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4 Dec 2002 : Column 916—continued

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): I shall give my right hon. Friend an example from my constituency of a 19-year-old who is a persistent young offender. He had five previous convictions involving 11 offences. In May, he was fined £100 for burglary. In September, he was arrested for driving while disqualified and having no insurance. He was bailed and then arrested for the same sort of offence two days later. When he returned to court, he was given 100 hours of community punishment. Does not this sort of sentencing anger the victim, demoralise the police and undermine whatever confidence the public have in the criminal justice system? Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that the Bill will get to grips with that sort of sentencing?

Mr. Blunkett: Yes. The extension of intensive supervision, the tagging measures, the provisions on bail

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that are crucial to credibility, will all make a substantial difference. It is regrettable that every hon. Member could give a similar example.

Acquitting the innocent is critical; convicting the guilty is vital. I shall not use many soundbites in my speech, but ensuring that the scales of justice pass the trading standards test in the 21st century is important.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Blunkett: I am sorry to provoke more interventions, but I shall give way.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way with his usual courtesy. He spoke eloquently about the powers of the House to make changes. His proposals include removing the double jeopardy rule and providing for the retrial of serious offences. I oppose that change, but I agree that it should be a matter for the House. Why, then, have the Government signed up to the European Union charter of fundamental rights? Article 50 explicitly forbids retrial and protects the double jeopardy rule. Why do Ministers on the Convention on the Future of Europe argue for the charter to be made legally binding? That would undermine the House's discretion and its ability to make the changes that the Home Secretary advocates.

Mr. Blunkett: I do not believe that the charter prevents that. I would be against signing into European statute or our laws anything that interferes with our rights. That is why I oppose a European public prosecutor and will argue vehemently against the extension of powers in the European Union that infringe our right to introduce measures such as those that we are debating.

Some Members of the other place claim to be on my side but say the most extraordinary things. For example, they claim that the Bill was developed from a focus group. I am happy to plead guilty, because one focus group did influence me. It incorporates 82,000 men, women and children; I regret that not all of them were eligible to vote in the last general election, but they constitute the population of Sheffield, Brightside.

Those who hold surgeries, are accountable to their electorate and receive representations day in, day out in correspondence to their constituency offices, have a different view from those who have never held a surgery, are accountable to no one and, in some cases, picture matters from a great distance. They may be travelling the world when events pervade our consciousness. I ask those who attack us day in, day out, on television, radio and in the press, as calmly and reasonably as I can, to return to the world in which we live and that our constituents inhabit.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): Would my right hon. Friend include in his focus group my 83-year-old constituent who has been terrorised? Her windows have been shot at with air gun pellets, but the system has given her no support. Is not she a member of the sort of focus group to which we should listen?

Mr. Blunkett: Yes. I hope that our debate on antisocial behaviour will be as sensible as this afternoon's discussion.

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Modernising and improving are a necessity and a promise, not a threat. I want to go through the aspects of the measure about which we agree and disagree. All three major parties as well as the minor parties agree on the bulk of the provisions. We will focus on some aspects that have received public attention, but I want to make it clear that the provisions that engender the greatest heat are not necessarily those that encapsulate the biggest changes.

Some aspects of the Bill are controversial. Hon. Members will refer to that now, in Committee and in the House of Lords. However, many other provisions will be instrumental in massively improving the system, its timing, its sensitivity and its ability to respond to the needs of victims and witnesses.

Parts 1 and 2 set out the reforms and modernisation of the codes established by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984—the PACE codes—and of bail, in the context of the issue I mentioned earlier, and provide the opportunity to look at additional powers in the future. These measures are all intended to ensure that the police can do their job more effectively and, I hope, more fairly. Part 3 is about conditional cautions and about rehabilitation, diversion and proper enforcement measures, and the work of the Crown Prosecution Service. Part 4 deals with the relationship between the police and the CPS in relation to charging policy, and we are pleased that the experiments have been successful in developing a new role for the CPS in this area. I hope that it will work effectively in the future.

Part 5 deals with disclosure. We are simply seeking to avoid any scope for abuse of the system, to ensure that information requirements for the defence are placed on a par with those of the prosecution, and to deal with the way in which witnesses can be protected, including ensuring that the development of knowledge about the list of expert witnesses on which the defence will draw will be available to the prosecution. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), the Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, has been very generous in not intervening on me yet, but I would like to refer to his input in this matter. The Committee made the suggestion that we might develop a code that could incorporate measures to offer protection if there were any suggestion of a defence witness being leant on in the intervening period. I am happy to give the assurance that we will be prepared, in Committee, to provide for a code.

The way in which we are moving this afternoon, and will move in Committee, and the way in which the Home Affairs Committee dealt with the code's immediate look—it did not have a lot of time, but it has done its job very effectively—demonstrate the way in which we might proceed in the future.

Mr. Mullin: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that assurance. I think that it will resolve a problem. To make this measure effective, however, it will be necessary to ensure that defence witnesses whom the prosecution wish to contact should be interviewed only in the presence of a defence solicitor, and, preferably, that the interview should be recorded; otherwise, the measure will undoubtedly be abused.

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Mr. Blunkett: I am agreeing now that the code should cover those areas.

Mr. Mullin: Thank you.

Mr. Blunkett: I think that that will help us.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Does the Home Secretary accept that my focus group—or, certainly, some of the constituents in it—are concerned about the other side of the coin, which is that the technical failure to disclose a single piece of evidence might invalidate a trial? Will he assure the House that there is no intention that that situation should arise unless a serious miscarriage of justice has followed?

Mr. Blunkett: I think that trial judges would want to use common sense in those circumstances, and we would encourage them to do so. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman agrees that we should be concerned with justice and seeking the truth, rather than with technical knockouts. I have said that before and I believe it very sincerely.

Part 6 is about streamlining the process, cutting down on wasted time, and speeding up the way in which we operate the system. It is also about encouraging early pleas, to avoid the prevarication, the waste of enormous resources and the delays that not only inconvenience us and cost us dearly—£80 million, as has been mentioned in the House on a number of occasions—but are detrimental to persuading witnesses to come forward and to stay in the system. I hope that we can all get this right. Part 7—

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Blunkett: Yes.

Mr. Banks: I am sorry. I would have waited until my right hon. Friend had made his point on part 7. Obviously, schedule 22 is linked to that.

Is my right hon. Friend fully satisfied that the proposed removal of the right of Members to refuse jury service does not conflict with the rights and privileges of the House? It has long been held that our duties in this place supersede the obligations of attendance in any other court. I must refer him to Holford's case of 1826 and the subsequent report of the Committee of Privileges. The Bill refers to rights that are very much attendant on the privileges of this place, so I hope that he has consulted on the matter. If not, perhaps he will consider doing so.

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