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5.53 pm

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton): I shall not labour my connections with criminal proceedings, of which I think the House is aware.

I welcome the official Opposition's support for the trend of improvement set out in the Bill. I have never heard them so supportive. Perhaps our attacks on them are going home; perhaps we should attack them less, in case we are embarrassed by their support for future measures. I caution Ministers: perhaps we should temper our criticisms of the ridiculous "tough on crime, tough on the

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causes of crime" slogan, lest we find ourselves in that uncomfortable position of being supported by the Opposition.

Mr. Straw: I think it fair to say that, when the Deputy Prime Minister used the words "the villain's friend", the person he had most in mind was the hon. and learned Gentleman, who defended the Krays. Let me add--although I did not wish to make this point, given our consensual approach to the Bill--that it just happens that I made speeches about the need for changes in the disclosure rules rather in advance of the Home Secretary's statement to the House in May. I spoke in early April.

Sir Ivan Lawrence: I accept what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I remind him that the Krays were convicted and went to prison for a very long time. I think that acquitting them would have been an impossible job.

When I went down, with my learned leader, to say goodbye to Ronald Kray, he said, "Thank you very much, Mr. Lawrence, for what you have done for us"--30 years. He added, "We are going to keep our fingers crossed for you in Peckham"--where I was then Conservative candidate--"so that you can become Home Secretary and let us out early." I do not think I need remind the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) that I have never become Home Secretary. There is justice and sense in the system that the Conservative Government have been operating for the past 15 years.

There are two kinds of miscarriage of justice: the conviction of the innocent and the acquittal of the guilty. The Government's criminal appeals legislation has made statutory changes to reduce the incidence of the former, and a number of measures have sought to redress the latter. They comprise many of the famous 27 points mentioned by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary at the wonderful Conservative conference in October 1993. Some have required legislation; others have not.

Closed circuit television, which is being introduced all over the country, is substantially reducing the incidence of violent crime and crime as a whole--by some 60, 70 or 80 per cent. in some areas. DNA testing is also helping, as is the amendment of the right to silence. In due course, that may help to convict more guilty people.

The introduction of tape-recorded interviews has not only secured the conviction of many of the guilty, but speeded up criminal trials. Witness intimidation has been made an offence, and more police officers have been provided, better trained, equipped and led. They have now been supplemented by the security services. The police have also been given tougher stop-and-search powers. The Bill includes a number of further improvements in the effectiveness of criminal trials, which will help to reduce the number of acquittals of the guilty.

I shall not repeat the changes or their justification, because that would not add much to constructive consideration of the Bill, and we have not much time. Let me make two specific points. First, I am among the staunchest supporters of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who have made determined efforts to turn the criminal justice system more effectively against criminals and in favour of victims and potential victims. I backed most--but not all--of the measures that we have introduced, and I back this Bill.

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Let me add, however, that, as long as we retain an adversarial system--which I consider the best way of ensuring that the innocent are not convicted--we shall have to be aware, and constantly remind ourselves, that the prosecution has advantages that the defence has not. It has resource advantages, procedural advantages, time advantages and psychological advantages. The protections for the defence are very important and must never be swept away.

By all means we must amend and improve the protections. We must try to tilt the unnecessary benefits that the defence receives in favour of conviction of the guilty, but we must never let down our guard in protecting the basic rights that we have traditionally accorded to the defence in criminal trials, which are enshrined in the concept of the burden of proof.

We have done so much to reduce the unfairness and injustice against the prosecution that we may soon come to the time when we go over the edge and tilt the benefits too much in favour of the prosecution. We must certainly begin to think about checking our enthusiasms for going further down that line.

I do not think that every provision we have made is very sensible. For example, I do not think that sweeping away committal proceedings in order to be kinder to victims has helped to make our justice system more effective. It just means that bad cases get stopped at a later and more expensive stage in the proceedings.

I am not sure that having a state-funded duty solicitor at every stage after a person has been arrested improves justice very much. It just imposes a much greater cost on justice, because many accused people who would have found a solicitor privately for at least the early stages of the proceedings now find that their representation is paid, quite expensively, by the state, to the substantial disadvantage of taxpayers. I think that we have been somewhat over-enthusiastic about introducing that type of change--which I doubt has been efficient and effective.

We must be careful with this Bill not to make the rules we lay down over-rigid. I very much welcome the response that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has made to the early indications that there would be a requirement that the names and addresses of all witnesses, not only in alibi cases, should be revealed to the prosecution. I welcome that change, because of the realistic fear--of which all of us who have practised in the criminal courts are aware--that the police might be able to get at witnesses and, sometimes deliberately and sometimes not deliberately, deter them from giving important evidence for the defence.

It is very easy, for example, for the police to approach potential witnesses who have previous convictions and remind them that, if they give evidence, those matters will be disclosed for all to see. That is a reason why, in the end, the defence has not been able to call the witnesses whom it might otherwise have called. The Home Secretary's response to that has been both generous and sensible, and I very much welcome it.

So, the judge must be given flexibility to consider, if he is asked, whether the circumstances of the case require the waiving of the strict rules which may, or may not, emerge from this Bill. Ultimately, the judge must be given

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that type of flexibility, to protect the defence. We all have examples of how we have made pleas to the judge to make changes. Sometimes he has said, "Yes, I have the discretion to do that." Sometimes he has said, "No, I have no discretion," and the trial has continued, perhaps unfairly with regard to the matters that had been challenged.

Secondly, my right hon. and learned Friend should be aware that this Bill may have serious resource implications. There is, for example, no point in the defence revealing the details of its case if the police are not available to check up and follow through the information that they have been given. From the defence point of view, it is important--it may also be important for the prosecution--that, between the committal and the trial, the police should consider whether there is an answer to the allegation in the defence case, or whether the defence case is one which is susceptible to challenge, and the trial can be more speedily brought to an end.

It is sensible to have matters sorted out in pre-trial reviews--especially in requiring rulings on points of law, which is long overdue--but there are practical problems. The procedure will require the barrister who is to conduct the trial to be present at the pre-trial review. The trend is to require that to happen, but it may not happen. It cannot always happen at present. What would happen if the barrister who is to conduct the trial is part-heard in another case? One cannot be expected to reschedule the pre-trial hearing. Very often, the current pre-trial hearings are not very efficient and effective, for the simple reason that the barrister who will conduct the trial is not there.

What would happen if, at a later stage, a Queen's counsel is appointed who has a different view about the way in which the trial should be conducted from that of the junior who appeared at the pre-trial proceedings? If one is to get the barrister who will conduct the trial there, one will have to get him to set aside all other business--his work and his income. If barristers have to give up other work to be at the pre-trial review, it might require a substantial increase in the money that is paid in legal aid. The alternative would be conflict between the Bar and the bench when barristers do not appear.

We are here requiring, are we not, a paid activity by barristers, which will further extend the time before barristers are paid? The Bar is currently--it has been at all times that I can recollect, but it is worse now than at any other time--seething with anger and irritation at the delays before the payment of fees. Members of the Bar have to live, just like everyone else. They sometimes have poor cash flows, and they may have to wait up to a year to be paid for their cases.

The Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986 has extended the waiting time. One cannot put in a fee claim--

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