Previous SectionIndexHome Page

4 Dec 2002 : Column 986—continued

Mr. Grieve rose—

Mr. Stinchcombe: Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to finish my remarks? I know that hon. Friends wish to speak.

If the criminal justice system fails to catch up, the parents of raped and murdered sons and daughters will be told by scientists that the villains—the people who committed the crime—are known and have been identified, but are walking free.

I want to apply the same consistent principles to the Government's second proposal—to abolish the rules that prevent evidence of previous bad character from being admitted save in exceptional circumstances. Does that proposal meet the tests of principle that I have set out? I have to say to my hon. Friend the Minister that the answer is a little less clear.

Those common law rules have been developed by judges over the centuries precisely to apply the three principles by which we should be guided. The very reason for the common law prohibition on the general admissibility of evidence of past convictions is that such evidence can be massively prejudicial to the accused, while having absolutely no probative value at all in respect of the offence with which the accused is currently charged. In lay terms, proving someone was a naughty boy before does not remotely mean that he has been a naughty boy again.

The common law therefore requires more than the existence of a past conviction before it can be admitted in evidence. It generally requires more even than conviction for the same offence. Indeed, admitting evidence of that past conviction would be even more obviously prejudicial to the accused, without necessarily raising the probative value of the fact of that past conviction one little bit. What the common law requires before a past conviction can be admitted in evidence is something beyond the fact of that conviction. It requires something additional and something sufficient to raise the probative value of that conviction, so that it justifies the prejudice that would be caused to the accused.

It could be that the past conviction was for an offence that was Xstrikingly similar". That would admit it in evidence. The common law recognises the additional probative value of that fact. It could be something different, as the leading House of Lords case makes clear. However, there should be something to increase probative value before the conviction can be admitted in evidence. I speak as a lawyer, and that seems to be good law. It is in accordance with the principles that I have set out. However, the Bill would do away with that common law and replace it with a new extended statutory code, whereby numerous preconditions for the admissibility of the fact of the conviction are set, including, for example, whether the conviction was for an offence of the same description as the one with which the defendant is now charged. That inevitably means that all such convictions might routinely be admitted in

4 Dec 2002 : Column 987

evidence without anything to raise their evidential value. That is precisely what the common law has been developed to prevent, because it would be unfair to the accused.

That in turn raises a question of fundamental principle, which I hope my hon. Friend will address. Do the Government want the courts to admit evidence of past convictions even if the probative value of the convictions does not justify the prejudice to the accused? I do not believe that that is the Government's intention, but if it is, I simply disagree with them. If it is not their intention, however, I cannot understand the benefit of this part of the Bill.

Indeed, there are risks in introducing the extended statutory code in place of common law. One of the benefits of common law over statutory codes is that it is flexible. It is capable of developing to meet new circumstances when the words of legislation are fixed. If we continue to take this route in what is otherwise a good Bill, we could end up removing flexible rules—designed by judges over countless years to meet the three principles by which we should be guided, and are guided in other parts of the Bill—and replacing them with a rigid code, possibly incomplete, whereby evidence might be adduced even though its prejudice to the accused outweighs its true probative value. With the greatest respect, I suggest that if we did that, we would not much improve the existing criminal justice system.

8.36 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): It is a great privilege to take part in the debate. Unlike many hon. Members present, I am not a lawyer. I am not necessarily proud of that, unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). I recognise that lawyers are valuable members of society. They dispense justice and ensure that victims are afforded protection. Nevertheless, I am a lay person and speak with perhaps a little trepidation.

I have twice served on a jury in the Old Bailey. In the past few months alone, I have twice been a victim of crime when I suffered from theft and criminal damage. MPs do not live in another world from their constituents; we live in it alongside them and experience what they experience.

I am convinced that in emphasising law and order in this legislative Session, the Government are addressing the public's No. 1 concern. From talking to my constituents and seeing them in my advice surgery week by week, and from the information that I have gathered from the survey and polls that I have conducted extensively in my constituency, I know that their No. 1 concern is crime, antisocial behaviour and the fear of crime. Notwithstanding the many problems that we have to tackle in our public services and elsewhere, my constituents say to me time and time again that crime and antisocial behaviour is their No. 1 concern. So I understand why the Government have emphasised doing something about it.

I was struck by the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). He said that in tackling the problem the emphasis should be on apprehension. He said that 80 per cent. or so of crimes are

4 Dec 2002 : Column 988

undetected and do not get anywhere near the criminal justice system. We should remind ourselves that that is not the tip of the iceberg—that would be putting it too strongly—but a vast mass of crime, disorder and antisocial behaviour is committed from which our constituents suffer daily. Sadly, such behaviour never gets near the criminal justice system because, perhaps, the police are not there to prevent it, there is no evidence or our constituents are too scared to give evidence to enable due process. To coin a phrase, we should be concerned about apprehension, apprehension, apprehension. That will have the greatest effect for constituents.

On prisons, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) cited interesting evidence on the experience in the United States of America, to which I referred in an intervention, where there is a direct connection between increasing prison sentences and the reduction of crime. We should look at that evidence carefully and try to establish whether there is indeed a causal link between the two factors.

My hon. Friend was also right to point out that although the average sentence passed by British courts is 14 years, on average only 22 months are served. That is a cause of great concern to our constituents. Time and again, we hear people say that a criminal was sentenced to so many years in prison but is out after a much shorter period, often only a matter of months.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) pointed out in an intervention, the decline in crime in this country in the mid-1990s was directly related to the increase in the number of prison sentences and the length of those sentences. That also has lessons for us as we face these serious problems.

I am delighted to see the emphasis in the Bill on rehabilitation in prison. Obviously, it is extremely sad and regrettable that people commit crime, and we all regret the distress caused to our constituents as a result. However, once the offender has been identified, the question is how we can reform his character to make sure that he does not go on committing crimes.

The other day I heard evidence about prisons in Merseyside. One, which is run by Group 4, has one of the highest rates of rehabilitation work among prisoners, providing effective education in a structured programme throughout the day. That was compared with similar prisons in the area, where prisoners do not have the same opportunities for study and work and for improvement, largely because their schedules are arranged pretty much for the convenience of the prison warders. I ask the Minister to look into the practice in different prisons and different management regimes to see whether we can learn from best practice and export it to prisons throughout the UK. All prisoners should have the best possible chance of improving themselves so that they do not commit crime when they come out.

It is excellent that the Bill contains measures to focus on drug rehabilitation in our prisons. I cannot believe that I am the only Member of the House who is astounded by the amount of drugs available to prisoners. That is something that I cannot understand and I do not accept, and I do not believe that our constituents accept it. We know that drugs are rife in society and that they are responsible for some

4 Dec 2002 : Column 989

80 per cent. of the crime committed on our streets. However, it is wholly unacceptable that convicted criminals can continue their drug habit when they go to prison—often, we are led to believe, with the connivance of the prison officers, because being able to control the prisoners makes their own lives easier. I urge the Minister to do whatever is in his power and that of the Home Office to make sure that drugs are not freely circulating in our prisons. We certainly need to concentrate on that problem.

I was struck by the remarks of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who went through the characteristics that prisoners tend to have. We know that they tend to come from low-income backgrounds and areas of high unemployment and that they are likely to have experienced bad housing. Those are all issues that we need to address, and the Government are trying to do that. That is probably the part of their programme that relates to their slogan about being tough on the causes of crime, and that is right.

However, I hoped the Liberal Democrat spokesman would include in that category family background and parenting, which were rightly touched on my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). I was talking to a sergeant in Dunstable police station the other day about that subject, and he suddenly looked at me and said, XNow I think of it, not one of the 12 top criminals in the Dunstable area has a conventional family background." We can argue about cause and effect, and I agree with many Government Members that poverty, bad housing and unemployment lead to family breakdown—there is a vicious circle—although that is not the case for many families. However, we must get real—the Government must address seriously the things that it can tackle. Initiatives like sure start are excellent, but much more needs to be done. We need a national debate focusing on responsibility in our schools, and on the relationship between parents and children in families. Again, my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight discussed that.

My own constituency does not qualify for sure start despite the fact that it has significant pockets of deprivation. However, I commend Homestart, an excellent charity in Leighton Buzzard, as well as the community link project of the Baptist church in Houghton Regis, which I visited last Friday, on its excellent and worthwhile work with parents and young children.

I very much identify with the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset about the need for juries to be local and accessible. He painted a picture of justice gradually retreating from some of our smaller towns and being focused in larger centres, where it was dispensed more professionally by district judges and so on. That has a strong resonance in my own constituency—Leighton Buzzard has lost its magistrates court, and witnesses and victims must make a long and difficult journey by public transport to court in Luton. How many witnesses will not come forward if they cannot get to court because travel is too difficult, or because they have to take too long off work to give evidence? Justice must be local to be effective. I urge the Government to look at the closure of magistrates courts throughout the country. If they restore them to local communities, that will help them to achieve their objectives.

4 Dec 2002 : Column 990

As for double jeopardy, where there is clear new evidence, the Government's proposals make sense—I agree with the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) on that. However, the presumption of innocence is an important fundamental tenet of English law. Getting rid of the double jeopardy principle may contravene the European Union's charter of fundamental rights, a matter that has been raised previously by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), and we need to look at that.

Next Section

IndexHome Page