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4 Dec 2002 : Column 939—continued

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I remind Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

5.27 pm

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): May I draw Members' attention to my Select Committee's report on the Bill, which was published this morning and may help them? May I also lodge the usual protest that it is extremely difficult for a Select Committee to scrutinise a Bill published only 13 days before Second Reading,

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without explanatory notes—which became available only on Friday last week, after our report had been finalised? Our witnesses had to give evidence without having seen the Bill. I will not labour the point, because it was made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). Let me repeat, however, that the sooner all Bills are published in draft, as the Extradition Bill was, the better it will be for all concerned. I do not know what the Home Secretary has lined up for us to deal with in the next Session, but it would be nice to think that the finest minds in his Department were already working on it, so that we could avoid the same unseemly rush next time.

I believe that I speak for the entire Committee in saying that I am happy to support any measures designed to cut out unnecessary delay, and to make our notoriously insensitive judicial system more sensitive to the interests of victims and witnesses. We will also support any reasonable measures that help to make the judicial process a search for truth rather than a game of chance. I entirely agree with what the Home Secretary said about that.

The penny still has to drop for many of our learned friends. A policeman of my acquaintance told me last week that he recently heard a judge who was addressing an audience of 50 flatly reject the notion that the trial process constituted a search for truth. What we will not support, however, are measures that, however well intentioned, are likely to dilute the quality of justice. This Bill contains one or two such measures, one of which we have dealt with thanks to assurances from the Home Secretary about the disclosure of names and addresses of witnesses to the prosecution. The other measure—concerning previous character, which I shall come to in a moment—requires further discussion.

On part 1 of the Bill, we welcome measures such as street bail, which will reduce unnecessary police bureaucracy without impinging on the rights of the accused. We do not, however, believe that a convincing case has been made for extending to 36 hours the detention limit. In our view, there are alternative and more appropriate measures in the Bill, such as conditional bail, which will help to alleviate any problems with existing time constraints. On amendments to PACE, we strongly believe that any significant amendments should come into effect by affirmative order and not, as proposed in clause 7, simply by laying the amendment before Parliament. I should be grateful for the Minister's assurance on that point.

On parts 2 and 4, which deal with bail and charging, we support the proposal in clause 16 to impose a treatment condition on bail for class A drug abusers. However, it is obvious that that will work only if treatment is readily available, and we look forward to the Minister's proposals as to where and when treatment will be available. Perhaps we can discuss that matter in more detail tomorrow. We accept that a power to impose conditions on bail before charging is a necessary and logical part of the move towards charging by the Crown Prosecution Service, but we recommend a number of safeguards in addition to those in schedule 2—notably a time limit of four weeks, which the Association of Chief Police Officers proposed in its evidence to the Committee. I should be grateful if Ministers would consider this point.

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On part 5, which deals with disclosure, we welcome the proposal for a single objective test. As I have said, I think that revisions to the Home Secretary's proposed code will deal with the problem of potential abuse where names and addresses of defence witnesses are disclosed to the prosecution.

On part 7, we welcome the Government's decision to retain the defendant's right to elect jury trial in so-called either-way cases. However, we accept that, in a limited category of cases—such as those where there is evidence of jury tampering—cogent reasons may exist for dispensing with jury trial. Nevertheless, as has already been pointed out, we should scrutinise carefully whether an allegation that a jury is about to be tampered with is being used as a device for escaping jury trial. Members of the Committee reluctantly accepted—we were by no means unanimous on this point—that this measure may also be necessary in complex fraud and financial trials, on the ground that length alone arguably undermines the principle of random selection of juries. We accept that in such cases, the rights of the defendant are adequately protected by the provision of a right to appeal against a decision not to grant a jury trial.

I should add, however, that I do not accept—as I have sometimes heard it suggested—that it is necessary to dispense with a jury because the issues are so complex that only a clever lawyer can understand them. It is up to the prosecution to present its case in such a way that ordinary mortals can understand the issues. [Hon. Members: XHear, hear."] I have also heard it argued that this may be the thin end of the wedge. I hope that no one in the Government takes that view—to judge by what the Home Secretary has said today, I doubt whether he does—because I do not, and nor does my Committee. Any attempt to go further will be met with stiff resistance.

On double jeopardy, the Committee welcomes the proposed reforms, which are in line with the conclusions of its report of two years ago. The Committee believes that the proposed safeguards—that only certain serious offences will be taken into account, that retrials will be subject to the approval of the Attorney-General and the Court of Appeal, and that new and compelling evidence must exist—are adequate to prevent abuse.

There was concern that the proposed increase in magistrates' sentencing powers might inflate the prison population unless it was implemented after the custody plus scheme was rolled out. I look forward to hearing from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), on that point.

We welcome the Government's proposal to preserve the presumption against hearsay evidence, subject to certain exceptions. I understand that the Government are proposing to adopt the Law Commission's suggestions on the reform of hearsay. I welcome that.

The biggest bone of contention is the proposal to admit previous similar convictions. The Committee was unanimously of the view that such convictions should not be disclosed automatically. We believe that that is a bridge too far. As the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) noted, the measure undermines a fundamental principle of our criminal justice system—the presumption of innocence. It opens up the prospect of previous convictions being used to prop up an

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otherwise weak case. In our view, it will inevitably increase the temptation for police to round up the usual suspects. Far from helping to create a balance between the rights of defendants and accusers, the proposal would create an imbalance. For all those reasons, we believe that clauses 84 to 92 should be deleted from the Bill.

It may well be that safeguards can be brought in to meet our concerns on these matters. I shall only say that they will have to be pretty mighty, and that it is difficult for me to think what they could be. Speaking for myself, I shall vote for the Bill on Second Reading, but I shall not be minded to support it on Third Reading if it still contains that proposal. I should regret that, because I hope that I have made it clear that the Bill contains many useful and sensible measures. This proposal is not one of them, however.

The Committee has suggested some possible additions to the Bill that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary might consider. They include anonymity for defendants in sexual offence cases, especially in those that involve historical abuse; the outlawing of unrecorded cell confessions; and the question of payments to witnesses.

I shall elaborate on the latter suggestion. As Ministers will know, a number of major criminal trials have collapsed because the media have made payments to witnesses, sometimes on condition that the trial results in conviction. The issue has been the subject of endless debate and consultation. The Government accepted the National Heritage Select Committee recommendation that self-regulation would not work and that legislation was the only possible solution. Five years later, the media are still drinking in that much frequented hostelry, the last chance saloon. We think that the Bill provides an ideal opportunity to legislate on this matter, although I appreciate that the business managers may have something say about that.

In conclusion, the question that arose over and over again in relation to many of the measures in the Bill was, XWhat is the problem they are intended to solve?" In many cases, the answer was that the resulting improvements would be modest in the overall scheme of things. I do not denigrate them: as I have just made clear, many represent progress and are perfectly sensible. However, as the right hon. Member for West Dorset noted a moment ago, if we are to restore the credibility of our system of justice, a cultural change by all the agencies concerned is required more than legislation. It is disorganised crime rather than organised crime that blights the lives of so many of our constituents. In most cases, the perpetrators never get anywhere near the courts because they are not apprehended and, in many cases, the courts are not the relevant agency.

First, we must end the culture of impunity. That requires effective and visible policing. I have always believed that 100 policemen on bicycles are more effective than two in a helicopter. For cases that do not reach court, we need efficient, speedy and fair justice that takes into account the legitimate rights of victims and witnesses and not just those of the defendant, important though those are, or the convenience of the lawyers. That is not so important.

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Above all, we must end the culture of adjournment, which more than anything else makes our legal system a nightmare for victims and witnesses. It plays into the hands of unscrupulous defence lawyers and their clients.

In the end, those are management issues. They require not legislation, but effective management. I hope that the Government have now created for the police and the courts the legislative framework that will enable our system of justice to be managed in a way that commands the confidence of everyone who comes into contact with it.

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