Previous SectionIndexHome Page

The Solicitor-General: The Government considered it, of course, but decided to introduce the new clause in its current form, which does not apply to juveniles. Provisions on juveniles have not been brought before the House, but that does not mean that further consideration cannot be urged in future. I say no more than that.

19 May 2003 : Column 721

Refusal of bail will not be automatic, because the court will still have to consider the risk that the defendant will again fail to appear. A previous failure to surrender to custody is not, of itself, reason for refusing bail, but it is highly relevant to assessing that risk.

It may be convenient to deal with amendments (a) and (b), tabled by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who has yet to speak.

Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to the Solicitor-General for taking another intervention. I listened carefully to her introductory words, in which she said that, when people do not appear after being released on bail, it undermines public confidence and that a more powerful deterrent message should be sent out. I could not agree more. In those circumstances, given that we have again—quite rightly, in my view—suspended elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, making it impossible to devolve criminal justice and policing to the Assembly in the foreseeable future, will the Solicitor-General give an assurance that the bail provisions will be extended to Northern Ireland?

The Solicitor-General: I shall have to come back to the hon. Lady on that. She has made her point and I shall try to be forthcoming with an answer in due course.

John Mann: Before the Solicitor-General moves on to the most important amendments, she described other amendments, such as amendment No. 232, as "tidying-up" measures? Amendment No. 232, which deals with drug offenders on bail, would add "(or both)" to "assistance or treatment". Is not such tidying up sheer nonsense, because the term "(or both)" is already contained in the meaning? What is required is the replacement of the word "or" with "and", because any drug offender requires medical treatment. Leaving the probation service or other qualified persons with an option not to incorporate medical treatment will only make re-offending more likely.

The Solicitor-General: I shall deal with my hon. Friend's points when I come to the amendment in a moment. For the sake of those who are not as deeply cognisant of the issues as my hon. Friend, I shall continue with questions surrounding the presumption of bail, and return to his points later.

Mr. Grieve: Will the Solicitor-General assist the House by giving the Government's estimate of the increase in the remand prison population that will result from the amendments restricting access to bail? That information would be useful, if the Government have made such an estimate—and I hope they have.

The Solicitor-General: The intention is that fewer people will be on remand, because the message will be clearly sent out that people cannot take a risk by not turning up to court, because it will be one strike if they are out, so to speak. There will be no misunderstanding in the minds of defendants, because it will be clear that

19 May 2003 : Column 722

if they have been granted bail by the court to return on a certain day, they have to return on that day. Otherwise, when they are later arrested and brought before the court, they will be remanded in custody. The aim is that people will be clear about the need to turn up to court. The aim is to bring offenders to justice so that the courts can deal with cases, instead of having more people on remand in custody.

We do not want a situation in which the police witnesses, the lay witnesses, the victim and the prosecution are all present, and the only person missing is the defendant, so the case has to be adjourned. That undermines public confidence in the system, which is why we have brought the provision before the House. Those who advise clients can be clear that the presumption will be that the defendant will not get bail, unless they can show some good, overriding reason why they were not able to attend, such as being locked up somewhere else. With a really good reason, the person may escape being remanded in custody; otherwise, failure to appear will be an offence that is dealt with by imprisonment.

Amendments (a) and (b) were tabled by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and others. It might help if I explain the Government's view, although I anticipate that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) will speak to the amendments. I hope that I do not pre-empt him too much by saying that the amendments are modest, but—without wishing to exaggerate matters—they would certainly do some damage to the Bill.

Amendment (a) would remove words that are designed to make it clear that when a court is satisfied that there is no significant risk of a defendant failing to appear, it is not under an obligation to grant bail irrespective of other considerations. That must make sense. If there are reasons for refusing bail other than the question of absconding—for example, a risk of interference with witnesses—the provision as it stands makes it clear to the court that it retains the power to refuse bail, notwithstanding that the defendant is not considered likely to abscond again. We did not want to create a situation in which, on clear evidence, it was apparent that a defendant was not likely to abscond again, and the court therefore felt that it should grant bail, irrespective of other issues that should have led it to refuse bail.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for giving way, because this may be the only opportunity that I have to speak on the amendments. We have some sympathy with what the Government are trying to do, but we wanted to retain at least some vestige of the presumption in favour of bail and give the courts the discretion to make the decision. The problem with the Government's interpretation is that it reduces the discretion to a nugatory amount.

The Solicitor-General: Clearly, if the hon. Gentleman's desire is to retain the presumption in favour of bail, I shall disappoint him because the whole point of new clause 52 is that, if someone is arrested, charged, brought before the court and bailed to appear on another day but simply fails to turn up, they will not have the presumption in their favour that bail will be granted. At that point, the presumption will be that bail will not be granted.

19 May 2003 : Column 723

5.30 pm

The hon. Gentleman also mentions the court's discretion. Of course the court will still have discretion. If the defendant can show reasonable cause for his not turning up, he can rebut that presumption. So the presumption is rebuttable, but it must be included in the Bill. That is what new clause 52 will do, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman must think that that is right. People find it very undermining when the same issue is simply played over and again, but the presumption is still in favour of granting bail.

Amendment (b) would remove the provision that states:

Those words merely replicate those already used in section 6(4) of the Bail Act 1976 and are intended to avoid technical arguments that a defendant could not have been expected to know his bail date because the court had failed to give him the required copy.

New clause 52(2) deals with a technical obstacle to proceeding against defendants who fail to answer to bail granted by the police. In those cases, unlike those involving police bail, section 127 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 applies. That prevents summary proceedings from being instituted more than six months after the commission of an offence, so if a Bail Act offence is committed and the offender manages to stay out of sight of the police for more than six months, it is not possible to prosecute that Bail Act offence. Surely that cannot be right. Therefore, subsection (2) will disapply section 127 in respect of offences under section 6 of the Bail Act 1976 and apply a new limitation period of three months from the defendant's surrender to custody, arrest or court appearance. So the time limit is three months from when the person is apprehended.

Amendment No. 445 would insert into clause 12 a new provision—

Mr. Grieve: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I believe that time has now run out for this group of about 40 amendments, most of which are Government amendments, but the Solicitor-General has not even been able fully to explain important Government amendments to the House, leaving aside the amendments tabled by the official Opposition or the Liberal Demorats. Can any protection be provided to the House to enable us to give some rudimentary consideration to important measures, rather than being left with this complete pantomime, which brings the House into disrepute?

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I shall respond to the point of order, but I am required under the programme motion to put the Question at this time. My reply to the hon. Gentleman is that, of course, I am governed by the

19 May 2003 : Column 724

programme motion, which was duly agreed to by the House, and I must therefore follow the directions in that motion.

Next Section

IndexHome Page