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Ms Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen): I hope that Chris will sit down in a moment.

Mr. Mullin: I hear my hon. Friend the Whip. I will, but as the only representative of non-lawyers present, I feel that I must set out my concerns.

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth): And me.

Mr. Mullin: I am sorry--my hon. Friend, who is to reply to the debate, is also not a lawyer.

The problem of the guilty walking free is undoubtedly a serious possibility that causes considerable public concern. As I said before, however, I believe that it has been talked up with a view to distracting attention from reality. We cannot proceed on the basis that everyone involved comes to court with good will and integrity because the record shows otherwise. We must therefore ensure that the Bill contains safeguards and that the disclosure permitted is as wide as possible.

6.45 pm

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who has done so much to try to restore confidence in the criminal justice system by being critical of it. Those two elements are not inconsistent: those who care most about the system are prepared to be critical of it and to expose its failures. I am also proud to be following my hon. Friend as the second non-lawyer to participate in the debate, which is of importance to the general public, not just to lawyers. I sometimes think that debates in the House on criminal justice are dominated too heavily by lawyers.

Today's debate goes to the heart of the criminal justice system. It goes to the heart of two points that both Parliament and the public share as items of great concern. The first is the frustration felt when the guilty walk free or when the resources of justice are diverted into a waste of time and energy; the second is the fear that the innocent will be incarcerated. We need to cut out the massive waste of time involved in needless disclosure and the pursuit of fishing trips, as they have been described. It is right for my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South to balance that aim with the importance of ensuring that the way in which we achieve it protects the innocent and does not go too far the other way.

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I am not new to such issues; during the passage of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill in 1994 I moved amendments that, had they been accepted, would have introduced a system of defence and prosecution disclosure in a balanced way. Since my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) has been shadow Home Secretary, he has repeatedly reinforced the need to tackle the issue--he made specific proposals to do so in his speech on5 April 1995.

I am not sure whether the complaints about payment made by the hon. and learned Member for Burton(Sir I. Lawrence) were made personally on behalf of his union, so I shall not comment on that part of his speech, but he made the one divisive contribution to the debate--perhaps with his tongue in his cheek. He has been described as the villain's friend--he should not express surprise at our support for a measure that helps justice. The Labour party's attitude is always to offer critical and constructive support for such measures. He had the grace to welcome our approach and, in the same spirit, I invite him to support Labour measures to tackle violence, the carrying of weapons, drug-related crime and stalking, and to nip things in the bud when youngsters start to offend. Those are just a few of the issues on which he--like the Home Secretary--has voted against our proposals. If he will join us in the fight against crime, we will welcome that.

Mr. Howard: Rubbish.

Mr. Michael: It is the absolute truth and no amount of circulars from Conservative central office or misleading statements made outside the House by the Home Secretary can fly in the face of evidence--contained in the record of the House, in Hansard--of the way in which we have sought to be both tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn said, the atmosphere surrounding the speeches today, including those of the Home Secretary and my hon. Friend, was not as divisive as usual; those speeches were about finding a way to resolve the two halves of the dilemma.

I believe that the Home Secretary missed the speech by the hon. and learned Member for Burton, which I have just said--I hope that the Home Secretary will listen--was the one divisive contribution. The aim of the Home Secretary, the shadow Home Secretary and others has been earnestly to deal with the issues that the Home Secretary brought before the House. I have simply balanced the contribution of the hon. and learned Member for Burton.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn emphasised the importance of process in setting standards of justice and in the public reputation of the court system. We should be aware that people feel considerable disquiet about the operation of the criminal justice system.

It is disappointing that the organisation to investigate miscarriages of justice is not yet active and effective. Tomorrow, we shall debate a case that it would be appropriate to refer to that organisation. I say that because, if we are to speed up processes and avoid the duplication and reading of excess material, we need to ensure that machinery is in place to avoid and to correct miscarriages of justice.

What sanctions will exist on the prosecution? Will the Minister agree to explore ways to strengthen the law regarding any failure to fulfil those obligations?

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That argument was strongly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn. We must have a balance of duties and rights and, if we lighten the load on the prosecution, we must be able to trust the prosecution to achieve the balance. There must be a heavy punishment when that trust is breached. In Committee, we should consider the emphasis that is placed on the prosecution's responsibilities to disclose, not only when--in what laymen would understand by that term--a case would be undermined, but when doubt might be cast on a case by the evidence that is available to the prosecution.

What will the Minister's attitude be to the arguments made by my learned Friend Lord Williams of Mostyn in another place about the circulation of evidence as pornography in prison? Several cases have come to light, causing outrage, and I took the matter up some years ago. I hope that the Minister will be willing to accept, or to table, amendments in Committee. It is surely right for us to impose strict protection so that such material is not made available or circulated in prison or elsewhere. The prisoner has a right to see material that is to be used in the case against him and to discuss it with his lawyer, but that material need not be in his possession, and it need not be possible for him to circulate it in prison.

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery(Mr. Carlile) made a valid point about clause 45. The requirement of a conviction may be an obstacle to some cases being treated properly. An addition is needed to give the court the power, if given evidence that there is a good reason why a conviction could not be sought or obtained, to consider the available evidence. It should not be too difficult to meet that point, and I hope that we may discuss that issue in Committee.

The hon. and learned Gentleman was right to emphasise the victim's interests. We are right to insist on reminding the courts that crime, especially serious crime, is a crime because of damage done to a victim or victims. I am not sure that a victim statement is the right way to proceed, especially if the responsibility for preparing the statement is pushed on to the probation service. The Government rejected a proposal that I made a couple of years ago to require the Crown Prosecution Service to consider and consult the victim before downgrading or dropping serious charges. We must find a mechanism that will properly bring the victim's needs into the centre of consideration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East(Mr. Anderson), in an excellent speech, suggested a Special Standing Committee for the Bill. This is the second measure--the first was the Security Service Bill--about which it has been possible to say, "Here is a measure that is doing something worth while and sensible. Instead of arguing divisively across the Floor of the House, let us try to ensure that the Bill is better when it leaves the Chamber than when it came in, and that it succeeds in meeting the requirements of justice."

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn mentioned the important issue of pleas in mitigation being open to challenge. I have sat in magistrates courts--especially juvenile courts--and heard mitigation, after a gap for the preparation of a social inquiry report, and been bemused, having been in court on the previous occasion, because there appeared to be no relationship between the

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mitigation and the events that had convinced the court that a finding of guilt was appropriate. We must tackle that anomaly.

We should heed the warnings by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South that in some cases things go wrong and innocent people are found guilty. I am especially worried after studying the case of Mr. Bernard Wilson, who was found guilty in my constituency of events arising from the involvement of a police informer in promoting the activities that led to the prosecution. The judge expressed grave concern, and I continue to feel much concern, about the way in which the Crown Prosecution Service dealt with that case. Many remaining serious issues must be tackled if we are to restore confidence in the criminal justice system.

In Committee, we shall work constructively to improve the Bill. We all want a criminal justice system that protects the innocent and ensures the conviction of the guilty. The Bill is one step along the path of reform. We need to ensure in Committee that we end up with the best possible and most balanced legislation, but the measure is long overdue, and it is only one step. We have a long journey to travel before we can claim to have restored public confidence in the criminal justice system.

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