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Column 34When the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 which established the Police Complaints Authority came before the House, the Police Federation perceptively noted:
"It will not enhance public confidence in the system and will probably not improve police morale either. We remain firmly of the view that only a wholly independent system of investigation will satisfy all parties."
That lack of full public confidence has had severe consequences for the PCA. I believe that it has led to an increased case load and an elaborate waste of resources on patently unmeritorious complaints because of the public's reluctance to take no for an answer. How often have hon. Members on both sides of the House been visited by members of the public who are dissatisfied with the results of PCA investigations?
More significantly, that lack of confidence--however unfair--in the authority's system is leading to increasing use of more direct remedies to alleged police malpractice, bypassing PCA procedures. In the 12 years from 1981 to 1992 in the Metropolitan police area alone, there was a fivefold increase in cases pursued through the civil courts against the police for assault, false imprisonment or malicious prosecution. Those actions were consciously brought to bypass PCA procedures. In 1981, 92 such cases went to court; by 1993-94 the figure had increased to 494.
The problem with the PCA is that it has lagged behind public opinion. It is essential that does not happen with the new criminal cases review commission and that we get it right first time. Above all, we must get it right in terms of public confidence, which can be secured only if the commission is seen to be independent. There are practical reasons for ensuring that the commission's independence is beyond doubt. From its inception, the CCRC is likely to be overwhelmed by a huge backlog. Many cases, almost by definition, will be unmeritorious but they will all have to be sifted and carefully reviewed. It is vital that when the commission says no to an application, that will be taken as no by the applicant, his or her advisers, those who monitor the system and, above all, Members of Parliament. If the review process's independence is not established in the public mind early on, the commission will be under constant and costly pressure to reopen cases.
Those who argue in favour of the Bill's investigation scheme, whereby principal responsibility rests with the police, do so on the ground of practicality. Although the Home Secretary did not say this, my reading of the royal commission's recommendations was that they were an implicit admission that, in principle, it might be better for investigations to be undertaken by a core staff dedicated for that purpose and employed directly by the commission; but in the view of the royal commission, shared by the Home Secretary, that approach was overwhelmed by questions of practicality.
I do not find those arguments persuasive. The first argument, which the Home Secretary deployed, is that the commission must have access to the knowledge and wealth of expertise of the police. Others argue that it is essential for investigators to have up-to-date knowledge of police methods. I believe that that view is held by the Association of Chief Police Officers. It is important that we should take account of the views of ACPO and others directly involved. The point is made also that police methods change rapidly and radically. I accept that premise, but not the conclusion that it is possible to draw
Column 35on police knowledge and expertise, or to have access to current police methods, only through the use of currently employed police officers.
We believe that there should be a corps of investigators employed directly by the commission, some of them permanently. The hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) made the important point that, with all the changes which followed the assault by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) on the police service, a large number of extremely skilled and relatively young police officers are approaching redundancy. They are not all ready for the retirement heap. They are experienced, and they could form part of the commission's core staff.
Mr. Mullin: May I put it to my hon. Friend that this corps of dedicated staff should not consist only of retired police officers? There are one or two well qualified journalists who have built up some knowledge in this area and who might prove suitable.
Mr. Straw: I share one thing with the Home Secretary--I had anticipated my hon. Friend's comments. The next page of my speech goes on to say that not only police officers are skilled in this area; journalists and solicitors are, too. The most serious miscarriages of justice, which my hon. Friend played such a crucial part in remedying, were uncovered initially not by the work of the police but by the work of journalists, Members of Parliament and solicitors.
Mr. Bennett: Does my hon. Friend agree that, besides police officers who are nearing the age of retirement, there are also many officers who have unfortunately been injured in the course of their duties and who cannot continue to perform as full constables? They are perfectly capable, however, of carrying out this type of investigation.
Mr. Straw: I accept that. Another result of the assault on the police by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe has been the removal of quite a number of the inside jobs which used to be available to such police officers but which have now been passed over to--cheaper-- civilians.
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam): Would the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a danger in journalists of the kind whom he has in mind being asked to take an active role in these investigations? They are usually campaigning journalists with a political axe to grind. Surely it is important to ensure that those who take part are politically impartial.
Mr. Straw: Of course I accept that, but I do not subscribe to the hon. Lady's assertion that all journalists with an investigative bent follow a particular political agenda. Evidence of the serious and endemic corruption in the Metropolitan police, from which so many of the police's problems with public perception stem, was produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s not by the
Column 36police but by courageous journalists employed, for example, by The Times and the "World in Action" programme--
To continue my point about the possibility of some police working directly and permanently for the commission while others are seconded for a period, there is a long tradition in the police service of some high-flying police officers being seconded to national squads, or to the Home Office to work alongside HM inspectors of police. There is no reason why such officers should not be seconded to the new commission. In large forces some officers are in any event seconded from operational duties to run the complaints service, so I see no major issue of principle at stake.
As for whether police will have an intimate knowledge of the police service, the culture of different police forces varies so much--as those of us with experience of more than one force will know--that it would, indeed, take an officer from the same force to know all the wrinkles of that force's culture. Nevertheless, people on all sides of the argument have accepted that the last people who should investigate allegations of serious miscarriages of justice are officers from the force involved.
I do not, therefore, honestly believe that there is much force in the argument of the Home Secretary and of those who support him--that it would be wrong for the commission to have a corps of staff investigators to take on the central burden of investigating the cases that come before them. The corps could, of course, draw on other police forces elsewhere in the United Kingdom as the caseload and the types of cases required.
The other argument advanced by the Home Secretary in the consultative document was that the caseload would vary. That, too, was an argument against having such a corps. It is true that the case load will vary, but the case load of police forces varies enormously, especially that of specialised squads. No one is proposing that there should be a large standing army of investigators to deal with the maximum caseload. Instead, we are proposing that there should be a corps of investigators employed or seconded to the commission, which will be there to deal with the minimum foreseeable case load, which is likely to be quite substantial for the next five to 10 years. The Home Secretary's consultative document described a corps of staff as the
"worst rather than the best of both worlds."
Having read the relevant passages with great care, I do not understand the argument that is advanced in the document. There was no evidence to support it. In our view, a corps of staff would produce the best of the options rather than the worst.
The final argument in support of having a corps of staff relates to costs. It is claimed that the costs of a corps are likely to be greater than those of using police officers who are brought in on a case by case basis from either the
Column 37originating force or another force. Unless it is suggested--which it is not--that there should be an enormous standing army of investigators sitting idle at their desks, there is no reason why a corps of investigators directly employed by the commission should be any more expensive than the alternative approach. In our judgment a corps of inspectors would probably be cheaper because directly employed investigators used properly are likely to be cheaper than officers brought in on a contract basis.
As I have said, the more a corps of inspectors establishes its independence the more quickly it can dispose of unmeritorious cases and the more quickly, and with less cost, it can proceed to pursue the serious allegations that come before it.
For perhaps the first three quarters of the century, crime in its formal, legal sense was something that happened to other people. As a result, most people lived their lives with only the most tangential contact with the criminal justice system--for example, perhaps a short period on jury service and one appearance in the magistrates court on a motoring charge.
A culmination of changes in the past two decades has brought crime much closer to the lives of this country's citizens. Crimes of violence used almost always to be perpetrated on victims known to their assailants. Terrorist bomb outrages have made random victims of shoppers, children and passers by--as has football hooliganism, though in a more limited way. Increases in national wealth and consumer spending combined with widening inequalities of income and life's chances, along with the scourge of drug addiction, have led to rocketing levels of crime. Almost everyone these days has experienced crime within their own recent memory, or knows someone who has. People have a much closer and more personal interest in whether the criminal justice system is working for them than ever they did in the past. It is sad that in many respects the criminal justice system is failing. It is not meeting what the public expect of it.
The royal commission was right to draw attention to the
"force of criticisms which can be directed against a thoroughgoing adversarial system which seems to turn a search for the truth into a contest played between opposing lawyers according to a set of rules which the jury does not necessarily accept or even understand." The police, at the sharp end of the fight against crime, are placed in personal danger in a manner that few of us would accept for ourselves. They are right to draw attention to the failings elsewhere in the criminal justice system, to the increasing public demand for stronger regulation and to the need for higher standards to be exercised by the legal profession.
Of all the failings which can arise within a criminal justice system, none is worse, or more calculated to bring the entire system into disrepute, than a serious miscarriage of justice. The Bill is certainly a great improvement on what has gone before, and we intend to introduce further improvements in Committee. I hope that at that stage Ministers will listen. Had they listened before and accepted the overwhelming need for change years ago, some innocent people might not have had to spend the best years of their lives locked up unjustly for crimes that they did not commit.
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Mr. Kenneth Baker (Mole Valley): I welcome the Bill; I also welcome the news that the Opposition will not divide the House. In matters of this sort, the more that we can proceed with agreement between the parties the better--although I accept that the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) will table amendments in Committee to reflect his reservations.
The hon. Gentleman reminded us that way back in 1991, on the day when I exercised my powers following the release of the Birmingham Six, I announced the establishment of the royal commission on the criminal justice system. I did so because there was real concern and disquiet about the system, on two counts.
Mr. Baker: The court made the recommendation that they should be released; they were released, and it was correct for them to be released. My point, however, was that on the same day I announced the establishment of the royal commission.
As I was saying, there was disquiet on two counts. There was disquiet about the fact that in some cases guilty people were not being convicted, and about the fact that in others innocent people were being convicted. The purpose of the criminal justice system is, of course, to convict the guilty, but also to make quite sure that the innocent are acquitted. That is basically why the commission was established, although other matters were referred to it.
During the 1980s, there was an increase in the number of referrals by the Home Secretary to the Court of Appeal on questions relating to whether a verdict was sound. In 1981, one of my predecessors, Lord Whitelaw, referred just one case; but 20 were referred in 1990, 12 in 1991 and 11 in 1992. The number of referrals peaked during those three years.
Mr. Corbyn: Would the right hon. Gentleman care to comment on the difficulty of placing a case before the Home Secretary, ready for referral? Many people's cases are not particularly high-profile in political terms; such people have no influential friends or access to the media, and their cases are often ignored because no one is speaking up for them. Cases involving people who are better able to bring them to the Home Secretary's attention, however, are referred. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the Bill will provide more equality of access to the Court of Appeal?
Most of the cases with which my predecessors--Lord Waddington and the present Foreign Secretary--and I had to deal dated from before the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Many concerned the conduct of the police in questioning suspects at an early stage of inquiries. As the hon. Member for Blackburn pointed out, however, some cases now being referred are subsequent to the Act. I believe that its provisions established proper and effective procedures which, if followed through, eliminate a great deal of the concern expressed in the 1980s about possible miscarriages of justice.
Column 39During the years when I was Home Secretary, I referred 14 cases involving some 19 individuals. Some were high-profile cases: Broadwater Farm, Stefan Kiszko and Judith Ward. Then as now, the Home Office department that dealt with such cases was C3, and I considered some of the officials who answered to me then to be some of the most scrupulous and fair-minded civil servants whom I had encountered. I pay particular tribute to the assistant secretary who headed the department at that time, Mr. Baxter--who has subsequently died--but all the officials in that section of the Home Office were scrupulous, fair and determined to ensure that justice was done. I want to put that on record, because it is sometimes said that cases have been brushed under the carpet or delayed.
I understand from a recent parliamentary question that the average time for dealing with a case is some 36 working days. That is an improvement in some Departments on the way in which letters are dealt with by some Members of Parliament.
Mr. Mullin rose --
Mr. Baker: I will pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, later, if I may. There are some cases that take much longer than 36 working days. Some take more than a year, because the investigation is very complicated. Indeed, the cases in which the hon. Gentleman was directly concerned took much longer than a year. That is the system that operates at the moment.
On the recognisability of the case, from the point of view of public concern, in the cases with which I was concerned, the investigation by C3 were the fullest and most scrupulous that I have seen. The dossiers that came to me as Home Secretary were certainly the thickest and one could examine virtually every aspect of the case, so I was satisfied that the investigations were being carried out scrupulously.
I was also satisfied that it was not the correct way of doing it. There are two considerations. First, should a member of the Executive--the Home Secretary in this case--have a role in what, essentially, was a quasi- judicial process? It appeared clear to me that that should not be the case and that that was one of the areas where the powers of the Home Secretary should be conducted by other public bodies.
Secondly, there is, of course, an important constitutional question, which is resolved by the Bill, and which my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and the hon. Member for Blackburn touched on. Under the present arrangements of C3, the officials, who are acting on behalf of the Home Secretary, are, of course, restricted from doing certain things, and rightly so. They are not allowed to direct and supervise the inquiry, and I do not think that any hon. Member would ask that they should be, because a moment's reflection would soon reveal that that would be an incredible extension of the powers of the Home Secretary, on behalf of whom they are acting. In clause 19, the new commission is given the power to direct and supervise an inquiry in a way in which the present officials simply cannot do. It can hold the investigators who are conducting the inquiry much more to account. It can ask them to do certain things. It can direct their inquiries in a way in which civil servants
Column 40simply would not be allowed to do under the present arrangement, so there is a good constitutional reason for the Bill.
I welcome the various proposals that are contained in the Bill. I welcome the independence of the criminal cases review commission from the Executive of the day--in other words, the Home Secretary. I also welcome its extension to summary cases. As my right hon. and learned Friend reminded the House, the only power that the Home Secretary has where there has been a miscarriage of justice in a magistrates court is to exercise the prerogative of mercy. It fell to me to exercise the prerogative in perhaps two or three cases. Of course, that does not set aside the conviction. The Home Secretary cannot set aside a conviction of a court; only a court can set aside a conviction of a court, and so that remains on the record. That seemed to me to be very wrong and I am glad that it has been corrected by the Bill. I also welcome the fact that the appeal courts will have the power to ask the commission to examine cases. That is a fallback position, but an important one to have. I understand that the Lord Chief Justice has welcomed that provision.
I also welcome the extension of the powers of the court to consider the sentence as well as the conviction. That will be one of the main reasons for the increase in work load of the commission, because I suspect that many people who feel that they have been wrongly treated in the courts, as regards the conviction and the sentence, will refer their case to the commission.
On investigatory powers--a matter that was raised by the hon. Members for Blackburn and for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin)--I share the view of the Runciman committee that there is no practical alternative but to use the police forces, but I think that what the hon. Member for Blackburn said should be looked at carefully by my right hon. and hon. Friends. It is a question of carrying the conviction of the public. In my experience, where police forces were asked--I asked on several occasions--to examine the conduct of another police force, the reports that I got were not cover-ups. They were thorough investigations. The investigations in the celebrated cases that derived from the Irish terrorist cases were undertaken by other police forces and revealed the circumstances that led to the sentences being set aside. I have every confidence that, in general, the police are the right people to do it.
Clause 18 provides that when the commission appoints an investigating officer, he can be either from the force in question or from another force. It would be more appropriate if the general rule were that the investigating officer should be from another force. That may go some way towards meeting the anxieties of the hon. Member for Blackburn.
In principle, I would not go along with the Opposition proposal for another corps of investigators. In effect, such a corps would need to be given full police powers and it would have to be a properly constituted body with all the disciplinary procedures that attach to police forces. That would probably be too elaborate. I hope that the Government will examine my suggestion of an investigating officer from an alternative police force.
In general, I warmly welcome the Bill. As the Home Secretary and the hon. Member for Blackburn have said, society should not accept a sense injustice in our criminal justice system and people who have been wrongly
Column 41convicted spending part of their life in gaol. That should be put right as quickly as possible. When I was Home Secretary, I asked the C3 division to deal with such cases even more promptly because I felt that, if someone had been wrongly convicted and deprived of his liberty, that had to be put right as soon as possible.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): I join my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) in welcoming the Bill's proposal for a review commission and especially the removal of responsibility from the Home Office. That will come as a relief not only to victims of alleged miscarriages of justice, but, I suspect, to the Home Office itself.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn said, the establishment of a review commission has been suggested by just about everyone who has ever taken a close interest in miscarriages of justice, starting with Lord Devlin in the mid-1970s and continuing through a Select Committee report in 1982, Sir John May's inquiry and the royal commission report. On two occasions, in 1988 and 1990, Sir John Farr and I moved amendments to Government legislation in an attempt to set up a commission. I had a third go last year.
It is in everyone's interest that the commission works. There is a danger that if it becomes trapped in the narrow approach that C3 and the Court of Appeal have adopted in the past it will become discredited and we shall all be back where we started. It is important to try to avoid that.
Hon. Members have spoken about the Police Complaints Authority which the Government seem to regard as a model of how to proceed. I and, I think, some of my hon. Friends regard it as a model of how not to proceed. That body urgently needs some early successes to show that it is different from what has gone before. Cardinal Hume has a letter in today's issue of The Times which seems to sum up our hopes for the commission. The letter states:
"This must mark the beginning of a new era in the handling of miscarriage of justice cases. But that requires the commission to be, and be seen to be, a strong body independent of Government, the courts and the police, capable of fulfilling effectively, and with a sense of urgency, the tasks of considering and investigating allegations of miscarriages of justice when appeal rights have been exhausted."
I am afraid that I do not share the rosy view of the right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker) of the C3 department. I entirely accept that civil servants cannot be held responsible for many of the mistakes that have been made, but in some parts of the Bill I see the dead hand of C3. Perhaps I am being unfair to it and I should blame people higher up in the Home Office hierarchy.
Hon. Members have referred to the insistence that all inquiries be carried out by the police. The commission will not even be obliged to supervise because the relevant clause says that it "may" supervise these inquiries. I shall return to that.
Clause 2 deals with the test for an alleged miscarriage. At present, the Court of Appeal can quash a conviction where there is a lurking doubt--I think that that is the expression used by previous Home Secretaries--that it is safe. Clause 2 proposes to change that to "unsafe" without any qualification. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn said, the royal commission suggested that the words "may be unsafe" should be used. Was it intended
Column 42to make this a stiffer test? If not, why has the wording been changed in clause 2? Likewise, clause 4 uses the expression "capable of belief". I do not understand what is wrong with the existing formula.
The attitude of the Court of Appeal to cases referred back to it will be crucial because the problem has lain not only with the police or the Home Office but with the Court of Appeal. There has been some change in management at that court in the past few years, but before that it contained some of the most closed minds in the land. The most legendary case was not any of the terrorist cases that have been mentioned but that of two men, Cooper and McMahon, who were wrongly convicted of the murder of a postmaster in Luton. In the 1970s their case was referred back to the Court of Appeal by four successive Home Secretaries. On each occasion the judges just sat stony-faced and said, "Take them away." In the end, the Home Secretary of the day, William Whitelaw, became so exasperated that he simply gave each of the men a railway ticket and sent them home. They were serving life sentences, so that action by Lord Whitelaw shows how exasperated he must have been. Afterwards he wrote to the men's solicitors a long convoluted letter saying that it did not mean this and it did not mean that and divide by the number you first thought of. Clearly, it meant that as early as 1980 the Home Secretary had entirely lost confidence in the ability of the Court of Appeal to face difficult decisions.
The Carl Bridgewater case is probably the longest-running alleged miscarriage of justice still blocked inside the system. I shall refer again to that case. When it came before the Court of Appeal on a reference by the Home Secretary in 1987 or 1988, the judgment on which the appeal was turned down contained the following remarkable passage, which I shall paraphrase. It refers to a prosecution witness called Mervyn Ritter and it states, "We accept that Mr. Ritter is a pathological liar, but on this occasion we believe that he can be relied upon as a witness of truth." I ask you. That is the intellectual level with which we have been grappling in the Court of Appeal in years gone by.
I was present for the appeals in some of the big cases in which convictions were quashed. I was in the Court of Appeal when Lord Lane, through clenched teeth, quashed the Guildford convictions. One was left with the feeling, which was widely remarked on by those of us who were present, that had the Crown Prosecution Service or the Director of Public Prosecutions left Lord Lane the slightest possibility of preserving those convictions, he would have devised some mechanism for doing so despite the fact that the confessions on which they were based had been shown to be forgeries.
Any student of the difficulties must also look at the judgment in the Maguire case. After prolonged public outrage the Maguire convictions were quashed several years ago. But the judges devised a formula--this was the last fling of the old management in the Court of Appeal, but it was fairly recent--whereby they said, "Oh well, perhaps all seven of them had not been making these bombs and they must have been innocently contaminated." To achieve that remarkable feat they invented a magic towel, which no one had claimed existed. The judges said that it might have existed, that all the defendants might have dried their hands on it, and that that was what led to their being contaminated. When
Column 43we see people with fine intellects behaving in that manner, we realise that there is a problem in the higher reaches of the judiciary.
Sir Ivan Lawrence: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman realises that the distortions of the intellectual process by which those conclusions were reached were not all one way in upholding convictions. There is the famous case of Algar in 1954, where Lord Chief Justice Goddard quashed a conviction for forgery, for which the man had been sentenced to five years imprisonment, with the words: "Do not think that we are doing this because we think you are an innocent man. We do not. We think you are a scoundrel."
Nevertheless, the conviction was quashed.
Mr. Corbyn: I was with my hon. Friend when the Guildford Four verdict was announced. Will he bear it in mind that the main problem throughout all the cases of miscarriages of justice has been getting someone to take an interest in them? He, I and, I am sure, many others get hundreds of letters from people, but we have no idea of the justice or otherwise of those cases when we receive them and we lack the ability to investigate.
Is my hon. Friend worried that even under the Home Secretary's proposals, there will still be the problem of the single person rotting away in prison, believing in his own innocence, but having no one outside who is prepared to help him or to give him sound legal advice, and who was probably badly represented in the first place?
Mr. Mullin: I am sure that there will still be such cases, but if the commission works properly--and it is in all our interests to ensure that it does--that will go some way towards resolving the problem. We all receive letters from desperate people who have been writing to everyone they can think of. I hope that the commission will be able to deal with some--although probably not all--of those cases.
Incidentally, I do not complain about the fact that our legal system sometimes makes mistakes. All legal systems make mistakes. My complaint over the years has been that, until now, we have lacked an adequate mechanism for correcting them when it has become obvious to sensible people that a mistake has been made.
There was a sea change in the attitude of the Appeal Court following the early retirement of Lord Lane and the Birmingham appeal judgment--and, of course, the Judith Ward judgment, which in a way marks the high point of that change. I have heard it suggested by distinguished barristers that the door may be closing again now that the pressure is off. I hope that that is not the case. I also hope that, when convictions are quashed, there will be no more whispering judges, occasionally even popping up on television programmes, suggesting that although there may have been some technical reason for quashing the case, the accused really did it. I hope that that will not happen again, especially among those whose job it is to uphold the rule of law.
Column 44I welcome what the Home Secretary said about appointments to the commission. I had intended to make the point, which he made first, that the jobs for the 11 commissioners should be advertised and should be subject to an open interview process in which we can all have confidence. Who is appointed will be crucial to the credibility of the commission. With respect to people who serve on other quangos--and the commission will be a quango--those who serve on the commission will need to be from a slightly different school from some of the people who serve on other quangos. I am putting that point as generously as possible. In particular, there will need to be among the 11 members--and, indeed, among the staff whom they employ--people with a track record of scepticism towards the official version of events.
It was not the C3 department, the Court of Appeal or the police that first alerted the world to the problem; it was people with no direct responsibility. In many cases, they were journalists employed by television companies. Of course, it is always right that in a democracy there is a role for journalists in putting right alleged injustices, but it cannot be satisfactory for any of those associated with the criminal justice system to realise that it has come to depend on such people.
I mention a few people who I think should be considered for the commission. I do so at the risk of damning their chances should they be interested in the job. First, I mention Sir Ludovic Kennedy--
Mr. Mullin: I do not know which school he went to, but he is a distinguished person with a long and honourable track record that goes back long before miscarriages of justice had a high public profile. I should also like someone of the calibre of Mr. Paul Foot to serve on the commission. I appreciate that his politics may not necessarily appeal to either Front Bench, but--
Mr. Mullin: Yes, he went to a good school. He has a track record second to very few contemporary journalists in his pursuit of unpopular causes such as miscarriages of justice. Should he be interested, I hope that his application will be seriously considered.
I also have in mind Mr. David Jessel, who heads the "Just Television" programme. Again, he has a distinguished track record in drawing the attention of the nation to cases that are not necessarily popular, but need to be examined.
In talking about the composition of the commission, the royal commission said that the chairman should not be a judge. I did not hear the Home Secretary say that he would not be. It would be nice to hear the Minister say so when he replies to the debate. I say with all due respect to anyone who happens to be a judge that it is important that the new body demonstrates its independence not only the Executive but the judiciary.
I was surprised to note in clause 9 a provision to give the commission the power to deal with sentences. I do not feel very strongly about that, but I had never envisaged it being the case. I wonder whether there is a danger that the commission will become flooded with such cases, some of them spurious.
Column 45The commission's remit extends to England, Wales and, I am glad to note, Northern Ireland. I appreciate that this is not the Minister's responsibility, but I want to know what will happen in Scotland. There is a certain smugness about the Scottish legal system. When the English legal system was in great difficulty, on several occasions distinguished Scottish lawyers came creeping up to me saying, "Of course, this would never happen in Scotland." I think that it could happen; indeed, there have been a number of cases where it has happened. I know from my postbag that a few Scottish cases deserve to go before the commission. Perhaps the Minister will tell us the plans for Scotland.
The royal commission noted that there was a problem with evidence that would not be admissible before a court. Chapter 10, paragraph 67, states:
"It is undesirable that the Court of Appeal should in effect be precluded by the current rules of evidence from considering an alleged wrongful conviction. We therefore attach great importance to the review of the rules of evidence by the Law Commission that we have recommended."
I would be grateful to know whether that commission will be permitted to deal with inadmissible evidence and whether there are any plans--if there are, the Bill would be the obvious place for them--for loosening the constraints on the Court of Appeal in considering evidence that might otherwise be inadmissible. Hearsay evidence is an obvious example, and the royal commission dealt with that in paragraphs 25 and 26 of chapter 8. It took the view that "in general, the fact that a statement is hearsay should mean that the court places rather less weight on it, but not that it should be inadmissible in the first place."
It said that it would be satisfactory for a judge simply to draw the attention of the jury, or of judges if it is an appeal case, to the fact that less weight should be placed on hearsay evidence. I do not suppose that the problem with hearsay evidence will arise all that often. There was, however, a problem in the Birmingham case. A Member of Parliament had written a book that contained interviews with the persons who had carried out the bombings. He had had better luck tracking down those persons than the people whose job it was to track them down. I sat through the appeal case. Prosecution lawyers for the Crown and lawyers for the defendants all had a copy of that book in front of them. Everyone was aware of it, but none of the book could be referred to, even though it contained a more compelling point than the minutiae of the forensic or the confession evidence. The Bill is silent on the subject of inadmissible evidence. This is a golden opportunity to amend the law along the lines recommended by the royal commission, if the Government are disposed to consider favourably its suggestion.
Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if such evidence cannot be presented to a jury, it would be wrong for it to be allowed to be referred to in the Court of Appeal? In a sense, the jury's verdict could be undercut on the basis of evidence that it had not heard or considered.
Mr. Mullin: In all cases, jurors' evidence will be undercut if material comes to light that was not before them at the original trial. That is what happens in cases that go to the Court of Appeal. That is why many
Column 46convictions are quashed. I am arguing only that common sense should be applied and that the Court of Appeal or the commission should not be prevented from doing their job by having to take too narrow a view of their remit.
The heart of the Bill is the capacity to conduct independent investigations, or rather the fact that the commission will not be able to conduct such investigations. Clause 19 says that commissioners may supervise inquiries carried out by police officers. In the light of all we know, it is incredible that the commissioners will be dependent on police officers and that they are advised only to supervise investigations. I hope that the calibre of the commissioners will be such that they will want to take a detailed interest in the way in which investigations are undertaken. It is no part of my case that all police inquiries are dishonest. As other people have remarked, no doubt exists that honest police inquiries conducted by Devon and Cornwall police in the Birmingham case, and by Avon and Somerset police in the Guildford case, finally brought those cases to an end. I am sorry to say, however, that there were at least three police inquiries into the Birmingham case before it was brought to an end.
The Devon and Cornwall police inquiry was their second go at it. When the two superintendents conducting the first inquiry came to see me in the House in 1987, their heart did not seem to be entirely in the job. I had to draw their attention to one or two things that they should have noticed. I told them that unless they tried harder than they appeared to be trying, we would be all be back in two or three years' time going over the same ground again. Sure enough, we were. Happily, the second inquiry was led by the chief constable, who took a close interest and insisted on an honest and detailed inquiry. That did not happen the first time.
These inquiries are extremely expensive. Enormous amounts of public money have been wasted on what in some cases are bogus inquiries. The Carl Bridgewater case is the most relevant in that regard. It is now undergoing its eighth police inquiry. I have a list of them. In 1980 and 1981, Cheshire constabulary conducted two inquiries. In 1983, 1984 and 1985, Greater Manchester police conducted three inquiries--that is five altogether. In 1986, Warwickshire constabulary conducted an inquiry. That led to the case being reopened and referred to the Court of Appeal, with the remarkable quotation that I cited earlier.
In 1991, Merseyside police were appointed to conduct an inquiry. In 1994, Merseyside police were reappointed to conduct an inquiry. It does not appear to be getting very far. Amateurs appear to be more successful at turning up new evidence in this case than any of the eight police inquiries that have taken place. There comes a moment when one must recognise that police inquiries in such cases are not going to lead anywhere. One must bite the bullet and do something about it.
There is the case of Mr. Brian Parsons, who, in my view, has been wrongly convicted of the murder of an old woman in Axminster, Devon. The Home Secretary has appointed the force that originally investigated that case, Devon and Cornwall police, to re-examine it. As we all agree, that police force conducted honest and thorough inquiries in the Birmingham case second time around and, I think, in the Darvell brothers case first time around, but it has made it clear to anyone who has ears that it will not pursue the Brian Parsons case. It went even to the lengths