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Mr. Howard: That matter will be considered in the consultation exercise. Indeed, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General is seeking views on that matter and has requested those views by the beginning of May. That is a question to be considered during the consultation.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) rose--

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) rose--

Mr. Howard: I give way first to the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway).

Mr. Anderson: The Home Secretary mentioned a consultation exercise, which obviously will take some time, so I want to ask about the timetable. Is it possible that, in Committee or on Report, the Bill will have the benefit of any conclusions of that consultation exercise?

Mr. Howard: I confess that that is unlikely. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has said that he wants replies to his consultation exercise by May,and obviously it will take some time thereafter to consider the responses. I cannot, therefore, hold out any great hope to the hon. Gentleman or the House that, should we conclude that legislation is desirable in that area, such legislation might reasonably be expected to be part of the Bill.

Mr. Greenway: This is a genuine query to which I do not know the answer, but I hope that this matter has been considered, and will be considered as the Bill proceeds through Committee.

One of the overriding reasons why trials have collapsed is that the police have refused to give information about the identity of informers, of premises from which observations of criminal activity have been made and of those who may have been involved in surveillance.Can my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that, when considering any changes in PII certificates, he will bear in mind the fact that the Security Service Bill will allow the Security Service to become involved in surveillance of criminals? Will he ensure that the interests and identities of members of the Security Service are protected, and that we do not end up with more collapsed trials because the legislation or the changes are not properly in place and because the courts may wish to rule that the identity of a person who has been involved in surveillance should be revealed to the court?

Mr. Howard: I assure my hon. Friend that certainly nothing in the legislation that is before the House or in

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the Security Service Bill would increase the prospects of disclosure of any information of that kind or of any trial being stopped on that basis. Those matters will continue to be considered on a case-by-case basis, because a sensible decision can be made only in the context of a particular case. By indicating that the prosecution's duty to disclose is limited by referring to clear relevance to the issues in the case, the provisions will lessen the likelihood of disclosing information of that kind and of trials collapsing in those circumstances.

I refer now to the other provisions in the Bill. Parts III and IV make two important improvements to pre-trial procedures, giving effect to the proposals in the consultation paper on pre-trial hearings, which we published last year. Part III enables a judge to order a preparatory hearing in a long or complex case if he thinks that substantial benefits may accrue. The preparatory hearing would be similar to those held in cases of serious or complex fraud.

At a preparatory hearing under the Bill, the judge may order either party to provide a statement of its case.He may exercise a range of powers to narrow the issues in dispute and to assist the jury's understanding of the case. Such rulings may be appealed against, there are sanctions if either side later departs from its case or fails to comply with a requirement imposed at the hearing, and there is provision for reporting restrictions.

Part IV creates a power for a judge to make a binding ruling on the admissibility of evidence or other point of law in any case at a pre-trial hearing. That power will be available in all cases that are to be tried at the Crown court, except those in which the judge orders a preparatory hearing, when he will be able to exercise the range of powers conferred by part III. Taken together, the measures will encourage the better preparation of cases and the better conduct of the trial. Trials will be more efficient and less stressful and time consuming for jurors and witnesses.

Part V contains a range of reforms to magistrates courts procedures. Among other things, they amend the provisions on transfer for trial in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994--further amendments on transfer will be needed--they provide for the accused to give an indication of plea before a decision is taken on mode of trial, and they extend the maximum period for the remand of juveniles in certain circumstances.

Part VI of the Bill contains a number of important provisions to protect victims and witnesses and to enhance public confidence in the criminal justice system. Two of the provisions reflect recommendations of the royal commission on criminal justice. The first of them--providing for a retrial if an acquittal has been tainted by jury nobbling--gives effect to the only one of the27 measures that I announced in October 1993 which has still to be implemented.

There can be no greater threat to the rule of law than if criminals believe that they can bully or bribe their way out of the dock. That is true whether their target is a juror or a witness. For that reason, the Bill goes further than the royal commission recommended. It will make it possible to have a retrial if an acquittal has been tainted by a subsequent conviction for interference with,or intimidation of, either witnesses or jurors. The court that convicts for the interference or intimidation offence will have to certify that there is a real possibility that the

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original acquittal would not have happened but for the intimidation or interference. An application must then be made to the High Court for an order quashing the acquittal. Both courts will need to be satisfied that a retrial would not be contrary to the interests of justice.

The Bill also implements the recommendation of the royal commission that, as a last resort, judges should be able to protect victims or witnesses by imposing reporting restrictions on false or irrelevant allegations made during a speech in mitigation.

Mr. Alex Carlile: I refer to an important issue of fact. I support strongly the Home Secretary's announcement about the Bill's provision for retrials in the event of jury or witness nobbling. Does the Bill allow for a retrial when the witness or juror who has been nobbled--it is more likely to apply to witnesses--is dead?

Mr. Howard: I see no reason why that circumstance should eliminate the provisions or why the Bill should make specific provision for it. The Bill sets out clearly the requirements that must be met, and I do not see why it should deal with that specific circumstance. It does not provide that the witness or juror must be alive for the provisions to take effect. In that context, the provisions will clearly apply.

Mr. Carlile: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but I obviously did not make myself clear--that is plainly my fault. A witness may be interfered with and later killed--that happens in serious crimes. Unfortunately, it is not an uncommon experience nowadays. The perpetrator of the original crime may have been acquitted as a result of that now dead witness having been nobbled. Can that acquitted person be retried under the Bill's provisions?

Mr. Howard: I see no reason why such a person should not be retried. The Bill's provisions are set out very clearly. Unless the legislation states that the juror or witness must be alive--and it does not--it is clear that, in the circumstances that the hon. and learned Gentleman identifies, the provisions in the Bill will apply in the normal way. I do not see why those circumstances should affect its operation.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster): As to the intimidation or killing of witnesses, many public interest immunity certificates are issued by quite junior lawyers in cases of drug smuggling or intimidation in prison. They must be laid before the court, as occurred in the recent case.

Mr. Howard: My hon. Friend is correct: there is a clear role for public interest immunity in those circumstances.

Most of the provisions of the Bill, including those on disclosure, apply also in Northern Ireland. The law on disclosure in Northern Ireland is similar in most respects to the law in England and in Wales, and the difficulties to which the present arrangements give rise are potentially at least as serious there as here. We have concluded that the scheme embodied in the Bill is well suited to the circumstances of Northern Ireland. Schedule 3 to the Bill contains a number of modifications necessary to tailor its provisions to the legal context of Northern Ireland.

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I hope that it will assist the House if I give notice of the main amendments that the Government intend to bring forward at later stages of the Bill. First, we intend to table amendments to deal with the misuse of prosecution material that is disclosed to the accused under the Bill. The purpose of disclosing material that does not form part of the prosecution case is to enable the accused to prepare his defence. Sometimes that material is used for a wrong purpose--for example, to harass witnesses or to gain financial advantages for the accused or his associates.We want to deter those who may be tempted to misuse disclosed material and to reassure those who supply information to the police that it will not be used other than for the intended purpose.

Secondly, we are considering further how best to tackle the difficult issue of third party disclosure. Third parties, such as medical practices, banks or local authority social services departments, may have material that would be disclosable if held by the prosecution, so there must be some way of identifying and obtaining it. However,at present, the accused may request such material at a very late stage in the proceedings, without indicating its relevance to his defence. That places heavy burdens on third parties, who then must trawl through their records at the cost of considerable time and effort. More importantly, it results in delay and sometimes the abandonment of proceedings--often in cases where children are the victims.

We have been developing proposals for procedural changes that will benefit third parties without preventing the accused from seeing material that helps his defence. We have consulted the judiciary and others about them, and we aim to bring them forward at a later stage in the Bill's proceedings.

Finally, we intend to bring forward amendments to place beyond doubt the powers of the police in relation to searches of DNA databases. The amendments will ensure that the police can make full use of both DNA data and fingerprints.

The Bill is important and is intended to make our criminal justice system fairer, more efficient and more effective. It will make it easier for courts to reach the right decision. It will do much to improve public confidence in the criminal justice system. As such, it continues the work that I set in hand when I became Home Secretary,to strengthen the fight against crime. I commend the Bill to the House.

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