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20 Nov 2002 : Column 674—continued

Martin Linton (Battersea): Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the argument against retrospective law is that somebody should not be convicted for doing something that was not an offence when they did it? That does not apply in the example of double jeopardy, as the act was an offence when they committed it and all they did was lie in court.

Simon Hughes: I understand that argument, but even if the principle were applied only in murder cases, for example, those acquitted would have only a provisional

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acquittal for the rest of their lives. That is a bad thing in principle and in practice. It is not as if the criminal justice services do not have plenty to do.

Vera Baird (Redcar): The hon. Gentleman puts an argument that goes against not retrospectivity, but against the principle of scrapping double jeopardy in general. He speaks of how difficult it would be for future juries to forget past high-profile trials, but there will be high-profile trials in future, and it will be equally difficult for juries thereafter to forget that they have occurred. His argument has absolutely nothing to do with retrospectivity; rather, it relates to the need to formulate very carefully the test that permits a second trial. That can be done.

Simon Hughes: I understand the hon. and learned Lady's argument, but retrospectivity and the question of whether a fair trial can be ensured the second time around are two separate points. If it can be shown that a second trial can avoid the taint of prior media coverage, her argument might be adequate.

The third of three big issues to which I referred is previous convictions. The Home Secretary challenges us to accept previous convictions more frequently because he believes that juries should be able to see the whole picture in coming to a fair judgment. He says that we do not trust juries, but those of us who argue that previous convictions should not be disclosed do so because we believe that people should be tried for the offence for which they are on trial, without the whole of their previous life being an influencing factor. It will not be possible to have a fair trial if the fact that a person has been in trouble before, and been convicted, is frequently made known to the court. Of all the issues that we face, this one will give the Government the greatest difficulty in the House of Lords. I hope that, unless the Government change their position, Parliament as a whole will reject the proposal, because it will fundamentally change the principle that people are presumed innocent. It will put that principle at risk, and many more people will face the prospect of a jury that assumes that they are guilty.

I have mentioned the dangers of the prospects of increasing custody. However, I am equally worried by the apparent lack of clarity in the custody-plus plan, under which every sentence for a serious offence will have an equal sentence outside prison. Will it have the money to guarantee that people will get the continuing support from the probation service and the other services that they need? It would help if the Minister could explain whether Lord Falconer was correct in saying that the money will not be available for 10 years, or whether the Prime Minister was correct in saying that it will be available once the legislation is enacted. If we are to have successful punishment in the community, that money must be available.

When my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) spoke last Wednesday, he said that perhaps the big divide in Britain today is between the liberal and the illiberal, rather than between left and right. We hope that a similar divide exists between solutions that find favour with Parliament because they are tried and tested, and

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those that should not because they are just the latest gimmick; between solutions that have a long-term track record, and which will produce long-term answers, and those that are simply quick fixes; and between solutions that are likely to work, and solutions that just sound good.

We are as committed as others to fighting the battle against crime hard in order to bring it down, and to ensuring that we make our communities safer, but unless we make sure that we rehabilitate better, and that we prevent people from reoffending, as they so often do, we will not win that battle. In the year ahead, Liberal Democrats will work according to very simple principles. The justice system has to work equally for everybody. It must be trusted by lay people, because it is often led by them. People must be presumed innocent, not guilty. They must be treated with dignity, whether or not they have offended. Never will we give up on anybody, and never will we fail to believe that rehabilitation can work. We will come from that position, constructively, and we hope that we will have legislation that works, not just six more laws that—like many of those before them—make only a small, sometimes insignificant, contribution to reducing crime.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed an eight-minute limit on speeches from Back Benchers, which applies from now on.

5.20 pm

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): In the short time available to me, I shall concentrate my remarks on three proposed Bills: on criminal justice and sentencing, on antisocial behaviour and on the long-awaited Bill to regulate private rented accommodation—one of the few Bills that does not emanate from the Home Office.

I add my voice to the general welcome for the White Paper that outlines plans for a Bill to update the law on sexual offences. I was pleased to hear the Home Secretary say yesterday that he remains open to argument on anonymity for defendants in sex offence cases. That arises especially in allegations of child abuse, which are frequently made many years after the event on the shakiest of evidence and which frequently collapse long before they reach the door of the court, but not before they have ruined the lives of people who are, in many cases, wholly innocent. I draw the Home Secretary's attention to the recent report of the Home Affairs Committee on the subject.

We do not yet know what the criminal justice and sentencing Bill will contain, although if we can go by speculation in the media, it seems to grow fatter day by day. If the past is anything to go by, new clauses will still be appearing long after the Bill has left this place. Happy though I am to support any measures designed to improve the efficiency of our chronically inefficient system of criminal justice, one has to recognise that, as the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) said, many of the problems that we face do not require legislation but firm management, efficient policing and, above all, a cultural change that gives due recognition to the interests of victims and witnesses. Sometimes, although not as often as alleged, the problems we face also require more resources.

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Some of the measures in the Bill will help to reduce delays and, in general, I approve of them. Others are designed to tilt the balance in favour of more convictions and with those we must be much more careful. I favour anything that turns our judicial system into a search for truth rather than a game between two competing teams of lawyers, but I would not wish to see the presumption of innocence—a fundamental principle of our law—undermined. I will therefore need much persuading that it is right to allow a defendant's previous convictions to be disclosed to a jury as a matter of course.

I also have concerns about proposals to require disclosure of defence witnesses other than alibi witnesses, who must already be disclosed. We have not yet seen the precise terms of the Bill, but will that mean that the police will be free to visit defence witnesses and, as they say in the trade, Xrefresh their memories" or, in some cases, help them to forget what they previously remembered? It is not unknown for defence witnesses to be threatened with prosecution, or to be prosecuted, solely with a view to discrediting their evidence. I hope that no one will claim that that is a thing of the past, because I had such a case at my surgery only the other day. I warn Ministers that if the provisions work in the way that I have outlined, they can and will be abused. We will return to those issues on Second Reading, but I flag them up now.

I am especially interested in the antisocial behaviour Bill. There is some mystery about its contents, but I am told that it will include measures to restrict the use of air weapons—a matter on which I have campaigned for some years. I hope that in due course we will also consider imitation weapons.

We live in a society where an increased sense of rights has been matched by a diminishing sense of responsibility. It is time that the balance was restored. Antisocial behaviour is the greatest challenge that we face. It is not so much organised crime as disorganised crime that makes a misery of so many people's lives.

People come to my office—I am sure that other hon. Members have had the same experience—and break down in tears, begging to be evacuated from homes in which they have lived peacefully for years because they cannot cope with the noise, abuse and endemic yobbery that plague their lives and against which the forces of law and order appear powerless. We have to end the culture of impunity that surrounds antisocial behaviour, and I hope that the Bill will help us to do so.

However, we should not make claims for the Bill that are too large. I am sure that Ministers will not do that. The Bill will not be a panacea, and it should not be seen in isolation. It is simply another small step—an addition to measures already taken to improve the quality of policing and education, to treat drug addicts, and to wean young people off benefits and into work—along the road to restoring our battered social fabric.

Finally, I warmly welcome the proposed Bill to deal with rogue landlords. The Bill will be published in draft early next year. As I said earlier, it is one of the few measures in the Queen's Speech that does not seem to have emanated from the Home Office. I am led to believe that the Bill will give local authorities the discretion to license both multiple occupancy tenancies and single tenancies. That will enable us to cut off the flow of

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housing benefit to landlords who decline to take responsibility for the condition of properties or for the behaviour of tenants.

The Bill is long overdue. At present, public money in the form of housing benefit is being used to fund the destruction of parts of our inner cities. That is especially true of some of our northern cities, where there are large amounts of empty property. It is an incredible situation, and I am amazed that we have tolerated it for so long. The 10 largest landlords in Sunderland between them receive more than #1 million in housing benefit, which travels directly from the civic centre bank account into their accounts without ever passing through the property for which it is being paid. It therefore gives the landlords involved no incentive ever to go anywhere near the properties that they own, and some of them have never visited their properties.

Cutting the flow of housing benefit to rogue landlords is potentially the most effective measure that we can take to reduce antisocial behaviour. I have pressed for this measure since I was a Minister at the former Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and it cannot come soon enough.

In conclusion, I agree with those who have noted that there are no short cuts. Passing an Act of Parliament—or six, or 20 Acts—will not change the world. What matters is the cumulative effect. The Government have recognised from the outset that literacy, numeracy, training and then work are what will make the difference. It is a long, difficult and unglamorous road, but one from which there can be no turning back. Insofar as the Bills announced in the Queen's Speech help us along that road, they will have my support.

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