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6.56 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Maclean): I was going to take all of the four or six minutes allocated to me to reply to some interventions, but I must start by putting part of the record straight.

I detected no divisiveness in the speech of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence). Moreover, the debate was good natured throughout and the opening speeches by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) were paragons of virtue in cross-party consensus.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth(Mr. Michael) cannot come to the Chamber and try--even in a low key, even in a quiet bluster--to restate the record of what Labour has done. Purely what he said in his introduction forces me to take about one minute of my time to place on the record some of the information that I extracted from Hansard last week, because I found some time to peruse Hansard carefully.

I went back only as far as 7 March 1983, when the House debated the prevention of terrorism Act. Labour voted against. [Hon. Members: "Guilty."] In November 1983, Labour voted against the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. [Hon. Members: "Guilty."] In January 1984, Labour voted against the prevention of terrorism Act. [Hon. Members: "Guilty."] In February 1985, Labour voted against the prevention of terrorism Act.[Hon. Members: "Guilty."] In January 1986, Labour voted against the Public Order Act. [Hon. Members: "Guilty."] In February 1986 and February 1987, Labour voted against the prevention of terrorism Act. [Hon. Members: "Guilty."]

Then, in January 1988, when we voted on the Criminal Justice Act, increasing the penalty for cruelty to children to 10 years, Labour voted against. [Hon. Members: "Guilty."] Labour voted against the proposal to increase the maximum penalty for dealing in hard drugs to life imprisonment. [Hon. Members: "Guilty."] It voted against the maximum penalty of life imprisonment for taking a

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gun to a crime. [Hon. Members: "Guilty."] Labour also voted against the Attorney-General's right to appeal against lenient sentences. [Hon. Members: "Guilty."] Labour voted against the Government in February 1988, January 1989 and in March 1990 when the prevention of terrorism Act was renewed. [Hon. Members: "Guilty."] Labour also voted against the prevention of terrorism Act in March 1991. [Hon. Members: "Guilty."]

The Criminal Justice Act 1991 gave the courts the power to impose longer sentences on persistent, violent and sexual offenders. Labour voted against it.[Hon. Members: "Guilty."] Labour voted against the requirement for parents to attend court proceedings with their children. [Hon. Members: "Guilty."] The Act gave the courts the power to make the parents of 16 and 17-year-olds pay their children's fines. Labour voted against that and other measures in the Act.[Hon. Members: "Guilty."]

For the sake of brevity, I shall move on to February 1992, when Labour voted against the prevention of terrorism Act. [Hon. Members: "Guilty."] It voted against that Act again when it was renewed in 1993.[Hon. Members: "Guilty."] The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994--we are now up to date--reformed the right of silence. Labour voted against it. [Hon. Members: "Guilty."] It did not vote against the police stop-and-search powers, but it argued against them. Labour had no opinion about the whole Act: so it decided to abstain rather than support it. [Hon. Members: "Guilty."] Labour voted against the establishment of secure training centres and against the prevention of terrorism Act in March 1995. [Hon. Members: "Guilty."]

Sir Ivan Lawrence: Will the Labour party's repeat offending entitle it to the sternest of minimum sentences in the wilderness for the next 20 years?

Mr. Maclean: I have examined Labour's record on law and order and I have discovered that it has a considerable criminal record.

Of course, I welcome the Opposition's support for the Bill. I welcome also what the hon. Member for Blackburn said on television on Sunday, in supporting some of the measures suggested by my right hon. and learned Friend. I welcome his half about-turn in supporting the prevention of terrorism Act. Those actions are correct. However, because Labour has not voted against absolutely everything that we have proposed in the past few months, it does not expunge its record of voting against our proposals in the 1980s. That record speaks for itself: it is an absolute disgrace.

I refer now to some of the issues raised during the debate. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton said that judges should have discretion to waive the rules. He called for more flexibility, but he did not refer to any rules that he thought were too inflexible. He may have in mind the requirement to produce a defence statement in all Crown court cases, which was raised during debate in another place. The Government said then that the Bill lays down a clear rule because of the advantages in all cases of narrowing the issues in dispute before the trial, for which defence disclosure is essential.

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The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) called for the establishment of a Special Standing Committee. I am not persuaded that the Bill meets the criteria for that procedure.

Mr. Donald Anderson: There has not been a Special Standing Committee in relation to England and Wales for 12 years. As the Home Secretary has said, the procedure was set up specifically to consider non-controversial Bills--I believe, of this nature. Given that there are no time constraints, how can the Government not accede to that request?

Mr. Maclean: We should not grab this Bill and send it to a Special Standing Committee just because the hon. Gentleman believes that it is remotely suitable and because no other Bill has been before such a Committee in 12 years. As the debate in the other place showed, there is a great deal of interest in the Bill. There has been an awful lot of consideration and scrutiny of the Government's proposals, as set out in the discussion paper. I cannot see what role a Special Standing Committee would have that was not performed by the experts in the other place. The legislation has been subject to considerable detailed scrutiny.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Sweeney) asked how we can guard against inadvertent non-disclosure by the prosecutor. The Bill requires the prosecutor to give the accused a schedule of all material that is not sensitive. If the accused believes that material disclosed in the schedule may help the defence, he may apply to the court to obtain it.

I shall touch upon several points raised by the hon. Member for Blackburn. He referred to categories of sensitive material in the code of practice and suggested that they included material given in confidence, which he thought was a very wide-ranging definition. The code does encompass a number of categories of sensitive material, including material given to the police in confidence. However, the prosecutor, and not the police, must decide whether the material meets the test for disclosure in the Bill. If the material is sensitive and the prosecutor seeks to withhold it on public interest grounds, the court will decide the issue.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the test for primary prosecution disclosure should be "casts doubt upon" rather than "undermines". We believe that "undermines" is the right test. It catches material that has an adverse effect on the prosecution case and should be disclosed. However, it is not so wide as to require the disclosure of anything that has no more than a small, peripheral effect. The alternative formulation would move us backwards to the current unsatisfactory disclosure test and it would put unnecessary burdens on the police. No doubt we shall debate the issue in more detail in Committee.

The hon. Gentleman inquired about prosecution disclosure only after a not guilty plea in summary trials, and he suggested that that might result in delay. We understand his concern, but we take a slightly different view. In summary-only cases, disclosure currently occurs after a not guilty plea; the Bill does not change that. In either-way cases, it will usually be clear whether the accused intends to plead guilty or not guilty. There is also the incentive of a discount in sentence for an early guilty plea, and there is a disincentive if there is no such plea. We believe that that should eliminate delay and reduce costs also.

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The hon. Gentleman suggested that a breach of a code of practice by the police should lead to disciplinary or criminal proceedings. If the breach is serious and amounts to a criminal offence, a prosecution may be brought. It is correct that that should occur. In other cases, a breach may result in disciplinary proceedings under the arrangements that we are devising currently following the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994 and the new disciplinary procedures for police officers. The court may take such a breach into account if it is relevant to the proceedings.

I come to the final main point that the hon. Member for Blackburn raised--we may deal with some others in more detail in Committee. He suggested that sanctions should be imposed on the prosecution as well as on the defence, for failure to comply with the Bill's requirements. I understand his concern, but sanctions different from adverse comment, for example, will apply to the prosecution. For example, failure to make primary prosecution disclosure in the Bill will absolve the defence of its requirement to make defence disclosure. A change in the prosecution case must be notified to the accused, otherwise the court can stay the proceedings. I think that it is a good Bill.

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