HC Deb 15 March 1999 vol 327 cc701-3
12. Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

What measures he plans to introduce to protect vulnerable witnesses. [74588]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng)

The Government are committed to improving the treatment of vulnerable witnesses in the criminal justice system. Last June, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary published the report of the interdepartmental working group on vulnerable or intimidated witnesses. That made more than 70 recommendations, and those that require legislation are included in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill, which will shortly be making its way to the House.

Dr. Turner

This is a problem that still figures large in my constituency, where many vulnerable witnesses remain frightened because of the criminals who live among them and the threats that they and their families make if witnesses inform on them. Does my hon. Friend agree that the measures must be followed by the spreading of good practice and that we must ensure that the police and magistrates know how to help? Does he further agree that there must be an element of bravery in our communities if we are to rid our estates of the criminals who live among the residents?

Mr. Boateng

My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is only a limited amount that we can do within the courts. All that we can do, we must do. For example, it will be important to make sure that screens are used and that the courts exercise their new power to clear the courtroom when some witnesses are giving evidence. All those proposals will be implemented. We need to ensure also that there is proper multidisciplinary liaison between the local authority, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service so that people are given the protection that will enable them to give their best evidence.

It is a question of getting matters right in the courts and giving judges and magistrates the power to regulate their courts in a way that will protect vulnerable witnesses while ensuring that, outside the courts, we focus attention on the needs of victims and witnesses.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Does the Minister agree that some of the most vulnerable witnesses are those who risk losing their job if they fail to do as their employer asks? Should not the toughest action possible be taken against such employers? Given that close employees have been responsible for giving some of the most damaging witness accounts in a serious case of alleged political corruption in this country, surely the employer concerned should not be granted a British passport, and Mohammed Fayed should be deported?

Mr. Boateng

The hon. Gentleman demeans a serious debate by seeking to raise this issue in such a way. On reflection, bearing in mind his distinguished service on the Select Committee on Home Affairs, he might wish that he had used this opportunity to make serious points about encouraging employers to ensure that they support their staff when they are called on to give witness in the courts. Significantly, we should ensure also that we support whistleblowers who identify wrongdoing, when they come under pressure from their employer. The hon. Gentleman would have done much better to have devoted the time that he spent on his question to that issue.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Does the Minister agree that one of the great problems in finding the perpetrators of racist attacks and other violent crimes on housing estates is witnesses' fear of coming forward? Will he therefore reconsider the need to expand the professional witness service, whereby people can be neutral observers of anti-social activity on estates and help to catch the perpetrators of racial violence? I am sure that he is aware that such cases that collapse in the court because of a lack of witnesses are seen as appalling victories for racist violence on our estates and make the situation considerably worse.

Mr. Boateng

My hon. Friend makes an important point based, I know, on first-hand experience of tackling this sort of racist and anti-social behaviour in his constituency and elsewhere. We certainly need to take on board support for tenancy relations officers, estate officers and others and, yes, the role of the sort of witnesses that my hon friend describes in addition, we must make the best use of the anti-social behaviour orders that will be introduced as a result of our legislative programme. They give us an opportunity to build strong community action, which is designed to identify and then isolate those who harass people on our estates. That is something that we are committed to doing.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

With reference to the protection of vulnerable witnesses, I refer to the Macpherson report. Surely all that was required was for the Home Office to contact the inquiry team and question whether the publication of the names and addresses of witnesses put those witnesses at risk. It had nine days to do that. Will the Minister, even now, concede that that was the proper and sensible course to take?

Mr. Boateng

No. We had a duty to publish the report in the way that it was presented to us, and we carried out that duty.