Guto Bebb stands up for the victims of that terrible, sick troll blog Thoughts of Oscar.
Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): I am pleased to have secured this debate on the relationship between North Wales police and a local anonymous blog site. I suspect that I am not the first or last MP to highlight issues of internet trolling and online harassment, and I suppose there will be further debates of this nature in the House in due course. In this debate I hope to the hear the Government’s views on what police forces should do when complaints are brought to their attention. I will also highlight concerns about the lack of consistency across police forces, where the stated manner of dealing with such issues in the Hertfordshire constabulary, for example, can be contrasted with the manner in which North Wales police have dealt with numerous complaints about a rather vicious and nasty local blog.
I do not want to detain the House for too long with details of the sordid site in question, but a quick overview of the content will give the House a feel for what we are dealing with. The site is called “Thoughts of Oscar”, and it is probably best described as a small-town poison pen letter blog, with an added interest in politics—mostly local politics, but it has a rather remarkable interest in Welsh Conservatives, wherever they may be located in Wales.
Over the years the site has harassed, abused, libelled and generally targeted a series of individuals, businesses, council officials and local councillors. All that, as would be expected, has been done behind the cloak of anonymity, while claiming the moral high ground of being the purveyor of free speech. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) said in a previous Adjournment debate:
“Trolling is not about normal social discourse, or even about disagreeing vehemently with someone who has a contrary opinion. The test should be quite simple: would someone be happy to put their name to what they have said under a false identity?”—[Official Report, 17 September 2012; Vol. 550, c. 758.]
There are circumstances under which free speech and protection of an individual from identification is both right and proper. However, I would be hard pressed to argue that such protection is justified to protect the identity of the authors of a website that runs a vicious campaign against a councillor who has breached planning rules on double glazing, or a food vendor who found themselves under such vicious assault that even the reputation and integrity of their deceased family members were called into question. Such harassment of individuals in the public domain is an electronic replication of the poison pen letter of old, and has nothing to do with the principle of free speech.
Such articles were the staple of this rather sad and bitter website, which in my view fits perfectly with what I have described as the Liverpool Walton test. If the authors want to be anonymous, what are they ashamed of? Is it the power to put others through a degree of mental anguish and concern that gives them a kick?
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Despite being MP for Aberconwy since 2010 and knowing of this site since before then, I have attempted to ignore the blog as far as I could. On occasion the authors have been complimentary about me, but more often than not I have been attacked. Such attacks, on the whole, need to be expected and accepted by a politician as part and parcel of the decision to become a public figure. Councillors are also, to an extent, in the same position—indeed, even the family home of the Deputy Speaker has been subject to online comments.
However, the attacks made by this site against my colleague, Assembly Member for Clwyd West, Darren Miller, and subsequent vitriolic attacks on my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), which included despicable comments about his cancer treatment, were rather too much in my view for even a politician to accept, although accept it they did. To have the skin of an elephant is apparently part of the job description for any politician these days.
For me the turning point came this summer when the site published a number of libels against me that were picked up by the press in Wales and by other websites. My inbox was flooded with abuse and accusations of a very serious nature. Emotions were high because the original article referred to my position on the Israel-Hamas conflict and as such some of the e-mails received were of the “we know where you live” variety. All e-mails referred to the article printed by this anonymous website.
With five children at home, I had no choice but to contact North Wales police to highlight my concerns and to seek advice on the precautions I should take. I would like to pay tribute to Chief Inspector Moses from North Wales police for his calm and assured support, which allowed me to reassure my family. In addition to taking such precautions, I had to engage a solicitor to highlight where the claims were inaccurate, but legal action was impossible. How can anyone sue an anonymous website? It should also be noted that despite the legal letter highlighting the libellous inaccuracies, neither Google, the site owners, nor Twitter, which hosts the Twitter account, were co-operative.
I was therefore left with no means of redress. However, what I had not counted upon was my constituents. As the vitriol on the site increased, a number of individuals came independently to my office to highlight their concerns about their treatment at the hands of this website. It became apparent that constituents, councillors, small business owners and residents, after being harassed and abused online, had taken their complaints to North Wales police. All had been told that nothing could be done and that the police could take no action. I find that response surprising.
Online trolling has become a key issue for the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Crown Prosecution Service, and they and other law enforcement agencies have highlighted guidelines on how such issues should be dealt with. Perhaps the best of these is the guide to online abuse and harassment published by the Hertfordshire Constabulary. It appears to be a guide that has not been read by North Wales police, where an Inspector Verberg, now a member of the professional standards team, is reported to have told no fewer than four constituents that nothing could be done about online trolling, harassment or abuse, which is the daily staple of this blog. He was wrong.
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As numerous debates in the House have highlighted, there is plenty of legislation on the statute book that could be used to protect victims from such harassment—for example, the Telecommunications Act 1984, section 4(a) of the Public Order Act 1986, the Computer Misuse Act 1990 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. These are all options for the victim and should be understood as such by the police. In view of the failure of North Wales police to investigate my constituents’ claims, does the Minister believe that the Home Office guidance is sufficiently clear? Does the fault lie with North Wales police?
Although the lack of action by North Wales police is a significant failure, two further meetings at my constituency office resulted in much more serious questions being raised. Two constituents, both local businesses, came to see me with evidence collected on their behalf by a private investigator. Both had been subject to a significant amount of online abuse and harassment from the blog in question, and their complaints to the police had been met with the same response as previous complaints: “It’s nothing to do with us.” They therefore decided in 2012 to hire a private investigator who, utilising IT skills that I do not understand let alone could explain, traced pictures and other content on the blog to a domestic dwelling in Deganwy and a solicitors practice in Trinity square, Llandudno. Three names were identified as a result of his work.
The private investigation company, Lewis Legal, is a north Wales-based civil and criminal evidence-gathering service that numbers among its clients local authorities in North Wales and which has worked with and for some police forces. I met Mr Michael Naughton from the company to discuss the names mentioned in his report and the nature of the evidence gathered. On a scale of one to 10, with one being “no confidence” and 10 being “absolute confidence”, I asked him how certain he was that a Mr Nigel Roberts, a local business man, and Mr Dylan Moore, a solicitor at David Jones and Company, were involved. In both cases, he stated that he would rate both names as a 10 and would be confident in his evidence in any court of law. Indeed, this morning, I received an e-mail from Mr Nigel Roberts confirming his involvement with the blog site in question. The third name mentioned was classed as being rated at eight on a scale of one to 10 and despite parliamentary privilege, I do not intend to name this individual.
The names in question were not a huge surprise to me since a local journalist had previously provided me with the same names, but had not furnished me with any supporting evidence. I did, however, highlight these issues with the Whips Office some two years ago since Mr Dylan Moore is the business partner of my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones). I want to reassure you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I have informed my right hon. Friend that I would be mentioning this connection in passing.
What disturbed me about the statement made by Mr Naughton was that within 20 minutes of visiting the premises of Mr Dylan Moore and Mr Nigel Roberts, identifying himself as a private investigator and explaining his interest in the blog site—he was told to leave on both occasions and promptly did so, leaving a business card—he received a phone call from a Superintendent Humphreys
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of North Wales police, asking why he had visited both premises. When the nature of the inquiry was explained, he was told in a friendly but clear manner that the blog in question was being monitored and he should leave it to the police.
I think that the whole House will be intrigued by the contrast between the quick response of the North Wales police to a perfectly legal visit by a registered investigator to two premises in my constituency and the complete lack of interest shown in supporting constituents who brought reasonable complaints about harassments and online abuse to the same police force. To be perfectly honest, there are victims of actual crimes in my constituency who would be pleased to receive a police visit on the day they contacted the police force, let alone a call within 20 minutes by a superintendent.
My final point is that evidence received yesterday by another constituent would indicate that North Wales police are well aware of the names of the people behind this blog. Mr Michael Creamer, a constituent and by his own admission no angel, visited my office yesterday. He was convicted and sentenced to four years for his part in a mortgage fraud. During his trial at Mold Crown court, material that appeared on this “Thoughts of Oscar” website about him was serious enough to potentially prejudice the trial. According to a written statement provided to me by Mr Creamer, the presiding judge, Judge John Rogers requested assurances from North Wales police that the material published would be removed and that no other material would be published during the trial. Within two hours, DC Kenyon of North Wales police provided such assurances to the judge under oath, and the trial continued.
This raises a significant question for North Wales police. If, during a Crown court case back in October 2010, North Wales police were able to speak to, and receive assurances from, the authors of this website within two hours that no further comments would be made, why have they been so unwilling to support my constituents who have brought legitimate concerns about online abuse, trolling and harassment to their door? When this question is coupled with the rather bizarre speed at which North Wales police responded to a call from two of those named as being involved with this site after a visit from an investigator, it is in my view clear that North Wales police have significant questions to answer.
This debate has highlighted two important issues. First, what powers are available to the police to deal with the harassment and abuse that my constituents have suffered at the hands of those hiding behind a veil of secrecy that an online blog affords them? Are those powers sufficient? Are they simple enough for victims to understand and, for that matter, are they clear enough for police officers even at inspector level to understand? Can the Minister offer me assurances that the failures I have highlighted in north Wales are not a result of a lack of clarity from the Home Office, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Crown Prosecution Service? It is, I think, important to identify whether this is a north Wales problem or a wider issue that needs to be looked at.
Secondly, and even more concerning, is the fact that I have many constituents who are now adamant that the reason why the police in north Wales did nothing was that this site was being afforded a degree of protection.
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I would be distraught if that was the case. I am a supporter of the North Wales police service and I know that officers across north Wales do an important job in difficult circumstances and are available at all times. However, there are in my view clear questions that demand a response from the police and crime commissioner for north Wales and the chief constable. The oft-stated claim that the North Wales police force had no evidence as to the authors of the blog and could offer no support to the victims can be contrasted with their ability to obtain, within two hours, assurances in regard to any future postings that might prejudice a Crown court trial.
The Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims (Mike Penning): It is a privilege and an honour for me to take this first opportunity to respond to a debate as the new policing Minister. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) on securing a debate that concerns an enormously important issue. As he knows, there are aspects of that issue on which I can comment openly, and others in regard to which I am subject to a degree of restriction.
The part of Wales that my hon. Friend represents is so beautiful, and so brilliantly represented by him, that some of my constituents continue to leave my constituency for the area around Conwy. Indeed, some of my friends have retired there. My friends are still my friends, but I am envious of those who have gone to my hon. Friend’s constituency, and envious of the fact that he represents them and I do not. That must indeed be a very beautiful part of the world. I also know that my hon. Friend is enormously popular there. The fact that his constituents stood up and spoke out against the accusations that were made about him shows what a fantastic constituency Member of Parliament he is. If only more constituents recognised the hard work and dedication of MPs, perhaps we would have a better reputation around the country.
Let me add, Mr Deputy Speaker, that no matter what the job is—whether you are a Member of Parliament, a member of the Government, a doctor, a nurse or a policeman—no one has the right to level pernicious accusations against you. No one has the right to threaten your family, no one has the right to “troll” you, and no one has the right to create the atmosphere that has clearly been created in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
My hon. Friend raised several questions in his short speech. The best news that I have heard today is that the site is now down and is no longer operating. Let us hope that continues to be the case—not least, perhaps, as a result of some of the comments that I am about to make.
Let me also take my first opportunity as policing Minister to praise the police throughout this great country of ours, both in the devolved parts of our Union and in England and Wales. The fact is that 99.9% of the police do a fantastic job for us day in, day out, on 365 days of the year. I think that more politicians should stand up and say the sort of things that my hon. Friend has said today, although he is obviously concerned about the actions of some—and it is always the “some” whom we talk about: those who have let us down, let
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themselves down or let their forces down, rather than the vast majority who, as I have said, do such a fantastic job for us day in, day out.
My hon. Friend asked me whether harassment, or trolling, was an offence. It is, and there are myriad pieces of legislation to deal with it, including those to which my hon. Friend referred on the basis of his research. We have the Defamation Act 2013, the Communications Act 2003, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 and the Malicious Communications Act 1998, to name but a few. It is therefore probably inaccurate to say that nothing can be done should evidence be there—although I stress that it is up to the police to conduct their investigations and to decide whether a criminal act has taken place—and I can answer one of my hon. Friend’s most forthright questions by saying “Yes, the legislation is there, on the statute book.”
Let me now turn to the guidance that is provided for the police, and the question of whether the way in which it is used in north Wales is different from the way in which it is used in other parts of the country. I do not know exactly how it is being interpreted in north Wales, but it is being interpreted around the country, and prosecutions have taken place, and continue to take place, on the basis of the guidance that has been issued to police authorities. A lead chief constable is responsible for these matters through the Association of Chief Police Officers. It is clear to me that, if prosecutions are taking place in other parts of the country—I personally have not seen anything like this in my constituency; I have come close but not anything like what has been described today—I would expect, as a constituency MP, the police to do a full investigation in my constituency, and in any other part of our great nation.
To answer directly again the question: is the guidance in place? Yes it is. Do I as the Minister for policing feel that that guidance is robust and simple and has been explained? Yes I do, clearly, as other forces are ensuring that it is being used in that way. Nothing is perfect and I am sure that we can find other examples around the country where people think a prosecution should have taken place and it has not. We are not in a perfect world. It is not for politicians, rightly, to tell the police what they should and should not do. The Crown Prosecution Service and the Director of Public Prosecutions are involved in the ongoing discussions that we have on this area. Online jurisdiction and what can and cannot be used is a very difficult issue.
I always do this when I stand at Dispatch Box. I am now in my fifth role in this Parliament so I must be doing something wrong. I think I have broken all records—five Departments in four years in one Parliament. I try to stand here sometimes and think to myself, “What would I think if I were the constituency MP who had raised this issue today?” First, I would be on the Back Benches raising the issue in an Adjournment debate. It is absolutely right and proper that this issue has been brought to the House this evening. What would I do? I would be complaining on behalf of my constituents and of myself; my hon. Friend represents himself in his constituency as the MP for that constituency. I would make a formal complaint with my concerns to the chief constable in North Wales.
I know that sounds complicated sometimes. Often constituents say to me and the Department, “You are complaining to the people who you think have done
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something wrong.” That is right. It is right and proper that, if mistakes have been made and concerns exist, any force, whether that be the police force or the local health authority, has the opportunity to address the concerns of our constituents. If we are not happy, in this particular case, it should go to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. That is, in my opinion, where this should go, if my hon. Friend is not happy, and clearly he is not, with the response that he has had from North Wales.
It would be difficult for me to go further than that because the Independent Police Complaints Commission is what it says on the tin—independent. I have met the chairman and chief executive only in the last couple of
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days, naturally. Although we have a review on the ongoing role of the IPCC and what sort of complaints it should deal with, in my opinion, that is exactly where this complaint should be going.
To sum up, I am really sad that my hon. Friend has had to raise the issue. He has done the right thing in doing so. It is a tiny minority of police in this country who cause problems. If that is the case in North Wales, and it has not been addressed by the correct complaints procedure, my hon. Friend has the right and should take it to the IPCC.