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Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for referring to the points that I raised--I know that it was a long list. Can he comment on the two other main issues to which I referred: the possibility of an appeal by the prosecution against a decision by the judge to end counts on the indictment or to dismiss a case altogether before it goes to the jury; and whether the prosecutor should have a role in pleas in mitigation?

Mr. Maclean: We considered the first point carefully. We decided that we could not see a role for it and we did not include it in the Bill. No doubt the case in favour will be argued sensibly in Committee. As to the prosecutor's role in a plea in mitigation, we see some merit in the prosecutor's presenting to the court the full facts of the

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case as they affect the victim. We must ensure that the effect on the victim is made known to the police. That information must then be passed to the Crown Prosecution Service, so that its prosecutors have the full facts and can ensure that the court is aware--certainly before sentencing--of the impact on the victim and can take that into consideration. While victim impact statements have a superficial attraction, there are some potential difficulties. For example, a defence counsel might want to question or cross-examine on some of the things that are said in a victim impact statement.

What matters to the law-abiding public is a criminal justice system that pays proper regard to the needs of victims and witnesses as well as defendants. The Bill is another stage in redressing the balance in our criminal justice system, which for too long has protected criminals at the public's expense. The pendulum will not swing wildly. The Bill's provisions are here to stay for some considerable time, and that should be the case.

The Bill makes improvements across the board to procedures for dealing with criminal cases. It will do much to improve public confidence in the criminal justice system. That is why it deserves the support of all hon. Members.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).


Queen's recommendation having been signified--

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 50A(1)(a),

Question agreed to.

27 Feb 1996 : Column 779

Offensive Weapons Bill (Instruction)

7.9 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Timothy Kirkhope): I beg to move,

(a) supplying any article which has a blade or is sharply pointed to any person under the age of sixteen years, and
(b) having any such article, or any offensive weapon within the meaning of section 1 of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 or section 47 of the Criminal Law (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 1995, on school premises.

The Government fully support the Offensive Weapons Bill. It delivers a well-aimed blow at the growing evil of knife carrying, but we are especially concerned about the growth of that evil among young people. We want the Bill to be as effective as possible in relation to that age group. That is why the Government will introduce amendments in Committee.

First, our proposal will make it an offence for a person to sell a knife to someone under 16. It will be a defence for that person to prove that he exercised due diligence. There will be an order-making power, under which the Secretary of State for the Home Department may designate articles that are excepted from the ban. So far, it has been decided to designate small, folding pocket knives. The maximum penalty for an offence will be six months' imprisonment, a level 5 fine or both.

Secondly, the proposal will extend to schools and their grounds the offences of carrying a knife or offensive weapon. Those offences currently apply only to carriage in public. Police powers of stop and search for knives and offensive weapons will be extended to schools and their grounds. Penalties for offences committed on school grounds will be the same as those proposed for offences committed in public places--two years' imprisonment or a fine for carrying a knife, or four years' imprisonment or a fine for carrying an offensive weapon.

There is wide support for the introduction of such measures and I hope that the House will agree to the motion.

27 Feb 1996 : Column 780

7.11 pm

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth): I welcome the motion. It gives me the opportunity to point out the ludicrous display of the Minister of State, Home Office, with his false theatrical presentation and his Greek chorus behind him.

The motion brings into effect something that was requested in 1988 by my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) and that was called for more than once, before the Bill was introduced, by the shadow Home Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw).

Conservative Members are guilty as charged. We could give a list of items on which they are guilty as long as your arm, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Most of our proposals were introduced when the Home Secretary and his deputy were responsible for criminal justice system matters. I do not intend to delay the House with references to those proposals, because the motion is limited, which, as I can see from your expression, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you also appreciate.

The motion gives the Committee that will consider the Bill the capacity to make proposals that go wider than the private Member's Bill introduced two weeks ago. We supported that Bill. The debate on it was another of those occasions when hon. Members on both sides of the House and both Front-Bench teams were united in supporting the need for action to deal with the possession of weapons. The capacity of the Committee to make such amendments goes a stage further in dealing with the possession of weapons by people under the age of 16.

During that debate, there were calls for problems of advertising and of the sale of weapons to be dealt with. I hope that, although the matter is not covered in the limited motion, the Government have given serious consideration to regulating the advertising of weapons. During the debate, we gave examples of some disgraceful heavy weapons that are available and that are advertised in a variety of publications, and for the possession and advertising of which there can be no reason or excuse.

I hope that, when the Committee considers the Bill, we shall find that the Government have co-operated with the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), who introduced the Bill, to ensure that we can deal with the issue of advertising as well as those dealt with in the motion. We called for those developments and we shall support them.

Question put and agreed to.

27 Feb 1996 : Column 781

Cold Weather Payments (Barking and Dagenham)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Wells.]

7.14 pm

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking): I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to raise this issue, which is of enormous importance to many of my constituents who are the most vulnerable members of the local community--the elderly, the disabled, the sick and the young families living on low incomes. The debate is an excellent opportunity for the voices of those constituents to be heard, but at the same time I am horrified that it has proved necessary to call for it. The debate is not about a disagreement between me and the Government on a matter of principle, but about the way in which government works for ordinary people. It is about elderly and vulnerable constituents who have suffered unnecessary hardship because they have become the victims of absurd and bureaucratic rules and regulations.

If the Government had demonstrated one ounce of common sense in the way in which they administered their policies, this debate would not have been necessary. The debate is about practice, not policy--about reality in the real world outside, not debate in the closed world of the Chamber. If the Government had acted with humanity and compassion and shown proper flexibility in the implementation of their policies--flexibility such as they extolled yesterday in the Scott debate when looking after their narrow party interests, but which they reject today when it concerns poor elderly pensioners--today's debate would not have been necessary.

One means by which we can judge whether the Government provide the framework necessary to ensure a compassionate and humane society involves the way in which they treat elderly people. The blunt and crude way in which the cold weather payment system is implemented in my constituency provides overwhelming evidence of the Government's failure to act in that compassionate and humane way. The Government are preoccupied with the greed of the few, not the need of the many--with tax cuts for the rich, not cash benefits for the poor.

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