HC Deb 16 March 1999 vol 327 cc929-31 5.52 pm
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that a person indicted for a serious criminal offence shall be brought to trial within a period of 110 days; and for connected purposes. As I am sure that you are aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the 110-day rule exists under Scots law and states that, if a person is taken into custody, their trial must commence within 110 days. If not, that person must be released. In common law, there is no time for commencing an action brought by the Crown. Therefore, a prosecution may be commenced at any time after the alleged offence.

Reform would avoid the current problem of people being detained in custody for an indefinite period. Delays are particularly regrettable when those people are acquitted when they eventually come to trial.

Statistics show that, in Scotland, the number of prisoners on remand decreased by 9 per cent. in 1996–97, whereas England and Wales experienced a 3 per cent. increase in 1998 compared to 1997. From Home Office figures provided, provisional information for 26 February 1999 showed that 12,627 people were held on remand in prisons in England and Wales. That figure has actually increased in the 18 months since 28 October 1997, when I first introduced the Bill.

The Government have said that they want to reduce the time before offenders are brought to trial, particularly for young offenders. There are especially strong reasons to push for strict time limits in relation to young offenders. The Youth Justice Board for England and Wales was set up on 30 September under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 to monitor the operation of the youth justice system.

Recent figures provided to me by the Home Office show that 11 per cent. of those aged 10 to 13 who are granted bail—and 13 per cent. of those aged 14 to 17—failed to answer that bail. The point is that young people are two or three times more likely than adults to offend while on court bail.

North Yorkshire is one of the areas successful in bidding for the Youth Justice Board's development fund to improve the support and supervision of young people on bail. Thirteen million pounds of grants is available, so obviously there is a problem with young offenders. We need to make them turn up in court when they are supposed to do so.

Coming to court is often the most stressful and disruptive occasion in many people's lives. To keep them waiting in custody without a definite time limit is unacceptable to the prosecution and the defence. Allowing trials to be brought at an early date assists witnesses in presenting evidence before poor memory fudges the strength of the case against the accused.

The Home Office has produced an introductory guide to statutory time limits as envisaged in sections 43 and 45 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Those sections amend section 22 of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 and introduce two new sections to that Act in order to set time limits to help reduce delays in the criminal justice system. However, those new time limits will be set by regulation under the 1985 Act only following consultation and pilot studies and once new procedures for case preparation and management are in place. Time limits pilots will run for 12 months from this autumn but will not be implemented nationally in England and Wales until January 2001.

That situation is totally unacceptable. The fact that Scotland should have a humanitarian yet strict provision for all trials to be brought within 110 days, setting a clear, easily applied uniform standard, while England and Wales have no current statutory right but the promise of various different changing time limits depending on the age of the accused, the severity of the crime and the ability of police to bring charges in time, will lead to a chaotic justice system and an administrative, bureaucratic, penal nightmare.

Let us today bring the Government and the Home Office to their senses. The 110-day rule is not some peculiar Scottish concept but a vital safeguard protecting the civil liberties of those detained by the police. Scots law provides a simple, comprehensive, easy-to-administer procedure; let England and Wales now follow suit.

Let me share with the House the wide-ranging support that I have received in introducing the Bill. In 1998, Richard Braithwaite, convenor of Ripon diocesan board of social responsibility penal affairs sub-committee, said: I am delighted that you will persist with the Bill. I have found that your Bill inherently attracts the support of most Church people as well as Liberal Democrats and their ilk. More recently, Mr. Braithwaite said: You are on a winner here and I think you should push it as hard as possible. Labour soon changes its mind when it sees political advantage! Reverend Roderick Hamer of St. John's church, London said in June 1998: I have a particular concern for young people remanded in custody, particularly when, on appearance in court, they are either given a non-custodial sentence or indeed not convicted at all. The young are, I am sure you would agree, particularly vulnerable to the pressures you describe. In June 1998, in a letter to the Deputy Prime Minister, the prison chaplaincy team at Her Majesty's Prison, Hedon road, Hull, wrote: As a Prison Chaplaincy Team we hope you"— the Deputy Prime Minister— will support the Bill. We agree with Anne McIntosh that there should be a limit to the time a prisoner can be remanded in custody. In May 1998, the Ripon diocesan board for social responsibility wrote to all its parishes: Those remanded in custody add to our already overcrowded prisons; when they come to trial many are found Not Guilty and released, and some of those who are convicted are not given a custodial sentence. Recent figures indicate that more than half of all male prisoners on remand (56 per cent.) and almost three-quarters of female remand prisoners (71 per cent.) were not given a custodial sentence. More than a fifth (23 per cent. of males and 20 per cent. of women) were actually acquitted. The stress of being on remand is very considerable. In 1995 there were 55 self-inflicted deaths in prison and a further 603 attempted suicides. Many of these were of people on remand. In addition the families of those prisoners who were not given a custodial sentence also suffered the absence of one of their members. Furthermore, there is the issue of common justice, for justice deferred is justice denied. Paul Cavadino, the principal officer of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, said, in November 1997, when I first proposed the Bill: I strongly support this for all the reasons which you clearly set out when you moved the Bill in October 1997, together with one additional reason—that reducing the number of remand prisoners by cutting delays will provide relief for the overcrowded and overstretched prison system. We are now 18 months down the road, with the number of those on remand awaiting trial in England and Wales having increased substantially. I beg the House to support my Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Miss Anne McIntosh, Mr. Martin Bell, Mr. Dennis Canavan, Mrs. Margaret Ewing, Mr. Michael Fabricant, Mr. James Gray, Mr. David Prior, Mr. Keith Simpson and Mr. Robert Walter.