HC Deb 17 April 1991 vol 189 cc408-10
8. Mr. Nigel Griffiths

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will take steps to reduce delays in bringing prosecutions against people charged with offences.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

My noble and learned Friend the Lord Advocate sets targets for the average time that should elapse between receipt of a police report by a procurator fiscal and the service of a complaint on an accused. Latest figures indicate that the overwhelming majority of procurator fiscal offices meet these targets.

Mr. Griffiths

Are not the targets woefully inadequate? Over the past year, people pleading and going to trial faced delays of up to 26 weeks in Scotland. That does nothing to help the morale of the police force, trading standards officers and others who enforce the law. Are not the Government's inaction and the lack of will to tackle these serious delays the reasons why we have a crime wave?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Steps have been and are being taken to speed up cases coming to court. A standard style of police report has been introduced which should reduce delays. A joint working group comprising the Crown Office and chief constables recommended that the fiscal should have a report within, at the latest, 28 days of the accused being cautioned and charged by the police. It is important that, both in sheriff and district courts, the target in non-custody cases between pleading and trial is 10 to 14 weeks. The number of permanent and temporary sheriffs in Scotland has been increased by 70 since 1983 and that, too, is important. We are also introducing more and more computer technology into the courts.

Mr. Michael J. Martin

God help us!

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

God help the criminals, because we shall have a more efficient system to deal with them. The fingerprint technology will bring many more of them to trial. A number of reviews are taking place and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall follow them through with vigour.

Dr. Godman

May I remind the Minister that delays in bringing prosecutions in cases involving allegations of child abuse or sexual abuse can be extremely distressing, affecting not only those charged with such offences but, more importantly, the victims of such crimes? Surely the utmost speed must be impressed upon those with authority in relation to such dreadful cases. The children involved must be treated humanely and compassionately and not subjected to unnecessary delays.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

My hon. Friend the Minister of State will be speaking to social workers on that subject on Friday. I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of the Lord Advocate, as I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern on this matter.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

May I remind Opposition Members that Scotland is unique in the world —

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman should seek to remind the Minister or, better still ask a question.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

I remind the Minister that Scotland is unique in the European Community because we have a system of justice that requires prosecution within statutory times and we achieve those statutory times with regularity and excellence. When I was a Law Officer, at a meeting of Ministers in Switzerland, the Ministers, most of whom were socialists, were happy to take the view that four years was quite a generous time for a prosecution and the mildest time to occur in any European state, so let us blow the trumpet on Scottish justice instead of blasting it.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

My hon. and learned Friend was a prominent and distinguished Law Officer and I congratulate him on getting the Age of Legal Capacity (Scotland) Bill through its Committee stage this morning.

He has retained his interest and is absolutely right to praise the Scottish legal system. We have reason to be proud of the 110-day trial system, which is envied by many other countries. Trials must start within 12 months of an accused first appearing on petition in serious cases. We can be justifiably proud of Scotland's criminal justice system—it is the best in the world.