|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 61detriment of the defendant. Does he accept that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald) suggested, the admission of hearsay evidence might result in miscarriages of justice, to the detriment of the public?
Sir Ivan Lawrence: That has always been an argument against admitting hearsay evidence. However, we are talking about a conviction as a result of evidence which may be suspect, although the reason for thinking that it is suspect may not be admissible. We are not talking about those miscarriages that acquit the guilty; the Government have toughened the laws of criminal trial to ensure that miscarriages of justice involving the acquittal of guilty persons do not take place. Today, we are discussing miscarriages of justice where we convict the innocent. It is in that context that the question of hearsay evidence which helps the appellant may need to be raised and considered.
Mr. Donald Anderson rose --
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): Like previous speakers in the debate, I welcome the establishment of the criminal cases review commission, and I shall refer to those parts of the Bill which deal with it.
The Home Secretary did not convince me with his defence of why the commission was such a long time coming. I might have been more receptive to his explanations before the enactment of last year's criminal justice legislation--which included provisions such as removal of the right of silence--which will probably lead to more miscarriages of justice.
However, we all welcome the establishment of the commission, and we must ensure that it works as well as it possibly can. The concerns that have been expressed on both sides of the House go to the detail of how the commission will work. It is absolutely critical that the legal profession and the public are confident about the commission's workings from the beginning. Such confidence is vital if the commission is to work well and to be respected.
I shall refer to two areas relating to confidence. The first is the composition of the commission. Clearly, we will not debate whom the commission should comprise today or in Committee. However, it is important to examine how its members will be appointed, and I welcome the Home Secretary's advice that the positions shall be advertised. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) said, the commission's membership is important, because that will determine the way in which the commission is perceived initially.
Some members of the commission should have a legal background, but I hope that there will be a wide interpretation of the description of commission members in clause 8. Paragraph (6) states that they shall be
"persons who appear to . . . have knowledge or experience of any aspect of the criminal justice system . . . "
I was pleased that the Home Office discussion paper stated: "The most important qualifications for the work which the Authority will undertake are likely to be an ability to assess and interpret facts and behaviour; patience and sensitivity; an
Column 62open-minded determination to get to the root of what are often complex and enigmatic problems. As several commentators have noted, a fresh perspective is likely to be especially valuable in reviewing cases which the ordinary processes of law have failed to resolve satisfactorily."
It was thought that that might be provided by appointing non-legal members with experience of the criminal justice system and others who could bring a range of appropriate skills and experience from other backgrounds. The Home Office clearly had in view a wide range of people, and I trust that that will be reflected in the appointments. The commission should reflect to some degree its potential client group, and should bear in mind strong evidence of the
disproportionate effects of the criminal justice system on people from ethnic minority backgrounds. We know from some evidence given to the royal commission that the workings of the system contribute to the experiences of black and other ethnic minority defendants in respect of admissions, pleas of guilt, court of trial, whether or not bail is granted, and sentencing. The commission will also be able to consider sentencing.
The 1992 study by Dr. Roger Hood of the sentencing of black defendants was commissioned by the Commission for Racial Equality, and its chair introduced that report with the observation that, if sentencing by the courts had been within the scope of the Race Relations Act 1976, the discrimination uncovered by Dr. Hood's rigorous statistical analysis would have been unlawful. That seems to indicate some problems, and implies that, if the commission is to deal with sentencing also, it will have some work to do.
When Home Office Ministers make appointments to the commission, I trust that they will remember those Home Office reports, and that it is made clear from the start that people from a wide variety of backgrounds are encouraged to apply.
The independence of the commission's investigations was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), and the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) expressed reservations about the processes for which the Bill provides. Part of the commission's work will be uncovering police malpractice. That is not to suggest, as other speakers have made clear, that all policemen are corrupt. However, we know from earlier cases of miscarriages of justice that police malpractice was involved. It is wrong in principle to use in the work of uncovering such malpractices currently serving police officers.
There is a real and dangerous lack of public confidence in police internal investigations. It is clear that the Police Complaints Authority is not regarded with any great confidence outside the House. In 1993, of nearly 18,000 complaints to the PCA, only 227 led to disciplinary charges. In more than 90 per cent. of cases, no disciplinary action was taken. One can only conclude that there is something wrong with the system, or that there are an awful lot of congenital liars about the place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn pointed out that the consequence is less use being made of the PCA and more use of civil actions against the police. I do not want that lack of confidence replicated with the commission.
I am not convinced that the skills and expertise needed to investigate an alleged miscarriage of justice are necessarily the same as those required in day-to-day
Column 63police work. I am not convinced either that the proposed powers of supervision and direction are the same as direct control over an investigation.
Linked to public confidence is accessibility--the barriers to a case being considered. The Government are concerned about the commission being swamped with thousands of spurious cases, which would prevent the new body from doing its work. We obviously do not want the commission's time wasted, but we must consider not just highly publicised, high-profile cases-- significant though they may be. Many of the people who approach hon. Members alleging that they are victims of miscarriages of justice are not well known, and do not have easy access to support and advocacy. They may have difficulty with reading or writing, and in presenting their cases effectively. They may be people of limited means.
The provision to self-refer to the commission will be important, but so will be the way in which an initial approach is assessed. Applicants should not easily be rejected because of the sometimes inadequate nature of their initial approach. Accessibility applies also to referral to the Court of Appeal, to which I will refer later.
As Members of Parliament, we are approached by members of the public who protest their innocence. In some cases, they do not present much in the way of new evidence. In others, one may feel that the contrary evidence is more credible. In any event, we do not have the ability to undertake in-depth investigation. In my experience, the greatest difficulties arise where a jury's decision is involved, and it is not easy to identify a new avenue of inquiry, even though one may have serious doubts about the safety of a conviction. I have spent most time on a case involving a young African woman convicted of drug smuggling, sentenced to seven years in prison and then deported. I was convinced of her innocence but, given the circumstances, it was extremely difficult to pursue that case through the present system. There should be no difficult hurdles in the way of access to the commission when it is investigating such cases. The same applies to referrals back to the Court of Appeal. Under the Bill, referrals after a conviction must be based on an argument or evidence not already raised which gives rise to a real possibility that the conviction would not be upheld. The question then is: how far is the commission being asked to make judgments about whether a conviction would be upheld? Would not a more realistic test be whether the evidence was not incredible and was relevant? Surely the court is the place to decide whether a conviction should be upheld. I know that these judgments have to be made, but we often hear complaints about the Crown Prosecution Service to the effect that it has made a wrong judgment about the possibility of obtaining a conviction. The hurdles placed before the commission when it comes to scrutinise miscarriages of justice should be made as low as possible.
I should like to ask the Minister for clarification of three clauses. First, I am worried about the impact of clauses 16 and 17, the second of which refers to old cases. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) asked the Minister about the range of cases that the commission might be able to look at.
Column 64Clause 17 relates to access to documents, while clause 16 states that the commission may have access to documents from public bodies, if a
"person serving in a public body has possession or control of a document or other material which may assist the Commission". But clause 17 makes it clear that that does not apply to material in a Government Department if the document or material
"is relevant to a case which the Secretary of State has at any time considered with a view to deciding whether to make a reference under section 17 of the 1968 Act".
That would seem to have serious implications for cases such as that of the Bridgewater Three, which involved the Secretary of State considering whether to make a reference under section 17. To be sure, the Secretary of State will give the commission documents containing representations made to him--but one assumes that they would be easy to get hold of anyway; so may we have clarification of what sort of documents will be withheld? It would seem that internal C3 documents will not be accessible to the commission. That fact alone needs justifying, because some old cases will be affected if such documents are withheld.
Clause 5 also needs clarifying. It allows the Court of Appeal to direct the commission to investigate, a power that I would expect to be used only in limited circumstances. The Home Office discussion paper raised a number of questions about how the power might be used, and about the relationship between the court and the commission when the power is used.
Will the court ask the commission to provide assistance and leave the commission with discretion as to the depth of the ensuing inquiry? Will the commission be able to pursue inquiries that may seem relevant to the case, apart from the inquiry that is asked for by the court?
Furthermore, what will be the position of an appellant in the Court of Appeal? If he is asked to comment or to give evidence to the commission while he is still in the middle of his case at the Court of Appeal, one would not expect him to have to incriminate himself. What, therefore, will be the relationship between the court and the commission?
What will happen if, after the appeal is over, the person who has been convicted wants to make further representations to the commission? Will the original reference by the Court of Appeal to the commission have an impact on that?
We all welcome the setting up of the commission: it is long overdue. Certain matters of detail, however, need to be put right, as we all want the commission to work well. We want it to reduce the number of miscarriages of justice, and to allow old cases to be effectively looked at again. Just because a case is already being investigated should not constitute a barrier to presenting it to the commission in the future.
Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge): I welcome this Bill and support its Second Reading. I know that my constituents, a number of whom have written to me in recent years about miscarriages of justice, will be pleased that legislation has been quickly introduced--a fact on which I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.
Column 65As the House knows, I am parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation of England and Wales, whose views I have naturally sought. They are a matter of legitimate interest in consideration of this important piece of legislation.
The federation, together with the Police Superintendents Association and the Association of Chief Police Officers, submitted an agreed memorandum of evidence on this subject to the Royal Commission on criminal justice. This is an example of the three police staff associations acting together to comment on a subject of enormous importance to the country and the police service. The view of the Police Federation is that many of the recent well- known appeals have been successful after long, prominent campaigns on behalf of those convicted. The federation believes that it is difficult for a senior Cabinet Minister such as the Home Secretary to maintain a detached judgment which is focused only on evidential issues; and it is perhaps unfair to him--or one day, her--that he should be involved in the appeal process when, at all other stages, the judiciary is wholly independent of the Executive. It is therefore a welcome step that the Bill provides that the referral of cases to the Court of Appeal in circumstances when the Home Secretary at present makes the decision should in future be undertaken by a quasi-judicial forum comprising lawyers and lay persons.
In its evidence to the royal commission, the federation said that it was difficult to see what body other than the police could carry out the necessary inquiries into possible miscarriages of justice. The management and co-ordination of a major inquiry is obviously a complex and specialist function. Detailed understanding of the initial investigation would always be required.
It seems to the federation that such expertise lies only in the police service, and that it would be unrealistic and unfair on the appellant and the prosecution to ask any other body to re-investigate a case without that expertise. It should be recognised also that, in all the cases that have given rise to the present concern, the discrepancies have been discovered and exposed in the end by meticulous police inquiries.
As far as I am aware, there has never been a suggestion that the further inquiries normally undertaken by an outside police force have been less than rigorous, or that any evidence which benefits the defendant has been suppressed. It is for those reasons that the federation supports the main objectives set out in the Bill. The police are aware that the proposals in the Bill have aroused some criticism because of the decision to leave the investigation of cases in their hands. This criticism, where it exists, can be answered by drawing attention to the long experience of the system by which police investigations into serious complaints against the service are carried out under the supervision of the Police Complaints Authority.
The federation is not aware of any case in which it has been suggested, still less established, that such investigations have not been fair and thorough. There is therefore no reason to suspect that that will not be the position with investigations by the criminal cases review commission.
Column 66I agree with the views that have been expressed to me by the police. They say that, taking into account the fact that the criminal justice system has undergone major reforms in recent years, almost all the cases that have caused public concern pre-date current legislation. That point has been made by several hon. Members. The federation believes that the creation of the proposed commission will inevitably lead to a substantial rise in the number of cases in which miscarriages of justice are alleged. It considers, however, that it is not unreasonable to expect that the number of cases that will be found to merit reference to the courts will not be significantly greater than it is now.
Consequently, the federation believes that it is sensible to rely on police investigations. It does not, however, rule out the possibility that the new commission might itself decide, in the light of experience, that it should have its own investigative arm, consisting perhaps of former police officers and others with appropriate experience and qualifications. That point was made by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence). I can tell my hon. Friend the Minister of State that there is some concern in police circles that the cost and manpower implications for the service might have been understated. It is estimated that, at least initially, the number of cases in which a miscarriage of justice is alleged might double to about 1,500 annually. There will therefore be more references to the courts than the current average of 10 or 12 cases a year. Given increases in the case load of those proportions, there is concern that, when the Bill is enacted, it should not place extra demands on precious police resources. The federation has told me that it believes that consideration should be given to reimbursing police forces for the cost of investigations that are carried out at the behest of the commission. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who is listening carefully to the debate, will take that request fully into account.
It is a welcome development in considering the Bill that the House knows that its provisions have the support of the Police Complaints Authority. There has been some discussion about the PCA this afternoon, so it is important to place on record the fact that it supports the Bill. The PCA called for the setting up of an independent body to investigate possible miscarriages of justice in its evidence to the Royal Commission on criminal justice. It therefore looks forward to the proposed commission, and to co- operating with it in future.
The House knows that the PCA has considerable experience of supervising investigations into alleged miscarriages of justice. These arise in three ways. The first and largest group results from complaints against police officers by convicted persons. Secondly, when the Home Office requests a police review or reinvestigation of a case involving possible police misconduct, the investigating force may well seek the added safeguard of supervision by the PCA. Thirdly, evidence which raises doubt about the safety of a conviction may be turned up in the course of an unrelated complaint investigation. I understand that it is always acted upon, even if the person concerned has not claimed to be the victim of a miscarriage.
Column 67A survey in July 1992 showed that the PCA was supervising 26 cases involving possible miscarriages of justice, involving 30 individuals and 15 police forces. A similar assessment in January of this year revealed 17 such cases, involving officers in 11 different police forces.
The PCA was not involved in cases such as those of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, or that of Carl Bridgewater, which predated its establishment in 1985. However, the authority supervised investigations which formed the basis of successful appeals by Sam Kulasingham and Prem Sivalingham, who were convicted of murdering Tamils in east London; of Edward Browning, who was convicted of murdering Mrs. Marie Wilkes on the M50; and of the Darvell brothers, whom we have already heard about. Other important cases include the West Midlands serious crime squad, where 97 cases were referred to the Home Office and where, following a supervised inquiry, 22 officers had their sentences quashed by the Court of Appeal. Another case that is worth recalling is that of ex-Police Constable Corley, who was accused of involvement in armed robberies and sentenced to 17 years' imprisonment. A supervised investigation resulted in a successful appeal. The investigation subsequently revealed, however, that he had been the victim of a conspiracy. There is a case for openness in dealing with these difficult matters. For that reason, the PCA welcomes the fact that the proposed commission will enjoy more freedom to explain its decisions than is currently permitted under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. The PCA also takes the view that the police are best equipped to investigate cases. That is an important conclusion. The chairman of the New Zealand complaints authority recently said:
"Experience has shown throughout the world that civilians cannot investigate police as well as police can. It is much easier to deceive the public than it is other police."
I must agree with that view.
Home Office statistics show that the overwhelming majority of cases to be considered by the new commission do not involve accusations against police officers. I understand that it is likely that there will be only a limited number--perhaps 15 or 20--a year.
I wish the Bill well, and hope that it will have a speedy passage through Parliament. It is a major step forward, which will be welcomed by the public in general. It will help to restore confidence, which has been dented by some wrongful convictions in the recent past.
Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South-East): Like many of my colleagues, I welcome the proposal to set up the criminal cases review commission. Many would say that it has taken about 25 years to take this step, and that it should have been done sooner. I should explain at this stage that I have a sore throat. I ask the House to bear with me.
The proposal to set up the commission is vital to the area that I represent in part, because the west midlands has had problems with a minority of the West Midlands police over some years. I shall not rehearse individual cases this evening, because some of my colleagues have
Column 68already touched on them. The House knows that we have experienced the problem of the Birmingham Six and other serious cases. An independent review commission could also investigate faulty forensic tests. I am sure that some hon. Members know exactly what I mean by that.
There is also the question of police evidence. If it is established properly, the commission will be able to go a long way towards restoring public confidence in the police. In some instances, the majority of policemen have been branded by cases that obscure the fact that only a minority have engaged in certain practices. I entirely accept what some of my hon. Friends have already pointed out: most policemen are offended when a colleague is found guilty of impropriety.
As all hon. Members who represent inner cities know, such areas rely heavily on the police, and it is therefore vital to restore confidence in them. I am slightly disappointed in only one aspect of the Bill. While I am aware that this is not part of the remit that we are discussing, I feel that much more could have been done to help the police, and to ensure that they do not make mistakes, through the provision of witness protection schemes. I am referring to genuine mistakes: if witnesses are frightened, they do not always provide accurate information.
I should like to know about the composition of the new commission. I hope that the Home Secretary will find places for representatives of ethnic minorities. Most of us know that, rightly or wrongly, many members of those minorities feel that they are discriminated against in the courts and that injustices are often perpetrated. If the Home Secretary examined that problem, the commission would be given some credibility.
In 1982, the Select Committee on Home Affairs recommended that the police should be investigated by a body other than themselves. A number of organisations have been suggested. I am not too concerned which organisation should perform the task, but I should like to know why the police should do it. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) that the police are probably better at investigating themselves than anyone else is at investigating them, but I should like that argument to be tested: it is often used in the House without much justification.
I should also like to know more about the composition of the proposed commission. I understand that solicitors will form a third of it, but what about the other two thirds? The Home Secretary referred to "adequate resources"; what does he mean by that? Is it pounds, shillings and pence, or is it bodies? If he is referring to staff who will be playing an investigatory role, we need to know how much money will be spent. If the commission is not adequately resourced, it will not fulfil the functions we wish it to fulfil: it will not be able to right wrongs perpetrated in the administration of justice.
The Home Secretary pointed out that police training had improved over the years, and said that he was in the forefront in the fight against crime. I do not know about that. As other hon. Members have pointed out, many police budgets may be cut in future, while some have already been cut. If the police are to do their job adequately and not make mistakes, they must be given adequate resources; but too much lip service has been paid to that principle.
Column 69As I have said many times in the House, the whole question of standard spending assessments must be examined. It is easy to obscure the resources granted to the police by citing a general local authority budget, and it is possible to advance 57 arguments for each case, without spelling out the resources that are actually available.
Lady Olga Maitland: Am I to understand that the hon. Gentleman is not satisfied with the Government's proposal for a staff of about 60 in the new commission? Is he suggesting a staff twice that size? Will he bear in mind what that would cost?
Mr. Cunningham: I do not think that it is for me to say how much it would cost. I want to know how much the Government will put into the new scheme, and what they mean by "adequate resources". I think that that means a bit more than money. The hon. Lady should direct her question to Ministers.
The Government say that they are at the forefront of the fight against crime, but they have cut resources for police authorities; they have also cut legal aid. If we are genuinely to debate justice, we must deal with those facts. Funds for victim support schemes and the safer cities programme have also been cut. Many people living in deprived areas feel aggrieved when they find themselves in a court of law without adequate resources to put their case, and that is another reason for establishing the new commission.
Mr. Shersby: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the country is currently spending £432 million on legal aid? That huge sum, which is dispensed by justices' clerks and through the medium of solicitors, must be seen in the context of the criminal justice system as a whole. As for the cuts to which the hon. Gentleman refers, I am sure that he is referring to ability to claim on the basis of income rather than the total cost of the scheme.
Mr. Cunningham: My point is that the poorer members of society experience difficulties in obtaining legal aid. I am not talking about multi-millionaires. As with any other resources, we must ask what basis should be used for the provision of resources for legal aid. The judgment should surely be made on the basis of need. Hon. Members tend to judge less on the basis of need than on the basis of how much can be returned to the taxpayer, but I do not think that justice should be based on that principle.
Although I broadly welcome the Bill, I hope that the Home Secretary will consider some of what I have said.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): I begin by making some apologies. I must apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as a representative of Madam Speaker; I must also apologise to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, to other Ministers and to the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) for having been unavoidably absent until fairly late in the debate. I was undertaking other parliamentary duties. I gather from those to whom I have spoken that the opening speeches were of a high quality, and it is my loss rather than that of other hon. Members that I was not present to hear them. I also apologise to Back Benchers on both sides of the House whose speeches I was not able to hear. I am glad, however, that I have been able to hear some interesting
Column 70contributions in the past hour and a half or so. I am happy that, with one or two exceptions on different matters, the Bill is receiving all-party support. It seems to fit into the scheme of things in criminal justice, and it will allow a more humane and, if I may say so, effective system of dealing with complaints about the criminal justice system.
As I understand it, there are three main objectives to the reforms proposed by the Bill: first, to ensure that convictions that cannot be considered safe are quashed, leaving those that are safe to stand; secondly, to provide arrangements to ensure that doubts about the safety of a conviction can be considered and resolved at the earliest opportunity; and thirdly, to ensure a consistency of approach in criminal proceedings, so that the final decision on whether a conviction should stand is in all cases taken by the courts, whether on an ordinary appeal or following a re-examination of the case by another body. Those are perfectly unobjectionable aims, and I trust that, when the Bill becomes an Act, they will be realised. It might be of some assistance to the House to place the Bill in an historical context. I do so with some diffidence, because I am not much of a criminal historian, and certainly not much of a criminal lawyer. I must declare an interest, in that I am a member of the Bar and earn my living at the Bar when I am not here.
I have not done a criminal case since about 1978, and all sorts of magical things have happened since then about which I am wholly ignorant, but I do know that, before 1907, there was no general right of appeal against conviction or sentence; there was simply no Court of Appeal. Miscarriages of justice could be corrected only by using the royal prerogative of mercy, on the advice of a Secretary of State. There has always been--I am not sure that it has been a happy thing--a political intervention in the criminal justice system in the recommendation for the use of the royal prerogative of mercy. As I understand it, the Bill makes proposals with regard to the royal prerogative, and has some effect on it.
The Criminal Appeal Act 1907 set up the Court of Criminal Appeal, which was given by the House and Parliament as a whole the power to correct wrongful convictions on appeal, and the Secretary of State had the power to refer cases to it. The right to request a referral lay solely with the defendant. That remained the position until shortly after the second world war, when the House passed the Criminal Justice Act 1948, which allowed a referral to be made as a result of representations from any other person. Following that Act, we have a "multi-accessed approach"--if I may use a disgusting expression--to the Court of Criminal Appeal.
The Administration of Justice Act 1960 gave the Secretary of State discretion to refer a case. The Criminal Appeal Act 1966 set up the criminal division of the Court of Appeal, replacing the Court of Criminal Appeal. The Criminal Appeal Act 1968 gave the Secretary of State power to refer cases to the Court of Appeal.
In July 1993, the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice was established, which, as the House will know, is widely known as the Runciman commission. It has recently reported, and many of its recommendations have been considered in the Home Affairs Select Committee, of which until January I was honoured to be a member. I see that my former colleague, the hon. Member for Warwickshire, North (Mr. O'Brien), who sits on the Opposition Benches, is in his place. He was removed from that Committee to sit on the Treasury Select Committee.
Column 71Whether he finds it as enjoyable as we used to find the Home Affairs Select Committee, I have no idea, but I can see that he is itching to tell us. No doubt in due course he will intervene to tell us about his work on that Committee.
As a result of the Runciman commission, a recommendation was made that the Secretary of State's power to refer cases to the Court of Appeal should be removed and given to a new, independent review body. The Government accepted that recommendation. Also recommended were changes to the powers and functions of the Court of Appeal. In March and June of 1994, further discussion papers were published, dealing with miscarriages of justice and changes in Northern Ireland, and the Bill was published in February 1995. So we have had nearly 90 years of legislative development, and the Bill is but the latest development--I can say with some confidence that it will be the last for some time--in the law as it relates to criminal justice. The House will be aware from recent newspaper reports that Lord Justice Rose, sitting, I think, in the criminal division of the Court of Appeal, deprecated the number of Bills that have emerged from Parliament in the past 10 years or so dealing with criminal justice and which have become Acts. I sat on the Standing Committee that considered the Criminal Justice Bill 1993, a Bill that was designed to correct the mistakes that had been made in the Criminal Justice Act 1991. I believe that the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), who is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench, led for the Opposition in that Committee.
Although I was not a Member of the House at the time, I recall hearing the thoughts of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) during the passage of the Criminal Justice Bill 1991. He anticipated the Criminal Justice Bill 1993, and warned other hon. Members about the unitary fine system and about doing away with previous convictions points, which later had to be corrected in the 1993 Act.
I hope that will get this Bill right, and get it right at first blush, because there has been much pre-legislative discussion about it. I trust that the Government have taken on board the points that were drawn to their attention after reading the commission's report, and through listening to the deliberations of experts such as my hon. and learned Friend and other interested parties outside Parliament--academics, legal practitioners and so forth--who have taken an interest in the matter.
If I may say so, the conduct of the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) cannot be brushed aside as an inconvenient intervention of a Labour Member of Parliament. Although I do not agree with him on all sorts of issues, his work on a number of alleged cases of criminal injustice is commendable and has got us all thinking.
The hon. Gentleman cannot, of course, claim all the credit for some of the corrections to injustices that have taken place. Indeed, my predecessor, Sir John Farr, who represented the constituency of Harborough from 1959 until the previous general election, was instrumental in adding Conservative teeth to the point that was raised by the hon. Gentleman. I, as Sir John did before, had the
Column 72honour of representing a number of what I might call "involuntary constituents"--those who are incarcerated in Gartree prison. It was while visiting Gartree that Sir John met a number of the Birmingham Six, and he was of great assistance to them in helping them to get their convictions overturned. For present purposes, it does not matter whether those convictions were wrong or right. What matters, for present purposes, is that it took all the work of a Member of Parliament, who lent them his photocopying machine at home to photocopy papers and so forth; the work of the press and of other Members of Parliament, including the hon. Member for Sunderland, South, to get those convictions overturned.
I have represented--I am not sure whether it still applies--some of the Bridgwater Three. I did a little work on their behalf to see that their case was drawn to the attention of the Home Office. I am currently engaged in another case involving an involuntary constituent who has been convicted of murder. I have read the judge's summing up at the trial and the Court of Appeal judgments, and, in my view, there is a lurking doubt about the safety of the conviction in that case. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) is currently looking at the case, and I shall not embarrass him or interfere in his departmental discussions by mentioning the name of the case. The lesson to be drawn from all those activities is that it seems to take a long time for anything to be done. I hope that the Bill will provide a system for much quicker resolution of complaints.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South): Despite all that my hon. Friend has said, with which I agree, does he share my concern that the one problem arising from the Bill, which I welcome, is the danger of great pressure from single-issue lobby groups to try to get media pressure for a cause celebre just for the sake of it? Does he agree that there is a danger that such pressure might weigh too heavily on a body such as that which is proposed?
Mr. Garnier: As the body has yet to be set up, I have no idea whether it will be susceptible to that sort of pressure. I intervened during the debate on the Wild Mammals (Protection) Bill on Friday to complain about legislation by postcard, and I trust that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will be resolute in not allowing any new body to be open to such pressure.
The converse argument is that this is a democracy, and if a matter worries people, then who the hell do they write to if not their Member of Parliament or the body that deals with the matter? While I acknowledge the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins), I do not think that they should be paramount in our discussions.
I shall now deal with the speed at which complaints are dealt with. Figures produced by the Home Office on the number of representations about wrongful convictions and actions taken show that there were 536 in 1988, and that they resulted in two referrals to the Court of Appeal, one of which was dropped before it reached there. In 1989, there were 568 cases, and six were referred. In 1990, 731 were considered, and 20 were referred. It is interesting that, in 1989 and 1990, all the appeals were allowed.
Column 73Therefore, it appears that the Minister who considered those cases got it right, by referring only those that should not have resulted in conviction in the first place.
In 1991, 714 cases were considered, 12 were referred to the Court of Appeal and all were allowed. In 1992, 763 were considered, and 11 were referred to the Court of Appeal. I understand that one is outstanding at the moment. Eight appeals were allowed. In 1993, 670 cases were considered and nine were referred. One of those has been abandoned and four are outstanding. So far, three appeals have been allowed, and one has been dismissed. In 1994, 480 cases were considered, and 12 were referred. We do not yet know how many of those appeals will be allowed or dismissed.
We are debating large numbers of cases, but they are not huge in relation to the number that magistrates courts and Crown courts have to deal with. None the less, the number of cases is not small, and I trust that they will be dealt with expeditiously by the new body. The proposed changes to the criminal appeals system have been set out by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, and I shall not bore the House by repeating them. However, I ask him to consider the financial consequences of the Bill. I refer especially to the explanatory and financial memorandum in the Bill, and the heading "Financial effects of the Bill" in part lV. I shall not bore the House by reading out what is stated there, because hon. Members can read it for themselves.
One of the financial effects about which the Bill is silent is the issue of legal aid. I think that the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Cunningham) mentioned that. What are the Bill's implications for legal aid? When an aggrieved prisoner contacts his solicitor and asks him to refer his case or to get something done about it, the solicitor may act more willingly if he is remunerated. Obviously, some solicitors act, as they say, pro bono publico, and single-issue campaign lawyers have been mentioned. Plenty of good solicitors require to be paid, and why not? Will they be given legal aid for dealing with referrals to the independent criminal cases review commission?
If the review commission takes on a case and reaches a whimsical or other conclusion which may be susceptible to judicial review, will the complainant, the aggrieved prisoner, or any other interested person, be allowed legal aid for representation in the divisional court which will review the decision of the commission?
I can ask those questions in a spirit of disinterest, since I do not carry out any legal aid work and have nothing whatever to gain from the answers. Perhaps legal aid solicitors will not have anything to gain from them either, because the Minister may say that legal aid is not available. None the less, as the Bill is silent on that matter, I should be grateful if the Minister of State could deal with it, either in writing in due course or, if he has a chance to consult his officials, in his winding-up speech.
A number of other hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate, so I shall content myself by welcoming the Bill's broad overall aims. I trust that, as appears likely from the debate so far, it will have a reasonably uncontroversial passage, and that its Committee stage will be short. The sooner the commission is set up and in action, the better.
Column 747.7 pm