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Let me respond to the points that have been made. I think that I am well known for always being ready to come to this House. This matter was under very active consideration by both the police and the Crown Prosecution Service throughout last week, and I do not believe that it would have been appropriate for me to have come to the House at that stage-I am very happy to be here today. As for actions that I could
have taken to avoid what the hon. and learned Gentleman calls the "frenzy of speculation" by the press, I must say that no statement by me in this House would have avoided that.
I have already explained, as I did this morning on the radio, that the Home Secretary and I are in exactly the same place on this. What he said last Wednesday was the same as that which I have said. What he said was simply to explain that there was a criminal justice process in prospect and that it was very important, as I have just said today, not to prejudice that. The hon. and learned Gentleman asked me about the licence conditions. Some of those were standard-attached to any offender on a life licence-and some were specific to the case of Venables and Thompson. For example, neither of the offenders could make any contact with the other and, self-evidently, they could make no contact whatever with the family of poor James Bulger. Both were wholly excluded from the Merseyside area, and there were other conditions attached.
On the grounds for not being able to say any more, this has nothing to do with what the hon. and learned Gentleman called a "creeping advance" of privacy for defendants; it is about protecting the possibility of a future prosecution and trial process, and I think that the whole House understands the imperative of doing that. I fully understand the frustration not least of James Bulger's parents, Mrs. Fergus and Mr. Bulger. Mrs. Fergus, in comments made on the television this morning, accepted that although she is obviously very anxious to have full information, she does not want that information to arise prematurely in a way that could prejudice any future criminal justice process, and that is exactly the position that I hold.
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): May I offer my full support to the Secretary of State for what he is trying to achieve in this case? The case of James Bulger will obviously arouse strong emotions even 17 years on, but does he agree that the rule of law is more important even than those emotions, and is certainly more important than the commercial interests of competing tabloid newspapers? Does he agree also that in a case such as this, in which for all we know there might be a not guilty plea in a jury trial, there is a grave risk of severe damage to the public interest if there is premature release of prejudicial information? People have been saying that there is a right to know, but does he agree that there is no right to know everything immediately?
Mr. Straw: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support in this case. This is about the rule of law, but the rule of law is there not as an abstract but to protect everybody, above all the victims of crime and especially the bereaved victims of the most horrific of all crimes-murder. Yes, of course, it also protects the accused. No charges have yet been laid; still less has a trial taken place and a conviction followed. What we value in this country-what everyone must value-is trial by a fair judicial process, and not by any other means.
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab):
The Bulger family are my constituents, and I spoke to Jamie Bulger's uncle, Jimmy Bulger, earlier
this afternoon. Understandably, the family are feeling very distressed indeed about what has taken place, mainly in the media, over the last week or so, and of course about what might underlie those reports. Their concern is that, as soon as possible, as much information as possible as to what breaches of the licence may have taken place-and for that matter, what offences may have been committed-is brought into the public domain. At the moment, the problem is that there is so much speculation that it is only adding to the distress of the family, and is not bringing a prosecution or any other legal action any nearer to a conclusion.
Mr. Straw: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Of course I accept that the parents of James Bulger deserve, and should expect, the maximum information that is possible. The difficulty is the one that I have already explained. I am making arrangements to meet Mrs. Fergus and Mr. Bulger, James's parents, and that meeting will, I hope, take place this week. I will then explain as much as I can, but there are inevitably limits on what I can say unless and until a decision is made about charge.
Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Does the Secretary of State, who has acted correctly to protect the trial process, recognise that there are many cases in which newspapers, if they are not careful, make it more difficult, or perhaps impossible, to convict guilty people?
Mr. Straw: Yes, I do, and that is something on which newspaper editors need to reflect. The consequence of coverage-which is a matter for their decision; that is not for any politician to suggest-may be the opposite of what they intend.
Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): Jon Venables, Robert Thompson and their families lived in my constituency at the time of the murder, which took place in my constituency, so it is indelibly imprinted on my mind. Does the Secretary of State agree that there are whited sepulchres among the media who are seeking to whip up public disquiet and almost a hysterical reaction to the issue? If they are successful, is that not likely to be counter-productive, and will it not ensure that there is not the thing that we would all wish to see-that is, a fair trial for Jon Venables, if that is appropriate?
Mr. Straw: As I have already said, there are important responsibilities on the press in such situations. We want-we have to have-a trial process that is, as I say, fair for the defence and the prosecution. Justice is never served if, as a result of prejudicial reporting in advance of any prosecution and trial, the trial cannot proceed, and someone who might otherwise have been found guilty is acquitted before the trial starts.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con):
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of any case in which a person who has been given a new identity has
been tried under that new, and thus assumed, identity? Is it not inevitable in those circumstances that the original identity will be disclosed in the trial, making a fair trial extraordinarily difficult, and is that a factor that will weigh with the Crown Prosecution Service when it determines whether to prosecute?
Mr. Straw: I am not aware of any case of the kind that the right hon. and learned Gentleman describes. I should say that the number of offenders who have been granted a new identity is just a handful, so the possibility of there having been any trial is very small indeed. If there is a trial, it will be for the prosecution and defence initially, and then for the trial judge, to determine what arrangements need to be made for that trial to be conducted fairly.
Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): Should not the genuine thirst to know the facts in a case of this sort be quenched by proper investigation and the facts coming out in front of a court of law? Does my right hon. Friend agree that we perhaps need to review the legal requirements that are in place to protect the likelihood of successful prosecution in this day and age, when 24/7 news and constant blogging run far ahead of the known facts?
Mr. Straw: That would be a matter for others, and I would not want to suggest that, as a result of the very unusual circumstances of this case, new laws should be introduced. Generally, the arrangements for reporting allegations work reasonably well; I think that that is the view of the Law Officers and the courts. This case is wholly unusual because of its notoriety and the exceptional circumstances of the offenders.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I do not think that my question could possibly prejudice a successful prosecution. Can the Justice Secretary assure the House that no person has been killed or seriously physically injured as a result of the matter that is being investigated?
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): The Justice Secretary and the Home Secretary are absolutely right not to jeopardise any future prosecutions, because an abandoned trial would be the worst thing that could happen, but at the same time, will the Justice Secretary assure me that he is trying to meet as fully as possible the needs of the Bulger family, which must be considerable at this time, which will bring back all the memories of what happened all those years ago?
Mr. Straw: Yes, and I thank my hon. Friend for that question. As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), I do, I hope, understand the profound concern and frustration of Mrs. Fergus and Mr. Bulger-James's parents. I also feel frustrated, because I would like to be in a position where I could tell them as much as I know, but I do not believe that that would, at this time, serve their interests any more than it would serve the interests of justice.
David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): The whole House will probably take the view that Lord Chief Justice Woolf's tariff of less than eight years was inadequate. That notwithstanding, I think that the Justice Secretary has taken exactly the right stance. He will undoubtedly come under great pressure in the next few weeks on this issue and I hope that he will adhere to his intention to ensure that there is no prejudicing of any trial and, no matter how despicable the individual involved, he will protect the identity from accidental as well as deliberate release so that we do not see lynch-mob law in this country, even in the prisons.
Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. The safety of this individual in the prison system is also a consideration that we have a duty to consider. Indeed, it is under active consideration. On the wider issue, the right hon. Gentleman was in the House in 1999 and 2000 when I had to make two statements about the decision of the European Court of Human Rights. It was well known that I would have preferred the tariff setting to have stayed with the Home Secretary of the day, but the decision-which, by the way, was nothing whatever to do with the Human Rights Act, which was not even in force at that stage-had to be accepted, as was recognised on all sides.
Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): The Justice Secretary spoke of the need for a thorough review of supervision. To the extent to which he is able to comment, has concern been raised in this case about the probation services and their supervisory role?
Mr. Straw: I do not want to anticipate any review. I was pointing out that if there were a charge, a mandatory serious further offence review would automatically follow. If there is not a charge, I shall give consideration to the situation and report to the House.
Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I know that you are always determined to ensure that Ministers have every opportunity to put the record straight when they might inadvertently have misled the House. I believe that the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families might inadvertently have misled the House when he denied the fact that 45 children out of the 80,000 eligible for free school meals made it to Oxford and Cambridge. By what means can the Secretary of State put the record straight? I am sure that he would not want to allow anyone to be under any misapprehension as to the real state of affairs.
Mr. Speaker: None of us wants to be under any misapprehension at all. I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for his point of order and I am sorry to have to disappoint him but, as things stand, my strong impression is that the point that he has raised is not a point of order but a point of debate and arguably even of frustration. There is a genuine difference of opinion between the intellectual Titans on the Opposition Front Bench and on the Government Front Bench on this important matter. The hon. Gentleman, from a sedentary position, observed earlier that Ministers are of course responsible for everything that is said in this House, including its length or brevity, and he was right about that. I do not think that the Secretary of State, at this stage, is in any sense required to issue the clarification that the hon. Gentleman seeks, but he is-
Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must calm himself; I do not want him to suffer. I do not think that any clarification is required but the hon. Gentleman is a persistent fellow and I shall give him one more bite at the cherry.
Michael Gove: Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is not a matter of debate or dispute, but a matter of record in Hansard, in a parliamentary reply given by the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property. Now that you have had the opportunity to be reminded of that fact, will you ensure that the Secretary of State similarly has the opportunity to tell the House that he got it wrong?
Mr. Speaker: I think the hon. Gentleman is a little confused and I want to release him from his confusion. The answer is twofold- [ Interruption. ] Order. I am trying to be helpful to the hon. Gentleman; I am sure that he will want my help. First, Ministers are responsible for what they say and it is not for me to adjudicate on the quality of a ministerial answer. Secondly, I say in all charity to the hon. Gentleman, whom I am doing my best to help-I hope he wants my help-that if he feels strongly that he has been wronged and if he feels aggrieved about that and wants to write to me about it, citing the relevant references and so on, he is of course perfectly at liberty to do so, as other shadow Ministers have done many times. I shall look forward to reading his words with eager anticipation.
[Relevant document: The Twelfth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Legislative Scrutiny: Crime and Security Bill; Personal Care at Home Bill; Children, Schools and Families Bill, HC 402.]
(1) Unless provided otherwise in this section, where fingerprints, impressions of footwear or samples are taken from a person in connection with the investigation of an offence, the fingerprints, impressions of footwear or samples or any DNA profile may not be retained after they have fulfilled the purposes for which they were taken and shall not be used by any person except for purposes related to the prevention or detection of crime, the investigation of an offence, the conduct of a prosecution or the identification of a deceased person or of the person from whom a body part came.
(b) the references to an investigation and to a prosecution include references, respectively, to any investigation outside the United Kingdom of any crime or suspected crime and to a prosecution brought in respect of any crime in a country or territory outside the United Kingdom.
(6) Where any fingerprint, impression of footwear or sample has been taken from a person who is arrested for or charged with a sexual offence or violent offence, the fingerprint, impression of footwear or DNA profile shall not be destroyed-
(a) in the case of fingerprints or impressions of footwear, before the end of the period of three years beginning with the date on which the fingerprints or impression were taken, such date being the "initial retention date"; or
(b) in the case of a DNA profile, before the end of the period of three years beginning with the date on which the DNA sample from which the DNA profile was derived was taken, such date being the "initial DNA retention date"; or
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