HC Deb 07 June 1995 vol 261 cc287-94

Amendments made: No. 103, in page 159, line 30, column 3, leave out 'Schedule A' and insert 'Section 3'.

No. 45, in page 159, line 37, column 3, leave out 'Schedule 2' and insert 'In Schedule 2, Parts I and III to VI'. No. 104, in page 161, line 43, column 3, at end insert—

'In section 196(1), the proviso.'.
No. 46, in page 162, line 34, column 3, at end insert—
'In section 277, in subsection (2), the words "section 236C", "section 237", "section 246", "section 259","section 272" and "section 273".Section 282.'.
No. 165, in page 162, line 34, column 3, at end insert—
'Section 289D(IA)(d).'.
No. 47, in page 162, line 53, column 3, leave out 'Section 311' and insert 'In section 311, in subsection (1), the words from "in" where it first occurs to the end; and subsections'. No. 105, in page 163, line 37, column 3, at end insert—
'Section 345.'.
No. 106, in page 164, line 35, column 3, at end insert—
'In section 402, the proviso.'.
No. 48, in page 164, line 48, column 3, at end insert—
'Section 435.'.
No. 49, in page 165, line 7, column 3, at end insert—
'Section 457.'.
No. 50, in page 165, line 9, column 3, leave out from '(1),' to 'in' in line 14.

No. 107, in page 165, line 20, at end insert—

1976 c.67. The Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 1976. 'In section 4(1),in the proviso, the words "on indictment".'.
No. 108, in page 165, line 21, leave out 'section 9(3)'.

No. 144, in page 166, line 35, column 3, leave out 'paragraph (b) and,'.

No. 145, in page 167, line 22, column 3, at end insert—

'In section 41(2), the words from the end of paragraph (b) to the end of the subsection.'.
[Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]

Order for Third Reading read. Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.—[Mr. Wood.]

7.37 pm
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

The Bill was brought to the House from another place in February and has since been subjected to intense scrutiny by members of all parties, in Committee and now on Report. We have been able to respond to some of the points that were made.

The Bill will equip the criminal justice system in Scotland to meet the challenges that it faces as we move into the 21st century. It will tighten the operation of bail, ensure the effective use of DNA detection techniques, improve the selection of jurors, streamline appeals procedures and reduce the burden on the Appeal Court. It will significantly reduce needless attendance at court by witnesses and victims of crime, provide fairer treatment for those unfit to face trial because of insanity, extend the scope for the use of fines in appropriate cases, provide a serious alternative to imprisonment for fine default and extend the powers of the courts to confiscate the proceeds of crime.

Those measures will improve the delivery of justice in Scotland. The improvements will be felt throughout the criminal justice system for many years to come. The Bill is wholeheartedly in Scotland's interests, and I commend it to the House.

7.38 pm
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Govan)

I should be willing to speak to many issues were time available, but I want especially to raise the issue of those who offend while on bail. The issue arose repeatedly in Committee, and I must admit that I am not convinced that the Government are taking it sufficiently seriously. I do not think that they realise how, in many working class communities in particular, the credibility of the system is being undermined by what people regard as a revolving door situation.

Very often, young people committing violent assaults are released back into the community almost as soon as they have entered the police station. In some cases, they are perhaps taken to court but are then released on bail without any penalty being imposed on them. That effectively acts as a deterrent to witnesses who might otherwise come forward and it makes people much less likely to report offences to the police, because there is a widely held view that nothing happens as a result of complaints being made. That is enormously dispiriting for police officers who make the time and take the effort to catch youngsters who have perpetrated—in many cases—quite horrific offences against ordinary law-abiding members of the community. I have already raised a couple of incidents in correspondence with the Minister, but it is worth bringing him up to date with the situation in my area.

A gang is active in Govan that has approximately 18 members. Collectively, over an 18-month period, they have been arrested no fewer than 259 times. The vast majority of the gang have not, at the time of speaking, been sentenced by the courts: no penalty has been imposed on them. In those circumstances, it is understandable that there is a widespread view that those youngsters are utterly untouchable.

I wish to make particular reference to one case that has horrified me and many people in the community, about which the Minister has not so far been able to respond. On 11 March, a youngster struck one of my constituents on the hand and head with a machete. My constituent was left with a scalp wound, his hand was badly damaged and there was a danger that his arm would be lost altogether. He had to be taken to hospital for a blood transfusion. The 15-year-old youngster who had committed the offence was caught, taken to court and immediately released back into the community. He was not held for any length of time whatever.

One week later, the same youngster attacked somebody else with a knife, inflicted severe injury and endangered the person's life. Again, knives and weapons were used. That time, the youngster was held for nine days and then released: a youngster charged with two attempted murders was held in custody for nine days before being released. Eventually, on 27 April, that same youngster was involved in another stabbing incident. There is something obviously amiss when a youngster who is clearly violent and prone to attacks with dangerous weapons is released back into the community without any restraint whatever.

I want to draw another point to the Minister's attention. I appreciate that he is busy with other matters, but I would welcome his attention so that he can respond when he replies to the debate.

The Govan fair took place recently. On the Friday evening of the fair, there were battles between two gangs in the Govan area, during which eight people were arrested. The next night, there were further battles, during which six people were arrested. Among those who were arrested were five youngsters who between them had a total of 104 charges pending.

When youngsters who have 104 charges pending—many of them were offences under the Bail etc. (Scotland) Act 1980—are released and running about in central Govan with knives machetes and axes, clearly the criminal justice system is not operating correctly. One of those youngsters—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member, but I must remind him that the purpose of Third Reading is to debate what is in the Bill. He is describing rather extensive incidents and I do not understand how they relate to Third Reading; perhaps he could enlighten me.

Mr. Davidson

I was trying to clarify how the Minister believed that the provisions in the Bill would deal with the detail of those circumstances. In Committee, the Minister was long on generalities and extremely short on practicalities.

People in my community—and, I am sure, in other communities—want to know how the Bill will deal with such realities. I have not heard the Minister say what differences would apply under his new system. One of the youngsters arrested at the weekend in Govan had already been charged with attempted murder, serious assault, police assault and a series of other attacks with deadly weapons. The Minister has offered no guarantee that the system will change. That is an absolute disgrace. It is obvious that the Government are not prepared to spend the money required to ensure that such youngsters are kept in some form of detention until they can appear in front of a court to be sentenced to a substantial period of incarceration.

The Minister must say how such a system can be allowed to continue and whether he is prepared to issue rules or guidance to procurators fiscal to ensure that a youngster charged on two counts of attempted murder, as in the earlier case which I mentioned, is not released back into the community to become involved in other feuds and disputes. That is clearly outrageous, and it goes to the very heart of the Bill.

The Government have said that they believe that the Bill will improve the operation of justice in Scotland. People in Scotland will believe that justice has improved only when they see action being taken against those in the community who they know are repeated offenders. The existing system does not provide for such action and therefore requires change.

7.46 pm
Mr. McFall

I welcome the opportunity to speak briefly on Third Reading. It is noticeable that all Scottish National party Members have been absent from debate on this Bill from the beginning to the very end. When it comes to detail and examining law and order, they are gone. They are good for quick sound bites and criticism, but nothing else.

Indeed, I well remember that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who has Peterhead in his constituency, did not participate in debates on the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Bill 1993, either. Perhaps, with the new hon. Member for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham), the SNP will take more of an interest in home affairs. It should be playing an active part in this House on issues such as those addressed in the Bill, because they are of extreme concern to the Scottish people.

The Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill is less to do with criminal justice and more to do with the administration of criminal justice. I look forward to a real criminal justice Act so that we can consider in a coherent fashion the problems facing Scotland. Scores of technical amendments have been moved tonight. That makes for bad law at the end of day. We talked earlier about miscarriages of justice because of the intentions of Parliament. It is hardly welcome having so many amendments thrown at us. The Minister kindly wrote to the Opposition to say that most of the amendments were technical, but in a year or two we may find that they were not merely technical and deserved proper scrutiny. We have not been able to give them our full attention.

The Minister mentioned that the Bill would assist the situation regarding bail bandits—those who continually contravene bail requirements. I see very little in the Bill to do that. Like a number of other hon. Members, I received a letter from the Lord Advocate on 5 June which said that he, like members of the Committee, was concerned about those offending while on bail. In his opinion, the present guidelines do not deal specifically with so-called bail bandits. He said: The difficulty in dealing with persistent offenders is that most of them are of an age where the imposition of a custodial sentence will almost certainly be viewed by the courts as a last resort. This is relevant to the issue of bail or remand because the courts rightly do not think it appropriate to remand an accused in custody in respect of an offence for which he is unlikely in the end to receive a custodial sentence. As a result, the Lord Advocate has set up a working party to look closely at whether a more consistent approach to bail by prosecutors can be achieved. Like us when we deal at a constituency level with the legal bodies, he knows that the prosecutor's attitude to bail can be crucial. The Lord Advocate's working party is considering other steps which might be taken to deal more effectively with persistent offenders. For example, it will consider what more can be done to build on the existing practice of bringing outstanding charges in respect of individual persistent offenders together in one complaint or indictment. The longer an accused is on bail awaiting trial, the greater scope there is for him to re-offend while subject to a bail order". That explains much of what is wrong with our criminal justice system. People brought before the court know that if they plead not guilty it will delay their having to face their responsibilities. That is because of the administration of the court and its efficiency or lack of it. I submit to the Minister that the evidence from practitioners suggests that our courts are not working efficiently. Individuals can plead not guilty, and it may be a year or even two years before they have to face the consequences of their actions. That is no good for the credibility of the legal system, and there is nothing in the Bill to remedy it.

There is a crying need for a more coherent criminal justice Bill, and one that is exclusively Scottish rather than being based on the tail end of legislation that has been passed for England and Wales. I cite the provisions concerning miscarriages of justice and the right of silence, on which the Government arrived late in the day with their consultation paper.

There is a lot to learn, and the Minister is a bit complacent when he talks about less imprisonment for fine default. We are all at one in welcoming what the Government offer here, but where's the beef? What will happen? At the moment 40 per cent. of people admitted to prisons are there for fine defaulting. We all know that that is scandalous, inefficient and not economically viable, but what are we to do about it? More needs to be done; yet there is insufficient provision in the Bill to reassure the Opposition or people outside that anything will be done.

Similarly, the Bill has insufficient provisions for dealing with waiting times at court. Our courts are clogged with witnesses who are there needlessly and with police officers being paid overtime simply to hang about. That problem needs to be attended to. Innovative and radical solutions are required, but the Government have not faced up to the need for them. Yes, the Scottish Office has put out good consultation papers over the past year, but their import has not been translated into practice in the Bill.

I appeal not for the disparate approach that has been adopted hitherto, but for a coherent approach and a dedicated Scottish criminal justice Act to cover not simply the administration of justice but criminal justice itself. We welcome some of the measures that the Government have introduced, but we ask them seriously to consider introducing a coherent criminal justice Act.

7.53 pm
Dr. Godman

I promise to be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) that I am not at all surprised by the absence of the Scottish National party Members of Parliament. In my 12 years here, I have noticed that they show a distinct lack of interest in law reform and in the overwhelming need for reform of our criminal procedures.

The Bill is good in parts, but it is deficient in some respects. I tried to intervene when the Minister referred to "meritorious appeals", simply to say that to my lay mind—I am not a lawyer, as the Minister knows—our system of appeals and of protection against miscarriages of justice is much less adequate than the English system. It is no excuse simply to offer to implement the recommendations of a report that will not see the light of day until early summer next year. Those recommendations will not be implemented this side of the general election, which, with all due respect to the Minister, his party will lose.

The Bill is good in parts, but it fails to deal with the interests of vulnerable witnesses. The Minister has a first class record in seeking to protect the interests of child witnesses. Sections 33 and 35 of the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act 1993, which I have already mentioned, bear witness to that. The growing number of television installations in our courts also bear witness to the Minister's concern for that aspect of law reform, but he has missed the opportunity offered by the Bill.

For my sins, although I do not know why, I was not selected for the Standing Committee. I would have tabled amendments there to widen the definition of vulnerable witnesses and to give them greater protection. The Minister has done much for child witnesses, but nowhere near enough for those isolated fellow citizens with learning disabilities who have to come to court and give evidence. They are as vulnerable as young children in sexual abuse or child abuse cases.

I believe that the same is true of complainants in rape cases. Again, I know that the Minister as an individual and as an advocate is sympathetic to the anxieties felt by women in such cases, and since I entered the House dramatic changes have taken place in the conduct of cases involving allegations of rape, especially in cross-examinations.

There have indeed been massive and welcome improvements for such witnesses, but much more needs to be done. The same can be said about miscarriages of justice. So the Bill is good in parts, but a damned sight more needs to be done before we can say that our system is as good as the systems south of the border and elsewhere, especially in the Scandinavian countries.

7.57 pm
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

With the leave of the House, I shall reply briefly.

Of course I shall study everything that was said by the hon. Members for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) and for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman). In specific answer to the points that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Davidson) raised on behalf of his constituents, albeit on Third Reading, I am advised that the example involving the "Crossey posse" is still sub judice, so I cannot comment on that.

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the Bill toughens the arrangements for bail. The procedures are new and in effect allow courts to treat the fact that an offence was committed on bail as a factor to be taken into account in sentencing. The proposal to restrict access to bail is designed to send a signal to all criminals that the right to bail is not to be taken lightly or granted automatically. Where a person has committed a serious crime in the past and served a sentence of imprisonment, and then appears before a court charged with another serious crime, bail should not be an option.

Incidentally, my noble Friend the Minister of State has written to the hon. Gentleman on that subject today, and I have his letter in my hand. The hon. Gentleman may not yet have received it, but he is welcome to my copy at the end of the debate. The letter sets out the fact that the matter is covered in the guidelines issued by the Lord Advocate to procurators fiscal and to prosecutors in Scotland in general. The points that the hon. Gentleman made are being tackled not only by the provisions in the Bill but by the review of the guidelines about which the Lord Advocate has written to the hon. Member for Dumbarton.

As I said in Committee, the problems of bail abuse will be addressed in the review, and the Lord Advocate has made clear that he is updating the guidelines. The working party will complete its review by the end of the summer with a view to the guidelines being issued in the autumn. It is the Lord Advocate's intention to publish the guidelines and—if the hon. Member for Dumbarton has no objection—I shall send copies of the Lord Advocate's letter which covers that issue to him and to the hon Member for Govan.

Mr. McFall

In reply to that, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would be delighted if the Minister would send a copy—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make another speech, he must do so with the leave of the House. I thought at first that he was intervening on the Minister.

Mr. McFall

I thought that I was intervening, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Madam Deputy Speaker

I am not clear. Had the Minister completed his speech?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I shall be happy to give way if that will assist the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. McFall

I knew that I was right all along. I thank the Minister for his comments, and I shall be delighted if he will send the Lord Advocate's letter to members of the Committee. I ask him to pass on my thanks to the Lord Advocate for such a speedy response to the points raised in Committee.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.