|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 721that was responsive to its own people and their needs was able to make a dramatic impact on a form of crime that intimidated people. The Labour regions should be given some of the credit for the impact that has been made.
There is, however, no justification for complacency. The most recent figures must be set against the massive increases of previous years. Between 1981 and 1991, for example, the number of recorded offences in Scotland increased by 44 per cent. The fact remains that, although crime figures have dropped recently, they have increased substantially as a whole since the Conservative party came to power.
Mr. Robertson: As my hon. Friend says, we must also recognise that crime figures do not take into account the significant number of offences that are either not reported or not recorded. We are seeing only the tip of the iceberg. The Scottish crime survey, published in April last year, estimated that in 1992 just over 1 million crimes and offences were committed in Scotland. Of that number, only 39 per cent. ended up in police statistics on recorded crime. There is good reason to believe that the Government's figures do not tell the whole story.
Beyond that, there are some disturbing trends that are hidden within the overall figures: the rise in violent crime, the explosion in drug offences and the increase in vandalism, robberies and car thefts. Between 1989 and 1993, robberies in Scotland rose by 26 per cent. and car thefts by 47 per cent. Since the Conservative party came to power, drug offences have increased by 1,056 per cent. That is proof, if statistical proof were needed, that the Government are losing the battle against drugs. It is a battle with which we have as much sympathy and concern as anyone on the Government Benches. It is a bleak picture that we see before us.
There is precious little in the Bill to tackle the underlying causes of crime. I was interested to hear the Secretary of State for Social Security on television last week finally admit that there was a link between poverty and crime. There is a blinding flash of inspiration for that last, free market, neanderthal individual. Not only have Ministers now admitted that they bear a responsibility for tackling inequality but they have at long last conceded the link between poverty, deprivation and crime. Those two key concessions clearly show that Ministers are now being forced on to Labour's agenda and that Labour is winning the battle of ideas on how to tackle crime.
Of course poverty can never excuse crime, nor does it always lead to criminal behaviour; but it would be folly to ignore the clear links that exist between poverty and crime. They are there. They are manifest. They stare us in the face. For that reason, any strategy for tackling crime that fails to deal with its underlying social causes is bound to fail. A root- and-branch attack on crime and the causes of crime is needed. By any standards, the Bill cannot be said to meet that task.
Nevertheless, as I said before, several provisions in the Bill are commendable and will enjoy our support. I was interested to note that the Minister of State in the House of Lords was kind enough to concede that many of the Government's proposals were included in our party's consultative paper "Protection and Justice", which arose out of the working party chaired by my hon. Friend the
Column 722Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall). We welcome, for example, the greater use of pre-trial hearings to prevent last -minute plea changes and to establish non-controversial evidence. That will greatly reduce the inconvenience and waste that are created throughout the system by the adjournment or cancellation of trials and spare many thousands of police and civilian witnesses unnecessary attendance at court. Similarly, we support the greater use of fiscal fines. We note the contrast between the different approaches north and south of the border. Fiscal fines will provide much-needed relief to our overburdened court system and allow those who may have offended once or in minor ways to accept responsibility for their conduct without getting a criminal record. The use of fiscal fines has so far proved extremely effective in keeping a range of minor offences out of our courts. Therefore, we welcome the proposals in the Bill to extend the range of offences for which fiscal fines can be offered, provided that they are not applied inflexibly. With fiscal fines in mind, we also support, as my hon. and noble Friends said in the House of Lords, the use of a sliding scale for fiscal fines and of attendance orders as alternatives to imprisonment for 16 to 17-year-olds as a means of dealing with fine defaults.
We welcome the proposal to extend the powers of our courts to confiscate the proceeds of crimes such as pornography, fraud, extortion, insider dealing and corruption. The powers exist now in respect of drug dealing and it is right that they should be extended to other serious crimes.
We also welcome the new safeguards in the Bill for dealing with accused persons who are insane and therefore cannot stand trial, and persons acquitted on grounds of insanity. It is wrong that, at present, a man or a woman found unfit to stand trial may be detained in a mental hospital, possibly for the rest of his or her life, without our courts reaching any view of the innocence or guilt of the individual. Therefore, we support the requirements in the Bill for courts to undertake an examination of the facts to determine whether the accused person committed the offence for which he or she was charged.
Although the Bill contains many sound proposals, we have concerns on several matters which led us to table the reasoned amendment. First, although we support the Government's aim to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system, we believe that there must be a balance between streamlining the operation of the system and preserving the rights of the individual in criminal proceedings and the presumption of the defendant's innocence. The Secretary of State will be aware of the deep concern in Scotland that the Bill does not properly respect that balance. It is all very well the Secretary of State coming to the Dispatch Box and pretending that everything in the reasoned amendment and everything that is likely to be said by the Opposition are purely partisan. He knows that bodies as conservative--I use that word with a small "c"; few organisations in Scotland would any longer be described as Conservative with a capital "C"--as the Law Society of Scotland and the Glasgow Bar Association have deep misgivings about the Bill.
Column 723the debate. I wonder whether it would describe itself as liberal. Does anyone these days? That is the problem for the hon. and learned Gentleman.
It is right that, in the light of those misgivings, we should streamline procedures and eliminate waste, but we should not at the same time sacrifice the basic principles of our legal system for reasons of expediency and cost cutting.
Unfortunately, the bulk of the proposed changes in the Bill, designed as they are to tip the balance of justice away from the accused in favour of the prosecution, will do just that. The accused's right of silence will be curtailed. The defence's right of peremptory challenge of a juror will be abolished. The disclosure of the accused's criminal record to juries will be permitted and the judicial examinations will be allowed to elicit an admission of guilt from the accused before there has been sufficient time for the defence to advise his or her client.
Taken together, those measures amount to a fundamental shift in the balance of justice away from the defence and in favour of the prosecution. More than that, they potentially represent a change in the very nature of the criminal justice system. At present, we have in Scotland an adversarial system in which the burden of proof is placed on the Crown. If we are to move towards watering down that obligation significantly, we will have, by default and without any real debate on what is proposed, an inquisitorial system such as that which exists on the continent. If that is the Secretary of State's intention, he should say so and make proposals for consultation on that grave and important matter. He should not pretend that he can introduce those changes without fundamentally altering the nature of our legal system.
Apart from making those general criticisms of the Bill, we shall examine more closely in Committee a number of other issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton will deal with some of them in his reply. They include the abolition of the right of peremptory challenge of jurors, the requirement that the defence should know the occupation and address of prospective jurors, the proposal for more judicial investigations and the new restrictions on bail. I should like to highlight a few of the key issues that worry Opposition Members and many more people in Scotland. Clause 28 of the Bill permits the prosecutor in a trial to comment on the failure of the accused to give evidence at his or her trial. No one should be in any doubt that that represents a major attack on one of the most fundamental rights of Scottish law. Our criminal justice system in Scotland is based on the principle that a person is innocent until proved guilty. The change proposed by Ministers will erode that principle and is, therefore, a fundamental attack on the nature of our criminal justice system.
Mr. Lang indicated dissent .
Mr. Robertson: Predictably, the Secretary of State shakes his head and mutters under his breath that that is not true, but what about the words of Michael Clancy of the Law Society of Scotland? He is a distinguished representative with no partisan view. He is in hospital and I am sure that the whole House would want to send its
Column 724best wishes for a quick recovery. He is someone of real substance in Scotland--the deputy secretary of the Law Society--and he was quoted in The Herald last November as saying,
"This is not just tinkering. This is the abolition of the right to silence."
Mr. Clancy said that it was not merely a modification or a qualification, but the abolition of the right to silence in Scotland.
The Scottish Council for Civil Liberties described the Government's proposals in this area as "ill-considered" and even the liberal, conservative or revolutionary--depending on how one thinks of it--Glasgow Bar Association warned that clause 28 might well conflict with articles of the European convention on human rights. To make matters much worse, that major change has been tagged on to the Bill as a mere afterthought with only minimal consultation. Indeed, the proposal virtually or completely to abolish the right to silence in Scotland was introduced into draft statute two weeks and three days after the consultation period on the right to silence had been closed. In rushing ahead with such proposals, Ministers even ignored the advice of their own advisers, the Scottish Law Commission. To try to sneak in that change under the wire and to ignore the advice of their advisers displays a degree of contempt and arrogance that is breathtaking even by the Government's standards. Will the Secretary of State or the Under-Secretary of State explain why such a fundamental change was introduced at such a late date? What is the reason for the sudden decision by Ministers? The official justification offered by the Minister of State in the other place was that the prosecution should have the same right as judges to comment on an accused person's silence, but that is no justification at all. The fact that the right to silence has already been eroded is not a reason for, justification of or explanation why it should be eroded still further.
Moreover, the prosecutor is already able to point out that Crown evidence is uncontradicted. As the Law Society of Scotland has noted, allowing the prosecution to comment further will only discourage accused persons from refraining to give evidence and the right to silence will inevitably be undermined. I therefore urge the Government to think again on that matter and to listen to what will be reasoned debate in the Standing Committee.
I must discuss two major omissions from the Bill. We already tackled one in our interventions--the lack of provision for new machinery for considering alleged miscarriages of justice. Of course, I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement that he has established the Sutherland committee, which will report on that matter no later than the summer of 1996. Now that the committee has been set up, it is right that that complex subject should not be decided on precipitately, but why has it taken so long for the committee to be established?
The Royal Commission on criminal justice in England and Wales was appointed in spring 1991 to consider that matter, among others, in respect of England and Wales. It reported in June 1993 and the Government have acted on its recommendations by establishing the new criminal cases review commission only last week. Why then has it taken so long for a similar committee to be established in Scotland? Clearly, there have been more high-profile examples of miscarriages of justice south of the border--
Column 725that remains a fact--but is the Secretary of State seriously arguing that there is no concern about the matter in Scotland?
The second notable omission from the Bill concerns the question of the not proven verdict. I would be the first to concede that there are passionate advocates on both sides of that argument and, for that reason, the question should be decided in Parliament on a free vote. When the matter is raised on Report, there will be a free vote among my colleagues in the Opposition on whether to retain or abolish Scotland's third verdict in Scotland.
I have long campaigned for the abolition of the not proven verdict, which is a bad and unnecessary verdict. Indeed, Sir Walter Scott described it as
"that bastard verdict, illogical, contrary to legal principle and wholly indefensible."
Since then, many other people have come to that opinion. It neither clears nor convicts the accused and, as a consequence, it undermines the fundamental principle that a person is innocent until proved guilty.
As a verdict, it leaves the accused and the victim hanging in limbo and for the rest of us it leaves a permanent question mark. The accused person may well be acquitted but will still bear a stain on his or her character. The accused may never be tried again but may never be able to clear his or her name. It is as unjust to the accused as it is to the victim and the victim's family.
Obliging a jury to choose between a guilty or a not guilty verdict, as is the case in every other country, means that the accused and the victim at least know where they stand. More importantly, the presumption of innocence that is at the heart of our Scottish legal system demands that if the Crown cannot prove its case "beyond reasonable doubt", the accused should be completely cleared. Not proven has some backers among the legal fraternity and among the criminal fraternity, because it increases the chance of acquittal in a difficult case. It is also popular among some juries because it enables them to avoid a difficult decision. Undoubtedly, it is an attractive proposition for defendants who view it as an alternative to conviction and gaol.
In the White Paper on which the Bill is based, the Government make it clear on page 49 that
"Although the remit of the Royal Commission did not extend to Scotland, the Secretary of State undertook to consider the implications of the Commission's recommendations in the Scottish context".
The Secretary of State has hardly dealt with some of the issues that fall into that category. For the record, I shall tell the House what the Royal Commission on criminal justice in England and Wales had to say about the not proven verdict, as it is germane to the debate. It states:
"During our deliberations we considered the case for introducing into England and Wales the Scottish verdict of `not proven'. This is available in Scotland as an alternative to `not guilty' although it still counts as an acquittal. Most of those who gave evidence to us did not favour such a verdict. We too regard it as an unsatisfactory option, particularly from the point of view of the defendant, who is left with a cloud hanging over his or her reputation. If the jury does not convict, it means that the prosecution have been unable to discharge the burden of proof and the defendant should in our view be entitled to a verdict of not guilty."
In one short, concise and economic paragraph, the royal commission, which studied that matter in some depth, came to precisely the right conclusion. My opinion is that,
Column 726for the Scottish criminal justice system and the public, it is an anomaly and an anachronism and it should be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Finally, on the resource implications of the Bill, the explanatory and financial memorandum states that it is to be "cost neutral". Frankly, that claim stretches all credulity. Indeed, I remind the Secretary and the Under -Secretary of State of Lord McCluskey's description of that claim in the House of Lords as "cloud cuckoo land".
I appreciate that there are difficulties in producing detailed estimates of the additional expenditure required to implement the Bill's provisions, but I understand that the Government provided some estimates of the financial implications in the consultation paper. Will the Secretary of State now act on the suggestion of the Law Society and assure us today that we can see the information on which that cost-neutral estimate was made? In that way, hon. Members may have a proper reasoned debate about the Bill's financial implications. It is vital that we have that debate, because it is widely recognised that the fiscal system in particular is overburdened and under- resourced. If the Bill is to be enacted on a cost-neutral basis, it will have serious implications for the way in which justice is delivered in Scotland.
Far from the House of Commons, and even further from Ministers' offices in St. Andrew's house, crime and its impact are the overriding concerns for millions of ordinary Scots, who are told that crime statistics are falling but see in their daily lives a totally different picture. They know what Ministers simply refuse to learn: that the roots of crime are deep in deprivation and poverty, in gross inequalities and stark financial inequities that have grown during the Conservative party's period in office. Those causes are fed by the unemployment that is still so damagingly high in Scotland. Crime and criminality hit us all, some much more than others, and cost everyone in society a vast amount in human and financial terms. That is why those tinkering knee-jerk measures go nowhere near far enough to tackle the crime crisis that affects Scotland today. That is why the Bill should be taken away and looked at again and that is why the House should vote for the reasoned amendment. Although we shall not vote against Second Reading, I commend the reasoned amendment for the attention and support of the entire House. 5.31 pm
Mr. Allan Stewart (Eastwood): This is an important debate on an important Bill. It has already resulted in an important statement from the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson). In dealing with the procedures that he believes should in future apply to the Bill's measures, he said that not only should they be considered by a Scottish Parliament under a Labour Government, but that he would serve in that Parliament. Let us be clear, therefore, that he has told the people of Hamilton that there will be a by-election in the middle of the next Labour Parliament.
Mr. George Robertson indicated dissent .
Column 727the House that measures should be considered by a Scottish Parliament in which he would serve, which means a by- election. I strongly support the Bill. Furthermore, I shall even apply to the Committee of Selection to serve on the Standing Committee. The queue of Conservative Members may be so long that I shall be killed in the rush, but I should be delighted to be considered to serve on the Committee because I believe that the Bill is extremely important. I have good and bad news for the hon. Member for Hamilton: the good news is that I welcome the fact that the Labour party has tabled a reasoned amendment and will not vote against Second Reading; the bad news is that I shall not vote for it.
I wish to discuss three major issues relating to the Bill. The first is the right to make a peremptory challenge. The Government's proposals are absolutely correct because hon. Members on both sides of the House know what happens with the right of peremptory challenge. It is easy to turn up for jury service in Scotland and ensure that one is challenged by the defence lawyer. One simply turns up looking like the hon. Member for Hamilton or his hon. Friends--respectable, wearing suits, nice shirts and ties. One is then challenged and can leave. Everyone knows that that is what happens, so I strongly support my right hon. Friend's proposal.
Secondly, I strongly support the proposals to deal with further offences committed while on bail. Nothing outrages ordinary citizens more than when someone on bail reoffends.
Thirdly, I strongly support the proposals, in clauses 13 and 14 in particular, on witnesses who are not called. The hon. Member for Hamilton made it clear to the House that the Labour party also supports those proposals. There is no doubt about what happens in Scottish courts. The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), who has slipped out of the Chamber for a moment, made a valid point on that matter. Witnesses turn up at court and find that the case has been deferred or the plea changed. Prosecution and defence witnesses are in the same room and intimidation takes place. The result is not just inconvenience but that ordinary citizens vow that they will not go through that again. They decide that, the next time they see an offence being committed, they will walk on the other side of the street.
Mr. McMaster: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that another group of people who suffer inconvenience are the police? When I last asked for an estimate of the amount of police time wasted in courtrooms on cases that would not be heard on the specified date or at the specified time, I was told that up to a third of the police overtime budget can be wasted on time spent hanging around courts.
Mr. Stewart: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is a waste of police time and is extremely frustrating for the police, who simply want to get on with their job. They do not want to sit around waiting for trials that do not take place.
The Bill will spare thousands of victims and witnesses unnecessary attendance at court by reducing late cancellations and adjournments of trials. The figures are well known and accepted on both sides of the House. In
Column 728sheriff courts, more than 40 per cent. of trials are cancelled and 30 per cent. are adjourned, while only some 20 per cent. go ahead on the day specified. The Bill will help to deal with those problems and should be supported by the entire House.
Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): The hon. Gentleman is correct, but that is not the only issue that concerns people who attend court as witnesses. They are also concerned about the provision for witnesses. In some courts in Scotland, witnesses are not separated, which leads to intimidation of witnesses by others present, such as friends who may be there to give evidence for the defence rather than the prosecution. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Hamilton) is right to ask for the financial cost of implementing the best parts of the Bill. That needs to be spelt out so that we can ensure that facilities for witnesses attending sheriff courts do not allow for the aggression that takes place in many courts.
Mr. Stewart: In principle, the hon. Gentleman is entirely right. As the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley has said, I have no doubt that intimidation takes place. My hon. Friend the Minister will be delighted to hear, however, that I am not advocating a general increase in public expenditure to deal with that--that would astonish the House--but the hon. Member makes a perfectly fair point. It is all very well for senior lawyers in Edinburgh to say that everything is all right but other hon. Members and I are well aware that intimidation occurs in such circumstances.
I strongly support the record of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister on law and order in Scotland. Expenditure is not, of course, a measure of effectiveness, but there is no doubt that spending on law and order in Scotland has increased by 55 per cent. in real terms since 1979. There are now 1, 500 more police officers in Scotland than there were in 1979; police constables' salaries have increased greatly; and victim support groups now receive substantial funding. I therefore believe that the Government's record is outstanding. I also believe, however, that there is never any room for complacency.
I do not want to speak at length on the clear challenge to law and order that now exists in relation to the M77 extension. Opposition Members, notably the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Watson), perhaps the most right-wing member of the Scottish Labour party, will disagree with me about the principle of the road. That is their right, but there was a demonstration at the weekend--we all saw the pictures--which was illegal. It did not conform with the terms of the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982, which was passed by the House. As I recall, the provisions governing demonstrations were passed without a Division. That illegal demonstration was against the law of the land.
The Minister has worked enormously hard in his capacity as the Minister with responsibility for roads--no one could have worked harder for the extension. He must accept that that demonstration, which is a challenge to the House of Commons and to the law of the land, must be met. The issue is not about trees or roads, but whether people can act illegally against the law that the House has passed.
Column 729as the most right-wing member of the Labour party in Scotland, I am bound to respond. I do not condone the violence that has occurred at the site of the proposed M77 extension, but when the hon. Gentleman speaks about upholding the law, he must recognise that those hon. Members who do not support that extension are concerned about the legality of the decision. In fact, we have the backing of official Labour party policy, which is in favour of a moratorium on motorway building. We are comfortable about that decision.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is some doubt about whether the motorway extension is legal, as it has not yet been clarified whether an environmental protection order was established before permission to give the go-ahead was granted? Does he accept that there are different aspects to legality and that whether the extension is built remains to be put firmly in a sound legal context?
Mr. Stewart: I wholly support the hon. Gentleman's right to put his point of view democratically. No doubt those on the Opposition Front Bench will, at an appropriate juncture, make it clear whether they support Strathclyde regional council.
The Bill is about law and order, criminal justice and improving the legal system. A challenge has been launched against the law of Scotland, irrespective of our democratic views, by the Pollok free state and the illegal march. I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister replies to the debate, he will make it unequivocally clear that the House passes legislation about the laws of the United Kingdom and that the Government, or any other Government, are thereby committed to implementing those laws on behalf of the citizens of our country.
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Govan): I would like to consider whether the measures in the Bill are likely to improve the real situation that faces people in the community. I want to look in particular at the provisions dealing with bail and to highlight a real difficulty faced by many of my constituents. It has been caused by groups of marauding young men and women, in gangs, who are terrorising decent people and committing serious assaults and robberies in small geographical areas.
A particular gang, which has been active in part of my area for a while, is not being dealt with adequately by the existing legal system. I do not believe that the Bill's provisions will overcome that difficulty. The gang, which is known as the "Crossey Posse"--the name comes from the Crossloan road and, presumably, the diet of westerns of those youngsters--has been causing havoc. The police have identified them and are now taking some action against them. Of the 18 members, they have accumulated between them 259 arrests for violence, dishonesty, breaches of the peace and carrying weapons. It is clear that detection has not acted as a deterrent to those youngsters. The legal system does not seem able to protect decent people from them. The delays in the system and the way in which it operates often mean that those people, once caught, are freed to commit a similar or different offence that same weekend. I do not believe that any provisions in the Bill would remedy that problem.
Column 730The police, having identified that gang, are taking steps, with my support, to target those individuals. They gave me their case notes on the individuals involved and it is interesting to note that they all have one thing in common. If I go through their ages and their descriptions, even the Minister will recognise it. They are described as follows: aged 17 and unemployed; aged 17 and unemployed; aged 18 and unemployed; aged 21 and unemployed; aged 18 and unemployed; aged 18 and unemployed; aged 17 and unemployed; the next is 15 and is still at school; another is aged 19 and is unemployed; the next is 19 and is unemployed; another is 15 and is described as unemployed. Perhaps that information about the latter youngster came from a highland policeman with the gift of second sight, because a youngster of 15 will not yet be unemployed. Given his background, however, he is likely to be so in due course. The other members of the gang are described as follows: aged 20 and unemployed; aged 17 and unemployed; aged 16 and unemployed; aged 19 and unemployed; aged 16 and unemployed; aged 19 and unemployed; aged 17 and unemployed and aged 16 and unemployed.
I believe that the fact that all those people are unemployed is more than a coincidence. The circumstances in which they grew up and developed do not excuse their behaviour, but the fact that they are unemployed, with, in the vast majority of cases, no prospect of gainful employment, affects the way in which they live their lives, alters their horizons, limits their choice and channels them into anti-social paths.
The system does not appear to be dealing adequately with those people, given the offences that they have committed. One of those youngsters, aged 17, and unemployed as I mentioned, committed 34 offences and has 28 cases pending. Obviously, the system is not operating quickly enough if it allows someone to build up a backlog of 28 cases pending, eight of which were offences under the Bail etc. (Scotland) Act 1980, whereby offences were committed while that person was on bail. Something is wrong with a system that allows that to occur.
Another member of the gang had 41 arrests for various offences, and 31 of those cases are still pending, including nine under the Bail etc. (Scotland) Act. If the system allows someone to accumulate that number of offences, the purpose of detection is partly lost. Detection should act as a deterrent. Those youngsters have been detected; they have been arrested; the papers are lying there, and nothing has happened.
Another member of the gang had arrests for 19 offences, 14 of which are still pending, two under the Bail etc. (Scotland) Act. Another member of the gang had arrests for 35 offences, 13 of which are still pending. Another had arrests for 42 offences, 18 of which are still pending, six under the Bail etc. (Scotland) Act. Another had arrests for 52 offences, 15 of which are still pending, eight under the Bail etc. (Scotland) Act. Another had arrests for 23 offences, 18 of which are still pending, four under the Bail etc. (Scotland) Act. Can the Minister guarantee that the proposals in the Bill will ensure that offences do not accumulate to such an extent before a trial takes place? It causes great distress to many decent people in the community when they realise that youngsters committing crime are being caught but nothing is seen to happen. There is simply an accumulation of arrests and of pending cases, with no
Column 731penalties whatsoever. That discredits the system. I hope that the Minister will tell us clearly and unequivocally that action will be taken to ensure that that is not allowed to continue.
I also hope that the Minister will clarify whether there are any measures in the Bill, or in the Government's mind to introduce in future, that affect the way in which the system deals with those who are involved with gangs, such as the one that I have described, whose members are under 16.
One of the young people in the gang, aged 15, committed 36 offences and received eight supervision orders, 14 "no proceedings" decisions--largely, I am told by the police, on the basis that the enormously overworked procurator fiscal's department has better things to do with its time-- referral discharges and 10 abandoned charges. Those were not light offences. They were crimes of dishonesty such as breaking into cars, shops and houses. There are several assaults and offences of dishonesty.
When the system abandons any pretence at punishment, it is no wonder that the system is seen to be failing the people whom it is meant to protect.
In my area, complaints from members of the public were so frequent that there was the threat of vigilante groups forming to deal with some of the gang members. The police, to be fair to them, acted after they were approached recently by a substantial delegation with petitions and they have drafted in extra personnel, but such support to the community is not sustainable in the longer term. The system must be adjusted so that decent people may be confident that wrongdoers will be punished.
An argument was made earlier about the scale of police overtime wasted in courts. Certainly the staff of Govan police station tell me that a third of their overtime is wasted by waiting in court. In my opinion, that underestimates the scale of the problem, because many officers have their leave days adjusted in order to keep them in the station during the days when they are scheduled for trials. That is an enormous loss--an opportunity cost, as it were--when those officers should be doing something else. The figure of onethird grossly understates the real scale of wasted resources.
The judicial system is seen to be failing decent people, and I do not think that the Government response is adequate to deal with the scale of unhappiness in the community about those matters. I see no evidence that the Government are prepared to do something that will make the existing bail system operate more constructively. For example, I would welcome the possibility of bail being conditional on a curfew in some circumstances--on the individuals involved staying away from specific areas where they have committed a series of offences in the past. We need fresher thinking from the Government on some of those issues.
Several issues have not been adequately tackled by the Bill, and I hope that the Government will be minded to consider those under the Bill or elsewhere.
One of the major difficulties is the problem of taking action against those who use houses owned by public authorities--council houses or housing association
Column 732properties--for dealing in drugs. I believe strongly that those involved in dealing in drugs from such houses should be evicted from them, and I think that the Government have a responsibility to try to make eviction easier than it is at the moment, because it can be a long and convoluted process. As the Government have been prepared to consider forfeiture of the artefacts used in the commission of crimes, they should consider seriously making it easier for local authorities or housing associations to evict people who are involved in drug dealing from houses that are owned by associations or councils.
The Government should consider carefully the way in which they can introduce new legislation to help to curb anti-social behaviour by tenants in council or housing association property, especially when that involves excessive noise. That issue worries many people yet is not given the attention that it deserves, because few hon. Members live in property that is affected by noisy or anti-social neighbours. When one's next neighbour is two acres away, it is much easier to ignore the problems caused by noise than in circumstances where the neighbour lives next door and plays a stereo in the early hours of the morning.
Mention has been made of the circumstances in which the court system can allow the intimidation of witnesses. However, the intimidation of witnesses before cases come to court is prevalent in many areas, and I am aware of little evidence that the Government are prepared to treat the problem seriously. One of the means of tackling the problem is housing transfer, but it is difficult to envisage how housing transfer can accommodate the justified fears that witnesses have, in circumstances where public housing is being cut so drastically.
I am aware that, in my area, people living in public sector housing have appeared as witnesses for the prosecution. Their evidence has been vital to the prosecution cases yet, the case having finished, they are now being tormented by the friends of the guilty and the council cannot find adequate accommodation into which to transfer them. In those circumstances the Government have a responsibility to tackle that issue seriously. I recognise that there is no simple solution, but the problem must be recognised.
Finally, the Government must consider the fact that prevention is better than cure. I have already mentioned the fact that crime breeds in situations of unemployment and poverty, and it is a cause of regret to me that, having been a councillor in part of the area that I now represent as a Member of Parliament, I have known many youngsters growing up in that community who, bereft of hope and prospects, have now turned into criminals. In many cases it was the best and brightest, with little chance of an apprenticeship and little chance of employment, who perhaps were not bright enough to go on to higher or further education. In some cases they were bright enough, but did not believe that higher or further education would guarantee them a job, and they realised that the people in their communities who were making the most money the fastest were those involved in drug dealing. To my regret, many of them have become involved in such practices. The Government have a
responsibility--which they are too willing to ignore--to tackle the problem seriously. Many of the youngsters drift into crime--petty crime initially and more serious crime subsequently--because there is little alternative.
Column 733For the youths in my area, where the opening hours of community centres are being restricted and youth clubs are being closed, there is little alternative to hanging around on street corners. In those circumstances, the prospect of breaking into a chemist, a shop or a house is often more attractive than doing nothing. We live in a consumer society and such youngsters have aspirations the same as everyone else. They want money in their pocket and can see no legitimate way to achieve that. Regrettably, many of them--those with a bit of entrepreneurial flair- -turn to crime. The Government cannot and should not continue to bury their head in the sand.
Public spending will be necessary to try to combat crime. I have been struck by the way in which target hardening in my district has helped to protect houses, shops and business premises against break-ins. The concierge systems and closed circuit television cameras have combined to reduce drastically the prevalence of crime in specific areas, but such measures are not cheap and the Government must be willing to invest some money in trying to cut the cost of crime. Otherwise, the Bill will simply reorganise and improve some aspects of court procedure, but will not tackle the real burdens of crime carried by many citizens.
Mr. Raymond S. Robertson (Aberdeen, South): I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in the debate. I wish to associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) about Sir Nicholas Fairbairn. It seems strange to be debating the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill without Sir Nicholas behind me, egging me on and giving me the odd word of what he considered to be advice. I am sure that he is looking down on our proceedings today and shaking his head in disbelief that those of us who are left should have the temerity to tamper with his beloved Scottish legal system.
In placing before the House the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill, the Government send two clear, distinct messages. First, the passing of a specifically Scottish legal Act re-emphasises the uniqueness of the Scottish legal system, which we, north of the border, have always regarded as superior to that in England. Scotland's constitutional future appears to be the subject for almost daily deliberation and speculation in the pages of the newspapers. The fact that Scotland's legal system remains so distinctive and unique after almost 300 years of union, reiterates clearly that, far from the Union anglicising Scotland, it has given Scotland the identity and confidence to preserve and build on all that is distinctively and uniquely Scottish.
The Scottish legal system joins our education system and our national Church in helping to form the basis on which our national identity is founded. We in the House would never seek to change that. Our passionate defence of the Union is grounded in the firm belief that, through union, Scotland's nationhood and institutions have flourished. That today's debate takes place in the House of Commons underlines the fact that the correct and proper place in which to debate Scottish affairs is here in the sovereign Parliament of Scotland.
The second message from today's debate is that the Government remain determined to fight crime in every way that they can and to focus on driving fear from our streets and communities. My right hon. and hon. Friends
Column 734will be interested, although not surprised, to learn that a recent survey carried out in areas of my constituency showed that people's fear of crime remains one of their key concerns.
People realise that much has been done to tackle crime. There are more policemen on the streets--as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, about 1,500 more than there were when the Conservative party came to power in 1979. Crime detection is at its highest level for five years. There are stiffer sentences for some offences and more powers for courts to deal with offenders. However, despite all those developments, many people still believe that the legal system often fails the very people whom it is designed to protect. It is self-defeating for the police to gather evidence and make arrests, if the court system does not deal with cases quickly and efficiently, and ensure that justice is seen to be done.
In opening the debate, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State reminded the House of the Bill's background--of the lengthy period of consultation that has involved the legal profession in Scotland, the police and, most importantly, the public, all uniting to create a coalition for change. In examining all aspects of the Scottish criminal justice system, from legal aid to juries, from sentencing to admissible evidence, my right hon. Friend and his colleagues have drawn up a Bill that is balanced and thorough and commands a good deal of public and professional support.
Through a detailed and systematic review of the criminal justice system, the Government have ensured that Scots will continue to have respect for the law and to have confidence in the system. Our legal system works well. Nevertheless, it makes good sense to carry out a regular and full audit, and to evaluate whether the system is working as smoothly and fairly as we would all want. Through what my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister of State has referred to in another place as an "overhaul", the Scottish criminal justice system is being prepared for the challenges of the new millennium. For those reasons, I warmly support the measures in the Bill, which will serve to reinforce public confidence in our justice system.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State outlined the Bill's major aspects and I have no intention of prevailing upon the patience of the House by merely repeating what he said. I shall, however, comment briefly on a few aspects of the Bill. The introduction of intermediate diets will be welcomed throughout Scotland. People will see cases coming to court much more quickly than at present. The Government have often emphasised the duty to highlight the needs of victims and witnesses, rather than just the criminal. Intermediate diets will provide an opportunity for both the defence and the prosecution to agree upon matters relating to a case that are not in dispute. Any such measure, which avoids the need for a witness or victim to undergo the trauma of testimony face to face with a defendant, must be viewed as a welcome development.
The clauses designed to amend the appeals procedure will also free court time. It is entirely unacceptable for the court system to be snarled up by an endless conveyor belt of appeals. Of course, the right of appeal must remain an inalienable right in a modern, enlightened democracy. No one in the House would want the right of appeal to be denied to anyone with a deserving case, but we must be practical. The number of appeals coming before Scottish courts has nearly trebled over the past 10 years. More and