Fair trials 'at risk from statements'

THE LORD Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Social Services are to be urged to investigate a possible contempt of court by the Employment Services Agency and the Benefits Agency.

The organisations were yesterday accused of issuing a statement presuming the guilt of 95 people who are due to appear in Truro magistrates' court charged with fraudulently claiming benefits.

Matthew Taylor, MP for Truro, said the defendants had been assumed to be guilty by officials before they set foot in court: 'This is trial by press release,' he said. Mr Taylor is calling for an inquiry.

The investigation which led to the court case was code-named 'Operation Bloomers' by fraud investigators who swooped on workers at nine flower farms in Cornwall. 'The biggest bloomer here is the wording of the press release. This material is clearly prejudicial to a fair hearing. My understanding of English law is that you are presumed innocent until proven guilty,' said Mr Taylor.

Having revealed the date that the 95 were to appear in court 'charged' with offences under the Social Security Act, the press release went on to denounce the defendants as 'fraudsters'.

The statement said: 'The 11 investigators who took part in the exercise were able to put a stop to abuse of the social security benefits system of approximately pounds 16,000 per week and in addition they were able to establish that the fraudsters had already falsely claimed pounds 28,331 in benefits.'

Another press release on Benefits Agency paper dealt in similar vein with nine construction workers who are to appear at Plymouth magistrates court.