HC Deb 25 February 1991 vol 186 cc680-4
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)

I beg to move amendment No. 108, in page 27, line 7, after 'alleged', insert '(i)'.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendments Nos. 109, 113 and 112.

Mr. Patten

The amendments are a direct result of some good debates in Committee on this important issue. They are concerned with trying to help child witnesses in criminal proceedings in two ways—first, through the ability to bypass committal proceedings as set out in clause 43 and, secondly, by placing a bar on personal cross-examination of witnesses by the accused.

I remember that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) argued about this specific issue in Committee, although much of the argument was carried by those who are absent this afternoon, including the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones)—I believe in being kind to Welsh nationalists—my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), who is about her business in another part of the country, and that leading member of the Trappist tendency, the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding). That hon. Lady pressed the argument effectively, and I pay tribute to all that she did.

I hope that I can commend the amendments with that brief explanation. They will do a great deal to help child witnesses in terms of bypassing committal and avoiding cross-examination by the accused.

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

I hesitate to intervene in these proceedings as a Member representing Scotland, but I have a couple of questions about the amendments.

Has the Minister had any discussions with his right hon. and hon. Friends in the Scottish Office on the implementation of such measures in Scotland? I speak as someone who has sought to change the law of Scotland on child witnesses. I did so last year during our deliberations on the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful. The amendments will determine the status of children and the protection given to them in what can be the most harrowing of circumstances. It is unfortunate that English legislation is well in advance of developments in Scottish legislation. On behalf of the Scottish children caught up in these dreadful circumstances, I must express my deep regret about that.

Two cases pending in Scotland involve the most harrowing instances of sexual abuse against a number of young children, some of whom were only two or three years old when the horrible incidents took place. Nevertheless, children in Scotland caught up in these dismal circumstances will be denied the protection rightly afforded to English children in these most welcome measures. It is a disgrace that identical legislation for Scotland has not been introduced. What discussions have taken place between the Home Office and the Scottish Office on bringing about these welcome changes in Scottish legislation?

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

My right hon. Friend will know of my long-standing interest in this matter, and particularly of my association with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which has been concerned about the way in which children have been subjected to the process of appearing in court proceedings. I warmly welcome the clauses in the Bill which, to a large extent, implement the recommendations of the Pigot report. There was a gap in the law with respect to expediting proceedings involving witnesses.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the courtesy with which he received me and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), who advised me today that she was unwell and could not be with us. Together with the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding), we discussed these matters, and the Government amendments meet our anxieties.

The Minister will have noticed amendments Nos. 98 and 99 on the Order Paper; perhaps he will confirm that the Government amendments deal with the points contained in those amendments—and are no doubt better drafted than ours. If they do, I shall not move amendments Nos. 98 or 99; of course, if the Opposition Members whose names those amendments also bear wish to speak to them, that will be up to them.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for accepting the recommendations made to him on this matter.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Will the Minister say a word about some other matters touched on in the Pigot report? For instance, should there not be a code of practice governing the giving of evidence by children? Do the Government believe it possible to introduce measures to prevent unnecessary delays in court cases that involve this sort of children's evidence?

Mr. John Patten

Is the hon. Gentleman referring to the generality of the Pigot committee's recommendations when he speaks of codes of practice, or is he referring specifically to speeding up court hearings?

Mr. Maclennan

I am referring only to the giving of evidence by children.

Lastly, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has also mentioned the need to ensure that no distinction will be made between children who have suffered abuse and children who have witnessed serious abuse and violence—but I suspect that the Government amendments take care of that.

5.45 pm
Mr. John Greenway

I too should like to record my thanks to my right hon. Friend for tabling these amendments. I am sure that he will recall that, when we discussed the matter for many hours in Committee, we did not manage to persuade him of the validity of our arguments, but he agreed to reconsider the matter, and that is what he has done. We are most grateful to him. I fervently believe that the law should protect a child witness as much as it protects a child victim. Indeed, it is often difficult to distinguish between them.

Mr. Sheerman

We welcome the amendments. It is a shame that two of the hon. Members who argued most eloquently for the ideas that they incorporate are not here. I understand that they are unavoidably detained in Select Committees. I refer of course to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) and to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones).

These are important concessions to the Pigot proposals, extending as they do the protection offered to child victims to child witnesses. This subject constituted the most harmonious part of our proceedings in Committee. All hon. Members in Committee wanted as far as possible to make the process of giving evidence in court humane and sensitively handled. The Opposition are pleased that the amendments have been introduced.

Mr. John Patten

First, I want to answer the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman), the first part of whose constituency I can never pronounce. He asked me whether discussions had taken place between the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland on these important matters. Of course the two Departments consult on these issues. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Scottish criminal law and criminal code have developed differently from ours, which means that, from time to time, Scottish, English and Welsh law look a little out of kilter. Indeed, my hon. Friends occasionally look with envy at some aspects of the Scottish criminal code. For instance, children's panels are often urged on us; we are thought to be lagging behind in that respect, although we are now trying to achieve the same ends in a different way.

I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of the Secretary of State for Scotland, and, if necessary, he and the hon. Gentleman can correspond thereafter.

I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) that the Government amendments adequately cover the possibility of getting around committal, and of not making it possible for children to be cross-examined by those alleged to have assaulted them. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Chislehurst and for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), and to the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), who is not here today but who takes a considerable interest in the subject.

I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding), who was not here earlier to hear my lavish compliments about how she broke the Trappist vows of the Whips and occasionally went to the Back Benches in Committee to argue the case for children. Her arguments, and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), were powerful. As the House knows, we are a listening Government; we listened and then we tabled the amendments.

The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland. (Mr. Maclennan) asked whether we were going to introduce a code of practice governing children's evidence. We are. We are already negotiating, if that is the right word to use, these issues with members of the academic community: for instance, with Professor Bull, a notable authority in the area; and with Mr. John Spencer—just to show how broad-minded I am in these matters—fellow of Selwyn college, Cambridge, even though he has occasionally criticised me in print. He is also an expert, and I have not taken offence. We are bent on employing him, if he is willing to advise us within the strict terms of the Bill, on how to incorporate a practical measure for children's evidence.

I repeat: we are a listening Government and a broad-minded Government, and on this occasion we are a Government with whom the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) was happy to do business on an issue in which party politics played no part. I am happy to pay tribute to him and his colleagues for the part that they played in Committee in dealing with these important matters.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 109, in page 27, line 8, after 'committed', insert ';or (ii) to have witnessed the commission of the offence,'.—[Mr. John Patten.]

Mr. John Patten

I beg to move amendment No. 110, in page 27, line 9, leave out from 'that' to 'by' and insert ',for the purposes of avoiding any prejudice to the welfare of the child, the case should be taken over and proceeded with without delay'.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this we may take Government amendments Nos. 111 and 120.

Mr. Patten

The amendments form the second part of the Government's response to the debate in Committee about the need to reduce undue delay in cases involving child witnesses. During our scrutiny of the Pigot clauses, the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) moved a new clause that formed the basis of much of the debate. Despite my considerable sympathy with his intentions and those of my hon. Friends, I was unable to accept the new clause exactly as it stood, because it imposed a strict timetable in criminal cases which I felt could lead to the guilty walking free if it was not adhered to to the letter. The amendments would not impose a strict timetable, but would, I believe, establish a clear framework for the elimination of unnecessary delays.

Clause 43 already gives the Director of Public Prosecutions power to bypass committal proceedings if he is satisfied that the case should be taken over by the Crown court without delay. Amendments Nos. 110 and 120, however, strengthen that principle by referring explicitly to the welfare of the child, and I think that a number of hon. Members will approve of that. They also impose a clear duty on magistrates courts and the Crown court to consider how best to avoid delay. For the magistrates courts, that means expediting their residual tasks under schedule 5.

The amendments effectively abolish the argument that is sometimes advanced by those involved in the criminal justice system, that they are not responsible for the delay. They are now responsible for minimising it: the amendments bring that into sharp focus. The amendment will, however, allow judges, who have the often difficult task of dealing with children—whether they are victims or witnesses—to tailor any action to the needs of individual cases, balancing the legitimate interests of child welfare with those of natural justice.

The remaining amendment simply corrects a minor drafting error.

Mr. Sheerman

Yet again, we accept and endorse the Government's proposals. As we said in Committee, delay is often an important factor. In Committee on any Criminal Justice Bill, we increasingly realise the need for better co-ordination between the separate parts of the system: Opposition Members want to reform that relationship, and to expedite the processes involved. Justice that takes a long time is justice delayed, and, sometimes, is not justice at all.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 111, in page 27, line 18, leave out '3 and 4' and insert '2 and 3'.—(Mr. John Patten).

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