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4 Dec 2002 : Column 990—continued

8.48 pm

Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this interesting and important debate. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe), I was going to concentrate on two key areas of the Bill that may delay us in the Committee—if I have the honour of serving on it. I shall deal in passing with one of the most contentious aspects of the Bill—jury trial. The Opposition spokesman seemed to be in great difficulty when he dealt with that issue, which leads to me to wonder what is behind the questioning of the Government's reasons for changing jury trial, as set out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) appeared to posit an equivalence between the lay magistracy and jury trial, but anyone who has practised in the courts will know that the opposite is true. Defendants elect for jury trial because they want to get away from lay magistrates. It is nonsensical to say that we are denying people's right to appear before their peers within the magistrates system and the jury system. I wonder why the right hon. Gentleman is seeking to make that link; it is not a real link.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about professionalisation of the magistracy—the deputy judges. When I practised in the lower courts many years ago, the defendants whom I came across were happy to appear before stipendiary magistrates. They were dealt with better and faster. Stipendiary magistrates understood cases, and defendants trusted them more than they trusted lay magistrates. Again, I question the right hon. Gentleman's logic.

It has been said that there is no theme in the Bill and that it is a sort of Churchillian pudding. I strongly disagree with that. There is a simple theme, which is about addressing the rights and responsibilities of the criminal justice system so that it focuses more on the rights of the victim. Talking about the number of Criminal Justice Bills is a cheap debating point. There may be one or two more than we would like, but we cannot abdicate our responsibility to get the system right. That is what the Bill is designed to do, and I welcome it. Broadly, that is what most Members are saying.

It has been said that the measure is a populist Bill designed to make a headline. I do not understand that. When my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary introduced the Bill this afternoon he dealt with some of the issues in an attractive and helpful way. On sensitive issues—those of crime and disorder—the Government are encouraging debate about the fundamentals of our criminal justice system. It is wrong-headed to argue that the Government are seeking to be populist while

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encouraging a debate on what might be seen as a difficult issue for them; no doubt the Opposition would say that in terms of delivery, it certainly is difficult.

My right hon. Friend mentioned enforcement, and talked about seeking the truth during the trial process. I welcome that suggestion. I reject the suggestion of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews), who said that the trial process is not about seeking the truth. It should be. Some of the measures set out in the Bill are about redressing the balance of the process so as to do just that. The process is not a philosophical game or a tug of war, to determine who is best on the day. It must be more sophisticated than that. Some of the measures proposed in the Bill address that problem.

Mr. Grieve: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Stephen Hesford: No; I am sorry, but I will give way on another occasion.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary mentioned enforcement. I have in mind two of my constituents. Mr. Yeardsley lives on a working-class housing estate at Woodchurch. He was assaulted more than two years ago and was awarded compensation by the courts. The defendant still has not paid the compensation to that elderly gentleman, who comes to see me regularly with a look that is heart-rending. To use an American term, he says that he cannot have closure. He says, XAll I can think about is this toerag"—that is the word that he uses—Xwho assaulted me. He is still out there and he has still not paid his dues."

The second constituent is a serving police officer who was assaulted in the course of his duty. He was awarded compensation, and is still waiting for it. He got in touch with me and asked, XHow can I trust the system?" The Bill reconnects the system to those whom it is supposed to serve.

The Bill is courageous. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), who is not in her place, mentioned an article in The Times yesterday. It was a good, short write-up of the some of the points that we are debating. The Times also contained an interview with Lord Falconer, who spoke plainly about the reasons for the Bill, and for entertaining such difficult issues. He said:

That is a sorry catalogue.

Many parts of the Bill are welcome: street bail, live links in criminal proceedings, the prosecution appeal against early termination, disclosure, drug rehabilitation requirements, widening jury service to pull in the middle classes, and conditional cautions. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that we should make breaching the conditional caution an offence, so that the system does not go straight from breach of caution to dealing with the original offence.

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There could be a halfway measure, which would be only a summary offence and might help to maintain the integrity of the caution process without burdening the system downstream.

It has been said that lawyers do not like double jeopardy, but I am sure that most hon. Members received the same Law Society briefing as me, and the Law Society now supports the change. Justice, which is not a right-wing organisation, also supports the provision. It says:

Other hon. Members made that point.

I support the Bill's provision on bad character. The Law Commission also broadly supports it in its report, XEvidence of Bad Character in Criminal Proceedings", published in October, which said:


The provision would help to codify a complicated area of law, as has already been suggested.

The Times yesterday also included an interview with Dame Heather Hallett, a High Court judge.

Ross Cranston: It was very interesting.

Stephen Hesford: That is true. She said that she had been trying a murder case involving a multiple stabbing—81 stab wounds—and a severe head injury. The defendant was convicted, but the jury did not know that the man was a knife user and a beater of persons. The judge postulated that it might have helped if the jury had known that. That is sort of case that we have in mind, and I commend the Government on the measure.

If the Bill becomes law in roughly its current state, it will reconnect the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, witnesses and the public.


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I now have to announce the result of Divisions deferred from a previous day.

On the motion on the Convention on the Future of Europe, the Ayes were 282, the Noes were 12, so the motion was agreed to.

On the motion on Estimates 2001–02, the Ayes were 412, the Noes were 39, so the motion was agreed to.

[The Division Lists are published at the end of today's debates.]

I must also inform the House that a Bill will be brought in upon the resolution in the name of the Financial Secretary relating to Estimates 2001–02. I understand that a Minister will present the Bill at the conclusion of proceedings on the Criminal Justice Bill.

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Criminal Justice Bill

Question again proposed, That the Bill be read a Second time.

9.00 pm

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I speak as a minority participant in tonight's debate, in that I am a non-lawyer. Following the speech of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), I must tell him that I agreed with about 85 per cent. of what he said, and with every word that he said during his first three minutes. That will therefore cut down the length of my contribution, which should assist my colleagues.

The Home Secretary said that the Bill formed part of an end-to-end reform of the criminal justice system. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have had the good grace to mention projects such as sure start. Important projects such as that and the Children's Fund are all critical to this end-to-end reform. I am sure that I am not the only one who gets letters week after week from constituents facing antisocial behaviour in their communities. Tonight I want to talk specifically from the point of view of the victims. That is the right end of the telescope through which to look, in the context not only of the Bill but of the whole of the Government's programme.

Yobbish behaviour is undertaken by a very small group of people; it is not the norm. Most young people do a tremendous amount of good in our communities, but that small group must be dealt with more severely within the framework of the criminal justice system. The hon. Members for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) and for South-West Bedfordshire both talked about the role of parents, and in that respect I agree with them. From the small beginnings of antisocial behaviour, all the way through to major criminality, we need to consider the point of view of the victims first. That means that we need to give the police the powers to deal with issues at the investigative stage, and the courts the powers to play their part.

I mentioned a particular case in an earlier intervention. An 83-year-old lady in my constituency, who is registered disabled, has over the past couple of years had her house and outbuildings pelted with air gun pellets, had windows broken and so on. When she bravely confronted the perpetrators, all that she received was verbal abuse. She now lives in fear in her property and, despite having lived there for 25 years, is now considering moving home. The police have been called on a number of occasions, but under current legislation they seem powerless to put an end to the activities of those young terrorists—because that is what they are—who are making her life a misery. We need a framework of law to address such cases. The new sentencing policy will, to use its catchphrase, put Xsense into the sentencing". Ensuring that the punishment fits the crime and the criminal is important at this stage, in relation to the kind of behaviour that we all see in our constituencies. New provisions affecting juveniles in this Bill and others are equally important.

Another case involves a local man who was the victim of a violent assault. This case particularly illustrates the need for an end-to-end revision of the system. The sole witness to the crime was terrorised into withdrawing his

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statement, and as a result there has been no prosecution. My constituent, who has suffered not only physical hurt but real trauma, has now had salt rubbed into his wounds by the attitude of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, which treats him as nothing but a nuisance. Its attitude is simply, XYou cannot be traumatised unless you have had time off work." This man is a professional who has stuck at his work—he is a schoolteacher. He has gone through a great deal of personal distress, but he is being told that he cannot be compensated for his trauma because he did not take time off. Is that the message that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary wants to send out? I am sure that it is not. We need end-to-end reform.

The Government must take a tougher line on criminality, and the Bill will help to achieve that. Referring back to that particular case, knowledge of previous convictions will convince people and perhaps make it easier for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to satisfy the court of the validity of the evidence that they can bring before it. If it would not jeopardise any future prosecution, I would name the perpetrators of that crime. We all live in relatively small communities, and because of anecdotal evidence built up from casework, we often know who the perpetrators are. We need a measure to help the process.

I particularly welcome the Bill's proposals on reforming the double jeopardy law. As my hon. Friend the Minister will know, apparently, once a person has been tried and acquitted of a serious offence, there can be no retrial unless compelling new evidence comes to light. That is wrong, for reasons that have been clearly enunciated tonight. The consideration of the matter by some of our Oscar-winning colleagues in the legal profession is entirely false, and we must consider it from the victims' point of view.

I admired the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe), who referred to DNA and other evidence and hit the nail on the head. As time goes on, we shall see developments not just in DNA technology, but across the panoply of the forensic armoury, and we cannot predict where those will end. We must create a framework within which scientific advances enable us to adduce evidence from things that would previously have been discarded, and we must be able to retrieve those things and put them back in use if they might fundamentally alter the outcome of any logical analysis of the evidence that has been gathered.

That will be difficult to achieve. One could argue on the one hand that the system ought to be based only on information gathered at the time or, on the other, that the great problem is deducing what evidence will be of use in the future, when different analytical techniques begin to emerge. We need a framework that enables us to move forward as the science develops.

In my capacity as patron of the charity RoadPeace, and chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on justice for road traffic victims, I am delighted to see steady progress being made in relation to crimes on the road—in particular, in relation to focusing on the victims' point of view. Time and again in cases that I have dealt with in that capacity, we discover that issues of intent—for instance, in the case of a drunk who did not intend to go out and kill—result in rather bizarre

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sentences. In a range of areas, logic would produce a solution different from that offered by our current system.

My plea to the House, and to my hon. Friend the Minister, is that we should review our criminal justice system root and branch and ensure that it is a victims' justice system. The reform is long overdue; the system is much in need of change to ensure that it has the public's confidence and provides the justice that victims deserve. The reforms proposed today will create a justice system that supports and informs victims, respects and protects witnesses and delivers justice on behalf of victims, defendants and the community. That is what the House should be achieving.

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