HC Deb 16 May 1995 vol 260 cc162-72

4.7 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I would like to make a statement on disclosure of evidence in criminal cases.

The extent to which the law requires the prosecution to disclose evidence in advance of trial has caused increasing concern. It has become more and more apparent that the current arrangements do not serve the interests of justice, and are in need of reform. Today I am publishing a consultation document that sets out the Government's proposals for reforming the law. Subject to that consultation, we intend to legislate to put them into effect as soon as a suitable opportunity occurs.

The current disclosure requirements have given rise to the following problems. First, the sheer volume of material to be disclosed and copied to the defence places a very heavy burden on the police and the prosecuting authorities. The prosecution must make available to the defence large quantities of material, at great expense, much of which may not be relevant to the real issues in the case.

Secondly, under the current arrangements it is difficult to protect from disclosure sensitive material such as the identity of an informant or undercover police officer. The current rules often require disclosure to be made in cases where the actual relevance of that sensitive material may be marginal at best. Disclosure of the identity of an informant may place the informant's life in danger. The prosecution may have to choose between taking that appalling risk and abandoning the case to protect the informant, however strong the other evidence in the case may be.

Let me give an example to illustrate that point. Three individuals were arrested in possession of a number of incendiary devices with which they intended to damage a vehicle used for transporting animals. The evidence against them was overwhelming. Unknown to the police who arrested them, intelligence files were held centrally on the organisation to which the defendants belonged. None of that information was to form part of the prosecution case at the trial, but the trial judge ruled that those files should be disclosed to the defence. Since that would have compromised future investigations, the prosecution decided to offer no evidence rather than comply with the ruling. One of the defendants commented in a statement to the media: It was our intention to remove the animals from this vehicle and then damage it. The only reason this trial collapsed was because the prosecution refused to reveal to our defence lawyers material about us held on computer by the police. Thirdly, the defence is generally not required to disclose anything about its case before the trial. The presentation of a defence at the last minute, with no advance warning to the prosecution, does not contribute to justice. The fact that the defendant has the opportunity to examine the whole of the evidence produced by the prosecution without having to give any indication of his case in advance encourages the manufacture of false defences. That serves to defeat the interests of justice.

The Royal Commission on criminal justice considered what might be done about the current disclosure requirements. The scheme that it devised provides a basis on which we can build. We agree with it that a statutory disclosure scheme is needed, with the main elements set out in primary legislation underpinned by rules or a code of practice. We also agree with the idea of a phased approach to disclosure, under which the prosecution would disclose certain material at the first stage, the defence would then disclose something of its own case, and additional prosecution disclosure would be related to what the defence had disclosed.

But the test for initial prosecution disclosure that was proposed by the royal commission is very wide-ranging, and would not significantly reduce the current burdens on the police and the prosecuting authorities. The proposals for defence disclosure made by the royal commission are so general that they would not be of any real benefit in narrowing the issues in dispute. In fairness to the royal commission, it did not set out to devise a detailed solution to the problems of disclosure. That is the task of the Government, and it is to the Government's proposals that I now turn.

The task that we have set ourselves is to put in place a system that will reduce the burden of the current disclosure requirements without denying to the defendant access to material to which he should be entitled in the interests of justice. The scheme that I shall set out today would require the investigator to preserve any material gathered or generated during the criminal investigation that led to the charges against the defendant. It would then require the prosecutor to serve on the defence the material upon which he intends to rely at the trial, and also to disclose unused material in his possession, which might undermine the prosecution case.

For example, if part of the prosecution case is a statement by a witness that he saw the accused near the scene of the crime shortly after it was committed, it will be necessary to disclose a statement by another witness that he saw a person of a different description from the accused at the same time and place.

That test for prosecution disclosure is more limited than the current test. It is focused on what the prosecutor knows about the weaknesses in his own case. It does not require him to guess what the defence might be and to disclose anything that may be relevant to any possible defence. The test would also protect sensitive material more effectively than at present. In many cases, information from an informant or the pictures obtained from surveillance equipment are ancillary to the prosecution case and are not needed to prove the charges against the defendant. Such material tends to support the prosecution case rather than to undermine it. Under our proposals, the prosecutor would not need to disclose such material, nor would he need to apply for a court order to protect it.

The second stage in the process would be a requirement for the defendant to provide sufficient particulars of his case to identify the issues in dispute between the defence and the prosecution before the start of the trial. That should include the name and address of any witness whom he proposes to call. That will narrow the issues in dispute and enable the prosecutor to assess whether there is any additional undisclosed material that might assist that defence. If there is, the prosecutor would then be required to disclose it.

This system will work only if there are sanctions to enforce it. The defendant might simply refuse to disclose any details of his defence. If that happens, the prosecution will be entitled to comment on that failure at trial, and the court will be able to draw whatever inference seems appropriate from it.

That approach will not penalise the defendant who has a genuine defence, who is prepared to disclose it in advance and who maintains it at the trial; nor does it affect the principle that it is the duty of the prosecution to prove the guilt of the defendant beyond reasonable doubt. No defendant will be compelled to incriminate himself. As with the existing provisions on inferences from silence, no one will be convicted simply on the basis of an inference drawn by the court from the response of the defence.

I have set out our proposals in detail in a Command Paper that I have published today. I have placed copies in the Library of the House.

The proposals extend to England and Wales only. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be publishing a paper inviting views on the introduction of a similar scheme in Northern Ireland.

There can be no doubt that the current arrangements have undermined public confidence in the criminal justice system by creating a gap between law and justice. My aim is to close that gap. The proposals should prove more effective in convicting the guilty, while continuing to protect the innocent. I commend them to the House.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

The Home Secretary is well aware that, for some time, the current wholly inadequate state of the law on disclosure has been a matter of great concern in this country and in the House. He will also be aware that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition expressed strong support for the royal commission's proposals when they were originally made two years ago, that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) moved amendments during the passage of Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill seeking better to regulate defence and prosecution disclosure, and that I made proposals to deal with the issue in a speech on 5 April this year to the Police Federation and the British Transport police at their meeting in Southport. The Secretary of State's conversion to the arguments that we have been making for more than two years is therefore welcome.

Public confidence in the criminal justice system is wholly undermined if there is a perception that its procedures and rules inhibit the quest for the truth and result in the innocent being convicted or in the guilty going free. There is widespread public impatience with the present trial process in England and Wales, and a feeling that too much of the system may resemble a game and too little a serious examination of the truth.

Although the overwhelming principle of the criminal justice system must be the protection of the genuinely innocent, does the Secretary of State accept that the whole process of police investigation and the conviction of the guilty would grind to a halt if the identity of informants, sites of surveillance and the identities of members of the public, who often courageously assist such police work, are routinely and gratuitously disclosed to the defence, even though it is not probative of the prosecution case?

Does he further accept that, so great is the current confusion in the law, that, in addition to the examples that the Secretary of State gave, there are a great many other examples of well-founded prosecutions of serious criminals such as armed robbers having to be withdrawn because of the risk to informants' lives or the sites of surveillance, and that there are other occasions when police investigation not probative of the prosecution case could be compromised?

Does the Secretary of State accept that, given that there is a consultative period of almost three months, it would be better if time were taken to reflect on his detailed proposals? May I ask him four specific questions? First, will he give an idea of the time scale that he has in mind for primary legislation? Is it intended to legislate in the next Session of Parliament?

Secondly, relating to that, how does the Secretary of State's time scale in the document relate to the publication and then consideration by the House of the Scott inquiry into the sale of arms to Iraq? As the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know, part of that inquiry deals crucially with the issue of public interest immunity certificates signed by Secretaries of State, which is one means by which relevant evidence can be kept from the court and from the jury.

Thirdly, the Secretary of State said in his statement that there would be a requirement for the defence to disclose the name and address of any witness whom he or she proposed to call. Does he accept that such a requirement could be open to abuse by the prosecution, so mere will be strong grounds for there to be safeguards by way of rules about the circumstances, if any, in which such defence witnesses should be approached by the police or the prosecuting authorities?

Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North)

That is always done in respect of alibis.

Mr. Straw

I hear what the hon. Gentleman said, but that is a special circumstance to which the Secretary of State referred.

Fourthly, does the Secretary of State recognise that, while there is no doubt that a new system is needed—something about which I have spoken at length—it is essential that we get the balance right between the needs of the prosecution and the rights of the defence? If we do not, rather than being faced with a strengthening of the process, we shall be faced in future years with more miscarriages of justice. Will the Secretary of State bear it in mind that almost every notorious miscarriage of justice that has come to public attention in recent years has involved a failure of the prosecution at some stage to disclose material evidence?

The Secretary of State said that there would be an obligation on the prosecution, for example, to disclose the statement by another witness that he or she saw a person of a different description from the accused at the same time and place. That is welcome. The Secretary of State also said that there should be sanctions in order to ensure that the system operated. Does he accept that sanctions must apply to the prosecution as well as to the defence and that, where there is a wilful failure by the police or the prosecution to disclose relevant evidence of the type of which he spoke, that should be a matter for the disciplinary rules of the police and the prosecuting authorities and should, in some cases, be made a criminal offence?

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what I took to be his general welcome for the thrust of the proposals. He asked four specific questions. On the time scale for legislation, he will understand that I cannot go beyond what I said in my statement, which is that, subject to the consultation exercise, we intend to legislate as soon as a suitable opportunity occurs.

As I have no idea what will emerge from the Scott inquiry, the hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot answer his question about any relationship between what may emerge from the report of that inquiry and these proposals. It must remain entirely a matter for speculation as to whether there will be any relationship between any recommendations in the report and these proposals.

I agree with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald), albeit from a sedentary position, about the requirement for the defence to disclose the names and addresses of witnesses. That is already a requirement in the context of an alibi defence. We propose to build on that and to adopt a similar approach to that which already exists in that context. Therefore, I see no great difficulty there.

Of course we must seek the right balance between the needs of the prosecution and the rights of the defence. We have not had that balance in the past. The system has been weighted too much in favour of the criminal and against the protection of the public, and it is that imbalance which I sought to put right in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 and in these proposals.

The hon. Gentleman began his contribution in an extraordinary way. He sought to take credit for having thought of these things first. He talked about the proposals that he put forward in his speech to the British Transport police on 5 April. It would be as well if I reminded the House what those proposals were. He proposed that the matter be sent to the Law Commission. That was the extent of the hon. Gentleman's proposals on 5 April.

As for the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) in the Standing Committee debating the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, it was not moved as a free-standing change to the law but, as he made absolutely clear when he was moving it, as an alternative to the Government's proposals to provide for inferences to be drawn from the right to silence. He said that the Committee had a choice between the Government's proposal to abolish the right to silence"— he got that wrong— and the Opposition's alternative".—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 1 February 1994; c. 351.] Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell us whether he still opposes our proposals on the right to silence or whether he now joins the Government, the police and the Lord Chief Justice, who all think that the changes to the law are sensible, balanced and reasonable.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Just as my right hon. and learned Friend has already dealt with miscarriages of justice involving the conviction of the innocent, so he is now dealing with those involving the acquittal of the guilty. I think that most people will support the broad thrust of the proposals. In particular, both sides in a criminal trial will welcome any provision that reduces the mass of paper that currently flies about in all directions at great public expense. Also, most people will agree that the defence ought to expose the broad nature of the defence ahead of the trial so that the issues can be narrowed down and the trial shortened.

Some care must be taken, however, to provide safeguards when the defence has to disclose the names and addresses of potential witnesses, not all of whom are necessarily people of clean and impeccable background and who might be deterred from giving evidence in the first place, which would be in conflict with justice. There must be protection, and it is not enough for my right hon. and learned Friend to say that we already have that requirement in respect of alibis, because in those circumstances the courts do not require the alibi notice to be given effect in the course of a trial if they do not think that justice will be done. If my right hon. and learned Friend does not want the courts to circumnavigate his proposal, appropriate safeguards must be established.

I welcome the fact that this is a consultation document from which, we hope, all kinds of recommendations will flow and be heard before legislation is implemented.

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his general support of the proposals. He of course brings considerable experience and expertise to bear on his consideration of these matters. I note what he says about the proposal that the defence should be required to make available the names and addresses of witnesses. I do not entirely share his concerns in that respect, but he is quite right to point out that the document is to be the basis of a consultation exercise and I shall, of course, listen carefully to all the issues raised during the consultation exercise.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I join the general response being given to the Home Secretary's proposals. They go in the right direction, and it is clearly correct that there should be a royal commission set of recommendations, a consultation paper and, eventually, legislation.

The idea that the defence must also assist in the trial and not keep its hand secret to the last is not only right but meets the public's desire to secure a more correct balance.

The matter that probably needs the most careful adjudication—a matter on which the right hon. and learned Gentleman touched and to which he is clearly alert—is that of who determines what material gathered or held by the prosecution may or may not be relevant to the defence and is required to be seen in advance by the defence.

There is, of course, a difference between incidentally held material, as in the example that the Home Secretary gave, which should not be disclosed, and material gathered in the course of investigating a case, which the prosecution may not regard as relevant either to support or undermine the case, but which the defence should see in order to ensure that it knows the full range of the case assembled against it. If that matter can be adjudicated fairly, there will further grounds for belief that the balance will be far better in future.

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for the proposals. I understand the point that he made. He has put his finger on the heart of that part of the set of proposals which will need the most careful consideration. I would suggest to the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that he will accept, that the requirement on the defence to identify the essence of its defence will help to achieve a proper resolution of the considerations to which he referred. It will help to achieve a better balance in the interests of justice. I entirely agree, however, that we shall have to consider the matter very carefully in the light of the views expressed in the consultation exercise.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. Before we proceed, I remind hon. Members that I have to keep in mind the other business that the House has to conduct today. Therefore, I ask for brisk questions and brisk answers so that we might move on to other business fairly soon.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

In strongly welcoming the proposals, may I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to look again at section 78 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which is being used to introduce an agent provocateur argument through the back door? Even with the new guidelines, it could still be used to deny juries the opportunity to hear the evidence because the prosecution needs to protect an informer.

Mr. Howard

I shall certainly give my hon. Friend an undertaking to look at that section, and I am grateful for the welcome that he gave the proposals.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

Given escalating costs of criminal defence, will the Home Secretary think twice before introducing disclosure provisions for summary trials, most of which end in convictions in any event? The effect of the proposals in that case would be only to lengthen the process and add to the expense. Is not non-disclosure the crucial issue? Of course we must protect people from intimidation in a society of guns and great amounts of money, but the crucial issue is surely who makes the decision about disclosure and what the sanctions are if he or she gets it wrong.

Mr. Howard

I am not sure that I share the hon. Gentleman's concerns about cost. We are all, of course, concerned about cost, but I hope that the effect of the proposals, relieving as they do the police and the prosecution from the voluminous burdens placed on them, will be to reduce the costs of criminal trials. That is one of the questions on which I specifically invite views in the consultation paper. I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the importance of proper disclosure being made by the prosecution. That is, of course, as he is quite right to say, at the heart of the proposals.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that his announcement is very welcome news. He will also be aware that several of our Kent colleagues and I have been conveying to him the views of our chief constable on the question of disclosure. Is he confident that his proposed steps will meet the various concerns of the police as they have been represented to him? There is no doubt whatever that the acquittal of serious criminals—because of the disclosure procedures heretofore—is a major affront to the criminal justice system.

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. Indeed, I am aware of the views of the chief constable of Kent, not only through representations made by my hon. Friend and other colleagues from Kent, but because the chief constable personally has left me in no doubt of his strong views on the matter. I am not able to report to the House the chief constable's reactions to the proposals, but the president of the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales has already given them a very warm welcome.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I am sure that the Home Secretary realises that the proposals are broadly welcomed by myself and my colleagues. He is quite right that the high volume of material can simply lead to mistakes. I became aware of a case in my constituency in recent weeks of a mistake enabling a terrorist organisation to issue direct threats to witnesses, notwithstanding ceasefires.

May I query the procedures with regard to Northern Ireland? Does the Home Secretary realise that, on this matter, the legal system and the law in Northern Ireland are not significantly different? I must therefore query why we must have a separate consultation exercise. Cannot the two proceed in tandem? Cannot the changes be made by one piece of legislation, as is happening with the Criminal Appeal Bill? As he knows, during consultation on that Bill, practitioners in Northern Ireland said that they wanted to be included in the legislation. I worry that a different procedure would enable the Northern Ireland Office to drag its feet, to prevent proper discussion of Northern Ireland matters in the House.

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome of the proposals, but I do not think that there is any basis for the strictures that he has passed on the Northern Ireland Office. I have said that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland intends to publish similar proposals for Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman will understand that I am not in a position today to give him any assurance about the legislative vehicle for such proposals, but I am sure that it will be the intention of my right hon. and learned Friend, as it is mine, to proceed with due expedition on the matter.

Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)

My right hon. and learned Friend will know that disclosure has reached ridiculous proportions, and that his reconsideration of the subject is welcome. However, he should be mindful of the fact that some of the most notorious cases that have reached the Court of Appeal have resulted from non-disclosure. The Crown Prosecution Service takes a lot of reminding that all its staff and all of us who are prosecutors are administrators of justice, and we must all ensure that justice is done.

One specific matter that I wish to raise is the fact that, despite that great idea about alibis, alibi notices are being ignored. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, if we are to have disclosure by the defence—and that is right—it should perhaps be accompanied by an opening statement by the defence in front of the jury? Would it not assist the jury enormously to hear the prosecution speech and then a defence statement, so that it knew what issues to look for in the evidence?

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. His precise suggestion goes somewhat beyond the proposals as they stand, but I am perfectly prepared to consider it in the context of the consultation exercise.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

I welcome the Home Secretary's proposals in so far as they are intended to make the criminal trial a process of truth seeking. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman see that there is a danger that when the defence case is disclosed in advance, the police or the prosecution may be tempted to try to nobble witnesses—or to "refresh their memories", to use a phrase that I have heard? Does he recall that, in the Guildford case, for example, a key defence witness was seen off by the threat of being charged with the offences with which four innocent people were eventually charged? That disposed of him for 15 years.

Mr. Howard

I do not think that it is at all appropriate to infer from particular cases, however serious, generalised allegations about a propensity on the part of the police to behave in the way that the hon. Gentleman has imputed to them. I do not believe that what he suggests would happen. During the consultation exercise, we can consider the importance of putting in place proper safeguards.

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that his proposals will be widely welcomed both in my constituency and throughout the country? It is surely in the interests of justice that both parties to a criminal trial should know what case they have to meet before the trial begins. My constituents are sick and tired of hardened criminals escaping conviction by springing ambush defences on the prosecution.

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I entirely agree with his assessment of the view of the public, and I share that view.

Mr. Mike O'Brien (Warwickshire, North)

I, too, welcome the Home Secretary's efforts to deal with what has become the farce of disclosure—both in terms of the volume of material, and because of the way in which witnesses for the prosecution can have their names disclosed to the prejudice of the trial. I was also greatly shocked when a senior police officer told me of a murder case that had to be dropped because of such problems.

The importance of dealing with disclosure lies in the detail. Will the Home Secretary give us the assurance that, both during the consultation process and, more importantly, when legislation comes before the House, he and his fellow Ministers will deal with it in the most bipartisan way possible, so that we can get the detail right and provide lasting rules on disclosure, which will avoid miscarriages of justice, and which can be preserved over a long period as good law?

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for the proposals. I am perfectly happy to give him the undertaking that both during the consultation exercise and while any legislation is being taken through Parliament, we shall consider the detailed suggestions made in as clear-headed, receptive and objective a way as possible. Our only aim is to achieve the best possible balance and the best possible system of criminal justice. That is what we regard as the ultimate goal of all our endeavours.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

My right hon. and learned Friend knows of my concerns about this matter over many years. Those concerns reflect in particular those of the police about the burdens placed on them by the present arrangements. I am also concerned that, as has been made clear this afternoon, many trials have collapsed as a consequence. Given that the consultation and legislation will take several months, and given that so many of the difficult decisions that have been taken relating to disclosure seem to be matters of interpretation and discretion by the judiciary, can my right hon. and learned Friend tell the House what arrangements he, my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor and my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General might have in mind to improve the guidelines to judges for the current disclosure rules? My right hon. and learned Friend will know that there is still some concern about those guidelines and the way in which they are exercised.

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend is entirely right to remind the House of the concerns that he has expressed on the matter for a long period, and I am grateful to him for the suggestions that he made. I fear, however, that I cannot respond as positively as I might like to his invitation to issue guidance to the judiciary. It is not a matter for me, nor is it a matter for my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor. It is a matter for the courts, the Court of Appeal and perhaps the Lord Chief Justice.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

With the dark horse in the next Secretary of State for Scotland stakes sitting beside him, could the Home Secretary tell the House what the position is in relation to Scottish law, and in particular to disclosure? The right hon. and learned Gentleman will know of the great anxieties that many serious people have over the biggest case of murder against western civilians since 1945—that is, Lockerbie.

In relation to the English responsibilities—since some evidence was found in England—could the Home Secretary look at Mr. Francovitch's film, which appeared last Thursday night, and ask senior officials at the Home Office whether there are any conclusions relating to the non-disclosure of evidence which the Crown Office said it has, as that is a matter that pertains to the Home Office?

Mr. Howard

I am not sure which would be the greater lack of wisdom—to draw inferences from the film to which the hon. Gentleman referred, or for me to try to explain to the House the Scottish law on disclosure. I am certainly aware of my limitations, so I have no intention of responding to the hon. Gentleman's request. I have no doubt that he will raise the matter in due course with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South)

I very much welcome what my right hon. and learned Friend has said today, and I particularly welcome his response to the royal commission's comments about the need for the prosecution to provide such vast amounts of material for the defence, particularly in cases in which serious professional criminals can comb through that material in the hope of chancing upon something that might provide a defence. That has been an abuse for many years, and I hope that, after the consultation period, my right hon. and learned Friend will produce legislative proposals to correct that mischief as soon as possible—preferably in the next Session.

On the day when the true attitude of Labour Front-Bench Members has been shown by the attempt of the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) and his colleagues to compromise the independence of the judiciary by threatening to politicise them, may I once again congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on ensuring that the guilty are convicted and are not slipping out on technicalities?

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. We shall look at the point that he made during the consultation exercise, and I share his views. I do not wish to extend the scope of these questions and answers by referring to the proposals made by the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng).

Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton)

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that much damage has been done to the reputation of the criminal justice system in the past few years by apparently guilty men getting away on legal technicalities. Is he aware that the most important point resulting from his announcement today is that it will start to restore public confidence in the criminal justice system by putting guilty men where they belong—behind bars?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend is right to put his finger on that point. We must enhance public confidence in the criminal justice system, and everything that I have sought to do in my two years in this job has been designed to achieve that objective. The proposals certainly will play their part in taking that objective forward.

Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the importance of the new procedure is that it will have an impact on every criminal case, by narrowing the issues and reducing the amount of disclosure that is required? It will therefore save time, and make the administration of justice in England and Wales much more efficient. Does he accept that the proposals go further and are far better than the amendments tabled by the Labour party in Committee on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994? Those amendments did not involve any substantial reduction in the amount of disclosure that has to be made, whereas these proposals do. Will not the photocopiers of the Crown Prosecution Service run more quietly as a result?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend is entirely right. In recognition of the inadequacy of the proposals put forward by the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth in the Standing Committee, the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) decided that, rather than adopting the course suggested by his hon. Friend, he would send the matter off to the Law Commission. The hon. Member for Blackburn was right to recognise those deficiencies, but we have been able to find a satisfactory solution without the further delay that referring the matter to the Law Commission would involve.