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Mr. Sheerman : The Whip, the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), who is a great expert on such matters, says, "Rubbish." If it is rubbish, it is the rubbish that every informed person and knowledgeable pressure group involved with the penal system is coming out with. If the Whip--who does not usually say much, thank goodness--thinks that that is rubbish, I refer him to NACRO, the Prison Governors Association, the POA, the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Prison Reform Trust and New Bridge. We could meet some of them and he can tell them that it is rubbish. Perhaps we should go to one of his local prisons--there are several near his constituency. We could talk to the governor and see whether he says that it is rubbish.
The questions that I am asking are the questions that the informed and high quality lobby outside is asking. I have the opportunity to ask those questions at the Dispatch Box and I have the right to expect an answer, even in these late days of a regime which does not believe in parliamentary accountability any more.
Everyone accepts that prison authorities must have powers to discipline the non-violent prisoners I have described, but they have those powers under rule 47(19) of the prison rules, which make it a disciplinary offence for a prisoner to disobey any lawful order. I was interested when one of the hon. Members representing Northern Ireland explained how the system works there. That shed some light, and I hope that the Minister learned from it. To charge prisoners with a serious criminal offence in those circumstances is
Column 215draconian and totally inappropriate. The Bill was not designed to deal with that sort of non-violent activity, and we have to do something about it.
Official prison returns show the extent of non-violent protests. My hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook gave the figures earlier, but they bear repeating. Between March and June 1991 there were 23 food protests, six rooftop demonstrations and 29 allegations of concerted indiscipline--a total of 58 protests.
A prison officer told me this morning that officers are paid to deal with that type of activity. He said that those were fairly normal occurrences. They are anticipated and are part of the job. All such incidents would fall within the scope of the Bill and would be criminalised. If the law were used in that way, it would undermine confidence in the process of prison reform. There are protests about conditions in many of our prisons.
I want to bring home to the Minister and to the Home Secretary that we are worried about the Bill because it seems like a sticking plaster job. It dwells on the surface of the problem and is peripheral to it. We keep invoking the Woolf report because it got beneath the surface. It got away from the periphery of the debate and went to the heart of the matter. Woolf drew our attention to the reason why the prison system in 1990-91 is a disgrace to a modern civilised nation. In every paragraph of that thick report, he pointed out that rotten, insanitary, and especially overcrowded prisons are the problem. The Strangeways riot and prison indiscipline resulted from packing men into inhumane conditions and treating them as less than human. That is the truth about our prisons.
I intervened on one hon. Member earlier who was being unusually nice about some of the things that happen in a few prisons. He was talking about work and assessing prisoners' potential for training. When I became interested in the penal system, I was horrified to find that that has not happened for years. There are about 47,000 prisoners, and the number is rising. Is it not possible to have a management structure which knows who the prisoners are, what they are doing, and their possibilities for education and training? Is it not possible to have a proper personnel file on each prisoner, to assess their potential for rehabilitation and their progress? Is it not possible to anticipate what stage one wants them to get to by the time they have served their sentence?
In the past few years, we have witnessed the Home Office's inability to tackle the fundamentals of the problem. We have also witnessed its ability to do great damage because it has been unable to stand up for the prison service with other Departments. Yesterday morning, I was at a meeting called by the National Association of Probation Officers about employment opportunities for prisoners. It was not only dreary because very little was happening as regards employment opportunities for prisoners. A high percentage of prisoners--80 per cent.--cannot find employment when they come out of prison and stay unemployed. Consider the impetus to reoffend in those circumstances.
In the great drive towards privatisation and to make the Department of Employment more efficient, the Minister's colleagues got rid of the counselling service for prisoners before and on release. I wonder if they brag about that. I suppose that the Whip will say that that is rubbish, too, but it is true. That was a damaging blow to the prison service.
Column 216What a disgrace in 1991. Where was the Home Secretary when that decision was taken, a decision that damaged prisoners' opportunities? Probably it was not his fault but was the decision of a previous Home Secretary or one of his underlings. I do not know. There will no doubt be some excuse.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook was absolutely right. We must recognise why the Bill is thought to be so irritating by people outside : it is because it is a missed opportunity. We have an opportunity to create a good Bill--one that we could be proud of. I have often told the Home Secretary, although he does not like it, that he should come to the centre ground of informed opinion on penal affairs. He should throw off his ideological blinkers and join those of us who believe that Woolf, with a timetable and
resources--something which his recent White Paper studiously avoided--is the way ahead.
We have no real timetable, unless one believes in the time mentioned by the Home Secretary, who referred to what might happen in the next 20 to 25 years. As John Maynard Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead. Nearly everybody now in the prison system will be out of it by the time the Home Secretary has finished reforming it. [Interruption.] All those now in prison will be out by then. Up to 25 years is too long for the radical reforms for which Woolf called. We want them much faster.
As I explained, if the law were used against non-violent disturbances in prison, it would undermine confidence in the process of prison reform. In many prisons, protests about conditions happen because the conditions are deplorable.
Lord Justice Woolf could not have made the case for reform more clearly. A key message to come out of his report is the need for justice in prison-- the need for a mechanism to ensure that grievances can be aired. As he says, without justice, security and control inside prisons are compromised. The Bill flies in the face of justice. The use of the criminal law is no answer to legitimate protest.
Lord Justice Woolf, in his exhaustive report designed to prevent future prison riots, did not propose an offence of prison mutiny. Instead, in his 204 recommendations, he provided for a comprehensive list of reforms, including the need for accredited standards in prison, a new prison rule preventing overcrowding and the establishment of compacts with prisoners setting out their expectations and responsibilities. The idea of the compact went to the very heart of Woolf, but we have heard little about the concept. I know that Lord Justice Woolf himself believed that it went to the very essence of his report, but it was nicely sidestepped in the White Paper.
The Government's response to Woolf, in their White Paper, makes depressing reading. The White Paper rejects the proposal to end overcrowding and is notable for its avoidance of dates and timetables for implementing reform. Yet improving conditions and reducing overcrowding would have been a far more effective antidote to riotous behaviour than this measure. Parliamentary time should have been devoted to those parts of the Woolf report which require legislation and not wasted on this unnecessary measure.
Why are the Government so intent on pressing ahead with the Bill at this time? The answer lies in the Home Secretary's attempt to shore up his crumbling reputation.
Column 217Mr. Sheerman : I will willingly give way to the Whip if he wishes to intervene. [Intervention.] I think that the Home Secretary is making a comment, possibly about the length of my speech. If the time is up for anyone, it is up for him. The right hon. Gentleman is hoping that by sounding tough he can restore some of his credibility. The real problems facing the prison service deserve a considered response, not a political fix. To those who care about these issues, the right hon. Gentleman's reputation is less important than a proper path to constructive reform.
The Home Secretary cannot run away from the House forever. At some stage he will have to make a statement on the Brixton escapes. Clause 2 of the Bill is all about escapes. It increases the penalty for assisting an escape from five to 10 years and provides that the offence can be committed by sending something into a prison. How reassuring ! But the real issue is making prisons sufficiently secure to ensure that prisoners cannot escape. It is no use increasing the penalty if prisoners can get over the wall-- especially if, as is alleged, they received considerable help from special branch. If I had special branch helping me to get into or out of a prison, I would expect to succeed.
I suppose it is somewhat reassuring to know that members of special branch may be liable to longer sentences if they assisted the escape from Brixton. It would be far more helpful in preventing a repetition of that appalling bungle if the Home Secretary would tell the House what really happened, how those men could have been allowed to escape, and what action he proposes to prevent such an escape ever happening again. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook dwelt, justifiably, at length on that issue.
We are engaged in the European debate just now and are expressing worries about parliamentary responsibility and accountability. On an issue of great public concern, two of the allegedly most dangerous terrorists that we had behind bars in this country were allowed to escape. There is a total scandal about how they escaped and about whether special branch was involved in the escape. The Home Secretary has cheated the House of its right to an account of what went on. Whether we be politicians or pundits, we feel cheated over the fact that the Home Secretary has not told us what went on. It is amazing that the Home Secretary should have been able to refuse to do that. If he has nothing to hide, why did he not make a statement? Why would he not accept the duty of a Home Secretary and be prepared to be asked questions by Members of the Opposition and others? What does he have to hide? We ask him again to change his mind and to clear the air. Those two dangerous men are still out there. The British public want an inkling of what went on and how those men were allowed to escape. We shall continue to press for an explanation.
The Opposition had anticipated that the Bill would be an irrelevance to the issue of preventing riots in prison, but it has proved to be far worse than we had expected--undermining civil liberties, criminalising non-violent protest and ultimately precipitating the very kind of disruptive behaviour that it was ostensibly designed to prevent.
We shall be working in Committee for major changes to be made to the Bill. I am sure that, in that process, the Minister of State and I will be engaged for some time in trying to make it a more palatable and acceptable measure. I do not hold out high hopes for it at this stage, but we
Column 218shall do our best, for considering measures of this type should not be a question of party political concern : we all want a better penal system. We have consistently offered to be co-operative on such measures if we believe tham to be progressive and in the spirit of the Woolf report, but if such changes are not forthcoming, we shall oppose the Bill on Third Reading.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Angela Rumbold) : I wish at the outset to reiterate my belief that the scenes people saw on their television screens during April 1990 were genuinely acclaimed as an absolute disgrace. They were, unfortunately, a disgrace to the prison service. It was disgraceful that it was possible for prisoners to take that sort of action.
The Opposition misunderstand the reasons for the Bill. Despite the passage of the Public Order Act 1986, the previous Home Secretary--now Lord Waddington--at the time of the occurrences at Strangeways and other prisons in April was so shocked by them that he had a strong urge to reconsider the whole matter. He responded to the public outcry and said that further thought should be given to whether there should be a new offence of prison mutiny. When the present Home Secretary came to office, he considered that issue and agreed with his predecessor.
The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) and my hon. Friends the Members for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), for Newark (Mr. Alexander) and for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) have all said that there is a misunderstanding of the public's concern about what happens in our prisons and what is acceptable. The Opposition must accept that people are genuinely upset, worried and, to a certain extent, disgusted when they see riots and misbehaviour in prisons. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) said that, if people refuse to obey an instruction--for example, to leave a dining hall--that may be considered to be undermining discipline. The test is not whether an act undermines discipline, but whether a protest is subversive of order. That is the critical test. It will therefore be limited only to very serious events. Surely there can be no objection to introducing an offence for serious incidents. It is not for minor incidents, as Opposition Members have been at pains to imply. That is not the Bill's intention.
Mr. Hattersley : If the intention is to limit the Bill to serious matters, I take it for granted that suitable amendments will be accepted in Committee to make that clear. More important, will the Minister give an example of a serious matter that would be caught and punished under the Bill with a maximum sentence of 10 years, but would not be caught and punished under the Public Order Act 1986 with a maximum sentence of 10 years?
Mrs. Rumbold : The Bill will apply if a number of people within a prison refuse consistently to allow a prison officer to continue his duties and undermine the governor's lawful control of that prison. That is not exactly the same.
Mr. Hattersley : The hon. Lady must have misunderstood my question. I understand how the Bill could be applied. My question is which of the situations to which it could be applied would not be appropriate to the Public Order Act?
Column 219Mrs. Rumbold : Under the Bill, mutiny means any action or omission, which need not be violent, but which--this is the important point--destroys the lawful authority of the governor, with the result that he may lose complete control of the prison. The consequences or potential consequences are relevant, rather than the acts of disobedience. We must not lose sight of that fact, as it lies at the heart of the Bill.
Mr. Lawrence : May I try to assist my hon. Friend? If a judge considers what sentence should be imposed for that kind of misbehaviour, he will have regard to the fact that Parliament has deliberately decided to make an offence of prison mutiny, which he will consider will require a harsher sentence than he might otherwise impose under the Public Order Act.
Mrs. Rumbold : That is precisely what would happen. For minor offences, a prison officer will still be able to give the internal punishments to which he has had access in the past. Since Lord Justice Woolf's recommendations, the boards of visitors will no longer necessarily have that task.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) touched on a number of issues, including the issue raised by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) about Lord Justice Woolf's recommendations. The White Paper "Custody, Care and Justice" eloquently covers all those recommendations and contains extensive responses to the whole of Lord Justice Woolf's report. It has been carefully thought through and our responses have been welcomed by Lord Justice Woolf, who said that he was satisfied with how the Home Secretary handled the matter after the report.
Mrs. Rumbold : When the White Paper was published, Lord Justice Woolf was perfectly happy to intimate publicly that he thought that it was a good response to his report. If the hon. Gentleman missed that, that is his problem--it is certainly not ours.
Several Opposition Members said that we should deal with overcrowding if we wished to tackle the difficulties within our prisons. There is no doubt that we should be looking at prison regimes. No one will deny that what has happened in our prisons is not acceptable in this day and age. I would not dream of saying that our prisons were running ideally, but many of the difficulties that the Government and earlier Governments have found were caused by the disgraceful inheritance of poor prison buildings that required a substantial injection of public funds.
My right hon. Friend has been tackling that problem--his predecessor also tackled it--by instigating a substantial new-build programme to replace old prisons and refurbish existing ones. There are now some 125
Column 220prisons in this country and there will be another 12 between 1992 and 1994, which will provide an additional 5,000 places within the prison system,
The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook argued that the right way to tackle the problem was not simply to provide more space within the prison system. None the less, the right hon. Gentleman and a number of Conservative Members would agree that people who must be kept within the prison system, must be kept in decent and humane conditions. That is one of our most urgent priorities, and it was backed up the Home Secretary in his speedy response on slopping out. He has brought forward by two years the date recommended by Lord Justice Woolf to end the disgraceful measure of slopping out. We should all congratulate my right hon. Friend for that. The Government's efforts on tackling the problems of prison buildings and overcrowding are beginning to come together.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the number of people who enter the prison system. That, too, has been dealt with by the Government. The Criminal Justice Act 1991--the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) served on the Committee and well knows the
arguments--contains many different systems. We shall endeavour to keep people who should not go to prison out of it by ensuring that courts have non-custodial sentences available to them. People will then be able to serve sentences within the community rather than in prisons. I shall answer the question of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) later.
Mr. Sheerman : The Minister should not mislead the House about what happened in Committee, when there was agreement on some matters in the Criminal Justice Act 1991. We told the Government time and again that, unless they grasped the nettle and introduced some sentencing reform and a sentencing council, they would never crack the problem of overcrowding in our prisons and the fact that more people are in prison in this country than in any other country in Europe. We said that, if they did not grasp the nettle, no matter how many prisons they built, they would surely fill them, as the Americans have found to their cost. In the past 15 years, the American prison population has risen from 600,000 to almost 1.3 million. Is that the course she predicts for this country?
My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) made sensible comments about long-term prisoners. I shall take up his offer to write to him on the issues he mentioned. I say to him and to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) that it is perfectly right to declare that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland does not wish the Bill to extend to Northern Ireland at present. I am sad that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) is not present, because I wanted to address some of the issues that he raised, including the necessity for good regimes --a point on which I agree with him. I shall reiterate the view of the Government on the matter of prison officers, which was raised by a number of my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland. No Conservative
Column 221Member and certainly no Minister would ever do other than say that we recognise what a difficult task the people who work within our prisons have and how much we admire them for the work they do in prisons throughout the country. I want that placed on record. I pay tribute to their good work, especially that which is and was done at the time of the riots at Strangeways and other prisons.
We recognise the bravery that prison officers show and the difficulty and stress under which they work. It is important that when we tackle each of the issues raised by Lord Justice Woolf in his report, we take the prison officers with us because they are the ones who have to build up trust within the prisons. It is important to build up trust between prisoners and prison officers. If we achieve such a regime, it will prove the best way to prevent the sort of disturbances and riots that have occurred.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield mentioned the Prison Governors Association. The White Paper "Custody, Care and Justice" clearly stated that we intended to introduce the Bill. We gave prison governors and others the opportunity to comment on the White Paper. They have not yet done so, and no one to whom I have spoken has shown any intention of questioning us on that issue.
The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland spoke of the board of visitors and its changing role within the prison system. My hon. Friend the Member for Newark made some interesting comments about his experiences as chairman of the board of visitors and the way in which prisoners had to go through the system. Lord Justice Woolf recommended that the board of visitors should act much more in the nature of watchdogs in prisons. I agree, and believe that that would be a much more satisfactory way for the board to discharge its duties, with prison officers given the task of adjudicating on small offences--events that happen as a matter of course, and which Opposition Members have claimed that the Bill is all about. That is not true ; small matters will continue to be dealt with within prisons.
The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish made a number of points that were also reiterated by many of my hon. Friends. He mentioned Manchester and its police force. He will be glad to know that I shall be visiting Manchester next Monday to see the position for myself. I think that the message that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary gave earlier will have been well understood by the hon. Gentleman. I am aware of the concern of the Greater Manchester policy authority and have been in correspondence with it. I shall listen to whatever worries it expresses when I visit the city on Monday. I am conscious
Column 222that the Manchester police and neighbouring forces have had to accommodate more prisoners in police cells than forces in other parts of the country.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : Will the Minister bring a message to the Manchester police to ensure them that their present burden, at least, will be reduced, especially over the Christmas period? At that time, there are often people in police cells who have been arrested rather than remanded there by the courts.
Mrs. Rumbold : The hon. Gentleman is well aware that the issue of the additional number of prisoners has been overtaken by events. Earlier in 1991, we were looking at a reducing the prison population, but unfortunately, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the prison population has escalated by 3,000 more people than originally predicted. As the hon. Gentleman will no doubt know, that number will be traditionally reduced over the Christmas period. Whether that position will be sustained post- Christmas is an issue we shall have to address later, and I shall certainly tackle it. I want to see for myself at first hand exactly what the position is in Manchester. I shall look at and listen with interest to the suggestions that will no doubt be made to me when I make my visit.
The hon. Member for Leicester, East talked about youths in custody and asked me to comment on the death of a 15-year-old at a young offenders institute at Feltham. I think that I know the governor there as well as he does. We intend to phase out remand for 15 and 16-year-olds as soon as possible. We need to build more secure accommodation, which will take some time. There is no wrangle within Government over the money for that. We agree with the hon. Gentleman, and we certainly agree with Joe Whitty. I hope that that assists the hon. Gentleman. On a positive note, we are trying to ensure that juveniles on remand in local prisons are given as positive a regime as possible.
The introduction of the Bill, which is a small but significant and important measure, is in no way a Government response to an issue that has suddenly arisen. It is in response to a serious concern expressed by a number of people throughout the country. The general public expect Governments to act firmly when they see issues of great concern to themselves. They are genuinely worried about the sort of things that happened in our prisons last April. They are worried about the effect of escapes. They wish to be reassured and to know that people who commit such offences within our prisons, or coming out of our prisons, will be punished. This small Bill does exactly that, and I trust that it will command universal support outside the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Nicholas Baker.]
Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West) : I rise to raise the subject of the operation of the law on contempt of court. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House would have wished to be in the Chamber and perhaps to speak in the debate, but, because the Government's business has been dealt with with more rapidity than they would have expected, they will be disappointed.
I am aware that a former colleague and writer on a national paper would have wished me to use my words with great care, but during the past few weeks Leicestershire has experienced the most horrific trial. I do not wish to deal with that trial, but something happened in the course of it which has astounded people and made them want to look again at the way in which we conduct ourselves and our trials in court.
In the course of that trial, one of the defendants, the major defendant, an evil man, chose to use the name of an honoured colleague in the House entirely for his own ends. He was determined, I think, to try to blackmail the--I almost put it in quotation marks--establishment.
I think that the defendant felt that, by naming persons who were in public life and putting them forward as people from whom children had to be defended--this was a child abuse case--he might frighten the authorities into not prosecuting or not pursuing the prosecution with the vigour that one might have expected. The defendant was wrong about that. He should have known that in Britain we conduct our prosecutions independently and fairly.
The defendant could not achieve his objective, but he sought to do so during the course of the trial, and anything said in the course of a trial is not subject to the laws of slander or libel when it is reported in newspapers. It was spread throughout the newspapers the length and breadth of the country, on the radio and on television. The problem is that a person in that position has no way of defending his good name. If that person were immediately to issue a statement, which is the very least that one would expect could be done, he or she would be in contempt of court. The jury has to decide the case, and if anyone issued a statement denying that a witness or person is telling the truth, that would be a contempt of court. It would be interfering with the course of justice. It could be said that it would be trying to influence the jury to disbelieve the person who made the statement. So that person is in a hopeless and helpless position.
When such events happen so close to home, it strikes most hon. Members that this is an unjust and unfair procedure. There cannot be any justice in a person being pilloried, taken from pillar to post, by the press, when people are looking at him askance. The hon. Member concerned has not even been able to deny the allegations. He has not even been able to say that they are untrue. It affects himself and his family, and it must be a living hell.
Because that has happened to an hon. Member does not mean that it will not happen and has not happened to others who are not in the House. That is a danger into which any one of us could fall, and there is no way that one could stop it happening.
I recognise that, during any trial, it is absolutely necessary that the defendant and witnesses should be free
Column 224to give evidence--because if constraints were placed on them in that regard, it could not be a fair trial. Mr. Beck was certainly given a fair trial--and a run for his money.
Having said that, there ought to be a way of excluding gratuitous evidence affecting those who cannot protect themselves from newspaper, television, and radio coverage of a trial--such as is done in the case of rape victims.
Mr. Ashby : In most cases, I hope. I thought that, these days, such protection was given almost without exception. In blackmail cases--the trial to which I referred earlier was a form of blackmail--the judge directs that the name of the blackmailer's victim should not be disclosed in open court, but instead it is written down and presented to the court in that way .
That is a case in which the judge has a discretion--but I am not sure that the judge would always want to have that discretion. In any event, the identity of an individual who has no opportunity to defend himself should not be disclosed by the media. That would not affect the trial. Witnesses would be permitted to say what they wanted without fear or favour, but the innocent person would be protected. It would require only a small clause in the next Criminal Justice Bill to provide that protection. Such a provision would be well in keeping with the most excellent policy of this Government of protecting the innocent, which has extended to withholding the identity of rape victims, and of children giving evidence in child abuse cases. We have a good history of improving the processes in our courts, of ensuring that injustices do not occur.
Needless to say, there must be justice for the defendant, and for the public, in terms of the defendant being properly prosecuted--but there must be justice also for innocent people who find themselves caught up in a trial and unable to control what is said about them. That would be well in keeping with everything that we have said over the years. Such an improvement should take place in our criminal justice system.
I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office will consider that it is time that their respective Departments started devising such a provision, so that it will be ready for the next Criminal Justice Bill and that further dreadful injustices will not be perpetrated.
I refer to the Member of Parliament for Leicester, West--as has my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham)--as my hon. and learned Friend. There have been times when we were adversaries, and we fought tooth and nail in this very Chamber when I first entered Parliament- -but outside it, we are friends. In this Chamber, and on this matter, I call him my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner). I say that he and his family should not have been subjected to the ordeal that they were, and that we should strive to ensure decency in the courts in future.
Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak) : Many hon. Members have a great regard for our hon. and learned colleague, the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner), with the accent on "honourable". Many of us are not lawyers--happily, or unhappily for our pockets--so will my hon. Friend confirm that any wretched creature, such as this awful man who lampooned and libelled our good colleague, can say whatever they like
Column 225about any of us, yet if we defend ourselves we are in contempt of court? If that is so, I am sure that the House and the other place will want to sweep it to one side straight away. It is a calumny that none of us should have to put up with.
Mr. Ashby : I thought that I had made it clear. Joe Bloggs, who may never have visited Cornwall, could go to Bodmin court and make what statements he wished about someone. It would increase the sentence, but when someone is facing a life sentence, or five life sentences, it does not make much difference.
I wish to draw my remarks to a close, so that other hon. Members may speak in this important debate.
Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West) : I am deeply grateful to the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) for his friendship, for his kindness and especially for his courtesy in arranging this important debate. In the House, the enemy is sometimes behind one, but on this occasion it does not exist, and I am immensely grateful.
The hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West eloquently explained the laws on contempt and how they rightly protect those who are on trial. Wrongly, that law too often leaves those who are not on trial, but whose good names are unjustifiably savaged in court, totally unprotected. That is wrong.
Anyone involved in a trial can make any allegations they wish about anyone else--provided that the judge cannot disallow them as irrelevant--however harmful, horrendous and vile the lies may be. Those whose representations are attacked are forbidden even to deny the allegations. To do so would be a criminal offence--contempt of court.
As the House knows, Frank Beck of Leicester was convicted of a series of filthy and most serious crimes and received what must be a near record sentence--five life terms and a total of 24 years' imprisonment. He called Paul Winston as a witness. Long ago, when Winston was a deprived youngster living in a Leicestershire children's home, my family and I tried, unsuccessfully, to help him. Soon after, he was placed in a home run by Beck. After 15 years of Beck's influence--including a period when Winston lodged in Beck's private home--and after I had refused to provide Beck with references and shortly before Beck's trial was due to begin, they combined to make disgraceful, contemptible and totally untrue allegations of criminal conduct against me.
Their motive was made blazingly clear by a letter that I received only yesterday from a former cellmate of Beck's. I do not know the man, but he took it on himself to communicate with me. He writes that Beck told him that he--Beck--was going to frame me. According to Beck, that would take the light off him. To that end, Beck had enlisted the help of Winston. The former cellmate also wrote that the police knew that he was willing to give evidence to that effect if the Crown thought it necessary to call him. In the event, it did not, but the allegations against me were precisely as the prosecution alleged in Beck's trial--an attempted diversion from the reality of Beck's guilt. Both verdict and sentence showed--happily--that the attempt failed totally.
Column 226However, is it not horrendous that Beck and Winston were able to make such terrible and lying accusations against me in court and that the media could, and with honourable exceptions did, report these falsehoods, all under the cloak of absolute privilege? I had effectively no legal rights in the matter, and I was not allowed even to nail the lies. No wonder many people were mystified by my uncharacteristic silence--it was imposed by the cruel operation of the rules on contempt.
Happily, I am a fairly tough character. I have been able to ride out the agony on this ordeal in good heart. But it has not been easy. As a Member of Parliament, I am now well placed to fight back. That would not have applied to any of our constituents or to any other citizens placed by law in this impossible and unjust situation. The injustice was both apparent and real. It imposed a special burden on my wife, on my children, on my mother and my sister and on all my family. I pay my loving tribute to them for their staunch and cheerful support during our shared ordeal. I also thank the many hundreds of people who have so kindly written, spoken to or telephoned us to express their affectionate encouragement. Several of them were themselves victims of Frank Beck. I salute their courage and send them my profound sympathy. We ourselves have received nothing but kindness, confidence and concern. We are very grateful. We are deeply blessed with our friends, not least those on both sides of the House and our friends in Leicester, West.
Surely there should now be a swift review of these injustices in our law and its practice. Surely it must be wrong for people who have no part in a trial to be open to venomous, preposterous attacks, with no remedy, no recompense and, above all, no right of reply. Surely others should not be forced to suffer as we have done. If such a review does lead to a just and useful alteration in the operation of the law of contempt, we shall not have suffered in vain.
Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton) : It is a privilege to follow the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner), who has given distinguished service to the city and county of Leicester and Leicestershire for more than 21 years in this House. He has made it clear-- yesterday and today--that there is absolutely no truth in the horrible allegations that were made against him in the Beck trial. The House, of course, immediately and unreservedly accepts that statement from him. It extends to him its affection and sympathy in the abominable ordeal which he, his beloved wife Myra and all his family have endured for so long.
The hon. and learned Gentleman's many friends in Leicestershire, of which I am very proud to count myself one, and indeed anyone in Leicestershire who knew anything about the matter, never believed any of the repulsive muck for one moment. However, it grieved us greatly that he had to endure it, and that there was no way in which he could clear his name and answer the vile accusations without prejudicing the trial of Beck. There must be a better system than that. Any public figure--indeed, any private figure-- could find himself or herself trapped for months in the same nightmare as the hon. and learned Gentleman.
The House has a proud record of friendship and of closing ranks, irrespective of party allegiance, around
Column 227those of its Members who are unjustly attacked or threatened. I hope that that day has now dawned for the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West after the long night of despair, but we should now, as a matter of urgency, examine the existing procedures to ensure that such a horrible event, without any redress for those who have been so long and so unjustly traduced, can never happen again. 9.20 pm