HC Deb 26 November 2002 vol 395 cc155-6
37. Hugh Bayley (City of York)

What research her Department has carried out into the reasons why some witnesses fail to testify in court. [81467]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper)

The Government have carried out considerable research on this issue, much of it led by the Home Office, although it is used across Departments involved in the criminal justice system. The Lord Chancellor's Department is currently looking at new research into why trials are ineffective and do not go ahead on the day, including the reasons why witnesses do not attend.

Hugh Bayley

York Women's Aid tells me that six of its clients in the past year have withdrawn witness statements that they have made to the police against men who use violence against them. The longer the wait between the man being charged and the case coming to court, the more likely a woman is to be harassed and intimidated into withdrawing her evidence. What are the Government going to do to bring domestic violence cases before the courts more speedily to avoid that problem, thus ensuring that women who have been subjected to violence get justice?

Yvette Cooper

My hon. Friend is right to point to problems of delay and intimidation for witnesses. Those are both reasons why witnesses often do not give evidence in the end, and cases can fall apart as a result. There are particular problems in cases of domestic violence, given the relationship between the person who has suffered the violence and the perpetrator, which can make matters more difficult. That is why we are considering not simply reducing unacceptable delays across the board, but measures relating specifically to domestic violence, and why the Government are working on proposals for a White Paper in due course.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

The Government are right to identify intimidation of and reprisals against witnesses as a serious matter. In the Government's preparations for legislation to deal with the problem, will the hon. Lady include research among local authorities and parliamentarians with experience of these matters? Can she say what the likely timetable is for the introduction of the victims and witnesses Bill, and whether the antisocial behaviour Bill will include procedural changes to free tenants and others who wish to lay information without threat of reprisal?

Yvette Cooper

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the Criminal Justice Bill has already been published and includes improvements to support for witnesses. He is right to say that there is also a considerable amount of work going on in support of victims and witnesses across government and across the criminal justice system—for example, work in the courts includes equipment for those who are vulnerable and for intimidated witnesses to be able to give evidence through the Crown court. We are keen to include any representations from hon. Members across the House, and if the hon. Gentleman has particular views or examples, it would be helpful if he passed them to us and also to the Home Office.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

May I invite my hon. Friend to extend the current research that she mentioned to include an examination of a scheme at Stafford, where there is a support scheme for witnesses and antisocial behaviour cases? I have seen for myself that witnesses feel supported, they feel that they are mutually backing each other up, they obtain information about the cases, and they go to court believing that what they are doing is right and is valued. Will my hon. Friend consider whether such a scheme could be replicated across the country, with the beneficial effect of more witnesses turning up to give evidence?

Yvette Cooper

I certainly would be interested to see the example that my hon. Friend described. He may be aware that the Crown Prosecution Service estimates that 30,000 cases each year do not go ahead because victims or witnesses are not prepared to give evidence, so we would be interested in any measures that are helping to improve the position. At present, all sorts of support for victims and witnesses is provided by volunteers across the country, so anything that allows communities to provide support and witnesses to provide support for each other would be extremely interesting to look at.

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