HC Deb 05 April 2001 vol 366 cc496-7
31. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

What recent representations he has received on the impact of the Human Rights Act 1998 on the Crown Prosecution Service. [155709]

The Solicitor-General

The representations that I have received suggest that Crown prosecutors and the courts have matched up very well to the demand that has so far been placed on them by the Human Rights Act. There has not been the chaos in the criminal justice system that some predicted. Crown prosecutors were well trained and prepared for the coming into force of the Act, and they are applying the principles of the convention with increasing confidence both during the prosecution review process and when meeting challenges based on convention rights in court—

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

How depressing.

The Solicitor-General

The right hon. Gentleman might think that, but I think it extremely important that prosecutors were trained and ready to deal with the introduction of the Act.

As a lawyer, the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) will have been able to note in the law reports the mostly unsuccessful outcomes of defendants' arguments based on convention nights.

Miss McIntosh

I thank the Minister for that very full reply. Can he provide an estimate of the cost of rearranging courts so that prisoners and accused people are no longer seen in handcuffs? Is he in a position today to make a commitment to repay to the CPS the full cost of the introduction of the Human Rights Act?

The Solicitor-General

A certain amount of money was set aside to deal with the implementation of the Human Rights Act, but most of it has not been required. Cases have not been delayed. Magistrates certainly have to give reasons now, but that is a good thing. In some cases, defence lawyers are making arguments in the Crown court, but most of those are quickly dismissed. On the hon. Lady's specific point, there has to be a programme of modernising courts around the country, and that is now occurring

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

Should not we all be satisfied that Crown Prosecution Service lawyers have continued to present their cases to court responsibly? Has that not largely contributed to the absence of horror stories in the media, which no doubt some editors had hoped to publish?

The Solicitor-General

That is certainly the case. In a range of cases, whether involving reverse onus provisions, privilege against self-incrimination or evidence from entrapment situations, defence challenges have not been upheld by the Court of Appeal. Although some Opposition Members have the mentality that the sky will fall in, that has not been the case.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

Does the Solicitor-General agree that the pernicious consequences of plea bargaining include innocent people pleading guilty to offences that they did not commit and the guilty getting off far too lightly? Does he agree that plea bargaining is contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of the Human Rights Act? What instructions on plea bargaining does he give the Crown Prosecution Service?

The Solicitor-General

I do not accept the premise that a breach of the Human Rights Act is involved. Clear rules are set out in various Court of Appeal decisions and guidance that the Attorney-General issued late last year on plea bargaining. Plea bargaining behind doors cannot occur, but in some cases defendants who want to plead guilty will give an indication to that effect. Provided that the matter is dealt with transparently and openly, those pleas will be accepted.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

Can the Solicitor-General list for the House three practical benefits for the CPS that have flowed directly from the implementation of the Human Rights Act?

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Justice is one.

The Solicitor-General

My hon. Friend is right. As a result of the Human Rights Act, the CPS is much more conscious of the rights of defendants. As I said, in most cases the challenges have not proved to be successful. I do have concerns; some courts are looking at cases of delay, regarding them as a breach of article 6 of the European convention on human rights, which, frankly, I do not accept. As I have said on a number of occasions in the House, we are trying to change the culture so that all public institutions will be much more conscious of the rights of ordinary people. I should have thought that Opposition Members would support that aim.