HC Deb 24 June 1993 vol 227 cc433-4
4. Mr. Bennett

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Office when he now expects the royal commission on criminal justice to report.

Mr. Howard

I understand that the Royal Commission plans to publish its report on 6 July.

Mr. Bennett

Does the Home Secretary agree that the royal commission was set up because of the considerable concern about the relatively small, but extremely disturbing, number of miscarriages of justice and the soaring crime rate in this country? It was set up for those reasons, but one of the main lobbying groups wants to get rid of the right to silence. Does the Home Secretary agree that getting rid of the right to silence will do nothing to solve the problem of miscarriages of justice, and may increase the number of cases? It certainly will not reduce crime levels in this country, as it will not increase the number of people caught. Does he accept that many Ministers like to use the right to silence and not answer questions in the House, but we cannot presume that they are all guilty?

Mr. Howard

The royal commission was set up because of a widespread feeling that our system of criminal justice was not working as well as it should and had become far too much of an esoteric game, and not enough of a vehicle for determining guilt and innocence, which should be its function. I shall look carefully at the royal commission's report when it appears; I shall not prejudge it, and I shall not answer the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, as I want to see what the royal commission has to say on the matter. In due course, I shall announce my proposals.

Sir Ivan Lawrence

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there are two kinds of miscarriage of justice, one being the conviction of the innocent and the other the acquittal of the guilty?

Mr. Howard

I entirely agree with my hon. and learned Friend, who makes an extremely important point. Anyone who takes lightly the extent of concern in this country about those guilty people who walk free from our courts is actually behaving in a way which will earn them the contempt of our people.

Mr. Maclennan

The Home Secretary said that he would not prejudge the royal commission, but he has already announced a number of amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill which is before the House of Lords. Has he had prior notice of the views of the royal commission, or has he prejudged it?

Mr. Howard

We have not announced any amendments to any Criminal Justice Bill before the House of Lords, but we have tabled several amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill which is before the House of Commons, because, in common with most other people who have considered these matters, we recognise that there are deficiencies in our existing arrangements which need to be remedied without delay. We need to provide without delay for the courts to be able to examine all previous offences and we need to remedy the inability of the courts to take account of the fact that offences have been committed while the offenders were on bail. Where we see clear and blatant deficiencies in our law, we will not hesitate to act speedily to remedy them.

Mr. Bellingham

When my right hon. and learned Friend meets the royal commission, will he bear in mind the case of the Harleston Two, the so-called Norfolk vigilantes? Is he aware that both men, who were sentenced to five years' imprisonment, had no previous convictions whatsoever? Will he discuss with the royal commission the need to speed up appeals, and will he do all that he can to ensure that that particular appeal is dealt with as soon as possible?

Mr. Howard

I understand the widespread concern about the case to which my hon. Friend refers. He will know that as that matter is the subject of a pending appeal, I cannot comment upon it. It is important that we retain the distinction between vigilance and vigilantes and we must not condone any suggestion that it is right for people to take the law into their own hands. I know that my hon. Friend will agree with that, but I know the concern that is widely felt about the case to which he refers.

Mr. Allen

While unemployment and poor housing can never be an excuse for crime, does the Secretary of State accept that 14 years of Government policies on unemployment, housing and education could have contributed in any way to the appalling rise in the levels of crime over the same period?

Mr. Howard

No. Assertions such as those made by the hon. Gentleman do more to blur the crucial distinction between right and wrong than almost anything else. The Conservative party knows that that distinction must never be blurred, and we will not blur it or seek refuge in the verbiage emanating from the hon. Gentleman.