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Column 87circumstances in which it would be right for the commission to have recourse to different procedures and to use different people to do the job.
Fourthly, we must always be concerned about the timing of procedures. There is currently an enormous backlog of many people who have been in prison for a long time.
Those four points have all affected a case in which I have been involved. I shall follow the pattern set down in the debate and not refer by name to the people who believe that they have suffered a miscarriage of justice. I shall refer to the case in a less overt manner. The son of two of my constituents was convicted in December 1987 of having murdered his fiance e in September 1986. He was given a life sentence and has been in prison ever since. He never accepted the result. From the moment of his arrest, he has always protested his innocence.
Before the trial, it was suggested to the man that, given that he was convicted of murdering his fiance e, if he suggested that it had happened in a moment of passion, it could be regarded as manslaughter and he would not be sentenced to so many years. Certainly, if he had at any time accepted his guilt, it is unlikely that he would have served the time that he has already served, the events having taken place more than eight years ago. He has already been in prison a long time, but he has always protested his innocence.
There are genuine grounds for believing that the conviction may be unsafe. I should need to hear the results of a full investigation before making a judgment. The grounds for having an investigation and having recourse to a commission of the sort described are straightforward. The case has been continuing for so long that I took it over from my predecessor, Lord Merlyn Rees, who was himself a distinguished Home Secretary. For the first five years of the case, Merlyn Rees did his best to represent the man and sought, through the relevant procedures, to obtain an appeal. The appeal was turned down because, although the parents had engaged a private detective who had produced a massive and detailed report of the case and had conducted many interviews, lawyers felt that the private detective's report did not amount to new evidence. Therefore, the case never went to the Court of Appeal.
Soon after I won the seat at the last general election, there was an approach from the C3 department of the Home Office after the son of my constituents had been listed by Liberty as a person whose conviction was unsafe. Since then, I and my office have spent many hours examining the evidence and considering possible ways of getting the case reopened. For a long time, we did not produce anything that could be described as new evidence. The reason for that is intrinsic to the case, and therefore it is an important aspect of considering the grounds on which an appeal can be heard.
If the police rapidly reach a conclusion in a murder case and never investigate any alternative interpretations of why the death occurred, it is extremely difficult later to follow up other possible interpretations and other possible leads that are consistent with the opinions of the person who has already been convicted. There is thus an inherent difficulty in dealing with a case which appears to hinge on the fact that the officer in charge of the case reached
Column 88a certain conclusion about the identity of the person who committed the crime extremely early in the investigation, and never wavered in his conviction.
It is of interest that the same officer, on being transferred to a different force, was in charge of a rape case in which he formed an equally rapid conviction; the person about whom he had formed that conclusion was arrested and imprisoned, and someone else then came into the police station and confessed to the crime. That may simply be coincidental. It may simply be that, in one of the two cases in which the officer reached a rapid conclusion, the person who was in prison had a lucky break, as people do not often confess to a rape when someone else is likely to be in the dock for it. It would have taken a similar sort of break for my constituent's son to have any evidence with which to overturn the strong conviction of the officer in charge of the case. That makes it especially difficult to assemble new evidence in those circumstances. In recent months, however, with the help of a barrister, possible grounds of appeal have been investigated, and a fresh set of advice on appeal has been obtained. That brings me what I regard as a second important aspect--ensuring that the commission has the right powers to obtain transcripts. There has been one great handicap in the case. We have gone over the evidence, much of which centres around the time of death. The time of death in that case was uncertain because, when the body was discovered, the death was not immediately thought to be a death in suspicious circumstances. The body was therefore refrigerated for 24 hours before there was any investigation of the body to discover the cause of death.
The forensic evidence of Dr. Alan Usher, a noted pathologist in his time, is that some of the alleged conclusions about time of death simply could not properly be drawn because there had been that great gap between death occurring and the corpse being examined, and the refrigeration process had made it impossible to determine the evidence in quite the way in which it was subsequently used. We do not know, because we have not obtained a transcript of the trial, whether conviction hinged on the time of death. I believe, therefore, that it is important to obtain a transcript. As the case never went to appeal in the first place, however, there is no written transcript; it exists only in shorthand notes. One of the things that I am very worried about is that, since the time when we first asked for those shorthand notes to be preserved, some of them have been destroyed, which I believe should not have happened when a Member of Parliament had expressed a specific interest in the case. The control of the taking of transcripts in court falls within the Lord Chancellor's domain. I am anxious that the new commission should be in a position to obtain the transcript in a case of that kind, where no transcript of the trial has been obtained. I ask the Minister to tell me in his reply whether the commission will have the powers to obtain a transcript.
I was told that I might obtain a transcript if I were prepared to pay for it myself. It was estimated that the transcript would cost more than £3,200. I was told that it could not count as office costs, which would have meant that it would in effect cost less due to the effect on Inland Revenue payments. It was therefore a case of obtaining legal aid, but legal aid could not be obtained unless there
Column 89was to be an appeal; so there was a complete "Catch 22" situation. When the Registrar of the Court of Appeal was told that we needed the evidence, he wrote back saying that if, as a result of obtaining the transcript, it was found that an appeal could be made, the costs of obtaining the transcript would be paid for by the Court of Appeal; if not, we would be left holding the baby, as it were. That does not seem to me to be a reasonable way to proceed.
As a result of telephone conversations, it would appear, between the solicitors who were handling the matter and Master Mackenzie, the Registrar of the Court of Appeal, the Court of Appeal has now decided that at least the judge's summing up will be paid for, and once we obtain the text of the judge's summing up, if that helps in determining whether time of death was a critical factor in the conviction, we may well get the case re-opened.
I am therefore very anxious that the power to obtain transcripts should be available to the commission.
The third matter is independence. I shall not emphasise it at any length because other hon. Members have already spoken about it, but it is very hard if the same force who were responsible for conducting the prosecution and providing evidence for the prosecution have to investigate a miscarriage of justice because, in a sense, miscarriages of justice reflect on those who were involved. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) was quite wrong about the Stefan Kiszko case; that was a deliberate withholding of evidence, and that deliberate withholding of evidence was very much to the discredit of the West Yorkshire police. I do not suggest that many people would be involved--probably very few, perhaps just one or two. Nevertheless, it counts against the force as a whole when that type of thing happens. It is very important that at least a different, independent, police force is involved, as a necessary safeguard.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), therefore, that we need independence. It would not increase costs because with other investigators, and therefore fewer police costs, the cost might be transferred. Perhaps I should also take into account the pace of the process. That man has been in prison for eight and a half years. If the commission is up and running in the next 18 months or sooner, and if it begins by considering cases which have been held up for a long time, it is possible that that case will be examined in three or four years' time. By then, that man will have spent a very long time in prison. We must do something to ensure that the commission is able to progress cases with greater speed than has occurred in the past.
Despite my concerns, I welcome the establishment of the commission and I am anxious to see it up and running and working effectively. I believe that it will be much more effective if some of the changes which I am confident will be proposed in Committee are accepted by the Government, and I hope that the Government will view them objectively because I do not believe that this is a party political issue.
Several hon. Members rose --
Column 908.20 pm
Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West): It is always dangerous to ask me to speak in a debate on the criminal appeal system. It is always assumed that Conservative Members will support the Establishment, but I believe that, in many respects, the Establishment has let down the country, in criminal appeals and elsewhere, and that it continues to do so. The appeal system should not be considered as infallible--in fact, it has been extremely fallible in many respects for a very long time.
Why do we need the Criminal Appeal Bill? We have had a Court of Appeal since just after the turn of the century, which is supposed to have done its job, reviewing cases and allowing appeals on cases. What has the Court of Appeal done for all those years? By and large, it has not been keen to overthrow convictions. It has been ultra-conservative and felt that it should support the Establishment view rather than adopt a strictly judicial one.
I have no great hopes or aspirations in my career. I do not expect to get on in the Government or to advance my career as a barrister much further. I do not care too much about that; I feel that I must express my views. I do not believe that the Court of Appeal has always behaved in the way that it should. We have only to examine some of the cases. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have cited murder case after murder case, as if to suggest that they are the only cases tried in the courts.
I do not believe that miscarriages of justice are few and far between; I believe that there have been many, and that they will continue into the future. We are talking about a very fallible process: human beings judging other human beings. There have been several recent examples of the fallibility of the jury system. One jury used a ouija board to decide whether a person was guilty. Another jury could not reach a conclusion and the foreman said that the decision was six to four, with two abstentions-- as if a juror could abstain!
One often wonders what juries are up to. Thankfully, we are not allowed to ask too many questions; if we did, we might be a little worried about the jury system. The ouija board case involved someone very powerful and the court gave in. The usual argument is: "The jury decided it and we cannot override its decision. All the evidence was put before the jury. The defendant gave evidence, and the jurors decided not to believe him. Blah, blah, blah". In the end, appeals are often rejected out of hand, flying in the face of common sense. I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) to consider the number of times that the cases of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six came to the court before they finally came to appeal. Why did the Court of Appeal turn down those cases time and again? It failed us, and it failed the system of justice.
I have fought year in and year out over identification evidence. There is no more dangerous evidence than that. I am fallible in that regard: I have recognised my daughter in a hundred places when she was not there. When I was rather naughty in the Chamber, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Carttiss) was named instead of me, so I slipped out before I could be named correctly. The badge messengers always mistake me for
Column 91my hon. Friend. That is a personal case of mistaken identification which occurs day in and day out. I am sure that the same sort of thing happens to everyone.
We went to the Court of Appeal with about half a dozen identification cases. The most dreadful miscarriages of justice occurred in the 1970s, and they prompted Lord Devlin to produce a report. He said that people should not be convicted on identification alone; there should also be corroboration. He was absolutely correct, and those of us who practise in the courts know that it is utterly wrong to convict on the basis of identification without corroboration. Yet hundreds of people are convicted every day in magistrates and Crown courts on identification evidence alone, without any corroboration.
I hope that you will tip me the wink when my 10 minutes is up, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I do not remember when I started to speak. When I get on my high horse, I tend to get rather excited.
In the R v. Turnbull direction on identification evidence, the Court of Appeal failed totally to meet any of the Devlin recommendations. It was a complete cop-out, and it has been copping out ever since on the question of identification evidence. That situation will continue, because I do not see the Court of Appeal changing its approach.
Only the other day, I had a case involving identification. The initial description offered by a witness, who had been with the defendant for only half an hour, was totally different from the appearance of the man he identified nine months later. That case resulted in a conviction because juries are like that. I am sure that the Court of Appeal would say that the jury heard all the evidence, and we should leave it at that.
We must look beyond the criminal cases review commission and examine the fundamentals of our criminal justice system. We must consider whether it is as good and as impartial as it should be, or whether it is a case of the great and the good lining their own pockets. I am terribly afraid when I hear my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam say that the right people must serve on the criminal cases review commission. In saying that we must not have people from Liberty or Justice, she means that the great and the good and the right wingers should serve on the commission. They will look at cases like those of the Guildford Four and of the Birmingham Six and they will say, "We must not consider that case. It is a perfectly good conviction and we are perfectly happy with it. It should not be referred to the Court of Appeal." There will be refusals at the commission and the Court of Appeal levels, and the injustices will continue.
I believe that the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) is the right person to chair the commission--although I suppose that he is happier fighting for his causes in this place. When the hon. Gentleman first came to the Chamber we thought that he was a loony lefty, pursuing ridiculous cases of failures of justice. We all thought that he was a very silly man; but he was right all the time. The more one talks to him, the more one realises that he makes good sense about the need for an impartial judicial system.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, who is not in her place, that we must be jolly careful about the commission's membership. We do not
Column 92necessarily want right wingers or the great and the good; we want people of independent minds, and we want the opportunity to use independent investigators. I am horrified at the thought that such investigators will never be used. The police might do 90 per cent. of the time, but somebody else may be needed the other 10 per cent. I look forward in Committee to giving the commission more scope and chance. I obviously support the Bill, but trust that I have fired sufficient warning shots across everybody's bows. I hope that I have not disappointed anybody.
Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East): I want to maintain the record by joining other hon. Members in welcoming the Bill. Given the long history attached to it, I am surprised that it has taken the Home Secretary so long to present it. Public confidence in the criminal justice system has been completely undermined by cases such as the Birmingham Six, Judith Ward, the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven, the Cardiff Three and Stefan Kiszko. Between 1989 and 1992, more than 50 people were released from prison as a result of miscarriages of justice, which reflects points made by the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby).
Some people--including senior figures in the judiciary--adhere to the utilitarian theory of justice. They argue that, in the event of a terrorist bombing of a pub, if some suspects are apprehended quickly, tried and convicted, it does not much matter whether they are guilty or innocent, because the bulk of the population will have a sense of security and enjoy peace of mind. Although that theory is shocking when presented baldly, it is credible for some jurists and members of the judiciary, and it has often overlain attitudes to so-called and real miscarriages of justice.
The right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker) established the royal commission on 14 March 1991. From earlier speeches, it is clear that that was the least that the right hon. Gentleman could have done. The royal commission reported 18 months ago and recommended a body such as that proposed in the Bill, but with considerable differences.
The history of support for such a body goes back a long way. In 1968, Justice recommended that such a body should be established, and the Home Affairs Select Committee reported in 1983. Sir John May's second report on the Maguire case was published on 3 December 1992. There were amendments at the Report stage of the Criminal Justice Bill in 1987, and former Home Secretaries who supported an independent element included the current Foreign Secretary and the right hon. Member for Mole Valley. Few cases have been referred--only 10 in 1994, and at 1 January 1995, 38 cases had been outstanding in the C3 department longer than one year.
I introduced a ten-minute Bill on miscarriages of justice on 16 February 1993. I commend that Bill to members of the Government Front Bench, if for no reason other than it is drafted in gender-neutral language. I record my thanks to members of the Public Bill Office, who helped me to achieve that. The Criminal Appeal Bill is full of "he" and "him". No doubt we will be told that, for legal purposes, "he" embraces "she"--but "she" sometimes gets a bit fed up being embraced by "he" in legislation. I
Column 93ask those responsible to examine my ten- minute Bill, to see that it is perfectly possible to draft legislation that applies to both sexes.
The Criminal Appeal Bill has major flaws. My Bill provided that "any person convicted of a criminal offence on indictment or that person's legal representative"
could apply, but under the Government's Bill, the Court of Appeal offers the only route. A logjam seems inevitable. Also, the culture of the Court of Appeal is somewhat hostile to the overturning of jury verdicts or of the findings of judges of first instance.
I was pleased to hear from the Home Secretary that vacancies for commission membership will be advertised, but it is important that the criteria for appointment should be known and published. It would be better if the Lord Chancellor were responsible for overseeing appointments, as recommended by the royal commission, rather than the Prime Minister or Home Secretary. Those appointments should be handled by someone who does not hold direct political office but who is responsible for the judiciary.
Clause 13(1)(a) sets a high threshold from the referral of cases from the commission to the Court of Appeal. It refers to
"any argument or evidence . . . which gives rise to a real possibility that the conviction, verdict or finding would not be upheld".
The test of "real possibility" is too hard. It would be better to substitute the words, "relevant", or, "capable of belief", which are used in clause 4. Lord Devlin said once that a conviction is not safe if the jury has not heard all credible and relevant evidence. That would be a more acceptable hurdle than "real possibility". There must also be rules to provide a duty to preserve or retain all evidence after conviction on indictment. That is possible, with the use of microfiche, without taking much space. Such evidence should be preserved for the duration of a sentence. All too often, when someone wants to argue a miscarriage of justice, it is found that the police have had a spring clean. There is not necessarily a malign motive, but evidence goes missing--often, evidence that was not put before the jury. The retention of evidence is important to someone who wants to claim a miscarriage of justice. Also, in a case such as that of the West Midlands serious crime squad, which was found to be riddled with corruption, police officers cannot be brought to book if evidence has disappeared. A rule that evidence must be retained and preserved would serve the interests of justice. Many Members questioned whether investigating officers should be independent of the police. I will not rehearse those arguments, but I believe that they should be. We have only to look to Hong Kong to know that such independence is possible. That territory is one over which we have jurisdiction and where the staff of a comparable body to the commission is independent of the police. I am told by lawyers who have appeared in courts in Hong Kong that the system works well, and that there is no reason why it should not work here.
I echo the warning that it would be unwise to use the Police Complaints Authority as a model. On the day that the PCA came into being, the Police Federation said:
"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."
Column 94There has been reference to proper funding of this body. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), who introduced the only party political aspect to this debate--to put it
tactfully--questioned how much the body would cost. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) who, in his absence, has been recommended for the post of first chairman of the commission--
Ms Corston: I think that it was meant as a compliment. In any case, my hon. Friend correctly pointed out the huge cost of investigating miscarriages of justice. He cited cases where there had been eight separate investigations, incurring untold expenditure. Justice does not come cheap; proper funding of this body is therefore essential. The Bill should include some rules to provide for legal aid for appeals to the commission. Although access to legal aid has been cut drastically by the Government, such provision as remains should be extended to people applying to this body. If there is no access to justice, there is no justice. It is important that people who want to raise important matters of law in respect of their personal liberty should not be debarred through lack of funds.
This is not just a matter of public confidence; it is a matter of supreme importance for our criminal justice system and for people's faith in it, which has been considerably undermined. The people put behind bars should be the people who committed the crimes for which they were convicted.
The fact that people routinely do not believe in the safety of convictions does none of us any good and is a stain on our criminal justice system. It astonishes me that people are so ready to believe that there have been so many miscarriages of justice. None of us can be proud of the fact that there are so many. I hope that, in Committee, it will be possible constructively to raise some of these matters. I hope, furthermore, that we will not behave as the courts have often behaved: no one seems to have a duty to find out the truth, but we are asked to believe one of two stories.
Mr. Gyles Brandreth (City of Chester): I begin with a moment of cross-party amity with the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston), whose remarks about the irritation caused by the continual use of "he" and "him" I endorse. Surely the language can come up with alternative ways of handling the problem. It is a long-running irritant that needs dealing with. I also find the phrase "he embraces she" irritating.
I say that as one looking forward to attempting the new right-on green embrace widely advertised in today's papers. I have not yet had a go at it- - [Interruption.] --and I hasten to add that I shall not be trying it out with my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby), whose speech was enormously entertaining and powerful. I would willingly have sacrificed some of my time to hear more of his bravura performance.
Incidentally, my hon. Friend seemed to have reservations about juries, and I understand his concern. It is worth thinking about the issue, because it relates to the wider one of rights and responsibilities. We all want the
Column 95right to be tried by a jury, but many of us try to avoid the responsibility of serving on juries. I often meet people who say that they would do anything to get out of it--they get their employers to send letters claiming that they are not free and cannot attend. If we want to be tried by juries--most people do--we should also accept the responsibility of being ready to serve on one.
Many hon. Members who have spoken today have declared an interest. I am a layman. I have an interest to declare among my antecedents: I am the son and grandson of lawyers. My declaration of interest covers both sides of the legal divide, in that a forebear of mine, Jeremiah Brandreth, was the last person to be hanged and then beheaded for treason in England--in 1812. Unfortunately, the commission was not around then; otherwise that miscarriage of justice would have gone straight to it.
Jeremiah was a Luddite, known in his time as the hopeless radical. I see myself more as a hopeful radical, which is why I am so pleased to welcome this Bill. At its heart is the need to maintain full public confidence in the criminal justice system. Ensuring that it operates fairly is essential if we are to maintain that public confidence.
The Government have already taken a number of steps to increase the chances of the guilty being properly convicted. I take issue here with the hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Gunnell) and his objections concerning the right to silence. I think that the Government have moved in the right direction--likewise with the establishment of the DNA database and the changing of the identity parade procedures to prevent their abuse. All these are important. It is equally important that only the guilty be convicted. The Bill is designed to ensure that that happens, and that, when miscarriages of justice occur, there is a fair and efficient system to put them right. It is also vital that any appeals system--this too underlies the Bill's principles--ensure that convictions that cannot be considered safe are quashed, leaving those that are safe to stand. When the innocent are found guilty, it is every bit as much a miscarriage of justice as when the guilty are acquitted. Doubts about the safety of a conviction must be resolved at the earliest possible opportunity, preferably at the normal appeals stage. A last resort procedure should be just that: it should not be regarded as an extra stage in the standard criminal justice process.
There must also be consistency of approach in criminal proceedings, so that all the final decisions are taken by the courts.
I want to ask the Minister a couple of questions in the hope that he may answer them when he winds up. Hon. Members have discussed the membership of the commission, whose members are to be appointed by Her Majesty on the advice of the Prime Minister, as I understand it. Can the Minister confirm that the posts of chairman and of all the board members will be advertised? If so, in what sort of publications? I understand that at least one third of the membership have to be legally qualified, and two thirds of them must have some direct experience of the criminal justice system. I should like the advertising of public posts generally to be greatly extended. Having become a Member of Parliament, one increasingly meets people who belong to that group known as the great and the good. Occasionally they
Column 96appear to be something of a stage army; one moves from one group to another only to find that the same names and faces, and the same types of name and face, recur. It would be good to take advantage of some of the country's untapped talent who would be willing to serve. The advertising and its placing are thus crucial.
The only anxiety about the Bill expressed in my constituency was put to me in the following simple terms: "Won't this Bill allow the police to investigate themselves? Are you comfortable with that? Wouldn't it be better to have some separate investigative unit?" I am comfortable with the idea, chiefly because of what I read in clauses 18,19 and 20. It appears that clause 18 will empower the commission to require the appointment of investigating officers to assist it in the exercise of its functions, and it can stipulate that those investigating officers come from a public body other than a body which originally investigated the offence.
The commission's direct supervision and investigation are important also. Clause 20 does not preclude the commission from obtaining opinions, commissioning reports and taking other steps to assist it in the exercise of its functions. I feel comfortable with that, because of the use of officers from other forces, where appropriate, and because of the commission's ability to ask for reports from outside bodies.
I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) said about the role and standing of the police in our society. We are so often negative about everything. Instead of saluting our great institutions, as people would in other parts of the world, we take the opposite approach. We do not seek to build them up.
The only place where Great Britain does not have a great reputation is Great Britain. Our police are the envy of the world. We should be erecting statues to our police force in honour of what it contributes to our society, instead of constantly trying to chip away and undermine it. I salute the police of the United Kingdom, and I am comfortable with what the Government are proposing.
I should like to know whether my hon. Friend the Minister of State shares the concern that was expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins) in a typically compelling intervention. The Bill states that representations are received on about 730 cases each year, and there is the expectation that such representations may double when the proposed commission is in place. My hon. Friend talked also about growing evidence of what might be called single-issue lobby groups.
There are days when I think to myself that the world is being run on "Today". I can almost foresee a time when, heaven forfend, an issue will arise and will be discussed on "Today". One side will put its point of view in about two minutes, to be followed by the other side, which similarly puts its point of view. The listener will then be invited to press a button on the radio to deliver a verdict. That would not be satisfactory, but unfortunately, there is a tendency for that approach to be adopted.
It will be far better to have a commission that investigates matters properly than to rely on campaigns that are driven, and sometimes fuelled, by those in the media, who may be interested in trouble-making as an exercise in entertainment and chasing audiences rather than reaching the facts.
Column 97I have no doubt that the cause of justice will be well served by the Bill. That is why I warmly welcome it.
Mr. Mike O'Brien (Warwickshire, North): I begin by joining the general welcome for the Bill and our discussion of miscarriages of justice. It has been a constructive and largely bipartisan debate. My constituents often complain that Members are always arguing with one another. The problem is that journalists often do not report Members who make constructive contributions to debates where there is an element of bipartisanship.
Mr. O'Brien: My hon. Friend suggests from a sedentary position that there might not be as much press interest as there should be in this sort of debate. I hope that tomorrow we shall read in the newspapers of the importance that has been accorded to the debate, which goes to issues that are central to confidence in our criminal justice system.
The debate has been conducted in a high-minded and generally bipartisan manner. The problem is that the press seems always to go for conflict rather than consensus. That is partly the result of editorial judgments, which can be questioned. I hope that the press will respond to my plea for some publicity for the Bill, but I suspect that it probably will not.
I was pleased with the speech of the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North- West (Mr. Ashby). I congratulate him on a bravura performance. I should declare an interest as parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation of England and Wales. Today, however, I shall express my own views. The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) has already set out the views of the federation. As I shall talk about legal aid, I should mention that I am a non-practising solicitor. I used to practise criminal law.
The Bill is a step forward, but it needs amendment. There should be independence in the way in which investigations are carried out, and there is not at present. I hope that the Bill will emerge from consideration in Committee in a better form.
The fact that the Bill is before us on Second Reading is due to the involvement of a number of hon. Members, and especially my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who is not presently in his place. I well remember the day on which he was described by The Sun as the most odious man in Britain. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are now praising his integrity and judgment, given the way that he fought to ensure that we had a criminal justice system of which we could be prouder than we had a right to be in the past. Praise of my hon. Friend is well justified, as it is of other hon. Members on both sides of the House who have already been mentioned.
Miscarriages of justice such as the Birmingham Six, the Maguire Seven, the Guildford Four, Judith Ward and Stefan Kiszco have all undermined confidence in the criminal justice system. As a lawyer who practised criminal law, I believe that juries are the best way of dealing with serious criminal cases. However, as the hon. Member for Leicester, North- West said, they are all too often fallible instruments, especially when dealing with
Column 98evidence that is inadequate or contaminated, or where there is widespread public anger and demand for a conviction.
I well remember the case of the Birmingham Six because I come from the west midlands. I know that the jury relied on evidence that was put before it at the trial at Lancaster that was not good. It was forensic evidence, and the jury thought that it had the right to rely on evidence presented by someone of the supposed professional integrity of Frank Skuse, the forensic scientist. He provided it with what appeared to be incontrovertible evidence of guilt, which subsequently had to be dismissed for what has been termed "limited efficiency". That means, basically, that he was incompetent. The jury relied on that evidence, and in some ways it had a right to do so. It relied on the integrity of that evidence, but it proved not to be accurate evidence. As a result, the Birmingham Six--this happened in other cases--went to prison. People went to prison who perhaps should never have gone to prison.
There is great pressure on juries. Again, I well remember the Birmingham Six case. There was enormous public outrage after the bombings, especially in the west midlands. Anger was expressed by many people. Fear was expressed by Irish people who lived in the area. A number of incidents occurred, and there was a great desire for convictions. The trial had to be transferred from Birmingham to Lancaster.
The jury considered the case in circumstances of enormous media interest and great public anger. It was righteous anger, in the sense that an appalling atrocity had been committed. In the circumstances, it would have been difficult for jurors to be unaware of the enormous pressure that was being put on them. It would have taken a brave jury to acquit.
Respect for the criminal justice system depends on us having confidence that it is a system that delivers justice. We must be satisfied that it is impartial between individuals and enforcement of the law.
According to an ancient axiom, justice must not only be done but be seen to be done. In most cases, the central concern about police involvement in the investigation of cases--especially when questions are raised about the actions of other police officers--relates more to perception than to reality; similarly, confidence in a legal system often involves perceptions of that system.
I accept the Home Secretary's contention that many miscarriages of justice have been corrected by the efforts of serving police officers who have investigated the quality of evidence--and, on occasion, their own colleagues. For many years, however, concern has been expressed about the police investigating themselves: although officers from other forces may carry out such investigations, the practice has been criticised on the ground that it does not appear to be sufficiently independent.
In practice, few problems have arisen, but the procedure leaves the police open to accusations by aggrieved parties. That is surely unnecessary: we need not have a system that allows such accusations, or perceptions, to exist. I believe that an independent investigation that is also of high quality can be introduced. The enhancement of independence will ensure that the commission is perceived as impartial and that its
Column 99judgments can be relied on--and we can achieve that, if we can also ensure that the quality of the investigation is high.
Hon. Members have suggested a number of ways of avoiding the need for serving police officers in other forces to be seconded to the commission for brief periods to investigate specific cases. We could provide a core staff including investigators; those investigators could be officers who had retired from the force because of injury, and who, although unable to carry out their duties on the streets, would be able to conduct investigations of this kind. Officers who had recently ceased to carry out investigation duties would be able to bring up-to-date knowledge of investigation technique to their new responsibilities, along with experience of the way in which the police put cases together.
As the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) pointed out, we could also use the many officers who have recently retired from the force. As such officers would not owe allegiance to the force in the future, they would be perceived as entirely independent: it would be assumed that, in their work for the commission, they would not need to be careful about how they dealt with serving police officers. Serving officers could also be seconded to the commission for a period--a substantial period, I hope. Some senior officers could conduct high-quality investigations.
It is important to bear in mind that the independence to which I refer will protect the police as well: it will protect their impartiality. Once their actions have been verified by a more independent group of investigators, no one will be able to allege impropriety in the investigation.
The Home Office says that such an arrangement might well cost much more, because it would require a larger core of investigators; the Police Federation fears that the Home Office has not recognised the substantial extra cost that would result from the use of serving police officers to investigate cases for the commission. In any event, I do not think that the cost would be much greater.
We must ensure that the correct cases come before the commission. Legal aid is important to the achievement of that end: the commission must be able to distinguish between real miscarriages of justice and frivolous cases. I am sure that many criminals will "try it on". The best way of dealing with that is to enable the defence to provide the commission with properly prepared briefs. Complainants and their solicitors must also be regularly informed of the progress of investigations, and allowed to make representations to the commission about the direction of those investigations.
I hope that the Minister will give us an assurance about the availability of legal aid. As has been pointed out by his own side, the Bill does not make the position clear. When I asked the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) about the matter, she appeared to reassure me that legal aid would be available; she said that she had regular discussions with Home Office Ministers. It is now incumbent on the Minister to tell us whether we can rely on that assurance.
The cost of providing the larger core and of providing the legal aid will be significant but, in terms of the overall cost, the Bill is important, as it goes to the heart of restoring confidence in our legal system. The cost of that