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Column 86

Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)

Shersby, Michael

Sims, Roger

Skeet, Sir Trevor

Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)

Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)

Soames, Nicholas

Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset)

Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)

Spink, Dr Robert

Spring, Richard

Sproat, Iain

Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John

Steel, Rt Hon Sir David

Steen, Anthony

Stephen, Michael

Stewart, Allan

Streeter, Gary

Sumberg, David

Sweeney, Walter

Sykes, John

Tapsell, Sir Peter

Taylor, Ian (Esher)

Taylor, Rt Hon John D. (Strgfd)

Taylor, John M. (Solihull)

Taylor, Matthew (Truro)

Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)

Temple-Morris, Peter

Thomason, Roy

Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)

Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)

Thornton, Sir Malcolm

Thurnham, Peter

Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)

Tracey, Richard

Tredinnick, David

Trend, Michael

Trimble, David

Trotter, Neville

Twinn, Dr Ian

Tyler, Paul

Vaughan, Sir Gerard

Viggers, Peter

Walden, George

Walker, Bill (N Tayside)

Wallace, James

Waller, Gary

Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)

Waterson, Nigel

Watts, John

Wells, Bowen

Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John

Whitney, Ray

Whittingdale, John

Widdecombe, Ann

Wiggin, Sir Jerry

Willetts, David

Wilshire, David

Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)

Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)

Wolfson, Mark

Wood, Timothy

Yeo, Tim

Young, Rt Hon Sir George

Tellers for the Noes :

Mr. Sydney Chapman and

Mr. Michael Brown.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause added to the Bill.

New Clause 125 --

Offence of racially inflammatory publication etc. to be arrestable

. In section 24(2) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (arrestable offences), after the paragraph (h) inserted by section 137(4) of this Act, there shall be inserted the following paragraph

"(i) an offence under section 19 of the Public Order Act 1986 (publishing, etc. material intended or likely to stir up racial hatred) :".'-- [Mr. Maclean.]

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 15 --

Law of murder

The presumption in criminal law that the offences of murder and manslaughter shall occur only if the party wounded or hurt dies of the wound or hurt within a year and a day shall be abolished.'.-- [Mr. Milburn.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Alan Milburn (Darlington) : I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The clause has a straightforward purpose--to bring the law on murder into the 20th century. At present, the offence is governed by Judge Cook's antiquated 16th-century definition :

"When a man of sound memory unlawfully killeth any reasonable creature so as the party wounded dies of the wound or hurt within a year and a day after the same".

That outdated definition has cost a family in my constituency the justice to which they were entitled following the tragic death of their son, Michael Gibson.

Michael suffered an unprovoked assault in Darlington town centre in April 1992, a month before his 21st

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birthday. As he walked along Darlington's High Row, he was savagely attacked by a passing stranger. He was hit only once, but it was enough. He remained comatose for the next 16 months, kept alive thanks only to the care and dedication of staff at Darlington memorial hospital.

Within a matter of hours, Michael's assailant, David Clark, had been arrested by local police. He was well known to them, having served recent sentences for burglary and actual bodily harm. Clark readily confessed that, after consuming 12 pints of lager, he had gone out looking for trouble that Friday evening. He found it in the shape of Michael Gibson.

But David Clark is a very lucky man. He is free today to roam the streets once again, thanks to an ancient law that takes no account of advances in medical technology.

The absurdities of the law as it stands mean quite simply that Michael Gibson took too long to die. According to a letter that I have received from Barbara Mills, the Director of Public Prosecutions :

"in the event of Michael having died within a year and a day of the assault upon him, Mr. Clark would have been charged with an offence of manslaughter."

The Crown Prosecution Service even waited for 366 days before bringing Clark to court, but once the year and a day had passed, it was left with no alternative but to bring a charge of grievous bodily harm against David Clark. He received a two-year sentence. He was released from prison just nine weeks after Michael Gibson finally died, in August 1993.

It is little wonder that Michael's mother, Pat Gibson, has earned the support of people throughout the north-east of England for her campaign to scrap this antiquated rule. She has to live with the knowledge that, if her son had been attacked just 150 miles further north--in Scotland--her son's killer would face life imprisonment, because the rule simply does not apply there. Nor does it apply in any other European country apart from Cyprus. She said of her son's killer :

"I thought the law and justice would take care of him. But the law has simply aided and abetted him in getting away with it." Pat Gibson is right. The law protected the guilty, because it had been outstripped by medical science. Today, patients can be kept alive for many years, thanks to all the advances in life-saving and life-enhancing medical technology. There are now some 1,200 patients in England alone who are believed to be in a persistent vegetative state. No doubt many will be the victims of road traffic accidents, but a few will be the victims of assault.

I am aware of at least three other cases in which the 366-day rule has served to deny justice to the victims of crime and to their families. As the Minister conceded in Committee, the number of crime victims caught in this legal time warp is likely to increase as the frontiers of medicine are constantly pushed back.

He has, of course, expressed sympathy for the Gibson family, and that is very welcome. He even said in Committee that the 366-day rule was anachronistic. That is very welcome. What is less welcome is the fact that, for almost a year, he has ducked and dodged about making a final decision about the future of this outdated and unjust rule.

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7.45 pm

I first wrote to the Home Secretary on 19 May last year, calling for a review of the 366-day rule. The Minister cannot claim this evening that he has not had enough time to assess the implications of change. He has had 11 months to conduct a review. Only now is he prepared to refer the issue to the Law Commission, but he still cannot say what sort of timetable or remit the Law Commission will have, or when it will report its conclusions to the House. That is simply not good enough.

The Minister said in Committee that the first clause that I tabled would have given rise to a new anachronism, because it did not cover manslaughter as well as murder. There can be no such excuses with new clause 15. It covers both, and has taken on board his concerns. It calls for the immediate abolition of a rule that is bringing the law into disrepute by failing properly to punish those who commit the most serious of offences on our statute book--murder.

Over recent months, we have all heard much from Ministers about getting tough on crime. The Minister himself has spoken eloquently about the need to return to common-sense principles in matters of crime and punishment. I can remind him that, just a month ago, he told the House :

"Our constituents are sick and tired of lengthy legal games letting the guilty go free on technicalities."--[ Official Report , 2 March 1994 ; Vol. 238, c. 1054.]

Tonight, Ministers have an opportunity to put those convictions into practice. Ministers can demonstrate that the commitment to justice and the right of victims come before retaining an ancient rule that has simply outlived its usefulness.

I urge all hon. Members this evening to support new clause 15.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery) : The rule to which the hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) has referred is a rule which, when it was created, no doubt met the perception at that time of common sense. If somebody had recovered more than a year and a day after the trauma leading to their unconsciousness, it would have been regarded as a miracle of sanctifiable proportions.

But understandings have changed, and medical science, as the hon. Gentleman said, has moved on a good deal. One could not say that it was an everyday occurrence for somebody to recover more than a year and a day after becoming unconscious, but it is certainly relatively common for people to recover a measure of consciousness much more than a year after a traumatic incident.

During my years in legal practice, I have been involved as a barrister in a good many personal injury cases. I recall a number of cases in which children, particularly, who had the physical strength to remain alive while unconscious for a considerable time, have made--albeit part, but good part- -recoveries from what appeared to be a persistent vegetative state. So science is very different from the understanding at the time that the rule was created.

That nobody can be prosecuted in 1994 for murder or manslaughter after a year and a day plainly makes an ass of the law. As every year passes, the position will seem ever more asinine, unless the Minister is prepared to concede that the time has now come for a change. It is hardly a revolutionary change. I am given to understand that the law of Scotland does not involve a rule of this kind, and that it never has. I do not believe that life, at least in modern times, is held more cheaply in Scotland than it is in England and Wales. It is my view that what

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