HC Deb 17 January 2000 vol 342 cc552-4
15. Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown)

What measures he is taking to ensure that witnesses in magistrates courts are adequately protected. [103975]

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

The victim support scheme will be extending its activities to the magistrates courts. That will be of considerable assistance to witnesses who are victims appearing in magistrates courts. To enable the scheme to do this, we have increased incrementally by 50 per cent. to £19 million the grant made available to it, so that it can establish witness support services in all such courts by April 2002.

Dr. Turner

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. As I am sure he is aware, there is a very real and considerable problem of intimidation, not only of those who are victims as well as witnesses, but of witnesses, and not just in magistrates courts but in Crown courts. There are many and constant examples in my constituency. In a serious murder trial, for example, witnesses were literally in fear for their lives. The police do not have the resources to protect every witness, so in areas of my constituency there is a climate of fear: people dare not give evidence or give written statements for fear of reprisals. Will my right hon. Friend please undertake to review witness support and, in particular, protection?

Mr. Boateng

The police rightly give considerable priority to witness support and protection. We support them in that with the resources necessary to that end. More than that, it was this Government, as my hon. Friend knows, who introduced the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 precisely in order to address the problem that he has identified, which manifests itself in magistrates courts, including in cases of domestic violence and neighbour disputes. It is very important to ensure, as we have, that magistrates courts have a battery of protection that they can extend to witnesses. Without such support, we shall be unable effectively to reduce crime in the way that we are determined to do.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

The right hon. Gentleman clearly and rightly takes this matter very seriously. Does he agree that witness intimidation hinders the good order and administration of honourable justice not only in murder cases, to which the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) drew the House's attention, but in lesser cases? Does the Minister also agree that the only way in which we can prevent that is by ensuring more people on the ground, better planning and layout of magistrates courts and the provision of areas where people can be protected while waiting to give evidence?

Mr. Boateng

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The security of magistrates courts, in relation to the protection of both victims and witnesses, can be enhanced enormously by proper layout and design—indeed, the number of escapes can be reduced by effective layout and design in cell and dock areas. We are liaising very closely with the Lord Chancellor's Department on existing and new build in order to ensure that we take such matters into account, to protect witnesses and victims and reduce the number of escapes in transit.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

As the chair of the all-party voice group, I know how welcome the new witness protection measures are to people with learning disabilities who have been victims of abuse. One issue about which they are particularly concerned is training of the judges and magistrates who decide on cases involving victims who have learning disabilities. Can the Minister tell us of any progress on judicial training?

Mr. Boateng

I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we take judicial training very seriously. We work closely with the Judicial Studies Board, which, as she will appreciate, is an independent body. I assure her that the board, the Home Office and—important in this context— the Department of Health are well aware of the importance of ensuring that special needs are taken into account. That applies to learning disabilities. We have found that those who work for some of the charities engaged in work involving learning disabilities are very often the best people to provide such training. We are actively exploring that avenue in order to ensure that the judiciary gets the benefit of hearing from those who have to work at first hand with such problems.

No one should be denied justice simply because they are living with a disability. That applies particularly to learning disability. All too often, people are led simply to dismiss the evidence of those who are grappling with disabilities—and doing so with great heroism and courage. Such people deserve, and will get, the full protection of the law.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Does the Minister appreciate that the problem of petty intimidation of witnesses applies equally in rural areas such as the one I represent? I have seen several cases recently in small villages of people being afraid to come forward with the evidence that the police need. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that fear is exacerbated by the lack of visible police presence, reduction in patrols and the inability successfully to mount prosecutions? Will he assure me that every effort will be made to give communities the support that they need to provide the evidence that the police require to put criminals away?

Mr. Boateng

Both rural and urban areas suffer from this problem. My fellow Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) and I work closely on issues of sparsity and criminal justice. The hon. Gentleman's point will certainly be borne in mind.