HC Deb 14 December 1993 vol 234 cc1029-52 4.37 am
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

I am most grateful for this opportunity to debate the operation of the Crown Prosecution Service. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and for Monmouth (Mr. Evans), who have joined me to speak in the debate, and to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, who has chosen to reply to the debate in person at this rather unearthly hour.

The Government have embarked on a remarkable package of reforms to the criminal justice system. One might even describe it as the crime management system. The Home Secretary's 27-point plan for the criminal justice system will make an enormous difference and involve a great deal of legislation.

At the same time, we have two different sets of proposals for the police, one stemming from the Sheehy report, which is in modified form, and one coming in the police White Paper, and measures that apply to the relationship between the public and the forces of law and order, ranging from improvements to the special constabulary through to greater emphasis on neighbourhood watch schemes and witness protection schemes.

Curiously, the one part of the crime management system that has been almost entirely exempted from that process is the CPS. The one major change that it has undergone has been a reduction in the number of areas, the reasons for which are not immediately obvious.

If just one link in a chain is left largely unchanged when the others are being greatly altered, it would be reasonable to suppose that that one link was the strongest link. In fact, I shall argue tonight that it is by far and away the weakest link. I do not want to dwell on the various personal attacks that have been made on the Director of Public Prosecutions or, indeed, on the wider attacks that have been made from time to time on individual Crown prosecutors. They form no part of my case. I want to focus on the facts.

Since the establishment of the CPS in 1985, crime of all types has risen dramatically, according to the official figures. The British crime survey, which is based on opinion polling, suggests that the numbers of offences in certain categories of crime against property, including burglary and offences involving motor cars, have risen slightly faster than the official figures suggest. The numbers in other categories have risen less quickly.

Over the seven years from 1985 to 1992, the police have succeeded in clearing up more offences. The number of notifiable offences cleared up has risen from 1.1 million to 1.39 million—an increase of one quarter—yet the number of convictions for indictable offences has fallen by 9 per cent., from 362,000 to 339,000. At the same time, the success rate in prosecutions for indictable offences has fallen from 96 per cent. in the last year before the CPS came into operation to just over 90 per cent. last year. That is according not to the CPS figures but to the figures from the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department, which have a more consistent basis. They are figures provided by the Library, based on the Government's figures.

Those figures, which are poor in themselves, understate the grave deterioration in the prosecution service. In that period, plea bargaining has steadily extended so that many prosecutions have been secured at the price of accepting a lower charge. Research by several neutral bodies has confirmed at the qualitative level that the figures correctly show a marked deterioration in the service. I shall mention just two bodies. In 1987, just after the CPS came into operation, the National Audit Office did a survey of, among others, judges, magistrates and clerks to justices of the peace. That survey suggested that far more people thought that the service had got worse than thought that it had got better.

Just two years ago, Home Affairs Select Commmittee investigations found quote after quote from almost every possible agency. People felt that the CPS was inferior to the old system in which the police were in charge of prosecutions. Quotes were obtained from magistrates, barristers and policemen. The chairman of the Magistrates Association said that he could not think of a single good thing that had been done for justice as a result of the introduction of the CPS. At the same time, costs have spiralled. The Comptroller and Auditor General's review of the Crown Prosecution Service in 1989 said: In August 1986, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Home Office attempted to compare the cost of the CPS with the cost of the previous regime. They estimated broadly that the old arrangements would have cost £70 million for 1987–88 as against estimated expenditure of £110 million for the Service. But they accepted that this might not take full account of the costs of accommodation and general admistration, and concluded that the difference in costs was due mainly to the increase in staff numbers. The actual cost of the Service in 1987–88 was £134 million.

By 1991–92—remember that this is a period of extremely low inflation—while the service had continued to deteriorate, total expenditure had reached £226.15 million. Even if one makes the generous assumption that the whole of the initial increase was due to accounting changes for accommodation and so on, the service's costs had doubled. It did not stop there. Costs have continued to rise sharply.

In the current year alone, in my county of Kent, new arrangements for the handling of paperwork will cost an extra £750,000 this year, with a continuing charge of £500,000 a year for paperwork that was wholly unnecessary before the CPS came into being. Delays in major criminal cases result in witnesses no longer being able to recall what happened, reducing the chances of a successful prosecution being made; equally, there are delays at the bottom end of the scale. I have spent much time talking to my local police. Indeed, I was out in a police car all night last month.

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

Was the hon. Gentleman in the cells?

Mr. Brazier

I was a voluntary visitor to the cells. Policemen have told me time and again that, in the past, they could arrest someone for committing a minor offence —for example, shoplifting—and, because the paperwork involved was minimal, if there was no queue in the magistrates court a case could sometimes be completely cleared through to sentence within 24 hours. Simply getting the file prepared and processed by the CPS takes a minimum of a fortnight, with all the costs that that entails.

The result is demoralisation of policemen, who see cases being dropped, experience delays and increasing costs and spend hour after hour with earphones on their heads summarising cases for the CPS. That would not be necessary if they were prosecuting cases themselves and it would be far less bureaucratic.

I do not want to quote the wretched forms that are pouring increasingly out of the DPP's office, imposing increasing burdens on the police force. The CPS is vastly more expensive than the previous arrangements. Long delays and a huge increase in paperwork are involved—an increase that the PA study into police paperwork was not allowed to consider. Its terms of reference were specifically confined to areas under the control of the police, although it was able to recommend better co-ordination and regular reviews of the relationship between the police and the CPS. Policemen tell me that the CPS is the biggest single factor accounting for the fall in morale among policemen, not only in my area but in others.

I am not suggesting that we need improved practice in the CPS, although obvious examples of where improvements need to be made can be given. Policemen in my constituency are full of praise for local Crown prosecutors. In the past six months, only two cases that local police would have liked to proceed with were dropped, and both were relatively minor. The point that the police make to me again and again is that the system is profoundly wrong and that where Crown prosecutors are doing a good job they are doing it in spite of the system, not because of it.

The system has no objectives to encourage Crown prosecutors to take up difficult cases where they believe defendants to be guilty but where there is a real chance of losing. The pursuit of such cases is important not only to victims but to the public's perception of justice being done. The system does not have any penalty for dropping such cases. Indeed, it rewards the cautious Crown prosecutor because he appears to get a better result by dodging the more difficult cases. That problem arises under any system in which there is divided responsibility, as there is in the present system. The police complain about the CPS and the CPS complain about the police. It is not clear who is responsible if a case is not successful.

There is another aspect that is undervalued and missed —I say that with the greatest respect to the majority of hon. Members in the Chamber at the moment, who are lawyers. Of the intelligent and articulate complaints made against the CPS, the one that is missed is the damage that the service is doing to the individual policeman by removing the vital opportunity for training as a witness which the prosecution of minor cases provided for young policemen.

In the old days, policemen who prosecuted in shoplifting cases gained experience in the court room by being cross-examined in difficult circumstances. I am now told that, all too often, when policemen without that experience are witnesses in major criminal cases in the Crown court, they are unable to make a convincing case compared with their peers of 10 years ago.

In practice, policemen are not released back on the beat. As there is no longer a policeman present to prosecute each case, magistrates have had to insist that one is present as a security guard, so we are paying twice—once for the chap who is prosecuting and once for the policeman merely providing security in the court. From a management angle —for my sins, I was a management consultant—the point runs even deeper. If a policeman has had experience of having to frame a case before magistrates, that in itself will have knock-on effects on his practice out there, at the sharp end. By knowing exactly how one has to present a case and what arguments will or will not cut any ice in court, and from gathering evidence and undertaking the other procedures involved in down-to-earth policing, a policeman is likely to be that much sharper on the beat.

Surely we are not naive enough to believe that policing is simply about putting thousands of extra people back on the beat. We do not want to return to the 1930s when there were three Royal Commissions on policing in three years and when there were 120,000 uneducated policemen on the beat, marching up and down looking for criminals. Policing is about skills and quality. It has repeatedly been stressed to me—by detectives, funnily enough—that the experience gained by prosecuting minor cases in magistrates courts was vital in teaching policemen about their wider duties.

My next objection is that the source of policy formulation is profoundly confused. Other hon. Members wish to intervene so I shall not elaborate too much, but I cite one particular example. The recent case of Regina v. Fergus, which was a matter of mistaken identity, has led to the director of prosecutions in London issuing new guidelines on witness material. The guidelines are confusing in any event because they conflict with an earlier ruling by the Court of Appeal on the protection of people who are subsequently acquitted. That is a detail, but the key point is that the director of prosecutions in London has issued fresh guidelines that are out of line with those in the rest of the country.

The only argument for having a centralised service that seemed to carry any weight was that it would produce uniform standards. If there are no uniform standards, and if individual regional directors can set their own rules—in this case, one that involves a great deal of extra work—even that argument falls.

What should we conclude from the original reasons for setting up the CPS? I believe that they boil down to three points, one of which is mistaken, one of which is pernicious and the third of which holds some water but its scope has been taken too wide. The mistaken argument is that an independent CPS enhances the credibility of the prosecuting authority because people believe that cases rest on more than the police having it in for someone or fitting someone up.

It must be said that, while public confidence in the police has declined in the past few years—a recent Reader's Digest survey suggested that it is now down to 73 per cent.—confidence in the criminal justice system has also plummeted and, indeed, it now stands at below 50 per cent. in the courts. More important, the fact that the successful prosecution rate has fallen even though large numbers of cases have been dropped since the introduction of the CPS illustrates that that argument simply does not hold water.

The second argument, which I believe to be utterly pernicious, is that the CPS provides a safety net against miscarriages of justice. As an old-fashioned Tory, I believe that argument to be constitutionally monstrous. Let us look at the figures. In the second quarter of this year, 43,000 cases were discontinued—just over half were discontinued on evidential grounds. The second largest category—almost a third of the total, or more than 12,000 cases—were discontinued in the so-called public interest. What kind of philosophy of justice says that bureaucrats operating in secrecy behind closed doors should be allowed to discontinue vast numbers of cases in the public interest? Twelve thousand victims out there have been told that their cases have been discontinued in the public interest, without any public debate. If a case is to be discontinued—unless that happens in the most exceptional circumstances—it should be discontinued either as a result of committal proceedings, which are in the open, or at a trial, where the judge has the power to scrub a case as early as he wants to do so.

The third argument—the argument that convinces me that there is a case for having independent prosecution in some areas—is the resources argument. Many of the cases that used to start—and, in the case of the Serious Fraud Office, continue to start—cost absurd sums. Public money could be saved if expensive cases unlikely to succeed could be called off at an early stage. It is surely manifestly clear that we are talking not about summary or even hybrid offences but about major criminal cases.

That brings me to my four conclusions. First, I recommend that the prosecution of summary and hybrid offences should be returned to the police—simply given back to the old system. That would be massively cheaper and massively faster. Moreover, and eminently, it would restore that vital training function to the police in the case of minor cases while allowing them to appoint whatever solicitors they chose for cases that were on the borderline or too complicated for them to follow themselves.

Let me give a little plug to Christopher Frazer's excellent CPS pamphlet "Privatise the Prosecutors", in which I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth had a hand. Christopher Frazer recommends an elaborate scheme for privatising the CPS on a local basis, basically arguing that the DPP should appoint local solicitors to carry out prosecutions in individual areas. Their contracts should be renewable every few years and the firms in question should not be allowed to take on defence work. That is a splendid suggestion, subject to the important condition that I mentioned, which is that I do not think that it should extend to summary and hybrid cases.

My third recommendation is that major policy areas should be the responsibility of the DPP, answerable to the Attorney-General, alone. I would envisage the regional structure disappearing anyway. The idea that a major new demand can suddenly be imposed locally without clearance from the centre is absolutely wrong.

The fourth recommendation applies to whatever system of prosecution we have. Tapes play an important part under the provisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984—an Act with which I have a lot of difficulty—and their use is widely supported, at least in major criminal cases. The summaries of those tapes, which create so much paperwork for the police, should be made by the CPS. There is a body of academic evidence suggesting that policemen are the wrong people to make the summaries anyway. They are not trained for it and, more important from my angle as a former management consultant, if the CPS were responsible for the summaries, it would be much less demanding than it is under the present arrangements. I am assured by policemen that that single measure would save vastly more paperwork than the total batch of recommendations that came out of the excellent report on police paperwork.

We are steadily reforming all the links in the chain of the criminal justice system—except the weakest one. I welcome the reforms in the system and in police relationships with the public. We must tackle the CPS, the weakest link, and I commend my four simple recommendations to my right hon. and learned Friend.

4.59 am
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

This is perhaps the earliest time of day at which I have spoken in a debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on securing this important debate. It occurs at a time when the eyes of the nation are focused on law and order and on the way in which we tackle crime.

I recently held three meetings in my constituency—at Fulwood, Clitheroe and Longridge—on law and order. At them, the voice of the public was as one in wishing the Government to get tougher with criminals and wanting those responsible for crime punished and, where necessary, put behind bars where they could inflict no more misery on society. I was therefore delighted when the Home Secretary announced his 27 points at the Conservative party conference and included them in the Queen's Speech. They fully underlined his commitment to pushing through legislation that will redress the balance in favour of the victim and against the criminal.

For too long, we have been hoodwinked by those who favour leniency and submissiveness in dealing with the part of society that chooses to live outside the law. There is no doubt that the nation wants to see persistent young thugs properly punished, and not sent on holiday jaunts to the Algarve. I was delighted by the recent Home Department pronouncement against such "punishment", especially by local authorities that are for ever saying that they are starved of cash.

People want better support for the victims of crime and new powers to revoke bail for persistent offenders. They also want new prisons that will keep criminals out of the community.

In our battle to beat crime, the Crown Prosecution Service will be called on to take a lead role to ensure that those suspected of offences come before the courts to face their peers. That is the outcome which I seek, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury that, in its current state, the CPS is greatly handicapped in its ability to perform to the highest standards. That is a tragedy, because the service has no shortage of worthwhile work to protect law-abiding citizens from the ravages of thugs, robbers and violent criminals. However, because of the mountain of bureaucracy in which it has become entangled, it seems unable to function to its full potential. In The Guardian last week, a lawyer stated: We are bombarded with bumf from headquarters. I came thinking I was in Perry Mason and I ended up in 'Yes Minister'. The cost of this bureaucracy is great. It has created low morale among those in the organisation and tension between them and those who are at the sharp end of law enforcement—the police. That has led to an erosion of public confidence in its ability to protect their interests, and it is costing the taxpayer a great deal of money.

Morale among CPS staff seems to be at an all-time low as, increasingly, they feel that they are being asked to prosecute only in cases in which there is a high probability of winning and dropping those that are more difficult. It is generally accepted that the Crown Prosecution Service will prosecute a case when it feels that it has a more than even chance of winning. However, in the past a Crown Prosecution Service officer working in York was reported as saying that, in reality, the percentage was closer to 70 than to 50. That policy, whether written or implied by the powers in charge, is misguided and dangerous. It will lead, and undoubtedly has led, to guilty people walking away from their crimes without being made to pay for the consequences of their actions.

A senior lawyer in the Crown Prosecution Service, who wished to remain anonymous, wrote in the Daily Mail on Thursday 21 October: All lawyers need to be willing to fight difficult cases at times and good lawyers can win against all the odds. Unfortunately the CPS gives no encouragement to good lawyers or to courageous prosecuting. If a prosecutor drops a difficult case then nobody in the CPS criticises him on the grounds that the case could have been won. If he takes one on and wins, nobody praises him. But if he takes on a difficult case and loses, he could face criticism for accepting a weak case, and knows his career could be affected. So it is simpler and safer to drop a difficult case rather than fight it. And drop them prosecutors do—every day.

That would be a serious indictment whoever levelled it at the CPS, but when one of its own employees does so it becomes a cause for great concern. We cannot afford a system that accepts only cast-iron cases to the exclusion of everything else. The "if in doubt, drop it" mentality has not gone unnoticed by the police or by the public, and it is causing both groups to lose confidence in the CPS.

Too many times, a serious charge has been reduced to secure a conviction, or even dropped altogether. Defence lawyers are quick to take advantage of that weakness, and use it to good effect in protecting their clients' interests. For example, they will often encourage their clients, where possible, to opt for a Crown court trial and the extra costs that that would incur are used as a lever to get the prosecutor to reduce the severity of the charges so that the case may be heard in a magistrates court, which will lower the costs that the CPS will incur.

In other cases, because its desire for a conviction has become so overriding, the CPS has been known to reduce the charges itself before going to court. To many, that may seem good practice, but that is of little consolation to a victim of rape who sees the charge for that serious crime reduced to indecent assault. If convicted in a magistrates court, the perpetrator will receive at most a sentence of six months in prison. There is no recourse for the victim to appeal to the Attorney-General for a more severe sentence to be passed, because the attacker was never tried for the rape. That lack of desire to prosecute is causing concern.

For example, it cannot be right that we ask our policemen to risk their lives daily to protect the public, when in a recent case a policeman who had a knife pulled on him by a drunken driver saw the CPS alter the charge to the offence of carrying a bladed article—an offence not punishable by a prison sentence. Another case reported in The Daily Telegraph on Friday involved a policeman—PC Tony Stallard, with 27 years' service on the beat—who was assaulted by two teenagers whom he approached for stealing pub glasses. After being pushed to the ground and attacked, he was saved from a sustained assault only by two of his fellow officers, who restrained the attackers. Even with that seemingly overwhelming evidence, the CPS dropped the charges and Mr. Stallard has been forced to hire a solicitor and a barrister at a cost of several thousand pounds to mount a civil prosecution.

After the CPS refused to prosecute a man who battered a police officer in Streatham, an inspector wrote: This type of incident does nothing for the morale of officers who are at the butt end".

In The Times recently, Stephen Wedd, the secretary of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, said that the CPS was now better run, but that what strikes me as extraordinary is that cases which we as defence solicitors can see are losers—losers for us—the CPS discontinues. They always play safe".

Those are alarming examples, which must eat away at the confidence of police officers in their ability to do the job. I could give many other examples from newspaper articles. The Police Gazette of 15 October reports an attack on an officer that left him with a punctured lung and six broken ribs, yet still the CPS refused to prosecute.

I am aware that the Police Federation has raised the concerns of its members with the Home Secretary, and I trust that the matter will be taken further. In the light of the examples that I have cited—they are by no means isolated —we need to ask ourselves how we can constructively tackle the problems facing the CPS, an organisation which employs more than 2,000 lawyers, 141 legal trainees and more than 4,000 support staff.

To start with, we need to build bridges between the CPS and the lower levels of the police force. A senior officer in my constituency informed me that, although he and the Lancashire constabulary enjoyed a good relationship with the CPS, other police forces reported a great deal of antagonism between the CPS and officers at the grass roots. He claimed that much of that frustration is due to the fact that the police and the CPS have failed to establish a sound channel of communication.

A major source of friction is the number of cases that the CPS decides not to prosecute after the police have handed over their findings. In 1992–93, the CPS decided against prosecuting 193,000 cases—equivalent to one in seven of the completed files referred to it by the police. The 193,000 victims are also important. The number of case dismissals was 20,000 up on the year before. Thousands of officers who worked tirelessly to complete the investigations feel aggrieved by that total and question the motives behind the dismissal of so many cases. Such is their sense of grievance, never mind the feelings of the victims who sit haplessly by, waiting for justice to be done, only to discover at a later date that their cases never reached the courts and their assailants walked free.

The police are already operating a sifting procedure through their increased use of the caution. If the police think that a case has little chance of going far, they caution those charged. In 1992–93, some 41,000 fewer cases were referred to the CPS by the police; the number of completed cases at the magistrates court fell by 36,000 and the number of defendants going to Crown court fell by 9,000. At a time of rising crime, that is not good enough.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury that a review of the working of the CPS would be welcome. I am sure that much of demoralisation suffered by its employees stems from the massive case loads with which they are forced to deal. Defendants wait until the last moment before they change their plea of not guilty, but the work load of the CPS could be reduced if they were encouraged to lodge a plea of guilty at an earlier stage. Of those defendants who elected for jury trial, 82 per cent. pleaded guilty. The majority did so on the day of the trial. We must encourage those who are guilty so to plead at a much earlier stage in the proceedings. In that way, the time of the police, the CPS, the courts and the witnesses would not be wasted.

The current procedures are a sham. I was in Preston magistrates court the other day when a person changed his plea from not guilty to guilty. Two police officers who had each wasted three hours in the court then had to leave. If that guilty plea had been lodged earlier a lot of wasted time could have been saved. We should consider a system under which discounted sentences could be encouraged if a guilty plea was recorded earlier In the proceedings. That would free tens of thousands of CPS man hours which could be used to deal with more serious cases. That change might offer a new incentive to prosecute difficult cases where the outcome might go either way.

I am seeking not to find scapegoats, but to bring to the attention of the House the problems faced by the CPS. Although I do not believe that those problems could cause the terminal illness of the CPS, they must not be allowed to fester dangerously, as that causes misunderstanding and mistrust. Employees in the CPS are losing confidence in their ability to do their jobs.

I look forward to the report of the CPS into why cases are being dropped—we should have it before Christmas. I hope that it will be able to answer some of the criticisms made of it relating to the number of cases dropped and those in which the charge is reduced. As my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has said, is all the burgeoning paperwork absolutely necessary to enable the police to conduct their business?

I urge the Attorney-General to take the necessary action to correct the obvious problems. Let us make the system work for the victims; let us put them first, where they belong, and the criminals in the dock, where they belong. Then justice will not only be done, but be seen to be done.

5.14 am
Mr. Roger Evans (Monmouth)

One of the more exotic mysteries to which scholarship will, in 100 years, apply itself is how the Government of Baroness Thatcher managed in the 1980s to set up a new nationalised industry in the form of the Crown Prosecution Service, in lieu of a privatised system and one that involved compulsory competitive tendering as a matter of practice throughout the rural counties. How did that extraordinary state of affairs come about? The explanation, inevitably, is that the great and good, in the form of the Philips commission, suggested a scheme, which was transmuted into an even grander scheme by civil servants. That led to the creation of a system designed to implement the abstract idea that, somehow, the last few centuries of our legal history were inadequate because there was no independent prosecutor, independent of the police, applying itself in virtually every case that was dealt with. The difficulty is that when abstract ideas are applied, they do not work in the way intended.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on analysing, in great and devastating detail, the dissatisfaction that is general at the moment, particularly among the police. The problem goes well beyond that. The judiciary, the legal profession and the public at large, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) explained in great detail, are grievously concerned at the present state of affairs.

I commend to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General Mr. Christopher Frazer's recent book "Privatise the Prosecutors", which analyses the problem in detail and makes a compelling case for urgent change. Let us see why that urgent change is necessary. The idea behind having an independent prosecutor was that the police could not be trusted and that such an independent prosecutor would ensure a uniform and higher standard of decision making in prosecuting and a higher execution in quality of prosecuting. Plainly, that does not happen. Whatever its difficulties, the old system achieved much more public satisfaction.

he first disastrous consequence of the Crown prosecuting system—it is the system that is at fault, not the people who operate it—is demoralisation of the police force. When the two roles of investigating officer and independent prosecuting authority are split, there is an immediate need for communication between the two, which means an explosion of paperwork and, in the inevitable course of the civil service, an extraordinary explosion in the type of forms required.

It is worse than that. PC Dixon, the officer in the case under the old system, had a personal responsibility. He was subject to his supervising officer, but he had to investigate the case, get the evidence together, make sure that there was enough evidence, get his witnesses to court and, if they were simple cases, get them prosecuted himself. He had direct personal responsibility; he was accountable. If he made a mistake, the magistrates would throw the case out, with costs against the police. There was simple accountability, simple responsibility and simple retribution if he got it wrong.

If it were a more complicated case, involving trial on indictment, PC Dixon could go to his own solicitor—that was true in many rural areas, right up to the end of the old system. For example, in Herefordshire, private firms of solicitors did the prosecuting, and they were chosen for their professional qualities and their expertise. The prosecuting solicitor was a prestigious appointment. In the country, provincial firms were anxious to compete to be awarded that task. In other parts of the country, there was an in-house policy prosecuting solicitor. In Gwent and in Gloucestershire, of which I had professional experience many years ago, the system worked well and was effective. The important thing was that even if there was an in-house police solicitor, PC Dixon knew that he was dealing with that solicitor, not with some separate individual force that would override, overturn or ignore his views and not carry out the priorities that he understood.

Since then, there has been a split or division between the police officer in a case and the independent prosecutor. Neither is entirely responsible. The witnesses do not turn up; the evidence is not secured. In simpler cases, the level of expert decision making is in question. It sounds wonderful to have an expert lawyer involved in every case, but that is not how the system works. Relatively junior staff deal with relatively junior police officers, and increasingly—as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury explained—with junior PC Dixons who have not had the experience of being responsible for a case and knowing how to present it. It is no good the Government saying that they want to reduce the amount of paperwork and simplify the obligations of the police unless they deal with the fundamental suggestion that the Crown prosecuting solicitor is an unnecessary shackle and an attack on the integrity of the police, and that he does not help. It may be said that, in the old days in Bow street magistrates court, quite a lot of policemen were milling about waiting for their cases to come on as each PC Dixon brought his case to be dealt with. Should not those policemen be on the beat, rather than presenting cases in court? That, however, is a superficial argument.

I do not accept for a moment that any time was wasted on that exercise, because it was devoted to ensuring that a case was brought to court, dealt with and disposed of. Nowadays, PC Dixon is wasting very much more time preparing written material for the CPS-or, as has been pointed out, his colleagues are providing the security service in magistrates courts that was taken for granted in the old days. Indeed, at one stage in our history, those courts were known as police courts. There was never any suggestion that there were not enough police officers to ensure that the system operated properly. That arrangement was necessary for the dignity and integrity of the court system, and it was astonishing that it should be removed. This issue matters so much to the morale and effectiveness of our police force that it must be dealt with effectively.

Let me make another point, echoing my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury. A very important constitutional issue has been fudged. The older view was that, where there was evidence, there was a duty to prosecute. When the late Mr. Raymond Blackburn—a distinguished former Member of Parliament—went boldly to court to challenge the then policy of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis not to prosecute pornographers in Soho, Lord Denning and the courts made it clear that there was a duty to prosecute. The only exception in the 1960s was a case involving several thousand examples of breaches of food and drugs regulations; someone suggested that it was not necessary to prosecute each and every one.

No one would have doubted, in the whole of our constitutional history—from the Glorious Revolution until the introduction of the CPS—that it was possible for public bodies not to prosecute when there was something of a case. What has happened? To what was the Bill of Rights directed? It forbids the suspending and dispensing of the law of the land in individual cases, but, under new prosecuting guidelines, an elastic and slippery test of the public interest has now been applied. That test enables the CPS to drop the astonishing cases of which my hon. Friends have given details.

In a less happy, honourable and great land than ours, that would have led to corruption and tyranny. In this country, it leads only to inefficiency, unfairness and a sense of public outrage that honourable public servants are behaving in a way that is eccentric and unhelpful.

Mr. Brazier

I shall not go into individual cases, but my hon. Friend must be aware that, in areas where there are racial tensions, if there is any racist aspect of a case that is subsequently dropped—whether the racial group comprises Asians resenting a racial attack by whites, whites resenting an allegedly racial attack by West Indians or others—word starts immediately to spread that the decision was made for racial reasons.

Mr. Evans

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is corroding and corrosive and it undermines public confidence in the administration of the law.

The point that really matters—it is an outrage in our free country—is that decisions whether to prosecute should not be taken, to use pejorative language, by state prosecutors acting in private. That is the behaviour of a Minister of the Interior in a nasty foreign country that does not understand liberty as we have known it since 1688. I am being more generous than my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury in that I think that that system is driven largely by muddle and inefficiency. However, it is wrong in principle and it should stop.

As a member of the Bar, my further professional unhappiness with modern arrangements is that we now have full-time independent Crown prosecutors, which leads to polarisation in the legal profession. The glory of the Bar and of country solicitors was, and is, the fact that they dealt with every case that came to them, whatever the side. A country solicitor could be prosecuting for PC Dixon one day and defending the local villain the next. There was independent professional judgment and solicitors were expected to be fair. Nobody suggested that they would not be fair. Now, we have state prosecutors under siege from public criticism and, the most unattractive feature of the modern legal profession, the type of civil libertarian practitioner who seems to believe that every guilty case is plainly not so. The older system led to higher professional standards and offered openness and opportunities for practitioners to appear for the public.

I must deal with the remedies for this serious and unhappy situation. There is such an accumulation of dissatisfaction that nothing less than severe and serious action is called for urgently. I endorse and welcome what I believe to be the most important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury, that the police should be given back their exclusive role of dealing with and prosecuting summary and hybrid offences. If they need legal advice, they can obtain it from private solicitors. If they need more than that, they can, at worst, obtain it from an in-house solicitor. That was the system that created responsibility and direct accountability and promoted standards.

The fundamental mistake in the new system is that decisions on whether to prosecute are taken in private by state prosecutors. A proper sifting system should be open, judicial and public. In our country prior to 1931, a grand jury would have formed a view as to the appropriateness of a prosecution, which is what happens in the United States now. Until 1968, in a trial on indictment, there was no question of involving any paperwork. PC Dixon had to produce each and every relevant witness to tell the justices the story so that they could form a view on whether there was sufficient material to bring a prosecution. There was a judicial determination of whether a case should be dealt with by trial by jury.

In 1967, somebody thought of saving public money —it is always dangerous in the law to reduce standards, allegedly to save money. The idea now is to serve a bundle of statements. The justices have no duty to consider whether there is anything in them. They simply act as a postbag. That is the farce of the modern committal system. All the cases end up going to the Crown court and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley said, making up one's mind at the last possible moment when faced with the ultimate threat of the prison doors is endemic in the criminal world. People will not make up their minds conveniently to suit the police or the prosecution or for the convenience of the courts. Someone like Bill Sykes makes up his mind at the last possible moment when there is no alternative other than to go to prison. Vast numbers of cases have gone to the Crown court because there is no proper committal system, due to the foolishness of the 1967 legislation which led to the modern system. I do not urge one arrangement or another, but either the magistrates or the Crown court judge should have a preliminary summary sifting process to determine, on express open criteria, whether a case should be allowed to proceed.

One remedy is recommended by Mr. Christopher Frazer in the book that I mentioned. If we must retain an independent Crown prosecutor, he should, at most, be a part-time local solicitor in private practice—somebody of professional distinction who is honoured to be made an important figure in the community. That would deal with the small number of cases in which the police said that they needed legal advice. It would leave it entirely to the police to decide whether they wanted to go to such a local Crown prosecutor or to bring in their own independent solicitor.

As we well know, there are exceptions. The police are shackled with having to use the Crown Prosecution Service. That is not the case for certain Departments which, if they want to prosecute, can go to their own legal advisers. The Government always exclude their servants from the monopoly that they create.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and the Director of Public Prosecutions should return to the traditional role of dealing with a small number of particularly sensitive and important public issues.

The talents of the people who work in the Crown Prosecution Service are being failed by the system. There is a premium on timidity, which my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury explained. They would be better off in private practice. As soon as we have a national civil service, with a salary scale applying from one end of the land to another, it is difficult to get people to do the job in inner London, where it is more expensive to live. The system should be ended.

Above all, because of the importance of the morale and effectiveness of the police and of the Government's policies for getting to grips with the problem of rising crime, I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to take urgent and early action to deal with the crisis in the Crown Prosecution Service, which should never have been set up as it was. The country will be satisfied only when it is abolished—and the sooner, the better.

5.31 am
Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on achieving this debate and starting a stimulating discussion, to which I hope to add.

The hon. Gentleman's criticisms of the Crown Prosecution Service were curious because he sought to excuse the Government's appalling failure to tackle crime while identifying real concern about the failure of the Crown Prosecution Service. Those failures must be seen against the background of the criminal justice system as a whole. He described the Home Secretary as the author of a remarkable package on crime. The package is remarkable mainly in its failure to tackle crime and the causes of crime. The so-called "27-point plan" exposed in parliamentary questions lacks in detail, is short on time scale, limited in scope, lacks a strategy for crime prevention and reform, and, in the past fortnight, has been exposed by the Budget figures as lacking cash and resources.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) showed a similar tendency to ignore the Government's general failure on crime while criticising the Crown Prosecution Service as though its failures had nothing to do with Conservative policies. He referred to late pleas entered by defendants. There are ways in which the whole system could be streamlined and timetabled if only Ministers would listen to the advice that has been offered to them in recent years and particularly in recent months.

I am appalled to learn that civil servants are saying that the Criminal Justice Bill, which we shall debate shortly, is full and that inter-agency advice from bodies like the working group on pre-trial issues is to be ignored. That should be of concern to Members on both sides of the House.

The hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Evans) was devastating in his criticism of Baroness Thatcher's Government and the demoralisation of police and others in the criminal justice system that has developed during the past 14 years, but restrained himself from putting blame on the shoulders of Ministers who are still in office. I sympathise with his point about the contribution of police officers in courts under the previous system. From my experience as a juvenile court magistrate in particular, I can say that removing PC Ron Ashe from Cardiff juvenile court was the most disastrous decision in juvenile justice that I have encountered.

I ask the hon. Member for Monmouth to keep an eye on the Home Secretary's tendency to undervalue the skills of police officers in a range of other duties and the dangers inherent in the forthcoming Magistrates Courts and Police Bill. The Home Secretary, in common with his predecessor, wants to be the sort of nasty Minister for the interior that the hon. Member for Monmouth rightly scorned. I ask only that he balances his views.

The hon. Member for Monmouth should acknowledge that the accumulation of dissatisfaction with the Crown Prosecution Service that he rightly identified is directed equally and with similar passion at other elements of the criminal justice system. There is no doubt that the public have lost confidence in that system. The fact that someone is punished by a court in only one crime in 50 is itself an incredible indictment of the Government's failure to deal with crime and its causes.

This debate addresses the specific problem of the CPS's failure to deliver the goods, but Ministers should recognise that that is only one aspect of a general failure.

Mr. Brazier

I find myself listening to the hon. Gentleman's remarks with increasing disbelief. He is taking the debate extremely wide with a series of attacks on the Government, but he has not made one constructive policy suggestion. I hope that he will do so shortly.

Mr. Michael

That is a scurrilous remark and untrue. Conservative Members, including the hon. Member for Canterbury, took the debate well wide of the CPS. I have already made a significant constructive contribution, in saying that advice from inter-agency bodies such as the working party that I mentioned—to which, apparently, Ministers and civil servants are not prepared to listen—should be embodied in the criminal justice legislation that will come before the House shortly. That would assist the CPS, courts and criminal justice system generally. If the hon. Member for Canterbury thinks that I am not making constructive points, he does not understand the topic that he raised.

Ministers continually tinker with the wrong parts of the system and the way in which prosecutions are brought in particular. We expect this week the appearance of the Magistrates Courts and Police Bill, which is based on an ill-judged White Paper and will reduce accountability and the local nature of police forces. The Home Secretary continually offers fancy words and yet more legislation, when he would be better occupied preventing and reducing crime, using measures to support the police for which no new legislation is needed and recognising that the Conservative party can enjoy no credibility when the right hon. and learned Gentleman has reneged on a manifesto promise of an extra 1,000 on the police establishment this year by cutting it by 224 posts since the general election.

In common with the hon. Member for Canterbury, I spent an evening in a city centre and I was appalled at how thin is the thin blue line. The paperwork to which Conservative Members referred is certainly a contributory factor in drawing that line so thin.

Against that background, we must consider the dismal story of the CPS and the scandal of dropped prosecutions, which is letting down victims and the public. Fewer cases are going to court and more cases are discontinued. Throughout the country, police officers of every rank—from constables and sergeants to chief constables—have expressed to me over the past year their anger and frustration at being let down when the CPS fails to proceed with a prosecution. That frustration is causing enormous damage to public confidence as well as to police morale.

Ministers may say that the public interest has to be observed. Conservative Members have also expressed a reservation about the way in which the concept of public interest is being used or misused. They may say that a case should not go ahead where there is no chance of success. I wish that I could be confident that it is only in such circumstances that cases are dropped, but I do not believe that. I am now convinced that the pressure to drop cases to save money is too great. We know that managers and bureaucrats put pressure on lawyers in the Crown Prosecution Service to reduce charges against their better judgment. Pressure is specifically applied to convince lawyers to reduce all section 47 charges of causing actual bodily harm to charges of common assault. That pressure is distorting justice. Ministers must carry the can for that approach, and should promise the House to put a stop to it forthwith.

There is also a failure to obtain the practical effective liaison that is needed between the police and the CPS. References have been made to the organisation of the CPS. Its reorganisation on the basis of larger areas was wrong. It would have been far better for the service to be based on the areas of the court that it served and the boundaries of a single police authority. There would be much more direct accountability and co-operation between the two agencies in those circumstances. Such organisational issues need to be addressed. The last reorganisation was carried out with far too little thought—lines were drawn up on a central map rather than on the knowledge of the CPS and the police service on the ground.

Above all, there is a need to put the victim at the centre of the consideration of the CPS. I still feel unhappy about the case of one of my constituents, even after investigating all the circumstances. The son of my constituent was attacked in a bar and a glass was smashed into his face causing the loss of an eye. The attacker was identified and the file passed to the CPS for action. The prosecution decided to accept a guilty plea to a lower charge and drop the more serious charges, which meant that the evidence was not called. The family was shocked to hear a plea in mitigation that the young man had provoked the attack —a suggestion which had not previously been made. As evidence was not heard, the suggestion could not be challenged. I am sure that Conservative Members will share my distaste for such an occurrence, which is not unusual.

That case resulted in a relatively trivial sentence for an offence far less serious than the one originally framed, and a victim, family and witnesses who still feel frustrated and angry a considerable time after the event. They might have felt unhappy had the court heard all the evidence and reached that decision, but they feel cheated because the court had no chance to judge the evidence.

There are many ways in which the victim, the family and even the community can, on occasion, be made to feel that they have been treated as a marginal irrelevance in the prosecution process. That feeling is voiced by the police with worrying regularity and has been reflected in hon. Members' speeches in tonight's debate.

The system of prosecution is bureaucratic and slow whereas crime happens fast, is often nasty and creates victims who are then given inadequate consideration. That is why, this spring, I proposed an amendment to the Criminal Justice Act 1993 to put the victim at the centre of the process and to require the CPS to consult victims on the nature of the offences to be put. My amendment was particularly designed to require the CPS to consult the victims or nearest relatives before agreeing to downgrade or withdraw charges.

That proposal would not give the victim the power of veto, but the requirement to explain the decision to a victim and to the police would be a powerful means of ensuring that the events were properly assessed and that the victim's view was heard and properly considered. It was such a simple, fair and practical concept that I was amazed when the Government rejected it. That demonstrated the contempt of the Conservative party for victims when it has a chance to put matters right. Last week my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) made fresh proposals on the issue, and the Government would be well advised to accept them without further delay.

The Government are about to produce proposals on the scheme to compensate the victims of crime, which will result in considerable unfairness. They have not done enough to help victims through the victim support scheme, through witness support and through changing the ethos of the courts to show greater respect and consideration for the victims and witnesses.

The failure in prosecutions is only one part of a dismal picture—

Mr. Nigel Evans

The hon. Gentleman is talking about the victim and about what should be done so that he feels that justice has been done. In many cases where attacks have been made on individuals, especially by persistent offenders, the victim might feel that such a person should receive a custodial sentence. However, the hon. Gentleman and his party believe that the new prisons announced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary should not be built. How does he square that with care for the victim?

Mr. Michael

Obviously, the hon. Gentleman has not been listening. We have criticised the Home Secretary's one-track approach. He believes that only prison works. He will drain the rest of the Home Office budget to put the money into prisons, the need for which is made greater by the Government's failure over the last few years to prevent and to tackle crime and to reduce the number of offenders who need prison sentences. The increase in the number of victims has arisen because of the Government's failure during recent years. It was one of the things that made me angry enough to stand for Parliament. The hon. Gentleman should study the history with some care before seeking to defend it.

I want to detail the facts of the one particular part of the picture with which we are dealing in this debate. In a year during which we have heard a great deal from the Home Secretary about crime, the number of cases coming to the Crown court continues to fall. Recorded crime has risen by 124 per cent. since the Conservative party came to power, yet in the year to April 1992 the number of cases received into the Crown court was 105,248 while in the year ended October 1992 it had fallen to just over 102,000, and by the year ended October 1993 was down to 87,164. Than is a drop of 17 per cent. in 18 months and a staggering drop of 15 per cent. in the last 12 months.

For more than six months, my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield has been demanding an inquiry into the reasons for the drop in the number of cases coming to court at a time of such a dramatic rise in crime. It is bizarre that the Government are unwilling to undertake such an inquiry or, better still, to recognise that Labour identified the problem long before the summer recess and offered practical ways forward that the Government should now accept. Similarly, the number of cases disposed of by the courts is showing a worrying decline—also down 17 per cent. in 18 months.

Our investigations also show the extent of the current crisis in the criminal justice system. I shall cite four particular facts. First, the number of cases coming to the magistrates court has actually fallen from 1,574,000 in 1988–89 to 1,530,000 last year. Secondly, the number of cases withdrawn or dismissed from magistrates courts has increased by 50 per cent. since 1987 while convictions have fallen by more than 40,000. Thirdly, the number of cases discontinued before they came to court has risen by 78 per cent. since 1987–88, yet delays are getting worse, with the average time for cases in the magistrates court to be completed up by 20 per cent. since 1986.

Those statistics are worrying and should have been enough to stir Ministers into action. However, I shall highlight one further problem. There is more than anecdotal evidence that charges are being downgraded just to keep them out of the Crown court. In one magistrates court in London, 75 per cent. of cases of actual bodily harm were downgraded to the lesser charge of common assault. However, when my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield asked the Attorney-General for the exact figures of cases being downgraded, they were not available. That, too, should be part of a general Government investigation.

The fact is that we know, even without more detailed information, that there is a real and growing problem. Too many offenders are laughing at the Home Secretary and the Attorney-General because their agents in the Crown Prosecution Service are driven by cost rather than justice.

Every time a case is dropped for convenience or cost, there is a danger that an offender will conclude that he can get away with it and he may offend again. On that point, I am at one with hon. Members who contributed earlier. The victim will feel let down and degraded, the police will feel let down, and, in truth, the public have a right to feel betrayed.

The victims and those involved in the fight against crime deserve better than that. The proper conclusion of tonight's debate would be a promise from the Attorney-General that he will investigate the failures of the system and the failings of the CPS, that he will bring the whole sorry business out for proper public scrutiny, and that he will change the constraints on the CPS to put the victims at centre stage and to ensure that fewer people get away with crimes, particularly crimes of violence, on grounds of bureaucratic convenience and cost-cutting.

As I have said, that promise will not solve all the problems, but it will be a start. The Government need to introduce a major package to restore confidence in the whole system, and there are many ways in which costs can be cut while the speed and quality of justice are improved.

The Opposition will continue to press for such improvements, and to help with positive suggestions and concrete proposals, but for tonight we shall be content if the Attorney-General promises to take a grip on the failings of policies and management in the CPS.

The survey published by the Association of First Division Civil Servants, which Ministers have attempted to brush aside, merely confirms what has been obvious for a long time—that Government policy and financial pressures are distorting justice by undermining the effectiveness of prosecutors. That is properly a subject of ministerial accountability, not just a question of administrative responsibility within the agency, and I urge the Attorney-General to give the House the promises that we need.

5.51 am
The Attorney-General (Sir Nicholas Lyell)

First, join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on instituting this debate on an important subject which is highly topical, and rightly so. I also congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Monmouth (Mr. Evans) and for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on joining in, and I look forward to answering the points made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael).

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury made some critical remarks about the CPS, but I am grateful to him for not attacking individual Crown prosecutors. I wish to open the debate by explaining briefly to the House what a tough job the individual Crown prosecutors have, how well they do it and what strides the CPS and its Crown prosecutors, all 2,100 of them today, have made in recent years.

I have now been a Law Officer for six and half years and during that period I have visited the CPS throughout the country. As we know, it was understaffed and somewhat underfunded when it began its life and in those days there were many young Crown prosecutors as well as much more experienced Crown prosecutors from the old county prosecuting service.

Today, as one visits the CPS in different parts—in the past few weeks I have visited the CPS in the west midlands and in the Reading area—one is met by highly experienced professional prosecutors, younger and older, doing an extremely tough job very effectively.

A Crown prosecutor can expect to arrive at a large multiple court with several courts running at the same time, day in, day out, carrying anything between 30 and 70 cases, and perhaps be divested, for the convenience of the court, of five or 10 of those cases, and have put into his hand to deal with professionally, straight away, three, four or five extra cases, which he has to pick up and take on the hoof, not because of any deficiency in the CPS but because we are dealing with busy courts operating busy and tight schedules. They are highly professional people and they deserve our thanks.

It is worth looking at the overall number of cases handled by the CPS, not just for statistics on discontinuance, to which I shall come in detail. The CPS receives about 1,500,000 cases each year, to be handled by 2,100 Crown prosecutors on behalf of 120,000 police officers, with just under 100,000 of those cases being dealt with in the Crown court, with all the preparation that that properly requires.

It should be remembered that the process of prosecution over the past 10 years has become significantly more complex, for reasons which we know and understand and of which we fundamentally approve. Advance disclosure to the defence requires preparation of statements so that they can be given in advance. Tape recording and the requirements of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 put burdens, with respect to the safeguarding of justice, on the police.

I cannot agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth that we should go back to a world in which there is no Police and Criminal Evidence Act. Prosecutors also have responsibility for making available unused material. That is the background of the highly professional service that we must now examine.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury suggested, following the paper written by Mr. Christopher Frazer, entitled "Privatise the Prosecutors", that we should abandon the Crown Prosecution Service which has been so carefully built up in the past several years and go back to using the ordinary high street solicitor. I have a high regard for high street solicitors. I grew up in the world of quarter sessions. I think that that is the world to which all my hon. Friends hark back, but I must warn them against putting on rose-tinted spectacles. I honestly believe that the weight of prosecution today is too heavy for a system of that nature.

Although I have no doubt that the middle-ranking high street solicitor referred to by Mr. Frazer in his pamphlet would seek to do a gallant job, I beg to doubt whether it would be possible to run the service anything like as efficiently and effectively as it is run by the CPS under the direction and control of the Director of Public Prosecutions, Mrs. Barbara Mills.

Mr. Brazier

Even if one were to concede all my right hon. and learned Friend's points, surely, given the training, the expertise and, inevitably, the cost of the people whom he mentions, the CPS cannot be an appropriate body to deal with offences such as shoplifting, which could simply be dealt with, as they were in the old days, by policemen.

The Attorney-General

Yes, a simple shoplifting case was dealt with effectively by police officers. Some police officers and court inspectors became extremely experienced and effective prosecutors in their own right. However, I have just mentioned the weight and volume of cases that have to be not only dealt with in court but prepared. I invite my hon. Friend to go around either his local office of the Crown Prosecution Service or one of the larger offices in London to see exactly what we are talking about.

I must move on, because there are only 10 minutes before the end of the debate and I have some positive things to say to the House, to my hon. Friends and to the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth about the subject of the debate. First, I wish to say a word about the origin of the Crown Prosecution Service and why it was put in place. The Crown Prosecution Service was established by the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 and became fully operational in October 1986. Its creation was the result of recommendations made in 1981 by the Philips Royal Commission on criminal procedure. That royal commission found that prosecution arrangements across the country were haphazard. It criticised the lack of any consistent prosecution policy and the lack of an independent element in the prosecution process.

With the exception of the Director of Public Prosecutions, prosecutors worked in a solicitor-client relationship with the police. The royal commission found that too many weak cases were being prosecuted and that there was an attendant risk of miscarriages of justice occurring. Like the recent Runciman Royal Commission on criminal justice, the Philips royal commission followed a serious miscarriage of justice that arose from the death of Maxwell Confait and the wrongful conviction of three young men for homicide. The case had to be investigated a number of times, and I remember that when I became a Member it was very much in our minds. That is the background to the establishment of the Crown Prosecution Service.

I want to move straight on to the key topics of the debate and put before the House the announcements that I must make. The key topics focus on discontinuance. We are all aware that the number of discontinued cases has increased, but hon. Members must recall that the CPS was established to review cases. It is neither surprising nor wrong, therefore, that a significant proportion of the cases that it reviews will be weeded out. It may be significant, although almost anything can be done with statistics, that the number of cases dismissed in magistrates courts has remained fairly static in recent years. I do not want to put too much weight on any statistic, but it may be that a significant proportion of discontinued cases are rightly discontinued.

I have personally looked into some individual cases. If a case worries hon. Members, they should bring it to me or to the Director of Public Prosecutions and it will be looked into. I have looked into a large number of cases. Nevertheless, I recognise that there is a problem. The CPS does not set out to discontinue cases unreasonably. It aims to ensure that the right cases get to court and to avoid unfairness to defendants. Initiating a case unnecessarily is a very invasive process, with all the worry that it causes victims and the wasting of court time. We want to bring cases that can be carried to conviction.

In November 1993—this takes up what the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth said—a study of all cases discontinued that month was conducted at the behest of the Director of Public Prosecutions. It was designed to obtain as much information as possible on the reasons for discontinuance. That statistical study is being analysed and I will inform the House, probably in the new year, of such results as one can draw from it.

The Director of Public Prosecutions has put in place a new structure designed to monitor the quality of prosecution decisions throughout the country. As the House knows, the CPS is now divided into 13 areas. In each area, under a national director of casework, an assistant chief Crown prosecutor is charged expressly with monitoring standards of discontinuance and with organising training for Crown prosecutors in this important matter.

The second announcement that I wish to make—and this is new—is in relation to the code for Crown prosecutors. At the heart of the code are the requirements, first, that before a prosecution is brought there must be a sufficiency of evidence to give a realistic prospect of conviction and, secondly, that the prosecution, which normally can be expected to follow if there is a sufficiency of evidence, should be in the public interest. That code is to be reviewed, and the aim of the review will be to simplify the language of the code and to put it into plain English to make it a document more easily understood by police officers and members of the public who are not lawyers. That is to be widely welcomed. The DPP is confident that the fundamental principles of the code remain sound, but she believes—and I believe—that the evidential criterion and the requirement for a realistic prospect of conviction can be clarified and that the public interest factors in favour of a prosecution can be brought out more clearly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth will not, I hope, take it amiss if I remind him and the House that through the decades—down the centuries, almost—those two criteria have been an essential part of any prosecution decision. I refer him to the classic statement by one of my predecessors, Sir Hartley Shawcross, about the fact that one takes into account not only the evidential sufficiency but the public interest. Of course, it can be taken at a simple, domestic level.

We all remember the tragic case of Lady Isobel Barnet who, sadly, became a kleptomaniac and was prosecuted for shoplifting, for reasons of illness. She killed herself. It is not in the public interest to prosecute every elderly and infirm person who commits an offence. At the other end of the spectrum, prosecutions can be discontinued in the public interest for reasons of the greatest national security. My predecessor rightly answered questions in the House about that, and I should be willing to do so.

I have only a minute left, but I want to mention victims. The CPS is intensely aware of its duty to victims. When a case is reviewed, it is our objective that the reason for the review and any potential discontinuance is not restricted to the Crown prosecutor but is fed not only to police headquarters but, through the police's administration support unit, to the officer on the beat dealing with the case so that the victim can be informed and consulted. The DPP was speaking about this issue only last weekend at the Lamplugh Trust seminar at the same time as the shadow Home Secretary. She has been taking the lead for a considerable time—

In accordance with Mr. Speaker's ruling—[Official Report, 31 January 1983; Vol. 36, c. 19]—the debate was concluded.

Mr John Marshall (Hendon South)

I beg to move, That strangers do withdraw.

Notice being taken that strangers were present, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER, pursuant to Standing Order No. 143 (Withdrawal of Strangers from the House), put forthwith the Question, That strangers do withdraw:—

The House proceeded to a Division

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich)

(seated and covered): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It seems to me that there are no strangers present, and I question the appropriateness of a Division being called on this issue.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

My recollection is that, at the time, one or two people were present.

Mr. Raynsford

Further to the point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. When you called the Division, there was no stranger present in the Gallery.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Whether that is the case or not, I have no discretion, provided the procedures are followed.

The House having divided: Ayes Nil, Noes 2.

Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. While I am on my feet, I do not expect to take points of order.

It appearing on the report of the Division that fewer than 40 Members had taken part in the Division, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.

Ms Lynne

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for an hon. Member to call "I spy strangers" when apparently there are no strangers in the Gallery?

Madam Deputy Speaker

The Chair has no discretion in putting the Question. I understand that it is a matter of dispute as to whether there were strangers. It is not a matter for me.

Mr. Sedgemore

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Effectively, the business of the House has been brought to a close by an "I spy strangers" by an hon. Member who has neither charm, dignity nor sense. Indeed, he has shown contempt for Londoners, who were about to hear a debate on London's transport, contempt for the House of Commons and contempt for the parliamentary process. I hope that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will express concern about public schoolboys playing such silly games.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. That is not a matter for the Chair. I observe only that I had to undergo the same procedure last Friday morning.

Resolved, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Arbuthnot.]

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Six o'clock.