HC Deb 29 April 2004 vol 420 cc1001-3
21. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab)

If she will make a statement on measures taken by the Crown Prosecution Service to prevent non-attendance by witnesses at trials. [169198]

The Solicitor-General

The Crown Prosecution Service works closely with the police, courts and other agencies to do everything possible to ensure that witnesses attend court, so that when a crime has been committed justice can be done. That includes extra police protection for frightened witnesses, extra support for victims, telling witnesses what is going on in their cases and looking after them when they get to court and afterwards.

Mr. Chapman

Many witnesses, because of victimisation and the fact that they are very frightened, do not turn up and trials fail as a result. They will turn up, however, if they are supported and encouraged, and the system should allow for that. I welcomed yesterday's "big victim event", but things are still difficult on the ground. Merseyside in particular still has a high level of failed trials because of this problem. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that in magistrates courts in Wirral and in Crown courts on Merseyside, appropriate support mechanisms are in place and will be developed?

The Solicitor-General

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is bad enough to have been a victim of crime without feeling that one has become a victim of the criminal justice system. People are prepared to come forward, give evidence and ensure, that offenders are brought to justice, but they need help and support in a system that is all too familiar to the professionals, but baffling and often frightening for lay people.

As my hon. Friend says, a big conference took place yesterday. All the criminal justice partners and members of the voluntary sector came together to talk about better support for victims and witnesses. That must be provided on the ground. I know that one in three cases in the magistrates court in my hon. Friend's area does not proceed. We must ensure that there are as few unnecessary hearings as possible, and that everyone works together to make things run smoothly.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con)

I am sure that the Solicitor-General agrees that another reason for the non-attendance of witnesses may well be a sense of dismay or dissatisfaction at the length of time they must wait before giving evidence. Will she reassure us about the role played by the Attorney-General in attempts to resolve the dispute, in high-cost criminal cases, between the Bar and the Legal Services Commission in relation to scrutiny that the commission wishes to apply to the individual reading of documents in court cases? I understand that it is threatening to disrupt criminal trials to a serious extent.

The Solicitor-General

The matters relating to barristers' fees are being actively discussed by the Lord Chancellor and his Ministers and the Bar Council. We have delivered our commitment to ensure that pay levels are the same for prosecution and defence counsel.

The Attorney-General is leading the "no witness, no justice" project, which is intended to ensure that all the support services needed by victims and witnesses are provided on the ground.

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab)

I strongly agree that it is important to support frightened witnesses, but is it not equally important to look after willing ones? Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider the case of a nightclub doorman in my constituency—the kind of person who is likely to be a prosecution witness more than once—who was dismayed to find that the trial fell on the date of his holiday? He could not be compensated because he had lost no earnings, but he had lost a day with his children. Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that discretion is used to ensure that such events do not occur?

The Solicitor-General

I shall certainly look at that case, and examine the rules governing payment for witnesses. I shall try to establish whether more could have been done to ensure that the trial fell on a convenient date. We must all make an effort to work around those who help to bring offenders to justice, rather than allowing them to be inconvenienced or even out of pocket, or to lose time with their families.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon) (LD)

Consultation on the Government paper "Securing the attendance of witnesses in court" closed on 2 January this year. What was the thrust of the consultees' views on the protection of witnesses in personal jeopardy, and what are the Government's proposals to secure their safety?

The Solicitor-General

There are two points that I would like to make, which arise from the concerns that have been brought fully to our attention for victims and witnesses who feel in personal jeopardy, the first of which is that that should be a consideration in every case. All the agencies should consider who the witnesses are and what support they might need. That should be a routine consideration.

Secondly, we are bringing in another power next month, which I think will help with the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. That will enable the court to order the name of the victim or witness to be withheld and not reported, so there will be anonymity. Some people fear that if they give evidence and their name is then in the local or even national newspapers, they will be subject to intimidation and pressure. We need to ensure that the court proceedings are as open as possible, but on some limited occasions we will need to make sure that there is anonymity for those who are prepared to come forward, sometimes risking their personal circumstances.

Forward to