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Mr. Heald: Will the Minister say a few words about the burdens on business? Reasons connected with reputation oblige every employer to take seriously every case that is brought. Many cases are not pursued or simply fail, so does the Minister agree that the Bill could provide a further spur, which could result in a surge of new claims, building up the problem of the compensation culture that she mentioned? Will she therefore say something about the hard-pressed business community?
Bridget Prentice: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are very conscious of the position of hard-pressed businesses and that we do not want to increase bureaucracy or provide another layer of administration that would add further to the burdens. Equally, however, I believe that more bureaucracy also adds to the confusion and frustration for employees. The Bill would not result in a satisfactory conclusion for either side of business.
Tribunals should not require appellants to engage expert representation. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire made a compelling case about the informal nature of the tribunal and a number of my hon. Friends who commented on the role of trade unions rightly argued that bringing a trade union representative along to argue the case was far more helpfuland, indeed, successfulthan going down the legal, adversarial road that our courts system provides. If we reach the stage where a tribunal cannot deliver for its users without such arrangements, we shall have to look at the situation carefully. The more that tribunals become courts, the more we would lose the benefits of the tribunal structure and the value of the inquisitorial and informal approach that we have tried to achieve through that system.
On 12 March, a constituent in Welwyn, Mr. Rodney Bailey, was woken at 3 am when his car window was smashed by a youth who had thrown a rock through it. Fortunately, Mr. Bailey lives in the same street as a police officer who was off duty and immediately jumped out of bed and managed to capture the youth involved. The police were called and the youth was taken to Hatfield police station, whereupon he confessed.
Following Home Office guidelines, the police decided that as there was no previous record they would issue a caution to that individual. Mr. Bailey, who lives, appropriately, in Robbery Bottom lane, thought that acceptable as long as he could take some form of civil action to recover the moneys due as a result of the damage to his windscreen. Not unreasonably, he asked for the name, address and details of the offender, who had, after all, admitted to the crime. The police said that would be fine but that he would have to apply in writing. He did so, but the police then told him that they could not in fact release the information as it would contravene the Data Protection Act 1998.
In my view and, I am sure, that of many other people, the police should never protect a criminal against a victim whose rights have clearly been contravened. To stand in the way and prevent civil proceedings from being taken must be wrong, but such, it seems, is the law. There is a loophole in the legislation.
There are a number of exemptions to the Act, one of which comes close to the type of exemption required in this casedisclosure to courts in legal proceedings. One might think that would help the police in releasing the necessary information, yet it transpires that it applies when legal proceedings have already begun. If one does not know who committed the crime, how on earth is one supposed to take out a summons? That exemption would not work in this case. We must reframe the law to enable an individual to take action where the police know who committed the crime and the individual has admitted it but where the police are prevented from allowing the action to be taken.
The police eventually agreed to release the information. When Mr. Speaker was kind enough to grant me this debate, which resulted in full-page stories in the Daily Mail, the Sunday People, local television and other media outlets, the police decided that it would be appropriate to release the information. However, the chief constable, Mr. Frank Whiteley, did so against the specific advice of his own legal team. It must be wrong that, in order that an individual can take a case to court, the police force involved should be expected to go against its own legal advice. Surely there must be a problem in law.
There are, as I said, some exemptions, but none is satisfactory in this type of case. I strongly believe that a provision should be made for this type of case. One can
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imagine a number of scenarios. Perhaps it would be appropriate for a summons to be issued but for the person issuing the summons simply to refer the court to the police station and the reference number, so that the police can link up the numbers. I fully accept that there is a danger about which the police are nervous: they are concerned that the victim might take individual retributionthat they might go round to the person's house and take it upon themselves to take immediate action, and of course none of us wants that to happen. It does not take a great deal of imagination to envisage ways around that problem. One way could simply be to send the form for a summons to the court, for the court to apply to the police, and for the police to provide the name and address of the defendant direct to the court, so that at that stage, before the case comes to court, there is no need for the plaintiffthe victim in the case that I am talking aboutto access the information.
You see, Mr. Deputy Speaker, there is a dichotomy here. Had the individual been chargedhad the individual admitted to the crime, as he did, and had the case been taken to a criminal court in the normal waythe information would be public, and it would be simple for Rodney Bailey to issue a civil action and recover the money. The difficulty arises because of the dancing-on-a-pinhead issue of the caution being issued. As I understand itI shall be interested if the Minister can tell me otherwisea caution remains on a person's police record, so I see no reason why the victim in a case such as this should not be able to seek recompense.
I am sure that there are other, perhaps more creative, solutions. The police are in a very unsatisfactory position. Perhaps you might think, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the police should be prepared to issue a caution as opposed to prosecuting, but only if the individual has already agreed to repay the money.
I understand that police forces up and down the country will be concerned about such a proposition. They do not want to put themselves in the position of debt collectors. I hesitate to call this plea bargaining because it brings with it all sorts of other connotations, but I do think that there should be a system in place so that if the individual is going to get off relatively lightly, with a caution rather than a full prosecution, it should perhaps be incumbent on the police to ensure that the victim is in some way in a position to seek compensation. It seems fair; it seems just.
In this case, the chief constable had to go against the explicit advice of his own solicitors. It seems to me that after 15 years of Data Protection Act training, staff are now in a position where the idea that information cannot be released under such circumstances has become so bred in the bone that they fear for their jobtheir livelihoodif they release the information. It is easier not to release the informationto play safeeven when justice is clearly denied by so doing. We must get to the bottom of this situation.
I should be very interested to hear whether the Minister can propose some solutions. I suspect that he may well refer to some Home Office circulars on the subject. I am familiar with them. Home Office
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circular 55/1998, which repeats circular 20/1988, says that the police can release information to the courts in the event of legal proceedings, but those circulars are overridden by the Data Protection Act and, indeed, by the Human Rights Act 1998. Again, they are only advisory, so the guidance can be trumped by all sorts of other laws and legislation.
We must get this case clarified so that the situation does not continue to arise. I am sure that the Minister will be interested to hear that, since I raised this matter in the national media, I have been inundated from people throughout the land who are in exactly the same position and have found it impossible to seek justice because the police feel that they would break the law by releasing information on whom the criminal was in any instance. Surely, that must be wrong. I call on the Minister to look again at the situation, perhaps to consider amending legislation very much with the idea that it should be formed on the basis of protecting the victims, not of putting the police in the position of defending the criminals.
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