Previous SectionIndexHome Page

4 Dec 2002 : Column 982—continued

8.15 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): May I point out to the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) that middle-class communities are just as entitled to the protection of the law and that they feel the impact of crime as severely as other groups? Of course, I recognise that crime makes the greatest impact on working-class and deprived communities and we should bear that in mind at all times.

The Bill is good in parts, but it has no fundamental underlying principle, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) pointed out. I welcome some of its provisions, which give me hope, but I regret others. I also regret that there have been some omissions.

I welcome the proposal that the disclosure of previous convictions should become easier. I do not share the view that a jury cannot be trusted with that information. As I said during the debate on the Gracious Speech, for many years an underlying failure of those of us who rule or who are elected to this place has been that we do not trust the public with information to which they are entitled and that we would expect to receive.

I also welcome the changes in eligibility for the avoidance of jury service. We can hardly criticise juries for being incapable of taking on board the information that they are given, whether it relates to previous convictions or to difficult fraud cases, if those who are more capable, at least by education or profession, find it easy to escape their civic responsibilities for jury service.

I welcome those two provisions, but I have a greater number of regrets. I regret the proposed reduction in eligibility for jury trial. The Government have not yet made their case. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have observed, the Government began by attacking jury trial from one direction and are now attacking it from another.

Although I accept that some cases are especially difficult or time consuming, it cannot be impossible to empanel a jury that is capable of devoting enough time and energy to its civic responsibility. I respect the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and I listened carefully to his arguments, but I am still unable to understand why he supports the change.

There are several omissions on which I invite the Minister to comment. One of the omissions is very narrow, but I feel it particularly in my constituency, which, as the Minister will know, has three prisons, one of which has an enviable record in the treatment of sex offenders. However, it also imprisons people from the Channel Islands, which have a different judicial process.

4 Dec 2002 : Column 983

The Channel Islands do not have the same safeguards on release as those for people imprisoned in this jurisdiction. The arrangements for the supervision of prisoners released from Albany who have served sentences imposed by Channel Islands' courts are different. That is a matter of concern to some of my constituents. They fear that those prisoners, when released, can remain in my constituency or in other parts of the United Kingdom without supervision. That supervision would be definitely imposed on those who have been convicted in this jurisdiction.

The second issue on which I hope some changes will be made as the Bill progresses through the House and the other place is that of pleas in mitigation. Those in the legal profession, whom the Home Secretary likes to malign from time to time, deserve every bit of the Home Secretary's opinion of them where they exercise the greatest inventiveness with the least possible evidence to demonstrate to judges and magistrates why a convicted defendant should not serve an appropriate sentence.

I am sure that judges and perhaps many magistrates will say that they can see through the arguments put by the defending solicitor when he comes up with a host of stories about how the criminal has perhaps suffered a deprived childhood or has just made up with his girlfriend—and they do—or perhaps has found a job and that any kind of custodial sentence would mean that the job would be lost. However, a great weakness in the whole system is that the truth or accuracy of those assertions is not tested in court. All that the solicitor has to say is, XI am instructed that these are the circumstances in which my client finds himself." The judge or magistrate must judge entirely for himself, without any evidence, whether those claims are accurate.

A third omission, on which I should like further work to be done, is that of unduly lenient sentences. Many hon. Members will perhaps be surprised to hear that they, the prosecution and the victims of crime have only 28 days to refer a case of an allegedly unduly lenient sentence to the Attorney-General for action. I argue not that 28 days is too short a period, but that more information should be made available, particularly to the victims of crime, as to their powers to take back such matters to the Crown Prosecution Service or the Attorney-General.

The failure of judges to impose what are seen as reasonable sentences is perhaps one of the greatest irritants to the public. They see that the police have taken the trouble to secure the evidence, the CPS has taken the trouble to prosecute and the courts have provided a conviction, yet the judge is convinced for some reason or other that a short rather than a lengthy sentence is appropriate.

I have dealt with such a case in my constituency this week. It involves someone who died after being intentionally kicked by a drunken man who had made threats of killing and had intimidated other witnesses. He received a two-year sentence. I am pleased to say that I have had the opportunity to refer the case to the Attorney-General.

The Bill fails to deal with a huge setback to the effective treatment of life prisoners: the recent judgment about the Home Secretary's powers to set a tariff.

4 Dec 2002 : Column 984

Perhaps Ministers intend to deal with that by some means or other in the Bill, but I believe that we should reverse the judgment. There is no means to deal with the issue effectively other than to give back to the Home Secretary the powers that he had before that judgment. I do not wish to be told that that is an unexpected or unwarranted effect of the Human Rights Act 1998. The Government are responsible for that Act and, if necessary, they must admit that it was wrong.

I also hope that the Government, having dealt with many minor changes, will now develop some serious measures to tackle crime and to defend the innocent. Those measures must deal effectively with the causes of crime, one of the most significant of which is the drugs culture. Another of those causes is poor and inadequate parenting, a third is human greed and folly, and a fourth is the simple failure of many people to control primitive urges. Underlying the latter two is something that, all too frequently, we fail to spell out to our constituents and to others—that there is a link between cause and effect.

At the risk of resorting to anecdote, I shall tell the story of someone in my constituency who has now been evicted from her council house by the Medina housing association. I congratulate the association on that eviction because her children persistently offended neighbours. Her argument was that they were only children, and that it was not her responsibility. It is, of course, her responsibility, and the Minister agrees that it is. Far too many people are beginning to feel that not only are they not responsible for the acts of their children and grandchildren, they are no longer responsible for their own acts. Only when we address that and re-establish the link between cause and effect will we truly succeed in conquering the causes of crime.

8.26 pm

Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough): I am grateful for the opportunity to make a brief contribution to this important debate on an important Bill. I shall concentrate on parts 10 and 11 of the Bill, which, as we know, contain some of the most controversial measures. They would abolish two long-standing principles of common law by which the rights of the accused have hitherto been protected: the double jeopardy rule and the rules governing the admissibility of evidence of bad character in criminal proceedings.

At the outset, I want to set out the analytical framework that guides me as I approach those two proposals. It is made up of just three basic principles, but I believe it to be robust. First, the purpose of the criminal justice system is twofold: not just to protect the innocent from the guilty but to protect the innocent from conviction. Secondly, the criminal justice system must therefore permit evidence to be adduced by the prosecutor if, but only if, the prejudice done to the defendant is justified by the probative value of that evidence. Thirdly, we should prevent evidence of that probative value from being admitted to the court only if that is justified by some other public interest of compelling importance. With those three basic principles in mind, let me look first at the rule on double jeopardy and then at the rules on the admissibility of evidence of bad character, and thereby come to a conclusion on the Government's current proposals.

4 Dec 2002 : Column 985

As the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) said, the rule on double jeopardy is ancient, dating back some 800 years in our common law tradition. I agree, therefore, that it is hardly a rule that we should discard lightly and without deep reflection guided by the principles that I have described. I must say, however, that a lot happens over eight centuries. Eight hundred years ago, we did not have the advantage of contemporary forensic science. No second trial all those years ago could have brought forth previously missed evidence, capable of proving the identity of someone from a spot of blood too small for the human eye to see. All of that has changed. Forensic scientists are now capable of assisting the judicial process in ways that would have been wholly unimaginable to our forefathers. First came fingerprinting, and then genetic fingerprinting—DNA testing. I must tell the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden that progress will continue. It does not stop now. There will be corneal mapping and facial mapping. All sorts of different scientific advantages and advances will be available to future generations.

Those technical advances can bring forward compelling evidence of probative value that could not have been adduced when the double jeopardy rule was first established. When such evidence can prove conclusively the innocence of someone accused of crime, it is admissible because of that probative value, and because the innocent should not be convicted. Likewise, when such evidence can prove conclusively the innocence of someone previously found guilty of a crime, it is admissible, so that an appeal against conviction can succeed. Indeed, when such evidence can prove conclusively the guilt of someone for the first time accused of an offence, it is again admissible, and quite properly so. Its probative value demonstrably justifies the prejudice that would be occasioned to the defendant.

We must therefore ask ourselves a fairly basic question. What on earth is the compelling public interest reason that demands that when exactly the same evidence of identical probative value can help prove the guilt of someone previously found innocent of a serious crime, our criminal system must by operation of law ignore it? The reason cannot be for fear that a second trial can never be fair, because we already allow second trials and we know that they can be fair. It should never be for fear of sloppy police investigations. That would be a truly appalling basis upon which to frame the legislation of this country.

Surely to goodness, the reason cannot be for fear of oppression by an over-zealous prosecutor. That made sense 800 years ago when the rule was first established, in an age of trial by torture and mediaeval monarchs. Then, the rule had genuine civilising purposes. It was to protect the citizen from the oppression of the state and to prevent the mediaeval monarch from dragging his opponents repeatedly to the court, subjecting those citizens to the stress, ordeal and expense of repeat trials. Then we did not have the Human Rights Act 1998 and the police and criminal evidence procedures that we have now to protect against the abuses of processes. Now we have protections against such oppression.

Quite simply, the march of time has done away with the justification for double jeopardy—when judged against the guiding principles—through advances in science, human rights law and criminal procedures. If

4 Dec 2002 : Column 986

the criminal justice system fails to catch up with those changes, and if, for no good reason, it fails to allow such evidence to be adduced, it will fail to achieve one of its two principal purposes. It will fail to protect the innocent from the guilty. That will bring the criminal justice system into disrepute.

Next Section

IndexHome Page