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8 July 2008 : Column 1288

The motion provides for all the stages of this Bill to be taken today. It provides for six hours of debate in two segments: the first three hours for the debate on this motion and on Second Reading, and the second three-hour segment for Committee, Report and Third Reading. I would be the first to acknowledge that six hours to debate the important issues addressed in this Bill is less than ideal, and it would certainly be undesirable if the emergency legislation today were not to be superseded by a Bill in the next Session allowing much fuller parliamentary scrutiny. However, I would like to explain briefly why we need to press ahead at such speed.

Following the decision by their lordships in the case of Davis, there is a broad consensus—indeed, we saw it at the time of the statement to the House by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor following that judgment—that we need to legislate urgently to restore the power of the courts to make witness anonymity orders in appropriate cases. That is widely accepted by Front Benchers in both Houses, by outside commentators and experts of various kinds, and by the Law Lords themselves. They, in the leading judgment by Lord Bingham, said that urgent legislation might be appropriate. I accept that not everybody would think that, but there is a broad range of people who do. Failure to act quickly could lead to a significant number of ongoing and pending trials having to be abandoned and, potentially, to a large number of appeals against convictions secured, to a greater or lesser extent, on the basis of evidence provided by anonymous witnesses. That is the basis of the need for urgency and the reason the timetable motion is as it is today.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I completely understand the general drift of the hon. Lady’s argument and do not quarrel with it. However, I understand that the House of Lords will have two days
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for the Bill and we have only one. Surely the elected House should have at least as much time as the House of Lords.

Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman is slightly misinformed. The other place will have two half days, equating to one full day, so there is a basic equality in the time allowed. I appreciate his general point about the undesirability of having a short time, but we need to move swiftly.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Having read the Davis judgment and listened to the beginning of the Minister’s speech, I agree that time is of the essence. Would it not be appropriate, therefore, to have a sunset clause? We know that the Bill will be superseded at some point, but we could make absolutely sure—belt and braces—through a sunset clause. I think that that would be accepted on both sides of the House.

Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman is stealing my thunder. The Government have tried to act consensually, given the need for speed, and in consultation with other parties we have accepted the principle that the Bill should contain a sunset clause. If the House agrees, it will be added to the Bill later. No doubt, we will have some discussion about what form it should take, and we have several options to consider.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): We all agree that it is a good idea to provide protection for brave witnesses who want to give evidence to put criminals into prison. However, does the Minister agree that legislation passed in such haste can cause more problems than it provides solutions? Will she reflect on the fact that slightly more time might be needed to get it right? It could still go through relatively quickly.

Maria Eagle: I appreciate the general point that the hon. Gentleman makes in that there is some danger in hasty legislation. We have said, and will say again later, that the Bill will be a stopgap. There is to be a sunset clause, as I have said, and we will consider amendments to include it in the Bill later. My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has made it clear that further legislation will be introduced next Session—the law reform, victims and witnesses Bill—that will subsume the contents of this Bill and enable full parliamentary scrutiny. At the same time, we will have cover for the urgent problems caused by the sudden arrival of the judgment in Davis.

The amendments tabled by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) have not been selected, but I know the substance of what he suggests—and he will no doubt make his own contribution later. He suggests that we should take the summer recess to consider the issues raised by the Davis judgment in more detail and not take the Lords stages of the Bill until the spill-over in the autumn. I fully understand his concern about the undesirability of hasty legislation, as I have already said, and about the timetable motion we are considering, but I cannot commend such a delay to the House as it would cause added distress and worry to many vulnerable and intimidated victims and witnesses, and undermine confidence in the criminal justice system generally, which none of us would be happy to see. Such confidence is vital if justice is to be done and the guilty brought to book.

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The right hon. and learned Gentleman says that courts should adjourn these cases for four months, while we take the time to consider more fully, and ask the Law Commission and other experts for their views. But many victims of serious violent offences, or their relatives, or intimidated witnesses looking forward to the day when the trauma of giving evidence is behind them, would not agree that four months is a short delay. They would want the trial completed as soon as possible. What of a defendant remanded in custody? He, too, would want justice to be done with appropriate speed. While it may be true that if found guilty he will get credit for the time that he has spent inside, not all those tried are found guilty. Therefore, in some circumstances, people could be locked up for longer than necessary, even if they are not found guilty. Moreover, such a delay would leave the whole issue of anonymous evidence in legal limbo. That is not a sensible or acceptable way, in my judgment, to proceed.

We have, I believe, a sensible way forward that will meet the concerns of the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham about the speed with which the timetable motion seeks to take the Bill through all its stages. As I have mentioned, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has given a firm undertaking that he will repeal and subsume the provisions of the Bill into next Session’s law reform, victims and witnesses Bill. That will allow further and fuller debate of these important provisions, but with the cover of the arrangements in this Bill to prevent the mischief of courts having no power to grant anonymity to witnesses in the intervening period.

I hope that I have explained the urgency that we face today.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I fully understand why the hon. Lady wants to accelerate proceedings. I have listened carefully to her, but I do not entirely understand why the apparent desire to finish proceedings at 10 o’clock should take precedence over the need to scrutinise every clause of the Bill. Why do we not simply accelerate but maintain our proceedings until such a time this evening when every clause has been properly scrutinised and every amendment has been considered?

Maria Eagle: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those comments. The workings of the usual channels have always been a complete mystery to me, as I have never been a part of them, but there we are. There has been some sort of agreement and it is incumbent on us to get along and debate the important points of the Bill as swiftly as we can. On that basis, it is probably time I resumed my seat.

3.56 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I want to make it clear at the outset that the official Opposition do not accept the Government’s timetable, although we accept the principle behind the need for the legislation. The Bill has not come upon us by surprise. The decision of the Judicial Committee of the other place was made two or three weeks ago, but the trial took place as long ago as 2004, the murder took place in 2002 and the Court of Appeal considered the matter in 2006. Throughout that time, I suspect that lawyers within the Government will have been anticipating—if they were not, they
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should have been—one result or the other. That is to say, a confirmation —[ Interruption. ] If the Home Secretary would keep her mouth shut briefly, we could get on. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I mean that quite seriously, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker: Order. We must have temperate conversation and language. The important thing is that I am listening to the hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. Garnier: I could not be more grateful, Mr. Speaker.

As I said, the Court of Appeal decision was in 2006 and it must have been within the contemplation of the Government that the House of Lords would either disagree or agree with the Court of Appeal and that contingency arrangements should therefore be arranged. However, we do not deny that there is urgency, artificial or otherwise, when it comes to dealing with the problem. We therefore think that there is some ground for the Government’s case for urgency. However, what we are about is a fairly fundamental change in the law as it is now declared to be.

We are not talking about a pro forma Bill. Before we got on to this business, we dealt with the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No. 2) Bill, which went through all its stages in about five seconds—

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): That is only all the money.

Mr. Garnier: The hon. Gentleman is quite right; it only deals with the money.

Since the 1979-80 Session, 60 Government Bills have gone through the Commons with all their stages being dealt with in one day. They were largely uncontroversial Bills, such as those to do with consular fees, friendly societies, the Commonwealth Development Corporation—there were two such Bills in that period—the borrowing powers of British shipbuilders and international monetary arrangements. There was the Caravans (Standard Community Charge and Rating) Bill, the Community Charges (General Reduction) Bill, the Australian Constitution (Public Record Copy) Bill, the Parliamentary Corporate Bodies Bill, the Stamp Duty (Temporary Provisions) Bill, the Welsh Development Agency Bill and so on. There was a Bill to amalgamate county and European election dates, and others that were more controversial in their implications if not in their deliberation, by which I mean those to do with the peace process in Northern Ireland.

I suggest that although there is some urgency for the current Bill to be dealt with before the end of this term, there would be nothing to prevent the Government from urging the House to sit beyond 22 July if it were thought appropriate for the Bill to be given greater consideration.

The Minister is right that the House of Lords will consider the Bill on two separate days, but they will be half-days. The importance of that is not so much the amount of time available on each of those days but the gap between them, when outside interests and their lordships will be able to consider better the implications of the Bill. We will not get that advantage. We are to go from Second Reading to Third Reading by 10 o’clock. I suggest to the House that that is not a sensible way to deal with this extremely important Bill.

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Sir Patrick Cormack: May I infer from what my hon. and learned Friend says that there was an attempt to negotiate a better timetable through the usual channels, and that those negotiations failed?

Mr. Garnier: Like the Minister, I am not a member of that secret society, the usual channels, so I have absolutely no knowledge of what has been going on behind the scenes. I can say, as she did, that there have been discussions between our party and the Government, and I dare say between the Liberal Democrats and the Government, about the content of the Bill. Given the constrained timetable, we wanted to reach as much agreement as possible. However, legislation should be made in this Chamber, not in ministerial meetings outside it. Although I thank both the Secretary of State and the Minister for their consideration in being as open as they can with us, that does not undermine the thrust of my argument that the timetable is inadequate for this important Bill.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Garnier: I will if the hon. Gentleman will be very brief.

Rob Marris: Does the hon. and learned Gentleman not accept that there is a certain contradiction between the two limbs of his argument, one of which is that the Government have had plenty of time to consider the matter since 2004, and the other of which is that he feels stampeded? He and his party have had plenty of time to consider the issue, too.

Mr. Garnier: The hon. Gentleman misunderstands. It is the Government’s Bill. We did not see it until it was in its draft form last week.

Maria Eagle: Nor did we.

Mr. Garnier: There we are—nor did the Government. Perhaps unwittingly, the hon. Gentleman has made my point about the lack of preparedness that the Government are guilty of.

I shall stop there, because I know that others wish to speak and we need to get on with the Bill. I understand the parliamentary arithmetic, but as a matter of principle the official Opposition will resist the motion.

4.3 pm

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I, too, accept the need for speed in this situation. A large number of cases pending, or recent cases pending appeal, were decided on the basis of the law as it was believed to be before the Davis decision. In addition to the factors that the Minister mentioned, there is the fact that custody time limits might well run out while a resolution of the legal position is awaited. I would not want a lot of defendants to find themselves with a presumption in favour of bail because we had acted too slowly. It is reasonable to say that if we fail to act swiftly, a lot of people might be released who should not be.

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