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Westminster Hall

Thursday 17 January 2002

[Sir Michael Lord in the Chair]

Criminal Justice System

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Stringer.]

2.30 pm

The Minister for Criminal Justice, Sentencing and Law Reform (Mr. Keith Bradley) : I am grateful for the opportunity to outline what we have achieved so far to help victims and witnesses and to set out further planned improvements. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary are responsible for many important policy areas, which affect millions of citizens, but there are few areas to which we attach greater priority.

For far too long, the needs of victims and witnesses have been the secondary focus of the criminal justice system, and the Government are working to rectify that. We need the co-operation and support of victims and witnesses for the criminal justice process to work properly. In return, we have an obligation to ensure that they are offered the best possible support so that the often awful experience of the original crime is not made worse by the response of the criminal justice system.

I am aware of the critical comments made only last week by some of the country's most senior police officers. I accept some of their points, and others will be dealt with as we carry out work in response to Lord Justice Auld's important report on the criminal courts. We have, however, already made good progress on several issues, as I hope to make clear in this short opening speech.

First, I want to deal with what we have done for victims. Our most basic need when we are affected by crime—whether serious or less serious—is for immediate protection and support. We look to the police to assess what protection is required and then to provide it. They also play an important role in providing on-going support, but we now expect the voluntary organisation, Victim Support, to step in to offer the bulk of that assistance. To help it fulfil that responsibility, we have more than doubled its Home Office grant in the past four years. In May 1997, its annual grant was less than £12 million; today, it is £25 million. That has enabled Victim Support to establish two significant new services: a national telephone helpline for victims and a support service for victims and witnesses in magistrates courts, which matches the service already provided in the Crown court. Victim Support has also significantly strengthened its community-based schemes. With 15,000 volunteers nationally, it is the epitome of the giving society that we aim to nurture.

Another important need is for information. It is essential that all criminal justice agencies work together to ensure that victims are kept informed of how cases progress. The police, the Crown Prosecution Service and, in the most serious cases, the probation service have direct roles to play at different stages of the process. The police already have a victim's charter commitment

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to tell a victim when a suspect is charged, the date and result of the trial or hearing, and the outcome of any subsequent appeal. The charter also gives the police responsibility for conveying prosecution decisions to victims, although Sir lain Glidewell's independent review of the CPS and Sir William Macpherson's report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence recommended that the CPS should take responsibility for communicating prosecution decisions directly to victims, rather than via the police. Arrangements to implement those recommendations were piloted in six CPS areas before a national programme of implementation began in April 2001. The scheme will roll out across the country on a phased basis, with full implementation planned for October 2002.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): My right hon. Friend has rightly pointed out that the police have an obligation to notify some decisions to the victims. The CPS now has an obligation to notify some of its decisions, which I think are called key casework decisions. The probation service has a responsibility, and Victim Support assumes another. That is four bodies, and the danger is that they become mixed up. Some people do not give notification, because they think that someone else will. I appreciate the need for some kind of evaluation of the national roll-out of the CPS responsibility, but is there not a case for a victims' champion, whose job is to take on all the responsibilities from those different organisations?

Mr. Bradley : My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I shall come to issues around the victims charter later. What is essential is coherence of proper co-ordination between individual agencies and people who deal with victims and witnesses. That would ensure a proper level of support and service that is understandable to the victims and does not make them feel worse than they do, directly or indirectly, as a result of the crime.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I declare an interest as president of Stroud Victim Support, which is a good organisation. I am interested in cases that the CPS decides not to pursue, a subject that my right hon. Friend may mention. There is a lacuna, in the sense that the CPS is unwilling to say why it does not pursue them. That can be hurtful and difficult to understand.

Mr. Bradley : I accept that point. It is essential that the reasons why a case is taken forward or not are communicated to individuals. Public confidence in the criminal justice system must not be further undermined through lack of intelligence.

I was about to say how the CPS system is meant to work. If the CPS decides to drop or alter a charge substantially, it should write directly to the victims to inform them of the reasons for the decision. In certain serious categories of offence that involve child abuse, sexual offences or racially aggravated offences, a meeting will be offered if further explanation is required. That is in addition to the existing victims charter commitment to meet families who are bereaved as a result of crime to explain prosecution decisions. It is a key initiative aimed at improving the quality of service to victims and contributing to increased public

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confidence in the criminal justice system. I hope that that goes some way to answering my hon. Friend's point.

Various agencies are involved, and the probation service is another. Since the mid-1990s, victims of offenders sentenced to four years or more for a violent or sexual offence will normally have been contacted by the probation service before the release of the offender. On taking office, we decided to put that work on a statutory basis in the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000. The probation service is now in contact with the victims of all offenders sentenced to 12 months or more for a violent or sexual offence, unless the victim requests otherwise. The probation service will explain how the prison system works and answer any questions that the victim has. Victims will later have the opportunity to have their say about the release conditions of offenders. Many have genuine grounds for fear, and it is essential that those responsible for making arrangements for release are routinely informed of what those fears are. It does not give victims the right to decide whether a prisoner should be released, but there could be a good reason why an offender should be excluded from a particular town or city, for example.

The principle of allowing victims to give information, as well as any evidence that they might have, is important. Since last October, we have given them the opportunity to do so earlier in the process, with the introduction of the victim personal statement scheme. The scheme will ensure that victims' views are taken into consideration at all stages of the criminal justice process. It will outline the effect that the crime has had on their lives and might lead to their receiving help that would otherwise not have been available. For example, the police may see from the personal statement what kind of personal support the victim thinks that he or she needs, or the magistrates courts might use the information provided to decide that conditions should be attached to a defendant's bail. The statements will not give victims the opportunity to decide the sentence that a convicted offender should receive. It is important that that remain the responsibility of magistrates and judges. We shall evaluate later this year how effective the scheme has been, and shall make improvements if any are needed.

We have made improvements to the criminal injuries compensation scheme. Since last April, and following a public consultation process, changes have been introduced to improve awards, by up to 10 per cent., for victims of rape, sexual assault and child abuse, and for those who suffer serious multiple injuries in other cases. Awards are available, for the first time, to same-sex partners in homicide cases.

The changes more than maintain the scheme's position as more generous than any other in Europe. Those are just some of the developments that have taken place for victims.

Mr. Drew : I know that this is a common problem and it could be that my right hon. Friend will have to answer me in writing, perhaps after consultations. I have encountered at least two cases in which claimants have been told that, because they have previously been

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convicted of a criminal offence, they are not eligible for compensation or entitled to a lesser amount. Will my right hon. Friend clarify the rules?

Mr. Bradley : I understand my hon. Friend's point. I do not want to give misleading information about the operation of the scheme in individual cases—it is administered, as he knows, independent of Government—but if I can give him the precise details later in the debate, I shall. Otherwise, I shall write to him.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): What is the rationale behind discriminating against people who have already been convicted of crimes, in relation to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority?

Mr. Bradley : I have just made it clear that I shall clarify the position, and I shall do so, ideally in this debate, but if not I shall ensure that my hon. Friend receives a written explanation.

I shall try to highlight some of our future plans. At the centrepiece, as we trailed in last year's election manifesto, is a bill of rights for victims. After consultations on this and other issues last year, there was broad agreement with the principle, but a divergence of views on the content of the Bill. Those differences are being discussed across government and with victims' representatives. I intend to return to the House later this year to announce how we plan to proceed.

There was much greater unanimity on the idea of a victims commissioner or ombudsman. He or she would be appointed to champion victims' interests on a range of issues—not just those relating to the criminal justice system—and to investigate complaints when things went wrong, but also, in line with what my hon. Friends have said, to ensure co-ordination of activity and services. I would expect the commissioner to make recommendations to improve the response of every organisation that comes into contact with victims of crime. The detailed development work on the post is currently taking place and, again, I intend to inform the House of definite plans later this year.

I know that many right hon. and hon. Members are equally concerned about the victims of road traffic incidents and accidents. I am very grateful for the several hundred items of correspondence that we have had about this and to the many hon. Members who responded to the consultation paper to which I have referred. It may seem strange, as it did to me at first, that those injured in road traffic incidents, and the families of those who are killed, are not entitled to the same services as victims of crime. There are, however, complex issues to resolve before we can decide how they can be brought within the scope of current or planned services for victims. I am examining that question closely.

For example, after many incidents, it is decided that no offence under the road traffic legislation has been committed. If an offence has been committed, should the families of offenders who have died in an incident be entitled to receive personal support services, just as victims' families do? Those are the kind of detailed and

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sensitive questions that we need to explore. The matter is one of particular concern to me, and I assure hon. Members that I shall make progress on it.

Mr. Drew : My hon. Friend is getting through my checklist brilliantly, and there are not many more items left, but I wonder whether the Home Office has studied the role of insurance companies. I have evidence that they have deliberately delayed the pursuit of justice on the basis that it is better not to make a payment today, even if that means paying more eventually. That is a scandal that needs to be properly investigated.

Mr. Bradley : My hon. Friend raises an important point, and I shall reflect on it and pursue it as we develop the role of the commissioner and the rights of victims in the relevant cases.

I now move on to witnesses. Many victims of crime give evidence about the offence in court. I would like more to be given that opportunity, either because more offenders are detected, or because witnesses feel more confident about coming forward to give evidence. The attrition rate is simply too high, and, for some types of offences, unacceptably high. We are addressing that with determination.

We need to ensure that support is provided in court to enable witnesses to give evidence with as little stress as possible. During our first term, we conducted a major review of the needs of particularly vulnerable or intimidated witnesses. Their plight has long given rise to concern that too many cases are abandoned, or not even started, because the stress of the criminal justice process is too great for many victims and witnesses, both adults and children. For example, adult witnesses may be vulnerable because of personal circumstances, such as their relationship with the defendant or the nature of certain serious crimes such as rape. Some witnesses with particular disabilities are not regarded as being capable of giving evidence and so can be denied access to justice.

A witness who fears intimidation may not report the offence or may refuse to give evidence in court. The review made 78 recommendations for improvements in the criminal justice system—in the reporting of crime and the identification of vulnerable or intimidated witnesses and measures to assist witnesses before, during and after the trial.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : Forgive me, but I cannot recollect the terms and recommendations of report. Were convicted criminals serving extensive sentences in prison who had been victims of crimes in the past covered by the report and identified as vulnerable victims?

Mr. Bradley : I do not have the report before me, but I shall give my hon. Friend a more robust answer later in the debate, or ensure that she receives the information by correspondence. I take her point, but I must ensure that I do not give her misleading information.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The Minister is coming to an important part of the debate, in which I hope to be called to speak later. Does he accept that we are in a serious position, because the trend is that an increasing number of people are

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unwilling to give evidence? A key problem in clearing up a crime is that people are unwilling even to start the process of giving evidence, let alone continue through court to the end. If we could deal with that problem, the clear-up rate would rise and many other concerns would become a secondary consideration.

Mr. Bradley : I agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is one of several reasons why cases are not being pursued as satisfactorily as they should be. The problem will be addressed in our general review of the criminal court process, sentencing and support for victims and witnesses. Unless we are given proper, robust evidence in court, trials of whatever type cannot be completed satisfactorily. Too many cases fail because of that, and we must address the problem, otherwise we shall not regain and rebuild public confidence in the criminal justice system.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a mirror image group of vulnerable witnesses who are eager to give evidence but whom the system debars, because it has concluded that they cannot give good evidence? To have better justice and better treatment of victims, we must improve the ways in which courts treat evidence from people with learning disabilities, for example.

Mr. Bradley : I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend says. We must consider all the physical and environmental conditions, the general organisation of our court system and the criminal justice system to ensure that everyone has the opportunity of justice and that justice is seen to be done. We should enable anyone, however they may be described, to give evidence, by putting the conditions in place to hear it. We are attempting to do that. I shall identify some measures that we have taken and those that we intend to take, but there are always new perspectives on such matters, so I would welcome suggestions from my hon. Friend and others. We want to ensure that more people who are guilty of offences are brought to book.

The recommendations, including those requiring changes in legislation, were all accepted and are at various stages of implementation. The Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 provides the legislative framework for action. The Act defines vulnerable and intimidated witnesses in sections 16 and 17 respectively and contains several special measures for them, including the use of screens round witness boxes; clearing the public gallery in sex offence cases and intimidation cases; assistance with communication; video-recorded evidence in-chief; live television links; and the removal of wigs and gowns. Under the Act, children under the age of 17 will automatically be eligible to apply for special measures simply by virtue of their age. The Act also specifies that a court must consider a witness's views about his requirements for assistance in court when it determines whether to grant him special measures.

Some provisions of the 1999 Act have already been implemented. Since September 2000, there has been a ban on defendants without legal representation personally cross-examining rape victims. That has put an end to the possibility of rape victims being put through the ordeal of the accused reliving his actions

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through the line of questioning. We have introduced further restrictions to limit the questions that a rape victim can be asked about their previous sexual history under cross-examination.

We accept that the target of implementing most of the special measures in the Crown court by the end of last year was too ambitious. The Departments and agencies involved agreed that more time was needed to prepare for the changes. An announcement on the final timetable will be made next week, on 24 January.

Our commitment to improving the treatment of witnesses does not end with the implementation of the 1999 Act. The willingness of independent witnesses to report and later give evidence in court can, as my hon. Friends said, be crucial in detecting and prosecuting offenders. The Institute for Public Policy Research published a report called "Reluctant Witness" last autumn. It concludes that we need to know more about why witnesses, with the exception of those who are particularly vulnerable or intimidated, fail to come forward and are reluctant to participate in the criminal justice process.

The first national witness survey was conducted in 2000 and found that 76 per cent. of witnesses were satisfied with their overall interaction with the criminal justice system, but that only 61 per cent. would be happy to repeat the experience. We need and plan to do more work on that, and some of the measures that I described should help. As hon. Members have said, however, that is just a start and more needs to be done.

I am sure that hon. Members will recognise from that summary of our current initiatives and future plans our commitment to improve the status of victims and witnesses. We are actively working on combating persistent offenders, tackling repeat victimisation and encouraging the use of restorative justice when circumstances warrant it. Taken as a whole, that package of measures lays the foundations for a criminal justice system that gives victims and witnesses the priority that they deserve and for maintaining our acknowledged position as the European front-runner in victim care.

I have acknowledged that much more needs to be done, but I hope that hon. Members recognise that sound measures are in place and that good progress is being made. I am determined to drive the agenda forward, and I know that I have support throughout the House for that.

2.58 pm

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): I am grateful to be called in this important debate. I thank the Minister for his comments, and I shall say a few words of my own. I shall be fairly non-partisan because people of good will should have common cause on such issues.

I begin by declaring an interest. I have been a solicitor for more than 30 years and initially practised in criminal law. I sit as a Crown court recorder and as an acting district judge, which is the same as a stipendiary magistrate. For over 30 years I have witnessed, sometimes as an advocate, but equally often in a judicial capacity, the situation in our courts.

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When I first began in practice, my firm impression was that scant regard was paid to the interests of victims or witnesses in the criminal justice system. Regularly, the first contact that a witness or victim—they are often the same person—would have with the case, after making their initial statement, was when they arrived in court to give evidence. Arriving at a strange court, quite often, in the old buildings, they had to wait in a confined and cramped area. There were often no separate waiting areas for the different parties in the case, and the witness or victim might find themselves standing next to the defendant or his or her family or friends. Little was done to care for the interests of the witness or victim in those days. It is to the credit of successive Governments and of all those in politics that there have been steady improvements during the past 30 years.

In 2002, more people than ever before who witness a crime do not bother to report it. They pass by on the other side. That is significant, and a point made tellingly by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) a few moments ago. We live in a society in which there is a tendency to pass by on the other side. I read that only one third of those who witness an act of vandalism report it to the police, and that only one in six of those who witness an assault bother to report it to the police. I read also that a majority of those who attend court, even now, say that they would be unwilling to act as a witness again in future.

We are bound to ask ourselves why that is. It is, perhaps, a sad reflection on the nature of the society in which we live, in which, over some years, there have been constant improvements. Is such a lack of engagement caused by a general loss of confidence in the criminal justice system, or by a decline in the general feeling of civic responsibility? Is it because more and more people in society do not think that it is worth becoming involved in the criminal justice system? The trend is worrying. It is strong today and, oddly enough, was not as strong 30 years ago; yet one would think that the situation would be the other way round.

I shall talk about some nuts-and-bolts issues that have arisen from my experience in the courts. I shall begin with a few words about witnesses—who can be victims as well—and the sort of problems that they may face. I qualify what I am about to say by remarking that there have been tremendous improvements in the past few years. Courts throughout the country, successive Governments and the voluntary sector in general have all been trying hard to improve the situation. I do not intend to be heavily critical.

From a witness's point of view, problems can arise inside or outside the court. I shall deal with problems that arise inside the court first. Before a case is fixed for trial, a pre-trial review takes place, when the court fixes a day and sorts out administrative matters. Over-listing of cases has been a problem in our courts. The more cases that are listed for trial on a given afternoon, the greater is the likely number of witnesses whose presence is required but who are not called to give evidence. It is difficult for the courts, because quite often a trial is listed at 2 o'clock and by 2.15 the defendant has pleaded guilty, so there are two or three hours spare. The problem of over-listing must be considered.

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Witness availability is a problem. I and those who practise in the courts have noticed that quite often on a pre-trial review the dates to avoid for defence witnesses are not brought to court. Sometimes even the dates to avoid for Crown witnesses are not brought to court. A trial date is fixed and some form of difficulty arises.

In court, we have all heard bullying questions by advocates that make witnesses wonder, "Is it worth the candle to come here?" There is a fine line to be drawn between tough questioning, which must be carried out on behalf of a defendant, and bullying questioning, where there is a clear duty on the judicial authority to intervene to protect the witness.

In the past, there has not been the facility for anybody to say to a witness, after they have completed an afternoon in court or finished giving evidence, "Thank you for coming." It has not been possible to write to the witness after the case to say, "You came as a witness: this is what our verdict was", "This is what the sentence was", or "This is what is happening about the appeal." The follow-through was missing.

A witness may come to court and find that the case has been adjourned. How can that be? Trials are fixed for 2 o'clock and 3 o'clock. The witnesses in the 3 o'clock trial have to arrive at 2 o'clock. The advocate stands up at the 2 o'clock trial and says, "My Lord, this is going to take the whole afternoon." The next trial then has to be adjourned. That happens not infrequently. The average time that a witness has to wait in a case is up to three hours. Moreover, 40 per cent. of witnesses do not give evidence on the day that they are called, and any witness who turns up is almost inevitably bound to lose money.

Even in the best-ordered world, there will be problems in terms of witnesses. It is good judicial practice if a case cracks—as is the phrase—for the judge or magistrates to have the witnesses in to say, "We are so sorry that the case has fallen away this afternoon. These are the reasons why, and we would like to apologise on behalf of the court system." Many judges do that, and it can make a difference. I understand that a majority of witnesses say after a court experience, "I don't really want to do this again." That is a pity.

The Minister mentioned the witness service, which can help to solve some of the problems to which I have referred. The service run by Victim Support helps witnesses and victims and their families before, during and after the hearing. Trained volunteers in every Crown court centre in England and Wales, and some magistrates courts, give free support and practical information to witnesses.

In my constituency, there is an effective and innovative witness care service with dedicated volunteers supporting witnesses. They do little things such as taking them to court before the hearing and telling them, "This is where you'll come in", "This is where you'll sit", "This is where we get a cup of coffee" and "This is where the refreshments are." That service was launched in October 2001. A few weeks ago, I received a letter from its organiser that read:

It has proved to be a great success and I congratulate all those connected with it—not only in Woking but elsewhere.

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In some cases, the victims and the witness can be one and the same person. The Minister knows that the Labour party's manifesto for the last election promised to legislate for a victim's bill of rights, but we do not think that we heard that in the Queen's speech. However, I believe I heard the Minister say a little earlier that such a measure was at the front of his mind and that he proposed before too long to return to the issue and make an announcement about the way in which the Government would proceed. That will be welcomed on both sides of the House.

The Minister referred to the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, which contained some measures that have helped victims, particularly those who might feel intimidated in court and who hitherto have felt intimidated. One is section 24, which provides for witnesses giving evidence by live link. That is quite a useful tool in one's armoury from time to time. Another is section 23, which provides for screens to shield the victim from the defendant. These measures are coming on stream in our courts and should be used with care and sensitivity. It is important that any witness—or a victim giving evidence as a witness—should be properly tested in court as to the truth or accuracy of their version of events. Nevertheless, the introduction of screens, when appropriate, is something that we can all applaud. There is also, as the Minister said, the banning of cross-examination of rape victims by a defendant, another forward-looking measure.

The Minister rightly referred to victim personal statements, which again are coming on stream. I believe that they were introduced in October 2001, so it is too early to say what effect they will have, but as the Minister said, in such a statement the victim has a chance to say how he or she has been affected by the crime, and the statement will become part of the court papers. We know the extension of this in relation to road traffic accidents and bereaved relatives.

Permitting a victim to make such a statement gives a clear signal that we believe that victims' rights and views are important and that they are not to be forgotten in a criminal trial. It is something that can also be relevant in a pre-sentence report. A judge or magistrate will put a defendant back in custody or on bail for a pre-sentence report following conviction. That will happen quite often. The pre-sentence report is likely to refer to the victims' personal statement, and I believe that the judge or magistrates, when sentencing, will be able to take it into account. I hope that I am not wrong on this; I must wait for guidance from those who tell me what I must do in court. However, I believe that those who pass sentence will read the victims' personal statement, which can be relevant. It is not often, for example, understood by those who do not take an interest in the criminal justice system that victims of burglary can, for months or years, be frightened of going back into their home. How helpful it is for a court to know the effect of a crime on a victim.

I want also to mention briefly the question of compensation. The rule now is that where there is an assault, and in other cases too, compensation should be awarded to the victim. I like the idea of courts awarding compensation against defendants in favour of victims, even a nominal amount against defendants of limited means. It does not stop a victim claiming relevant compensation. Victim personal statements are a very good idea and a great addition to our system.

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We have already mentioned the victim support scheme. It is a great scheme that has been going for many years, staffed by more than 14,000 volunteers throughout the country. It has helped more than 1 million victims a year and it involves more than 1,000 staff. We all know the good work that the scheme has done and still does.

I think that it is the view of victims—it is certainly mine—that there is one extra little way in which to support a witness. Quite often, a nasty assault—a sexual assault or crime of violence, for example—involves a defendant and victim who live in close proximity. Statistically, that is likely. My experience, which I think is shared by others, is that there is a housing issue when the defendant comes out of prison. It is quite possible that the victim will remain frightened if the defendant is still three doors away. I do not know whether this could or should be put in statute, but I hope that in future local authorities will take a sympathetic view to requests for housing transfers.

Simon Hughes : Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on the fact that when I tried to persuade the Government last year to require local authorities to move someone whom the police had said should be moved for their own protection, they said that no, they would rather leave it to the local authority's discretion? My experience, like the hon. Gentleman's, is that the best will in the world on the part of local council officers and police officers often does not deliver the ability for someone to be housed away from where they feel vulnerable for months or even years. We might have to return to a situation in which the law makes people provide alternative accommodation, because the best will and intentions do not appear to be capable of delivering.

Mr. Malins : The hon. Gentleman makes a very strong point, and if I may say so it is typical of him to have spotted and done work on such an important point. I feel that he is right to suggest a move from just an expression of hope that local authorities will act to some statutory or other back-up. The position for a witness in such a situation can be very worrying. As the hon. Gentleman says, such things can take months, and months are long periods if one is living close to a person who has caused harm and fear to oneself.

I turn briefly to the criminal injuries compensation scheme. The Minister rightly said that that scheme, which has now been in place in one form or another for 36 or 37 years, is probably the most generous in Europe. It has been reformed and, although it is not perfect, it is probably the best in Europe, providing for the payment of moneys to blameless victims of crime at taxpayers' expense. It paid out about £200 million to 46,000 victims in 1998-99, and continues to do well.

Having said that, I think that there is one small problem with the scheme, and I hope that it strikes a chord with the Minister. I believe that if someone who receives, say, £15,000 compensation for injuries is on benefits, their benefits can be stopped because the award is higher than the capital allowance for people in receipt of means-tested benefits. Such a person might have to spend their compensation on rent and subsistence until most of it has gone. That is slightly worrying, and I hope that the Government will examine it.

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I have spoken for a little while about victims, and I mentioned Victim Support. All of us will want to pay tribute to the work of local victim support schemes in our own constituencies. In Woking, and throughout Surrey, dedicated volunteers provide excellent help.

I return to my central point. I am concerned that at a time when the Government, with support from politicians of good will, are trying not only to increase and extend protection for witnesses and victims, but do everything in their power to encourage witnesses and victims to come to court to give evidence and do their civic duty, there is a growing trend among people to say that that is not worth the effort. That distresses me immensely. The success of our criminal justice system depends on everyone co-operating and doing their bit. If the Government, through these measures and other action in the next year or two, can help to reverse that trend so that there are more people who feel properly part of the criminal justice system, the Minister and the Government will have done a good service for the country.

3.20 pm

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): The comments that I make today relate to the 80 historical abuse investigations that have been undertaken by police authorities throughout the UK during the past two years. I am chair of the all-party group for abuse investigations that was formed this summer. It has approximately 60 members from the Commons and the Lords who have a collective concern about the way in which these cases are investigated.

My interest in these cases and their victims started in 1997 when two people came to see me at a surgery. They told me that they were concerned about their friend, who had been accused of sex abuse. They were certain that that individual had not committed the alleged crimes. We all recognise that that is a perfectly natural response from the friends and family of any individual accused of committing sex abuse. However, mindful of the fact that juries make decisions about the guilt and innocence of individuals, I said that I would raise several questions to ascertain the validity of their comments. I tabled a significant number of parliamentary questions during the course of 1997 and 1998 relating to sex abuse inquiries in the UK. Unfortunately, the only statistics available at the time related to Merseyside, which has investigated sex abuse cases with a degree of thoroughness almost unmatched in the UK.

During the early part of this year, I met with Mr. Terence Grange, chief constable of Dyfed and Powys police, who is the lead chief constable on sex abuse matters. He prepared a report for me after contacting all police authorities to ask them about the scale of their sex abuse inquiries. For the record, I am sure that hon. Members would like to know how many victims of care home abuse there are in each of the major police authorities in the UK. Cheshire has identified 500 victims of sex abuse in care homes during the past 20 years; Devon and Cornwall has identified 369 victims; Gloucestershire has identified 150 victims; Greater

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Manchester has identified 322 victims; Gwent has identified 500 victims; Humberside has identified 100 victims; Kent has identified 47 victims; Lancashire has identified 182 victims; Leicestershire has identified 73 victims; Merseyside has identified 697 victims; the Metropolitan police have identified 196 victims; North Wales has identified 500 victims; North Yorkshire has identified 100 victims; Nottinghamshire has identified 13 victims; South Wales has identified 569 victims; South Yorkshire has identified three victims; Staffordshire has identified 260 victims; Suffolk has identified 12 victims; Surrey has identified 25 victims; West Mercia has identified 286 victims; West Midlands has identified 138 victims; Wiltshire started its inquiries in 2000, but I have been unable to find out whether it has identified any victims.

I realise that it will be difficult for hon. Members to hold those statistics in their minds, but I know them extremely well. They beg several questions about the way in which the police have pursued investigations of this kind and their failure to identify victims. I have already mentioned Merseyside police authority, which has so far identified 697 victims. That should be compared with South Yorkshire, where, apparently, there are only three victims of historical care home abuse, or Nottinghamshire, where there are 13. That begs questions about how the investigations are pursued by the various police authorities.

Merseyside police authority assures me that there have indeed been 697 victims of care home abuse in the past 20 years. If that is right, and if it is also true that we in the north-west are not genetically predisposed to abusing children, one must assume a similar number of victims in every other authority in the country. In other words, it is probable that at least 600 people in each authority have been abused while in care homes in the past 20 years. Many of them have not been identified through the processes employed to date by the police. We have let those people down terribly. Of course, it is possible that the police authorities of Merseyside, north Wales and south Wales have identified people who are not in fact victims.

So who are these victims and how are they identified? Some 80 per cent. of those who have lived in care homes in this country in the past 20 years are convicted criminals. That is a dreadful statistic, and a travesty of the care home system that the young and the vulnerable have enjoyed in the recent past. Police authorities identify victims by working with social services departments to produce lists of those who have lived in care homes. Then, they seek and find those victims wherever they may arise. The vast majority have been in prison or are currently serving sentences. Indeed, I have visited a number of them.

The victims are identified with the help not only of social services but of solicitors, who run advertisements in newspapers stating, "Have you been the victim of sex abuse? If so, you could be eligible for compensation. Please contact us." In fact, a solicitor in Manchester is currently dealing with 700 such cases, at a cost to the state in legal aid of between £18,000 and £24,000 per individual. On average, between £30,000 and £40,000 is obtained per individual. Of course, it is not necessary to prosecute one's case in court to obtain compensation. The level of compensation reflects the degree of abuse to

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which the victims were allegedly subjected. So solicitors work with the police, who work with social services, to identify the victims.

As I said, the victims tend to be found within the prison system, and I want to spend a few minutes discussing the way in which the police conduct interviews within that system.

Simon Hughes : The hon. Lady has clearly done a lot of work, but I wonder whether she has addressed the important point that many who are convicted of sexual abuse are convicted of offences against numerous individuals. Does she know how many people have been convicted of, say, more than 10 or more than 50 offences against different people? Such a person is far more likely to be guilty than the person whose conviction is based on a single allegation, which is much more likely to have been invented without supporting evidence.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : It is a sad fact that I probably know more about these investigations than anybody else on the planet, and I can give the hon. Gentleman a detailed answer. As I said, the only information that I have been able to obtain is from Merseyside police authority. I shall ask Terence Grange, whom I am meeting later on, if it is possible to apply the statistics to which he refers—they are very useful—to all other authorities.

The historical perspective is useful. When the police started to investigate the crimes, they found that if they identified two victims and placed them against one accused in court, they could lose, and statistics demonstrate that they did lose a number of such cases. Police now seek out multiple accusers, so typical cases have at least five—sometimes 12—identified victims against one abuser. There is a direct relationship between number of accusers and successful prosecutions.

Let us go back to how individuals are interviewed in a prison context. I was in a prison recently, and the police arrived to carry out an interview with an individual whom they believed had been a victim of abuse. The prisoner is not informed that the police are visiting, and has no idea that he or she will be interviewed. They are told only shortly before they arrive. The police can arrive in numbers of three to six. The day that I visited a prison in the north-east, six police constables had come to interview an individual who did not know that they were coming.

The nature of the interview is that the police present themselves and say that they would like the individual to assist them with their inquiries. Most prisoners have only ever seen police officers attempting to see them end up in prison for the crimes that they have committed. I urge hon. Members to consider that the police believe that such individuals have been subjected to the most horrendous abuse that we can imagine. One would think that a social worker or psychologist might be present, and that there might have been discussion with the Prison Service about the nature of the interview, bearing in mind that the prisoner may never in their life have disclosed information about the abuse.

However, six police officers stand over an individual in a room with square tables and chairs screwed to the floor, and they ask the individual to help them with their

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investigations. In such a context, can hon. Members imagine how long it sometimes takes for the police to obtain statements from criminals? I visited one gentleman in the north-east who, while in 10 different prisons, had received 12 visits from the police because they were keen to obtain a statement that he had been abused. They were searching for additional victims to support the allegations of other victims.

Victims are therefore interviewed by the police in the most deplorable circumstances. Furthermore, the conversation that takes place between the police and victim is not recorded. Contemporaneous notes taken by the police, and subsequently written down more fully, are the only evidence recorded. That gives me cause for concern. The people involved are gravely worried about the nature of that conversation in a cell with no independent witness.

It has been alleged that police encourage vulnerable victims to give false evidence by offering preferred parole conditions and informing them of possible compensation—£30,000 to £40,000 per individual. Victims might be informed that an allegation could help in their application for parole because they could claim that sexual abuse was the reason why they had led a life of crime.

Having made their statement, victims must go to court. They will have little idea of the environment in which their case will be heard and certainly will not have received the support that other victims, who do not find themselves in prison, enjoy.They arrive at court to give their testimony and then leave. I have been unable to determine whether any of them receive support, but many have made substantial accusations of abuse and have been left unsupported by the system. However, if the case is proven, they can expect substantial compensation and many people believe that availability of compensation is significantly distorting the number of allegations of abuse that are being made in this country.

I have said enough about the matter. I have written to the Ministers concerned about my worries and have read every royal commission report and document on the criminal justice system in the past 20 years. I shall conclude by referring to several pieces of text that clearly identify my concern and put it into context.

First, the opening paragraphs of the royal commission on criminal procedure, which was chaired by Sir Cyril Philips and presented to Parliament in January 1981, state:

The last century, of course. They continue:

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The powers of investigation by the police are still open to grave question. Despite the best efforts of the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department, the confidence of the public in the criminal justice system continues to fall.

As a result of the royal commission that was established in 1991, every word of police interviews with all suspects is tape-recorded. We have heard of a case this week in which a man was released after serving 27 years in prison, 10 of them as a consequence of refusing parole and refusing to admit to the crime of which he was accused. The requirement to tape suspects' statements meant that they were entitled to a fairer and more transparent trial. The time has now come to tape-record statements from witnesses when the only prosecution evidence is verbal testimony, which is frequently given to the police in the most draconian environment that can be imagined, with no independent witnesses. The only loser in the current criminal justice system in such cases is the person who has been identified as the possible accused.

3.39 pm

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The issues raised by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) are hugely important. I am aware of the work that she has done, and have great respect for it. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) has been involved in the same issues. Although my question might have appeared harsh, it is important that we should understand that the victims of abuse need maximum protection and support.

I am extremely sympathetic to the hon. Lady's case, particularly on her last point. It is wrong for vulnerable people to be interviewed and questioned without such an interview being attested as a properly conducted interview. I hope that the Government will legislate for that in due course.

I welcome the debate, not because we should delight in having to have it, but because the matter is so important. Unequivocally, I do not disagree with anything that the Minister or the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) has said. I shall make no partisan or party political comment, because the more we collaborate to increase the effectiveness of the response of all parties—whoever is in power—the better we serve our constituents.

I come to the debate as one who formerly prosecuted and defended as a lawyer. Before I was elected, I was a youth leader in south London and often worked with young people who were both victims and criminals. I have several times been a witness in court and, although I am a politician with the sort of experience that we all have, I do not find it easy. Giving evidence at the Old Bailey is not easy for the best prepared of us, let alone for those who have never been inside a court in their lives.

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I have also been a victim. For a time, I was burgled so often—I think it was eight times in two years—that it almost became commonplace. Just in case criminals are listening, my house is now much more secure: since the security measures and protection system have been in place, I have not been burgled, so they should not try it now.

Like most people, I am often a victim but do not report it because I do not have that mindset. If my tyres are slashed, as they were last year, I do not immediately think that the key thing is to report the crime; I want to get the vehicle back on the road. Sadly, my constituency—in which I rejoice and of which I am very proud—has very high crime levels, including violent crime, and that has been so for as long as I have been its Member of Parliament. I come to the debate with experience—not something that I have sought—as the friend of people who have been murdered. I have seen somebody one week and discovered that they were not there the next. I have had to support their relatives, fiancés, girlfriends and children. I have been in the public galleries of courts such as the Old Bailey with families whose child has been killed and who have felt totally alienated from the criminal justice process because they have never had a formal chance to say anything as the case is processed and there is or is not a conviction followed by a sentence. People feel as though nobody has taken account of their feelings.

In a sense, I have been privileged to be in the sad position of standing alongside the families of people such as Stephen Lawrence and Damilola Taylor in the borough in which I am one of the Members of Parliament. I came to know very well the family of 17-year-old Jamie Robe, who was killed gratuitously in one of the streets in my constituency on a warm summer's night. On their behalf, and on mine, the message, which has been confirmed by the Minister and by the hon. Member for Woking, is that the criminal justice system is in many places less and less able to deliver justice because people are not giving evidence. That makes it impossible to secure the convictions expected in a just society that upholds people's rights and liberties.

One example focuses the debate for me, but it may focus other issues as well. I was closely involved in the Jamie Robe case when, at the police's request, I sought to persuade people to give evidence when they were nervous about it. They carried out their civic duty, but their experience was not happy. Before the case, the assurances that they sought about their protection as witnesses could not always be given. During it, things that they were led to believe might happen—appearing behind screens, for example—did not happen, and the anonymity of names and addresses was, by accident, lost earlier than planned.

Subsequently, two families in which witnesses were protected had to move from the area and, in effect, change their identities. One family quickly felt unsupported by the system. Members of it got into personal difficulties that led to the loss of their home, which resulted in their having a poor mental state and wondering whether they had done the right thing. The other family had to give up a small business to move, and they found it hugely difficult to get business going again. They lost a huge sum of money trying to relocate the business, which was almost impossible.

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I give that example because we must address such problems. That is why I intervened on the hon. Member for Woking. Every week in my constituency office, the member of staff who looks after housing casework—a young graduate in his first job after attending Cardiff university—has to deal with people who are desperate to move because they are vulnerable or threatened. He and I often struggle for weeks, with the best help that he can get from police and housing officers, to put them somewhere where they and their families can feel safe.

That is not acceptable. People regularly come to me suicidal or threatening serious violence, because they feel that those are the only ways in which they will be noticed. I say that simply to point out that I share the experience of the Minister, who represents another inner-city constituency, and that of colleagues who represent less urban deprived communities—the Wokings, Sloughs and Crosbys of the world. Those places are not perceived as great metropolitan centres, but they have the same tensions, as I know from the cases that we have read and heard about. Your city must have the same problems, Mr. Hancock. The issue is not unusual. It is countrywide.

We should seek to achieve maximum lay participation in the criminal justice system whenever it is needed. That is a great principle, and it ties in with the debate about the future of the criminal justice system, which I welcome. The more that citizens feel ownership of the system, the more confidence there will be in it and the more comfortable people will be. That means that jury trials must stay, as they are a way to engage the citizen. The number of lay magistrates must be increased rather than decreased, as they must play a part.

That participation also means that we have a duty to be witnesses when that is required of us. It is our civic responsibility. The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) made the important point that we have a duty to support those who need support when they can be witnesses. I have received, as I imagine have colleagues, a helpful reminder from Mencap about how important it is that people with learning difficulties should feel able to take part, as they are often keen to do so. The same would apply to those with mental illnesses.

We have civic responsibilities, but we have a mutual responsibility to support each other as well. The hon. Member for Woking reminded us of the Christian principle that we have a duty not to pass by on the other side, and that also applies to other faiths. Many people choose to do so, whether they see someone vandalising a train or misbehaving on the tube or the street, because they are not willing to become involved in the process that taking action would imply. A councillor colleague whom I respect greatly, told me when we were discussing this debate a few days ago that police officers had told her that they often tell people not to give evidence, because it could put them in too vulnerable a position. If that is so, it is a pretty worrying state of affairs.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : My question relates to people with learning difficulties. The hon. Gentleman would, I am sure, be interested to learn that discrimination against people with learning difficulties extends to people who live in care homes. I referred earlier to the trawling inquiries launched by police authorities, but they involved cases that arose only in care homes where there were no people with learning difficulties.

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I wondered whether similar investigations had been undertaken concerning people with learning difficulties, but they have not. I suggest—I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees—that people with learning difficulties are more likely to be vulnerable to such abuse, yet they remain the least defended.

Simon Hughes : I agree. I imagine that we all have constituency experience of people with learning difficulties who have made allegations of abuse against those with responsibility for them, whether in a day centre or a residential setting. I hope that the hon. Lady and her colleagues will be able to make sure that such people are properly supported. Everyone deserves to be supported, but the more vulnerable people are, the more support they need.

Mr. Kidney : Before the previous intervention, the hon. Gentleman spoke of police officers who portrayed themselves as being on the side of potential witnesses by advising them not to be witnesses because the process was so terrible. Does he agree that the police are part of the process, and that it is important that officers should be willing and able to take up people's complaints? If they do not, they will act as gatekeepers, but keep the gates closed.

Simon Hughes : Absolutely. We have a duty to the police, too, as they often put themselves in the front line; they should feel confident that the system works. They are often as exposed as we are. Police officers do not often live in the communities that they police because they do not feel safe there. That is another change of the sort described by the hon. Member for Woking that has happened during the past 30 years.

Let us be blunt: it is not acceptable, from the playground upwards, to grass on people. That is the culture that we have to deal with. In my community, to grass on someone is as serious a crime as any, but we must be intelligent when trying to deal with it. If we are in a pub or club and someone we know knifes or shoots someone, it is not easy to go to the police station and say, "I know who it was."

Someone whom I knew well was killed some years ago in a bar in Tower Bridge road. The bar was completely packed, but not a single person was willing to come forward to say who had done it. The whole community knew who it was, yet not a soul was willing to say so. They did not do their duty. Although I could have given his name to the police, I was not there and could not give evidence, nor could I tell his family or his girlfriend about the incident. It is good that the matter is now on the Government's agenda, and I pay tribute to my colleague, the Deputy First Minister of Scotland, who has made sure that it is on the Government's agenda there. All our constituents should be reassured by that.

The Association of Chief Police Officers, led by the eminent and respectable chief constable of Thames Valley, who is soon to retire, published a report last week. It made it clear that we are in a pretty desperate state across the nation. I refer hon. Members to the section headed "The Search for Truth", which gives facts and figures on the views of victims and witnesses. The subtitle is

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It includes a section on the number of people who go to court and come away unhappy because of the intimidation and inconvenience. It mentions the downward spiral in public confidence, and states that two out of five witnesses had told the British crime survey in 2000 that they would be unwilling to do it again. It also said that 53 per cent.— I think that that is what the hon. Member for Woking was referring to—of vulnerable and intimidated witnesses said that they would not be happy to do it again. That is the level of lack of confidence.

The Metropolitan police are carrying out a survey, for which the deadline for responses is, I think, tomorrow—I shall try to get mine in on time, and I encourage others to do so; I hope that late submissions will occasionally be accepted. Locally, the police and the criminal justice system are alert in trying to bring about improvements.

I intervened on the Minister to say that we must have the objective of increasing the success rate of the criminal justice system. In a written answer to me on 19 December 2001, at column 482W of Hansard, the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs gave the most recent clear-up figure across England and Wales as 24 per cent., but said that it was down to 15 per cent. in such areas as the Metropolitan police area.

One of our objectives must be to increase clear-up, as the current rate is clearly unsatisfactory. A second objective must be increasing the credibility of and confidence in the criminal justice system, a third maximising lay participation, and a fourth presenting opportunities for citizenship education. If people reach adulthood with an understanding of their responsibilities as well as their rights, they will be more likely to participate.

I have a practical suggestion: when we write to ask people turning 18 to fill in the electoral roll, it would be a good time to reinforce the work that is done in schools, and is being included in the national curriculum this year, and to explain that among the obligations of being an adult, one can vote, one may be a juror and a magistrate, and one may be expected to be a witness. Perhaps Ministers or their colleagues at the Department for Education and Skills could consider how that might be set out on the reverse of the form that people are sent on reaching 18.

Alternatively, as people were placed on the electoral roll, from which they could be identified, they could be sent a special letter, perhaps from the Government, the local Member of Parliament, the local council leader, Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all. Perhaps it might be better if it came from footballers, rock stars and people who are paid more than us, but it should be from someone who might make the recipients think that it was important.

I hope that we always make it clear that a crime against a person is more serious than a crime against property. Property crimes are bad, but those against individuals, whether threats or actions, are more threatening. Property crime can be awful, but it is never the same if no one is threatened or harmed.

As a caveat, I hope that we do not regard looking after defendants' rights as being incompatible with the present objective. The hon. Member for Crosby made

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that point well. That is why I consider jury trial important and something that should not be eroded. The two principles are not incompatible. We must be careful about issues such as double jeopardy and the suggestion that we might change the law to allow people to be prosecuted again after acquittal.

I take the view—although it is not a theological one and I could be persuaded differently—that if we propose to take that course, we might need, in the first place, as was originally proposed, to allow it only in homicide cases. Also, although I know that my view is controversial, the change should not be retrospective. I know that that would mean that when someone had been acquitted or the case had been discharged, the matter could not be brought back to court, and that that might even apply to the Stephen Lawrence case, but breaking the line on retrospective legislation would bring us big difficulties.

I end with some proposals. I would happy to elaborate on them privately to the Minister; since other hon. Members want to contribute, I shall merely list them now to put them on the record.

First, if there is to be reform of government, I hope that Ministers will study the idea of creating a ministry of justice, though I appreciate that that is not a central Home Office responsibility. Modernising government is a laudable objective, but the one Department that the Government refuse to examine is the Lord Chancellor's Department. That may be something to do with the Lord Chancellor's view on the matter, but I would like to persuade colleagues who know him and love him dearly that modernising government should include his Department and the creation of a ministry of justice.

Secondly, I do not believe in royal commissions for everything. I am not going to argue for a royal commission in this case because there are dangers in taking that road. We had the Philips report, we moved on and the Government wisely suggested a national police forum to consider police issues. However, there is a case for a standing body to give accessible advice on criminal justice system issues.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that establishing a facility to identify research undertaken by offices in the criminal justice system would be a sound proposal? Such a body could ascertain whether procedures were effective and efficient and achieved the aims set out?

Simon Hughes : I certainly agree. The National Audit Office is carrying out a review, and it is a good agency.

I hope that a lot of issues can be brought together when the Government complete their current work and plan legislation for next year. I will be keen to persuade them to introduce, under the auspices of the management of the criminal justice system, a victim service, which would do what the name implies, a witness service, a defendant's service, a legal service and so on. All parts of the system would be represented and would contribute to the exchanges and improvements that the hon. Lady hinted at.

The Government explored many issues in the consultation paper that they properly commissioned to review the victims charter, and the results are being considered now that the consultation has finished. The

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answers to their questions are that there should be a victims ombudsman, victims of road traffic accidents should be included in the scope of the charter, we need further measures—we have explained what they are—to support the victims of hate crimes. The Government also asked whether the victims of non-violent offenders who are sentenced to 12 months or more should be informed of their release from prison. The answer is yes, if the offenders fall into particular categories. Generally speaking, sex offenders, for example, have not committed a violent offence, but we need to debate the point. We also say yes to a victims fund, to improving the way in which matters are organised in court and to whether it is better to have rights rather than standards, although there are difficulties in getting them to work. Finally, there is the controversial issue of whether victims should become civil partners in criminal proceedings. That issue should stay on the agenda because it is worth continuing to consider it.

I hope that the Government will find time this year to implement the recommendations of the "Setting the Boundaries" report on sexual offences because it contains a lot of good material that would help a lot of victims. It is a worthwhile document, and its recommendations would increase confidence in the criminal justice system.

We all share the next concern, which the hon. Member for Woking expressed well. We should continue to reform the courts so that victims and defendants do not need to be together and do not accidentally bump into each other on the way to the same phone. That is extremely harrowing and off-putting. We should reconsider whether the obligation to rehouse can be made much more effective than it is at present.

The position on prosecution decisions is not absolutely clear, and I should like it to be made explicit that the public interest consideration that the Crown Prosecution Service always takes into account should include the question whether a prosecution serves the victim's interests. A warning might sometimes be better because it would not put the victim through the trauma of appearing in a case.

Assistance should be given to those who are vulnerable when they give evidence, and we should ensure that the protection that people need is sustained before court, in court and after court. There are a variety of cases in which cross-examinations by defendants should be prevented or carried out independently to avoid abuses. We may need to prevent addresses from being made public later in the proceedings. We must organise some court hearings so that the public gallery does not look down on the person giving evidence so that he is intimidated from upstairs. That is often enough to make people not give their evidence, change it or give only half of it.

People must know before they sign up to go to court whether screens will protect their identity. It is no good saying that they might or might not and that it will be decided on the day. In theory, it is decided before, but it is often decided only on the day on which the trial begins, which is a hopeless situation for the vulnerable and inexperienced.

Lastly, following conviction, there must be continuing support that does not drop away, advice to families and victims on the legal remedies that might be

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found if they are unhappy with the outcome, and improved information about release arrangements for prisoners. To be fair, the Government and services generally do well in that respect. In fact, people suffer more from not knowing about the system rather than from any failure in the system itself, but it could be improved. The Government, the Conservative party and my party share common ground about the idea that there should be indeterminate sentences for the most serious offenders. In that way, the court could review whether it was safe to release someone, taking into account all the circumstances, which cannot possibly be done at the beginning of the sentence.

I am grateful for the opportunity to share my views in such an important debate. I would be happy to discuss the issues further informally, so that we can deliver as much as possible in the shortest possible time.

4.6 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): I shall deal with three points. First, I shall make some practical suggestions about victim and witness support. Secondly, I want to deal with the question of road traffic victims. Thirdly, I shall consider the impact of the Auld report on the debate.

Before I entered Parliament, I worked for 20 years in a solicitor's office. At the beginning, before the Crown Prosecution Service existed, my work included acting as prosecutor for the police in magistrates courts, so I had access to the range of the prosecution process. Later, when the CPS was created, I was a regular defender of people in magistrates courts and, with barristers, in the Crown court. I have lived with the system for 20 years. As we have an adversarial system, there was always a prosecutor and a defendant, each of whom had legal representatives and their case. Those who did not fit neatly as part of the prosecution or defence case had an uncomfortable experience.

I suspect that victims became unhappy in the late 1980s and the 1990s because they were to an increasing extent squeezed out of the system, which at the same time became very professional. It gained the CPS and its legal input for the prosecution, and defence lawyers with legal aid and expert witnesses. Victims rightly felt aggrieved that they did not have such benefits.

We should give some credit to the Conservative Government who, in the 1990s, recognised that the situation was unfair and began the debate about victims and witnesses and their position in the system. I give them that much credit, although I agree with my hon. Friend the Minister that the real action was taken after 1997 by the Labour Government. I give the Minister and his predecessors credit for their excellent work in supporting Victim Support, in setting such ambitious targets for witness support schemes in every criminal court in the country, and for the proposals that they set out in "Criminal Justice: The Way Ahead". Some of those are in force, such as the victim personal statements, some have been legislated for in the 1999 Act, and some we await legislative time to complete. Therefore, the story is so far so good, but there is some distance still to go.

I want to commend a couple of instances of witness support from my own constituency. Like the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), I have seen a good

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witness support scheme, in Stafford Crown court. The scheme was established before 1997, to the great credit of those who were involved, which is why I give credit to the previous Conservative Government. In recognition of the issue, well-intentioned people in Stafford, as volunteers at the outset, established a witness support scheme. Eventually, funding was found for a paid co-ordinator. Two weeks ago, I met the co-ordinator—who still works in the organisation—and asked him how the scheme was going. It is a superb success, providing all the services that the hon. Member for Woking found in the court that he visited, and I pay tribute to the people who run it. Almost every witness who has entered that court has been helped by that service. Such schemes should be duplicated throughout the country.

The second instance is a very interesting story. I assure hon. Members that it is relevant, and I shall come to the end of it in a moment. It comes out of the creation of the antisocial behaviour order and the discontent that has been expressed in the year since it became available because people do not apply for orders. The problem in Stafford was that the police often felt that the council should pay for the court case and that the police would help to arrange it, and the council felt that the police should pay for the case and that the council would help to arrange it. Between them, neither dealt with a single case. Under pressure from lots of people, myself included—I do not take credit for this—the local council looked for a solution.

A group of enterprising women in the west midlands set up a company that they called ASBO. It offered a service to local authorities and to police authorities that wanted to deal with antisocial behaviour but were not getting round to it. The local authority grabbed the offer with both hands, set the company up with a contract to deal with a specific number of antisocial behaviour cases in Stafford and left it to it. In just 12 months, the situation has been transformed. Where very many communities were complaining about antisocial behaviour, there are now very many communities that are wholly behind ASBO. People willingly go to court and give evidence and successfully obtain antisocial behaviour orders, eviction orders and injunctions.

I was so impressed by how good it was getting that I asked to go to one of ASBO's regular witness meetings. It let me attend, and I walked into a room crowded with the witnesses in the cases that ASBO was running. One of the women introduced everybody and we went round the room hearing who the witnesses were and which instance of antisocial behaviour they were involved in. It was the first time that some of them had realised that they were not the only people complaining about an instance in their neighbourhood. The person from ASBO then reported on every single case, saying that an injunction had been obtained, there was to be a pre-trial review, an order had been obtained, the case was to be next week and so on. It was a very moving occasion because of the great will in that room to do good—that was very satisfying.

I recently read with some amusement of one neighbourhood in which antisocial behaviour has been so successfully cleared away from a street—I say that glibly, but it means removing people, often with dependent children from their homes, so there are severe consequences for the misbehavers—that the remaining residents, thrilled that their community had returned to

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normal, raised a petition to the local council to change the name of the street. They wanted the surname of the woman from ASBO who had helped them so much to be the name of their street. The story demonstrates a practical way of helping witnesses to stand up for themselves.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) was right to point out that support for witnesses does not begin in a courtroom or even in the court building. It is a process that—this might raise some eyebrows—starts before people become witnesses. The Government are right to promote community values, so that people have a feeling of ownership and responsibility for the area in which they live. Those who feel strongly about that should be encouraged to join neighbourhood watch schemes, so that there will be a pool of people available to be witnesses if witnesses are ever needed. When witnesses are needed, it is vital for the police to be able to respond.

My reason for asking the hon. Gentleman about the police and their role is that in Staffordshire, much as I support and take every opportunity to help my local police, the force changed its call handling system some years ago and became hopeless at responding to complaints from members of the public. That was a reason, as the hon. Member for Woking asks for reasons, why people thought that it was not worth bothering to be witnesses; they did not think that they would receive a response to their complaint. When there are witnesses, it is important for people to support them, as ASBO does in Stafford—they find that encouraging.

The hon. Member for Woking was right to remind us more than once that sometimes victims and witnesses are the same people. It is important to bear that in mind. Nevertheless, in the case of victims there is, in my experience, a lot of muddle about who is responsible for telling victims what. That is why I asked the Minister about co-ordination, and about who would be the person with whom witnesses could keep in touch, to give them a consistent message about what was happening in cases in which they were involved.

I mention some points about victims that have been put to me by RoadPeace. I am not a member of RoadPeace, but it is an organisation that I know and admire. It is one of several broad-based, enthusiastic and professional organisations concerned with the interests of the victims of road traffic offences. It made the point, as I have, that victims do not fit into an adversarial system.

RoadPeace also made a point, which I had not thought about, about victim personal statements. I had thought that they were wholly a good thing, but RoadPeace contrasts them with a defendant's plea and mitigation after conviction. No one knows in advance what someone will say in their mitigation and it is accepted by the court, or challenged, on the spot. However, victim personal statements are given in as witness statements, often at quite an early stage in the process. RoadPeace asks why defendants and their legal teams should have access to victim statements about how vulnerable they are, even as they are planning their tactics for their trial and their cross-examination of the

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victims. If that point is correct, it needs to be examined urgently as part of a review of how the new victim personal statements are working.

Simon Hughes : It was our policy at the last election—which I know was controversial, especially with lawyers—that, after conviction but before sentence, a victim or their relative should have the chance to make a statement to the judge or bench, in front of the lawyers. Such people could thereby express their feelings of exclusion, and that would also address the point that the hon. Gentleman has just made. Will he reflect on whether we should go further than written victim statements? I am not critical of them, but I do not think that they allow for a victim's need to be heard as part of the legal proceedings.

Mr. Kidney : I am happy for the way in which victims make their views known to the court to be part of any review, but at the moment I am asking the Minister to take account of when those views are made known during the trial process.

I have two practical suggestions. The first is about witnesses. There should be an established local scheme, for which I think that local authorities should take responsibility, for supporting witnesses in the way in which ASBO has done so effectively in Stafford. Secondly, we should look at the status of victims in the criminal justice system, and how they can fit into an adversarial system. Perhaps, instead of a two-sided system, we want a three-pointed one in which there is a formal place for victims.

Turning to road traffic victims, when someone is killed and the police pronounce that it is a murder, there is huge coverage in the media and, quite rightly, an extensive police operation, using all the necessary resources. If someone is convicted of murder, there is a severe sentence of life imprisonment. Most people think that every consideration should be given to the bereaved during every stage of a murder investigation and trial. Each year about 800 homicides occur in our country, while at the same time 3,500 people are killed on our roads. That puts into perspective the importance of what people are saying about road victims not being listened to.

When the Government consulted on their victims charter, more than half the respondents were road victims, and nearly all the respondents mentioned the position and plight road victims. With sad regularity, MPs such as myself hear complaints from families of those who have been killed on the roads. They complain, for example, that the family were given no information about the legal processes, that they were treated atrociously at an inquest, or that they had no involvement in what charges were brought and that, later, charges were reduced or dropped. Families often express dissatisfaction with the sentences passed in cases in which a loved one died. It is no wonder those people say with more regularity than most that they lack trust in the system.

Mr. Malins : The hon. Gentleman will know that, in road traffic accidents in which there is a death, sometimes the only charge that can be brought is one of careless, inattentive driving. Sometimes the person who has had a temporary lapse of judgment feels the most

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tremendous remorse, and no sentence can properly compensate the family. Those are difficult cases to sentence.

Mr. Kidney : The hon. Gentleman is dealing with just one part of the process, because he has picked up on the last point that I mentioned, but that is only one of many complaints. There is a huge debate, with the lawyers on one side saying "It's only carelessness. There but for the grace of God go I. How can we be responsible for the consequences?" On the other side, organisations such as RoadPeace say that the consequences are so serious that people should be more responsible when they are behind the wheel. What the judge said in sentencing Gary Hart last week was helpful to the RoadPeace case about how dangerous is the vehicle of which people are in control on a road in modern society.

I have outlined some of the reasons why people do not trust the system. Sadly, some people have expressed the strong feeling that when they go through the criminal justice system as the loved ones of a deceased person they suffer all over again. Surely we want to change that.

I know that we are waiting for the Government's proposals following last year's review of road traffic penalties, which might have some impact on my last point about sentencing, but again I make two practical proposals to the Minister. First, everything that the Minister has said today about treating victims better must apply to the victims of road traffic accidents. Secondly, I hope that the Government involve in any body that they set up—for example, any board to implement the victims charter—organisations such as RoadPeace, which have a distinctive point of view that needs to be heard in the nitty-gritty of administering the system.

My last point relates to the Auld report. I have not brought it with me because it is so big and heavy, but it has some relevance to today's debate. We are debating victims and witnesses. What we have seen from the case of the man who spent 27 years in prison—it has now been accepted that that was a miscarriage of justice—is that defendants can be victims too. That is relevant when we hear the Government's ebullient views about how they will stop defendants taking advantage of delay through the right to elect trial and how they will allow more hearsay evidence and make known more freely defendants' previous convictions. I shall listen to the Government's arguments on these points with an open and fair mind, but I hope that we do not lose sight of the common-law principle that people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. There is a purpose behind that principle; it is followed so that innocent people are not convicted and do not suffer great miscarriages of justice. I hope that the Minister is willing to consider that as the Government develop their legislative proposals.

The Auld report contains only a small reference to witnesses and victims, partly because Lord Justice Auld acknowledges that it has all been said elsewhere. He says that witnesses in court should be able to refer to documents more freely to refresh their memory. He agrees with the reform of hearsay evidence to enable witnesses to tell their story naturally. In the longer term, he looks forward to greater use of video-recorded

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evidence. In the case of victims, he has great praise for the proposals in "Criminal Justice: The Way Ahead" and he commends victim support, but he recommends against a special status for victims in the trial process. However, that recommendation does not spoil my earlier point about a special status for victims in the criminal justice system before trial.

We are also still waiting for the implementation of the recommendations on sentencing in Halliday and for the proposals following the sexual offences review, so a big programme of legislative reform is coming. I put some practical proposals to the Minister. First, when the Government have finalised, if they had not already done so, a full set of proposals in response to Halliday, the sexual offences review and Auld, can we have a debate in Parliament in Government time before we reach the legislative process?

Secondly, can we have pre-legislative scrutiny of what is to come? Even as a loyal Government Back Bencher, I do not want vital reforms to the criminal justice system to be thrust upon us in a big Bill with a timetable and a plea for my loyalty. I am having to think carefully about some big issues such as the right to jury trial. I hope that the Minister thinks that that is a constructive suggestion about how to satisfy people who might otherwise be slightly uneasy.

If anything, my hon. Friend the Minister slightly undersold how well the Government have done since 1997. As he said, there is still more to be done, some of which requires big and courageous decisions, if I can say that without alarming him. I hope that he will take the right decisions each time so that we get a system of which we can all be proud.

4.25 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): I am grateful that we are having this debate. I want to concentrate on one aspect of victims and witnesses.

I start with a reminder that the best way to make the experience of the criminal justice system better for victims and witnesses is to make progress on the prevention and detection of crime. About 10 days ago, I was taken aback when one of my constituents said to me angrily, "That Victim Support organisation phoned me up about my burglary and the police hadn't even been round to see me." Sometimes providing appropriate support for victims of crime when there are insufficient policing resources to do anything about it can provoke rather than support victims.

I know something about this issue because I am chair of the Voice associate all-party parliamentary group, which focuses on dealing with abuse of people with learning difficulties. I should first say on behalf of Voice that all its members welcome the huge progress that has been made in recent years in improving support for people with learning disabilities who are victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system, especially through the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, the follow-on report, "Speaking up for Justice", and the action for justice programme. Nevertheless, although we have worked out what needs to be done and developed an action programme to do it, vulnerable witnesses are the least likely to be satisfied. In the witness satisfaction survey that the Minister quoted, which shows that 76 per cent. of witnesses were satisfied with

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their experience, only 64 per cent. of vulnerable witnesses, and even fewer witnesses with disabilities, were satisfied.

The largest source of dissatisfaction for the group about which I want to speak is that their case never gets heard. That is what creates the most distress, anger and bitterness. We were told a story at our annual meeting, which took place in the next Room, that brought me to tears—not something that happens often in this august Palace. The chief executive of Voice read out a letter from a young woman who had been a victim of rape in the day centre that she attended. The letter, which was sent to the manager of the day centre, was expressed simply—she is a woman of low IQ—but clearly. It basically said, "Why did you let it happen? What are you doing about it? Why has nobody prosecuted or sacked the person who did it to me?" I cried because the letter that she received back was along the lines of "How nice to hear from you. I'm glad you're getting on with your present life" and other patronising, jolly comments. It did not even contain an acknowledgement of what had happened to her. That was more powerful than other accounts that I have heard from parents and relatives about a person they care for being ignored.

The case had not been brought to court because, although the woman was capable of writing that letter, she was not a reliable witness. Not only that, but the person who was supposed to be managing the care centre ignored the fact that she had been the victim of an appalling attack. That is the experience that most families have of the criminal justice system. It is not acceptable in a civilised society that someone who has learning disabilities is not allowed the basic rights that other victims have—to have their case heard and for the person responsible to be prosecuted and, if found guilty, sentenced appropriately.

The first thing that we must do is examine ways of ensuring that people with learning disabilities are not ignored and that they have their voice heard at the beginning of the process. I urge the Minister to try, in guidance and so on, to give wider recognition to the role of carers and family as interpreters for people with learning disabilities.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : I am listening with great interest and sympathy to my hon. Friend. A number of my constituents have found themselves in a similar position. I applaud her proposals for an appropriate support infrastructure at the beginning of the process when someone initiates a complaint. Does she agree that there is an acute shortage of suitably trained staff in police authorities with an understanding of the range of learning disabilities and that there is an absolute unwillingness to develop those services because such cases will not be supported by the Crown Prosecution Service?

Fiona Mactaggart : My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) anticipates my comments on those organisations and on training, but I want to start by referring to the role of families. In many cases, only someone with whom the victim has a long-term relationship can help them to communicate. People often develop established ways of communicating with their family, carers and so on. Allowing family or carers to act as communicators at all stages in the process can

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enable people with learning disabilities to give best evidence, to make their points and so on. It is a real problem that some of our current arrangements do not allow that to happen.

On the point made by my hon. Friend, the wider issue is training, training, training at every level. I have spoken to the chair of the Judicial Studies Board, who is proud of the fact that judges receive half a day's training on disability. If they receive half a day's training on disability, how much training do they receive on learning disabilities and ways of communicating with people with learning disabilities? It is not enough. Unless we introduce serious training on how to communicate with people with learning disabilities for police, prosecutors and judges, we shall fail to deliver justice.

There are honourable exceptions. In places such as Hampshire, the police are focusing on delivering training and certain CPS offices are doing the same thing, which proves that it can be done. That is, however, not the norm, and it is time for it to become the norm. My biggest plea is to resource that kind of training so that every police force and every CPS office has a policy, an awareness programme and a designated officer. Simple schemes would deliver justice to people with learning difficulties.

Other things would make a difference. Others have referred to the current consultation on sexual offences. In the cases that are currently hardest to prosecute because there is a question whether a witness is capable of giving good evidence, there is a need for a new offence. There are cases in which there is not an appropriate offence under which one can successfully prosecute. We should introduce an offence of having sex with a person with a learning disability who cannot consent. That would overcome some evidential issues about the quality of communication of a witness with a learning difficulty.

I was interested to hear the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby because I became chair of the all-party Voice group following a grotesque example of institutionalised sexual and other abuse in a care home for people with learning disabilities on the boundaries of my constituency. The difficulty was finding an appropriate offence with which to charge the perpetrators. The main perpetrator committed suicide while he was in prison, and his wife, who was also involved, was charged with low-level offences because it was difficult to obtain evidence. We need a range of offences that are appropriate to the ways in which people with learning disabilities are treated.

The matter is urgent because we are getting better at protecting children from sexual abuse, and I am afraid that those who have been preying on children are now turning to people with learning difficulties, who are less well protected.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : Is my hon. Friend aware that individuals who are identified as sex offenders and put on the sex offenders register can subsequently enter care homes and perpetrate abuse against people who are vulnerable and not in a position to raise a complaint against them?

Fiona Mactaggart : I am shocked, but not surprised, to hear that. We are trying to do the right thing, but we are

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failing. Much of what has been done is excellent, but there is much more that must be done. We must make it possible for witnesses to give best evidence, create appropriate offences and support victims and witnesses more effectively. I raise these points because I have worked out that, as a Member of Parliament, one achieves the best effects if one keeps one's foot on the accelerator and uses every available opportunity to bang on about things. Good policies are being pursued by Departments, but I suspect that the life of a Minister is often rather lonely, in that no one really notices the good things that are being done. All that happens is that people such as me complain, saying, "Look at our crime rates in Slough! Please change the world." As several hon. Members have said, there is a good framework of policies and we are making real progress, but we need to keep our foot on the accelerator.

We also need better information, particularly on this group of victims. National statistics should be kept on the number of offences involving victims with learning difficulties that have been investigated, and on the number of prosecutions that were not pursued. I have met many people whose lives were blighted because a prosecution was not pursued, and who genuinely believe that, although there was a chance that a conviction might not have been secured, the experience of being believed sufficiently to warrant bringing a prosecution would have proved therapeutic in itself. We need better statistics, so that we can identify why prosecutions are not made, and to use such statistics to inform the training that I have demanded. There is a real need for such information.

Finally, we should apply more pressure by creating a presumption that cases involving a vulnerable victim will go to trial unless detailed reasons to the contrary are spelt out to a judge. Perhaps an independent advocate should also be involved. I understand entirely that such cases are very difficult for the police and the CPS to deal with. Compared with cases in which the victim can give best evidence easily, it is more difficult to secure a successful prosecution. There are good public policy reasons for persisting with such prosecutions, and we need to create a mechanism that ensures that it is harder to abandon them. Requiring that reasons for abandoning such cases be given to a judge and involving an independent advocate might increase the number of prosecutions. I can promise hon. Members that such a measure would effect an enormous improvement in the experience of these vulnerable victims and witnesses.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): We are stretching a point, but I call Mr. Edna Garnier.

4.43 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): To call me Edna would be stretching a point, Mr. Hancock.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I apologise; I meant to say Edward.

Mr. Garnier : I begin by apologising to you, Mr. Hancock, and to those right hon. and hon. Members who have attended the entire debate, for my late arrival.

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My excuse is that I was participating in a conference of the parliamentary all-party group on Spain elsewhere in this Palace, under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson). As one knows, to cross the right hon. Gentleman leads to all sorts of adverse consequences.

I want to make a number of points, but I shall do so quickly as I realise that I am trespassing on the time of this Chamber. I did not hear the beginning of the speech of the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), but I was certainly interested in the last part of it. As she perhaps knows, legislation is about to come into force that will assist with the further protection of vulnerable people in our courts, so it may well be that some of her fears have already been dealt with.

I hope that the Minister will encourage his colleagues in the Home Office to introduce fewer criminal justice Bills. There is far too much criminal justice legislation, which churns its way through the House largely inadequately scrutinised. That is not a party point; it attaches with equal force to the Government whom I supported prior to the arrival of the Labour Government in 1997. There is simply far too much criminal justice legislation. Most of it is useless in that it seeks to correct the mistakes of the previous year's Bill. I urge the Government to be more cautious in the way in which they pour legislation through the sausage machine.

I ask the Government to consider urgently the codification of the criminal law, which would prevent many of the problems from which courts suffer. I urge the Minister and his shadows on my side of the House—I excuse my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), who as a Crown court recorder has some experience of the criminal courts—to make a point of looking at, visiting, and sitting with judges of the Crown courts and magistrates, so that they see the practical, day-to-day consequences of criminal justice legislation.

Again, I express my apologies for my late arrival and interruption of what must otherwise have been an entirely happy and harmonious occasion.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I do not think that the hon. and learned Gentleman went that far, or spoiled the ambience too much.

4.46 pm

Mr. Keith Bradley : I start by thanking everyone for the high quality of their contributions. That is often said at the end of a debate, but this occasion can genuinely be said to have been a thoughtful and important debate, setting the context in which we are introducing many new policies and proposals. They will lead to legislation, but I hope that that will have a purpose and a meaning, tackling many of the issues that have been raised today.

I accept the reason given by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) for not being present throughout the debate. I think that he might have obtained great value had he been able to be here, because I know of his genuine interest in these matters. I take his point about introducing legislation that is practical and that will impact on the efficiency and co-ordination of the criminal justice system by examining what is happening now. Part of my job is to do exactly that, and I want to do it more so that I understand more

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detail of how the system currently works. The changes that we make should impact on the criminal justice system with the sole purpose of restoring confidence in it and making the system fast and effective so that the stages between detection, charging and ultimate court decisions take place as effectively and efficiently as possible. That is how the public will have confidence in the system.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : Will my right hon. Friend the Minister give way?

Mr. Bradley : I shall, just once.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : I am grateful for that.

In relation to the cases that I raised earlier, will my right hon. Friend examine the role of the police and the prompting and initiating of proceedings in the absence of contemporaneous or timely complaints by the victims concerned? Will he examine also the role and regulation of prison visits in that context, and the potential role of criminal justice, injuries compensation and civil litigation in the motivation and initiation of those cases? Importantly, will he examine the efficiency and effectiveness of police interviewing, file preparation, quality assurance and—bearing in mind the comments made about people with learning difficulties—training issues? Will he also examine the experience, expertise and tenure of officers engaged in specialist investigation work to ensure that they are adequately trained? Will he reflect on noble cause or simple corruption cases to ensure that they are monitored and managed according to risk in the context of the investigations to which I referred?

Mr. Bradley rose—

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. I think that there is some pay-back on both sides, given the length of that intervention.

Mr. Bradley : Thank you, Mr. Hancock. Perhaps I may respond to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) and to her speech. I am aware that she has met my right hon. Friend the Minister of State with responsibilities for crime reduction, policing and community safety to raise all matters in relation to the investigation and the wider context of these important issues. I pay tribute to her for the assiduous way in which she is pursuing them. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State is considering them. I shall ensure that the proceedings of this debate are brought to his attention and that these matters are pursued.

Several hon. Members have asked about the service now provided through Victim Support for victims and witnesses. We have rightly paid tribute to that organisation, and have had good examples at a local level of the work that its 15,000 volunteers undertake. Other organisations also work effectively for victims—for example, Victims Voice and RoadPeace, which has been mentioned. We must consider how in our review of the victims charter we can support such groups, to ensure that their invaluable work is properly recognised.

The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), leading for the Opposition, raised a number of matters from his valuable experience about the way in which the system

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works. Sir Robin Auld, in his independent report, identified many of the issues, such as some of the reasons why trials crack. We are in a consultation process. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will contribute to that process. I know that he will join in the debate when we introduce the White Paper and, subsequently, legislation on these matters. It is important that we address the way in which cases are managed and attempt to make their administration more efficient so that justice is seen quickly to be done.

As regards intimidation in the courts, I recently launched a website which was a virtual walk-through of a typical court to enable the public to see how a court is laid out, what the processes are and who undertakes what, so that they can familiarise themselves in advance of being in a court room. As the hon. Member for Woking rightly said, it is an intimidating place. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) gave the example of the Old Bailey. That is at one end of the spectrum, but even at local level a court can be extremely intimidating. We hope that, through such information, we can take some of the mystery out of the process and help to make it not a pleasant experience, but one that people can cope with far better when they have a better understanding of the procedures and the supports that exist for them before and during their time in court.

Simon Hughes : Will the Minister talk to his colleagues in other Departments about the idea of a pilot scheme to televise magistrates courts proceedings and proceedings in other courts where juries are not involved? I share with him the view that the more people see and understand those proceedings, the more likely they are to feel comfortable. It would be hugely educative and no detriment to justice. Jury trials, I think, are different.

Mr. Bradley : I shall consider that point and what further mechanisms we can introduce to demystify the process and provide information to the public so that they understand and have confidence in the system.

I was asked about housing and the intimidation that can arise when someone is brought back into the local community where a crime has been committed. I am carefully considering resettlement arrangements to ascertain how agencies can work together to improve the process from prison back into the community.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey raised a series of matters in a thoughtful contribution. A context has been given to our debate on the criminal justice system through our responses to the Halliday and Auld reports and the sexual offences review. There will be big opportunities to debate those in greater detail. I will not respond now to the hon. Gentleman's checklist of issues for debate, but opportunities for debate will be offered in the coming months. I welcome the checklist, however. We will have consultations on sentencing, court reform and sexual offences, and respond to them by introducing White Papers and then legislation in the form of separate or combined Bills.

Although I accept the point about the extent of legislation, the issues that move forward the modernisation of the criminal system and law are important. Where that progress is appropriate,

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opportunities must be taken. I agree that to introduce legislation merely to plug weakness in previous legislation is not satisfactory. We must address that by ensuring that proper scrutiny and opportunity for debate exist before Bills are introduced.

Mr. Kidney : May we take that as an assurance that there will be debate in Parliament before legislation is introduced? The Minister said that we would have a full debate on the proposals. As regards pre-legislative scrutiny, does he think that he will be able to issue Bills in draft to allow that to happen?

Mr. Bradley : I am sure that the business managers would not want me to pre-empt the timetable. I fully appreciate the need for scrutiny and, where possible, pre-legislative scrutiny, so I will consider opportunities for debates on broad issues. However, I cannot give assurances because I am not in charge of the timetable for such debates.

Simon Hughes : Will the Minister give way one more time?

Mr. Bradley : Yes.

Simon Hughes : This is not a point of contention. Picking up the points made by the hon. Member for Stafford and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), it seems that the Government will have one piece of legislation that deals with sentencing and criminal justice reform. That is an improvement. It is better to have what we need and to go through the consultative and pre-legislative process before legislation is introduced. In the end, that will give us better legislation and a speedier process. I support the two contributions and am willing to participate in trying to get things right between now and the other side of the next Queen's Speech.

Mr. Bradley : I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments. My objective is to ensure that the legislation that is introduced is coherent for sentencing and court reform and addresses the problems in a way that makes sense out of the system.

I was concerned to hear the comments of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey about what his councillor friend said that the police were saying. I will look into that if the hon. Gentleman writes to me with specific examples. That situation is not satisfactory and we need to ensure that witnesses are supported at every opportunity so that they can give evidence in court and prosecutions are effective.

As always, the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) made important points. I assure him that RoadPeace is part of our deliberation on the victims

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charter and that we are engaging, as far as we can, with such organisations to ensure their views are taken on board. I was particularly interested in his comments on antisocial behaviour orders. A common criticism is of the time that it takes successfully to bring cases to fruition. I know that a review is under way to try to make the process more effective, but I will consider the hon. Gentleman's example because we can learn lessons from the project.

On personal statements, I hear the point about where they are brought into the process. The statements may be updated at a later stage because they are not a one-off opportunity. Again, because we are evaluating personal statements, we shall take the comments on board.

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and others have highlighted vulnerable witnesses' needs, and in particular those of people with learning disabilities. I support the view that training in these matters is of paramount importance. As I said in my speech, I shall be making further comments on the report "Speaking up for Justice", and I hope that the issues that have been raised today will be addressed at that time. I understand the need to recognise and support the role of carers and parents in that process, and the point, which runs throughout the criminal justice system, of ensuring good practice at local level. To obtain the most efficient and effective system, good practice must be rolled out throughout the country to ensure that people do not work in chimneys or in a vacuum away from agencies and other parts of the criminal justice system.

This has been an invaluable debate because it has set a clear context for our further deliberations on the criminal justice system, which I welcome. This will start a dialogue among us all as important policies and issues are brought before Parliament in the coming weeks and months. I welcome the recognition of these issues, many of which are not party political. We are all interested in ensuring that we have a criminal justice system that will be a credit to the Government, and that our constituents understand and feel part of it. The point about citizenship is extremely important because people must feel that they are part of that system, that they understand how it works and that there is integrity in the court and sentencing system. As a consequence, there will be a greater readiness to participate in the system, which is for society's general benefit. We have made a good start in that process, and I look forward to the further debates that we shall have on the reports, reviews and policies that we will be bringing forward.

Finally, I thank all Members who have contributed to our proceedings.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I thank all Members for their care and thought during the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

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