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14 Feb 2006 : Column 429WH—continued

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Witness Care Units

1.30 pm

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): I have never been a witness in a criminal case, either at the magistrates court or Crown court, though in a previous incarnation I have cross-examined a large number of witnesses. I was very nearly a witness in Crown court once. My house was burgled and the witness statement I gave as a matter of routine to say what was lost, which was not a great deal, inadvertently had at the top, "Vera Baird, aged 21." Usually it says "aged over 21" and one of my colleagues, who was defending the miscreant, threatened to call me to give evidence with a head start on challenging my credibility on the basis of that obvious lie. All I had to give evidence of, however, was the value of two tins of John West salmon that had been taken from my kitchen.

I was primarily a defence barrister. There was a tendency among defence barristers and defendants to hope that witnesses would not turn up. I am aware of many cases in which the papers showed that there was no alternative other than to plead guilty, but in which the game plan was to wait and see whether the key witness turned up. If they did not, there was no case. If they did, a guilty plea was entered, but not until the witness had come to court, perhaps at some personal inconvenience and trouble. They were often nervous at the prospect of being cross-examined by somebody like me or at being faced with a hostile experience, head to head with someone they saw as a criminal, in an unfriendly environment in which they felt likely to understand little about the process and how it would work.

It is odd that historically we have not taken much care of witnesses. They are the key people in ensuring that the criminal justice system brings the guilty to book and frees the innocent. As I say, in many cases they are the difference between conviction and acquittal. They are the players without whom all our thousands of criminal statutes, the Crown Prosecution Service as represented by my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, the magistracy, the Sentencing Guidelines Council and the judges are fairly purposeless. The document that launched the witness care units is called, "No Witness, No Justice." How right that is.

We have not been aware of the needs of witnesses because many people do come to court to testify because they regard it as their duty as a citizen. However, it is notable that, before the witness care scheme was launched, surveys showed that the people who had least faith in the criminal justice system were the very people who had had contact with it in the previous year. They thought the least of the criminal justice system—they were not impressed by the contact that they had.

In the past if witnesses were unsure whether they wanted to come to court, our method of getting them to court was pretty simple. If they raised an issue relating to their attendance, such as child care, the distance they would have to travel, or family responsibilities, they were threatened with a witness summons, backed by an arrest warrant. That was that. It was assumed that their inconvenience was outbalanced by their duty to come to court, their concerns were given little credence and they were brought to court.
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It is extraordinary that a person, either a victim of crime or a witness to a crime for whom attendance was not really in their interest, would be threatened with the sort of penalty that they thought the defendant ought to get as a result of their witness if perfectly ordinary incidences in their life had led to their expressing doubt about whether they should come. Full use of the court's time was all, and any slight murmur of discontent was met with such treatment. The people who make the system go round were not treated very well.

The courts are full of stories of witnesses who have been inconvenienced. There are stories of victims of highly traumatic offences, such as rape, being brought to court by police on the first day of the trial, as used to be the procedure. The court's time being at a premium, everybody had to turn up, notwithstanding the fact that counsel might want to take up a couple of points of law that might take three quarters of a day to sort out, resulting in the judge saying, "At this hour of night it's no good swearing in a jury, we'll come back tomorrow." The witness would be brought back the next day, only to find that there was some other delay, so they would have to wait a little longer. That was all to the disadvantage not only of the public but of criminal justice. People get a certain amount of adrenalin running when they come to court to give evidence, and they gear themselves up to it. Hanging around in the waiting room for day after day makes the whole thing go flat, and they lose the resilience to resist cross-examination simply because they have been inconvenienced. We would pay people loss of earnings and travel costs, but that was all the help that we gave.

Then came "No Witness, No Justice", which set up five pilots of a scheme to require the CPS and the police to set up witness care units to give support to witnesses—to give them a little attention, to knock the bugs out of their progress from seeing to testifying, and to make them feel wanted. The scheme has been a success, as I shall describe. It has now been rolled out nationally and properly funded, and so on 13 January I opened the Teesside witness care unit.

When an incident occurs, police officers assess the prosecution victims' and witnesses' needs when they take a statement from them. That assessment now forms part of the standard witness form. Dedicated witness care officers employed jointly by the CPS and the police work separately in their own office; they are dedicated to taking care of witnesses. They are a single point of contact from the point of charge and they keep victims and witnesses informed about the progress of their case via the witnesses' preferred means of contact.

The process goes like this. The assessment is made by the officer at the scene. If a charge is preferred, the witness gets a letter from the witness care unit saying, "Mr. Z has been charged with offence Y. There will be a hearing in a week's time, but you needn't come. That will sort out the process of the trial thereafter and we will get in touch with you again." I say "sort out" deliberately, because lots of letters from the CPS and many public authorities are not phrased in a reader-friendly way for a public who do not understand the criminal justice system, but these letters, as I saw for myself in Teesside, deliberately employ terms like, "this hearing will sort out the progress of the case." That is understandable, ordinary language, realistically put.
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If the witness is required to attend, a proper needs assessment is compiled by the witness care officer. The officer will ask: is there a child that needs care? If so, can the witness's sister, mother or brother be brought in to help? If so, we will pay for that out of the public purse. They tell me in Teesside that they have never had a difficulty. If there is no relative available, it must be problematic to get a child into a nursery for half a day when they have not been going there as a rule. I threatened my senior prosecutor, Mr. Goldman, with the idea that he would have to get himself a bunch of toys, because in the end the children would be in the CPS office. That has not yet occurred, but the service will certainly pay for child care.

If the person lives in east Cleveland, which is a rural area well away from the Crown court, and there is not a bus in time, they will be brought in either in a police car or in a taxi from an official taxi firm picked for its reliability. If they have a problem telling their boss what is going on and explaining it, that can be dealt with by the witness care officer. If the witness is self-employed, witness care officers will see what they can do to help with covering the business for that short time.

The witness care officer compiles a list of whole range of needs and does everything possible to meet them. Victim Support and the witness service at court are less well-placed to help with all that and to pass information between the court and the witness. After all, the CPS and the police are participants in the case with leverage to understand at each stage what is going on and to transmit it directly. Victim Support and the witness service are excellent at giving comfort and support at court, but I have often come across cases in which witness support thought that a message had been received from a police officer involved in the case telling the witness to come back tomorrow when in fact that was quite wrong, and the police officer went round and gave a conflicting message that night. Such cases are very unhelpful. It is important that witness care is carried out by people in the middle of the case, as the CPS and the police are.

More can be done to help. Sometimes witnesses need special measures in court to enable them to give their evidence with confidence. If they are afraid of a defendant, they might ask to give evidence from behind a screen so that they do not have to look in his face and he cannot stare them out. If the witness is vulnerable or young and the case is in the Crown court, counsel—perish the thought—might take off their wigs and gowns to try to look like ordinary human beings and not to be so intimidating. It is possible in certain circumstances to give evidence over a video link. The witness care unit will check that all out and deal with it at the earliest possible opportunity, then tell the witness what to expect. Those are hugely important steps forward.

Intimidation, whether actual or the fear of it, is a key issue for witnesses. Responsibility will fall on witness care units to deal with it, clearly buttressed by police resources. We recently saw a little intimidation close to home when the Secretary of State for Education had an egg broken forcefully on the back of her head by someone from Real Fathers for Justice, as the group now calls itself. That was disgraceful and action should be taken about it. Although there is an argument for not prosecuting the person for such action because it will give the group undue publicity, the contrary argument
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is that, if someone were willing to do that to the Secretary of State when she was giving evidence in a very small case, what is a more serious criminal likely to do to me if I gave evidence?

The first witness care unit opened in Teesside in 2005, and I formally opened it on 13 January. After three months, it was reviewed and praised. It had handled more than 500 cases and ensured that more than 900 witnesses had been contacted within 24 hours of the court hearing with the result of that hearing. It is important to keep the public involved.

There are some direct good news stories. A lady at the witness care unit, Miss Andrews, dealt with a burglary case that involved a 72-year-old, wheelchair-bound man. Under the old system, he would more or less have had to fend for himself in getting to the court, although the police would have done what they could. He was willing to give evidence, but physically getting him there was a challenge until Miss Andrews found A & S Wheelchairs, a specialist taxi firm, to take him to court, collect him after he gave evidence and take him home. There was then a retrial, at which time he was collected again. The defendant entered a late plea—I guess because the witness had turned up—and the elderly gentleman was disappointed that he did not have the opportunity to speak in court a second time. That was a transformation of the usual attitude that would have prevailed if, without the witness care unit, the man had been fetched and carried to court a couple of times or, even worse, had had to make his own way there.

Rape trials are dear to my heart. In one such case in Teesside, the injured person had given evidence at a trial in August last year, but there had to be a retrial in Teesside Crown court in December. She was willing to come back in December, having formed a good professional relationship with the witness care officer who had supported her throughout the process. The man was convicted and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. Arrangements had had to be made to organise taxis, child care and to bring the witness's mother from work so that she could be with her daughter.

Inconvenienced witnesses are a statistic these days. In 2003, there were 924 inconvenienced civilian witnesses in Teesside. By the end of 2005, only three months after the witness care unit had opened, the number was down to 754—marked progress, indeed. There were effective trials—the case is listed for trial and runs its course—in 25 per cent. of cases in 2002. By the end of 2005 and three months into the scheme, there were effective trials in 48.5 per cent of cases. Consequently, the statistics for ineffective trials have reduced.

Results from the British crime survey show that the percentage of people who believed that criminal justice agencies are effective in reducing crime increased from 26 per cent. in 2003 to almost 42 per cent. by the turn of this year. The number of people who have confidence in the system bringing people to justice also showed a big increase from a little more than 30 per cent. to almost 40 per cent. during the same period. Bad news about the way in which courts treat witnesses travels fast, but so does good news. That confidence is an indicator that good news is being promoted by the system.
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I want my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General to have regard to some worries that I shall now explain. My senior Crown prosecutor in Teesside, Martin Goldman, who is an excellent officer, is worried that there is a risk of too much contact. There are witness care units, but there are also slightly different obligations under the victims code that concern many agencies. There is consultation in respect of the victims charter and the charter and code in respect of children. There are other obligations under different regimes that the police and the CPS have in respect of victim and witness care. Almost as much damage could result from overkill of contact between the authorities and witnesses, especially if it were conflicting contact, as could result if there were none. Are too many initiatives being established in such an area? Is it time to back off and let things just roll along under "No Witness, No Justice" for a while before any complications mess matters about?

How will police reform have an impact on the availability of local witness care units when the police are reorganised regionally? I repeat my interest in victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. The worry outside the CPS is that vulnerable witnesses especially should have specialist support, which witness care units are not geared to provide. How can we weave that in? Previously, the idea was that such victims would have a specialist officer who would be with them from start to finish; however, the witness care unit is to process them through its usual system in the ordinary way. Teesside has a directory of available support services, but there has been a complaint from Women's Aid that it has tried to contact the Teesside witness care unit to ensure that it is not being ousted. It would be terrible if specialist advice were being ousted for the sake of a system that rolls along very well for ordinary witnesses. Women's Aid is worried about that, or at least about the possibility that it may be involved with cases in which the witness care unit is also involved but that conflicting information may be given because of the lack of liaison.

How can we mesh together the work of a specialist police officer dealing with vulnerable witnesses from start to finish, the work of a specialist outside organisations that can give trauma counselling and support that is outwith the ability of the police, and the work of the witness care unit that looks after the way in which people get to court and what support they need? Is there a danger of overkill? Will there be conflicting advice? Will one oust the other? Those are concerns for us all.

Conservatism—not changing things or improving them—must have governed the whole area of criminal cases and witness care during the Thatcher and Major years because not one finger was lifted to prevent the situation that I have described and that prevailed throughout my early career at the Bar. It was hoped with a good deal of optimism that witnesses would not turn up because no one was looking after them. By contrast, through simple measures such as witness care units and other good schemes based on a radical shift and the perception of who is important in a criminal case, we have—without disadvantaging the defendant, who remains the important focus of a criminal case—brought increasing public satisfaction and enabled the courts to provide much better value for money and more
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people to be brought to justice. My concern centres on the imperative to make the schemes inclusive. They must not become colonisers of witnesses. They need to be promoted and publicised, so that witnesses come to court and know from the outset that they take no risks if they perform their public duty, that they will be minimally inconvenienced, that they will be properly compensated, and that due care will be taken of their interests.

1.49 pm

The Solicitor-General (Mr. Mike O'Brien) : I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) on securing this debate on an important area in which the Government have had considerable success. I welcome the opportunity to highlight the steps that we have taken to improve witness care. I welcome her support for those efforts. On 13 January she opened the Teesside witness care unit, which has 15 fully trained witness care officers who will provide a great deal of support for victims and witnesses.

We know, as my hon. and learned Friend has said, that criminals have played the system in the past, hoping that decisions by witnesses not to turn up would result in the dropping of the case. I well remember from the time when I practised law defendants taking the view that witnesses not turning up was the best way of getting off when there might be a strong case against them. The establishment of witness care units, through the "No Witness, No Justice" programme is about giving power back to victims and witnesses of crime. In the past, victims and witnesses often felt powerless in the face of crime.

The result of that powerlessness has been, first, that people do not report crime in the first instance, because they do not want to become involved in a system that they often see as remote and uncomfortable for them. Secondly, if a crime has been reported, people may not co-operate with the police, because they do not want to get involved and become witnesses in a court—an environment that, again, they sometimes see as uncomfortable. Thirdly, witnesses may fear intimidation, or just worry about the experience of going to court, or they may lose interest in the case. For many witnesses, the first that they hear about a case after giving a witness statement may be when, many months later, they are told that the court will convene the following day or week. They are expected to be there and to remember everything that they recalled some months before.

The consequences of all that are that fewer offences are brought to justice than should be, trials are often ineffective and must be adjourned or abandoned because crucial witnesses are not there, and more not guilty pleas than necessary are entered because defendants hold out to see whether something turns up—or, in the case of the witness, does not turn up. That is especially worrying when the victim has been the subject of a sexual assault, rape or offence of domestic violence, or if a witness is worried about possible reprisals from the defendant or his friends or relatives. All that means a loss of public confidence in the criminal justice system. Without witnesses there can be no justice.

The "No Witness, No Justice" programme, which originated in discussions between the Attorney-General, my noble and learned Friend Lord Goldsmith,
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and the Home Office, has benefited from an investment of £36 million from the invest to save budget. It enables the criminal justice system to offer better support to victims and witnesses. The programme was successfully piloted, as my hon. and learned Friend said, in five areas in 2003–04, and a national roll-out began in April 2004.

Dedicated witness care units have been established in each of the 42 criminal justice areas, staffed by trained specialists from the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, and by specialist witness care officers. The units offer a single point of contact and a tailored response to the individual needs of the witness in question. My hon. and learned Friend identified the case of an elderly gentleman who was assisted when he needed the help of a taxi service that could accommodate his wheelchair to get to the court. Those are the sorts of facilities that can be provided.

The units provide very practical help with matters such as child care, transport and housing. A witness may need to be transported to another town to give evidence. Sometimes witnesses must travel from abroad. In those circumstances, assistance with accommodation can be provided. Also, in the court itself, special measures such as a video link or screen in court can ensure that the witness will not be intimidated by a defendant.

National implementation was completed at the end of December 2005, and 165 witness care units are up and running, with at least one in each criminal justice area. Some of the units have been operating for longer than others, but there is already good evidence of improvements in the service. In cases that have been handled by witness care units witness, attendance rates have increased from 78 per cent. to 85 per cent. That means that the average number of trials aborted because a witness has not attended has been reduced from 908 in a month to 645 a month—a decrease of 29 per cent.

It is early days, but within two years of full implementation the expected performance improvement in the "No Witness, No Justice" programme should enable 12,000 more trials to go ahead every year than would have gone ahead otherwise. Through "No Witness, No Justice", we are reversing the trend and making victims feel more confident that they can come forward to report a crime and give evidence in court. We are also letting criminals know that it is no longer as easy as it was for them to play the system. We are getting more witnesses to court and convicting more criminals. That must be good.

The benefits for victims and witnesses are obvious. They get dedicated support and their needs are individually identified. There is an expectation of minimum standards of care for everyone who comes into contact with the criminal justice system as a victim or a witness. Let us be clear: we cannot wipe out the impact of an offence on a victim. However, we can make the impact of going to court and ensuring that the witness gives evidence in order to get the criminal convicted less traumatic. That is the aim of "No Witness, No Justice".

There are also benefits to the criminal justice system in improving the care that is given to victims and witnesses so that they come forward and attend court to give evidence. That is an effective way of securing more convictions. We are improving the way in which public confidence in the system can be shown. The public can
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see that something is being done for victims and witnesses and that it is sensible for them to give evidence. As my hon. and learned Friend said, confidence is increasing.

Benefits result for criminal justice staff too, of course. Through better victim and witness care, staff can feel that they are doing a good and more satisfying job and that they are achieving results and making a difference. That, after all, is why they came into the job. Helping people to give their best evidence in court is important, and I know that many criminal justice staff welcome the initiative and feel that it brings them real rewards and an incentive to continue doing their job.

I recognise that we must also examine issues that arise from the programme. My hon. and learned Friend has raised several points with me, which I shall deal with one by one. First, she asked whether there a risk of too much contact with witnesses and victims and a possibility of putting them off by becoming over-involved with them. I suppose that in theory that is possible, but at the moment our problem is the opposite. We need to improve the level of contact and ensure that victims and witnesses feel that they are properly informed and that the criminal justice system is responding to them. It has not done so in the past and its reputation for not responding to those people has grown, but we are changing that and increasing public confidence in the
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system. We need to get the balance right. At present, introducing too many initiatives is not a problem, but we need to take care that it does not become a problem. My hon. and learned Friend is right about that.

Another issue raised by my hon. and learned Friend was the possibility that police reform will have an impact. It should not, because there is broad-based police support for the programme and the continuation of funding from the police will no doubt be sought. We hope that after the establishment of any new, reformed police operations, the police will continue to play their full part and support witness care units.

We need to continue to provide support in rape cases. I am particularly interested in the work that has been done on domestic violence cases in Caerphilly and Croydon. I am considering whether work of that kind on providing more and better support for rape victims can be done in areas where rape victims need more support. We need to improve liaison between non-governmental organisations and the witness care units, and I hope for such improvements. My hon. and learned Friend identified a case in point.

Witness care units are providing increased support for witnesses. I want that to continue and I welcome my hon. and learned Friend's support for it. I assure her that the Government will continue to be very supportive.

Question put and agreed to.

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