HC Deb 20 October 1999 vol 336 cc414-22 1.28 pm
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

Today, although I am usually on the Front Bench, I take my place on the Back Benches to represent a constituent. I shall describe a shocking constituency case that I believe highlights a failure in the criminal justice system, and I hope that once hon. Members have heard that case, they will agree with me. The case is not isolated; it is one more example of a system that is no longer trusted by large numbers of the public.

You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will know that I tabled this debate before the House rose for the recess some months ago, so I did not know that in the past seven days other cases would come to public notice which reinforce what I am about to say.

Over the weekend, an award was announced in the Silcott case. When a person who is doing time as a murderer finds himself better off to the tune of £50,000 or £60,000, it sets the public wondering. They say that something seems to be wrong. In the past few days, the case of Dr. Joan Richardson was concluded. It appears that, were it not for the fact that the family were in a financial position to bring a civil prosecution, that would have been yet another case of injustice, and Dr. Richardson's killer would have gone free.

Last night, in an Adjournment debate on rural crime instigated my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard)—my colleague and friend—she drew attention to a case in her constituency. In doing so, she again highlighted what has gone wrong with the system.

I hope that those three incidents give some idea of what I consider to be wrong. However, today I shall focus on one case in my constituency, about which I am concerned, and draw some conclusions. In December 1998, I was contacted by Mrs. Hockley, who had just written to the Home Secretary—he or his office took more than six months to reply—and to the Prime Minister. On reading her letter, I was reminded of an article in my local newspaper entitled "Rough Justice?", which was about the murder of Mrs. Hockley's son, Matthew Hockley, and the subsequent trial. She had written movingly about the failure to convict two men for her son's murder.

However, it was the last sentence in Mrs. Hockley's letter to me which set me on the course of action that has culminated today. She wrote: I am at my wits' end knowing that the two murderers are free and living while my beloved son is dead. Please help me. I am afraid that an examination of this case illustrates so much of what is wrong, and shows how urgently action is needed. I hope that the Minister will respond.

On 11 October 1997, in the evening, at the Fox and Hounds pub in Chingford, Matthew Hockley was stabbed to death—not one stabbing but multiple stabbings, in a brutal assault. The police charged two brothers with the offence, and with the joint offence of wounding with intent in respect of a different victim. Before the case came to court, the accused absconded but were eventually brought back into custody. The case commenced on 3 August 1998 at the central criminal court at the Old Bailey.

Before the case began, the Crown Prosecution Service was so certain that the evidence and the witness statements stacked up that it informed my constituent, Mrs. Hockley, that, in its opinion, the case was 99.5 per cent. sure to result in a conviction, and that the perpetrators would serve at least 15 to 20 years for what they had done. Yet before August had finished, the accused were acquitted and Mr. and Mrs. Hockley—and their family, Matthew's brothers and sisters, and nieces and nephews—are left surveying the ruins of their lives, with the desperate and constant reminder not only that their son was murdered, but most particularly that those whom the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and witnesses believed to have committed the murder are now free.

When I took up the case, I tried hard to understand how such an injustice could have come about in a system that I had grown up to believe was one of the best in the world. On 9 December 1998, I wrote to the Home Secretary, and that letter was passed to the Director of Public Prosecutions. When I read his reply, I felt that, while he was outlining the CPS version of events and how it had arrived at its conclusions, he was already starting to distance the CPS from the whole process, and especially from the failure. Intriguingly, the director said that the senior Crown prosecutor who had said that the CPS believed that the case was 99.5 per cent. certain of success could not recall ever saying that.

Once one has read to the end of the letter, one is left with the strong impression that the CPS never thought that the case could possibly have arrived at a successful conclusion. That strikes me as strange, because I cannot conceive of why the CPS would have gone about prosecuting the case if it genuinely did not believe that it would be successful. That is not the impression that the CPS gave to the police or to my constituents.

Some other very serious issues required some answers, which were not given. For example, the Queen's counsel who had started the case with the CPS found that he was unable to take the case to court because he had other commitments. That is fair enough; it does happen. Some cases go on longer than expected. A week before trial, a new prosecutor—a new QC—was given the case. That prosecutor had less than seven days in which to understand the intricacies of the case and prosecute it, but, despite, that there was no discussion by the CPS about postponing the trial or finding another way round the problem.

How can a prosecutor come to such an important case with just seven days preparation, and how can the CPS gamble that such an individual can master that brief and prosecute successfully? Surely it would have been better to go for some form of postponement, but that suggestion was refused.

When I inquired into the circumstances of what happened during the case, it became apparent to me, from discussions with the police, that several times during the case it was quite clear that the command or knowledge of what happened during the investigation was simply not there, and that elements were left unprosecuted.

For example, Mrs. Hockley maintains that the accused absconded for three weeks, which seems to be the recollection of the police, but during the case the prosecutor simply allowed that to be referred to as a matter of a few days. When the accused stated that when they left the pub, the victim was still sitting happily on a chair smoking, that apparently was not challenged although, according to all the witness statements, at that stage Matthew Hockley was already dead, or very seriously wounded, and the individuals were throwing bottles and chairs at him.

I do not intend to describe all the problems. I mention a few to highlight the mess that the case got into. Surely a week is not enough time in which to master such an important case. More important, when I then received a letter from the Attorney-General, whom I have known for a long time, about the case—to his credit, he was genuinely sympathetic—he seemed to be saying that the problem was simply the witnesses' failure to back up their witness statements. He said: It is important to remember that the decisions of police and CPS were based on the statements that were taken from the witnesses not the evidence that they gave in court which departed from their statements. One is left wondering why that was not ascertained before trial. How can one go to trial in such a case and not try to discover whether the witnesses will back up their statements or are likely to agree with what they said at the time when they were interviewed?

I hope that the Minister takes some account of the fact that, on this occasion, the police, to whom I spoke at great length, said that that was not the whole story. I do not know whether the Minister is aware of an organisation called Victims Voice. I was in contact with it some years ago about another case in my constituency. The organisation represents people like Mrs. Hockley. It has tried to contact the Government to get a response from them since they came to power. It maintains that it has done so without any success. I remember taking representatives of Victims Voice to see my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) when he was the Home Secretary and having discussions with him. However, Victims Voice is saying clearly that it receives no response from the Home Office or the Home Secretary, or even the Prime Minister, to whom it has written. That is not good and I am sad that that is the position.

Victims Voice has said that when Labour was in opposition, it had the clear understanding that a different view would be taken by a Labour Government. It is worried that the position is changing since the Opposition became the Government. I shall not draw conclusions about that; I simply say that an examination is needed. If what I have said is correct, I suspect that the Government need to have a rethink about their attitude.

I understand that Victims Voice organised a launch and that a letter to the Home Secretary last October, in which it asked him to attend, went unanswered. A fax to the Prime Minister received a rather bland reply two weeks later. Victims Voice has a serious issue to raise. It represents people like Mrs. Hockley who have suffered, and it has a right to be heard.

The Lawrence case is a recent example. I know that there are huge debates about other issues surrounding that case, but we should not lose sight of one simple fact arising from it—the parents have no redress, so their son's murder goes without answer. Like Mrs. Hockley, they are ultimately the victims of a system that seems to have failed them.

I have said that the Hockley case is not an isolated example, and from that I want to draw another conclusion. Over the past 24 hours, Victims Voice responded to my request for some other examples. There was the Crown v. Skeets and the Crown v. Skeets again in 1999. That was where the dismissed individual went on to commit another murder. There was the Crown v. Terrance Maul and Craig Maul. There was the Crown v. Donald Forbes followed by the Crown v. Donald Forbes again. That was a second homicide. There was the Crown v. Wayne Scotland. There was the Crown v. Scotland again. That represented a failure.

There was the Crown v. Anthony Diedick, the Crown v. Freddie Foreman, the Crown v. Jennings, Parker and Parker, the Crown v. Duffy, the Crown v. Colin Stagg, the Crown v. David Fields, the Crown v. Dunlop, the Crown v. McCluskey, Khan and Hunter, the Crown v. Stephen Plank and the Crown v. Keith Nicholas Whitehouse. I could go on, but I shall not do so. I simply say to the Minister that this pattern cannot be allowed to continue, otherwise people will lose faith in the system.

I ask for some redress for those who are now the victims, who are the families. It is clear that some cases will fail and we need to have a mechanism whereby, in a criminal sense, it is possible to have a rethink about certain cases and allow the families of those who have been murdered some form of redress. At present, if someone is sufficiently wealthy or manages to secure enough money, he can pursue some action through the civil court. However, in my constituency case—I discussed the matter at length with Mrs. Hockley—that is not an option because she does not have the money. Therefore, she is left staring at the ruin that is now her life.

The families of these victims do not want to create a victim culture. They would not call for that. They are not chasing for more money because they know that that will not bring back those who have been murdered. However, they do not want to see criminals benefit financially from any of their previous activities. Most of all, they want to be able to see justice done if the process fails in the first instance. It is the inability to deal with a failure, such as the one that I have outlined, that creates a terrible sense of injustice, and which can lead to problems in future.

I know that there will be problems. I am the first to accept that there are always problems with prosecutions because there is no absolute certainty. We all know that sometimes prosecutors do not get it right. However, when they do not get it right—not because of the innocence of the accused but because the prosecution has failed—the question that needs to be answered is how we deal with that failure. Justice must be done and be seen to be done. My worry is that if the Hockley case and other cases become known as the norm outside the House, and if newspapers represent them as real failures, ordinary men and women will think seriously about taking the law into their own hands. None of us in this place wants that. Any Government need to face that situation and find some way to deal with the anger and concern.

I quickly examined the number of cases tried in the Crown courts where there were no guilty pleas and the cases were contested. There were about 22,229 during 1998–99, with 11,561 convictions. Therefore, there was a failure to secure convictions in 8,668 cases, about 43 per cent. of those brought to trial. There were 8,668 Mrs. Hockleys; 8,668 cases that make people wonder on whose side the system is.

It is probably a conservative estimate that about £3.5 million is spent on failure. That should wake us up to the real failure that the system represents. No Government can possibly allow that situation to continue if they have any belief in the criminal justice system, as I do. I believe that we still have a great criminal justice system. It is still a system where justice can be found. However, I am afraid that ordinary men and women will find themselves so worried about the outcomes of serious cases that they may end up trying to take the law into their own hands. Now is the time for the Government to face that. Surely now is the time for them to make clear observations and statements of policy and deal with the matter.

1.46 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke)

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on securing a debate on the operation of the criminal justice system in respect of victims of crime. I have great sympathy with him on the specific cases that he raised and thank him for the way in which he put his case, which raised profound issues about the opacity and lack of clarity in the way in which the criminal justice system operates in many cases. I, too, have had constituents who have felt extremely frustrated, to put it mildly, about the way in which the system operates. I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members will have had a similar experience.

I know that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that I am not in a position, any more than he is, to put myself as judge and jury in particular cases, nor to comment on the range of cases that he has mentioned. I simply say that the cases that he mentioned at the beginning of his speech—those of Silcott and Joan Richardson, the Emneth murder very near my constituency and the case of Matthew Hockley—are very different in character and raise different issues that need to be addressed. I am grateful to have the opportunity to tell the House what the Government are doing and will do to help victims of crime, and also deal with a number of the points that the hon. Gentleman raised.

First, I place on record that we acknowledge that the previous Government took some steps in the second half of their period of office to move forward in this matter, and we have sought to move further. We believe, as we have heard today in respect of Matthew Hockley's case and the other cases that the hon. Gentleman raised, that first and foremost victims want offenders caught, charged and convicted. However, as he acknowledged, sometimes there is simply insufficient evidence to bring charges. Sometimes a jury will decide that guilt has not been established beyond reasonable doubt. As I have said, I cannot comment on specific cases, although I have sympathy with the particular case that the hon. Gentleman raised.

The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that it is our duty—not only the Government's duty, but that of the system—to establish a criminal justice system that is responsive to the wider needs of victims. Evidence suggests that, first, the victims want from the criminal justice system a simpler, clearer and less opaque process so that they can understand exactly what is happening, and a system that deals with cases much more speedily and effectively. Secondly, they want to be treated with dignity and respect, and in far too many cases that does not happen. Thirdly, they want to get proper information about their cases from the various agencies that are involved in the process, and the hon. Gentleman named some of them. Fourthly, they want their views taken into account in the process that goes forward. Fifthly, they want protection from intimidation and repeat victimisation, which is too often a feature of the cases that we are discussing. Finally, they want compensation for the injuries or loss sustained. I shall deal with each of those factors.

As for simpler, clearer and faster justice, we have taken steps, following the Narey and Glidewell reforms, to try to expedite the process. One of the most frustrating features for the hon. Gentleman's constituents and for mine is the very long time that is often taken as the various agencies within the criminal justice system interrelate before being able to resolve a case in the most effective way.

We are actively considering how we can create a simpler and clearer system. As I know the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge, there are important issues of human rights and the rights of victims, as well as the rights of those who are prosecuted. We must secure a balance between the various agencies operating in the field. The present situation is too complex and too opaque and needs to be changed.

Secondly, with regard to victims' dignity and respect for victims, since May 1997 we have increased by 50 per cent. the grant to Victim Support, an important organisation in this field—a grant that had effectively been frozen by the previous Government.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Victims Voice. As it happens, I had a fringe meeting at the Labour party conference which dealt with many of the issues that have been raised today. Representatives of Victims Voice attended that meeting and made a powerful series of interventions. I spoke directly to them about the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised and about more general issues, and I committed myself to studying their material, of which they gave me a substantial quantity, and from some of which the hon. Gentleman may have drawn. I also undertook to speak further with Victims Voice, and I can confirm to the House that that is my intention. My previous meeting with the group was not arranged in advance, but, as I said, I met representatives at the Labour party conference, where we discussed some of the issues.

Our increased grant to Victim Support has enabled that organisation to use the new money to establish a new national telephone helpline for victims, which has made a major difference, and, more importantly, to start introducing a support service for victims and witnesses in magistrates courts. The support service for witnesses that has been developed is an important element in securing convictions. As the hon. Gentleman would no doubt acknowledge—although I do not make the point in any way about Matthew Hockley—in many cases securing a conviction depends on the preparedness of witnesses to stand up, even though they may feel intimidated by the criminals. That is why we have given support to Victim Support, which, in turn, has been able to enhance the support that it provides to victims in its local community-based schemes, and for witnesses in its Crown court support service. We are looking to extend the scheme in that area.

In addition, for the first time, this year we have provided a grant of £100,000 to an organisation called Support after Murder and Manslaughter, all of whose members have suffered bereavement as a result of homicide. We seek to give concrete support in specific ways. I hear the hon. Gentleman's point about Victims Voice, one of the organisations involved, and will deal with that specifically.

The third aspect is information about developments in a case. That was one of the most powerful points made by the hon. Gentleman. We have taken forward the pilot project introduced by the victims charter to establish ways of providing more timely and better quality information about a case to the victims, from the time that a crime is committed to the eventual possible release of the offender—right through the process.

It is our intention shortly to issue national guidance on the matter, as we acknowledge that the organisations concerned need better quality advice. In particular, we have asked the Crown Prosecution Service, which featured several times in the hon. Gentleman's speech, to take responsibility for conveying information to victims about the decisions taken by the CPS. I can tell the House that it is actively working to put in place an effective system for that. It is intended that that should be in place by April 2001, and, to that end, a series of pilots is being run in various parts of the country. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman would concede, there are serious difficulties surrounding how to give information, at what stage, and with what authority. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support the steps that we are taking.

The fourth important aspect is to take victims' views into account. Of course, those views are already taken into account informally in respect of some decisions, but I place no substantive weight on that because an informal mechanism is not a good way of proceeding. We are considering the introduction of a system enabling victims in all but the most relatively minor cases to have the opportunity to explain the effect that crime has had on them—physically, emotionally, financially or in any other respect.

It is important for victims to give as well as to receive information, as a way of bringing them closer to the heart of the criminal justice process, and ensuring that, in reaching decisions, the system takes greater account of the experience of the victims of crime. It is not an easy matter, but we are actively considering it and believe that it will be an important development.

The fifth aspect relates to intimidation and repeat victimisation. I do not suggest that that is an issue in the Hockley case, but in many other cases it is significant. Provisions in our Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 fulfil our commitment to provide greater assistance to rape complainants, children and other vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, who for obvious reasons may find it particularly difficult to give evidence in court.

The 1999 Act gives authority to the courts to provide a range of special practical measures to help witnesses to give their best evidence in court. The measures include screening the witness, allowing evidence to be given through a live link rather than in the courtroom, and banning defendants from personally cross-examining their alleged victims in sexual offence cases. As I mentioned in relation to Victim Support, I highlight that aspect because it was one of the weaknesses in the system identified by the hon. Gentleman when he referred to the proportion of convictions in the cases that go to the Crown court. We must do everything possible to strengthen witnesses who might feel anxious about going to court, and enable them to give evidence truthfully and straightforwardly.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Will the Government give serious consideration to redress in cases that have fallen not because the evidence was dismissed, but because of ineptitude and incompetence in the process of prosecution? Is there any way that the Government could deal with that through the criminal system?

Mr. Clarke

As I said at the outset, we are examining the entire way in which the criminal justice system operates, to ensure fairness. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and it is one of the aspects that we shall consider.

On reparation and compensation, the United Kingdom currently has the most generous system of state compensation in Europe. In 1998–99, the criminal injuries compensation scheme paid out almost £200 million to more than 46,000 successful applicants. Nevertheless, we did not think that that was adequate in all respects, and the Government earlier this year issued a public consultation paper on the scheme, inviting suggestions for possible changes to the rules of the scheme and for eligibility for payment—a relevant point in this discussion.

We had a large number of responses to the consultation paper, which are being analysed. We shall announce our conclusions as soon as we can. I can guarantee the hon. Gentleman that his comments this afternoon will be taken into account in that process. Compensation is also provided to victims through compensation orders made by the courts. It is estimated that about three quarters of all compensation orders are in paid in full within 18 months.

My conclusion relates to the hon. Gentleman's final point—the Lawrence case. Sir William Macpherson's inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence made recommendations about the treatment of victims and witnesses, which we are taking forward together with the other measures that I have outlined. We want to build on the start that we have made. We want to provide greater protection, better information and more opportunities for victims to have their say. Above all, we want to restore victims to the heart of the criminal justice system and maintain this country's growing reputation as a European front-runner in victim care.

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.