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The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Paul Murphy): I have today received from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Appeals Panel Northern Ireland copies of the corporate plan for the period 200407 and the business plan for the financial year 200405. The corporate plan outlines the panel's aims, objectives and responsibilities for the period 2004 to 2007 and the business plan its targets and objectives in the financial year 200405. Copies of the plans have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.
The report setting out my conclusions on the issue whether in principle prosecutors should be able to interview witnesses in criminal trials has been published today. Copies have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.
20 Dec 2004 : Column 166WS
In reaching those conclusions I have been informed by the results of a public consultation, conducted on my behalf by the Crown Prosecution Service, and by the views expressed to me by senior members of the judiciary.
In England and Wales prosecutors are not entitled to interview witnesses before trial, even when they are key witnesses whose credibility may be critical to whether a prosecution should go ahead or not. If my vision of the CPS as a world-class prosecuting service, admired and respected, and seen by all as a champion for victims and justice is to be realised, this must change.
The public rightly expects prosecutors to prosecute criminal offences, robustly, promptly and fairly and to bring to trial only those against whom there is an adequate and properly prepared case (and whose prosecution is justified in the public interest) and that prosecutors have confidence in the reliability of the evidence. Logic dictates that this expectation can only be met if prosecutors are able to interview witnesses about their evidence before trial.
I have therefore concluded, for the reasons set out in the report that the position ought to change so that prosecutors should have the ability in the future to interview witnesses, subject to safeguards including a code of practice and appropriate training.
I believe that the changes recommended will strengthen the prosecution process and contribute to putting victims and witnesses at the heart of criminal justice and more at ease with the criminal justice process.
The Director of Public Prosecutions fully supports the conclusions that I have reached. The report sets out my proposals for implementation of these conclusions through a working group to consider best how to pilot these proposals and further discussions with the professional bodies.