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Evidence in Court

20. Tony Cunningham (Workington) (Lab): What measures are being taken to encourage witnesses and victims to come forward to give evidence in court. [187657]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Removing obstacles and anxiety for victims and witnesses, who can sometimes be reluctant to give evidence in court, is a priority for my Department. Measures include the creation of separate waiting facilities at court, so that defendants and witnesses are not forced to wait together. The new witness care units, which provide tailored assistance to guide witnesses through the criminal justice process from beginning to end, are now being piloted in five areas to be rolled out everywhere from the end of next year.
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Tony Cunningham: I thank my hon. Friend for that very encouraging reply. My concern is that if witnesses have a bad experience when they go to court, not only are they less likely to come forward again but, particularly in small communities, word spreads and others are discouraged from coming forward and becoming witnesses. How widespread is the provision of the witness waiting areas and what more can be done to make sure that when witnesses go to court, they are looked after properly?

Mr. Leslie: A great deal of improvement is still needed to the magistrates and Crown court estate, but about 90 per cent. of magistrates courts now have separate waiting facilities for victims and witnesses. That is good, but we have still got a lot further to go. That is necessary not just to make the experience for witnesses more comfortable, but to minimise the risks of intimidation if witnesses are sitting with defendants.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Would it not be a great disincentive to victims and witnesses if they believed that their evidence was going to be televised and used as entertainment? The Lord Chancellor's recent announcement applies only to the Appeal Court, but can the Minister tell me by what means and on what basis section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925 has been set aside? Will he assure me that, at least in the criminal court and the family court, there will never be a circumstance in which witnesses, victims, defendants or members of the jury will have their interests overridden by importunate demands by the media or, indeed, a prurient interest by the general public?

Mr. Leslie: I understand much of the hon. Gentleman's concern. A debate has been going on about the pros and cons of televised court proceedings and the Lord Chancellor and I have been looking at the issue and are considering the consultation on it. I shall certainly examine whether we can share the details of the legal advice on the current pilot for the Court of Appeal with the hon. Gentleman. The issue merits wider public debate.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): What measures have been taken to ensure that victims of sexual abuse are protected and encouraged to come to court to give their evidence?

Mr. Leslie: The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill, which has been progressing through Parliament recently, contains a number of measures, including those for a new commissioner for victims and for a statutory victims advisory panel, which I hope to attend again this month and at which we discuss in detail with those who represent, for example, the witness service and Victim Support the experience of people who have fallen victim to the sort of crimes that my hon. Friend describes. Funding for Victim Support has doubled since we took office, but I think that we can do more for victims, particularly those in vulnerable and sensitive circumstances. We are always interested in continuing a dialogue with them to see how we can improve services.
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Postal Ballots

21. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): What recent representations the Department has received on the report of the Electoral Commission on all-postal ballots. [187658]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): The Electoral Commission's report on the June all-postal voting pilots was published on 27 August, since when there has been some media comment but no formal representations made to my Department.

Bob Spink: Given that the report found all-postal voting to be hopelessly flawed, unsafe and lacking in public confidence and support, will the Minister encourage the House to reconsider its decision for all-postal voting in the north-east and to go back to the tried and tested ballot box, which would be much more secure? He might find that the Electoral Commission would support such a decision.

Mr. Leslie: I do not see the hon. Gentleman quoting verbatim from the Electoral Commission report, and that is not quite the understanding of that report as I read it. In fact, some interesting aspects of the report have not been aired, reported or commented on. For example, turnout was significantly higher, the majority of the public were satisfied, the majority—69 per cent.—found all-postal voting more convenient and there was no evidence of increased fraud perpetrated in postal ballots.

John Cryer (Hornchurch) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that millions of people want to continue to use the polling station, not to vote by post? Leaving aside for a moment the potential for abuse—which has been highlighted by the Electoral Commission not just recently, but in a succession of reports and comments from that body—can he guarantee that polling stations will be available in all elections, and if not, why not?

Mr. Leslie: I certainly think that there are lessons to be learned from the all-postal pilots, one of which is that the public prefer to have convenience, but they also like a variety of options for how they cast their ballot. That is the direction in which the Government will be developing policy for the future.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): Does the Minister realise that many of us in the north-east feel that we are being treated like second-class citizens? If an all-postal ballot is wrong for the north-west and wrong for Yorkshire and the Humber, why is it right for the north-east? May I give him a piece of advice? He should take the advice of his colleague, the hon. Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer), and make ballot boxes available in polling stations.

Mr. Leslie: Of course, there will be assistance and delivery points—effectively the ballot box scenario—in that particular referendum. The Electoral Commission
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considered that very question and concluded that there should continue to be an all-postal ballot in that referendum. That is the judgment of the Electoral Commission and I commend its report to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): Over the past few months, Ministers have been utterly complacent about their policy on all-postal ballots and they have derided us whenever we expressed well-founded concerns about the scope that exists for malpractice. My hon. Friends have been proved right: elections through the ballot box are trusted; elections through the post box are not. The Electoral Commission has totally disowned the all-postal ballot that the Government are foisting on the north-east in its regional referendum, and it is deeply perverse of the Government to insist on proceeding under a system that is both loathed and discredited.

If the Minister is to act as the guardian of our electoral system and protect the integrity of our democratic processes, will he now confirm, as my hon. Friends have already asked him to do, that the north-east referendum will be either conducted under the tried and trusted system of ballot boxes at polling stations or, failing that, abandoned altogether?

Mr. Leslie: I answered the question about the north-east referendum a few moments ago, in response to the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson). In respect of the other spin that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) is engaging in—trying to denigrate the all-postal pilot, which was, after all, worth a try, as the Electoral Commission said in its report—the commission concluded in its ICM survey of public opinion in those pilot regions that the majority of the public were satisfied and found it more convenient, and even that the majority of the public wanted all-postal voting for future elections. We must consider that when looking at the report. My feeling is that the public like to have a variety of different options when they cast their ballot. That will be the direction of policy development for the Government.

Magistrates Courts

22. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): What plans the Department has to support small magistrates courts in rural areas. [187659]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Section 30 of the Courts Act 2003 places a duty on the Lord Chancellor to have regard to the need for accessible courthouses for all people in each local justice area, whether rural or urban. As such, my Department has supported local magistrates courts committees as they enhance their facilities, with funding of almost £400 million in this financial year.
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Mr. Bellingham: I am pleased to hear that, but is the Minister aware that until recently, every small Norfolk town, and a number of villages, had their own magistrates courts? Many of those have now closed—under both Governments, to be fair—and justice has been removed from the local communities. Is he aware that morale among magistrates has now fallen substantially, and what will he do to try to reverse the situation?

Mr. Leslie: Since 1997, the Government have opened 18 new magistrates courts. We have given to the hon. Gentleman's magistrates courts committee in Norfolk an extra £1 million to support local magistrates courts services. There is a balance to be struck in making sure that there is good, strong, efficient administration of justice and that everybody has the opportunity to have good access. We will continue to strike that balance.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I declare an interest as a member of the Magistrates Association. Is the Minister happy that in counties such as Leicestershire, where the magistrates courts committee has just held its last ever meeting, the interests of rural courthouses will be protected, because decisions about their future will now be taken by civil servants and others with much less local input? Are we to be confident that the future of courthouses such as that in Coalville in north-west Leicestershire is assured for the medium term?

Mr. Leslie: The new courts boards, which will open as a unified administration, comes on stream in April and will, for the first time, help to ensure that there is a strong local voice, as local representatives go on those boards to scrutinise and investigate area directors' plans for magistrates, county and Crown courts facilities in an area, and not just to consider magistrates' facilities. That is the best way forward.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Will the Minister also consider in particular the implications of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in relation to the supply of court services? I am pleased to see him nodding. I have a constituent who has a severe latex allergy and who is unable to attend court in normal circumstances because of her inability to go anywhere near rubber substances. That is a difficulty, whether in a rural or urban setting. Equally, I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that there are obligations on the Court Service under the Act that comes into force in respect of premises next month. Will he confirm to the House that he will take that issue seriously in general?

Mr. Leslie: As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, the Government take seriously the disability discrimination obligations on us. We have quite an old stock of court estates, some of which are fine listed buildings, which we would like to continue to use. We must also recognise, however, that a modern Court Service, focusing on justice for all the community, must make sure that everyone can get in and out of the building and use the facilities. Certainly, I will consider any individual cases that he draws to my attention.
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