HC Deb 18 May 1972 vol 837 cc847-58

11.10 p.m.

Mr. Paul B. Rose (Manchester, Blackley)

One advantage which I have derived from waiting for the last two Adjournment debates in which I have participated is to have acquired a remarkable knowledge about the drainage of marsh lands and Scottish hill farming. I wish to raise a problem more close to people in an urban environment, and that is the question of civil liberties.

Three weeks ago theSunday Timescarried an article in which it was suggested that the notorious Special Powers Act in Northern Ireland would be abolished and replaced by an emergency powers Act which would cover the whole of the United Kingdom. I should like to know whether there is any truth in this suggestion.

Yesterday, in The Times there was a well argued if rather impassioned response at the frightening suggestion that the Government will bring forward a new criminal justice Bill which will do away with the police caution, which will compel a defendant not only to give evidence but to answer police questions when he is not in the presence of a legal adviser, and also, perhaps most worrying of all, will allow the introduction of previous convictions as part of the evidence in criminal proceedings. Every one of these impinges on the liberty of the individual and puts at risk the traditional concept that a prosecution must be proved by the prosecution.

In many ways, we are receiving the overspill of the repressive legislation which existed in Northern Ireland and which allows for such horrifying things as the refusal of a right to a coroner's inquest in the case of a person who dies in police custody. One cannot have internment without trial in one part of the United Kingdom or allow ill treatment or brutality and one can argue the semantics of the Compton R eport—with out it having some effects over here.

Not least of those effects was the unprecedented police raid not long ago following in the wake of the terrible atrocity at Aldershot but apparently using this as a pretext to go on "fishing" raids in the houses of over 50 people who, I understand, belong to a political organisation with which I have no sympathy but which, to my knowledge, does not agree with violence in Northern Ireland or over here. The use of the Criminal Damage Act to facilitate this raid was a frightening invasion of civil liberty which should not be repeated.

The repressive straws in the wind are mirrored by what must have been an unintentional slip by the Lord Chancellor in appearing to suggest that over-severe sentencing is not harmful because of the right of appeal. The Minister of State will know all too well the fallacy of that. But the fact that, say, Trafalgar Square is banned to those who want to protest against internment whereas 103 years ago 100,000 people assembled there for exactly the same purpose regarding Irish prisoners shows that we have not travelled a long way along the road towards civil liberty in over a century and that civil liberty with regard to the right to assembly has diminished.

Those who are concerned, as I am, about civil liberty are not anti-authority; we are not anti-police. I observe the police daily and I know that the work which they carry out is often thankless and often very dangerous. In the main, they carry out their job with a great deal of patience and very good humour—the wry sort of humour which we have come to expect of men faced with their sort of problems. I have always believed that the police force should be highly paid, highly efficient and well trained, with a career structure which brings in recruits of a high calibre. Those who make blanket attacks on the police are being as foolish as those who make blanket attacks on any group of people in society.

But that is not to say that the public is not disturbed at recent events in towns such as Leeds or in the Metropolis itself. While I welcome the new broom at the Metropolitan Police, I am still totally dissatisfied with the attitude of the previous Government and this Government to independent complaints machinery, where complaints are made against the police force.

One other cause of concern is that offences such as riot and affray and offences under the Public Order Act are being increasingly employed where a simple breach of the peace has been occasioned. The use of the Public Order Act, as amended by the Race Relations Act, in the case of someone who has used highly colourful language on top of a bus or his misbehaved himself on the pavement is using a sledge hammer to crack a nut. One sees this all too often in reports, just as one saw the curious spectacle in the Mangrove trial of a serious charge having been dismissed by the justices and being reintroduced at a later stage.

Following from that, there is a certain amount of dissatisfaction about the way in which the police have handled problems connected with immigrants in certain parts of London—and not only immigrants. If the hon. and learned Gentleman were to don a somewhat longer wig than that to which he is accustomed and were to walk down the Portobello Road tonight he would without doubt be suspected of carrying cannabis. The evidence we have had from the Canadian State Commission, the United States of America and the report that is in the hands of the Home Office but which has not been made public—apart from the Wootton Report—shows that there is need for public debate and public education on this habit, which appears to be far less pernicious than consuming alcohol in large quantities or smoking cigarettes in great numbers. The problem is one of the generation gap and a difference in attitudes which leaves us in danger of alienating another generation. I am not for one moment suggesting that it would be right to legalise cannabis. I am asking for a rational approach to the subject and for a directive from the Home Office to those who administer the law and who seem to have little knowledge of the realities of the subject.

Not long ago, I visited a prisoner at Brixton who was on a cannabis charge. He had spent three months in prison without coming up for trial. We have heard recently of persons who spent up to 10 months in prison without having been tried. I thank the Minister for his helpful replies to the many Questions I have asked him and for the courteous and helpful letters he has written to me. He said in a recent parliamentary reply that 29,267 persons remanded in custody received no immediate custodial sentence, and that 2,472 persons remanded in custody were acquitted. That means that almost 32,000 places in our overcrowded prisons were taken up by persons who were not subsequently sentenced to terms of imprisonment.

When magistrates refuse bail without stating why, the liberty of the subject is put at risk. Magistrates should state their reasons for refusing bail just as the reason for a decision in a civil matter in a civil court is stated, and there should be a right of appeal against that decision. Bail is so easily refused, merely on the words of a police officer.

I am concerned not only about bail applied for before trial but bail applied for after conviction on a previous minor offence. I remember the case of a man who, having been sentenced for a first offence—the father of five—was sentenced to nine months' imprisonment. His appeal came up after five months. He had served five months imprisonment, which would have been six months imprisonment with remission, when the verdict was quashed, and the man had no redress.

I know of the efforts being made by the use of the Crown Court system to cut down the waiting list. Even so, the waiting list at Middlesex or Inner London Sessions, and the events which have occurred at Brixton recently show that far too many persons are kept waiting for trial who may subsequently not be sentenced to terms of imprisonment, and that in itself is an inroad into the rights of the citizen who up to that point is innocent until proven otherwise. Some of the persons to whom the answer may relate may be persons who have been found to he guilty and are awaiting sentence. That is what the Minister is quite rightly referring to.

Those who see these things in the courts know all too well that it happens in magistrates' courts in particular that persons are remanded in custody for a report when there is no justification for such a remand. Too often there is a tendency for the attitude to be, "Let us give the man a taste of prison and then not sentence him to prison after that". That is wrong.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) is sitting here patiently. On many occasions he has drawn attention to the curious difference in attitudes in magistrates' courts towards legal aid, not least with regard to the extraordinary figures at Marlborough Street. This is another case where the liberty of the subject is in jeopardy by reason of the discretion exercised by those who sit in courts of law. I know that only recently one of my hon. Friends wrote to the Minister about one magistrates' court where the attitude in regard to drug cases was, "The man should not have legal aid because if he can afford to buy drugs he can afford his own defence". So much for the presumption of innocence until a man is proved guilty.

I am sure the Minister would be the first to agree—and a great deal was said about this in an earlier debate on legal aid—that in exercising that discretion the Home Office should advise magistrates and others that the right to mitigation is an important right; that it can bring out relevant facts before the court which might otherwise not come out.

A person who is about to plead guilty may find that he has a defence in law of which he was not aware, and all too often the fact that a man apparently intends to plead guilty, or apparently does not have a defence, influences the granting of legal aid. I think that the introduction of a duty solicitor, or an English equivalent to the Procurator Fiscal who would carry out prosecutions in magistrates' courts so that they would no longer be regarded as police courts with policemen prosecuting would add to the confidence of the ordinary citizen.

I am conscious that I have ranged over a wide area and a large number of topics which I think would be fitting for a day's debate. The problem is that there will never be time for a day's debate on this subject, however much one asks for it during business questions.

The reason for these incursions—or threatened incursions—into civil liberties are very much, in some cases at any rate, generated by the violence across the Irish Sea and its repercussions here, and also by the mindless rantings of the law and order lobby which are very disturbing in the sort of suggestions which they are putting forward.

So long as these practices to which I have alluded go on the average citizen will not feel that justice is being done and being seen to be done, particularly in our lower courts. Far from narrowing the degree of freedom, a Bill of Rights on the eve of our entry into Europe would be something of an advantage. We often pride ourselves on the fact that we do not have a written constitution. Perhaps a Bill of Rights would be appropriate at this time, especially as we are not able to sign the European Convention of Human Rights because of the derogation in one part of the United Kingdom. Our legal system has a great deal to offer Europe when we eventually enter the EEC, but a repressive and unimaginative approach to civil liberties, bearing in mind our reputation in this regard and our traditional freedoms, would affect us seriously.

I hope we will be given an assurance on the question of an Emergency Powers Bill and a future Criminal Justice Bill so as to restore the confidence of the House and a great many people who are disturbed over this matter, and we hope that the Minister will continue with the liberal lead which he has given in the past and will thereby show that the Government are intent on preserving rather than narrowing our traditional liberties.

11.26 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Department (Mr. Mark Carlisle)

I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Rose) say that he thought he had covered a full day's debate in his quarter-hour speech. I thought he covered several days' debates. I will do my best to reply to the points he made, but I cannot promise in 15 minutes to cover all of them.

I must first make a general point. While of course I accept his concern, and the right of people to be concerned, about anything which appears to be an encroachment of our civil liberties, it is equally important always to remember when discussing this subject that unless the laws of a society are respected and enforced, it will be difficult for its members to enjoy their liberties. One has the perpetual problem in a free society of obtaining the right balance between freedom and order and how to reconcile the freedom of the individual with the obligations of the citizen.

The hon. Gentleman first asked about theSunday Times article about the Special Powers Act. I am told that the background to this is that a group of staff and students at the faculty of law at Queen's University, Belfast, made a recent study of the Act and suggested possible statutory provisions. In particular they suggested that in place of the Act a new Emergency Powers Act for the whole of the United Kingdom should be adopted under which an emergency in any part of the United Kingdom would be dealt with.

That was merely a suggestion put forward by an informal committee at Queen's University under Professor Twining. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made it clear during the passage of the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act that he proposed to review the 1922 Act and the regulations made under it. That is being done and my right hon. Friend will, of course, take into account the valuable report produced by Professor Twining's group. But he has made no decision on the nature of any possible new legislation and there is nothing to support the allegations made in the Sunday Times—which, indeed, were repeated by the hon. Gentleman in a weekly newspaper—about any decision having been taken or that it will at any time be decided that any new legislation should necessarily apply to this country.

The hon. Gentleman then questioned me about police cautions and previous convictions, and I assume he was referring to the report of the Criminal Law Revision Committee. I wish to make it absolutely clear that there are considerable misapprehensions about this. Despite various reports that have appeared in the newspapers, this particular report has not yet been submitted to the Home Secretary. I am, therefore, not in a position to comment on its possible contents, save to say, in relation to the comment about previous convictions, that when this originally appeared the chairman of the committee specifically stated that it was not the committee's intention, in its report, to recommend that the evidence of previous convictions of an accused person should be generally admissible. The hon. Member's comments about police cautions and other matters will all be considered by the committee, but I do not think that we can look upon it as a Draconian body which is likely to make serious inroads into our personal freedom.

I believe that this report is badly needed and that the test that the Government must apply when they receive the report is to ask themselves the question: have we the right balance in our criminal trials between the prosecution and the defence? Do the rules with regard to evidence and to questioning—many of which were introduced in a previous century to safeguard the innocent in a substantially illiterate public—maintain the right balance, in the circumstances of 1972? That is the background against which we have to consider that report. I am not prepared to comment on the contents of a report which neither the Home Secretary nor myself has seen.

I move to the next point made by the hon. Gentleman. I accept that the prosecution case must always be proved by the prosecution in our courts, but that does not necessarily mean that all the rules with! regard to questioning and the caution are right in their present form. The hon. Member criticised the fishing raids under the Criminal Damage Act, 1971, and said that this was a frightening incursion upon our civil liberties. All that that Act does is to allow the police, with a warrant obtained from a court, to search premises if they have reason to believe that there are on those premises goods that are to be used in causing damage to property. Before a search can be made a warrant must be obtained from a magistrate in the normal way, and an individual who believes that his premises have been wrongly searched has various remedies.

I apologise for rushing, but the hon. Member raised many questions. He referred to the use of Trafalgar Square for political demonstrations. It has always been accepted that this is one of the best-known places for public demonstrations, and traditionally it is available to any individual or organisation that wishes to use it. Permission to use the Square is usually given unless it seems likely that the assembly will result in breaches of the law, or in grave disorder. As the hon. Member knows, the decision is that of the Secretary of State for the Environment, who invariably consults the appropriate Government Departments, and always consults the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis.

The position with regard to applications this year in relation to demonstrations concerned with the Irish situation is that such applications had to be considered against the background of the terrorist campaign by the IRA in Northern Ireland and the appalling outrage at Aldershot. In those circumstances, in view of the situation in Northern Ireland, the Government had to decide whether it would be fitting to permit the use of the Square by any organisation that had declared its support for the perpetrators of violence of that kind, and they had no hesitation in deciding that it would not be fitting, and that it would be an affront to the British people to do so.

The Government having made that decision, it would be wrong to attempt to distinguish between different organisations. The right decision, therefore—regrettable as it may be—was to refuse to grant permission for any demonstration on the issue of Northern Ireland in Trafalgar Square until further notice.

The hon. Member asked about the police, and referred to the Leeds police force. He said that he has always been a good friend of the police. I remind him that the fundamental conclusion of Sir John McKay in his personal report to the Home Secretary—a report on which he has made an announcement—was that there was nothing basically wrong with the Leeds police force. Of course I accept that there had been one or two disturbing incidents which gave rise to that report.

As to the Public Order Act, I cannot see the hon. Member's complaint. As I understand it, Section 5 of that Act, which makes an offence conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace, has been a normal method for many years of dealing with offences of hooliganism. I do not believe that it is used more widely now than it has been in recent years.

The hon. Member then came to a subject on which I am perhaps a little more familiar and at home when he spoke about the refusal of bail and legal aid. Of course I accept the figures I gave to the hon. Member concerning bail but I think it unfair to assume from them—and I have said this on many occasions from this Box—that because many of the people who are refused bail eventually do not receive a custodial sentence the magistrates have been wrong in refusing them bail in the first place.

There are those who will be committed for trial when, on the evidence before them before that stage, the magistrates feel that it is wrong to remand other than in custody although their innocence may eventually be proved. There are those who, after being convicted, are remanded for reports. No one would approve of a system in which, as the hon. Member suggested, people are sometimes remanded for reports merely as an excuse to send them to prison for a short time. I do not accept that this is so today.

I remind the hon. Member as a prac-tising lawyer of what I believe is true the other way round: that often the only plea in mitigation which eventually can be made for the person when he gets to quarter sessions on committal is that because of the refusal of bail when he was committed for sentence, he has received a period in prison which has caused—[Interruption.] The hon. Member laughs. He has made the plea in mitigation many times. It is unfair then, when the court accepts it and decides to put the person on probation or something like that, to blame the magistrates for wrongly remanding him in custody in the first place.

Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central) rose——

Mr. Carlisle

I have only two minutes left to me.

I have always believed, and the Government are attempting to follow the view, that greater inroads will be made into this problem by attempting to reduce the period of time that individuals spend in custody than by reducing the number of individuals who are remanded in custody, although we have, as the hon. Gentleman knows, opened a bail hostel thanks to private generosity and we are taking power under the Criminal Justice Bill to open more hostels.

Finally I turn to legal aid and the duty solicitor. The hon. Member must surely know that during the last four years grants of legal aid have increased threefold. Over 80 per cent. of applications in magistrates' courts on summary trial are now granted, compared with 70 pet cent. in 1966. The total number has grown from about 20,000 to 60,000. The Government believe—I have made this clear throughout the Bill—that the criteria laid down by the Widgery Committee are well known to the courts.

That leads to this comment. The hon. Member ended by calling for the introduction of a duty solicitor. It is perhaps appropriate that that should have been his final remark after the Legal Advice and Assistance Bill has just passed through the House. I believe that the assistance provided in that Bill with regard to the £25 legal aid and the ability of the solicitor in court to appear for an undefended defendant goes a long way to meet the need for a duty solicitor, as recommended in a recent report by Justice.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to twelve o'clock.