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Mr. Blunkett: I appreciate the warm welcome that the right hon. Gentleman has given the White Paper this afternoon. We appear to disagree on only two things. The first is that crime rose by more than 100 per cent. while the Conservatives were in office, and it has fallen by more than 22 per cent. since we came into office. The second is that we need more money to achieve the process of case management and electronic interchange that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. The £600 million that we are devoting to that would be cut by the Conservative party.
On everything else, we appear to be in agreement. A large number of reforms have been introduced but they have not yet achieved everything that we need. We are agreed on that. Codification over time is a valuable objective. We need to ensure that we overcome failure at every point in the system to reduce crime further, which, of course, involves the 4,500 extra police officers brought in during the last two years, who again had to be paid for by investment from public funds. We are all agreed that where the system breaks down, there is a crisis of criminality, particularly for the most disadvantaged. That affects many of the people whom we represent. That is why we are announcing end-to-end radical action this afternoon.
We also agree that the measures must have coherence, from detection and good policing all the way through to sensible correctional policies to avoid reoffending. That is precisely why we recognise another issue on which we may have a slight disagreement. We agree that the system must protect the innocent, and we also believe that it should more effectively convict the guilty. We must also recognise, however, that, whatever the view held in the past by the rest of the worldand by the population of Britainof our criminal justice system, it is no longer held in the high esteem in which all of us would wish to see it being held in the future. It is no longer held in high esteem because the credibility of the system has been undermined as witnesses have been deterred from coming
We are introducing this radical reform not simply because we have dreamt it up, but because Lord Justice Auld, the Law Commission, and the reports over the last decade have told us that radical reform is required. If the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are going to join us, I welcome that. I would also welcome further consultation with them to ensure that the system commands consensus and that it holds for decades to come, rather than being subject to change on change, which disrupts the system rather than putting it right. That is my offer to the Opposition this afternoon.
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): First, I welcome the Home Secretary's offer, which we accept unreservedly. On behalf of my colleagues, I welcome the breadth of the White Paper and much of the specific detail. I hope that the Home Secretary will see that there are only a small number of matters on which we start from a different position.
We share with the Home Secretary the view that the victim must be much more at the centre of the whole criminal justice process, and that witnesses need much more support and protection. It is very welcome that the Government have returned to the position that the Labour party held before 1997, which many of us have held all alongthat in serious cases people on trial should always have the right to choose to be tried by their peers.
However, if, like the Home Secretary, we are to be honest about the failures of the system, we must recognise the two biggest failures. They are not that a huge percentage of people plead not guilty when they get to courtmost plead guiltyor that a huge percentage of trials do not result in a guilty verdict, because most of them do. Instead, the first failure is the terrible figures that the right hon. Gentleman had to report last weekI do not blame him for them historicallythat only one in four of all crimes result in someone being arrested and proceeded against. In some areas of London, the figure is one in eight. Unless we improve the catching and clear-up rates, the rest of the system will have relatively very much less to do. Secondly, unless we allow witnesses to be so supported that they continue to give evidence and stay throughout a trial, we will never get many of the most serious cases to the point of conviction, which is where we all want them to be.
We disagree on only three main matters. First, many of us are far from persuaded that it is possible to have a fair trial if, in the normal course of events, previous convictions are known to the court before the verdict. I hope that the Home Secretary will be prepared to reconsider that issue. Secondly, on double jeopardy although I understand his argument, the case for keeping the rule against double jeopardy even in the most serious cases is this: if we were to legislate retrospectively, as a result of the proposals passing into law, every person alive acquitted after a full trial for a very serious offence would have that definitive decision turned into a provisional verdict that would be always open to challenge.
Thirdly, although it is of course right for Parliament to set a maximum sentence, including life imprisonment, I ask the Home Secretary to consider whether it is not always
Mr. Blunkett: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's tone and approach. We agree about putting victims at the centre, and about the critical aim of protecting, encouraging and supporting witnesses.
We have a slight disagreement about the statistics on people pleading guilty. Some 57 per cent. of those who opted to go to Crown court instead of being heard in a magistrates court eventually pleaded guilty, so the decision was clearly a delaying tactic. There are very real issues here. [Interruption.] To plead guilty after months of prevarication[Interruption.] The barracking can continue from the barrack-room lawyers, but it is simple fact that 57 per cent.[Interruption.] Real lawyers represent real people, just as we represent the victims of crime and not those who earn their living out of crime. That is the point that I was making to the hon. Gentleman, who made some very sensible points in his contribution.
The prevention of wrongful convictions must be a key task, but the presentation of previous convictions in very limited circumstances can often be crucial. Let us take the issue of domestic violence. In such cases, a judge may well feel that someone who claimed vehemently that they had never been involved before in battering and destroying the life of a woman should have revealed to the court the fact that, three, four or more times in their relationship, they had done exactly the same. It is right that the jury should know that, especially as the defence lawyer knows it.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of double jeopardy. I simply put it to him that the transformation of science and the use of DNA has now made it possible for us to have some not simply evidence but compelling evidence that someone was guilty of a crime. For that person to walk around in our community, capable of murder and rape, is a disgrace. In limited circumstances, the Director of Public Prosecutions will authorise, first, the investigation and, secondly, the submission to the Appeal Court. The Court of Appeal will then decide whether there is sufficient evidence to take the matter further, to protect us all from those who escaped justice in the first place.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): Anything that makes our courts more efficient, effective and victim-friendly will be welcomed by most sensible people, as most of the proposed measures will no doubt be. However, I remain to be persuaded that the disclosure of previous convictions will not merely encourage the rounding up of the usual suspects. The Home Secretary gave an example of circumstances in which disclosure might be permitted, but surely there is a danger that the judge will allow disclosure when the Crown case is so weak that it might otherwise collapse.
Mr. Blunkett: Yes, there is a danger. There will be a right of appeal in such circumstances, to ensure that the defence can challenge that basis of presumption, which will be the responsibility of the judiciary.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): To want to protect victims and witnesses is not controversial. To require both parties to define the factual and legal issues should be as commonplace in the criminal process as it is in the civil process. That is accepted. However, I urge the right hon. Gentleman to accede to the request of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the shadow Home Secretary, to introduce legislation to codify the criminal law as quickly as possible. Had the law been codified, there would have been no need for the 12 criminal justice statutes introduced by this Government. We might have needed some of them, but not as many. We pass too many unnecessary laws dealing with criminal justice and I fear that the Home Secretary's statement will require us to pass more.
Does the Home Secretary accept that admitting previous convictions into evidence is likely to be more prejudicial than probative? Does he also accept that abolishing the double jeopardy rule is likely to lead to more miscarriages of justice rather than to an increase in public confidence in our justice system? I am not going to get hysterical about what the Home Secretary said because I, too, want to participate in the debate in a sensible and rational way. The right hon. Gentleman says that he will listen. Once he has done that, will he also perhaps change his mind?