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Criminal Justice White Paper

3.30 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): For the third week running, Mr. Speaker, if it is Sheffield it is Wednesday and if it is Wednesday it is Sheffield. With permission, sir, I wish to make a statement on the reform of the criminal justice system in England and Wales.

Today, we are publishing a White Paper outlining an end-to-end reform of the service.

First, however, may I pay tribute to all those who have assisted in this tripartite paper, including the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General, and thank in particular Sir Robin Auld for his review of the criminal courts, and John Halliday for his sentencing review.

The people of this country deserve a criminal justice service that works in the interests of justice and puts the victim first. The White Paper is designed to rebalance the criminal justice system in favour of the victim and the delivery of justice for all. We are sending the strongest possible message to those who commit crime that action will be effective in detecting, convicting and properly punishing the perpetrator.

We have a tradition of justice in this country going back centuries. We have already embarked on reform of the police and an overhaul of youth justice, including a dramatic drop in the time it takes to bring young offenders to justice. The street crime initiative has already made a difference by bringing together the police, Crown Prosecution Service and the court administration.

I can announce today, following the Chancellor's statement on Monday, that over the next three years we will invest more than £600 million in information technology. That will help us in joining up the criminal justice service.

But root-and-branch reform across the board is still required. Delay, inefficiency and repeated adjournments are costing us dear. Through improved police investigation, case management and presentation, conviction of the guilty must be secured and acquittal of the innocent ensured. What we seek is not simply the process of justice but visible evidence that justice has been done.

Every time someone on bail offends, or a case collapses, or the wrong verdict is revealed, we compound the harm done to victims and to society as a whole. We will ensure that both victims and witnesses are protected. We will provide them with separate facilities from the accused. To ensure that their voice is heard, we will establish a victims' commissioner supported by a new advisory panel. Above all, we will deliver faster, more effective justice.

Our actions will be underpinned by the fundamental principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty and that the prosecution must prove its case beyond reasonable doubt. However, the one in eight defendants who fail to appear at court will be dealt with swiftly and summarily. We will bring in incentives for early guilty pleas, deal decisively with delays and improve the use and availability of forensic and technological expertise.

As soon as practicable, the Crown Prosecution Service will take over responsibility for determining the charge in the most serious cases, except where the police need to

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make a holding charge. We will allow the police to impose conditions on bail before charge to limit the chances of offending.

Disclosure of information is currently a battleground between defence and the prosecution. That leads to delay and to considerable cost. We will rebalance the rules of disclosure. Both prosecution and defence will be obliged to disclose all the material necessary. We will make the rules of evidence simpler and clearer. Relevant previous convictions will be admissible where the judge believes that that would be helpful to the jury, without prejudicing the defendant's right to a fair trial.

In time, we will integrate the management of the courts into a single organisation. We will extend the sentencing power of magistrates from six months to 12, and legislate to allow Parliament to extend this to 18 months.

I can tell the House today that the right of defendants to elect for jury trial will remain. However, in order to deliver justice in serious and complex fraud trials, we will seek Parliament's consent that such cases can be tried by a judge sitting alone. We will consult on whether a judge sitting alone should deal with trials where the danger of intimidation makes justice difficult to achieve. In addition, we will explore a similar option for complex financial or organised criminal cases.

We have a real problem when, in some parts of the country, around three quarters of jury trials result in acquittal. The Government will produce in the months ahead a joint paper on long-term prevention for children at risk. We will legislate in the next Session to increase the powers of youth courts to hear more serious offences.

Currently, no one can be tried more than once for the same offence. This is known as double jeopardy. We will allow for a retrial in cases where compelling new evidence such as DNA has come to light. This will cover murder and very serious offences such as rape.

As I said last year, we must put the sense back into sentencing. For the first time, we will set out in legislation the purpose of sentencing: to protect the public, punish the perpetrator and prevent reoffending.

We will establish a guidelines council to ensure greater consistency in sentencing and to ensure that Parliament has a role in considering and scrutinising draft guidelines.

We will introduce a new suspended sentence of "custody minus", which will provide automatic imprisonment for offenders who breach their sentence. We will reform short custodial sentences and introduce, once piloted, "custody plus", requiring offenders to serve the whole of their sentence, partly in custody and the remainder under strict supervision.

A new intermittent custodial sentence will mean that offenders spend part of the week in custody. Reparation and drug and alcohol treatment will help address offending behaviour. But in protecting the public, we are placing emphasis on dealing with dangerous violent and sexual offenders. Those not sentenced to life imprisonment but who are nevertheless a danger to society will remain in custody until they are considered safe for release. An indeterminate sentence will ensure that they will only be released under strict supervision when they are no longer assessed to be a threat to the public.

The House takes seriously its duty to protect the public, and we wish to ensure that democratically elected representatives retain the right to protect those whom we serve. A whole-life tariff should mean life.

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The proposals that we have set out are far-reaching, radical and require a culture change. To achieve that, we will need to gain the support of those in the service and, of course, the wider public. We will also need a balanced and sensible debate, which, I hope, will be led by the House today. We need to reinforce trust and confidence in the criminal justice system as we seek to deliver justice for all our people.

I commend the statement to the House.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): I thank the Home Secretary and his ministerial colleagues not only for their courtesy in providing, as usual, an early copy of the statement, but for briefing me on the White Paper itself.

There have been 12 Criminal Justice Bills since the inception of the present Government. That is quite a large number of pieces of legislation, but the Home Secretary feels, and we entirely agree, that that legislation has not given us an effective criminal justice system. The system needs reform. That is common ground. As the Lord Chief Justice recently and rightly said, there is much need for the codification of offences, sentencing, procedures and the rules of evidence. That is recommended by Lord Justice Auld, requested by judges and magistrates throughout England and Wales and supported by all parties in the House. Let us by all means get down to the job.

Let us find ways to enable the judiciary better to manage trials. Let us find ways to make the co-operation between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service more effective. The electronic exchange of case files between them, rather than paper in the post, would be a good start. Let us find ways to reduce the number of trials that crack late in the day, disillusioning witnesses and victims. Let us find ways to apply the lessons of the O'Dowd report to reduce the bureaucracy that massively impedes our front-line police officers.

On all those aims and more, we are agreed. Some of those aims can be fulfilled only by legislation. We offer our full co-operation in framing that legislation. Other aims will require administrative action. We wish the Home Secretary well in taking that action, but there is in all this a danger. The result of the last 12 Criminal Justice Bill and the other steps taken by the Government in the past five years has not been a success; it has been a failure.

The aim of the criminal justice system is to reduce crime. Crime in this country, and street crime in particular, remains at wholly unacceptable levels. No amount of statistical manipulation can mask the fact that we face a crisis of criminality in some of our inner cities. To tackle that crisis, we need better crime prevention. We need the police to be back in charge of our streets and neighbourhoods. We need to give serious attention to young people who are the casualties of dysfunctional families. We need thorough reform of the sentencing of persistent young offenders. And we need clear-minded effective measures to undermine the drug culture.

The danger is that in the absence of coherent and effectively implemented strategies of that kind, the Government may be tempted instead to convey the impression of effective action by changing features and principles of our criminal justice system in a way that will, in the long run, undermine, rather than strengthen, public confidence in that system.

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The single most important phrase in the Auld report is the statement that justice is not a game. The purpose of a criminal trial is twofold: to convict the guilty and to acquit the innocent. Each of those is as important as the other. No one is more committed than the Conservative party to the detection, prosecution and conviction of the guilty, but we have in this country a precious inheritance in the widely held confidence that British justice is just, that British trials are fair and that the innocent will be acquitted.

In seeking rightly to enhance the likelihood of convicting the guilty, we must be sure that we do not decrease the likelihood of acquitting the innocent. I imagine that those twin aims are, in fact, common ground between myself and the Home Secretary. The issue that we face is one not of aim, but of practical result.

The Opposition will want to consider carefully the fine details of the proposals to adjust the rules on double jeopardy, on trial by jury and on the release of information about previous convictions to ensure that any such adjustments will both materially increase the chances of convicting the guilty and contain safeguards to protect the innocent. The presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial are a precious part of our birthright. In designing a system, as we must, that more effectively convicts the criminal, we must not abandon that birthright.

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