Previous SectionIndexHome Page

4 Dec 2002 : Column 995—continued

9.09 pm

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): Like many who have spoken today, I have no legal qualifications. I speak as chair of the all-party group for abuse investigations, which has been examining procedures employed by the police and other parts of the criminal justice system when investigating historic complex sexual abuse cases. The Home Affairs Select Committee recently—this year—inquired into the conduct of such investigations, and produced its report a few weeks ago. Its recommendations support the concerns of the all-party group, and I hope that the Bill will be developed to enable it to respond positively to those 23 recommendations.

My comments will be made in the context of my knowledge of the way in which sexual abuse inquiries are conducted in the United Kingdom. I am deeply concerned about the fact that the current criminal justice process has led to the conviction of innocent men, many of whom will die in jail. Thousands of men have been identified as sex offenders in the UK in the last four years. Many are arrested and many are charged. Many cases are dropped. A few men are acquitted, and many are convicted.

The evidence advanced in such cases consists of the verbal recollection by an individual of events that may have taken place up to 50 years earlier. The accusers are normally convicted criminals who are in prison, on remand or on parole. Witnesses who may be prisoners are interviewed, in prison or at home, many times while the police try to obtain a statement that will pass muster as far as the CPS is concerned. I have evidence of men being interviewed 13 times in 10 different prisons.

Witnesses in such cases may be Xworked" by the police for up to five years. Meanwhile, the accused is damned to a never-ending torture, waiting to be called to court—or, in some cases, the investigation is dropped the day before the case is due to go to court. Many witnesses subsequently claim huge amounts in compensation, typically £40,000, and there is a consensus that the availability for compensation corrupts the integrity of the process and the police inquiries.

While I welcome the changes in the regulations relating to the management of suspects, I am deeply concerned about the absence of a comparable system for the management of witnesses, particularly vulnerable witnesses such as prisoners who have a unique

4 Dec 2002 : Column 996

relationship with the police. They may well comply with the desires of the police, but to gain personal advantage rather than to ensure a just outcome. The case of the Birmingham six led to the establishment of protocols for the management of physical evidence. I want comparable arrangements for oral evidence, when merely the recollections of individuals can cause men with unblemished characters to be sent to jail for up to 18 years.

I am acutely aware that the definition of disclosure varies from judge to judge. Any attempt to reduce that variation would be welcomed by all prosecuting and defence solicitors involved in such cases. Many solicitors believe that innocent men have frequently been found guilty because evidence has not been made available to them as it is in other cases.

As for indictment without a jury, some legal teams representing men who say they are innocent of sexual abuse crimes want such cases, which are very emotive, to be heard by a judge and panel. I understand why that is desirable. All of us who have seen press reports produced before such cases go to court can well imagine the impact that has. However, I think that addressing the inadequacies of police procedures, and also reviewing the discretion of the press, would obviate the need for trial by judge.

I cannot agree with the proposal concerning double jeopardy. My experience of such cases suggests that although some men are acquitted, the police have formed a view of them. I believe that they will continue to trawl for further witnesses until they get their man. I suppose I could accept double jeopardy in some circumstances, but my confidence in the police has been badly eroded.

As for evidence of bad character, a witness's bad character is a positive benefit, as the prosecution normally asserts that the witness has a bad character because of the abuse that he or she has suffered. I cannot comment on the validity of such statements, but I believe there is a strong argument for allowing the defence to determine the validity of witnesses, many of whom have serious mental health problems or convictions for perjury. Indeed, this proposal has been considered by the Attorney-General following the collapse of the Damilola case. I hope that it can be considered again during this Bill's passage. Bringing into court a victim who is not fit to give evidence is an abuse of the victim.

I want three further matters to be considered in the Bill. I want full declaration of intent with regard to the claiming of compensation, and a complete ban on payments to witnesses. Compensation in any payment form invariably corrupts the outcome of a case. I want anonymity for people who are accused of sex abuse crimes. Hundreds of lives have been ruined, and even where suspects are found innocent, they never recover from the damage caused by these accusations, and their families and children continue to suffer. Lifting anonymity following a conviction would still allow the victims to advance complaints.

Most importantly, I want the terms of reference of the Criminal Cases Review Commission to be changed, so that it is able to consider cases that it currently cannot. At the moment, the CCRC's terms of reference allow it to refer cases back to the Court of Appeal only if a

4 Dec 2002 : Column 997

technical error has been committed during the conduct of a case, or if new evidence has been advanced. However, there is never new evidence in such cases, and technical failure is very difficult to establish. The CCRC's terms of reference should therefore be extended to enable cases to be referred on the basis that there has been a miscarriage of justice. Unless this change is introduced, many men currently in prison who are believed to be innocent will die there.

9.16 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): I begin by placing on the record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy), and to his opposite number, the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), whose astute management of business allowed every Member who wanted to speak to get in. That success is a tribute to their skills. I also hope that the Procedure Committee will revisit the question of putting the list of speakers on the back of the Speaker's Chair, so that colleagues do not have to endure the agony of not knowing whether they are going to be able to speak. However, that issue is for another day.

At times, today's debate reminded me of going to a soccer match, reading the report the next day and wondering whether one actually attended the match. I thought that I was here to discuss the Criminal Justice Bill, but I discovered that it had already been commandeered by some of the usual suspects, the rounding up of whom we have talked about in another context. Perhaps they could be described as the civil liberties lobby. Some of them are born again Conservative civil libertarians, which is wonderful to see. The lawyerly representatives of producer interests were out in force, along with those who are rightly preoccupied with some of the vital, if esoteric, issues of high legality: double jeopardy, hearsay, previous convictions, and so on.

I want to try to retrieve this Bill, and to return it to some of its original purposes and perspectives. For the great majority of my constituents, such high drama is meaningless. Instead, they have to cope with the daily dramas caused by lesser offences and antisocial behaviour—activities that rarely, if ever, go before a jury, and which still less elicit stirring defences of ancient liberties. Nevertheless, such activities degrade and impoverish the ordinary life of the community. The civic liberty of those ordinary people has long been lost, but their condition goes unremarked by a legal elite that has robbed them of their law, just as certainly as—I am afraid—we have occasionally distanced them from our representative democracy. They will judge this Bill by its determination and ability to reduce vandalism, graffiti, shoplifting and domestic theft, the stealing and abandoning of cars, and street brawls. They want this Bill to reduce the ugly, un-neighbourly behaviour that they see and hear around them: litter, noise, foul language, and alcohol and other drug excesses. They want this Bill to provide faster and more efficient justice. They want to be assured that the same small core of repeat offenders will not be left endlessly at large in the community, unpunished and unreformed. They want the Bill to ensure that witnesses are not intimidated and that trials are not delayed by bureaucracy and procedural trickery sometimes masquerading as civil

4 Dec 2002 : Column 998

liberty. They want the Bill to provide clear and consistent sentencing, not because they are vindictive but simply because they want to have the confidence that the criminal justice system is working for them.

The law—our law—must be repatriated to those people. It must address the reality of their lives. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary should make no apology for that. We all know him to be an honourable and affable man, but he should not back down easily on some of the proposals in the Bill. We do not want a repeat of what happened with the mode of trial proposals, with people able to pick and choose their preferred type of trial. That does not go down well on some of the estates in Nottingham, North. Neither do we want the Home Secretary to back down in the way that happened when chief constables were able to decide which Government policies they would like to implement and which they preferred to put on one side.

I am afraid that that pick-and-mix legality has no place in tackling some serious problems that do not involve esoteric, philosophical musings about civil liberties. The problems about which I am concerned are to do with the liberties of my constituents on my estates. Their concerns need to be addressed, and the House should not follow its tendency to go in for lawyerly debate and discussion. That leaves most people cold, and deeply dissatisfied with a criminal justice system that does not deliver for them.

Not only must justice be seen to be done, it must be understood to be done. Those are the tests of the Bill proposed by constituents in my relatively tough area of Nottingham, North. I hope that they will get new hope from the Bill. They will welcome the promise, in the forthcoming courts Bill, of better support and protection for victims and witnesses. They will welcome the commitment in this Bill to greater clarity and certainty in sentencing. The Government cannot do too much to make sentencers explain exactly what a sentence means and to correct the widespread perception that a prisoner released to serve the second half of a sentence in the community is, in effect, getting out early.

When we reach the portion of the Bill devoted to sentencing, I hope that the Government will make sentencers distinguish clearly between a sentence's different purposes, and ascribe an element of a sentence to each purpose. For instance, they would have to say that so much of a sentence was for punishment, so much for deterrence, and so much for restitution or rehabilitation. With long sentences, I hope that the Government will consider allowing sentencers to set educational targets as part of the rehabilitation element.

Although it is welcome, in isolation the Bill cannot solve the problem of offending behaviour, in my constituency or anywhere else. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary recognises that, and is carrying through the approach set out in the White Paper, which dwelt on the importance of the multiagency and interdepartmental approach. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has decided not only to look at the criminal justice system in its entirety, but to strengthen its relationship with other agencies that aim to reduce offending in the community.

That can be seen most obviously in the proposals for drug-related offending and for the supervision of dangerous offenders in the community. However, as has

4 Dec 2002 : Column 999

been noted by hon. Members of all parties, just as important are the sure start schemes that work with children under five years of age, and the vigilance of health workers, health visitors and primary school teachers, who must institute early remedial action.

It is a tragic waste that agencies and professional experts so often come together only after someone has offended. Society must be prepared to intervene earlier. Again, that will cause some screams from civil libertarians, but we must look at the possibility of intervening earlier, with the fullest possible professional assessment and support, before a crime or tragedy happens. The cost of delay—to the individual involved, the child, the growing human being and, above all, the wider society—is incalculable.

My right hon. Friend will know how much the success of the Bill depends on issues that are outside it. The impact of Government economic success, not least in creating jobs for young people, has been one of our foremost crime prevention measures. The need to be clear about the role of the police and the deployment of record numbers of officers is irrelevant if they are not on our streets and seen to be doing their job. The Home Secretary needs to reconsider how we get chief constables to operate under their operational responsibilities in a way that reflects the collective desire of the House to see community policing work.

I am delighted to see in his place my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, who has responsibility for drugs. Another part of a co-ordinated approach has to be a national education policy for drugs education. It cannot be left to chance or to isolated and sporadic if well meaning efforts, but must be co-ordinated nationally. We will stand condemned if, by the end of our second term in office, we do not have a national roll-out of a drugs education policy. I look forward to my hon. Friend's statement later this week.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will know from his experience in education that a major element in preventing offending is to engage local communities in education—not only children but people of every age. It does not simply mean cracking down on truanting, although that it important, but giving the whole community the belief that education is the pathway to ambition and personal prosperity. Unfortunately, for reasons that no one has analysed, young people in my constituency do not have that belief. My constituency sends fewer youngsters to university than any other in the UK. We are looking at that, and I ask my right hon. Friend to keep that interest in education because of its connection with reducing offending.

This is a long and ambitious Bill. Certain parts of it are destined to be failures; indeed, we have had failures in all previous efforts made to reform the criminal justice system. It follows a series of Bills that have attempted to address these problems. Once again, a failing of our institution in tackling crime is to ignore the front-line professionals and the public who could help us with some of the answers. That is why I am sorry that the Government did not submit the Bill to pre-legislative scrutiny. None the less, I pay tribute to the brief and brave effort of the Home Affairs Committee to give us

4 Dec 2002 : Column 1000

some background on the Bill. However, I am afraid that that is not as adequate as having proper online scrutiny which would have produced a better Bill.

The Government and the House would have been enriched by ideas and comments from the front line—people in neighbourhood watches, front-line staff in the police, probation and court services, victims and witnesses. We could have put right straight away areas of practice that will need further legislation, rather than struggling in Committee in our ritualised way.

We have denied the public the understanding and ownership of these much needed measures. Instead of being the culmination of a national debate, these necessary and welcome measures feel hasty and imposed and will need to be revisited. I hope very much that the Government will learn this lesson and that any future Bills of this nature that are amenable to genuine public consultation will be consulted on early, so that when we come to our formal processes, we will make better law. I commend the Bill and hope that it finds safe passage through the House.

Next Section

IndexHome Page