HL Deb 24 May 1989 vol 508 cc391-3

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will arrange for the courts to grant automatic bail after 110 days to persons still detained on remand.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, the Government are progressively introducing limits on the period during which an accused may be held in custody awaiting trial. If the limits are exceeded, the accused is released on bail, unless the court allows an extension.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for his reply. Since he mentioned time-limits, will he say by how much the time-limits currently applied in Wales and 13 English counties have reduced the average time spent in custody before trial? Can he also say when the Government will announce a timetable for extending those time-limits to the rest of England?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, this is being done progressively. From 1st June the limits will be extended to 22 more English counties. With regard to the amount of time which has been saved, it is expected that there will be a saving of between 200 and 400 remand places.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that on any one day there are estimated to be 850 prisoners on remand in the prisons of England and Wales who have been awaiting trial for more than six months? Is he also aware that it is estimated that of that figure more than 100 have been awaiting trial for over a year?

Does the noble Earl agree that this is a national scandal and a blot on the administration of justice which must be removed? Is he prepared to ask his right honourable friend to make a Statement to Parliament shortly after the Whitsun Recess in order that Parliament may have a definite timetable for the extension of the scheme to the rest of England, including London and the South-East, in addition to the areas mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, in his question?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, says in general. As he rightly points out, there are a large number of cases which are held over for six months or sometimes a year. That is unusual. They are very often complicated cases, often with foreign involvement. My right honourable friend is acutely conscious of that. A great deal is being done and has been done. The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, asked why the time-limits cannot be introduced in London and elsewhere. That requires quite a lot of planning and there are staff shortages in the CPS and other areas which mean that if the dates were to be introduced summarily they could not be put into practice.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, can the Minister say to what extent experiments with electronic tagging are relevant to the mitigation of this problem?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, electronic monitoring of defendants is to be tested in field trials later this year. I think that we have to see how they go before we make a judgment.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that it would be a salutary discipline for the police and prosecution service if there were a statutory limit on the time a prisoner could be kept in custody on remand? Would it not be far better to extend the limits to the whole country with exceptions in certain cases in which a special application would have to be made and grounds for an exception proved?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, of course it would be salutary if that were introduced. That is why we are trying to do so. However, one cannot introduce such a change wholesale across the country at once. It has to be done gradually in order to allow the system to cope.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is not the granting of automatic bail as is suggested in the Question going too far? Should it not to some extent depend upon the degree of co-operation from the people involved on all sides?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the whole purpose is that under the limits magistrates' courts will have 56 days in which to produce a person to summary trial; 70 days if no decision on the method of trial has been reached within the 56 days; or, alternatively, 70 days to committal. In the Crown Courts it is 112 days from committal to arraignment. That is what it is proposed should be introduced and has been introduced. If a case is not brought within those time-limits the prosecution can apply for an extension of the period during which the person can remain in custody. If that is not granted and arrangements have not been made for the person to be brought to trial by that date, he will be let out on bail.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, can the noble Earl tell the House what plans the Government have for the provision of additional bail hostels over and above those of which we have already been informed?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, bail hostels are being provided at a considerable rate. I cannot tell the noble Baroness exactly how many at the moment, but there is a degree of urgency about the matter.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, what is the position with regard to young persons? I understand from the magistrates of Hull that young people are being kept in the prison there three to a cell for 17 hours a day. Surely it would be better for such young people not to be in prison but in bail hostels or elsewhere.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am not familiar with the situation in Hull, but I shall certainly find out and write to my noble friend.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, is it not the case that, of those remanded in custody, 40 per cent. are either acquitted or given non-custodial sentences at their trial? Does not that point show the urgent need to reduce that evil part of our arrangements?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I could not agree more with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones. Of course, we wish to see the matter dealt with as quickly as possible. What I am suggesting to the noble and learned Lord is that the system at the moment is highly congested. One cannot alter it by simply altering a date; one must ensure that the right processes and the staff are in place in order to make that change come about. That is what we are trying to achieve.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is not a question of establishment and personnel, but a question of the good name of the administration of justice in this country? Must not a programme therefore be outlined, at least as a target, in order that that critical and dreadful situation with regard to the figures that I ventured to quote ceases?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that change will largely come about when those time limits are introduced. That is the purpose of introducing the time limits. I have tried to explain that they cannot be introduced all at once all over the country, but that they will be introduced as soon as possible.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, we all accept that this is a difficult and complex matter, but will the noble Earl confirm that the Government are determined to limit the remand population, which is now over 20 per cent. of all prisoners, to the absolute minimum consistent with the Bail Act 1976?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the Bail Act 1976 assumes that people will get bail other than in specified circumstances. It is our desire to see that, commensurate with proper safety, as few people as possible are kept on remand.

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