HC Deb 20 June 1988 vol 135 cc846-79

'. —(1) When a person is charged on indictment with an offence involving the sexual abuse or molestation of a child under the age of 14, a video recording of an interview with that child shall be admissible as evidence; provided that the Judge presiding over the trial of such a person shall after consultation with Counsel appearing for the defence and the prosecution determine how much of such a video recording shall be shown to the jury.

(2) At the time the jury sees such a video recording the child who is alleged to have been the victim of such sexual abuse or molestation shall be present in a room in the vicinity of the court and shall be visible and audible to that jury by means of video-link; but the child himself shall not be able to see or hear the proceedings in the court.

(3) For the purpose of enabling the accused person or Counsel for the defence or prosecution to test the evidence contained in the video recording, a prescribed officer of the court shall be present in the room with the child and shall, at the direction of the Judge, relay to that child questions that either of those Counsel with the consent of the Judge wish to put to him.

(4) To enable these questions to be put to the child and his replies to be received within the hearing and vision of the jury, the prescribed officer shall be provided with—

  1. (a) an aural receiver through which he can hear the questions that Counsel wish him to relay to the child, and
  2. (b) such anatomical drawings or exhibits as the Judge shall order to be produced for the purpose of enabling the child to answer the questions put to him.

(5) For the purpose of this section a prescribed officer of the court shall be a qualified social worker, child psychologist or probation officer.'.— [Sir Eldon Griffiths.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

3.41 pm
Sir Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take new clause 21— Admissibility of video recording as evidence'. —(1) Video recordings shall be admissible as evidence in criminal proceedings concerning sexual offences against children from such day as the Secretary of State may appoint. (2) The Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument make such regulations as he thinks necessary regarding the use of such recordings.'.

Sir Eldon Griffiths

The clause is in my name and those of hon. Members from all parties on both sides of the House.

When we debated the Bill in the week before last, emotions were running high and they divided the House. This is another subject that is worthy of emotion, but I believe that those emotions unite the House.

I should like to start with something close to one of those warnings that are issued by cinema companies and by some television companies when they broadcast matter that is perhaps hard for sensitive ears to hear. I should like to demonstrate to the House just how extensive and evil is the problem of child abuse. I shall relay to the House some specific cases that have been researched for me by women members of the police service in all parts of the country. I have to warn those of a squeamish disposition that some of the evidence is disturbing.

The first case that I want to draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister is of a three-year-old child. The stepfather had been touching the child, who was a bright little girl and able to talk, and when interviewed she spoke using graphic language about this man gobbling her and her gobbling him and pretending to f… her". She used very graphically the anatomical dolls that were provided to her for the purposes of the interview. That three-year-old child used the male doll on herself and lay down with the doll lying on top of her and put the doll's penis into her mouth.

The case was thoroughly investigated by the police with the aid of the social workers. Unfortunately, it could not be taken to court because of the age of the child and the lack of an admission by the offender.

The second case is of a little boy of four. The suspect was an adult male. The little boy graphically used the anatomical dolls and gave an explicit account of buggery. I remind the House that the child is four years of age. He inserted the male doll's penis into the boy doll's anus and he would not give up until it really went in. That four-year-old child spoke to the police officers about the male doll's penis not being as big as it should have been. This case, too, could not be brought to court because of the child's age.

The third case is of a three-year-old boy who was persistently sexually abused by his mother and a female neighbour. There was evidence of physical abuse by cigarette burns on his body and of sexual abuse by having objects pushed into his anus. The mother and the neighbour were interviewed and refused to make any admission, but the medical evidence clearly substantiated the case. No prosecution was possible because of the age of the child.

I have, from all parts of the country, hundreds of precise, researched, documented examples of the sexual abuse and even torture that is perpetrated on large numbers of our children, but little, if anything, can now be done about it because our laws and rules of evidence are inadequate.

I turn now to some of the comments on these types of case that have been made by practising police officers and social workers who investigated them and took part in the original interviews with these abused toddlers. In this House, we rightly maintain a cool, clinical detachment; we examine these matters as we should, and form a judgment on what is right under the law. I thoroughly approve of that. However, I am sure that the House will understand that the policewomen who have to deal with the cases immediately cannot perhaps look at them quite as coolly.

The first case, with the comment made on it, is that of a two-year-old child. Her parents are separated and her father had access at the weekends. While visiting her grandmother, this two-year-old baby was being bathed and said, "Don't touch me like daddy does." She then gave a graphic description of her father putting his fingers into her vagina and anus. The medical evidence substantiated that complaint. When interviewed, the father would not admit the act, and the Crown Prosecution Service could not prosecute because of the age of the child. The police officer's comment was: Video"— a recording of the child being interviewed— would have shown the child describing very vividly what had occurred. Under our rules that evidence cannot be placed before the court.

Another example with a police comment is of a three-year-old boy who was the subject of prolonged indecent assault by a 22-year-old female nanny who cared for him during the day. The assault included anal penetration. The medical evidence substantiated the allegation, but the CPS could not prosecute because of the lack of admission and the child's age. The police officer commented: Video would have shown child describing what had occurred, and child could not have known of words and details —he was only three— if not personally experienced assault. I offer another example with a police comment. It concerns a four-year-old girl with gonorrhoea. She was admitted to hospital for tests because of a minor infection and gonorrhoea was duly diagnosed. The doctor stated that she had caught it through sexual transmission. Inquiries were made, persons were interviewed, and the cohabitee of the house in which the mother was living was discovered to have gonorrhoea. The child maintained that the cohabitee had put his penis beside her private parts —what the police describe as dry intercourse. The cohabitee was interviewed. There was no admission. There was only the medical evidence, and that was insufficient because the child was too young to testify. The comment of the police officer, in this case a senior officer, was that "video would have been superb."

I shall give another example with a comment. It concerns a 13-year-old girl. She was the subject of buggery and incest by her father, with the mother aiding and abetting the offences. The medical evidence corroborated this, but there was no admission and, although the parents had been charged by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service would not take the case to court because in the view of the service the 13-year-old could not have stood up to cross-examination. I shall quote precisely the comment of the officer in charge of the case. He said: Video recording would at least have ensured a prosecution. I could provide hundreds, indeed thousands, of examples of cases in which the view of highly experienced police officers—women police officers for the most part—and of the social workers who had interviewed the children as quickly as possible after the offences were discovered is that without video evidence such cases cannot be brought to court. The abuser gets away with it; the children continue to suffer.

I shall conclude this part of my speech with one or two child abuse cases referred to a police station in one force area. The force area is Lancashire and the cases were referred to that one station during the months of January to March of this year. For reasons that the House will understand, I shall again obscure the details. During the first 12 weeks of this year this one police station had reported to it no fewer than 42 child abuse cases, and 14 of them led to court proceedings. Of the 28 cases that in the end had to be marked, "No further action", the police are convinced that at least 17, of which 12 were very serious —11 of them committed against babies—could and would have been placed before the courts if video recordings had been admissible.

I conclude this evidence with a few other cases in the Lancashire force. A four-and-a-half-year-old boy was masturbated by his stepfather while he was bathing him and he made the child return the masturbation. The medical evidence showed severe bruising of the child's private parts. The child was too young to give evidence and the comment reads, "Video would have helped."

Lastly, I shall outline the case of a 12-year-old deaf and dumb girl. She had started to attend a special school but continued to live at home. She had not disclosed before what had been happening to her, but as soon as she was able to communicate she said that her father had been coming into her bedroom at night and touching her private parts. She was medically examined. She had bruising on the inside of her legs where force had been used. The Crown Prosecution Service would not prosecute because it said that the child, being deaf and dumb, would not make a suitable witness.

The police believe that, in this case, a video would have allowed the child to convey to a jury and a court of law what she conveyed to the police and social workers. Even though that child cannot communicate, being deaf and dumb, she can and does use sign language. It can be but a matter of opinion that if that child had been, with the aid of a video, brought before the court, notwithstanding that she was deaf and dumb, the judgment of the police would have been vindicated and a prosecution could have been brought and would quite likely have succeeded.

I have said more than enough about those cases. I also have cases from the Cheshire police, the Avon and Somerset police, the Greater Manchester police and the Metropolitan police; and so it goes on. We have a serious evil on our hands and the House has a duty to tackle it.

I acknowledge the Government's efforts in outlawing the possession of pornographic material involving children, in checking the criminal records of many of those people in jobs with regular access to children and in improving liaison between the police and the caring agencies in investigating cases of child abuse.

I very much welcome, on behalf of the police service, the clauses in the Bill that advance the cause of protecting innocent children. I welcome clause 31, which provides for children to give evidence via a live closed-circuit television link. Clause 33, which provides for the abolition of the requirement that the unsworn evidence of a child must be corroborated, is an important step forward. I welcome clause 44, which provides for an increase from two years to 10 years as the maximum prison term for the offence of child cruelty. I welcome clause 35 and its provision to enable the Attorney-General, with the leave of the Court of Appeal, to refer a case to it where the sentence appears to be unduly lenient. That could well be so in a case of child torture.

The Government cannot be criticised for failing to address themselves to this serious problem, but, unfortunately, all the advice available to me is that those welcome moves simply will not do the trick. The crux of the problem, as the police service sees it, is that, since the decision in the stated case of Regina v. Wallwork in 1958, it has been virtually impossible for a charge to be brought where the prosecution would have to rely—I stress the word "rely"—almost wholly on the evidence of a toddler. I quite understand and agree with the reasons that led that court to express its disapproval of bringing a child of tender years into court to give evidence, but I believe that, as the Police Federation says, the invention of video recording means that technology can now come to the aid of justice.

The Home Office, to its credit, has consulted about the possibility of admitting video recordings and has taken a keen interest, as has my hon. Friend the Minister of State, in the Bexley experiment, which I need not describe to the House. He has seen that experiment, as have other hon. Members, but what has been the outcome of the consultations and the experiment?

The response to the Home Office's consultative paper on that matter was overwhelmingly in favour of admitting video recordings. The police, the British Medical Association, the Council of Circuit Judges and 20 other respondents welcomed the proposal, and only three groups were against it. I can assure my hon. Friend that the chief superintendent in charge of the Bexley experiment believes intensely that the time has come to allow video recordings to be used, under proper safeguards, as the House will wish to ensure. It is worth quoting the conclusion of the Bexley experiment. Which was this: Further consideration should be given to the introduction of legislation to permit the criminal courts to accept video recorded interviews of children as evidence. 4 pm

I have spoken about the views of the police and will speak now about the views of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. I know that others more closely connected with it than I will want to refer to its comments. It says this: Many perpetrators admit their guilt when confronted with the testimony of an early video recording of a child's evidence … The American experience suggests that this may occur in a very high proportion of cases … The video recording … could significantly minimise the accumulation of stress before the court hearing by reducing the number of times the child has to repeat her story … It may also lead to a reduction in the pressure on the child from other members of the family to change her evidence. There is considerable experience of children retracting their evidence when subjected to prolonged family pressure. The NSPCC says: The children come under great stress … to sustain such strain, to delay the opportunity to begin treatment and to put bad experiences behind the child until after being called to give live evidence is to inflict great cruelty, risk permanent psychological scarring, and hazard the reliability of the evidence. It is far preferable to video record the child's story in a properly structured way as near as possible to the time of the incident. I agree with that.

Originally I tabled this new clause on behalf of the policewomen, but it now has the unanimous support of the Police Federation and, I believe, the entire police service. We agonised and worried over it for nearly two years. I accept that anybody not blessed with the advice of parliamentary draftsmen will not get it right. I have been a Minister and I know the difference between amateurs and professionals when it comes to drafting.

We have sought to achieve three aims. The first is to safeguard the rights of the accused. No man should be sentenced unless he can, through his counsel, test the evidence brought against him. I believe that my new clause achieves that. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I want to safeguard the child against the traumas of court appearances and cross-examination and the possibility of division being struck between what he said at one stage and what he said at another. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister and in particular my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary feel deeply about that. It is to their credit that they do so. Thirdly, the new clause is structured to allow justice to be done and to bring evil men and women to court.

Stage one of the process that I now propose is that, when a person is charged on indictment with an offence involving sexual abuse or molestation of a young child, a video recording of that child made as soon as possible after the event is discovered should be admissible as evidence, but it should not be admissible as evidence raw. Rather, the judge, the defence counsel and the prosecuting counsel in chambers should examine the video and determine what parts of it are extraneous and might involve other people, and what parts could properly be brought before the court. The judgment that has been made available to me is that, confronted with that evidence, many a defence counsel would change his client's plea to guilty, and the case would not need to go to the courts. Certainly that has been the experience of many of the states in America. That is the first stage of the judge and two counsel looking at the video and deciding which parts of it should go forward.

Lest anyone should imagine that this is unprecedented, let me remind the House that some years ago we insisted that all police interrogations should be audio recorded. I resisted that move and I was wrong to do so. Now that all police interrogations are audio recorded, experience has shown that extraneous matter thrown into those interrogations by some old lag who will take the opportunity of aspersing a Minister or someone like that must be removed. It is removed by agreement beween defence and prosecution, with the concurrence of the judge. I propose exactly the same procedure in respect of video recordings.

If the defence decided not to admit the offence and insisted that the case should go forward, as is the right of any accused, we have provided, in the remainder of the new clause, the means whereby a test can be made of the evidence. The jury would be able to see the video recording. The child would be in an adjoining room with one-way see-through glass so that the jury could see the child but the child would not be exposed to the panoply of the court. This, I can assure the House, is technically very easy to arrange. It is done all the time.

It would then be possible for the defence, with the consent of the judge, to have questions put to that child, transmitted by a prescribed officer of the court, probably a social worker, with whom the child felt comfortable, and the jury could see those questions being put to the child. That would safeguard the proper interests of the accused. Above all, we should be dealing with justice.

Let me now make a few comments on some of the arguments addused by my hon. Friend the Minister in his resistance to this new clause in the correspondence that he has courteously exchanged with me and the Police Federation. He said that he is not persuaded that material that has been video recorded for investigative purposes should be routinely admissible. We are talking not about it being routinely admissible, but about it being made available to the judge and the two counsel in chambers so that they may determine what shall or shall not be brought forward. It is our contention that this would lead to a number of guilty pleas.

Secondly, my hon. Friend said something that I find hard to swallow. He feels that experienced prosecutors would find it more difficult to establish a rapport with the child if they cannot take the child through the entire story. He is a curiously experienced prosecutor if he is unable to do that. In any case, if he is the prosecutor, he would have the inestimable benefit of that best evidence, that fresh evidence, of the video recording. We have provided the interlocutor precisely to enable the rapport with the child to be maintained. That will be someone with whom the child is comfortable and whom it trusts. He or she will be able to put the questions to the child in a manner and in language that will not disorient or disturb it under the direction of the judge.

At the heart of my hon. Friend's objection and that of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is the feeling that pressure on the child will be increased if small inconsistencies can be picked out between the child's video account, in the earlier stages, and the later account in court. That problem exists anyway. The child is, in any event, confronted with the original witness statement, which is the basis of the prosecution and such evidence as it is, one way or another, required to give in the court. The opportunity for the defence to divide the child's testament between what it said originally in a written statement and what it says in court is available to it in any event. The only difference is that a video recording would be virtually an unarguable account of events. It would be made not long after the commission of the crime and it would be subject to the judgment of the court, which means the judge and prosecuting counsel. None of the arguments of my hon. Friend is convincing to me.

The House has been patient in listening to the log of appalling events that I have outlined. If the new clause is defective—probably it is—I shall be happy to withdraw it in favour of new clause 21, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims). New clause 21 is shorter and simpler and is an enabling provision. I should be prepared to withdraw new clause 7 in favour of any new clause or amendment that my hon. Friend the Minister might with to introduce.

The Bill is passing through the House and we have a mischief in our land with which we must deal. Let the Government at least take powers within the Bill to introduce a system of the sort that I have outlined as, when or if the Home Secretary, after experiment, examination and consideration of the technicalities and the costs, is satisfied that it is ready. There is precedent for that. I resisted the introduction of audio recordings of police interrogations and the House insisted upon it. The Government reluctantly accepted the idea but said that they were not ready at that time to introduce such a system. They said, "We are not yet ready. We shall have to ascertain precisely how the system will operate." Six experiments were conducted throughout the country to ensure that audio recordings could be made fairly, objectively and efficiently. The power to introduce audio recordings was included in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

I ask the Minister to insert in the Bill the power to allow video recordings to be admissible as and when he and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary are satisfied that such recordings can be made efficiently and well. I ask for this for innocent children, not on behalf of the NSPCC, which wants it, not on behalf of circuit judges, not on behalf of the media, which are behind it, and not as a response to the great mass of public opinion. We owe it to children. I ask the Government to back the sense, if not the language, of the new clause.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

The House will be aware that I have the privilege of sitting on the central executive committee of the NSPCC, which warmly supports the proposal that video recordings should be accepted in the courts in child sexual abuse cases. If I do not develop the argument at great length, it is because my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) has already done so extremely effectively. The relative brevity of what I have to say should not be taken as a reflection of the strength of feeling within society, nor of my personal views on the issue.

The Government have already recognised how difficult it is for a child to give evidence in court. The Bill establishes the principle of a video link, which we shall be discussing later. Surely the next logical step from that is to recognise the value of a video recording of an interview that is made soon after the offence has come to light.

4.15 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds has given a number of dramatic examples. The problem is that we do not know the extent of child sexual abuse. We suspect that many cases are not reported. Father, stepfather, grandfather, uncle and sometimes even auntie involves the child in some sort of sexual activity and then says, "This is our secret." That is so often how it remains. It is extraordinary to note the number of adults who have, so to speak, surfaced and told of how they experienced child sexual abuse when they were young. This has happened in recent months since child sexual abuse has become much more widely discussed.

Another reason for our lack of knowledge is the lack of a national register of the cases that come to light. A more limited register is kept by the NSPCC, which last week released some figures. The figures revealed that the number of cases of child sexual abuse that were added to its register in 1987 increased over 1986 by 21 per cent. The society estimates a national figure of about 7,000 cases a year. Whatever the figures and whatever the extent of the problem, once the offence—or offences; more often than not, it is a long story of offences—is committed the damage has been done. To what extent can the damage be repaired? That depends upon others apart from the court. Surely it is incumbent upon our society that we do all that we can to prevent a repetition of the offence once it has come to light. That will be achieved by the conviction of the offender and by a sentence that will preclude, or at least lessen, the chances of him reoffending.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds said, many suspected offenders are not even charged, let alone convicted, because the prosecution is unable to proceed without the most vital evidence, which is that of the child. There may be several reasons for this. A child's memory is naturally short and it may he as long as a year before the case comes to court. In the intervening period the child may be subjected to many family influences that are designed to persuade it to change its story. Even if that is not the case, the child will probably have been treated by a social worker or someone of that sort, who will try to get the child to forget the experience to which it has been subjected. However, when several months have passed, it may be asked in court to remember certain incidents. However strong the suspicion or case against the person responsible for abuse of a child, the parents of the child may be unwilling to subject it to a court hearing. That is entirely understandable.

Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North)

Is that a valid argument? Under the new clause the defendant would be entitled to cross-examine the child in any event. If for some reason the child is not willing to give evidence, the prosecution will be in difficulties in any event. Is my hon. Friend aware that, in cross-examination, the cross-examining counsel does not pick questions out of the air? One has to take witnesses, especially child witnesses, through a sequence of events. The comment that it would be less traumatic for the child if the proposals in the new clause were accepted does not hold water and I ask my hon. Friend to reflect on whether they are bogus. In cross-examination the child will be taken all the way through the allegations.

Mr. Sims

I do not accept that it is necessary to do that, especially if there is a video recording. I accept that the ability to cross-examine may have to be available, and I shall come to that. That does not alter my argument that in the present circumstances parents are understandably reluctant to allow a child to appear before the courts. It is not difficult to imagine what the effect on the child is of the court setting, let alone being taken, as my hon. Friend suggested, in detail through the incidents which he or she has found so distressing. At the moment, after an offence has come to light, the child can be interviewed by a police officer and a written statement, which is available to the court, made. It is now possible for tape recorded material to be available to the court, so why not a video recording?

The problem with a written statement was mentioned in the Bexley experiment, which reported: Traditional methods of police interviewing, including the taking of a written statement, presented obvious difficulties. Even where the interviewer was able to develop sufficient rapport with a child to discover the nature of the offence, transposing the child's words into an acceptable form of written statement had evidential shortcomings, particularly where the child's vocabulary did not extend to recognised adult terminology. Police officers were often accused by defence lawyers of putting words into the child's mouth and interpreting the child's language incorrectly. That is the problem with written evidence. The great advantage of the video recording is that it captures the words the child uses and the gestures, expressions and the spontaneity with which he or she speaks. It enables the child to demonstrate what happened by using dolls far more effectively than is the case with words. Once a video has been done, it can be shown to others involved in the case who would otherwise have to subject the child to a series of similar interviews.

It is argued that if a video is accepted as evidence, the child will have to be available for cross-examination. I accept that, but that is already the case with a written statement. I suggest, however, that a video would be far more difficult to challenge. The evidence from the United States is that a high proportion of offenders, when faced in the early stages of an investigation with a video which they know can be produced in court, change their plea, thus avoiding the need for a trial.

Using videos in court is now being introduced in Canada. Videos are already used here by the NSPCC, for example, other than for court cases. I have had an opportunity to see a couple of them. We have also had the Bexley experiment. It was interesting and enabled the police and social services to work together. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has seen the Bexley experiment in action as well—I had the chance to see a video taken during an interview.

The NSPCC and Bexley experiment videos have been extremely valuable for those trying to discover more detail about a case and pursuing it, but they cannot be used to secure a conviction. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds said, even though a case may be strong, there cannot be a conviction because a child is unable to give evidence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds has set out in new clause 7 a detailed way in which the proposal could be implemented. He has tried to meet some of the legal and practical objections. I congratulate him and the Police Federation on their ingenuity, but I suspect that, when my hon. Friend the Minister replies, he will be able to draw attention to some technical imperfections. That is why I have tabled new clause 21, which is simply an enabling clause. It establishes that video recordings can be admissible as evidence, and it enables the Secretary of State to make relevant regulations.

I suggest that my new clause offers the way for the Government to accept the principle while leaving them free to decide on the details of how videos should be made and used. Having had an opportunity to study the subject, and having visited the Bexley experiment and discussed it with officers, I realise that there are important details to be considered.

There is the legal issue of how far leading questions are acceptable and how much of the video is acceptable. The judge can decide that having viewed the video beforehand. There are practical issues such as how many microphones there should be. It is not possible to keep a child still while giving an interview, and it is all very well to hide the microphone in a pot of flowers on a table, but the child may prefer to lie on the floor.

It is probably a good thing to have more than one camera. One of the difficulties which emerged in the Bexley experiment is that a child often turns his or her back on the camera or it is unclear what the child did with the dolls to demonstrate the alleged offence. It is not always possible to see clearly the expression on the child's face. The camera does not necessarily cover the whole room, so it can be suggested that there is somebody outside the camera's view who is indicating the answers that the child is required to give.

The ideal arrangement would be a fish-eye camera which covers the whole room and a separate camera, perhaps operated behind a one-way mirror, which is directed at the child's face and follows him or her. Both pictures could be shown on the screen. One could be superimposed or there could be a split screen.

All of these matters can be considered at leisure so that, when regulations are drawn up, they cover every eventuality. All that is needed at present is that the Secretary of State should take the necessary powers. I urge him to do so by accepting my new clause.

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

Yet again I rise to speak on behalf of young children who are or have been subjected to sexual abuse and violence, of adults who have been scarred by the perverted desire of some men —and some women—to abuse small children, and of the families who suffer from the effects of these cruel abuses, and to ask that the House supports a change in the law which I and many informed people believe would redress the balance in favour of innocent children and those who have been wrongfully accused whose cases, because of our restrictive laws, are never brought to court.

We should consider what the Bill provides to make it easier for young children to give evidence in court. It provides for the giving of evidence by live video link. At the moment, children must tell their stories in open court in the presence of the dependent. They often break down in tears or are struck dumb with fright. The video link would enable the child to give evidence from another room in the court. The court would be able to see the child, but the child would be able to see only the person who was speaking to him or her from the court.

The Bill also abolishes the law on corroboration. At present, no court may convict on a young child's evidence, or even on the evidence of several young children who give the same story, unless it is corroborated by a person of an age that the court thinks makes that person capable of giving sworn evidence. By its very nature, sexual abuse often takes place in secret between a child and the perpetrator. The abolition of this rule is long overdue and will enable the child's evidence to be heard and considered by the court. The Government must be congratulated on making some important changes, but they should be seen as only small steps in the overall need to redress the balance and to protect the innocent.

What else needs to be done? First, let us consider the case for the admission of video recordings as evidence. It seems obvious that a child's evidence is best obtained as soon as possible after the event. It would he a distinct advantage for a court to be able to see and to hear the child's first full coherent attempt to explain what he or she had been subjected to, with every hesitation, gesture and tone of voice safely recorded. Surely such evidence is as important in arriving at the truth as that given many months later by a child in open court, who may have forgotten some details or been influenced by suggestions. I am not one of those who believe that many children easily forget what has been done to them. I believe that they find it very hard indeed to forget.

It has been suggested that a video recording would be detrimental to and increase the stress on a child. What is the reasoning behind that? The supposition is that it will be necessary for a number of tapes to be made—one for evidence, one for the social worker and one for the psychiatrist—thus causing the child to retell her story a number of times. In fact, that objection is unrealistic, because the child is already questioned repeatedly by the police, social workers, doctors, lawyers and so on.

Need there be a number of tapes? Why does the Minister assume that there must be? Could not a tape be made that shows the child being put at ease and questions being asked by properly trained people who are acceptable to the court and aware of the use that will be made of the tape?

4.30 pm

Many people may wonder whether a training programme has been considered. It has, and much work has been done by social workers, police and doctors working together. A training programme has been introduced that includes self awareness in attitudes to joint working, sexual abuse, procedural and legal aspects of child sexual abuse and the technical skills of interviewing. Most of those who have attended that training programme feel strongly that a joint investigative approach reduces the trauma for a child.

Is it not feasible for a judge, in conjunction with the prosecution and defence, and having seen the whole tape, to determine how much of the video recording should be shown to the jury as admissible evidence, but with the added safeguard that an unedited tape could be available to the prosecution, the defence and the judge?

If a video tape is unclear it should be banned, but it is not an answer to ban all tapes including those done fairly. It is thought by some that a video recording would remove the right of the defence to cross-examine the child. Why should they think that? Is it that they do not realise that the video recording is only part of the evidence presented to the court and is not the whole case? Of course, the defence must maintain its right, under the direction of the judge, to cross-examine a witness. How could the interests of justice be served if that were not so? After all, it is justice that so many hon. Members on both sides of the House want, for both the child and the accused.

It is said by some, including the Minister, that evidence given on a video recording could conflict in some details with the evidence given in court and therefore cause additional stress to the child while being cross-examined. If that is so, we must ask ourselves what is more stressful to the child. At present, she must repeat in court, from memory and without help, the story that she originally told to the police months earlier. The proposal is to use the original video statement in the child's own words, admissible to the court as part of the prosecution evidence and on which the child could be cross-examined. That is surely a fuller and more reliable statement than that which the child manages to utter in the witness box.

People may be worried that the child giving live evidence could be cross-examined on discrepancies between what she said in court and what she said on a tape, but that is an evil already with us under the existing rules of evidence. Those who fear the planting of evidence by questioning on an uncontrolled video should consider whether a nine months' delay in the case coming to court should be a greater cause of concern because of the opportunities to plant evidence in that child's mind. Is not a video recording taken as soon as possible after the event, in a manner admissible to the court, a better protection for both the child and the accused? Surely it must be. Is it not more satisfactory, in seeking the truth, that a judge should be able to decide whether undue pressure was put on a child when she first told her story? Surely it must be. That is what a video recording will achieve.

There has been much support for a change in the law. Of those who responded to the Home Office consultation paper issued in May 1987, only one organisation was positively against the proposals, and one person felt unable to comment. The remainder were in favour. They included Baroness Lane-Fox, of the all-party children's group, John Spencer, tutor in law at Selwyn college, Cambridge, the British Medical Association, Cambridgeshire social services, the London Boroughs Association, the Council of Her Majesty's Circuit Judges, the Justices' Clerks Society, the Criminal Bar Association, the National Federation of Women's Institutes, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the Children's Legal Centre, Dr. Barnardo's, the West Yorkshire police authority, the National Children's Home, Rotherham metropolitan council, the Inner-London Juvenile Courts Panel, the NSPCC, the National Council of Women of Great Britain, the National Children's Bureau, the Police Federation, the Association of Educational Psychologists, the British Psychological Society, the Association of County Councils, the Health Visitors Association, the Greater Manchester police authority, the British Paediatric Association, Somerset county council, the Metropolitan police and the London hospitals' college consultant in child and adolescent psychiatry. That is a great cross-section of people, but in fact many more individuals support the proposals.

I want to deal with a child having questions put through a third person during cross-examination through a video link. Let us consider a six-year-old child whose private parts are covered in sexual warts. Her mother's brother, whom the child has alleged buggered her on several occasions while baby sitting, is also found to have the same type of sexual warts on his private parts. There is clear evidence that the mother's brother is molesting the child. The accused is aware of how frightened the child is of him, and also that unless he admits the offence there is no chance of the case being brought to court. Therefore, he does not admit the offence. The little girl is taken from her family and put into care, but the man is still at large, free to molest and infect other children.

Where is the sense in a law that allows that to happen? Would it not be better to have a video recording of the child being gently questioned? It is to be hoped that the accused, having been shown the video and knowing that it would be acceptable to the court, would admit the offence, thus allowing treatment for him and giving the innocent child the opportunity to return to her home and family.

In Texas, video recordings of children's evidence have been shown to the accused, of whom 221 out of 235 have consequently admitted the offence, thus saving the child any further stress. The American Bar Association Journal, volume 70, contains a report from the Minneapolis police stating that during the first two years of video tape interviews of child abuse cases it never lost a case and no child had to be called by the defence to testify. In the third year, 60 out of 75 defendants in cases of child abuse pleaded guilty as soon as they saw videos of the interviews.

If the young child was nevertheless brought to court, would it not make sense to make some provision for questioning to be put through a third person by video link, at the discretion of the judge, if the judge found it difficult to put the questions to the child himself? I accept that the method proposed for third-party questioning in the new clause is not necessarily the best, but it nevertheless raises the need for consideration to be given to the matter.

It is of course necessary to consider the question of competency. At present, under the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, a child must understand the duty of speaking the truth as interpreted in Wallwork (1958) 42 Criminal Appeal Reports. That precludes the court from hearing any child of five or under and makes it very difficult to accept the evidence of a child under eight. That abstract idea of duty to speak the truth can, and does, present problems to a child who is old enough to describe her experiences, but too young to grasp a concept such as duty.

It is time that we moved on from 1933 and scrapped the competency requirement. In Scotland the courts are able to listen to children down to the age of three. Why should that not apply in England and Wales as well? If the Government cannot bring themselves to go as far as that, the wording should be altered to make it easier for young children to be listened to. There is no evidence to support the idea that they are less capable of telling the truth than adults. Many adults are very good liars and will happily lie their heads off for their own ends, but no one ever suggests that they should not be allowed to give evidence. Why should the law make it more difficult for children?

The law as it stands cannot be said to give justice to young children. No one knows better than the child who has been beaten, starved or sexually abused what was done to him, and by whom. All that my hon. Friends and I ask is that young children should have the chance to be listened to. We should make provision in the Bill to enable them to give their evidence, and to let the judge and jury decide on the guilt or innocence of the accused by hearing all the evidence. Surely that is what justice is about, and I beg the Minister for the sake of all our children to make provision for it in the Bill.

Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

I wish to speak only briefly on this important debate.

I followed the arguments presented by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding). It would indeed be difficult to find anyone who opposed the principle of the new clause. I also listened carefully to what was said by my hon. Friends the Members for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) and for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims). My hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst and I are both magistrates. We understand that this is a complicated issue, and that we may do immense damage and defeat the very object that we are trying to secure if we are not careful. Immediately attractive though this idea is, I have serious doubts about it.

There is a danger that what is being proposed may end up making things much harder for the child victim rather than improving his lot, which I know is very much on hon. Members' minds today. First, the use of the new technology in video recordings is still very much in its infancy, and the technology itself is changing almost by the month. We are contemplating a change in the law when the technology is not yet perfected. Secondly, associated with the change in technology is the need to ensure that the police are trained in its use, which is a very skilled technique. I very much doubt whether the criminal investigation departments of the 43 police forces in England and Wales will easily be able to absorb the changes that the new clause seeks to make.

I believe that the way forward is as proposed by the Government, and that the proposal to enable young children to give evidence in an anteroom of the Crown court by live television link, rather than in the court room itself, is a major and welcome advance. I am sure that the whole House will endorse that.

4.45 pm

The cardinal principle in proceedings before a jury in the Crown court is that those who seek to secure the prosecution must produce the evidence. I see no alternative, in certain circumstances, to the child being available to answer questions in the way that we now understand the jury system and Crown court procedure to operate. I do not see how that can be avoided.

The Bexley experiment has been valuable. It has enabled the police and the social services department to work closely with others concerned for the welfare of the child. An interview thus obtained is probably natural, and suits both the needs and convenience of the variety of practitioners who have different parts to play in the proceedings and, in particular, the welfare of the child. If we change the nature of the interview, there is a danger that it will become more formal, because those recording it are bound to have in the back of their minds the knowledge that it could well be used in criminal proceedings before a Crown court jury. If it becomes more formal—as the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme has suggested—the whole purpose of the interview will be damaged, and that cannot be what we intend in wishing to improve the welfare of child victims.

Such an interview would probably have to be edited to remove the part that would not be admissible as evidence before a jury. There would then be a problem over the editing. Learned counsel for the defence would be bound to say, "The bit that is missing is the vital bit that would help to secure the acquittal of my client." That conflict lies at the heart of the problem, and I do not see how it can be avoided.

For all those reasons, I feel that my hon. Friend the Minister should think very carefully before agreeing to accept the new clause.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

Many of us were here late on Thursday night to follow a tantalising and fascinating debate, which I watched from the Strangers' Gallery. That was an extraordinary experience. This debate, while it may be calmer, is none the less extremely important.

We are dealing with one of those problems and scourges of our time which may be ineradicable but which preoccupy us all. Having lived through the events in Cleveland last year, my knowledge and experience come from personal observation. At an early stage I set for myself a context in which to examine such issues. First, we had to prosecute the perpetrator; secondly, we had to protect the child; thirdly, we had to protect the innocent family. Those principles, not necessarily in that order, should be the goals and priorities of people considering the issues of child care law.

This is a timely debate because, as the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) has said, the NSPCC issued its figures a few days ago. It is also a year ago this week that the Cleveland child abuse crisis broke across the nation, and in two or three weeks time we shall obtain from Lord Justice Butler-Sloss a report which, I am sure, is awaited with great interest by hon. Members on both sides of the House and by the public.

I am irritated by the number of false prophets who tell us what is in that report when it has hardly reached the Minister's desk. The only information to which I am privy is that it is 700 pages long in typescript; no doubt its size will be reduced in print. As far as I know, there are no leaks of the report. We are looking forward to the recommendations, which will be helpful to the Government. The child care reform White Paper issued in January 1987 provides further guidance. It is my earnest hope that the Government will produce a child care law incorporating the recommendations of Lord Justice Butler-Sloss and the recommendations and conclusions of the White Paper. I am grateful to Lord Justice Butler-Sloss for deciding to return to Cleveland to tell us her conclusions about what happened in 1987 and, it is to be hoped, how we may avoid a recurrence of those appalling events.

As I said at the time, what happened in Cleveland was about a particular diagnosis of reflex anal dilatation and not about the issues of child abuse referred to by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths), who gave the House a series of categorical cases in chronological order to show what child abuse is about. In Cleveland, we were dealing with a controversial diagnosis, how that diagnosis was handled and what conclusions might be drawn from that. We await the report.

In the meantime we are discussing the new clauses. It may help if I refer to some of the Cleveland families' experiences. During the long saga that afflicted both children and parents there were video sessions with children. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds was referring to the video that could be used in criminal proceedings. In Cleveland, we were considering videos that would be used in civil proceedings in giving evidence before the High Court. Children and social workers were confronted with a dilemma that was different from the one to which the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds referred. In the cases to which he referred, there was clear evidence of sexual abuse that the child had reported and the problem was how to collate it—whether on the basis of a police statement as at present or on the basis of a video that could be used before a court. In Cleveland, we had an extraordinary situation in which a medical diagnosis had been made and social workers were then called to obtain a disclosure from the child. That was extraordinarily difficult if, as happened in many cases that ended up before the High Court, the children were found not to have been sexually abused at all.

One child of seven had about seven interviews, four of which were general interviews with a policewoman, one was with a consultant paediatrician and two involved non-directive play therapy. Three video recordings were made, of which two survived. A social worker destroyed the tapes rather than have them shown to a judge in a court. One can see how delicate and sensitive an issue video evidence is and how it must be treated with the utmost caution.

On one of the videos a social worker was seen to suggest to a child who refused to make a disclosure that what happened in her family home might have happened to her while she was asleep. The social worker said: You are going to be with foster parents for quite a while, OK, you know that, don't you? Whatever happens, you have got to he with foster parents. Even if they do not tell us, we are not going to let you go back. I'm going to fight really hard for you not to go back home, OK? One can imagine the feelings of a seven-year-old child in the world of video evidence with sometimes a police officer present and sometimes not, but with a social worker trying to make her feel at home. Even so the child felt terribly alone and isolated and insisted that she had not been abused by anyone. A girl who was described as having a sunny disposition became sullen and nervous as time passed. In a civil sense, the issue in Cleveland was who had control over the family—was it the social services or the doctors, or did control lie within the family unit?

We have to disentangle the cases of clear sexual abuse that the hon. Members for Bury St. Edmunds and for Chislehurst and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) described from those civil cases where the child categorically refuses to say that he has been interfered with, in which no evidence goes to court and the family is cleared.

In another case in Cleveland, a boy was interviewed four times and a girl three times. There were several interviews before the first video recording was made—not counting the police interviews. There was an unwitnessed and unrecorded interview with a doctor and there were interviews with a child psychiatrist and a social worker. All of those took place before the child was led into the room where the video recording was to take place. One must ask what kind of pressure may be put on a child before he gets into the video room and before the video camera begins to record. What will a defence counsel make of that in court?

The hon. Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler), who has experience as a magistrate, referred to those difficulties. It is incumbent upon a counsel to seek to elicit all the evidence in the interests of the accused whom he is defending. In Cleveland, there was a background of different interviews before the child entered the room in which the recording was to be made. There were cases in Cleveland when, regrettably, after six months of disclosure sessions a child would finally ask, "If I say my father did it, can I now go home?" That was recorded on the video.

Most of the video evidence in Cleveland never saw the light of day in a court of law; once counsel for Cleveland county council saw the evidence, it was ruled inadmissible and it was withdrawn. One of the social services representatives in the cases that went before the court suggested that those cases would have been won if all the evidence had been presented, but the evidence could not be presented because it was inadmissible. There had been leading and menacing questions and the children had been threatened so that the whole exercise was inadmissible as evidence.

In dealing with children's evidence, we need to understand its significance in a case wholly unrelated to the events in Cleveland. Three children had been sexually abused. When they disclosed this to their teacher at school they named the wrong perpetrator—their uncle rather than their stepfather. They did not want their stepfather to be removed from the family home. One child's evidence was very clear and the description of what had happened could not be refuted, but the child had given the wrong name. The man was arrested because the evidence was clear and only later, when the child was threatened with further abuse by the real perpetrator, did he say who had really committed the abuse. The consequences were dramatic. The man hanged himself in Durham gaol. That was the terrible tragic consequence of being wrongfully named by the child, who was seeking to protect his stepfather.

When we raise the emotive tone of our discussions of child abuse and consider the human drama experienced by the child, we must also consider the human drama of the parents, who may be entirely innocent but whose family life has come under serious attack.

The hon. Member for Westminster, North referred also to technology. It may be that technology and the law are outstripping the skills of those who might carry out video recordings. The police and some social workers have such skills, but I notice that the new clause refers to qualified social workers. In Cleveland, there was a lack of skill, common sense, and proper approach to family life and children. There must be some doubt about whether the necessary skills exist at the moment.

5 pm

It is rather nonchalant of me—I did not examine the Bill during all its stages—to make recommendations to the Government on how to handle the new clauses. I am grateful to my learned Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) for joining us. I read with interest his speeches on these matters in Committee. He urged caution. I have often referred to the Cleveland child abuse crisis in relation to the Salem witch-hunts of 1692, when innocent people were obliged not only to defend their innocence but to prove it before the people of Salem. Nineteen members of the Salem community were hanged by law and one pressed himself to death before the unhappy events came to an end. They came to an end because the puritan elders of Salem urged exquisite caution upon the citizens, the judiciary, and so on. I urge the Government to exercise exquisite caution when dealing with these matters.

The Cleveland child abuse inquiry report will be available in two weeks. No doubt the video evidence that was used in the proceedings will be the subject of some recommendations. Although we all might welcome the extension of video evidence in relation to abused children and their traumas, my final word to the House is that exquisite caution might be the order of the day.

Mr. John Watts (Slough)

I am sure that the House will agree that the sexual abuse of children is one of the most evil crimes that society must face today.

I listened with great interest and care to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell). I agree that there is a need for caution in these matters so that one does not lightly enter into prosecutions if there is no foundation. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that there is a clear distinction between circumstances in which no allegation has been made by a child but when, for misguided reasons, people actively look for cases of child abuse—that was the case in Cleveland—and the problem that was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths), in which children may have made accusations and been investigated by the police, and the police are absolutely satisfied that the accusations are true, but our present judicial procedures prevent prosecution and conviction of those who are guilty of such evil crimes.

My support for the new clause is based upon two or three cases in my constituency. They were brought to my attention by parents who were distraught at the knowledge that, because of our legal procedures, no prosecution could be brought against those who have perpetrated evil crimes against their children. I concede that some of the measures within the Bill go a long way to facilitating prosecution when it is justified. In particular, I refer to the removal of the requirement for a child's evidence to be corroborated when the child is too young to give evidence on oath and the introduction of the facility for a child to give evidence through a live video link to avoid the distressing experience of having to give evidence in open court and facing the person who committed the offences.

We should go one step further and admit into evidence a video recording of an interview in the police station, close to the time when the offence was reported—we may then have a contemporaneous account from the child—with the safeguards in the new clause, so that the admissibility of the video recording may be considered by a judge in chambers before it is shown to the jury. Also, there should be a facility for a child to be cross-examined, through the video link, on the evidence contained within the video recording.

Mr. Gerald Birmingham (St. Helens, South)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are two great dangers in having two films? The first set is made shortly after the event when the child is in a highly emotional state. He or she is wide open to suggestion, and is shown various things and makes various comments. A little while later, when he or she is over the trauma of whatever did or did not happen, the child is interviewed in respect of the court case, cross-examined by way of the video link, and so on. What will happen when the child is shown that there are glaring differences between the two sets of allegations? That is dangerous not only for the defendant but to the child in the long term.

Mr. Watts

if in the initial interview a child made comments or accusations becase he was led or coerced, it would become apparent to the judge and counsel from viewing such evidence. If there were subsequent discrepancies between that evidence and that which was obtained at a later date, it would, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, cast doubt on the veracity and validity of the evidence. I do not resile from that.

I approach these matters with the benefit of not being burdened by a legal background. My concern is that, when such crimes are committed, we should not so load the balance of our judicial system that prosecutions cannot be brought and convictions cannot be secured. With this Bill, the Government have gone a long way towards redressing the balance. I should like the Government to go a little further along the lines suggested by my hon. Friends the Members for Bury St. Edmunds and for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims). If we are serious about dealing with this evil crime, we must make sure that our judicial procedures permit prosecution and conviction.

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

In this instance we should agree that the interests of the child are paramount. That is easily said. Various pieces of legislation dealing with children and adoption and fostering state that the interests of the child should be paramount. In the children's hearing system in Scotland the interests of the child are paramount, but in England the interests of children who may have been most bitterly and repulsively reviled are not paramount. That seems strange. If the interests of the child are paramount, justice is much more likely to be served. There may well be children who make false accusations and incorrect statements, but they are also victims who need considerable assistance. What causes a child to make such accusations against people? We need to consider this matter consistently from the child's point of view.

What would be the use of video recordings in proceedings about sexual offences against children? We must think about the physical surroundings of a court for a child and how intimidating and bewildering the proceedings are. That adds to the stress and complex emotions experienced by a child victim. During the debate hon. Members often seemed to imply that we are talking about isolated instances of sexual abuse that occur on a one-off basis. The normal pattern is of continuing abuse, which may go back for several years, and which may be endemic within the family. A court is an austere setting, with strange people in unfamiliar dress.

My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) spoke of the lack of skill of social workers. That may be true in some cases, but is it any wonder, considering that we attempt to train them for this complex task within one or two years? Perhaps we should talk more about the lack of skill among lawyers. They may well have been trained for many years, yet be singularly inept at using their professional skills to obtain the truth from a child.

A child will find it difficult to understand the functions of all the people in the court, will not understand the proceedings and the language, and is likely to be intimidated by the objections, arguments and motions of counsel. Above all, the child will have to face the accused—the alleged perpetrator of the offence—which will be the most daunting experience. The child may be afraid of, or angry with, the accused. The child may even love the accused, or be bound up in all those complex emotions and feel intense guilt. It is intimidating to have to describe sexual experiences in front of the accused while feeling all those emotions. I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) describing various cases. To hear that language in this House and to realise how awkward it is here brought home to me how intimidating it must be for a child to find the appropriate words.

The timing of a court hearing or trial will often be many months after the event, and it may be difficult for a child to open up after such a period, or to remember and repeat the details of the offence. If the interests of the child are to be paramount, it is important that the child should heal and recover from those experiences. If there is anything that we can do by not forcing the child, many months after the event, to open up those wounds again, we should take that opportunity.

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is the defendant's right to cross-examine any witness in court? I have the most profound reservations about the new clause because it places an intermediary between counsel, the voice of the defendant and the voice of the prosecutor, and the child. Surely any person accused of these filthy crimes has every right to test the evidence, to put questions, and not to have them interpreted or changed by an intermediary.

5.15 pm
Mr. Worthington

This is a foul crime to be accused of and to have committed against one. The interests of the accused must seriously be taken into account and I agree that that would include the right to cross-examine. One of the most powerful facts in convincing me that this is a good new clause is the number of trials that would not take place because the quality of the evidence of the child would make it clear to the accused that he did not have a chance of getting off. If we can avoid children being cross-examined unnecessarily because we can get better evidence, we shall be adding to the amount of justice in society.

Many of the objections about the technology are stone age and Luddite. People who have become used to pen and paper will not accept that a better quality of evidence will be available through video. No doubt when, in the past, we were talking about written statements some lawyers said that this new-fangled thing, the slate, could not be accepted.

The Scottish Law Commission has recently produced valuable research evidence on this theme. Kathleen Murray has looked at the use of videos in the United States of America, and she states: The child's demeanour, facial expressions and gestures are preserved. If the interviewer's behaviour or the child's story is later questioned, the recording can provide a verbatim account of the early interview. The tape can be used by others involved in the case and thereby spare the child from repeating accounts of the alleged abuse. That is a powerful case.

The advantages of the proposal is that the child would be in more sympathetic physical surroundings. I accept that the presence of video cameras is not automatically homely, but such surroundings would be considerably more homely and relaxed than the atmosphere of a court. I hope that a child would be interviewed in a room with child-sized chairs and removed from the awesomeness of wigged and gowned judges and counsel. The child would also be spared the intimidating nature of motions, objections and arguments.

Lawyers may try to make people feel at ease, but inevitably when they play on home ground they constantly forget and lapse into language that is intimidating or obscure to others. Under the proposal, a child would be interviewed by a person specially trained for the purpose. That is extremely important. Those skills are precious and the interview needs to be done sensitively. My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, in saying that many social workers do not have these skills, is making the point that it is a skilled business to get a child to relax and go over painful experiences. If skilled social workers do not exist in sufficient numbers, it is likely that others with such skills do not either.

Another difficulty is that the memory required from a child in court is, in psychological terms, an advanced form of memory. It is asking the child to recall. Many small children do not have the skill—nor do many adults—to recall in logical order what occurred. It is a different skill from the skill of recognition or reconstruction, where the child's knowledge can be liberated if the surroundings or the stimuli are appropriate. We must create circumstances that will free the information held by the child, and intimidation and stress can reduce a person's willingness and ability to retrieve information from his memory.

Mr. Bermingham

Why does my hon. Friend believe that a child who is videoed immediately after a dramatic event, who may have been removed from his home circumstances and who is suffering from considerable pressure and emotional upheaval will have a better memory than a child who has been allowed to get over the shock of separation, is spoken to gently, is counselled and later asked to give evidence, perhaps by way of a video link to a separate room?

Mr. Worthington

It is likely that the earlier the memory is called upon, the more it will be accurate. I have had only one experience of being in a court, when I was called as a witness to a drunken affray. Several months later, in court, I identified a distinguished member of the legal profession as one of the people who had committed the crime. That brought home to me the fallibility of memory over a long period. Especially with children, an account given soon after the incident is more likely to be accurate. But, of course, I take into account my hon. Friend's point about emotions.

Mr. Devlin

Any practising member of the Bar would tell the hon. Gentleman that often people who are interviewed immediately after an event have a very jumbled idea of exactly what happened. I am sure that it would be even worse with children. The difficulty with the early video is that there will inevitably be questions which lawyers would have wished to ask, or points with which they would have taken issue, on which the child cannot be cross-examined.

Mr. Worthington

We are after the most accurate reconstruction of events. If we can have the freshness of a video that is made at an early stage, it will add to the quality of evidence. In any event, the later recall can he tested in court. The vividness of the video that is recorded early will be very important.

For years society has failed to consider seriously the evidence of children. We have given pre-eminence to legal practitioners and, as the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds said, allowed them, through their procedures, to cause massive injustices to occur. The advice given by legal practitioners about the quality of evidence that they will allow has caused massive injustice, especially to the most vulnerable and insecure. We must also acknowledge the commonly held belief that the evidence of children, especially girls, is less to be trusted than that of adults. Recent research discounts the arguments about the fantasies of children, but because some people have held those beliefs about fantasies, we have allowed injustice to occur.

Taking Kathleen Murray's point, the Scottish Law Commission believes that the evidence from what has gone on in the United States and elsewhere is that interviews should take place as soon as possible, and that they should be as few as possible. That is another problem. I expect that many hon. Members used to play the party game where one has to tell a story, which then goes from person to person and one does not recognise the story that comes out at the end. That may occur if a child is asked to repeat a story many times. Its accuracy may diminish. We should also ensure that the interviews are carried out by trained people and, if possible, always by the same person.

The Scottish Law Commission produced a discussion document containing two options that are currently being considered in Scotland. The first was: Where an accused has been charged and a child is likely to be required to give evidence in a criminal trial the procurator fiscal should be entitled, at his discretion, to arrange for that child to be interviewed by an independent interviewer. For this purpose the interviewer may be from any background, whether professional or otherwise, but should be skilled and experienced in suitable interviewing techniques, and should be approved for the purpose by the Sheriff Principal for the court district concerned. The interview should be conducted in a suitable room having a one-way glass screen on one wall. The accused and his lawyer, and the procurator fiscal, should be entitled to be behind this screen, out of sight of the child, but they should be able to communicate with the interviewer (using microphones and an ear receiver) so as to suggest desired lines of questioning to be put to the child. During the interview it should be possible, at the discretion of the interviewer, for the child to be accompanied by a parent or other adult. The whole interview should be video recorded. The alternative option would be to make the interview admissible in lieu of more formal evidence by the child, but both the accused and the prosecutor would have an absolute right to require the child to give evidence in a more formal manner. The world is waiting for us to move on this issue. Our present court procedures are manifestly inadequate and cause a great deal of injustice. It is no use waiting for technology. We must make our decision now. There has been much evidence in recent years that children who have been sexually abused are then further abused by the courts. We should put that shame behind us.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

The remarks of the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) have stung me to intervene. Legal practitioners are not the cause of injustice in our society; the ill-thought-out laws and procedures that are laid down in this place are at the root of injustice. Legal practitioners, in common with Members of Parliament—although at a later stage in the proceedings—afford the only real protection to the individual against the injustices of the system, of the Establishment and of the machinery of government. To think otherwise is totally to misunderstand the role of the defence lawyer in our society.

5.30 pm

As my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr. Watts) has already said, the problem is not the burden of a legal background, but that hon. Members do not realise the practical problems behind many of their well-meaning ideas. It is not just the impracticality of this proposal that causes me concern, but its possible counter-productivity.

In practice it is extremely difficult to ask questions through an interpreter—that is what a "prescribed officer" would be. Juries do not want to do an injustice to defendants, however horrifying the crime with which they are charged. When a defendant is charged with a horrifying crime, a jury particularly wants to ensure that justice is done. From my experience, I know that juries will not want social workers, child psychologists or probation officers acting as a further barrier to an understanding between the questioner and the answerer. Even if good interpreters are always available in our courts whenever they are wanted, which I very much doubt, even if those interpreters want to do such work, which I very much doubt, and even if they could do it without emotion and with objectivity, which I doubt, new clause 7 would establish barriers in the process of persuading a jury of the guilt or innocence of the accused, and therefore I object to it. If too many barriers are erected between those acting for the accused and the child witness, the result will be not more convictions of the guilty, but, I fear, more acquittals of the guilty.

Mr. Bermingham

I was saddened by the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington). He normally applies terrific logic to what he says, but in his contribution tonight logic appears to have been lost in the sea of emotion. Although there is much to be said as to how we can best prosecute and secure the conviction of evil men and women for child abuse—it is not a male-only crime—we must, as I said in Committee, tread with caution.

The hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence), who has great experience in such matters, was right to say that if we erect too many barriers and raise too many questions we will run too great a risk of acquittals. Let us suppose that a child has been gently interviewed and videoed shortly after it has been taken into care. That is an emotive time and one of great stress. Arising from that video, questions may he asked by a social worker or police officer. For the sake of argument, let us assume that those individuals are extremely skilled. They can look for all the nuances and for all the evidential problems that may arise later. If that child breaks down in the course of that video recording, should we edit that video? Do we take such bits from the video film, which may take four, five, six, seven or eight hours to record? Which bits do we tape? The minute one begins to edit, one gives the defence an open sesame. The defence will cry "cheat" or "foul". It is bound to do so in the interest of its client, and such is the duty of the defending solicitor or counsel in any court room. I declare my interest in such matters.

It is the duty of the defence to look for holes in the prosecution case. In our system one must never forget—and I do not seek to preach a sermon—that it is not for the defence to prove anything. It is for the Crown to prove its case. The defence is under no duty to give or to call evidence. It can spend the whole of its time asking questions, and, at the end, say, "Members of the jury, the Crown has failed to prove its case."

There are some who would like the burden of proof to be shifted, and regrettably that tendency is growing. While we maintain a system that puts the burden of proof upon the Crown, the very introduction of the suggested preliminary stage creates an enormous hurdle for it. That hurdle is created because of the length of time it takes to make the video. It will not be shown in full to the court; it will be edited. Such a video may then be contrasted with a case where the child has refused to give evidence.

Mr. Worthington

Does my hon. Friend agree that the statements that are put in front of the court are a heavily edited account of what occurred in terms, for example, of the police investigation of a case?

Mr. Bermingham

That is not the case in the English system. A written statement is the means by which a person sets out his or her allegations. It is not edited. If it were found to be so, the unedited, unexpurgated version would be produced for the defence as a matter of law under the Attorney-General's guidelines relating to unused material. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) has a question, he should stand up and ask it and I will answer it. The hon. Gentleman should not seek to make a sedentary intervention, which is bad manners.

Editing is unknown to our law. There have been experiments regarding tape, recordings where the whole tape untampered with and untouched, is delivered to the defence. It may be that an agreed synopsis is produced, but it must be agreed. If it is not, the full version must be accepted.

When tape recordings are made at a police station, tried and experienced officers ask the questions. New clause 7 provides not for the investigating authority or, in the ultimate stage, the prosecuting authority to ask questions, but rather for social workers or some other well-trained person to do so. I am not critical of that, but I am suggesting that one would be presented with a hostage to fortune. The minute that a third-party stage is introduced, one runs the risk of conflict of evidence and continuity of evidence as well as all sorts of other risks. In common with the hon. and learned Member for Burton, I suspect that one would run the even greater risk of the guilty going free. At this stage I am not prepared to accept that risk.

In Committee I urged considerable caution. I am not averse to the idea of a child giving its evidence in a separate room within the court. I can see a lot of wisdom in that, as well as in a child being interviewed via a video link. At the Old Bailey, for example, it has been found that screens have worked in certain cases, and children have given their evidence freely and well.

I looked with care at this new clause. The spirit behind it is the same as the spirit of those who seek to protect children. Those of us who oppose the new clause do not do so because we want to deny children their rights. We urge that we should proceed with great care so that ultimately every person who is prosecuted for such a heinous crime, where evidence exists against that person, will be convicted.

In our land it is for the Crown to prove its case. We should not rush into untried or experimental systems. We should not set them in tablets of stone, as we do in this place, and then leave it to others to sort out. That is why I was saddened by the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie about lawyers. It should not be left to the lawyers to scrabble around in a morass and say, "How on earth can we protect the citizens of this state?" The spirit of the new clause is good, but its construction and drafting are appalling. I ask the House to vote against it.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Before I came into the Chamber I was reading my local newspaper, the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, in which there is a story of a young lady who claimed that she had been raped. There was a hue and cry and, according to the report, 20 detectives were involved. After a few days, the lady changed her mind. It was all a hoax—but it could have all been video-recorded.

As the Member of Parliament whose constituency includes one third of Middlesbrough, I have been deeply involved in what has happened over child sex abuse there, although my colleague on the Labour Benches, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), carried the weight. At the height of the problems one of my constituents, a social worker, went missing for a few days, and it was thought that she might have taken her own life. Fortunately, that was not so. She returned and is now all right. But the pressures on that social worker caused that problem. I should be absolutely appalled if I thought that the House would pass the new clause.

I hear comments that we must look after the interests of the children. I believe that we must look after the interests of justice, and the Criminal Justice Bill is for that purpose. It would be wrong and foolish of the House at this stage to pass the new clause without a specialist authority with a wider remit looking at the concept of video recording——

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Holt

No, because I have been asked to make a brief speech.

That should happen whether it is for child sex abuse, rape or any other concept. The House would be misled if it agreed to the new clause.

The idea of a qualified social worker being an intermediary frightens the life out of me. I have been at the heart of the child sex abuse problems in Cleveland, and one thing that we do not want is the intermediary in a child sex abuse case to be a "qualified social worker"——

Sir Eldon Griffiths

The new clause does not say that.

Mr. Holt

With respect, the new clause says: a prescribed officer of the court shall be a qualified social worker". That is what we are being asked to agree to and that is what I am opposing. So far, no one has been asked to learn the skills of conducting an interview when it is video-recorded. Yet hon. Members are proposing that, under the law, a qualified person without those skills should conduct the interview.

I was asked to speak briefly. However, one does not need to speak at length to make a point that should carry weight with the House, especially with hon. Members such as my colleague the hon. Member for Middlesbrough and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin), who also represents part of Middlesbrough. Those of us who come from that area would find it difficult to face our constituents and all those who have been deeply involved if we supported the new clause. I ask all those who are concerned about justice for everybody, not only the child, but all the relatives and perhaps the accused person, to think long and hard before supporting such a loose and woolly new clause.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

In contrast to the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt), I believe that many children throughout the United Kingdom have been saved from a pretty miserable and horrible fate by the intervention of a qualified and deeply compassionate social worker. That should not be forgotten.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) seems to have been subjected to some quite severe criticism today because he argued that the interests of the child must be paramount. I have a great deal of sympathy for that viewpoint, but I suppose that the law must reconcile the interests of the child with those of the accused. The two principal promoters of the new clauses, the hon. Members for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) and for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims), have sought to attain the most difficult of objectives. In my view, the criminal investigation of such cases must require the most humane and compassionate treatment of the children involved. In too many cases, interviews are inflicted upon the children, which places an intolerable strain on them. Another dreadful strain inflicted upon the children in such cases is the knowledge that, if they tell the truth, in all probability they will wreck their own family. I believe that such knowledge reduces many children to silence.

5.45 pm

The whole procedure must become more humane. I compliment the hon. Members for Bury St. Edmunds and for Chislehurst, and those who have supported the new clauses, on seeking to develop that trend, but I have a couple of reservations about both new clauses and some questions for their promoters. For example, does new clause 7 allow for the accused and his or her counsel to ask the court to declare the video recording inadmissible as evidence?

Secondly, would the accused and his or her counsel have the absolute right to require that the child give evidence in a more formal or structured way? I hasten to add that I have a great deal of sympathy for the new clauses. I attempted to introduce similar amendments to extant Scottish legislation, but I failed in my endeavours.

Thirdly, would the jury be allowed to take the video recording to the jury room to examine sections of it or to view it again in its entirety when it makes its deliberations? That is an important question which was raised by the Scottish Law Commission in the recently published document to which my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie referred.

Sir Eldon Griffiths

I imagine that it would fall to the discretion of the judge to respond to such a request from the jury.

Dr. Godman

That partially answers the question, but I feel that there are too many ambiguities in the new clause. I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman said about his lack of experience of parliamentary draftsmanship, which I share.

As I said, despite my questions, I have a great deal of sympathy with the new clauses. However, I would raise the upper age limit to 16 years from 14, which is far too low. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds and his supporters talked about sexual abuse and molestation. Do those terms include sexual exploitation—for example, introducing or manipulating a child into child pornography or prostitution?

If we are to talk about video recordings, we should talk about pre-trial deposition proceedings, which would involve the formal cross-examination of the child by counsel in a room away from the austere surroundings of the average court room. I think that I am right in saying that one of the most modern court rooms in the United Kingdom is the new sheriff court in Glasgow. I visited it recently and discovered that in such a case a child in that most modern of courts could be sitting or standing less than 9 ft away from the accused in the dock. The architectural design of that court room in Glasgow is an abysmal failure. When bringing a child into a small court room it must be remembered that the proximity of the accused might frighten the child into silence.

Mr. Bermingham

We have already agreed that children could give their evidence on video in a separate room. Does that not meet my hon. Friend's objection?

Dr. Godman

It does to a certain extent. The judge should oversee these proceedings in as informal an ambience as possible. Failing that, they should be presided over by an official appointed by the court.

The proceedings should take place in a room whose design and layout present a pleasing prospect for the child to enter and stay in for some time. If the Bill meets that requirement, I shall be pleased to hear about it. The surroundings should be as informal as possible. The judge, counsel and child—plus what we call in Scotland the befriender—should be seated around a table. The befriender's status derives from the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968.

The accused should be present but concealed from the child by means of a two-way mirror or closed circuit television. A child advocate should be appointed to protect the interests of the child who is a principal witness in such a case We could expand the role of the safeguarder, which was created 20 years ago in the legislation introduced by Willie Ross, as he then was.

Perhaps the way ahead lies in the use of closed circuit television, with the child placed in a room close to the court room, but I intend to reserve my remarks about that for a later debate.

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

We have had an interesting debate on a significant subject. We can all agree that every abuse of a child, sexual or otherwise, is a vicious crime, not least because such abuse deprives the child of the security that should be the right of all children. We can all agree that we should spare no effort to provide them all with that security. One of the things to look for in the new clauses is whether they will contribute to that.

The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) said that the debate was worthy of emotion. When we speak we must control our comments, because we all feel extremely strongly about people who commit these vicious crimes. However, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, it would be equally wrong for us to be too cool, clinical and detached—because we are discussing serious difficulties. Anyone who has spoken to the parents of children who have been abused knows that feelings run high on the subject. That must be taken into account when we discuss such a sensitive issue.

When we discussed this matter in Committee, we all agreed that clause 31 was an important step forward. It is the clause to which my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) referred a few moments ago when he spoke of children giving evidence on a closed circuit television link. He outlined problems in the design of courts which mean that children must be close to the person who has committed the crime against them. That has caused a great deal of concern, and I and my hon. Friends think that the provisions of clause 31 will go a long way towards easing the problem and relieving the strain on children. We know of cases that have broken down recently because of the strain under which children have been put through being able to see the accused in court. We all want an end to that, and we welcome clause 31 because it makes significant progress towards solving the problem.

The common aim that we all share is that of making it as easy as possible for the child in what must be a difficult situation. Everyone agrees that the child's interests must come first. As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) said, there may be false accusations because a child has been pushed into a corner and feels that that is the way in which to make progress. My hon. Friend pointed out the difficulties that arise when children give the answers that they feel are expected of them. When we discussed clause 31 in Committee, even though we all agreed with it in principle, Opposition Members believed that many questions still had to be answered and that guidelines needed to be laid down to ensure consistency in the way in which the courts operated the new procedures so that everyone knew what the child's rights and the defendant's—or his counsel's—rights were. The Minister was open-minded about the need for guidelines and took on board many of the points that we made during one of the most constructive debates that we had in Committee.

Many difficulties are involved in the role of the pre-recorded interviews that are proposed in the new clause. We all hope that such interviews may have a role to play in certain circumstances, but if they have, it will be limited. If pre-recorded interviews have a use, it may not be limited to cases of child sexual abuse. Perhaps they could be used in cases of rape and in other cases in which witnesses are reluctant to give evidence or feel that they would rather discuss what happened away from the court room.

Some of the arguments in favour of pre-recorded interviews have exaggerated the contribution that they might make to relieving the anguish of children in this situation. Too often the case has been presented too simplistically and hopes have been raised that pre-recorded interviews might produce more good than they ever could. They are in no way a panacea. At best they will have a limited contribution to make in certain specific cases.

I agree with hon. Members on both sides of the House who have said that we should proceed with caution. There are many pitfalls in this path—and some potential advantages. If, at some stage in the future, we were to adopt a system in which pre-recorded interviews could be used as evidence in court, we should need strict guidelines and clear codes of practice, because we would be changing the rules of evidence in a fundamental and significant way.

The one way in which pre-recorded interviews might have a role to play—to judge from all the evidence I have seen—is in cases in which the person who is accused is guilty and, having seen the child giving evidence on a video recording, is caused to change his mind and plead guilty, so that the social workers and everyone involved in the case can make some progress. That might avoid the lengthy and tortuous experience of a contested court case that would be very difficult for the child and its family.

That may happen, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough said, the Cleveland experience shows that children and parents will sometimes give the answer that is wanted because they hope that that will lead to a breakthrough and a progression of the case when a log-jam occurs and social workers or the police are convinced that abuse has taken place. That may lead to children being persuaded to make accusations, or it may lead to parents, relatives or the person accused being persuaded to admit to some sort of abuse in order to make progress. In some cases that may be done in order to allow children to go home.

6 pm

Mr. Holt

Does the hon. Lady agree that if that thesis were carried through, the opposite should also be the case? I have a letter from the Cleveland social services department which says that a life-sized rubber doll of a man was used in a child sex abuse case. When a sweet was placed in a specific place on the doll the child went into the room and took the sweet, and that was taken as absolute evidence that the child had been sexually abused. Does the hon. Lady agree that in such a case a person could be found not guilty?

Mrs. Taylor

I agree that such evidence and such experiments could be interpreted in many different ways. We must be cautious about all these matters, and one of the lessons that everyone will learn from the Cleveland experience is that there is still a long way to go before procedures on a whole range of matters are considered adequate and before we can have full confidence in them.

I have some questions for the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds, but perhaps the Minister will deal with them in his winding-up speech so that it will not be necessary to ask them twice. Obviously, there are many difficulties in dealing with such cases. Hon. Members have put forward a strong case for saying that interviews should be held as quickly as possible after the abuse has taken place. However, we must be realistic about this and understand that very often abuse takes place over many weeks, months and sometimes years. For that reason, a delay of a week or two may not make the difference that is sometimes suggested. If it is a question of one incident of abuse, or indeed of rape, it is useful and beneficial for interviews to be conducted as quickly as possible. Where there has been prolonged abuse, perhaps an early interview is not as important as ensuring that the interview takes place in the right context, with the right people present, and in the right atmosphere.

Interviews of very young children conducted by social workers and police officers—I know that many women police officers are extremely experienced and good at conducting such interviews—are not for evidential purposes. They are for counselling purposes, for drawing out the child's experiences and for starting to help the child to recover. It would be quite legitimate for the people conducting the interview to lead the child, to draw out the story and even to suggest what might have happened in a way that would normally go against all the rules of evidence. We should be quite clear that such interviews will not be used later as evidence in court. However, if social workers and police officers have that fact at the back of their minds, they might be less good at counselling the child in the first instance.

My second point on the practicalities is about where video interviews should take place. Will they take place in a police station, in a hospital, in a social worker's office or in the child's home? From the point of view of the child's recovery, the best place for the interview may not be the best place for recording the experiences of the child, when more than one camera may be needed. Certainly we could not have cameras invading a child's home to take evidence.

Mr. Devlin

Does the hon. Lady agree that the best place for such interviews would be the new family court buildings, one of which would be built in each town? Such buildings would be properly financed and would be part of a national change in procedures. That is long overdue.

Mrs. Taylor

We welcome support for the principle of family courts. The Minister makes noises about the cost, but it is a cost that is well worth bearing. If the Government want to make a contribution to the welfare of children, not just to those who have been abused in this way, but to children involved in divorce proceedings and so on, they should introduce family courts. We would support legislation on that and should like to see it introduced as soon as possible.

The problem of cross-examination was briefly raised by some hon. Members who are lawyers. The new clause allows for cross-examination. A child who is to be cross-examined in court will not attract the benefit of an early and quick recorded interview that will be presented in court with the idea that that will be the end of the matter. It is clear that if a child is cross-examined about what he said in one or more interviews some weeks or months before, it would put not less, but probably more, strain on the child. That will create great difficulties. Although the child will give evidence from a different room, it will be the duty of defence counsel to trip up the child or to find inconsistencies between what the child has said in the recording and his answers in court.

I am not trying to knock holes in the case or to say that there is no role at all for video recordings. I stress that the simplistic answer that is sometimes put forward is fraught with many difficulties. It could be counter-productive if a clever counsel for the defendant destroyed the child in court. That might happen if proceedings went ahead in the way that I have suggested. An early interview of the child that could be shown to the defendant might lead to a plea of guilty. However, as soon as the defendant obtained access to a lawyer—which might be after charges are preferred and after he, the defendant, has seen the video—his legal advisers might suggest a change of plea. In such a case a lawyer might then find it even more necessary to destroy the child's evidence, and in so doing he might destroy the child as well.

Although we all want to reduce stress on the child and to help him, we must be sure that we do not create new stresses and new problems for the child. My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) talked about a child's memory and said that interviews immediately after an incident might be far more helpful than later asking the child to repeat the story time and again. Immediately after an incident there could be a great deal of confusion in a child's mind. Children who have worked out the sequence of events in their mind are extremely accurate when recalling the very tiny details of many events. That would often happen in cases such as those that we are talking about.

We all share the same objective. We want to make it as easy as possible for the child to explain what has happened to it and for the responsible authority to prosecute somebody who has committed an abuse. We want to ensure that those who deserve conviction are convicted, but we must ensure that there is full justice, that the defendant's rights are preserved and that we do not take a step that could create more problems than it solves. I hope that the Government will consider those matters, but will not rush into a system of giving evidence that we have not fully examined in this country and that might be fraught with difficulties. We welcome the changes so far. We fully supported clause 31 in Committee and believe that it is a significant step forward, but there are some difficulties in the new clause and we hope that the Government will consider it further in greater detail.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)

The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) has counselled caution and been even-handed in her approach. Her speech has been characteristic of speeches made on both sides of the argument in the two and half hours of debate this afternoon. If anyone had come to listen to the debate this afternoon, he or she would have heard two things: first, an extremely measured form of debate and, secondly, a form of debate that was neither party nor partisan. I do not think that non-party and non-partisan debates are necessarily good or particularly interesting to listen to, but this afternoon the intensity of debate and the care with which hon. Members have deployed their arguments has been exemplary. If anyone had been listening and trying to keep track of the voices on both sides of the argument, and whether, if there should be a Division, it should be restricted to those people who have spoken, he or she would agree that it is a cliff-hanger, on a knife edge, because the arguments on both sides have been so balanced.

We have heard the most powerful advocacy from my hon. Friends the Members for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) and for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) in the interests of obtaining better justice for children. They have been supported in equally powerful speeches by the hon. Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) and for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) and others. On the other hand, we have heard, across the party divide, hon. Members counselling caution, as in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler), in his short and forceful intervention, and, perhaps most notably of all, in the case of the three hon. Members who represent Cleveland—the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) and my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) and for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt).

That note of caution was present throughout our debates in Committee. I agree with the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme that those debates were most constructive. Since then, I have taken every opportunity to consult those people who wished to see me, on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, to discuss those issues. I have, of course, consulted my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds and representatives of the police and acknowledge their formidable argument. I have spoken to my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst and to the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) who accompanied a delegation from the NSPCC. That was a most useful meeting, and I wish to pay tribute to the work done by the NSPCC in experiments on video recordings. I also met my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), together with representatives of the National Children's Bureau.

In anticipating the spirit of the debate this afternoon —my hopes have been borne out—I have made known my views as openly as possible, in advance of the debate, in the letters that I have sent to everyone who has corresponded with me. Those letters included a weighty appendix in which I tried to weigh the pros and cons, but, at the end of the debate, I am left with two big question marks in my mind: what happens in the trial itself and what happens in the period before the trial? I shall try to deal with each of those questions in turn.

First, at present, in a trial, the first person to examine a child witness is prosecution counsel, who will take the child step by step through its evidence-in-chief. That will be a friendly face with which the child is familiar. If video recordings were admitted, the first person against—the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North—would be defence counsel. In his client's interest, quite properly, defence counsel's aim is to try to expose holes in the child's story. We must remember that the child is anonymous, whereas the accused person is not and he is on trial for his reputation and faces a possible prison sentence.

6.15 pm

We then come to the important concept introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds—that there should be a video recording, and that many of the issues could be overcome by an interlocutor, from the caring or legal professions, putting the points to the child on behalf of the defendant. That is where we come to the question raised so powerfully in Committee by the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham). I recommend hon. Members to read the hon. Gentleman's speech in Committee. He said that it is surely a defendant's right—not everyone accused of child abuse is guilty by any means—to have the counsel of his or, more rarely, her choice putting the questions on his or her behalf. That is a substantial principle.

However, I am worried that, if the child's friend is drawn from the caring or legal professions, he or she will have attempted to establish a relationship with the child beforehand to set him or her at ease. On the other hand, we must also consider what would happen to the child when he or she suddenly found that friend, in the specially designed informal room off the court room, saying, "Why did you say this? Why did you say that? Why is there a difference between what you said then and what you say now?" Will that be in the child's interests? We must consider the question raised by the hon. Member for St. Helens, South both in the way that he put it and in the way that I have tried to extend the argument.

Secondly, most people recognise that video recordings of children are taken for a number of purposes. I have been to Bexley and seen the excellent experiments. The chief superintendent, social workers and others who have co-operated have performed a singular service for all those people involved with child abuse. The video recordings are made for evidential and investigative purposes by the police who want to try to find out what happened. They are made for therapeutic purposes, because the child needs to be helped, and it is important for the social worker or the doctor to help the child by talking the terrible experience out of his system. The recordings are also used for investigative medical purposes by the doctor or, more rarely, by the social worker to try to tease out what happened. We all know, from evidence given in recent cases, how difficult that can be.

We all agree that the child should be spared the trauma of having to give his or her evidence very often. One or more recordings to try to encompass all that would lead to considerable pre-trial editorial problems, as was pointed out by the hon. Members for Dewsbury and for St. Helens, South and by my hon Friend the Member for Westminster, North. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds also recognises those points, because we have had the chance to discuss them.

I believe that those problems need careful consideration. That is why I am pleased to announce that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has decided that we should look more deeply at the use of video recordings for the evidence not just of children but of others who are witnesses in trials—rape victims, the disabled and those who suffer in a number of different ways from a number of disadvantages. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has invited, and his invitation has been accepted by, the Common Serjeant in the City of London, Judge Thomas Pigot, who is a most experienced Crown court judge, to inquire into these issues. He will be assisted by representatives of the police force and the social work world and by a barrister. The inquiry will look as quickly as possible at the evidential difficulties of using video recordings and will report back to my right hon Friend as soon as possible.

I hope that that move will meet the general approval of many hon. Members. I hope, too, that with that undertaking, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds will feel inclined to withdraw his new clause.

Sir Eldon Griffiths

I am naturally disappointed that my hon. Friend the Minister has not been able to accept my new clause, although I am not surprised. He has been fair and generous. The Pigot inquiry, which he has just announced, will, in all the circumstances, be able to examine this matter. I hope that it will do so quickly. I am delighted that it will have, as one of its assessors, an experienced police officer. I hope, too, that my hon. Friend will accept some suggestions along the lines of the new clause. Equally, it must be right that he includes within that commission someone from the caring services and an experienced barrister.

I hope that I heard my hon. Friend clearly, and that the inquiry will examine not just the difficulties of using video recordings, but the possibilities and the opportunities. I am delighted to see my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary here. On the understanding that he wants to see this matter progress speedily, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to