HC Deb 28 June 1988 vol 136 cc272-5
Mr. John Patten

I beg to move amendment No. 249, in page 20, line 36, leave out 'closed circuit'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 281, in page 20, line 36, after 'indictment'. insert ',any proceedings in a magistrates' court'. No. 213, in page 20, line 40, leave out '14' and insert `16'.

No. 280, in page 22, line 30, leave out '14' and insert `16'.

Government amendments Nos. 250 and 252.

Mr. Patten

Amendment No. 249 and the related amendments make small but important technical changes to the clause and the schedule permitting television links to be used in some proceedings in crown courts and service orders.

The Government amendments have been grouped with amendment No. 281, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) and amendments Nos. 213 and 280, tabled by the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms. Gordon). Those amendments raise different aspects, and it may be convenient for me to comment upon them, with the leave of the House, at a later stage in the debate, after I have heard the arguments of those hon Members.

I wish to do an unusual thing and pay public tribute to a Whip, in this case the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding). The hon Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) did the House a considerable service by helpfully pointing out in Committee that the phrase, "closed television link" may not be entirely suitable for the sort of equipment that the courts may wish to use in the circumstances.

Amendment No. 249 substitutes a simpler phrase, "live television link" and I believe that that conveys the right idea of a link between sound and moving pictures, which can be transmitted by cable or satellite from the next room or from overseas. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North and especially grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme for their contributions.

Amendments Nos. 250 and 252 also follow up a point that emerged in Committee—this time with the help of my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Butler). My hon. Friend pointed out that subsection (5), as drafted, appeared to undermine the purpose of the clause in that it allowed court rules to be drawn up enabling the child to see all the participants in the trial. That would, of course, include the defendant, and I do not believe that any of us in this House would want that. We want to put that right; therefore, amendment No. 250 deletes subsection (5), and amendment No. 252 does the same to the schedule providing for the link in service courts.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South for drawing this matter to our attention. I look forward to hearing the arguments of the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar and my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst on the other amendments.

8.45 pm
Ms. Gordon

Amendment No. 213 seeks to change from 14 to 16 the age under which a witness is permitted to give evidence through a television link. I do not wish to say much, because most of my remarks will be addressed to amendment No. 216, which comes later.

The age of 14 as the age when childhood is considered to have ended harks back to 50 years ago, when children left school at the age of 14 and began to undertake paid work—at least among the poorer classes—and they matured earlier. The school-leaving age is now 16, as is the age of consent. What is more important is that the years 14 to 16 years are years of puberty, when young people are especially sensitive. I believe that it is particularly important for children up to the age of 16 to have the same right as a younger child to give their evidence through a television link, instead of having to face their attacker in court.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

As my hon. Friend the Minister has said, clause 31 makes provision for a televison link to be used for witnesses under the age of 14 to enable them to give evidence in court. That is a most welcome provision, and I do not believe that I need elaborate the case for it.

The clause as presently drafted reads: A person other than the accused may give evidence through a live closed circuit television link on a trial on indictment or an appeal to the criminal division of the Court of Appeal It therefore follows that proceedings in magistrates courts are excluded from that provision. I accept that most of the cases of the types specified in the clause are dealt with at the Crown court, but there are three considerations that I wish to put to the House.

First, cases such as indecent assault can be tried by the magistrates court and a case of indecent exposure can only be tried at a magistrates court. In both instances, a child under the age of 14 may be involved, yet he or she would not have the advantage of the video link provided for in the clause.

Secondly, all committal proceedings take place in the magistrates court. That may well involve a child giving evidence, but the child will be unable to use a video link as the clause presently stands. The child may well have to attend the court, a procedure that the child is likely to find unnerving, indeed intimidating, especially if he or she must face the person accused of the offence against them. I accept that the child's evidence may be given by deposition in committal proceedings, but that only applies if the defence agrees. There are still some cases in which the child must appear to give evidence in committal proceedings.

The third argument in favour of extending the video-link provision to magistrates courts would be for its use in care proceedings. These must take place in magistrates courts, and in such cases a child may have to give evidence that may concern allegations against, for instance, the father. The difficulties that could be created by father and child appearing in the same court are obvious. Again, the closed-circuit television would be invaluable, but its use would be precluded as the clause stands.

I accept that the number of cases under all three headings that I have given is relatively small. I accept, too, that my hon. Friend the Minister may argue that the cost of providing a video link would be disproportionate; but, if anything, that is perhaps an argument for providing a link for the exceptional cases.

My amendment is permissive. It does not state that all magistrates courts must be equipped with a video link. It would surely be sufficient for a few magistrates courts to be thus provided, so that appropriate cases could be transferred to the nearest magistrates court that had a closed-circuit television system. The inconvenience of travelling to such a court would be more than compensated for by the advantage of the link.

As the Bill stands, a television link can be used for any proceedings in a Crown court, but it can never be used in a magistrates court. I invite my hon. Friend to remove that anomaly by accepting my amendment.

Mr. John Patten

I shall deal first with the points raised by the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms. Gordon). Such relevant statutory precedents as there are tend to support 14 as the cut-off age in this context. The most important of those is the long-established dividing line which is well known to those involved in child care, and which is defined in the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 as being the line between a child and a young person. Most of us are conversant with the provisions of that Act, and I see no reason for the moment to move away from that definition. However, I understand that the hon. Lady is saving some of her arguments for a debate that may take place on amendment No. 216, so perhaps we can return to these issues later. I am not moved by the amendment.

I turn now to amendment No. 281, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims), who is an acknowledged expert in this subject. The amendment would permit the use of a live television link, in child abuse cases and in cases in which a witness was overseas, in any proceedings in magistrates courts. The Bill, as my hon. Friend pointed out, provides for these facilities to be available only in Crown court trials, and nowhere else. We made the proposal about the Crown courts—it has been widely welcomed on both sides of the House—because there was a recognised problem. A number of documented cases, many of them brought to the attention of Ministers and others much written about in the national press and shown on national television, showed that there was a problem in the Crown courts that had to be solved, so it was incumbent upon us all to find a way of doing that.

Is the problem really so great in magistrates courts? Does it exist at all? That is open to debate. The atmosphere, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chiselhurst will know all too well, is much less formal in a magistrates court than the rather frightening atmosphere of a Crown court—frightening not only for children but for adults. There are fewer people in the court, most of them wearing ordinary clothes. That is particularly true of the informal atmosphere of a juvenile court, in which magistrates who are specially selected and trained for work with juveniles are encouraged to hold criminal and care proceedings in as informal a way as possible. There is broad consent that that is the best way to proceed.

Secondly, the courtrooms are usually less daunting in appearance, although some magistrates courts can be rather awesome. I hold one of my regular advice centres in the back of Abingdon court house. That seems to induce a sense of awe in some of my constituents, which I find rather agreeable. I do not get it in other parts of my constituency.

As far as we in the Home Office are aware, there has been no suggestion thus far—with detailed examples of cases—that children are experiencing the same problems when giving evidence in magistrates courts as they have undoubtedly suffered in Crown court trials. It is very much to the credit of the magistrates that that is so. This is not a bad dictum for a Minister to have written on his wall: "No problem, therefore take no action." I try to cleave to that from time to time.

I know that the Magistrates Association is interested in the potential for using television links in magistrates courts. We have corresponded with the association. Its chairman, John Hosking, and others have taken a considerable interest in the subject. I have reflected carefully on the matter because of that interest and I have thought particularly about the remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Chiselhurst. I am conscious that this is the second time on Report when it looks as though I shall have to disoblige my hon. Friend when he is concerned only with an enabling power. I am very sorry that that is so. I know that this will be a disappointment to him, but I hope that, on the basis of what I have said and of the fact that there have been no well documented examples of children suffering difficulties, he will be inclined not to press his amendment. We shall continue to monitor the position carefully in the Home Office.

Mr. Sims

May I have my hon. Friend's assurance that, if experience in the Crown courts with the use of the link, and in the magistrates courts without it, suggests over a period of years that there would be an advantage in extending the provision to magistrates courts, the Home Office will be prepared to consider such an extension?

Mr. John Patten

Yes, I must give that undertaking to my hon. Friend and to all Opposition Members who take an interest in these matters. Obviously, it would be of grave concern to the Home Office if things appeared to have been exacerbated by practice in the Crown courts and that there had been some effect on the magistrates courts. I am happy to give my hon. Friend the undertaking he seeks.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 250, in page 21, line 19, leave out subsection (5).— [Mr. John Patten.]

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