HC Deb 21 June 1995 vol 262 cc353-4 3.38 pm
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to allow the police to use private solicitors instead of the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute in the magistrates' court. The aim behind the Bill is simply to make justice for smaller crimes cheaper, faster and hence more easily pursued. Summary cases—those that have to be handled in magistrates courts—are in theory less important matters to be brought before the criminal law. For the victims, however, the theft of a vehicle, criminal damage up to £2,000 or common assault are serious enough offences.

It is interesting to note what has happened since 1985 while the Crown Prosecution Service has had a monopoly of handling summary cases. The latest figures available are for 1993, which was the peak year for crime. It rose sharply in the years until then and has fallen since. We find not only that, up to 1993, crime increased fast and that the police substantially increased the number of crimes that they cleared up, but that a number of cases had been downgraded from indictable offences handled in Crown courts to summary cases handled in magistrates courts. For all those reasons, one would have expected a substantial increase in the number of successful prosecutions in magistrates courts. Far from it. In 1993 the number of successful convictions in magistrates courts was 4 per cent. lower than 10 years before.

Costs too have spiralled. The Comptroller and Auditor-General is one of a number of authorities which have commented on the issue. It is interesting to ask how the system works. I shall furnish my argument with an example from my constituency. Canterbury police station is a few hundred yards from Canterbury magistrates court. Several excellent firms of solicitors operate in the immediate area. Every case—no matter how trivial—that is brought to court must go all the way to Crown Prosecution Service offices in Folkestone, with all the procedures involved in that. Cases that could have been dealt with before on the same day, largely on the strength of verbal briefing, must now be dealt with through that expensive and time-consuming procedure.

That is not a criticism of individual Crown Prosecution Service officials. When I visited them in Folkestone, I was impressed at how hard working and diligent they were. The truth is that the system is a grossly unwieldy one for dealing with minor offences.

I propose that we should allow each police area to appoint, if they choose to do so, one local firm of solicitors to handle a proportion of their magistrates court work. That firm would obviously have to give up any defence activities because, otherwise, there would be a conflict of interest. That proposal should be extended further to allow police officers to be used to prosecute some minor cases themselves, as used to be the case.

The new system would have a number of advantages. First, it would obviously be much faster. Secondly, it would be far cheaper. Those two changes would enable us to tackle more cases so there should be an increase, instead of a reduction, in the number of cases successfully brought. Thirdly, it would improve the motivation of the police force. Fourthly, in relation to minor cases, it would give police officers greater experience in court work. We have reached the absurd position where officers are having to be sent on courses to be trained as witnesses.

As far as I know, only two arguments have been advanced against my proposal. One of them involves the argument from uniformity and the other from independence. Uniformity cuts no ice with me and should cut no ice at least with Conservative Members because, as a party, we believe in diversity. Crime, especially petty crime, has a local aspect to it and it is right that, in some regions, people should choose to be more vigilant in relation to a particular type of crime if it is more prevalent in their region.

On independence, we often hear cases cited, such as the Guildford Four or Birmingham Six, but surely no one would maintain to the House that the procedures that are appropriate for a major criminal trial are appropriate for a person damaging someone's front door or for careless driving. However, all such offences must go through the same basic procedure, with the same people, in the prosecution process.

The question is posed immediately: why did we ever nationalise the service? Whereas Conservative Members would believe that it was perhaps a mistake to nationalise something as important as this anyway, hon. Members on both sides of the House would surely agree that the most appropriate way to handle small cases, petty offences—the offences that local magistrates courts exist to deal with—is for local police to deal with local solicitors.

These offences matter to my constituents and, I am certain, to other hon. Members' constituents. My approach would result in faster and cheaper justice and would allow us to handle more cases. I urge the House to support my Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Julian Brazier, Sir Archibald Hamilton, Sir George Gardiner, Mr. Peter Bottomley, Mr. Robert Hughes, Mr. Graham Riddick, Mr. John Sykes, Mr. David Shaw, Mr. Roger Knapman, Mr. Bernard Jenkin, Mr. Nigel Waterson and Mr. Stephen Day.