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4 Dec 2002 : Column 943—continued

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman's time is up.

5.39 pm

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and to the work that he and the Select Committee on Home Affairs do so promptly and efficiently to ensure that we regularly have the support and advice of his Committee before we deliberate on important Bills such as this. Let me pick just one matter from the many items that the Home Affairs Committee has recommended with which Liberal Democrat Members agree. The hon. Gentleman's last point has often been made to me about so much Home Office business—we need to deal with the administration, not the legislation. The Home Secretary understands this point and often makes it himself. If we could get the system working well, that might be more useful than seeking to amend the law which often does not make things work better.

I thank the Home Secretary for the way in which he responded to the concerns expressed about the run-up to today in terms of the information available. I look forward to having the missing pieces of the information jigsaw as soon as possible. He must understand that we are all grappling with a work load that is bigger than we might have chosen—none the less we need the tools to enable Parliament to do its job.

I understand exactly the point made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). I also take the view that we should have draft Bills and pre-legislative scrutiny. The only reason we did not put down a motion proposing that this should be committed to a Special Standing Committee was that we had the Halliday report, the Auld report, the White Paper and a period of consultation. I hope that the Home Secretary understands that that was an attempt to respond positively to a Bill that has had a longer gestation period than much legislation. However, legislation often changes quite a lot between concept and delivery. As the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) said, the Bill contains some provisions that were not in the plans a few weeks ago.

Mr. Allen: One of the advantages of pre-legislative scrutiny on the White Paper, which was eminently readable and well put together, would be to avoid having some of these provisions in draft legislation.

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There would be less confrontation in this House or the other place because we would have been listening to people outside the House ahead of time.

Simon Hughes: Absolutely. Let me then make a point that I was going to make later. At lunchtime today, I had the privilege of being invited to Church House for the launch of a book called XThe Future of Criminal Justice", published by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge. I know that the Under-Secretary of State was also invited. The book's editorial was written by Lord Hurd of Westwell. The book was written in tribute to Bob Hardy who, for 16 years until last year, was the bishop for the prisons. He was Bishop of Lincoln for much of that time. I went in part because he used to be my college chaplain—I thought that he was a good man then and he went on to be an even more important good man later.

Lord Hurd said in his introduction that one of the problems is that the penal system is a rather forlorn public service. The criminal justice system, until recently, has also been a rather forlorn public service in terms of the way in which we do our business. I accept the hon. Gentleman's point—that we need a less confrontational way of dealing with these reforms. I hope that the tone of the Liberal Democrats in this debate, in Committee and in the conversations that have taken place between the three major parties in recent weeks, has shown and will continue to show that although we may have strong differences and strong views, we will listen to the arguments, respond to them and amend our views if we are persuaded. That must be the way to make this very important Bill better and get it as near to being right as any legislation can be.

I have one last point that I hope will be accepted as a statement of desire for consensus. The Home Secretary has heard me say elsewhere that we want to try, with him, to get a settled criminal justice system, not one that is for ever open to legislative change. We will work with him and others in all parties to get a codification of the criminal law. There are big prizes if we can work together.

The Government have accepted that some of the mistakes that they made in their last Administration should not be made again. It is clear that the Home Secretary and the present Government have accepted the case that was made and won in the last Parliament: to get rid of the right to elect for trial by jury is a mistake and it should not have been proposed. After being defeated three times on the issue, the Government have understood that it should no longer be on the agenda. That is definite progress and we welcome it.

At the reception that I attended earlier, Lord Hurd said that the House of Commons often does not Xdo its stuff" in ensuring that Bills such as this are right. Other people who were there made points that were partly alluded to in the remarks of the right hon. Member for West Dorset. The biggest failures in the criminal justice system do not happen between the beginning and ending of the trial—they occur elsewhere. There is not enough crime prevention. People are not deterred enough from committing crimes. We do not catch people who commit crimes nearly enough. Punishments are not effective enough. We do not prevent reoffending enough. Those are the priorities, and I have heard no dissenting voices about that.

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At the end of the last Session, when we debated the laws on immigration, nationality and asylum and the Home Office directorates that dealt with those matters, we pointed out that administration and organisation require the most attention from the Government. The same is true for this Bill. We may try to improve things by legislating, but our systems of trial and punishment will benefit much more from structural review. There will of course be resource implications.

Our consideration of the Bill gives us the opportunity to do two equally important things during the next few months. First, it will put the criminal justice system on trial—out in the open. There can be real debate about how to get it right. Secondly, it will put Parliament on trial, for the reasons set out by the right hon. Member for West Dorset and with which Liberal Democrats agree.

One test of whether Parliament does its job properly is whether we understand what the fundamentally important liberties of the subject are, and how to defend them. Unless we understand that, we shall not pass the test. All participants in the criminal justice system must believe that it is just for them, and that means just for defendants, too, even though they start by being the least popular group in the system.

Many people deserve praise for the way in which they participate in our criminal justice system: lay magistrates; people who work for the Court Service; judges and the Prison Service, from the director general downwards. By and large, they do an extremely good job. If there are mistakes and failings, it is often because people are not given the right direction or leadership.

As I pointed out to the Home Secretary earlier, however, it is not necessary to reduce the rights of defendants in order to increase rights and a sense of justice for victims, and some of us become somewhat aggrieved when that is suggested. In the sort of communities represented by the Home Secretary, the Under-Secretary and me, we need no lessons on the need to look after victims and witnesses. In many urban communities, we know the score extremely well. However, those communities have more than their fair share of defendants too. It is no accident that most people who end up as defendants are not rich and well heeled—although some are—but are those with the least education and the poorest start in life. That is not to say that my hon. Friends and I believe that people should not take responsibility for their actions whatever their circumstances. Adults should be accountable for what they do. They are answerable for their actions and they should be dealt with. But it is not without significance that the majority of inmates in nearly every prison or youth offender institute have lower than average academic qualifications, fewer skills, more mental illness and more disordered backgrounds. Many have been in care, have become prey to addiction or are socially inadequate and sad.

We all have a responsibility to understand that situation. The better answer is not to keep such people locked up for longer and longer. We have to ensure that they do not get into those circumstances in the first place. That is why, behind all we can do to get our trial and punishment systems right at the end of the day, sentencing reform—alternatives to prison—is the central, underlying issue for me. The alternatives need huge improvement and significant investment, and they

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have often been the Cinderella service because prisons are not the most popular things to put in an election manifesto for reasons that we all understand.

There are two areas of common ground, and I will mention them in a sentence each. As the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) said, we need to get back to an understanding that the sequence of punishment starts with rebuke, warning and caution, goes on to fines, which have been grossly under-used and have become inefficient because no one collects them properly—a point made by the hon. Gentleman—then involves non-custodial alternatives, and only when all those have been absolutely exhausted should the custodial alternative be considered last.

May I also tell Ministers without qualification that the custody plus and custody minus proposals are extremely good? When people receive a sentence, some of which will be served in custody, they will in future understand that the sentence does not end when they come out of the prison doors, that what happens outside is as important as what happens inside and that the support, rehabilitation and retraining will continue afterwards too. If we can get that right, the ridiculous nonsense of people being literally thrown out of the prison gate and left to fend for themselves, with the consequence—we all know about it—that they often go back in again will, we hope, be considerably reduced.

The Home Secretary does not like this phrase, but there are three mixed messages and at least one wrong message. The Prime Minister has often said—he did so again today in answer to the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews)—that the criminal justice system does not adequately convict the guilty. I simply do not think that that is right; it is a gross exaggeration of what happens. The Prime Minister also sometimes says that the greatest miscarriage of justice is when the guilty go free, not when the innocent are convicted. I do not think that that is right either.

The price of a decent justice system is that, occasionally, the guilty will go free—the guilty will not be convicted—and it is wrong to think that trying to deal with that very small number of people is a price worth paying if, as a result, we end up with a criminal justice system that convicts more people unjustly or treats them unfairly.

I shall remind the House of the figures. I need not elaborate on them, but 95 per cent. of defendants in magistrates courts plead guilty, 74 per cent. of defendants in Crown courts plead guilty and 65 per cent. of defendants in contested trials at Crown courts are acquitted. The total shows that nothing like most people are acquitted; a huge proportion of them are convicted because those people admit their guilt or because they are found guilty after trial. So the failure is not that hordes of people are let out when they should have been convicted. That is not the central issue that we need to address today.

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