HC Deb 16 December 1992 vol 216 cc466-74

337A.—(1) the court shall, in respect of every case which is adjourned for trial, fix a diet (to be known as an intermediate diet) for the purpose of ascertaining—

  1. (a) the state of preparation of the prosecutor and of the accused with respect to their cases; and
  2. (b) whether the accused intends to adhere to the plea of not guilty.

(2) At an intermediate diet, the court may ask the prosecutor and the accused any question for the purposes mentioned in subsection (1) above.

(3) The accused shall attend an intermediate diet of which he has received intimation or to which he has been cited.

(4) A plea of guilty may be tendered at the intermediate diet; and section 336 of this Act shall apply accordingly.".'.—[Mr. McFall.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

5.45 pm
Mr. McFall

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

New clause 2 was almost accepted by default. Perhaps we shall get another opportunity.

New clause 6 is about intermediate trial diets in Scotland. Section 15 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980 added a section to the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975 which provides for the use of intermediate trial diets in cases heard under summary procedure. That experiment has worked very well and the potential benefits of the experiment have been explored. The findings were that a significant reduction in witness attendance at court could be achieved if intermediate diets were held one week in advance of the trial diet. That resulted in a 50 per cent. reduction in the number of accused waiting until the trial day before pleading guilty.

At present there are abuses of the system, especially by defence lawyers, who instruct their clients to wait until the day of the trial. That abuse should be eradicated and the experiment in 1982–83 pointed the way forward, resulting in substantial savings in the time of police and civilian witnesses. Trial diets held four weeks in advance of the trial resulted in fewer accused pleading guilty at the intermediate diet.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South (Mr. McMaster) turned his attention to the important issue of police and civilian witnesses. He brought the matter to the Government's attention and Lord Fraser of Carmyllie replied dismissively to my hon. Friend some months ago in a pejorative letter. However, my hon. Friend took the matter to the Accounts Commission for Scotland and a report by the Audit Commission on police waiting time published in October this year verified my hon. Friend's concern. If intermediate trial diets were pursued, police and civilian waiting time would be cut.

During the summer recess, I took the opportunity to meet the chief constable of Strathclyde, in my capacity as shadow home affairs Minister. I asked him about the waste of police time and he said, off the top of his head, that more than 50 per cent. of Strathclyde's overtime budget was spent on court attendance by police; yet in only 2 per cent. of cases were police actually called to give evidence. Police officers have been recalled from their holidays and the overtime budget has been used unnecessarily.

I shall cite as an example Glasgow High Court, which has three courts. Police officers assure me that on a Monday morning more than 100 are at the High Court. An hour later, the number is 40; an hour after that, it is 20. As well as the practice being an abuse, it is a costly exercise. It also has implications for police manning on the streets. Half the number of police who should be on the streets are wasting their time in court. If the Minister talks to police officers, that is what they will tell him. Hamilton town centre had only one policeman on a particular day because all the others were in court. That should not happen.

The Minister may say that the new clause is not technically correct, but my aim is to draw attention to a scandal. I urge him to consider the issue carefully because something must be done. If the 1982–83 experiment was successful, surely that is sufficient precedent for introducing something similar now. We have waited too long for such a provision and the new clause signals our concern. I hope that the Minister will take them seriously.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

I wish to add only a sentence or two to what has been most ably said by the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall). There is no doubt that a great deal of police time is wasted in court attendance. However, the police are not always entirely innocent—there are some who quite like the notion of overtime.

In my experience as a prosecutor, I came across cases where it was made perfectly clear that sending away from court large numbers of policemen because I thought that they were unnecessary would be rather unpopular. The notion of a day spent talking to their friends while being paid overtime was one that some officers, but not all, found attractive. There is always a risk in relying on anecdotal evidence. Much more fundamental is the point made by the hon. Gentleman about the proper and effective use of police resources being absolutely essential.

Earlier today, during Scottish questions, the Minister said that Strathclyde region was 181 police officers short, and he attributed responsibility for that to the regional council. I must tell him that the consequences of a shortage of 181 officers would be substantially mitigated if far more effective use was made of the time of those officers in position. The need for a proper approach to the problem has never been greater.

The Government protest their desire to do something, but the apoplectic—sometimes justifiable—response of chief constables is that the effectiveness of the forces under their command is being prejudiced by the time officers spend at court. We must take a radical approach if we are to make inroads into the problem. It may involve the Crown being rather more forthcoming about its evidence, endeavouring to put the defence into the same position with knowledge of the weight of the case against an accused person as the Crown is at the time that it decides to take proceedings. The proposals may appear revolutionary to Crown officials, but if as a consequence there is a much more effective use of police time, and provided that there is nothing contrary to the interests of justice, the proposals must be explored.

My concern about the precise terms of the new clause is that subsection (2) would empower the court to ask the prosecutor and the accused any question for the purposes mentioned in subsection (1) above. That relates to (a) the state of preparation of the prosecutor and of the accused with respect to their cases; and (b) whether the accused intends to adhere to the plea of not guilty. If that power were exercised responsibly, it would not cause difficulty. However, if it were exercised irresponsibly, it could result in the disclosure of information that might be prejudicial to the conduct of a proper defence for the accused.

I would have some difficulty in supporting the new clause in its precise terms, but I have no difficulty in supporting the general thrust of the argument of the hon. Member for Dumbarton, who put the matter succinctly and persuasively. I hope that he has persuaded the Minister.

Dr. Godman

I, too, am deeply concerned about the shortage of uniformed police officers in Strathclyde. For some considerable time I have argued that Greenock and Port Glasgow needs another 25 uniformed police officers on the streets to deal with violent crime and other criminal activities. If the number of officers was increased, the crime statistics would show some decline, rather than climbing month after month.

The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) said that some police officers liked to sit around spinning yarns with their colleagues in the adjuncts to our courts. That is something that concerns many people. I have a letter from the honorary secretary of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents on precisely that point. It is dated 3 December and is signed by Chief Superintendent Jack Urquhart. I am sure that, if he was here, he would be listening carefully to what hon. Members have to say on the important matter of the waste of police time in court, which the new clause is intended to tackle.

Mr. Urquhart wrote: At our Executive Meeting held on 2 December members asked me to contact you regarding the report published on 30 November by the Accounts Commission for Scotland. This issue has been of serious concern to the Scottish Police Service for the past ten years due to the enormous amount of police time taken up with court attendance, the vast majority of which is unproductive. That point has been made during the debate. Mr. Urquhart continued: Worse than that, the Report shows that the annual cost of police witness duty is now £8 million. Only one in five officers cited actually gives evidence and only 2 per cent. of their time is spent in the witness box. That complaint was raised by senior police officers referring to the Accounts Commission for Scotland report. The Minister must heed their warnings and misgivings.

The honorary secretary's letter goes on to say: As you no doubt appreciate with police resources already being scarce, the situation is serious with a tremendous waste of money which could be better spent on operational policing overtime. The executive committee of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents makes a serious point. We need uniformed police officers on our streets. If they are to work overtime, it will be much more productive if it is spent on the streets than wasted sitting around spinning yarns or chewing the fat in our court buildings.

6 pm

The letter highlights the loss of officers from our streets, which must be an important consideration, and says: The police service has done as much as it can to organise its own arrangement to minimise abstractions to court by releasing police statements to the defence"— as the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East said—

arranging for officers to be on standby for court where possible, improving the quality of police reports, reducing the number of police witnesses in cases". The new clause deals with some of the problems attendant on officers being called to court. The Accounts Commission for Scotland report says: Each day 700 police officers attend court to give evidence in criminal cases going to trial but only one in five of these officers actually gives evidence. That is a disgraceful state of affairs. Whether the Minister accepts the new clause or not, the Government must pay much more serious attention to that wastage of police time, particularly given the growing violence on our streets.

My constituency has suffered a number of murders this year. I shall not say that those murders could have been averted with more officers on the street, but some street or casual crimes could have been avoided were more police officers on the street rather than sitting in the sheriff court or in courts elsewhere.

I should be interested to know how many officers from Greenock had to attend the recent High Court case in Glasgow, which ran for 19 days. The Minister knows the case; it involved the murder of a constituent of mine in Dundaff road in Greenock. Were all those officers called as witnesses? I suspect that they were not and that much overtime money was wasted on their attending that court.

The final paragraph of the report deals with that grievous matter and says: The administration of justice is a complex matter involving delicate issues and for maintenance of appropriate checks and balances. The Commission recognises that others are more appropriately placed to weigh the current operation of those checks and balances to ensure that the public interest is being safeguarded. This report highlights … a deteriorating picture in regard to police time spent at court on witness duty. The report says that the position is worsening literally each week. It goes on to say: It is the Government's wish to provide the public reassurance that flows from having police officers visibly 'on the beat'. They cannot be on the beat if they are stuck in a court building, knowing in most instances that they will not even be called to give evidence. It has been suggested that that might please some police officers, but I believe that the overwhelming majority of officers of all ranks would rather be doing the job on the street and looking after their local communities.

The last sentence of the report reads: The findings of this report suggest that this desire"— placing more police officers visibly on the beat—

is being frustrated by current practices which impact adversely on front line policing resources. Despite the reservations expressed by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East, the new clause makes a valiant attempt to tackle that problem full square, whereas the Government appear to be tackling it only half-heartedly. It is of considerable concern to the Police Federation of Scotland, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) in Committee.

The letter from the honorary secretary to the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents shows that the police want answers. The chief superintendents and superintendents in day-to-day control of policing operations want their officers on the streets, not wasting time in court. The Minister should react sensibly, realistically and usefully to the new clause.

Mr. McMaster

I shall be brief, because the case has already been eloquently made by those hon. Members who have spoken. I endorse the amendment. If there are technical difficulties with it, I endorse at least its general thrust.

The subject has been a bee in my bonnet for some months. Until now, I simply had a feeling that a lot of police time was being wasted in Scottish courts, but in the past couple of weeks my suspicion has been backed up by the Accounts Commission, which has expressed its grave concern about the matter.

There are many reasons for the situation. For instance, the citizens charter says that hospital appointments must be staggered throughout the day, rather than all for 9 am; yet the same does not apply to courts, where all the police and witnesses are told to turn up at 9.45 am. Another problem is plea bargaining, with which the amendment deals. Plea bargaining has always gone on and will always go on, but it should not happen at the last minute, as it does now. Police and other witnesses are called to court, but then find that they are not needed that day. That can happen several times. The fact that that problem exists is backed up by the Accounts Commissioner.

I wrote to the Minister of State in another place about that problem some months ago and my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) referred to the reply that I received. To say that the Minister of State's answer was dismissive of the problem and of the need for a solution would be an understatement: it is the most unpleasant letter that I have ever received from a Minister. He said that the very idea that there was a problem was facile and unenlightening, but he has been left with egg on his face because the Accounts Commission now says that the problem is one of grave concern. I wonder how a man who is not only a Minister of State but a former Lord Advocate managed to arrive at such a conclusion.

At Scottish Question Time today, the Minister referred to the success of Operation Dove in my constituency, but there have been 12 murders in K division of Strathclyde police this year, and both violent and non-violent crime are increasing. Elderly people are afraid to go out at night, and are now becoming afraid to stay in. That happens throughout Scotland—at the same time as 700 police officers are kept in court on any day, of whom only 140 will be called to give evidence while the rest sit about the court needlessly. On average, 30 per cent. of a day shift of police officers is not on the streets but in court; yet only 2 per cent. of the time will be spent giving evidence—all at a cost of £8 million.

The police are keen to keep as many officers on the streets as they can, and they go through all sorts of administrative mechanisms to achieve that. One of the methods is to ask police officers to go on the beat on their day off and to fund that through the overtime budget. If Operation Dove was a success, it was because police officers were on the streets of Paisley when they were needed, late on Friday and Saturday nights. Instead of being spent on such measures, the overtime budget is spent dragging police officers out of Greenock, Dumbarton and Glasgow to police the streets of Paisley.

Mrs. Irene Adams (Paisley, North)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, while Operation Dove was a great success in the Paisley area, it was only a temporary measure? He rightly said that this was achieved only by taking acting officers from other areas, thus leaving those areas vulnerable. No new funds were found to finance the operation and no more officers were employed. As we have heard, officers were redeployed in courts when they were desperately needed on the streets. We need a permanent solution to the problem, with more policemen permanently on the streets, more policemen employed and more money for the regional council. The council has been putting civilians into stations to do administrative work, thereby releasing officers to active duty, but we must stop playing about with figures and find that permanent solution.

Mr. McMaster

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The trouble with projects such as Operation Dove, as opposed to permanent solutions such as that offered by the new clause, is that if police officers are taken from other divisions to police a problem in Paisley, it will achieve that result, but then police officers from Paisley will be sent elsewhere and the problem will return. The new clause offers a more sensible solution.

Mr. McFall

Will my hon. Friend accept that those are the comments of the chief constable of Strathclyde? Furthermore, there are different social patterns now, with, for example, late night dancing in discos. I speak from experience, as I have teenage children who knock me up at 5 o'clock on a Sunday morning because they have lost their keys. As more young people are on the streets at that time of the morning, my chief superintendent has to deploy his police officers then, thereby denuding the force operating during the day. Taking such issues into consideration, my hon. Friend is correct, and the experience in Paisley is mirrored in Dumbarton and elsewhere.

Mr. McMaster

That is correct. The chief constable can only deploy the available resources. Every time we write to the Minister about a police matter, we are told that it is for the chief constable, but if the only solution that the Government can offer is to take police officers from one division and put them into another, we shall never achieve anything. That is simply chasing the problem from one place to another.

I agree with almost all that the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) said, but I do not agree with his remark that sometimes police like being in court because that enhances their overtime payments. I have spoken to police officers who are fed up with the amount of time they spend hanging around courts. I rather suspect that solicitors also like the extra time that they spend in court.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

I am not a solicitor, so I cannot answer for that profession. I should not like it to be thought either by the hon. Gentleman or by the House that I made a blanket charge in respect of police officers. I hoped that I had made it clear that, on occasion, from time to time, officers were not unamenable to the idea of spending time in court, on overtime, waiting to give evidence, rather than being out doing their other work. I suspect that that is true only of a small proportion of them, and I should not like too much significance to be attached to it.

6.15 pm
Mr. McMaster

I accept that. The hon. and learned Gentleman will have noted that I took great care to say "solicitors" and not "QCs", because those of us in the Whips office have to be careful about making accusations against Scottish QCs. I intend to hang on to my job at least until Christmas.

The new clause offers a partial solution to the problem of crime in Scotland because it would help to get police officers back on the streets, where people want them to be. If we did a survey tomorrow of the issues that people think affect them most in Scotland, crime would be in the top five. More and more, people are recognising that there has been a 600 per cent. increase in crime since the Government came to power and that a crime happens every 30 seconds, and they want something done about it. —[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) laughs. Perhaps he suspects that I have managed to stay in order but yet to make a political speech—as if I would. Crime affects all Scotland, and I commend the new clause to the House because it offers a partial solution to that problem.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

A large number of points have been made, but the general view has been that far too much police time is spent in court and that it is extremely desirable that that time should be reduced. Procurators fiscal are under instructions to make every effort to achieve that purpose whenever possible.

It is a fundamental police duty to attend court to give evidence, but this should be done efficiently with officers spending as little time as possible away from operational duties. We want to make the best use of valuable police resources. The report by the Commission on Local Authority Accounts in Scotland published helpful indicators as to how valuable resources might be put to best use. It is encourgaging to note that measures are already in hand which should contribute significantly to reducing the time that witnesses have to spend at court.

The report comments on police duty rosters. That matter is being considered within the context of the inquiry into police responsibilities and rewards being conducted by Sir Patrick Sheehy.

The hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. MacFall) mentioned the 1982–83 experiment, which he said was successful. Although 50 per cent. of the cases went off at intermediate diet, most of those cases were adjourned, or a warrant was taken for the arrest of the accused. This meant that the witnesses had to come back on a subsequent occasion. Fiscals are now giving copies of police statements to the defence, and there is an experiment in Paisley in doing exactly the same with civilian witness statements. It is hoped that this and other initiatives, coupled with intermediate diets, might assist the position. What is certain is that the provisions of schedule 3 on business evidence will be a great help to prosecutors in avoiding the citing of witnesses who do not speak to the essentials of a case.

The hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. McMaster) said that plea bargaining should be kept to a minimum. Ideally, the defence solicitor would approach the Crown with an offer for a plea at an early stage. However, they are dependent on their clients' instructions and, regrettably, I have to say from my experience that often instructions are forthcoming only once it is known that prosecution witnesses are present and the case can therefore be proved. I wish that it were different, but that is how it is.

There is already a permissive power to hold intermediate diets before summary trials. It was introduced by the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980. However, the new procedure fell into disuse in most courts in Scotland because it was found to be ineffective in fulfilling its purpose of identifying adjournments and guilty pleas in advance. I agree with hon. Members that a preliminary procedure such as this has the potential to secure improvements in these areas, but plainly the existing practice has not worked. Accordingly, it would not be sensible to make an ineffective procedure mandatory. That would simply waste more court time and result in a worse service to the public.

However, I can offer hope of improvement. The Scottish Courts Administration is supporting a review of court programming by groups under the chairmanship of Sheriff Principal Nicholson and Sheriff Cox. Part of the review involves experiments to establish an effective form of intermediate diet within the existing legislation. I am sure that the courts themselves will wish to make use of their existing powers. One court, Airdrie, has already reintroduced intermediate diets as a result of a successful experiment. Moreover, we shall be considering in the light of the conclusions of the review whether improvements can be made in the statutory framework which will result in intermediate diets fulfilling their purpose more successfully, but any proposals arising from that will be for another Bill.

I invite the hon. Gentleman not to press the new clause and to wait until the review is completed.

Mr. McFall

I thank the Minister for his reply. He will be aware of the concern of practitioners about this issue. Only a few weeks ago, Ian Hamilton QC expressed great concern about it. There was a photograph of him in the Glasgow Herald in full motorbike gear, saying that the system is crumbling. I am sure that his comments are echoed in many other parts of the Scottish legal system. As a result of his statement, I tabled a number of parliamentary questions asking how many cases involved plea bargaining. The Minister's rather unhelpful reply was that answering the question would involve disproportionate cost.

The Minister acknowledges that the system is not working. I do not believe that a committee comprising a sheriff principal and a sheriff gets to the heart of the problem. The Minister will know that a criminal justice commission in England and Wales has already reported. Why should not Scotland have such a commission to look into all these issues? It could examine all the deficiencies of the legal system. Setting up such a commission would be universally welcomed in legal circles.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

It is much more sensible to go ahead with the review, which will report before long. At that stage we can see what further measures are needed. New clause 6 would make mandatory a procedure which, so far, the courts have found ineffective. We are trying to devise a more effective intermediate diet procedure, so this is not the time to introduce a mandatory requirement.

Mr. McFall

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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