HC Deb 18 February 1992 vol 204 cc179-81 3.32 pm
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to impose limits upon, and to make other provisions in respect of, the admissibility of an uncorroborated confession in evidence before a court; and for connected purposes.

The Bill would involve amending the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

When I was a young Member of Parliament, one of the campaigns that impressed me most was that of Christopher Price over the Confait case. Month after month, Mr. Price came to the House to demand justice for one of his constituents, who had been wrongly accused and convicted of an appalling murder. Eventually, as a result of the persistence of Mr. Price, pardons were granted in the cases concerned.

Having heard all the details, I was convinced that it was an essential safeguard for all interviews conducted in police stations to be tape-recorded. I strongly believe that, if tape recording were introduced, it would solve the problem that occurred in the Confait case and in other cases. I have therefore campaigned vigorously for the tape recording of evidence taken in police stations and I was delighted when the Government agreed to introduce such a measure into the Police and Criminal Evidence legislation. I understand that some Home Office Ministers think that interviews should be videoed rather than tape-recorded. There has been a big improvement as a result of tape recording, but I do not believe that it has totally resolved the problem.

Anyone who read the Adjournment debate of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) on 12 December, dealing with the PC Salt case, will realise that tape recording is not the complete answer. In spite of the confessions being tape-recorded, we now know that the individuals involved were taken to a different police station and rehearsed—I think that is the word—in the way in which they should make their confessions, and then taken to another police station where they made the confessions. Therefore, although tape recording has made a considerable improvement, we have to go further.

The Confait case to which I referred at the beginning has turned out to be only the tip of the iceberg. In the Guildford Four case, the Birmingham Six case, the Bridgwater Farm case and a series of other cases, it has been demonstrated that the confessions which were put before the courts were unsatisfactory. We now know that, in the Judith Ward case, a confession is in considerable doubt. In Rochdale, the courts are considering the Stefan Kiszko case.

All those cases suggest that, on occasion, confessions have been obtained in an unsatisfactory manner and that, in some cases, people are prepared to confess to crimes which clearly they could not have committed. Therefore, it is dangerous for courts to rely merely on confession evidence.

If there are such miscarriages of justice, we suffer in three ways. First, someone is wrongfully imprisoned or punished, and that person and their family suffer grievously. Secondly, society suffers because, if the courts convict the wrong person, it means that someone else has got away with the crime. Thirdly, as a result of the publicity given to such cases, police, lawyers and judges are discredited, and the whole legal system suffers. There is evidence that, as a result of those cases, juries are less willing to accept what police and others say in court.

As I understand it, the Government accept that the position is unsatisfactory. That is why they set up the royal commission. Many of us have a cynical view of royal commissions; it seems that they are set up to delay difficult choices. By the time a royal commission has collected all the evidence, its recommendations have been considered by the Government and Parliament and legislation is introduced, three or four years may have passed, if it is done quickly, but it may be 10 years before action is taken.

I suggest a simple remedy: to apply the law in Scotland to England and Wales. That is the essence of what I propose. That has been proposed to the royal commission by Liberty, Amnesty International and a long list of other people and organisations, which I will not read out, but which includes my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South. Confessions should be made inadmissible in court cases unless they have been adopted in the presence of a lawyer or there is clear corroboration of the evidence put forward. It should also be inadmissible for confessions to be put in if there is any indication that they may have been obtained in oppressive circumstances.

I have heard one or two police officers claim that that would make their task harder. It does not appear to have made the task harder in Scotland, where the record on crime is at least as good as in England and Wales. Therefore, it appears that the Scottish police can cope well with that requirement. If they can cope with it, I do not see why the police in England and Wales should not be able to cope with it.

The other argument that has been put to me by police officers is that, if a solicitor is present when people make confessions, he will discourage a person from making a confession and will try to persuade that person to remain silent. I understand that all the studies that have taken place indicate that there is very little difference between the behaviour of a person volunteering to give a statement in the presence of a solicitor and the behaviour of a person volunteering to give a statement in the absence of a solicitor. Thus, I believe that the presence of a solicitor would give rise to no difficulties at all. In fact, it might even speed up justice, as the solicitor would know what the charges were and would not need such a detailed transcript of the tape recording.

This procedure would have the advantage of encouraging the police to go and collect evidence, rather than to put all their efforts into getting a confession. That might result in their being directed to the right person, rather than being left with a hunch and pressing for a confession.

The last point that I want to emphasise is that it is far too easy for us to assume that the problems that have occurred are the result of a few bent police officers, in some cases poor lawyers, and bigoted judges. I do not believe that that is so. I believe that, in respect of this matter, we are all guilty, because we have all applied pressure. Anyone who was in the House when the Guildford bombing or the Birmingham pub bombing was reported, or anyone who is aware of the details of a particular child murder, realises that there is a tremendous public demand for the conviction of the guilty person. That pressure is often acutely felt by the police officers. They are very closely involved, having seen the particular horror of the crime. All those pressures exist, and Members of Parliament regularly demand a higher conviction rate. We want the police to succeed.

Against all those pressures, the legislature has a duty to provide the conditions that will prevent the police, or anyone else, from wanting to overstep the mark. That is why I believe that this Bill would improve justice in our society. In a civilised society it is better that, occasionally, a guilty person should escape than that an innocent person should be convicted. If we make sure that confessions are taken down in the presence of a solicitor, many of the problems will be solved. This legislation is long overdue.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Mr. Chris Mullin, Mr. Chris Smith, Mr. Harry Cohen, Ms. Harriet Harman, Mr. Bernie Grant, Mr. Martin Redmond, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Richard Caborn, and Mr. Brian Sedgemore.