contempt of court, it is hard to see how the mere publication of someone's name can "seriously prejudice" their chance of a fair hearing in this kind of case. More serious perhaps is the publication of events surrounding the youth's alleged dealing in a pub in London before Christmas - which has already happened.

Again, if section 49 does apply, then the boy's parents in this case do not have the right to waive his anonymity, as rape victims can do. But the ban can be lifted by the court in the interests of the juvenile.

A court now also has the new power to "name and shame" persistent youth offenders, under section 45 of the Crime (Sentences) Act which came into force on 1 October, a measure proposed by Michael Howard when Home Secretary, but enforced by Jack Straw.

According to experts, while a youth caught in possession of cannabis in London would get no more than a caution, the allegation of supplying - albeit just pounds 10 worth - means the matter could well go to court.

Scotland Yard has indicated that it is preparing a file for the CPS.

The CPS will consider first whether there is sufficient evidence to gain a conviction, then decide whether a prosecution is in the public interest; with juvenile cases it has to consider whether the harmful effect of prosecution is disproportionate to the alleged offence.

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