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20 Nov 2002 : Column 734—continued

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I call Mr. Tom Levitt.

9.17 pm

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): I shall be brief as I realise that others want to speak.

It used to be said that law and order and crime were not natural Labour issues, but given that we have succeeded in getting crime down in the past five years, and in the light of the proposed legislation and the tone of today's debate, those days are long gone. In fact, it is on the Labour heartland estates that crime levels are highest. Our young people are painted as the perpetrators of crime, but they are also disproportionately the victims. It is our old people who have the greatest fear of crime, even though the figures show that crime is actually falling. Although some fear of crime may not be rational, such fear is nevertheless a political reality. We must tackle that reality, as well as crime itself.

I shall not go into the problems in my constituency, which are similar to those that others have outlined. Instead, I want to be a little upbeat. My constituency was the first in the country to use an antisocial behaviour order, and it worked. We have also used parenting orders. Of the first 10 parents who were sent on parenting courses, six enjoyed the experience so much that they signed up for further courses. We have also run sure start programmes. Such initiatives are an investment in keeping crime down. New initiatives to put bobbies back on the beat in Hadfield will be extended elsewhere. We have a crime and disorder partnership, community safety officers and a rural policing initiative, through which a mobile police station serves 10 different villages for half a day every week. Those villages have never had such a service before.

The Connexions service is up and running—an investment for the future—and we have youth offending teams with cross-disciplinary connections. We also have two magnificent youth clubs: the Millennium Cellar, in Glossop, and Buxton For Youth, in Buxton. Both were conceived and created by, and are run by, young people themselves, often with the help of Crimestoppers and the involvement of the police. They are superb initiatives.

I want to say a quick word about the police in Derbyshire. I applaud what my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) said about police officers. I have regular contacts with police officers—police constables, inspectors, divisional commanders and the chief constable—and I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety for taking time earlier this year to meet police officers from my constituency to discuss the Police Bill, which we did rationally and constructively.

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A few weeks ago, I was out on patrol with some police officers in Buxton. We were called to a group of young people about whom a complaint had been made. We found nothing wrong, but they wanted to talk and we spent time discussing with them what it would take to improve their reputation. There were four breathalysing cases that night and a road traffic accident. We took runaways back home. The incident of domestic violence that I attended with the police at 2.30 on a Saturday morning was handled magnificently, and all credit to them.

I know that the investment that we are putting into the police will pay off, but it has to go along with learning what works, and enabling the police to learn from good practice in different parts of the country by, for example, improving the way in which their IT systems work together. I am sure that the investment will happen.

I believe that I am the only person to mention this final point today. I very much welcome the draft Bill on corruption in the Queen's Speech, for reasons that I hope to develop in an Adjournment debate at a later date.

9.21 pm

Martin Linton (Battersea): I shall concentrate on three issues that will feature in the criminal justice Bill: double jeopardy, mode of trial and offending while on bail.

I congratulate the Home Secretary on undertaking the mammoth task of reforming the criminal justice system. To say that the system is in need of reform is a huge understatement. One of the first things that Lord Justice Auld discovered when he started his review was that it is not even a system. As he said, there is no overall direction and there are no overall lines of management and accountability. The recommendations in his report are a very good start.

I encourage the Home Secretary to go even further and not let himself be deflected either by the House of Lords or the lawyers. I do not say that all his opponents will be lawyers, or that all lawyers will oppose his reforms—far from it. But it is often our learned friends who command the most attention because we assume that lawyers know all about the law and must be right. It is an observable fact about this place that many of our honourable and learned friends who are the most radical on every other issue turn out to be the most conservative when it comes to changes in the legal system.

Many lawyers are against any relaxation of the double jeopardy rule, although, to my mind, there is an overwhelming case for relaxing it. DNA testing is now used to prove the innocence of people previously found guilty. It is also used to prove the guilt of people who previously could not be brought to justice. Under the double jeopardy rule, however, DNA cannot be used to prove the guilt of people previously acquitted. It baffles me how lawyers can seriously defend that position, but they do. They care about miscarriages of justice when the innocent are found guilty, but they are less concerned about miscarriages of justice when the guilty are found innocent, even though it can lead to just as much suffering. What about the case of a rape victim

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who knows that the man who can be proven by DNA to have been her attacker is not only free but immune from prosecution because of double jeopardy? She may be imprisoned in her own home by the fear that that knowledge induces.

Mr. Blunt: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Martin Linton: I do not have the latitude.

Why lawyers should care more about wrongful convictions than wrongful acquittals is a mystery. Perhaps they get to know about the wrongful convictions because those involved are, after all, their clients. Victims have no one in the legal system to speak up for them but only us. Perhaps it is because they do not like the courts to revisit their old mistakes. Doctors can bury their mistakes; defence lawyers have double jeopardy to bury theirs.

I am glad that the power to hold retrials will be extended to cover offences other than murder, as the Law Commission recommended. They will now include rape, manslaughter and robbery. I would go even further: the difficult hurdle in the system should be the Court of Appeal, which has to quash the acquittal, not the type of case involved.

I strongly counsel my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary against making the test Xcompelling new evidence" of guilt. That sounds as though one is trying to prejudice the jury. I agree with the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) that that would not make for a fair trial. It would be far better to go with the formulation recommended by the Home Affairs Committee two years ago, which was that the test should be that the acquittal was unsafe.

I hope that the due diligence test will also be dropped. If the police miss a fingerprint or fail to interview a witness, it is not clear to me why a court should not be allowed to consider fresh evidence in a retrial.

I want briefly to mention trial by jury. I admit to being disappointed that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has had to give in to the relentless campaign in the other place and among some lawyers here against the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No. 2) Bill. I have never understood why, as Auld points out in his report, England has the unique distinction of being the only legal system in which, for a range of relatively trivial offences, the accused and not the court decides in which court the trial takes place. As a result, jurors—and I have been one—may spend three days deciding who pinched a 60p can of coke.

I agree that justice should always be paramount, but that does not mean that we should have no interest in the cost effectiveness of the judicial system. Safety is paramount in any discussion of the railways, but that does not mean that we cannot discuss the cost effectiveness of the railway system. To my mind, it is crazy to have a #20,000 trial to decide who stole a can of coke.

I welcome the assurance in the Queen's Speech that the Government intend to introduce legislation rendering it impossible to appeal against bail for any imprisonable offence. I welcome that because the carjacker sentenced for the murder of estate agent Timothy Robinson on the streets of Battersea last month was on bail for a similar carjacking offence at the

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time that he committed the murder. Sadly, that is not unusual: 24 per cent. of bailees commit another offence while they are on bail. That murder could have been prevented if the proposed legislation had been on the statute book. If the murder helps to persuade the House to support the measure, some good may have come out of that evil.

9.28 pm

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness): I shall use the beginning of the time available to me by apologising for not being present for the whole of today's debate. I was present for the opening speeches, but then had to deal with an emergency constituency issue. However, I was delighted to hear, in those initial exchanges, that the Government have backed away from their proposals regarding the sparsity factor in the police funding formula. That would have dramatically affected policing in Lincolnshire. The people of Lincolnshire will be delighted, although it remains to be seen whether other factors will take funding away from the police in that area.

I welcome much of the Queen's Speech, although I have severe concerns—shared by other Conservative Members—about the potential eradication of some fundamental tenets of the British justice system. Such changes might prejudice a person's right to a fair trial. The three issues that spring to mind have been mentioned already in the debate—double jeopardy, trial by jury and the provision of information regarding previous convictions.

It is possible that the Government's proposals could tip the balance in favour of the victim, but they may also tip it in favour of convicting innocent people as opposed to ensuring that more guilty people are convicted. I strongly question whether a jury can remain impartial when it knows in great detail the previous convictions of an accused person. I suggest that such knowledge could prevent a fair trial from taking place.

I am delighted that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) has returned to his seat. He made, as always, an engaging and articulate speech on the problem of drugs. However, I take issue with two of his points. First, the problem of heroin is not peculiar to coalfield or ex-coalfield areas. I represent a low-wage rural area. We have terrible problems with heroin in the towns of Boston and Skegness and also in the villages between them—there is a heroin dealer in every village.

Secondly, I take exception to the hon. Gentleman's pronouncement that outreach drug work and rehabilitation centres are in competition. To my mind, they are not mutually exclusive and should work together. More funding should be put into both facilities to enable young and old alike to come off the drug habit into which they have so sadly fallen.

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