HC Deb 05 November 1997 vol 300 cc337-42

Order for Second Reading read.

4.45 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill makes small changes to existing laws for certain minor offences. Although a modest piece of legislation, it is none the less significant in its potential to remove unnecessary burdens from many of those working in magistrates courts, the police and probation officers, affecting about half a million cases per year. It will also lead to reductions in delay in the magistrates courts—a key Labour manifesto commitment. Its main element was suggested by an efficiency scrutiny commissioned in 1994 to examine administrative burdens in the criminal justice system.

It may be helpful if I mention the current procedures that will be affected by the Bill. At present, the Magistrates Courts Act 1980 allows defendants on certain charges to return a plea of guilty by post. A significant proportion of such pleas are for summary traffic offences, such as exceeding speed limits. Offenders who are ready to admit their guilt and accept the penalty determined by the court for their particular offence can do so quickly and efficiently by post, saving both their own time and that of the courts. On average, some 38 per cent. of those summoned by post return guilty pleas by post.

However, about 35 per cent. of defendants simply do not respond to the summons at all. Some clearly will not respond for quite legitimate reasons, and the law has full and satisfactory remedies available to them. However, the plain truth is that a great many defendants simply ignore a summons as a means of delaying their personal responsibility in the judicial process. When a summons receives no response, the court must almost inevitably adjourn the case in order to decide whether there is any point in proceeding with the charge or to try further steps to get the defendant to court. Courts must be capable of hearing cases in the absence of the unco-operative defendant as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

Under current legislation, a summons will usually include what is known as a "statement of facts"—in essence, that is a very short summary of the details of the case as recorded by the police. This information is sufficient for a defendant to acknowledge his or her guilt by post. However, if a defendant pleads not guilty or enters no plea and simply fails to respond, the Crown Prosecution Service must take the prosecution forward, for which the statement of facts is no longer sufficient.

That is why the efficiency scrutiny that I mentioned earlier suggested that the police should prepare a witness statement, as specified by section 9 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, and serve it with each summons. That would ensure that admissible statements were available to the court at the first scheduled hearing, whether or not the defendant responded. Clause 1 of the Bill establishes this. It permits a plea of guilty by post where either statements of fact or section 9 witness statements have been served with the summons. When a statement of facts is served with the summons, the procedure for a guilty plea will be exactly the same as at present. When a section 9 statement is served instead, it may be used as a summary of the facts, for a guilty by post plea, or to prove the case if no response is received to the summons.

The Bill provides two further refinements to procedures for minor summary motoring offences. At present, when a defendant is convicted of a summary offence under the traffic Acts, previous endorsements on his or her driving licence may be taken into consideration by the court when sentencing. However, if an offender has not produced his or her driving licence to the court, previous endorsements on it cannot be considered until the court has served notice on the defendant of its intention to cite previous convictions by using a print-out of the driver's record from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.

Courts can request the print-out when issuing a summons so that it is available in court at the time of sentencing. However, once again, unco-operative defendants delay proceedings, since the court is obliged to adjourn after conviction and then notify the offender of its intentions, causing significant delay. The only way in which the court can proceed at the same hearing to convict and pass sentence is by ignoring any previous endorsements. That is a manifestly unreasonable situation which clause 2 of the Bill will remedy. It allows for the DVLA print-outs to be used by the court to prove any previous summary convictions, but removes the requirement to serve notice of that fact on the convicted defendant.

Clause 3 of the Bill removes one further snag in dealing with summary road traffic offences. Although courts can disqualify a defendant in his or her absence, they may wish the defendant to attend court to hear in person the reasons for disqualification. With minor motoring offences, cases are increasingly decided on the basis of written statements served on the defendant prior to trial. They are generally admissible in court as if they were oral evidence, but they do not satisfy the specific current statutory requirement for information to be substantiated on oath in order to issue a warrant. The clause allows the court to issue a warrant for a disqualification hearing without the need to substantiate the information on oath. The clause was proposed by a number of senior criminal justice practitioners and will serve to rectify a situation that makes no sense in the current process.

The remaining two clauses of the Bill are simply administrative, updating a number of references in related legislation and allowing implementation of the Bill to be delayed until the necessary changes to court and police documentation can be effected.

To test the efficiency of the proposals compared with the existing procedures, after the efficiency scrutiny had reported, a pilot project was conducted in Gloucestershire and Lancashire, from September 1996 to the end of March 1997. The outcomes were remarkably successful for all agencies involved. Up to 77 per cent. of "Bill procedure" cases were concluded—proved and sentenced—at a first court hearing, compared with 23 per cent. using the existing procedures. Some 86 per cent. of cases were proved at that first hearing. Adjournments were dramatically reduced—the average number of hearings dropped from 4.67 to 1.35 in Gloucestershire, and from 3.15 to 1.22 in Lancashire. Reductions in the average time taken from date of offence to the conclusion of the case were also significant—from 144 to 95 days in Gloucestershire, and from 139 to 84 in Lancashire. It is also interesting that prosecutions for minor road traffic cases rose by more than a third in Gloucestershire and Lancashire during the pilot period. Not surprisingly, all the criminal justice agencies involved in the pilot have indicated their clear support for the proposals set out in the Bill, which free valuable resources by reducing a very considerable proportion of the routine administrative burdens borne by all in processing minor motoring offences.

These savings are generally not realisable in cash terms. They represent an estimate of the resources released for use on other work, by expediting the processes in these minor motoring cases, but they are every bit as valuable to the criminal justice system as additional funds would be. I think that these results speak for themselves.

The Bill has passed all stages in the other place unopposed. I hope that the House will be able to give these modest but useful measures the same support and favour as they received there.

I commend the Bill to the House.

4.51 pm
Mr. Edward Gamier (Harborough)

In another place, the entire proceedings of the Bill took 52 minutes—Second Reading lasted 40 minutes, Committee stage took seven minutes, and Third Reading five minutes. During the brief Second Reading debate, Lord Mishcon said: short Bills, however meritorious, deserve short speeches."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 July 1997; Vol. 581, c. 1523.] I agree, at least on this occasion, and intend not to delay the House unduly.

It is worth noting, however, that the Bill's Second Reading in another place was but the overture—a quiet and well-ordered one—to the Second Reading of the Nuclear Explosions (Prohibition and Inspections) Bill. For us, however, the business managers have prepared something different to follow—the Fossil Fuel Levy Bill. Who said that life in the Lords was dull and that explosive debates happen only in the Commons?

It is also, perhaps, worth noting that this is the third time that the Minister and I have squared up against each other since we took up our respective posts. The first was in Committee upstairs. The second was last Wednesday, when the hon. Gentleman's instructions were clearly to trot, not gallop, but in all circumstances to ensure that he took 45 minutes to complete a 10-minute course. I congratulate him on his obedience and on his ability, for the third time, to come before us with an order, announcement or Bill that is the product of the Conservative Government and Conservative policy.

As Lord Kingsland made clear, and as the Lord Chancellor candidly admitted, the Bill is the product of the efficiency scrutiny survey initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) when he was Prime Minister. As Lord Kingsland said in another place, it is a sad fact that in the magistrates' courts nowadays it often takes almost as long to bring a guilty plea to court as it does to bring a not guilty plea to court."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 July 1997; Vol. 581, c. 1520.] The Bill will go some way to correct that.

The Opposition welcome what is, after all, our own Bill, and we trust that magistrates throughout the country will do so as well. It is, after all, lay magistrates who deal with the overwhelming majority of criminal cases, including motoring cases, that come before our courts. Anything that we can do to ease their burden without adversely affecting the quality of justice is to be encouraged. Anything that we can do to avoid police time being wasted through adjournments and unnecessary waiting for cases to come on is again to be encouraged.

The evidence emanating from the pilot study in Leeds and from the other studies mentioned by the Minister suggest that the Bill's provisions will be effective in, among other things, achieving huge additional savings in the administration of justice.

The Lord Chancellor said in answer to a question from one of his noble Friends in the other place that he would make inquiries about how best to achieve the necessary changes in practice to ensure that police officers received adequate warning that they were no longer required in court. Is the Minister able to tell us the result of those inquiries? Three months have passed since the Lord Chancellor said that he would make them.

As proceedings on this Bill will, I trust, not be lengthy, the Minister will have extra time to read more carefully his written answers, if only for his own safety. If he reads column 786 of the written answers of 28 October in Hansard he will find that he answers as though he were the Lord Chancellor himself rather than his Parliamentary Secretary. If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman is becoming complacent. If this and earlier occasions are anything to go by, the Conservative party has done all his work for him. He cannot expect us to continue to check his written answers for him.

I hope that the Bill will be given a swift passage.

4.55 pm
Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree)

Before there is any doubt, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I refer you and right hon. and hon. Members to my entry in the register of interests as a partner in the solicitor's firm of Law, Hurst and Taylor.

I do not wish to incur the wrath of the House as my senior colleagues on both sides of the Chamber have been particularly brief. It is clear that the Bill is not a controversial measure. I welcome it because it is a useful step in speeding up the process of motoring cases that come before the magistrates courts, and the overwhelming number of cases that they deal with are precisely of the sort that the Bill looks towards.

This very day 1 have spoken to a senior clerk to the justices in my county of Essex. He thoroughly welcomes the proposals and believes that they will greatly aid the efficiency of the courts.

At present, the normal process is not to have a section 9 statement on the file. Having acted as a prosecutor in motoring cases in the past, I am well aware of the rudimentary nature of many of the motoring files that come before the courts. It would not be normal practice at present, as a first start, for there to be a section 9 statement on the files. The implementation of the Bill will mean that the police will have to change their process, and officers will have to ensure that each file has on it a section 9 statement, which thereafter can be used as evidence in the court. If they do not do so, the case will be back where it was before and no progress will have been made. I am reassured by the pilot studies that the police believe that this is a useful innovation and that they—along with the Justices Clerks Society, no doubt—support it.

Clause 2, which deals with print-outs, takes up another cause of interminable delays in magistrates courts. Rarely is a print-out to be found upon the file at first hearing. Even if a defendant appears, the case will be adjourned to the next hearing if he does not have a licence for a print-out to be obtained. The licensing authority at Swansea is certainly better than it once was in providing print-outs, but there continue to be problems. Sometimes that is the fault of the defendant, who has not been accurate in giving his full name and date of birth. Sometimes searches need to be made against any number of names, and occasionally against more than one date of birth, to ascertain the correct details. Without that information, the print-out is abortive. Clause 2 is a useful addition to process in that both the print-out and the section 9 statement will be on the file.

Clause 3 allows the warrant for arrest to be issued using a section 9 statement, which is the substantiation of the case. That will allow the process to move to a conclusion in two hearings.

The Bill is not one of the monuments of legal reform. Those who practise in the courts will be aware that it will not overnight solve all the problems of delay. However, I am reassured by the fact that people who practise in the courts, given the aspects of the Bill that concern them, seem to have shown their support for it. The Bill makes a start with the speeding up of the process.

The rights of the defendant are preserved and remain untouched. If an error in the process occurs, and if someone is convicted without proper service, he can apply to the court with a declaration that he is not that person or that he was not served, and the process will be reopened.

The Bill has the advantage of preserving the liberty of the subject and speeding up the process. That is remarkable progress. Although the Bill is not large, the principles behind it are well founded.

5 pm

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

I must also declare an interest as a partner in a firm of solicitors. I am surprised that there are not more hon. Members present as some of them will have an interest in the Bill, especially the provisions that deal with motoring offences.

The Bill is uncontroversial and welcome. It has been considered in the other place, and its provisions have been widely scrutinised and investigated. There have been at least two pilot projects. However, by removing at least one procedural step in the process, it will place an even greater responsibility on the police to ensure that the facts, especially those set out in section 9 statements, are correct. Ministers will no doubt remind the police of their additional responsibilities under the Bill.

Some people, for genuine reasons, such as service abroad, will not receive a summons. As the Minister reminded the House, there are remedies for such individuals. I hope that Ministers will consider how notice of such remedies should be highlighted in the summons, and that the courts' existing right of recourse to the records of the DVLA will be drawn to the attention of defendants. I also hope that the Bill will pass speedily into law.

5.2 pm

Mr. Hoon

With the leave of the House, I shall respond briefly to the points made. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) on his considerable expertise in this area. In future, I shall know where to look for advice and assistance when the Department introduces technical measures dealing with the intricate details of administration in magistrates courts. He has shown by his remarks that he has considerable expertise, and I thank him for his support. He probably answered his own questions about section 9 statements and the use of the print-out. These provisions were tested in a number of pilot projects which I can assure him showed that the rights of defendants will be preserved and that the approach of the police is thoroughly satisfactory.

I thank the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) for his support. The only issue raised by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Gamier) concerned the attendance of police officers. There is no legal requirement on police officers to attend court when a plea of guilty by post has been entered under the section 12 procedure. It is, however, the customary practice of the Metropolitan police to provide for the routine attendance of a police prosecution liaison officer to handle multiple motoring cases, as the volume of motoring cases in the Metropolitan area is sufficiently high to make that a useful, time-saving measure. However, that does not seem to be the practice in provincial magistrates courts. There is always room for improvement in liaison and communication between the courts, police and prosecution, and my Department and others are continuing to work on various initiatives in support of that.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter, and I hope that he is satisfied by my response. I thank the House for allowing me a further opportunity to speak.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).