HC Deb 24 October 2002 vol 391 cc402-3
32. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North)

What criteria are applied in deciding to prosecute where a death in police custody occurs. [75299]

33. Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

If she will make it her policy to allow the views of the family of victims be taken into account when deciding whether to prosecute following a death in police custody. [75300]

The Solicitor-General (Ms Harriet Harman)

In deciding whether to prosecute after a death in custody, the Crown Prosecution Service applies the code for crown prosecutors, as it does in all cases. First it considers whether there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of a conviction and, if there is, whether a prosecution is in the public interest. As with all cases, the CPS will start or continue with a prosecution involving a death in custody only if both tests are met. The CPS considers any information provided by or on behalf of the family in deciding whether to prosecute.

Syd Rapson

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer and congratulate her on the 20th anniversary of her election to this House. She seems so young.

In cases of deaths in custody, it often appears that no one is held to account. How can we build the public's confidence that such tragic cases are properly investigated?

The Solicitor-General

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about my 20 years in the House. He makes an important point about relatives needing to have confidence that if a criminal act has been committed, people are held to account with no cover-ups behind closed doors. That is about good investigation and effective decision making in prosecution.

Shona McIsaac

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for her answer, but she will appreciate that families need to know that someone is on their side, otherwise they will suspect a cover-up. What does the CPS do to liaise with families and reassure them that their views are taken into account and that matters are properly investigated?

The Solicitor-General

My hon. Friend is right that more needs to be done to reassure relatives that if a criminal act has taken place, someone is held to account for it. She may know that the Attorney-General, who takes these issues seriously, has issued a consultation paper that explores the prosecution of deaths in custody. In his consultation with the police, the Prison Service, relatives and the CPS, he has found that we have not done enough for relatives, and the CPS is well aware of that. Prosecutions have to be public, not private, but that does not mean that relatives should be kept out of the picture and their views ignored.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

I hope that the Solicitor-General will acknowledge that her Department relies heavily on the work of coroners, who can refer deaths in custody cases to the Director of Public Prosecutions and to the CPS. Another review is taking place of coroners services. Does the Solicitor-General agree that it is in the public interest that coroners courts have greater power at inquests, for example, to seize documents, to summon witnesses throughout the UK and to insist on full disclosure to the coroner in due time?

The Solicitor-General

The hon. Gentleman is right to remind the House that there is a wide overlap between the work of coroners and of criminal courts in cases of death in custody. We need to be certain that there is complete openness and full investigation. He raises these matters at an opportune time, as the Lord Chancellor is consulting on the powers and procedures in relation to coroners. The two reviews that I have mentioned need to be looked at side by side, as we must make sure that deaths in custody are fully investigated.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend believe that sufficient consideration has been given to the Christopher Alder case, in which the prosecution failed? Will the current review take account of all the circumstances of that case, so that the same problems do not arise in future?

The Solicitor-General

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the question of the death in custody of Christopher Alder, of which the Attorney-General and I are well aware. The Attorney-General has been closely involved in the work of the Crown Prosecution Service and of the Director of Public Prosecutions in connection with the case.

Publication of the findings of the Attorney-General's consultation paper on deaths in custody has been delayed precisely because the Alder case threw up more issues of concern that must be considered. We have taken into account the Alder family's views about their experience of the prosecution. It is awful for people who have lost a loved one to feel that they have suffered an injustice.

The good news is that the number of deaths in custody has fallen from 65 in 1998 to 32 in 2000. Holding people to account and prosecuting them is about more than securing justice for people who have died. It is also about preventing deaths in the future, because people will know that they will be held to account.