HC Deb 25 June 1991 vol 193 cc926-9

Lords amendment: No. 68, in page 29, line 20, leave out ("and proceedings in youth courts")

8 Pm

Mr. John Patten

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 69 to 73 and 116 to 118.

Mr. Patten

I hope that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) is not about to leave the Chamber. I am about to pay her a compliment and I should like her to be in the Chamber to receive it.

The amendments make further refinements to the Bill's provisions about the rules of evidence and procedure for child witnesses—the so-called Pigot clauses, about which we had extremely good debates in Committee. The amendments are intended to bring about an easier and more uniform application of the new provisions. I pay due compliments to the representatives of the official Opposition who made their voices heard in Committee. I cannot do the same in respect of the Liberal Democrats because, alas, they were not represented there, for reasons which I understand. I know of the long-standing interest of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) in this matter.

If I may speak over the heads of the colleagues of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, I should like to say that the hon. Lady made a splendid, substantial and lasting contribution to improving the way in which children and their plight are dealt with in court. She did so because of her interest in this issue over the past two or three years.

The amendments will be widely welcomed, and I commend them to the House.

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I thank the Minister for his kind words, but we do not have the system right yet. I welcome the Lords amendments because they strengthen the clause on video-recording children's testimony.

I deeply regret the fact that an amendment allowing further implementation of the Pigot report was lost in the other place, partly because the Liberal Democrats voted against allowing children to give video-recorded evidence in pre-trial proceedings. The amendment would have saved many children the trauma of having to wait a long time to give evidence in a trial, and even though the amendment would not have affected a court's flexibility to recall a case if new evidence having a significant effect on the outcome was produced, the Liberal Democrats voted against it.

I very much regret the fact that the Bill does not include a measure for which I have fought for many years and which would have permitted video-recorded evidence to be used if a child's life was likely to be placed at serious risk if he or she appeared in court. That small amendment would have been rarely used but would have strengthened the Bill.

Having commissioned the Pigot report, the Government appear to have decided that it goes too far down the road towards providing a fair trial for a child and the accused. Despite all their fine words and all the injustices that have been done to children over many years, they have failed to give true justice to children in our courts.

I ask the Minister one last favour. Will he undertake to provide official data to enable research to be carried out into delays in the prosecution of child abusers? I understand that the Nuffield Foundation is providing funding to Joyce Plotnikoff and her team to carry out research. It would help if official data were supplied to that lady. The evidence may help the Minister to do another U-turn and implement all the recommendations in Judge Pigot's report.

Dr. Godman

I hesitate to speak in an English debate, but I agree with the Minister that the Lords amendments refine clause 45, on video recording the testimony of child witnesses, and clause 46, which is an important clause.

I was not a member of the Standing Committee, but I am gratified by the Minister's comments about the involvement of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) in these matters. I offer my compliments to the Minister, his colleagues and officials for what is, from a Scottish perspective, astonishing legislation.

The Bill is remarkable, and I say that without rancour or resentment. Last year, I attempted to change the law in Scotland by plagiarising these clauses and including them in the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), paid me the compliment of accepting an amendment on television links but, disappointingly, he refused to accept a remarkable innovation enabling video-recorded interviews to be used, where appropriate as evidence.

It is important to interview, as soon as humanly possible after an investigation, a child who may be involved in the appalling circumstances about which we are speaking. The longer the delay between investigation and an interview using video recordings, the greater the dangers. All that was said in Standing Committee.

I should like to warn the Minister. I appreciate the fact that the Orkney cases are under investigation, but there was severe criticism of the way in which children alleged to have been involved in sexual abuse cases were interviewed by so-called professionals. Will cognisance be taken in the guidelines of the mistakes made in the Orkneys?

How many courts have television links and how often have those links been used in child abuse cases? Has the Home Office commissioned research into the use of such links? What training will be given in interviewing children where video recordings are used in evidence?

I profoundly regret the fact that the Minister's Scottish Office colleagues chose not to follow the path taken in the Bill. Investigations are carried out in Scotland into allegations about dreadful cases of sexual and child abuse. I am convinced that, if we had similar legislation in Scotland, children would be spared the humiliating ordeal of giving evidence in court within a few feet of the accused.

One of the most modern courtrooms in the United Kingdom must be Glasgow sheriff court. I do not know the names of the architects, and perhaps they should remain nameless, but in that most modern court which deals with child abuse cases—they are also dealt with in the High Court—the child witness is placed within 12 feet of the alleged perpetrator of the abuse. From an architectural point of view, if nothing else, that is a living disgrace. The architects should have been advised to take into account the problems facing child witnesses in such cases.

Despite some of the excellent extant legislation on family law and children, there is no doubt that in attempting to ease the burden faced by children in such circumstances, English law is ahead of Scottish law. To me, as a Scottish Member of Parliament, that is a matter of deep regret.

Mr. John Patten

I thank the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) for his kind words about the Home Office and Home Office Ministers. I am used to bouquets coming to me from all angles from Scottish hon. Members—for instance from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn), who is not in the Chamber tonight—but I rarely receive them from Glasgow. A compliment from the hon. Gentleman is extremely welcome, and I thank him for it. The design of the sheriff courts in Scotland is not a matter for me, but I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's strictures on architectural matters to the attention of the Lord Advocate who, I believe, has ministerial responsibility for such issues north of the Border. As always, there is a difference between the two jurisdictions, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will consider carefully whether there are any lessons for Scotland in the new provisions.

With regard to interviewing techniques and guidance, we are drawing up codes of practice which will take account of all relevant experience. I will ensure that copies of those codes of practice are sent to the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Gentleman also asked about research, and that is one thing that we have plenty of in the Home Office. Yes, there will certainly be a full programme of research and monitoring. I do not have statistics about the numbers of courts equipped with video equipment, which was the last issue raised by the hon. Gentleman, but I will write to him with the statistics. I have seen some of the experiments being carried out, and I am sure that the police or others in the Metropolitan area would make it possible for the hon. Gentleman to visit them. I am sure that he would see much of interest to him.

In reply to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding), that will be the last time that I drag her back into the Chamber to receive a complaint. She asked me to make three U-turns and stirred up a debate when there was not meant to be one; it was not part of my game plan, and I had intended to make a quick compliment and get on with the next group of amendments.

The Home Office will make available to Mrs. Plotnikoff any details that we have . We are aware of her research and welcome it, and we shall do all that we can to help her in her work by the provision of data.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to.

Forward to