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The Solicitor-General: The average length of time between the commencement of proceedings and trial, or guilty plea, is reducing. The latest available data on all defendants in the magistrates courts shows that the average time fell to 49 days in September 2000. As for the Crown court, the average time between charge and committal for trial is also falling. The average time for adult defendants fell to 89 days in September 2000. The figures for youth defendants show a reduction to 85 days between arrest and committal.
The Crown Prosecution Service has made a substantial contribution to the achievement of those results. I am confident that the additional funding that I have mentioned, and other changes, will maintain this encouraging progress.
Although I accept that a reduction in the average length of time between arrest and trial is an important policy objective, does the hon. and learned Gentleman in turn accept that it is less important than the pursuit of justice and the nature of the trial itself? Will he belatedly acknowledge that the proposed removal of the right to trial by jury in a number of very important cases is a gross affront to justice, and that even at this stage the Government should withdraw their disgraceful proposal?
The Solicitor-General: I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's point about the mode-of-trial proposals, which concern only a small number of cases. As for his point about quick justice, under the last Government the time was 142 days for persistent young offenders, which was simply unacceptable. It did not bring home to wrongdoers the need for them to change their ways. We have now reduced the time to under 100 days--an average of about 94 days nationwide, although in some areas it is much lower than that. The idea is to bring persistent young offenders before the courts quickly, so that they have to address their wrongdoing. I think that that is the right policy.
I cannot explain why that case took so long without knowing more about it. In some cases, the offending of persistent young offenders is linked with that of adult offenders; such cases might go to the Crown court. That might explain the delay, but if my hon. Friend gives me details I will look into the matter.
In my hon. Friend's area, the average time is down to the national average of about 94 days. That is good news, but I reiterate that we are driving the figure down even more. We must meet the 71-day pledge, and we are on track to do so later this year.
The Solicitor-General: That does not fall within my responsibility. There are a number of possible reasons for the delay. Such cases are often extremely complicated, and some--including the one in which the hon. Gentleman has an interest--are historic, often requiring detailed investigation. Generally, however, we are trying to speed up justice, and we are achieving that aim.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): The CPS is one of many contributors to the prosecution process. Does my hon. and learned Friend accept that there is still scope for improved co-ordination and co-operation between all those contributors to speed up cases?
The Solicitor-General: One of the beneficial effects of the persistent young offender pledge and of other changes, such as the Narey changes, which I mentioned to my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence), is that the different agencies are now working together. Under the previous Administration, they were very much autonomous institutions. They now have to work together, and they are working together. Recently, as my hon. Friend knows, I visited the CPS in his constituency and saw how successfully it is working with police. Under the Glidewell changes, which are now being rolled out nationwide, prosecutors are often with the police in police stations making quick decisions.
The Solicitor-General: Crown prosecutors review each case on its own facts and merits in accordance with the code for Crown prosecutors. The process of review is a continuing process; fresh evidence may become available which alters the prosecutor's assessment of a case, or the public interest considerations may change. Wherever possible, Crown prosecutors will discuss significant changes to the charges, or stopping the case, with police before a decision is made.
Attorney-General's guidelines have just been introduced on the procedure to be followed by advocates when decisions are taken at court. Those guidelines emphasise the importance of prosecutors speaking with the victim or the victim's family so that their views and interests can be taken into account.
Mr. Mackinlay: May I ask the Solicitor-General whether the Crown's decision not to offer evidence at the trial, on 8 June 1999, of Linda Watson and Amanda Williams for the murder of Richard Watson had anything to do with the fact that the security and intelligence services had some interest in the case? If so, was that interest disclosed to the Police Complaints Authority when it pursued that botched prosecution?
The Solicitor-General: I have written to my hon. Friend about that case. Certainly as far as I know there was no involvement of the security and intelligence services whatsoever. As I explained to him, the CPS made the decision not to continue simply because the prosecution's forensic evidence did not amount to proof. The defence produced forensic evidence, and frankly, our evidence could not match it. On such a basis, as I said in my reply to him, the prosecution must be stopped. That is in the interests of defendants.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): Will the Solicitor-General accept that victims and victims' families are frequently bewildered by the lack of information on the reasons for either dropping or reducing charges in given cases? Does he accept that the Opposition's proposal that there should be a named CPS officer or lawyer to act as a point of contact between victims or victims' families and the CPS is a good one? Would it not eradicate as far as is humanly possible the sense of bewilderment facing victims and their families? I am sure that he is a reasonable man. Therefore, if he accepts our proposal, why does he not implement it?
The Solicitor-General: I am afraid that the Opposition are stealing our policies--because that is precisely what is in our proposals that will be rolled out later this year. There have already been pilot projects to test our proposals whereby the CPS will be the point of contact for victims, victims' families and others in relation to decisions on charges. The hon. and learned Gentleman is right that, often in the past, that has not happened and people have been bewildered about why, for example, charges have been dropped or pleas have been accepted.
As I said, the national scheme will be rolled out later this year. Under the Attorney-General's guidelines, which I mentioned earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), if a case is there for trial and a plea is accepted, victims and their families must be informed so that they can have an input.
The Solicitor-General: It will not be a surprise to my hon. Friend when I say that I have no plans. Many people, including William Beausire and Father Michael Woodward, were tortured and murdered under General Pinochet's regime in Chile in the 1970s. Our courts, however, do not have jurisdiction to try those responsible for those appalling acts. As I said in my statement to the House on General Pinochet, on 2 March 2000, the criminal offences both of torture--which is contrary to section 134 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988--and of hostage-taking under the Taking of Hostages Act 1982, which otherwise might apply, were not retrospective and could not be made to apply to matters such as the two deaths about which my hon. Friend inquires.
The two victims will never return. Will not my hon. and learned Friend also meet their relatives, and see what practical legal support can be given to the families to help them mount a serious case against Pinochet and all his henchmen in the Chilean courts, where hundreds of such cases are at last being mounted?
In addition, what this country did in relation to Senator Pinochet has had a catalytic effect in Chile. That is a good thing. Secondly, were these appalling crimes to occur today--God forbid that they would--the cases could be tried in a court here.