Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): As a Back Bencher, I seek your advice, Madam Speaker, and, in a sense, your protection. You will know that the list of hon. Members wishing to speak in yesterday's debate on the Scott report was heavily oversubscribed by, I understand, hon. Members of all parties.

I was admonished by Mr. Deputy Speaker because I sought, with no disrespect to the occupant of the Chair, to mention the fact that, of the 12 Conservative Members called to speak, most were ex-Ministers, six were old Etonians, five had been to Oxford university and all were associated with one of the main protagonists in the events under debate. I meant no disrespect to the Chair, but was simply asking whether Government Whips had applied any undue pressure on the Chair to ensure such representation.

Madam Speaker: This is one Parliament where there is no pressure--undue or otherwise--on the Speaker of the House. When selecting the names of Conservative Members to be called yesterday, I did not look in "Who's Who" to see whether they had been to Dewsbury grammar school or to Oxford or Cambridge. It was entirely my selection and, having reflected on yesterday's debate,I thought that a good cross-section of hon. Members was called.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): In the excitement of last night, when the Government managed to get their majority of one, perhaps it went unnoticed that, according to the weekend press, two Tory Members who went through the Division Lobbies to sustain the Government were bankrupt. Do you not think it is time that we examined the matter, because there is speculation that as many as 30 of them are bankrupt as a result of their investment at Lloyd's?

Madam Speaker: That is barely a point of order for me.

Void Premises

4.12 pm

27 Feb 1996 : Column 736

Mr. Hartley Booth (Finchley): I beg to move,

I venture to suggest that housing need is at the top of the list of constituents' complaints and worries brought to our surgeries. I happen to believe that the housing problem goes far beyond that of the "void premises"in the Bill's title, and amounts to a scandal.

There are 150,000 homeless people in this country--92,000 are statutorily homeless, 46,000 are in short lets, 8,000 are on the streets, and 5,000 are in bedsits--yet there are 800,000 empty homes. If my modest arithmetic is correct, there are five empty homes for every homeless person. What one hears from officials is incorrect. Many of the empty homes are in areas of greatest need. We must marry the two sides of the matter. That scandal is an indictment of us all, and it is incumbent on us all to deal with it. My Bill proposes to do just that.

The Government have recognised the problem, and have introduced measure after measure to deal with it. During part of the period since 1979, the number of void premises fell. Unfortunately, in three of the past four years the number of void properties rose. Sadly, the number of Government-owned void properties--especially those owned by the Ministry of Defence--has risen faster than any other group of void premises.

My Bill addresses two parts of the problem. Among the people who own the 700,000 void properties in the private sector, we need to enhance persuasion. Through the Empty Homes Agency--an excellent body, which is partly funded by the Government--three or four local authorities, including Reading, Southampton and Brighton, have empty homes strategies. They employ an empty homes officer--that is excellent--who persuades people that their empty private homes should be used, that they are losing £5,000 a year by not using them, and that95 per cent. of all tenancies are successful. Those persuasive techniques are working. Recently, 200 homes were brought back into use in Reading as a result,for example.

What if persuasion fails? My Bill proposes that every local authority should have a void strategy and employ an officer to deal with the disposal of voids--first by identifying them, and then by persuading people to use them.

In addition, 102,000 empty properties are owned by the taxpayer--the public sector. It is totally unacceptable to permit that. Many of those properties have been empty for a long time. My Bill--it follows a paper that was kindly published by the Adam Smith Institute two years ago, and an entirely successful Government trial project in Clapton Park estate in Hackney--proposes that people on waiting lists in local authority areas should have the right to slap a notice on the doorstep of local authority premises or Government agencies when they have spotted that the homes have been lying wasted and idle for three months or more.

That notice of negligence to public bodies should say: "We, Mr. and Mrs. Bloggs, identify your void property. We call on you to use it, start to repair it, or condemn it

27 Feb 1996 : Column 737

within 21 days." If it is used or repairs are begun within 21 days, we have all succeeded. Under the Bill, if that local authority or the Ministry of Defence fails to act within the designated period, one more homeless person will have found a home. Conservative Members, who always applaud efficiency, will sigh with relief, and we especially welcome any relief of homelessness.

If the idea comes to fruition, we shall see not only how homelessness can be tackled in a new way, but that people can be trusted. Beyond the first day when the new tenants go in, they will be told that they must deal with dilapidations and repair the premises. Of course they must, and we should trust them to do that. All over the world, and in our country too, trusting the people in such policies as sweat equity, staircasing and homesteading has brought benefits and has been proved sensible and useful.

I ask the House to accept my Bill, so that all the necessary steps can be taken. Sometimes it is necessary for the House to think the unthinkable. My proposals combine the best of ingredients--common sense, trusting the people, and using national resources better for a good cause.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Hartley Booth, Sir Timothy Sainsbury, Mr. David Lidington, Mr. Julian Brazier, Mr. Patrick Thompson, Mr. Piers Merchant,Mr. James Pawsey, Mr. Anthony Steen, Mr. Nigel Evans,Mr. Robert G. Hughes and Sir Sydney Chapman.

Void Premises

Mr. Hartley Booth accordingly presented a Bill to require the owners of property which has been empty for more than three months to make the reasons for the vacancy public; to make such property available in certain specified circumstances; and for connected purposes:And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 8 March and to be printed. [Bill 66.]

27 Feb 1996 : Column 738

Orders of the Day

Criminal Procedure and Investigations Bill [Lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

4.21 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

One of the most important responsibilities of any Government is to ensure that their criminal justice system is fair, efficient and effective--fair towards all those affected by it, efficient in focusing on the issues that really matter at trial, and effective in bringing about the acquittal of the innocent and the conviction of the guilty.

The Bill is intended to meet those aims. Like the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, it is designed to restore the balance in our criminal justice system--to make life tougher for criminals and to improve the protection of the public. It implements proposals made in three consultation papers that we issued last year. More generally, it represents our response to a number of recommendations made by the royal commission on criminal justice in its 1993 report. The Bill's most significant provisions extend to Northern Ireland. Also,I am pleased to say that it implements the last of the27 points that I announced in October 1993 to strengthen the fight against crime.

The most important provisions in the Bill are those dealing with prosecution and defence disclosure. The current arrangements require too much of the prosecution and too little of the defence. They do not serve the interests of justice and are in need of reform.

At present, the prosecution must disclose to the defence any material that may possibly be relevant to an issue in the case, unless the material is sensitive and a court rules that it may be withheld. In contrast, with a few specified exceptions, the accused need not disclose anything about his defence before the trial.

The current law has given rise to serious problems.The accused can request the disclosure of reams of material, whether or not it has any relevance to the defence that he proposes to advance at trial. That places heavy burdens on the police in particular.

It is also difficult to protect from disclosure sensitive material, such as the identity of an informant. The current rules oblige the courts to order disclosure in cases where the actual relevance of sensitive material may be marginal at best. An adverse ruling requiring the disclosure of the identity of an informant may place the informant's life in danger. All too often, the prosecution must abandon the case, however strong the other evidence may be.

Let me give an example. Three individuals were arrested in possession of a number of incendiary devices. An issue arose subsequently about the disclosure of intelligence files held centrally by the police, on the organisation to which the defendants belonged. None of the information was to form part of the prosecution case at the trial, but the trial judge ruled that the files should be disclosed to the defence. Since that would have compromised future investigations, the prosecution decided to offer no evidence, rather than comply with the

27 Feb 1996 : Column 739

ruling. One of the defendants commented in a statement to the media that it had been their intention to remove the contents of a vehicle and then damage it. He added:

    "The only reason this trial collapsed was because the prosecution refused to reveal to our defence lawyers material about us held on computer by the police."

The presentation of a defence at the last minute--with no advance warning to the prosecution--does not contribute to the efficient conduct of a trial. It encourages defendants to come forward with a plausible, but false, defence at a very late stage.

Next Section

IndexHome Page