HL Deb 17 December 1984 vol 458 cc432-5

2.53 p.m.

Lord Gainford

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to strengthen public confidence in the criminal justice system.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, a number. We have increased the resources available to the police, to the courts and to the probation and prison services, and we are now taking steps to ensure that they are applied as effectively as possible. We have modernised the law relating to police powers, made it uniform throughout the country, provided safeguards against its abuse, issued guidelines on its implementation and required police authorities to establish police/community consultative arrangements in their areas. We have increased the emphasis on crime prevention and established a Crime Prevention Unit.

Moreover, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has responded to public anxiety about the worst crimes of drugs trafficking and violence by agreeing to only minimal periods of release on parole for those sentenced to more than five years for any of them, unless there are exceptional circumstances. On the release of life sentence prisoners, my right honourable friend also exercises his discretion so that the most heinous murderers can normally expect to serve at least 20 years in custody.

Lord Gainford

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that very full Answer. Can he give any information, additional to the obvious mass he has available, on the scheme to provide new courts in order to speed up the hearing of cases? Also, has he any information on the neighbourhood watch system?

Lord Elton

My Lords, as to magistrates' courts, we have just offered starts in 1987 for nine major schemes. For other courts, the present programme contains some 60 schemes in the planning, construction and adaptation stages. We actively encourage the use of neighbourhood watch schemes in order to support the police in the maintenance of law and order in all districts.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the House will no doubt appreciate the very long list of reforms that the Government have carried out. Would the noble Lord the Minister, with his usual modesty, admit that, in spite of them, the crime rate is proceeding apace, to a very worrying extent? Our prisons are still crowded. The situation in regard to remand periods for prisoners is still in a most uncivilised state. Is he prepared to come forward at some stage with proposals as to how our over-filled prisons can be dealt with except by the building of new prisons? Are there alternatives that are being considered to the question of imprisonment?

Lord Elton

My Lords, while I acknowledge that crime levels in the current year are higher than those in the year before, it is worth noting that the year before saw the first decrease in recorded crime for very many years, and it would therefore be unwise to exaggerate the importance of those statistics. As to prison overcrowding, I think the noble Lord knows of our building programme, which is designed to bring overcrowding to an end by the end of this decade, which is not very far off. If you cannot empty prisons either with the increased programme of non-custodial offences which we have provided or by accelerating the availability of justice in the courts, the only other way is to stop people committing crimes, and that is what neighbourhood watch and other methods of crime prevention are aimed at.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will forgive me if I merely remind him of my question about the uncivilised length of remand periods in custody.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the noble Lord, I am sure, will be the first to assist the Government in the Prosecution of Offences Bill in introducing a statutory limit on the time that may be taken to bring a case to court.

Lord Denning

My Lords, in view of the letter in The Times newspaper this morning, which showed that some defence counsel habitually challenge any potential juror who happens to be wearing a pin-stripe suit, or to look intelligent, or to wear a collar and a tie, is it not time that we considered the abolition of the right of peremptory challenge?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I should be very foolish to answer that question in any definitive manner.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, while acknowledging the importance of the statement made by the Minister in answer to the original Question, and of course acknowledging the place, the importance and the necessity of prison sentences as a measure of deterrence and as a measure for protecting the public, I should like to ask him whether he would not agree that public confidence in our criminal justice system is likely to increase to the extent that the public themselves are encouraged, and have the means, to involve themselves in certain respects in the operation of non-custodial alternatives to imprisonment, based in local communities.

Lord Elton

My Lords, we are always anxious to increase the use of non-custodial sentences where they are appropriate, and have indeed legislated to make this necessary to the courts for young offenders. The noble Lord has a distinguished and long interest in this field of voluntary work, which I am happy to endorse.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is there any evidence to show that the general public regarded the custodial penalties which were being imposed for particular classes of offences as inadequate, or that the custodial sentences that were being imposed did not have a proper effect on the rates of crime for those classes of offences as compared with other countries such as Holland, where there is about a third the number in prison, per head of the population, that we have in this country? May I also ask the noble Lord why, in that long list that he read out, he had nothing to say about racial attacks, which are a particular class of offence which I know is causing as much anxiety in the Home Office as it is to the public at large? Is the noble Lord able to say anything about the racial incidents panels, of which one has been appointed, I think, in Enfield and of which others are planned by the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police?

Lord Elton

My Lords, it is generally agreed that there was public anxiety about the increase in violent crimes and in drug trafficking and that my right honourable friend's response to that, in terms of the operation of his discretion to release offenders on parole licence or life licence, was properly used, and that was subsequently tested in the courts. As to the incidence of racial attacks, I am afraid that I do not have the statistics to hand but I shall write to the noble Lord and a copy will be placed in the Library.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, during his reply the noble Minister said that the role of the police is also part of our judicial system—indeed, we value their role very much in terms of their general behaviour. Is the noble Lord able either to tell me now or to write to me about whether, when a plain clothes officer goes to somebody's home to arrest him and is asked to show his warrant card, it is necessary for that officer to have his warrant card on him? Secondly, when someone is taken to a police station should he be warned that anything that is said will be taken down? First, should a plain clothes officer produce his warrant card when making an arrest, and secondly, should people be warned when they are asked to make statements to the police?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the requirement for identification in the form of a warrant card or other identification is on the face of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act—which I think the noble Lord helped to put on the Statute Book—and so is a requirement for codes of conduct which specifically require the proper handling of all aspects of the questioning and detention of suspects in police stations.