Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 33:


On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 30 [Hearing witnesses in the UK through television links]:

Baroness Anelay of St Johns moved Amendment No. 34:


    Page 17, line 21, at end insert—


"( ) A request under subsection (1) must specify—
(a) the reason why it is not desirable or possible for the witness or expert to attend in person; and
(b) the name of the judicial authority and the names of the persons who will be conducting the hearing."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this amendment raises issues of giving evidence by television link. Clause 30 is significant in that it introduces arrangements whereby courts can take video evidence of witnesses for transmission abroad, the first time that this will have been permitted. In breaking new ground, we must ensure that witnesses are fairly treated and that overseas countries do not abuse this opportunity to take evidence by video link.

25 Feb 2003 : Column 177

I tabled a similar amendment in Committee to insert a new subsection adding extra protections for the witness. I stipulated that requests from the overseas authority should specify the reason why it was not desirable or possible for the witness or expert to attend in person, and that it should give the name of the judicial authority and the names of the persons who would be conducting the hearing. I added another protection in Committee—that the request should also state that the witness was willing to give evidence by television link. I dropped that extra protection from the amendment I now propose, having listened to the Minister's explanation in Grand Committee and accepting that imposing such a condition would run counter to the provisions of the mutual legal assistance convention to which the United Kingdom is party.

However, I am not yet persuaded that the Government are right to reject my request that the first two protections should be on the face of the Bill. I have not dreamt these up—I have no authorship. They are the requirements of Article 10 of the convention. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, acknowledged that in Committee. Very helpfully for my case, he went further, saying that,


    "we considered including the first two requirements on the face of the Bill",

but added:


    "We concluded, however, that it would make the clause unnecessarily restrictive".

It seems odd to me that putting the rules as agreed in the convention into the Bill could somehow make the Bill wrong and unnecessarily restrictive.

The Minister went on to argue that things might change, that the Government might sign up to new agreements. He then conceded that the two principles in this amendment would have to stay anyway. He said that,


    "in practical terms, we would expect these conditions to be met in order to be able to make the necessary administrative arrangements to set up the hearing".—[Official Report, 23/01/03; col. GC107.]

I found that very helpful; it reinforced my view that it was important that these two protections should be on the face of the Bill. If we need to keep to these principles, putting them on the face of the Bill adds clarity so that those who are called upon to give evidence know what protections they have. These protections would be for their benefit and for the benefit of those who might be required to advise them, too. I beg to move.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, with great respect, I think the amendment is misconceived, for the best possible motives. First, it mirrors Clause 29, which relates to overseas courts. I think it is an obligation that we have to fulfil in that regard. Secondly, can the Minister instance a provision where a witness who gives evidence in this way would not enjoy exactly the same rights and privileges as anybody else? It is important for the witness to be protected, and he or she will continue to be protected by the court in the criminal proceedings which are envisaged. I do not

25 Feb 2003 : Column 178

think that the provision is in any way wrong in law. The witness who provides evidence thereby will enjoy exactly the same privileges as apply in a normal court.

It is incumbent upon the court to ensure that we make the best use of the technologies currently in use. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I think the inconvenience and the disruption caused by travelling vast distances to attend court will be obviated.

All in all, I think that the provision is correct. I do not believe anything would be advanced by the amendment, so ably moved by the noble Baroness.

Lord Renton: My Lords, with great respect, the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, has overlooked the important reasons for the amendment. After all, Clause 30 breaks new ground in an important way. It provides for the hearing of witnesses on television, a most unusual situation. If I understand the matter properly, the Schengen rules require reasons why witnesses cannot attend to be put on the face of the Bill. That is what the amendment would do. It is very simple:


    "A request under subsection (1)—

the provison dealing with television links—


    "must specify—


    (a) the reason why it is not desirable or possible for the witness or expert to attend in person; and


    (b) the name of the judicial authority and the names of the persons who will be conducting the hearing".

Paragraph (a) is even more important than paragraph (b). My noble friend Lady Anelay was right to table the amendment. I hope that she will receive good support from the Government.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I support the amendment. The principal government argument against it was that if these requirements were included in the Bill, future agreements containing provisions on television evidence might not be expressed in precisely the same terms as in the convention. They do not want the Bill to be drafted so narrowly as to exclude the granting of assistance under other agreements. It seems likely that if an agreement of substance is entered into, it will require, as the MLAC has done, new primary legislation in this country. It would be perfectly possibly simply to amend these provisions if they were put on the face of the Bill.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, I was going to ask the same question. I hope the Minister will give a very clear reply to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, because I did not understand what he said in Grand Committee on this subject.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to everyone who has taken part in this debate. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, for honing the scope of her amendment. It has usefully focused our attention on what she sees as the key issues.

25 Feb 2003 : Column 179

Our position has not changed since Committee. We do not think it would be helpful to include these requirements on the face of the Bill. We are content that the current drafting gives the Secretary of State sufficient ability to refuse to nominate a court for the hearing if the conditions of Article 10 of the MLAC are not met. His decision will be made with the MLAC requirements very much in mind.

Requests from non-EU countries, for practical reasons, will always have to include details of the authority conducting the hearing, and the reasons for requesting a video hearing. However, future agreements that cover these types of hearing might not have explicit requirements—a point that has been aired before, and that I made in Committee.

These are not the only matters that must be specified in a request for a hearing by video link. It is worth recalling that MLAC states that requests must contain this information, in addition to the information referred to in Article 14 of the European mutual assistance conventions. Those requirements are not listed here, but it is worth saying that MLAC states other conditions. Requests must make clear which authority is making the request, as well as stating the object or the reason for the request—and, where possible, the identity and nationality of the person concerned.

I think that meets at least some of the points that the noble Baroness was seeking in the amendment. The provision on possible future agreements is not restricted to participating countries. There is no agreement yet with Australia, but if we thought it was appropriate to assist them, we would seek to act within this framework.

We do not anticipate that we will need future primary legislation in order to give practical assistance. We think this Bill will allow that. It is for that sort of reason that we will continue with a less restrictive provision, as set out in the Bill. If we agreed to this amendment, that flexibility would be lost, and we would not have the scope to develop this in the future.

I understand why the noble Baroness wants to pin us down, but we do not believe she is right. We think we need additional flexibility, and to ensure that we have something which is workable. We think this amendment will make it less workable, and more restrictive. I hope the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment, given the additional information that I have provided.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I thank my noble friends Lord Renton and Lady Carnegy for their support, and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, in this matter. All my noble friends agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, about the importance of television links. It is right that this new venture is being tried. Anything that can be used

25 Feb 2003 : Column 180

properly to speed up judicial processes must be welcomed, as long as they are fair in their treatment of witnesses. Our thrust throughout this and previous amendments has been to ensure that witnesses are treated fairly, and that they know what they will face.

I part company from the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, when he said he could not support my amendment. He was talking rightly about protection for witnesses in the court room. Those protections apply before one even gets into the court room. They explain to the witness what is about to happen to them so that they feel well armed before they give evidence. This could include a witness who is being given advice by a legal adviser. We are into new territory that does need clarity. The Minister came back to an argument that was used in Committee that there may be future agreements, and that one needed the flexibility to take account of them.

None the less I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, that if there were future agreements which meant that an amendment to the law had to take place, then by all means amend the Bill. After all, the 1990 Act was not without amendment. One of my first duties as a Front Bench Opposition spokesman was to speak in the twilight hours of the day when the Government had their hands on one of their own Back Benchers to bring an amendment to the 1990 Act. So I have been there, seen that and done that. I have been around and can see that it can be done. The Government can find time when it is appropriate. That may well be the case, but if so, Parliament should have scrutiny of an agreement that the Government had made. That is a plus sign against my amendment, not a minus sign.

I do think that there are occasions when good practice and clarity need to be on the face of the Bill. This is such an occasion, and I wish to test the opinion of the House.

6.36 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 34) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 83; Not-Contents, 100.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page