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26 Nov 2002 : Column 153continued
Dr. Cable : Does the Minister agree that the recent application of that principle of immunity has caused considerable embarrassment to the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts and, not least, the monarchy? Will she therefore contemplate reviewing those arrangements, particularly bearing in mind the comment made yesterday by David Pannick QC that one person's liberty as a defendant should not take second place to someone else's status?
Ms Winterton: The hon. Gentleman clearly has strong views about the matter. However, on 4 November, at one of his regular press conferences, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in relation to the Paul Burrell case that he did not believe that the constitutional position should change.
Kali Mountford (Colne Valley): Does not this case have wider implications for immunity in general terms and, in particular, for Crown immunity? Does my hon. Friend have a view on the implications for Crown immunity, and how can Members of the House have a say in what happens about that?
Ms Winterton: Consideration has been given to the quite different issue of the state's immunity in legal proceedings. For example, a recent consultation paper, XRevitalising Health and Safety", contains proposals for removing or modifying that immunity. In the light of the responses to that document, an interdepartmental working group is considering the implications, and advice will be given to Ministers about Crown immunity.
Mr. William Cash (Stone): Has the Lord Chancellor formally inquired as to what law, procedure or judicial rule led the judge in the case of R v. Burrell to convene prosecuting counsel in private and exclude defence counsel, which is usually done only when a public interest immunity certificate is applied for? If not, why not, and will he do so?
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper): The most recent figures show that there are 28,500 magistrates in England and Wales. Work is under way to assess what impact measures such as increased sentencing powers will have on the number of magistrates needed in future so that we can plan recruitment programmes accordingly.
Hugh Robertson : I should like to raise with the Minister the case of a constituent of mine, Mrs. Summers, who was removed from the Bench by the Lord Chancellor this summer. She has lived in this country for more than 30 years since her marriage, had been a magistrate for more than 10, but was removed this summer by the Lord Chancellor because she failed to meet the terms of the Act of Settlement 1701, which allows for magistrates who are United Kingdom nationals, Irish or members of a Commonwealth country. She is Dutch. The Lord Chancellor's Department wrote to me and promised to return her to the Bench as soon as possible. I have heard nothing furtherwhat more is being done?
Yvette Cooper: I am not aware of the particular case that the hon. Gentleman raised, but he is right that a number of cases have been caught by the Act of Settlement and nationality requirements for magistrates. We have made it clear that we are keen for people who have been serving magistrates for a long time, often with great experience and having given a huge amount of time to their community and the justice system, to be returned to the Bench. We have been working on measures to support individuals to help them meet the requirements so that they can get back onto the Bench. We are also looking at legislative provisions in that area, and I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with a detailed account of progress.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): If the Government expand the number of magistrates, as a member of the Magistrates' Association I believe that it is desirable to widen the sections of society from which appointments to the lay Bench are made. Will the Minister tell the House how the Government are tackling the chronic difficulty of making the Bench representative?
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right. An important principle in the justice system is that of being judged by one's peers. It is important that magistrates are drawn from the areas or constituencies on which they will judge. We are concerned to recruit more people who are in work, more people from ethnic minorities and younger people to the Bench. We have been working
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): If we are to have a large lay magistracy, which is desirable, is it not important that the courts are kept local? In that context, may I emphasise the importance of keeping the magistrates court at Sleaford?
Yvette Cooper: I have heard the right hon. and learned Gentleman's representations on that court. Local access to justice is certainly important, which is why we have supported it across the country. We are also looking at closer working between magistrates courts and the civil and family courts, because that can often support access in areas where individual courts may be under pressure. That is also why decisions are made locally about the use of court houses and resources.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper): The Government have carried out considerable research on this issue, much of it led by the Home Office, although it is used across Departments involved in the criminal justice system. The Lord Chancellor's Department is currently looking at new research into why trials are ineffective and do not go ahead on the day, including the reasons why witnesses do not attend.
Hugh Bayley : York Women's Aid tells me that six of its clients in the past year have withdrawn witness statements that they have made to the police against men who use violence against them. The longer the wait between the man being charged and the case coming to court, the more likely a woman is to be harassed and intimidated into withdrawing her evidence. What are the Government going to do to bring domestic violence cases before the courts more speedily to avoid that problem, thus ensuring that women who have been subjected to violence get justice?
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right to point to problems of delay and intimidation for witnesses. Those are both reasons why witnesses often do not give evidence in the end, and cases can fall apart as a result. There are particular problems in cases of domestic violence, given the relationship between the person who has suffered the violence and the perpetrator, which can make matters more difficult. That is why we are considering not simply reducing unacceptable delays across the board, but measures relating specifically to domestic violence, and why the Government are working on proposals for a White Paper in due course.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): The Government are right to identify intimidation of and reprisals against witnesses as a serious matter. In the Government's preparations for legislation to deal with the problem, will the hon. Lady include research among
Yvette Cooper: As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the Criminal Justice Bill has already been published and includes improvements to support for witnesses. He is right to say that there is also a considerable amount of work going on in support of victims and witnesses across government and across the criminal justice systemfor example, work in the courts includes equipment for those who are vulnerable and for intimidated witnesses to be able to give evidence through the Crown court. We are keen to include any representations from hon. Members across the House, and if the hon. Gentleman has particular views or examples, it would be helpful if he passed them to us and also to the Home Office.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): May I invite my hon. Friend to extend the current research that she mentioned to include an examination of a scheme at Stafford, where there is a support scheme for witnesses and antisocial behaviour cases? I have seen for myself that witnesses feel supported, they feel that they are mutually backing each other up, they obtain information about the cases, and they go to court believing that what they are doing is right and is valued. Will my hon. Friend consider whether such a scheme could be replicated across the country, with the beneficial effect of more witnesses turning up to give evidence?
Yvette Cooper: I certainly would be interested to see the example that my hon. Friend described. He may be aware that the Crown Prosecution Service estimates that 30,000 cases each year do not go ahead because victims or witnesses are not prepared to give evidence, so we would be interested in any measures that are helping to improve the position. At present, all sorts of support for victims and witnesses is provided by volunteers across the country, so anything that allows communities to provide support and witnesses to provide support for each other would be extremely interesting to look at.