§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett)
For the third week running, Mr. Speaker, if it is Sheffield it is Wednesday and if it is Wednesday it is Sheffield. With permission, sir, I wish to make a statement on the reform of the criminal justice system in England and Wales.
Today, we are publishing a White Paper outlining an end-to-end reform of the service.
First, however, may I pay tribute to all those who have assisted in this tripartite paper, including the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General, and thank in particular Sir Robin Auld for his review of the criminal courts, and John Halliday for his sentencing review.
The people of this country deserve a criminal justice service that works in the interests of justice and puts the victim first. The White Paper is designed to rebalance the criminal justice system in favour of the victim and the delivery of justice for all. We are sending the strongest possible message to those who commit crime that action will be effective in detecting, convicting and properly punishing the perpetrator.
We have a tradition of justice in this country going back centuries. We have already embarked on reform of the police and an overhaul of youth justice, including a dramatic drop in the time it takes to bring young offenders to justice. The street crime initiative has already made a difference by bringing together the police, Crown Prosecution Service and the court administration.
I can announce today, following the Chancellor's statement on Monday, that over the next three years we will invest more than £600 million in information technology. That will help us in joining up the criminal justice service.
But root-and-branch reform across the board is still required. Delay, inefficiency and repeated adjournments are costing us dear. Through improved police investigation, case management and presentation, conviction of the guilty must be secured and acquittal of the innocent ensured. What we seek is not simply the process of justice but visible evidence that justice has been done.
Every time someone on bail offends, or a case collapses, or the wrong verdict is revealed, we compound the harm done to victims and to society as a whole. We will ensure that both victims and witnesses are protected. We will provide them with separate facilities from the accused. To ensure that their voice is heard. we will establish a victims' commissioner supported by a new advisory panel. Above all, we will deliver faster, more effective justice.
Our actions will be underpinned by the fundamental principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty and that the prosecution must prove its case beyond reasonable doubt. However, the one in eight defendants who fail to appear at court will be dealt with swiftly and summarily. We will bring in incentives for early guilty pleas, deal decisively with delays and improve the use and availability of forensic and technological expertise.
As soon as practicable, the Crown Prosecution Service will take over responsibility for determining the charge in the most serious cases, except where the police need to 288 make a holding charge. We will allow the police to impose conditions on bail before charge to limit the chances of offending.
Disclosure of information is currently a battleground between defence and the prosecution. That leads to delay and to considerable cost. We will rebalance the rules of disclosure. Both prosecution and defence will be obliged to disclose all the material necessary. We will make the rules of evidence simpler and clearer. Relevant previous convictions will be admissible where the judge believes that that would be helpful to the jury, without prejudicing the defendant's right to a fair trial.
In time, we will integrate the management of the courts into a single organisation. We will extend the sentencing power of magistrates from six months to 12, and legislate to allow Parliament to extend this to 18 months.
I can tell the House today that the right of defendants to elect for jury trial will remain. However, in order to deliver justice in serious and complex fraud trials, we will seek Parliament's consent that such cases can be tried by a judge sitting alone. We will consult on whether a judge sitting alone should deal with trials where the danger of intimidation makes justice difficult to achieve. In addition, we will explore a similar option for complex financial or organised criminal cases.
We have a real problem when, in some parts of the country, around three quarters of jury trials result in acquittal. The Government will produce in the months ahead a joint paper on long-term prevention for children at risk. We will legislate in the next Session to increase the powers of youth courts to hear more serious offences.
Currently, no one can be tried more than once for the same offence. This is known as double jeopardy. We will allow for a retrial in cases where compelling new evidence such as DNA has come to light. This will cover murder and very serious offences such as rape.
As I said last year, we must put the sense back into sentencing. For the first time, we will set out in legislation the purpose of sentencing: to protect the public, punish the perpetrator and prevent reoffending.
We will establish a guidelines council to ensure greater consistency in sentencing and to ensure that Parliament has a role in considering and scrutinising draft guidelines.
We will introduce a new suspended sentence of "custody minus", which will provide automatic imprisonment for offenders who breach their sentence. We will reform short custodial sentences and introduce, once piloted, "custody plus", requiring offenders to serve the whole of their sentence, partly in custody and the remainder under strict supervision.
A new intermittent custodial sentence will mean that offenders spend part of the week in custody. Reparation and drug and alcohol treatment will help address offending behaviour. But in protecting the public, we are placing emphasis on dealing with dangerous violent and sexual offenders. Those not sentenced to life imprisonment but who are nevertheless a danger to society will remain in custody until they are considered safe for release. An indeterminate sentence will ensure that they will only be released under strict supervision when they are no longer assessed to be a threat to the public.
The House takes seriously its duty to protect the public, and we wish to ensure that democratically elected representatives retain the right to protect those whom we serve. A whole-life tariff should mean life.
289 The proposals that we have set out are far-reaching, radical and require a culture change. To achieve that, we will need to gain the support of those in the service and, of course, the wider public. We will also need a balanced and sensible debate, which, I hope, will be led by the House today. We need to reinforce trust and confidence in the criminal justice system as we seek to deliver justice for all our people.
I commend the statement to the House.
§ Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)
I thank the Home Secretary and his ministerial colleagues not only for their courtesy in providing, as usual, an early copy of the statement, but for briefing me on the White Paper itself.
There have been 12 Criminal Justice Bills since the inception of the present Government. That is quite a large number of pieces of legislation, but the Home Secretary feels, and we entirely agree, that that legislation has not given us an effective criminal justice system. The system needs reform. That is common ground. As the Lord Chief Justice recently and rightly said, there is much need for the codification of offences, sentencing, procedures and the rules of evidence. That is recommended by Lord Justice Auld, requested by judges and magistrates throughout England and Wales and supported by all parties in the House. Let us by all means get down to the job.
Let us find ways to enable the judiciary better to manage trials. Let us find ways to make the co-operation between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service more effective. The electronic exchange of case files between them, rather than paper in the post, would be a good start. Let us find ways to reduce the number of trials that crack late in the day, disillusioning witnesses and victims. Let us find ways to apply the lessons of the O'Dowd report to reduce the bureaucracy that massively impedes our front-line police officers.
On all those aims and more, we are agreed. Some of those aims can be fulfilled only by legislation. We offer our full co-operation in framing that legislation. Other aims will require administrative action. We wish the Home Secretary well in taking that action, but there is in all this a danger. The result of the last 12 Criminal Justice Bill and the other steps taken by the Government in the past five years has not been a success; it has been a failure.
The aim of the criminal justice system is to reduce crime. Crime in this country, and street crime in particular, remains at wholly unacceptable levels. No amount of statistical manipulation can mask the fact that we face a crisis of criminality in some of our inner cities. To tackle that crisis, we need better crime prevention. We need the police to be back in charge of our streets and neighbourhoods. We need to give serious attention to young people who are the casualties of dysfunctional families. We need thorough reform of the sentencing of persistent young offenders. And we need clear-minded effective measures to undermine the drug culture.
The danger is that in the absence of coherent and effectively implemented strategies of that kind, the Government may be tempted instead to convey the impression of effective action by changing features and principles of our criminal justice system in a way that will, in the long run, undermine, rather than strengthen, public confidence in that system.
290 The single most important phrase in the Auld report is the statement that justice is not a game. The purpose of a criminal trial is twofold: to convict the guilty and to acquit the innocent. Each of those is as important as the other. No one is more committed than the Conservative party to the detection, prosecution and conviction of the guilty, but we have in this country a precious inheritance in the widely held confidence that British justice is just, that British trials are fair and that the innocent will be acquitted.
In seeking rightly to enhance the likelihood of convicting the guilty, we must be sure that we do not decrease the likelihood of acquitting the innocent. I imagine that those twin aims are, in fact, common ground between myself and the Home Secretary. The issue that we face is one not of aim, but of practical result.
The Opposition will want to consider carefully the fine details of the proposals to adjust the rules on double jeopardy, on trial by jury and on the release of information about previous convictions to ensure that any such adjustments will both materially increase the chances of convicting the guilty and contain safeguards to protect the innocent. The presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial are a precious part of our birthright. In designing a system, as we must, that more effectively convicts the criminal, we must not abandon that birthright.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I appreciate the warm welcome that the right hon. Gentleman has given the White Paper this afternoon. We appear to disagree on only two things. The first is that crime rose by more than 100 per cent. while the Conservatives were in office, and it has fallen by more than 22 per cent. since we came into office. The second is that we need more money to achieve the process of case management and electronic interchange that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. The £600 million that we are devoting to that would be cut by the Conservative party.
On everything else, we appear to be in agreement. A large number of reforms have been introduced but they have not yet achieved everything that we need. We are agreed on that. Codification over time is a valuable objective. We need to ensure that we overcome failure at every point in the system to reduce crime further, which, of course, involves the 4,500 extra police officers brought in during the last two years, who again had to be paid for by investment from public funds. We are all agreed that where the system breaks down, there is a crisis of criminality, particularly for the most disadvantaged. That affects many of the people whom we represent. That is why we are announcing end-to-end radical action this afternoon.
We also agree that the measures must have coherence, from detection and good policing all the way through to sensible correctional policies to avoid reoffending. That is precisely why we recognise another issue on which we may have a slight disagreement. We agree that the system must protect the innocent, and we also believe that it should more effectively convict the guilty. We must also recognise, however, that, whatever the view held in the past by the rest of the world—and by the population of Britain—of our criminal justice system, it is no longer held in the high esteem in which all of us would wish to see it being held in the future. It is no longer held in high esteem because the credibility of the system has been undermined as witnesses have been deterred from coming 291 forward; as those who have perpetrated crime do not even turn up to court; as 25 per cent. of those on bail reoffend; and as two out of five of under-18s reoffend.
We are introducing this radical reform riot simply because we have dreamt it up, but because Lord Justice Auld, the Law Commission, and the reports over the last decade have told us that radical reform is required. If the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are going to join us, I welcome that. I would also welcome further consultation with them to ensure that the system commands consensus and that it holds for decades to come, rather than being subject to change on change, which disrupts the system rather than putting it right. That is my offer to the Opposition this afternoon.
§ Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)
First, I welcome the Home Secretary's offer, which we accept unreservedly. On behalf of my colleagues, I welcome the breadth of the White Paper and much of the specific detail. I hope that the Home Secretary will see that there are only a small number of matters on which we start from a different position.
We share with the Home Secretary the view that the victim must be much more at the centre of the whole criminal justice process, and that witnesses need much more support and protection. It is very welcome that the Government have returned to the position that the Labour party held before 1997, which many of us have held all along—that in serious cases people on trial should always have the right to choose to be tried by their peers.
However, if, like the Home Secretary, we are to be honest about the failures of the system, we must recognise the two biggest failures. They are not that a huge percentage of people plead not guilty when they get to court—most plead guilty—or that a huge percentage of trials do not result in a guilty verdict, because most of them do. Instead, the first failure is the terrible figures that the right hon. Gentleman had to report last week—I do not blame him for them historically—that only one in four of all crimes result in someone being arrested and proceeded against. In some areas of London, the figure is one in eight. Unless we improve the catching and clear-up rates, the rest of the system will have relatively very much less to do. Secondly, unless we allow witnesses to be so supported that they continue to give evidence and stay throughout a trial, we will never get many of the most serious cases to the point of conviction, which is where we all want them to be.
We disagree on only three main matters. First, many of us are far from persuaded that it is possible to have a fair trial if, in the normal course of events, previous convictions are known to the court before the verdict. I hope that the Home Secretary will be prepared to reconsider that issue. Secondly, on double jeopardy although I understand his argument, the case for keeping the rule against double jeopardy even in the most serious cases is this: if we were to legislate retrospectively, as a result of the proposals passing into law, every person alive acquitted after a full trial for a very serious offence would have that definitive decision turned into a provisional verdict that would be always open to challenge.
Thirdly, although it is of course right for Parliament to set a maximum sentence, including life imprisonment, I ask the Home Secretary to consider whether it is not always 292 wrong for Parliament to set a mandatory sentence. Every case demands a specific and different consideration. Will he consider whether it is not always wrong for Ministers to decide the tariff at the end of a serious case? However much integrity they have, it is must be better that an independent judge makes that decision rather than someone who is seen as a party politician.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I welcome the hon. Gentleman's tone and approach. We agree about putting victims at the centre, and about the critical aim of protecting, encouraging and supporting witnesses.
We have a slight disagreement about the statistics on people pleading guilty. Some 57 per cent. of those who opted to go to Crown court instead of being heard in a magistrates court eventually pleaded guilty, so the decision was clearly a delaying tactic. There are very real issues here. [Interruption.] To plead guilty after months of prevarication—[Interruption.] The barracking can continue from the barrack-room lawyers, but it is simple fact that 57 per cent.—[Interruption.] Real lawyers represent real people, just as we represent the victims of crime and not those who earn their living out of crime. That is the point that I was making to the hon. Gentleman, who made some very sensible points in his contribution.
The prevention of wrongful convictions must be a key task, but the presentation of previous convictions in very limited circumstances can often be crucial. Let us take the issue of domestic violence. In such cases, a judge may well feel that someone who claimed vehemently that they had never been involved before in battering and destroying the life of a woman should have revealed to the court the fact that, three, four or more times in their relationship, they had done exactly the same. It is right that the jury should know that, especially as the defence lawyer knows it.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of double jeopardy. I simply put it to him that the transformation of science and the use of DNA has now made it possible for us to have some not simply evidence but compelling evidence that someone was guilty of a crime. For that person to walk around in our community, capable of murder and rape, is a disgrace. In limited circumstances, the Director of Public Prosecutions will authorise, first, the investigation and, secondly, the submission to the Appeal Court. The Court of Appeal will then decide whether there is sufficient evidence to take the matter further, to protect us all from those who escaped justice in the first place.
§ Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)
Anything that makes our courts more efficient, effective and victim-friendly will be welcomed by most sensible people, as most of the proposed measures will no doubt be. However, I remain to be persuaded that the disclosure of previous convictions will not merely encourage the rounding up of the usual suspects. The Home Secretary gave an example of circumstances in which disclosure might be permitted, but surely there is a danger that the judge will allow disclosure when the Crown case is so weak that it might otherwise collapse.
§ Mr. Blunkett
Yes, there is a danger. There will be a right of appeal in such circumstances, to ensure that the defence can challenge that basis of presumption, which will be the responsibility of the judiciary.
Mr. Edward Gamier (Harborough)
To want to protect victims and witnesses is not controversial. To require both parties to define the factual and legal issues should be as commonplace in the criminal process as it is in the civil process. That is accepted. However, I urge the right hon. Gentleman to accede to the request of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the shadow Home Secretary, to introduce legislation to codify the criminal law as quickly as possible. Had the law been codified, there would have been no need for the 12 criminal justice statutes introduced by this Government. We might have needed some of them, but not as many. We pass too many unnecessary laws dealing with criminal justice and I fear that the Home Secretary's statement will require us to pass more.
Does the Home Secretary accept that admitting previous convictions into evidence is likely to be more prejudicial than probative? Does he also accept that abolishing the double jeopardy rule is likely to lead to more miscarriages of justice rather than to an increase in public confidence in our justice system? I am not going to get hysterical about what the Home Secretary said because I, too, want to participate in the debate in a sensible and rational way. The right hon. Gentleman says that he will listen. Once he has done that, will he also perhaps change his mind?
§ Mr. Blunkett
Again, I welcome the tone of the hon. and learned Gentleman's contribution. I am prepared to listen to people's views on the safeguards that hon. Members and the public will require on the disclosure of previous convictions and in cases of double jeopardy. New compelling evidence will have to go through the triple locks that I described before a new case can be made and the previous verdict cancelled. Those provide a real safeguard for double jeopardy cases. We must take account of the knowledge that we now have, and we have the ability to convict the guilty, not the innocent. Justice is not only about protecting people from perpetrators, but about ensuring that those who we come to know are guilty are convicted as guilty.
§ Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway)
There has been a great deal of sound and fury in the media about the White Paper, signifying not very much. There is much in the document that hon. Members on both sides of the House and people throughout the criminal justice system will welcome. Before I ask three specific questions, may I point out that the test that my right hon. Friend adduced in deciding which criminal convictions should be relevant to the case and of assistance to the court is the test that we already have? It is not a new test. On the example that he gave, the previous convictions of a person who says that he has never violated a woman before would be considered relevant in any event. To enshrine the test in statute would not cause a great problem.
There are three matters that do and, I anticipate, will cause problems, and I ask for my right hon. Friend's assistance. The first is double jeopardy. He gave the example of DNA evidence, and I certainly would not be against a specific provision relating to that.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman is not in a courtroom. He asks only one question.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. Please have a seat. [Interruption.] Sit down. Secretary Blunkett, will you respond to the matters that have been put before you?
§ Mr. Blunkett
First, I can confirm that I am aware of the Law Commission's work on previous convictions and I know that some of the practice, which is variable across the country, is insecure. That requires us to refine and extend provision so that people are very clear about what previous convictions apply and in which circumstances they can be used. Secondly, I am aware that there is concern among all hon. Members about double jeopardy. I seek to make my case this afternoon, and I shall seek to do so when we bring legislation before the House.
§ Lady Hermon (North Down)
On behalf of my colleagues in the Ulster Unionist party, I warmly welcome the Home Secretary's statement. He will be aware that, in the past two years, there has been a review of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland, culminating in the final stages of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill in the House last night. Can he ensure, in consultation with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, that the good changes that he recommends in his statement are also introduced in Northern Ireland?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I would be very happy to talk to my right hon. Friend and I am grateful for the warm welcome that the hon. Lady has given my statement.
§ Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale)
As a non-lawyer, but as somebody who has supported a child victim through the criminal justice system, I believe that the most dreadful thing is that the process destroys any concept of justice at such a young age. The proposals should enshrine changes to the process which instil in young people the courage to pursue the high principles of justice.
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the process makes as much common sense for ordinary non-legal people as possible? The process, rather than the end result, brutalises people—they understand the court system to a degree. It is often a matter of simple things such as prosecutors not being willing to talk to victims because they believe that victims play a minor role in the court process, rather than acknowledging that they play a central role, given that the crime happened to them.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I believe that a previous statement to the House addressed the issue of tailoring the youth justice system and the handling of youth witnesses in a way that lessened the adversarial nature of the court system in England and Wales. We learned a great deal from the Scottish experience, and have tried to ensure that young people's experience of the court system will encourage them to come forward as witnesses and to play a part in the system in future. All too often, that does not happen.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)
I practise in the criminal courts, and, if that is an interest, 295 then I declare it. While it is true that it is highly objectionable when a guilty person is acquitted, it is much worse when an innocent person is convicted. Against that background, does the right hon. Gentleman understand that the real concern is that the reduction in the right to jury trial and increased disclosure of previous convictions could lead to more miscarriages of justice? Will he reflect further on those proposals? I also suggest that in murder cases the trial judge should have the option of imposing a determinate sentence.
§ Mr. Blunkett
On the latter point, we may well be close. However, the problem is that the judiciary and ourselves take slightly different views as to who is in charge of sentencing.
On the right hon. and learned Gentleman's earlier question, I have already made my position on previous convictions clear. I want to make clear my position on mode of trial. We are dealing with serious complex fraud cases, of which we believe there will be about 15 to 20 every year. There may well be more in terms of detailed network organised crime and intimidation. The right to opt for jury trial will remain in all the cases that are currently outside the parameters that I described, including the extension of magistrates courts' sentencing powers. The leak of the document that was handed to The Independent may have misled people into believing something different.
§ David Winnick (Walsall, North)
In the light of what the Select Committee on Home Affairs said two years ago and what my right hon. Friend said today, is it not right that someone who has been acquitted of murder or another very serious offence should, if compelling evidence is produced, and if all the triple lock safeguards show that it should happen, be brought before the court again on the same charge? I ask my right hon. Friend this question. What sort of respect would it be to the memory of a loved one who has been murdered if a person has been acquitted, compelling evidence is found, and no further case can be brought, as is the position now? Surely justice demands, if only for the sake of the memory of that murdered person, that if there is such compelling evidence, and despite the earlier acquittal, the person concerned should be able to be charged accordingly.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I agree with my hon. Friend that it is entirely wrong that such people should be allowed to go free while those whose lives were ruined by their child or other loved one being killed cannot get justice. It is a strange judicial system that can protect us from someone by putting them away for perjury, but not for the offence that they actually carried out.
§ Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)
In view of the Home Secretary's proposal that the right to jury trial be ended in the case of serious fraud cases—in the apparent belief that juries are too bewildered by the complexity of fraud trials to convict, and that fraudsters exploit that—is he aware that over the past four years the Serious Fraud Office has had a 92 per cent. conviction rate in cases that it has brought? Does he expect the 296 changes that he announced to result in an even higher conviction rate, a lower conviction rate or no change, and, if the latter, why bother?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I am grateful for the notice of the right hon. Gentleman's question through this morning's edition of The Daily Telegraph. I adhere to three of his four principles, but I fall short on double jeopardy—we simply disagree on that. Yes, I do expect more fraud cases to be brought and to be successful, because the current enormous difficulties arising from persuading people to take up jury service for prolonged, complex fraud cases lasting up to a year and dealing with them under the current arrangements will be overcome. A very large body of information now backs up our proposals.
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
On sentencing, my right hon. Friend may be aware of the conviction last year of a constituent of mine for causing six deaths in a road traffic accident while under the influence of drink. Recently, on appeal, his sentence was cut by one third. Does my right hon. Friend recognise the hurt that is felt not only by the families of the victims, but by many other people in my constituency who have had not only to suffer such an awful, terrible thing happening, but the reduction of the sentence on appeal?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I share the frustration and anger that is felt by my hon. Friend and by many people who have spoken and written about the case. Home Secretaries are not supposed to comment on individual cases, but I intend to say this: when the technicalities of justice override the imperative of justice, we must do something about it. This was not a hit and run or someone simply knocking down other people or running into a car—it was the most abominable disgrace imaginable. If murder is not the appropriate designation for such an incident, the House needs to examine what is. The case was and is a disgrace.
§ Dr. John Pugh (Southport)
The Home Office proposes to spend £600 million on computers; that is a lot of money. Given the dismal history of Home Office computer procurement—few of us would trust its representatives on a trip to PC World—what steps are being taken to ensure that the Government get value for money this time?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I am always willing to accompany the hon. Gentleman to PC World because I need a bit of expertise on such occasions, as hon. Members probably clocked about a month ago.
We have appointed an expert from the private sector as head of the division that is in charge of information technology in the criminal justice service. She is respected inside and outside government and will be able to lead us to better times and clearer waters.
§ Margaret Moran (Luton, South)
May I metaphorically hug my right hon. Friend for the excellent references in the White Paper to domestic violence, especially in view of repeat victimisation? I especially welcome proposals to place on a statutory basis reviews of deaths in circumstances involving domestic violence. The all-party group on domestic violence called for that. We have campaigned on the fact that 15 children—possibly many 297 more—have been murdered in such circumstances. It is about time that we learned the lessons about prevention and minimising risks.
I welcome the proposal to make a breach of non-molestation orders a criminal rather than a civil offence to afford survivors the protection that they desperately need. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need specific legislation on domestic violence, given that the current legislation is 26 years old, to progress with some of the worthy measures in the consultation document?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I am tickled by the offer of a hug, which I shall have to consider.
This country has an enormous problem of domestic violence. I pay tribute to the Solicitor-General, who is working closely with the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety on that to enable us to get our act together. Breaching non-molestation orders will be made a criminal offence, and we will extend the restraining order to ensure that victims are protected in circumstances in which it is currently possible for further attacks to occur. As part of extending the police power on bail, we will also ensure that people cannot return to the immediate area where they are threatening their former partners or wives. It is important to remind ourselves that a third of all murdered women are killed in a domestic situation.
§ Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)
I agree with the Home Secretary's comments about justice not only being done but being seen to be done. A local criminal justice system has historically been one method of achieving that. Yet in my constituency and many others, under Governments of all persuasions, magistrates courts have closed. My Crown court now faces closure. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that is counter-productive and that an effective criminal justice system is rooted in the local community?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I agree that access to justice is important, and that that means that people can reach it reasonably and easily. The Lord Chancellor, the Attorney-General and I need to examine the best method of ensuring that combining the relevant parts of the court system facilitates that rather than makes matters worse.
§ Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough)
I am sure that my right hon. Friend's statement has reassured many hon. Members of all parties about some of the controversial elements of the debate that will ensue. However, I declare an interest as a non-lawyer. Will he ensure that he gives equal weight to the voices of victims and those at the sharp end of the criminal justice system and the lawyers inside and outside this place, and not simply listen to the latter?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I certainly will. I want to make it clear that I am genuinely very fond of lawyers; I even have friends who are lawyers.
§ Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)
Does the Home Secretary agree that today public confidence in the criminal justice system is so dangerously low that this House needs to act urgently? To that end, does he understand that, providing that there are proper safeguards, the House should support his proposals first 298 to end the double jeopardy rule, secondly in very special circumstances to allow previous convictions to be mentioned in court, and thirdly in very special cases—serious fraud and where there is gross intimidation—to have, rightly and properly, not a jury but a judge?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I strongly welcome those comments. I want to make it clear again that there are differing views among members of all parties in the House, and if we can accept that, we can consult and work together. The example of support given today reinforces the need for us to gain consensus and to find a lasting way forward—rather than, as we say in the White Paper and for which the shadow Home Secretary chided us, having layer on layer of legislation that ends up having to be re-amended.
§ Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)
Will the Home Secretary accept from me the assurance that the vast majority of my constituents and much of the population on Teesside will greet his announcement with the beginnings of relief and gratitude—not least Ann and Charlie Ming, the parents of Julie Hogg, who was brutally murdered some years ago and stuffed behind a panel at her home?
In pursuing the course of double jeopardy, I assure the Home Secretary of my continuing support, but I ask him to respond to one anxiety that I feel. If we make compelling new evidence a condition of a new trial—and we must do so; I understand that—how can we be certain that, in following the trial, the jury considering it will not find the fact that that evidence has been assessed as compelling new evidence some pre-judicial circumstance?
§ Mr. Blunkett
There is a genuine question about what assumptions may be made about the Appeal Court deciding to go ahead and about the information in relation to the case that is already in the public arena. There are genuine problems, but I think that we can overcome them; the parents of Julie Hogg would want all of us to find a way round them.
§ Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)
Will the Home Secretary please pass my thanks to the Attorney-General for having the courtesy to meet me and the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) yesterday to discuss the White Paper, and for sending me an early copy of it? I welcome the earlier Crown Prosecution Service involvement in the criminal process. It is for the Government to ensure that the CPS has sufficient personnel with expertise and sufficient equipment adequately to discharge that function. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will discuss with the Attorney-General the unacceptably high de minimis levels set for the Serious Fraud Office before it may investigate a matter.
§ Mr. Blunkett
Those welcome comments illustrate the difficulty raised in my reply to his hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) about the number of convictions achieved at the moment owing to the difficulties experienced by the Serious Fraud Office in reaching a position where it can take cases to trial. Any sensible suggestions from the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) will be welcome.
§ Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)
May I congratulate the Home Secretary on resisting the siren voices who 299 suggested that the best way to create an effective justice system was to withdraw rights from the accused, and on instead emphasising the protection of the rights of witnesses and improving efficiency and effectiveness through, for example, the proposals on domestic violence, which could save the lives of two women a week, as at present two women each week are murdered by their partner or ex-partner?
Will this House have an opportunity to discuss the guidance that will be given to judges about when they can decide whether prior convictions are relevant and will not prejudice a trial? Politicians may have a particular view to express to judges—who are the right people to take such decisions—about the circumstances in which they can allow previous convictions to be considered.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I hope that we will be able to debate that in a sensible and open fashion when the legislation is introduced. I also hope that we will be able to do so as part of a broader debate about sentencing guidelines, counsel, and the role of Parliament vis-à-vis the sentencing system, without interfering with or in any way undermining the role of the judiciary and its independence on these matters. It is a matter of great frustration to members of the public whom I meet that they expect us to have some influence and direction over policy, only to find that we really do not. If we can get the balance right without interfering with judicial independence, we will achieve a great deal more credibility for democracy as well as for the criminal justice system.
§ Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)
May I join in the general welcome for the statement that we have just received, while echoing the concern of the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mrs. Fitzsimons) in saying that there seems to be very little here for child witnesses in court? I urge the Home Secretary to look at the Scottish experience, and to consider introducing more training for judges in trials involving child witnesses, to discourage defence barristers from bullying the children, from confusing them by using double negatives in cross-examination, and from trying to undermine them by using points of order to create delays before the interrogation starts.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that we need to look at those issues, together with the way in which evidence can be presented. Although we cannot avoid cross-examination taking place in alternative ways, we can use simple technology to enable the presentation of the witness's case by very young children to be undertaken more effectively.
§ David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)
As a member of the Magistrates Association, and a supplemental magistrate on the Ashby-de-la-Zouch petty sessional division in Leicestershire, may I give a warm welcome to the White Paper? It has taken the first non-lawyer Home Secretary for two decades to bring some sense to the judicial system, particularly in relation to the extension of the sentencing powers of magistrates courts from six to 12 months—and, perhaps, ultimately, 18 months. I also welcome the rejection of the Auld proposal for an intermediate tier of court. May I express a note of concern, however? In his statement, my right hon. Friend said 300 "In time, we will integrate the management of the courts into a single organisation." Is there not a risk that that single organisation might see greater attractions in fewer, more remote and centralised courts? Will my right hon. Friend give us an assurance that local magistrates courts are going to be safer under that new, integrated organisation?
§ Mr. Blunkett
As part of the integration, and as a result of the way in which the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General have been working with us to ensure that access to justice is sealed, we are considering the development of a new local board, which will integrate the work and also have a more powerful local voice to draw together the needs of a local community as well as improve the efficiency of the system.
I welcome what my hon. Friend said about being a magistrate. When I consulted on the Halliday sentencing proposals, there was great scepticism among the magistrates I met as to whether the Government would listen to them, or whether this was a fait accompli. We insisted, on these proposals and on Auld, that there would not be a fait accompli, and I think that we can now reassure those magistrates that we have genuinely listened and responded.
§ Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)
May I also give a warm welcome to the Home Secretary's sensible proposals today? In particular, many of my constituents will be pleased to learn that he intends to ensure that some prisoners serving a life sentence will actually serve a whole life tariff, and that, in some circumstances in which prisoners would be a danger to the community, they will remain behind bars. There is concern, however, that the powers that he intends to take will be anathema to the European Court of Human Rights, which has so far shown a remarkable determination to remove from his office the right to determine the tariff served by prisoners serving life sentences. Will he explain to the House how he intends to make the proposals robust in those circumstances?
§ Mr. Blunkett
Let me be uncharacteristically cautious on this matter. There are cases, including Anderson and Taylor, on which considerable public comment has been made, including comment by people who have responsibility in this area, and I do not wish to match that. However, I think it very important that everyone should know that there will be, and I am determined that we find, ways around any blockage—whether a case is taken to Strasbourg or not—that precludes this Parliament from determining that those who have committed the most horrendous crimes should be locked away for ever, given that the sentence was seen as an alternative to putting people to death. I remind those who debate these issues—often, they are rather contemptuous of the more common language that some of us use—that we in this country are in a position not to put people to death, but to demand a punishment that is clear and decisive, and which protects us from the most horrendous murderers. In that respect, I agree entirely with the hon. Lady.
§ Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)
I thank my right hon. Friend and his team for the attention devoted in his comments and in the White Paper to the horrendous issue of domestic violence. At the moment, I am dealing with one domestic violence case every two or three weeks. 301 Those women have had an horrendous time, and if it were not for the help of the Keighley Domestic Violence Service—a voluntary organisation—they would remain in a violent relationship or simply be dumped with no help. Thanks to the service, they are brought to my office for help, and brought to the attention of the police and the social services. I want to put on the record my grateful thanks to that service, which is doubtless replicated in other constituencies. The people who run it do a wonderful job, but they do not receive much thanks.
§ Mr. Blunkett
Those people deserve every thanks. I have been persuaded by my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General—I give her credit this afternoon—that we should return to this issue with vigour in the autumn. We have already taken steps, such as changing attitudes. Moreover, police throughout the country make the presumption of pro-arrest in relation to domestic violence. Those steps have already begun to make a difference, but voluntary groups and people who give of their time are a godsend to those who face horrendous attack.
§ Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)
Can the Home Secretary tell the House what he intends to do about the problem of retaining police officers in forces around London who transfer to the Metropolitan police? Anyone in Bedfordshire who joins the Metropolitan police is between £5,000 to £7,000 a year better off because of London housing allowances and the free travel provided within 70 miles of Charing Cross. This is a question of the allocation of the cake, not of its size.
§ Mr. Blunkett
Yes, it is a real issue—one that the White Paper does not address—for places such as Bedfordshire and the Thames valley. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety and I will discuss with chief constables ways to avoid the problem spreading still further, with ring after ring facing a similar situation as we gradually alter the balance. Having put right the massive recruitment problem in the Met, we need to balance that through retention in the immediate non-Met areas.
§ Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)
My right hon. Friend will know that I have deep reservations about the prospect of changing the double jeopardy rule, but in the spirit of today's statement, I am prepared to engage in the consultation and give him a chance to convince me otherwise. To start that process, I would like him to expand on two issues. First, how will we ensure that the trial jury at the second trial has not been prejudiced by the pre-trial process of deciding that the evidence is new and compelling? Secondly, what does he mean by new? Does he mean evidence that could not possibly have been submitted at the first trial, or evidence that would have come to light at that trial, had the investigation been extended for long enough?
§ Mr. Blunkett
My hon. Friend raises very reasonable questions, the first of which I referred to in my reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook). On the second question, I believe sincerely that we are, and should be, talking about new evidence that was not available originally. I gave the example of DNA because it has extended our ability to ascertain guilt 302 in a way that was never envisaged 10 or 15 years ago. There are also people—my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North will be aware of this—who have written about their guilt afterwards and explained what they did. Changing the double jeopardy law makes all the difference to our capacity to follow through on that.
§ Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble)
May I raise with my right hon. Friend the problem of the high reoffending rates of young offenders when they leave prison or a young offenders institution? I have seen work done by the YMCA both in young offenders institutions and prisons and on release, and am convinced that a lot of the good work done in those institutions is wasted when young people leave them and return to the environment that put them in prison in the first place. There are schemes that can provide assistance, but unless we remove the need for young people to go back on release to the very environment that created the problems in the first place, we are simply not tackling the root of the problem. I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend would introduce measures to improve the schemes already in place to help young offenders on release.
§ Mr. Blunkett
We are publishing today a second paper in response to a consultation on rehabilitation. There is a real need to join up prison and probation, rehabilitative and reparation services, and tackle the follow-through on things like drugs—work taking place in prison must continue on release. Alongside an independent review of all correctional services, the pressures on them and requirements for the future, we should take seriously the need to create a genuinely seamless service.
§ Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)
Without a shadow of a doubt, the White Paper will be welcomed throughout my constituency. However, will my right hon. Friend comment on a narrow point about the commissioner for victims, and confirm that his remit will include dealing with victims of death and serious injury on the road? May I tell my right hon. Friend how refreshing it has been to deal with Ministers and officials in all three arms of the criminal justice system who have taken a fresh look at that important area of crime?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I can give that assurance. The White Paper engages specifically with the support required for trauma involved in major catastrophes, but not catastrophes that affect just one family.
§ Vera Baird (Redcar)
There is much to welcome in my right hon. Friend's statement. I note that many contentious issues are couched in conditional terms about consulting and so on, and I applaud that open-mindedness. I join colleagues who have praised the attention that will now be given to domestic violence. I hope that that will spell an end to the old notion that crime committed against the family at home is a private matter in which the state must not intervene.
May I ask three short questions? First, forgive me if this is my error, but I am unclear as to whether the abolition of the double jeopardy rule will be retrospective, and thus capable of giving satisfaction to the family close to the hearts of Teessiders to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) has referred. Secondly, what does my right hon. Friend mean in the White Paper 303 when he talks about people accused of organised and serious crime not having the right to jury trial? It sounds as if the more serious the crime, the less the chance of a jury trial. Surely, trial by one's peers is the most important principle when the consequences are grave. Finally, will my right hon. Friend's review of the rules of evidence include a fresh look at the admission of previous sexual history in rape trials?
§ Mr. Blunkett
On the first question, yes, it will be retrospective. On the second question, it is critical that we get the definitions right, and once more I welcome my hon. and learned Friend's contribution to the debate. We are talking about networks of organised criminals, often with international links, who are engaged in subterranean financial activities. Our advice is that there are major problems with the present system. On the final question, the answer is yes.
§ Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West)
I too warmly welcome the statement and, as one who has practised in the criminal courts, I agree about the need to rebalance the criminal justice system. May I, however, press my right hon. Friend on the question of disclosure of previous convictions? What criteria will be applied before such convictions are adduced in evidence?
§ Mr. Blunkett
We have deliberately made it clear not just that we need discussion about that, but that we need to provide some discretion for the judiciary. We cannot say that we need to respect the independence and professionalism of the judiciary, and in the next breath say that we are taking it away. I am mindful of the need 304 to get the definition right, but we also need to ensure that there is enough leeway for account to be taken of individual circumstances.
§ Roger Casale (Wimbledon)
I welcome the statement. I know from my contact with Dru Sharpling, the new head of the Crown Prosecution Service in London, and with Eric Packer, the clerk of Wimbledon magistrates court, that the reforms will be particularly welcome in London. People throughout London want to see a step change in the quality of the criminal justice system, and to have confidence in it. Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that if the reforms are to be effective, appropriate financial commitments will be needed to back them up? Is it not the case that when we all come to be judged by the jury that is the electorate, this Government will not be accused of having willed the ends without willing the means, whereas the Conservative party is likely to be found guilty of that charge?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I entirely agree, but I am always circumspect when, as happened earlier, the Chancellor is present and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is at my elbow. It is important to recognise that this is a blueprint for the years ahead, not just for two years ahead.
As for my hon. Friend's main point, there is a real challenge for the criminal justice system, from the police through the Crown Prosecution Service through the courts to restorative justice in London. London is materially different from other parts of the country in this regard. We really do need the step change to which my hon. Friend referred if we are to deliver something materially different to Londoners who feel let down by the present system.