HC Deb 13 May 1985 vol 79 cc140-7

Amendment made: No. 18, in page 32, line 26, leave out '32(1)' and insert `32(2)'.—[The Solicitor-General.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.—[Mr. Garel-Jones.]

11.57 pm
Mr. John Morris

The Bill has been improved during the legislative process. I, for one, welcome very much what was achieved in another place, in that acquitted defendants in summary trials are able to obtain their costs. That is a major improvement.

Great as is the temptation, I do not propose to go through the Bill at this late hour, save to say that in our deliberations we concentrated on three matters—costs, children, and time limits, to which we returned tonight. The Bill went through its processes speedily, speedier than most of us had anticipated. Some organisations felt that had there been more time available, some of their views might have had further consideration.

I wrote to the Solicitor-General about a document that I had received from Mr. John Harrison of the Paddington Law Centre, and the hon. and learned Gentleman kindly replied to me on 29 April, on the eve of the last consideration of the Bill, about the fear of Mr. Harrison that the Bill inadvertently abolished the tort of malicious prosecution or at least substantially reduced its scope. The hon. and learned Gentleman kindly went through the arguments. What had escaped Mr. Harrison was the fact that the initial decision whether to institute proceedings continued to be taken by the police, so for the most part it would appear that those fears were dealt with by the hon. and learned Gentleman. There remained a small proportion of cases where the Director of Public Prosecutions instituted prosecutions. The Solicitor-General set out the record and reputation of the Director and explained the unlikelihood of him being sued. Perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman will explain further the extent of the reduction to which proceedings in tort may be instituted for malicious prosecution. If he does so, we shall know exactly what has been done.

I spent much time on Second Reading talking about accountability and I ended by saying that Parliament will have only begun its task in establishing the machinery of accountability when the Bill is enacted. We shall have to monitor its workings in the years ahead. I welcome the Bill and wish it well, because its main purpose is to establish a prosecution service that is independent of the police, which is what many on both sides of the House have talked about for a long time. I am pleased that that has been achieved tonight.

12 midnight

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

At this late hour I am sure that the Ministers, who have worked on the Bill from Committee until this stage, will not welcome lengthy contributions. Consequently, my remarks will be brief.

The Bill makes sense, and I welcome it. I regret the entire removal of the prosecution function from the police service because over the years, with its faults, it has been a relatively efficient and not terribly expensive service. However, the House has been right to agree to the proposals contained in the Bill.

I wish to ask my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General three general questions. First, "criminal proceedings" are henceforth to be the responsibility of the prosecution service and no longer that of the police. Will this relieve the police of responsibility for all criminal proceedings that take place in the courts? Is it intended that "criminal" shall be an all-embracing definition covering any breach of common and statute law, including minor motoring offences? Will it remove from the responsibilities of the police administrative matters that are dealt with in the magistrates' courts such as firearm certificates, liquor licensing and objections to occasional licences and extensions, which currently involve police time? If the prosecution service is to take over criminal matters, let it take them all over.

I am concerned about resources. If the Bill is to achieve its main intention, it is essential that all court work, not most of it, he undertaken by the new service. Any savings which do not release the police from all forms of advocacy will he insignificant. It is the Government's judgment that 600 police officers, mostly of supervisory rank, will be freed by the Bill. They will not be relieved of advocacy work unless all the minor matters are undertaken by the prosecution service.

Secondly, in clause 13 a "fair contribution" is to be made by other bodies for part of the service. The inference is that, in addition to the money from the Government, other funds will be extracted, perhaps properly, from county councils or the police authority. At present budgets in the police service are tight. Some of my hon. Friends may be shocked to hear that throughout the country police numbers are not rising, but falling sharply. Almost 1,500 officers fewer are now in post than there should be according to establishment figures. We were elected to achieve establishment figures. I recognise, however, that there has been a substantial increase on previous years.

If a "fair contribution" is to be extracted from police authorities, where is the money to come from? Is it to come from not recruiting more policemen or not building more police stations? I have read the Committee reports, but I have not seen a detailed quantification of the amount of money that the phrase "fair contribution" means. I should like some assurance from my hon. and learned Friend that those contributions will not be extracted from police budgets if it means less police man power when the service is as stretched as it is today.

My final point, on which I should like my hon. and learned Friend to comment, is the matter of delays in bringing cases to trial. My hon. and learned Friend will recall that last year the Home Affairs Select Committee reported on those inordinate delays — they were commented on frequently in Committee — but was misguided in that it appeared to suggest that each and every delay in bringing often complex cases to trial was occasioned by the prosecution. I am willing to accept that many, and perhaps most, delays arise because of the prosecution, and the terms of the Bill appear to follow that assumption. However, anyone with a little experience in legal affairs—I am so advised by the police service—will accept that often those delays are occasioned by the defence.

I hope that the Bill is even handed, but I do not read it that way. I should like my hon. and learned Friend to comment on the view of the Police Federation that the Bill is not even handed, that it implies that all delays arise from prosecution and that it does not provide for effective pressure on the defence to get a move on.

I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will be able to deal with those questions. I join the right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) in welcoming the general drift of the Bill.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

The fact that little controversy has surrounded the stages of the Bill does not mean that it is perfect. It introduces a most welcome and much awaited element of independence into the prosecuting function. We look forward with confidence to the development of that independence. I hope that when the Government monitor the way in which the independent prosecution service operates, and if it works well, they will consider the possibility of extending its role to include other forms of prosecution, such as trading standards' prosecutions and other functions which are administered at considerable expense by local authorities, which are not always best equipped to deal with them.

The most significant improvement was made in the other place when an absurd provision to give the prosecution the power to make theoretical appeal against certain sentences was removed. I welcome that removal, but I hope that we shall have an assurance from the Government that that proposal will not be regurgitated in the next Session of Parliament.

I join those who have expressed their good wishes to the Bill, and I hope that it will prove to be at least the basis of the success which most of us believe it will be.

12.9 am

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (Surrey, South-West)

I welcome the Bill, in that, since the peak age of offending is 15, it seems reasonable on Third Reading to spend some time on the implications of the Bill for juveniles. In Committee, my hon. Friend the Minister said that the Director of Public Prosecutions was well seized of the special considerations affecting juveniles and of the implications for training and development of the new service. He said that he had undertaken that where there is sufficient juvenile court work to justify specialisation, whether whole time or part time, officers of the new service will be assigned and trained specially to deal with juvenile cases.

That is some assurance, but there is anxiety among those used to dealing with the juvenile courts that the Bill will lead to further delays. Slow justice is poor justice for everybody, but especially for juveniles. They have great difficulty in understanding the process, and the strain on them and their families while waiting for a court hearing is great and potentially damaging. In the case of juveniles, the damage of a case coming to court with insufficient evidence is most harmful, and no doubt the new Bill will assist in that area.

I have been a magistrate in an area where there was special difficulty between the police and the local community, and I would welcome the clear separation of the police having to apprehend and investigate crimes, but the decision to prosecute being made elsewhere. But I would not wish to underestimate the important expertise that many police juvenile bureaux have developed over the years in knowing the local circumstances and in understanding juvenile crime in context. It would be a shame if an unintended consequence of the Bill was that the widespread and variable use of cautioning was undermined. We are agreed that, for juveniles, prevention and diversion are essential.

In conclusion, I welcome the Bill and I hope that it is but a first step to an overall review of the juvenile justice system.

12.12 am
Dr. John G. Blackburn (Dudley, West)

Unashamedly, I take a few minutes of the time of the House, because my involvement in the Bill goes back to 1979, when the roots of what we are debating started. That was the Royal Commission on Criminal Evidence, under the chairmanship of Sir Cyril Phillips. Then I came across the fundamentals of this move in the Home Affairs Select Committee, and yet again I look to the Government Front Bench and remember with great pleasure the many weeks we spent together in Committee on the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill, which eventually fell immediately before the general election. I have great pleasure, as I am sure do all hon. Members, in seeing this measure come before the House. I also have a great sense of duty fulfilled.

However, I must make two points which I hope my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General will consider in the days ahead. I was especially impressed by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths), who made the plea that evenhandedness should saturate the pages of the Bill. It will not come as a surprise for those hon. Members who served in Committee to hear that my next words will be in direct conflict with the comments of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile).

I have had the opportunity of speaking with magistrates who have expressed genuine anxiety about some sentencing procedures. I pay a warm, generous and sincere tribute to the members of the bench who give up their time to administer justice in the courts. When magistrates have a defendant before them who they believe should receive a higher sentence they have the power, which they exercise, to commit that person to a higher court for sentence. Magistrates feel frustrated by the fact that under the new public prosecution system people will receive a lighter sentence than they would from the magistrates.

Under clause 16 we have a right of appeal against conviction or severity of sentence. I have consistently held the view that the Crown prosecutor should equally have the right to appeal against the leniency of a sentence. That point was well ventilated on Second Reading and in Committee. Even at this stage it is something that could be considered. I commend that point to my hon. and learned Friend, because it is one that has been debated since the Bill was conceived.

12.16 am
Mr. Sims

I shall avoid the temptation of pursuing the point mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, West (Dr. Blackburn). I know that his comments about the work done by magistrates will be appreciated. I can say that they are well deserved, because I am now precluded by the rules laid down by my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor from sitting on my Bench, much as I should like to do so.

I invite my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General to tell us to what extent he anticipates court staff will be involved in the administration of the prosecution service. If that seems a strange question, I ask it because I understand that informal approaches have been made to court staff about the extent to which their accounting facilities might be used by the prosecuting service. I understand that in some circumstances that might be convenient; for example, for paying the expenses of prosecution witnesses and such matters.

On principle, I should have thought it better, for reasons that I have already given, to keep the prosecution service and the court staff separate. If, however, it is found convenient to use the court staff for some aspect of the prosecuting service's work, I hope that the Home Office will bear in mind the fact that court staff are already heavily engaged, with limited numbers, and that if extra work is to be imposed upon them, the resources to do that work should be made available.

12.19 am
The Solicitor-General

I am grateful for the expressions of support and approval that have come from so many of those who have spoken on Third Reading. The Bill primarily implements the decision of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to establish an independent prosecuting service for England and Wales. The Bill has, as we are aware, also provided a useful vehicle to make important and necessary changes in the arrangements for costs in relation to criminal cases and to bring into the English system measures analogous to those which have operated for a long time in Scotland relating to delays in bringing cases to trial.

I have been asked to reply to a number of individual points. In Committee the right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) asked about the fears which had been expressed that, inadvertently, the Bill might have abolished the common law tort of malicious prosecution, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman fairly summarised the reply that I gave to him then. At this time of night I think that I can usefully express it in this way.

It was thought that because under the provisions of the Bill prosecutions were to be conducted by the prosecution service it would no longer be possible to sue the police for the tort of malicious prosecution. However, as I explained to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, that argument failed to take account of the fact that responsibility for the institution of proceedings will remain, under the provisions of the Bill, with the police. It will be recalled that the recommendation of the Philips Royal Commission was that a distinction should be made between the functions of the police, which were respectively the investigation of offences and the institution of proceedings — that is, charging suspects — and the functions of conducting the prosecution and taking the decisions that are relevant to prosecutions once a charge has been laid. Those latter responsibilities are to be conducted by the independent Crown prosecution service.

There is, therefore, no effective change in the position of the director. Certain matters will fall to be considered by him, and in rare cases he will be empowered to institute and will in practice institute proceedings. I accept that in those circumstances it would be difficult successfully to bring proceedings against the director, but, as I pointed out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, that is a measure of the respect in which the director is held by reason of the record for impartiality and for diligence that he has acquired over the years in the course of the conduct of his duties. Therefore, we do not believe that there is any need to fear that inadvertently the Bill has abolished the tort of malicious prosecution or that it has abolished the means whereby the police can be prosecuted for malicious prosecution in a proper case.

On the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) on behalf of the Police Federation, whose interests he so diligently represents, he asked, first, whether the criminal proceedings referred to in the Bill will be all-embracing, in the sense that the independent service will be responsible for every offence committed under any statute which can strictly be described as a criminal statute. Strictly speaking, the answer is no. Firearms certificates and liquor licensing applications will continue to be dealt with separately and will be the responsibility of the police, as will minor motoring offences. That is a sensible division of responsibility. I do not believe that the information that I have given contains any surprises.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds also referred to the equivalent of 600 full-time police officers being saved by the new provisions. That calculation was made on the basis that the new service will undertake functions which do not include such minor matters as firearms certificates and liquor licensing applications, to which I have already referred.

I was asked about the cost referred to in clause 13 and whether it would involve the resource currently allocated to the police. Clause 13 requires that the Secretary of State shall make "a fair contribution" and provides for disputes to be resolved. The balance will have to be found by the local authority, which will have to decide from where that balance can be found. In a slip of the tongue earlier I added, motoring offences to the category which included fire arms applications and licensing matters. That was an inadvertent slip, for which I apologise. Motoring offences will be the responsibility of the new service.

I was asked about the new provisions on time limits. The Scottish law provisions relate to time limits which have to be observed by the prosecution at all stages of the prosecution process. The object is to ensure that delays for which the prosecution is responsible are not allowed to result in the accused person being denied trial. The same pattern is followed in the Bill. In some cases the defendant is responsible for delays, but the defendant usually pays the cost of being in prison pending trial on remand. The Bill deals with delays caused by the prosecution.

I am grateful for the welcome which the hon and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) gave to the Bill. A major change is being made and much remains to be finalised in regulations to be made by the Attorney-General. The report of the management consultants, published by the Home Secretary only last Friday, has still to be considered in detail before we can decide on the precise form of the service.

I agree that a body of expert and experienced people should remain to deal with juvenile crime. It is not necessary to extend the Bill's provisions, but I acknowledge that juvenile crime is an important part of the responsibilities of those who have to deal with criminal justice.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, West (Dr. Blackburn) I recall with pleasure the many weeks that we spent examining another Bill, when I learnt to enjoy and to value his contributions.

I realise that there is a real sense of public concern about sentencing. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, in his Second Reading speech, said that it was entirely proper that the public should be concerned in these matters and that the House and the Government should recognise that concern.

My hon. Friend said that, on occasions, magistrates were disappointed with the sentence passed by the Crown court. I do not doubt that that may happen, but Parliament has laid down a procedure whereby the Crown court considers matters afresh. I do not think that my hon. Friend would wish to deny it the independence and judgment which the statute has conferred upon it and hold that it could impose only a sentence which was in excess of what the magistrates may, by law, impose.

I differ from my hon. Friend when he argues about a right of appeal by the prosecutor against too lenient a sentence. The Government hold to the view that it is important to distinguish between the proper function of a prosecutor and the proper function of the judiciary. It is the judiciary, quite independent of any other influence, that should deal with sentencing. It would be sad if the prosecution were to identify itself with sentencing. That could lead to many undesirable and dangerous developments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) asked what would be the extent of court staff involvement in the arrangements for the operation of the Bill. It is not possible to give a clear answer. He knows that the management consultants' report was published recently, and we shall have to decide what is the best, the most economic and the most effective way to deal with such matters as witnesses' expenses. I take his point about the importance of distancing court staff from association with the prosecution. I understand his anxiety in that regard.

I do not wish to detain the House. The provisions of the Bill are well known to hon. Members in the Chamber tonight. I reiterate only the pleasure of the Government in the Bill meeting with general approval from all sides of the House. My right hon. and learned Friend and I are grateful for the constructive and consistently helpful contributions of the right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon and all who have taken part in our debates. They have enabled us to make rapid progress with a Bill that is of major value and importance to our criminal justice system. I commend its Third Reading to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with amendments.

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