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4 Dec 2002 : Column 913—continued

Mr. Blunkett: There are many safeguards built into that provision which we will come to as we proceed through the Bill, and I will be happy to give way to my hon. Friend again at that point. The Select Committee made suggestions on a range of issues which were very helpful to us, and I will be happy to consider them, as I have done with previous Bills. I shall give way to some of my hon. Friends, but I shall give way first to the lead spokesman for the Liberal Democrats.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I am grateful to the Home Secretary for the tone and content of his remarks so far. I want to ask him about one of the provisions on which there is potentially a dispute as to the principle but on which I hope we can achieve agreement.

We are all united in our desire to increase support and protection for victims and witnesses—I do not think that there is a dissenting voice in the House. However,

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does the Home Secretary accept that it is not a direct balancing operation to increase support and protection for witnesses and victims and to take away the rights of defendants? It is just as important that defendants, when they are in court, have protection as it is that victims and witnesses have protection when they are engaged in the criminal justice process.

Mr. Blunkett: I entirely accept that. I have made the point in the House and elsewhere that this is not a zero sum game in which, if we enhance the rights of one set of people, we automatically diminish the rights of others. If we can approach the Bill in that spirit, we will achieve a degree of unity. I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen).

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): I thank the Home Secretary for his generous offer to improve the Bill in Committee. Will he comment on the fact that the Bill may be with us for 20-odd years but we could not find six weeks in which to perform even more thorough pre-legislative scrutiny? If we had done that online, it would have involved police officers, probation officers, court officials, victims and witnesses, who would have made a great contribution.

I know that my right hon. Friend is constrained by the fact that the carry-over provision does not come into effect immediately, but will he undertake to ensure that any future Bills of this nature, which are very amenable to public participation, will go through full pre-legislative scrutiny, including online consultation to involve the public, who are so concerned about crime?

Mr. Blunkett: In principle, the argument that where we can have pre-legislative scrutiny, we should, is unanswerable. I hope that the White Paper gave people an idea of our intentions and enabled them to respond. I know that many people have been debating these issues for a long time, but my hon. Friend's point is well taken. I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), and then I must make progress.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Bill could be improved if we took the opportunity to draw a much clearer distinction between children and adults and set the defining age at 18 rather than 14, 16 or 17? Would that not help us to make a clearer and good response to last week's judicial review, which held that the Children Act 1989 should apply to under-18s in custody?

Mr. Blunkett: We are all concerned to achieve substantial improvement in the juvenile estate. As the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central has said publicly, we shall introduce measures, not least in relation to the judgment given earlier this week. We are mindful about getting that right. It is important that we intervene at an earlier stage rather than rely on the correctional services to deal with youngsters. We have done important work in establishing the Youth Justice Board, and improvements in correctional services in recent years, if overdue, are extremely welcome.

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Departments and agencies, both locally and nationally, are working together on, for instance, Splash schemes and their related support services in Connexions, which made an enormous difference over the summer to the level of criminality. In street crime areas with preventive diversionary programmes, there was just over a 20 per cent. drop in recorded crime, compared with a 5 per cent. drop in similar areas without such programmes. There is a lot to learn from intervening at that stage, providing alternative activities and reducing opportunities for crime. I want to put that on record because criminal justice reforms tend to deal with the horse once it has bolted past the stable door. We need to make better progress on prevention in the first place—that is true of rehabilitation as well.

We have done quite a lot with youth justice. Not only have we developed the Youth Justice Board, but we have fulfilled our pledge to halve the time it takes for young people to pass from arrest and to sentence. Initially we got that down to 71 days, but we have now got it down to 63 days—a tremendous improvement on the previous time. There has been a 14.6 per cent. reduction in reconviction rates for that age group in the new reformed system of youth justice. We have introduced intensive treatment and supervision orders and have done work on tagging and home detention curfews. We need to bear all those things in mind when considering what is possible and how we may achieve improvements.

This afternoon, I appeal to people with a long-standing professional involvement and interest to play their part in making the Bill better and ensuring that the reforms are carried through. In the Queen's Speech debate, I said that the Law Society had been positive. When I addressed its annual conference, I was heartened by the way in which its members were committed to assisting us with reform. I again appeal to people inside the system to work with us, not against us, to ensure that we bring this programme into the 21st century, as it is important for the protection of the public and the credibility and standing of the criminal justice service as a whole. We should acknowledge that, together, we treasure our traditions. Some we will remember with nostalgia; others we will bring carefully from medieval England into the 21st century; all of them we will treat with care. I accept what has been said in the House on a number of occasions—we should change what exists with care.

Not everyone agrees on the central objective of the criminal justice service. I believe that, above all, it is a search for truth. We are trying to get to the truth on behalf of victims and the wider community. Unless that objective is at the heart of the system, we shall never protect victims in future and will never have a culture in our communities that accepts that order and stability, as well as people's security in their homes and neighbourhoods, is the paramount job of any civilised Government.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Serious cases of miscarriage of justice have done much to damage the criminal justice system. During consideration of the Bill, I ask the Home Secretary to examine the operation that was set up by the Derbyshire constabulary—it was

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called Operation Noble—in the reinvestigation of the Wendy Sewell murder, following the release of Stephen Downing about 27 years after being convicted, the conviction having been found unsafe by the Court of Appeal. Will the right hon. Gentleman take it from me that Operation Noble has been far sighted and has enabled the chief constable to reinvestigate a serious crime, involving all those who were concerned in the case? Operation Noble should be examined by other police forces throughout the country.

Mr. Blunkett: We would all be pleased to learn lessons from that operation and to reflect on improvements. It is not often that I pay tribute to a measure was enacted under Baroness Thatcher's notorious reign.

Mr. McLoughlin: Go on.

Mr. Blunkett: I will go on. I shall dip a toe in hot water. By 1984, it had been recognised by everyone that there were major problems. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the development of the PACE code since have been important and welcomed by everyone. We need to build upon that in a sensitive way. We are not sweeping that aside in introducing the Bill. We need to be able to enhance and modernise a learning experience over the past 18 years. I welcome the way in which the Derbyshire police have approached the Downing case.

I was about to reflect on a point about protecting the public and getting the measure of what we are about in the Bill. There are those who have almost come to the conclusion that Parliament is a threat in terms of the way in which the judiciary works or in terms of the innocent fearing conviction. I do not believe that a democratically elected Parliament is a threat. I think that the threat lies with people committing crimes on our streets and in our homes. I believe that being able to hold us to account for what we do and to demand change from us—the public are able to expect us to deal with these issues, including sentencing policy—are pluses in persuading people that democracy is worth sustaining, that Parliament is worth listening to and supporting, and that it is worth participating in our elections. If people believe that nothing can be changed, that nothing can be improved and that we must be hands off because we are frightened of dealing with these issues, and if they consequently turn away from our democracy and our Parliament, we shall all be the losers.

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