HC Deb 16 February 1993 vol 219 cc153-5 4.47 pm
Ms. Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make further provision for the investigation of alleged miscarriages of justice in connection with criminal proceedings in England and Wales; and for related purposes. For many years the only thing ever said in this country about our criminal justice system was that it was the best in the world. There cannot be many people who would make such a claim now. Most people could recite part of the litany of cases involving the miscarriage of justice—the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, the Maguire Seven, the Winchester Three, the Cardiff Three, the Tottenham Three, Judith Ward, Stefan Kiszko.

The Guildford Four were set free in 1989. Since then more than 50 people have been released from prison, their convictions having been set aside or found to be unsafe or unsatisfactory. All those people were victims of miscarriage of justice.

Last November the National Association of Probation Officers and Liberty, both of which have given me advice and assistance in the preparation of this Bill, published a dossier of 163 cases in which there was some doubt about the safety of the convictions. Further, there cannot be an hon. Member who has not received letters from prisoners protesting their innocence. Many of them give rise to disquiet and unease. The House should also be aware that such prisoners pay a high price for protesting their innocence. The parole system is based on acknowledgement of guilt. Any prisoner who maintains innocence of the crime for which he or she is convicted will usually serve a longer sentence than the guilty.

In order to understand why my Bill is vital in restoring confidence to our criminal justice system it is necessary for me to describe the present procedure in cases of alleged miscarriage of justice. A convicted person appeals to the Home Secretary, who alone has the power to refer an individual case to the Court of Appeal for consideration. The case is then considered by the division of the Home Office known as C3. In reply to written questions from me, the Home Secretary confirmed that, during 1992, C3 received 790 representations alleging miscarriage of justice and that 178 were under active consideration. The average time taken to investigate a case was 41 days, although on 1 February this year, 27 cases had been outstanding for more than 12 months. During the whole of 1992, the Home Secretary referred just seven cases in respect of conviction back to the Court of Appeal. The House will also know of the diquiet arising from the Home Secretary's recent refusal to refer the case of the Bridgewater Three.

Another disquieting aspect of the present procedure is that, after the C3 investigation, the Home Office sends the papers to the relevant police force, and neither the convicted person nor his or her legal representative has a right to see the police comment or evidence. Such decisions should be independent of political control. It is not unknown for Home Secretaries to be determined not to be seen to be soft on crime, particularly when they have to face a baying Tory party conference.

Among those who have given support for an independent body are two former Conservative Home Secretaries, the present Foreign Secretary and the right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker). Furthermore, in his second report on the Maguire case, presented to the House on 3 December 1992, Lord Justice May said: new independent machinery must be set up to carry out all those investigations and inquiries which the circumstances of a given case may require. It will be necessary for this machinery to be set up by statute. It will no doubt have its own procedural rules, but subject to these it should have the power and resources to investigate any conviction which may merit such an inquiry. These will no doubt include the fullest power to call for documents and other exhibits and to be able to enforce their production. He went on: if, upon the completion of the investigation, it is concluded that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred, whatever machinery is set up will no doubt enable the case and the result of the investigations to be referred to the Court of Appeal My Bill provides for the establishment of just such a statutory body—the criminal justice review board. The Lord Chancellor will be required to appoint 12 members to the board. They will include people with knowledge of the criminal justice system, those with knowledge and experience of the supervision or aftercare of discharged prisoners and a psychiatrist. The board will have a proper representation of women and people from ethnic minorities.

Any convicted prisoner may refer his or her case to the board, provided that they have been through the Court of Appeal procedure or there has been unreasonable delay. The board will have power to appoint a case officer to investigate any application where it considers it is justified, and the case officer will have wide powers of investigation, search and seizure. At the end of the investigation, the case officer will be required to submit a report to a panel of board members, chaired by a High Court judge.

If the board then considers that there may have been a miscarriage of justice or that the case raises an arguable point of law, it and it alone can refer the case to the Court of Appeal, where it will be treated as an appeal against conviction. The appellant will also be entitled to receive written reasons for the board's decision.

The Bill further provides that, following any criminal conviction on indictment, all the evidence should be preserved. We are too familiar with miscarriage of justice cases where it is not possible to bring proceedings against, for example, police officers who have behaved improperly, because evidence has mysteriously disappeared. For far too long, honest police officers have paid the price of suspicion and disbelief because of those who bend the rules to get a conviction.

We should also treat with caution the assertion that the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 has ensured that the incidence of miscarriage of justice will be rare. There is an emerging body of evidence to show that that faith is misplaced.

Some may argue that there is no need for the House to consider the matter at present, in view of the fact that the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, chaired by Lord Runciman, is currently conducting its inquiry and will report to the House in the fullness of time. There are those who may agree with the former Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, who said that royal commissions took minutes and wasted years. But it cannot be denied that, even with a fair wind, implementation of any recommendations could not take place before 1996 or 1997. Further, we are entitled to assume that the Runciman inquiry will come up with proposals to ensure that there will be no miscarriages of justice in the future. My Bill will ensure that past mistakes are rectified; past wrongs righted.

For too long, the protestations of innocence from behind prison walls have been as silent screams. It is about time we ensured that those pleas can be properly heard, and I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Ms. Jean Corston, Mr. Chris Mullin, Mr. Andrew F. Bennett; Mr. Richard Alexander, Mrs. Barbara. Roche, Mr. Harry Greenway, Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones, Mr. Stephen Byers, Ms. Tessa Jowell, Mr. John Battle and Ms. Glenda Jackson.

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