HC Deb 07 September 2004 vol 424 cc595-6
20. Tony Cunningham (Workington) (Lab)

What measures are being taken to encourage witnesses and victims to come forward to give evidence in court. [187657]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie)

Removing obstacles and anxiety for victims and witnesses, who can sometimes be reluctant to give evidence in court, is a priority for my Department. Measures include the creation of separate waiting facilities at court, so that defendants and witnesses are not forced to wait together. The new witness care units, which provide tailored assistance to guide witnesses through the criminal justice process from beginning to end, are now being piloted in five areas to be rolled out everywhere from the end of next year.

Tony Cunningham

I thank my hon. Friend for that very encouraging reply. My concern is that if witnesses have a bad experience when they go to court, not only are they less likely to come forward again but, particularly in small communities, word spreads and others are discouraged from coming forward and becoming witnesses. How widespread is the provision of the witness waiting areas and what more can be done to make sure that when witnesses go to court, they are looked after properly?

Mr. Leslie

A great deal of improvement is still needed to the magistrates and Crown court estate, but about 90 per cent. of magistrates courts now have separate waiting facilities for victims and witnesses. That is good, but we have still got a lot further to go. That is necessary not just to make the experience for witnesses more comfortable, but to minimise the risks of intimidation if witnesses are sitting with defendants.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD)

Would it not be a great disincentive to victims and witnesses if they believed that their evidence was going to be televised and used as entertainment? The Lord Chancellor's recent announcement applies only to the Appeal Court, but can the Minister tell me by what means and on what basis section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925 has been set aside? Will he assure me that, at least in the criminal court and the family court, there will never be a circumstance in which witnesses, victims, defendants or members of the jury will have their interests overridden by importunate demands by the media or, indeed, a prurient interest by the general public?

Mr. Leslie

I understand much of the hon. Gentleman's concern. A debate has been going on about the pros and cons of televised court proceedings and the Lord Chancellor and I have been looking at the issue and are considering the consultation on it. I shall certainly examine whether we can share the details of the legal advice on the current pilot for the Court of Appeal with the hon. Gentleman. The issue merits wider public debate.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab)

What measures have been taken to ensure that victims of sexual abuse are protected and encouraged to come to court to give their evidence?

Mr. Leslie

The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill, which has been progressing through Parliament recently, contains a number of measures, including those for a new commissioner for victims and for a statutory victims advisory panel, which I hope to attend again this month and at which we discuss in detail with those who represent, for example, the witness service and Victim Support the experience of people who have fallen victim to the sort of crimes that my hon. Friend describes. Funding for Victim Support has doubled since we took office, but I think that we can do more for victims, particularly those in vulnerable and sensitive circumstances. We are always interested in continuing a dialogue with them to see how we can improve services.