HC Deb 12 May 1982 vol 23 cc911-4
Mr. Edward Lyons

I beg to move amendment No. 80, in page 67, line 31, leave out `fourth' and insert `second'.

In the Bill there is a major change in court practice in that instead of accused persons being brought for remand to court every eight days they can, under certain conditions, be brought to court every fourth week. That change means that an accused may remain in prison and not see the light of day, or should I say the light of a court, for four weeks.

The purpose of the amendment is to change that situation. It is accepted that because of the strain on prison resources and on prison officers it is difficult to keep to the traditional system of bringing people to court every eighth day. On the other hand, it has never been explained satisfactorily, even in Committee, why the Government have jumped from eight days to a maximum of 28 days.

While I concede that there should no longer be a need to bring prisoners to court every eighth day, they should be brought every second week. That goes some way to meet the Government's case, but it would be better than bringing them to court every 28 days.

Although the consent of the accused is necessary for this procedure, those accused who are not professional criminals and who do not know the ropes are more likely to give their consent. Once a person is in prison he may not be visited regularly by his legal adviser. Accordingly, he may not be granted bail as early as might otherwise be the case. Information may reach him in prison which, if the magistrate were told of it, might result in bail being given. Because the information does not reach the solicitor or because the solicitor does not act on it immediately because of other pressing problems, the person may be kept in prison a week or two longer than would otherwise be the case. That is my major objection to the proposal, which would lead to our prisons being filled up even more.

There are other objections. Lawyers may forget prisoners when they are out of sight. It is advisable that lawyers should see their clients regularly. This is one way of ensuring it. I hope that the Government will listen to the arguments in favour of the amendment.

Mr. Arthur Davidson

I support what the hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons) has said. I expressed my views forcefully in Committee, so I do not need to go into detail now. As I said in Committee, it is a thoroughly retrogressive and unnecessary step for the Government to do away with the present system of the accused appearing in court every eight days. That has been a safeguard over the years in ensuring that no one suffers unnecessary and unlawful imprisonment. The reason that the Government gave for that radical change was one of administrative convenience and not of substance. A change as important as that should not be contemplated unless there are real reasons of substance.

The hon. and learned Gentleman's proposal that instead of the accused appearing only once every 28 days he should at least have the benefit of appearing once every 15 days seems a sensible compromise, which has my support. The Law Society, members of which I spoke to only last week, still maintains its opposition to the removal of the necessity for an appearance every eight day s. It does not regard the system set out in the schedule as workable.

The arguments in favour of a regular court appearance every eight days are these. I shall put them shortly and simply. If the debate had taken place earlier in the evening, I am sure that many hon. Members on both sides of the House would have had a great deal to say about this serious change. There is no doubt that the presence of the accused ensures, and is the only way to ensure, that his case is properly presented. That cannot be left solely to, the legal representative. It certainly cannot be left to the courts.

That is the right of the accused. We are dealing with people who have not been convicted and who might be found not guilty. It is the right of the accused to ensure that he has an opportunity properly to instruct his solicitor, particularly about any change of circumstances that may have taken place since he last saw his solicitor. If the accused is held in custody he is at a severe disadvantage because he does not see his solicitor as frequently as he should, not only to give him adequate instructions but to ensure that his case is prepared properly and witnesses are traced, and, above all, to ensure that his solicitor puts his case properly in court.

The interests of justice will not be properly served by this radical change in what has been an important safeguard for the liberty of the subject. I do not see how any court can ensure that an accused person has given his consent and agreed not to appear in court every eight days, and has continued to give that consent. That is certainly the Law Society's fear. As well as the Law Society, the Legal Action Group, the Society of Labour Lawyers and the National Association of Probation Officers are strongly opposed to these proposals.

2.45 am

I do not intend to say anything more, because earlier we had a long debate on the subject. I was unable to carry all my hon. Friends with me, but I carried some. However, I strongly urge the Government to accept this sensible proposal—on which I compliment the hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West—even if they are not prepared to go the whole way and scrap a damaging, dangerous assault on civil liberties in general.

Mr. Mayhew

I am surprised that the hon. and learned Member for Accrington (Mr. Davidson), at this hour in the morning, is able to assemble and deploy sufficient enthusiasm to describe this proposal in such extreme terms. His view is not shared by the parliamentary all-party penal affairs group, of which we have heard so much, nor by the Home Affairs Select Committee, each of which suggested a period of 21 days between appearances. Apparently they failed to observe the great inroad into basic civil liberties that the hon. and learned Gentleman has been describing.

That is not surprising, because we are talking about a provision whereby the court may authorise the non-appearance of someone on bail only in circumstances in which he is over 17, in which he consents to this procedure, in which it is satisfied that he continues to consent to it and in which he is legally represented throughout. Even so, every fourth week he must be brought before the court. Therefore, there is a certain element of hyperbole in what the hon. and learned Gentleman has said. After all, the amendment is the only proposal that has been selected. The principle of the schedule has not been selected for debate as it was thoroughly debated in Committee, where the hon. and learned Gentleman's arguments did not find favour.

The amendment is defective in any event if the purpose is to secure attendance every two weeks, because it would apply only to the explanation that the court is required to give a defendant before he can give his consent, and it does not affect that part of the schedule that deals with the periods in question.

I recognise that there can be differing opinions about the length of time that can best be left between appearances in court in these cases. I mentioned the preference of the all-party penal affairs group and the Home Affairs Select Committee. However, the Government feel that, given all the safeguards that we have built into this scheme—the prisoner must consent, he must be legally represented, he may at any time change his mind about being brought to court—a period of four weeks between appearances is not unreasonable. It is neither so long that it could be argued to affect adversely the rights of the individual concerned to know at intervals how his case is proceeding—if he is not visited in prison by his advisers—nor so short that the police and prison service which can be expected to gain from not having to escort prisoners back and forth between prisons and courts lose all advantage that the present scheme offers.

Incidentally, it is not right to say that this is simply a matter of administrative convenience. When I last visited Brixton prison, I saw large numbers of prisoners lining up early in the morning to collect their kits—everything that had been taken from them on admission to the prison—because they were going off on remand. At present that must happen every eight days, but because it is possible that on every occasion their application for bail may be granted they must take all their stuff with them. This elaborate and extremely tiresome procedure of everything being meticulously booked out only to be booked in again when they come back is extremely unpopular with the prisoners and is a source of considerable stress.

There are considerable advantages, it was made clear to me, in not having to do that. I therefore urge the House to resist the amendment, because the period of four weeks, coupled with the safeguards that I have mentioned, is entirely adequate to meet the needs of justice. In those circumstances, I trust that the House will permit the period to stand.

Mr. Edward Lyons

I have asked for a 14-day period. The Minister, in defence of the Government's proposition of 28 days, has quoted two organisations that have suggested 21 days. Twenty-one days strikes me as being equidistant between 14 and 28. Therefore, I do not understand how that argument supports him rather than me. Perhaps he divines some benefit in the argument he adduced.

The hour is late. There will be an opportunity for this important matter to be raised again in the House of Lords, and I have no doubt that it will be because to have such a major change go through at 2.50 am is rather unsatisfactory. The very least the Government should have compromised by moving towards the suggestion of the two organisations quoted by the Minister with approval. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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