HL Deb 26 July 1999 vol 604 cc1327-9

(".—(1) For the purposes of this section—

  1. (a) a witness in criminal proceedings (other than the accused) is a "qualifying witness" if he—
    1. (i) is not an eligible witness at the time of the hearing (as defined by section 16(3)), but
    2. (ii) was under the age of 17 when a relevant recording was made;
  2. (b) a qualifying witness is "in need of special protection" if the offence (or any of the offences) to which the proceedings relate is—
    1. (i) an offence falling within section 34(3)(a) (sexual offences etc.), or
    2. (ii) an offence falling within section 34(3)(b), (c) or (d) (kidnapping, assaults etc.); and
  3. (c) a "relevant recording", in relation to a witness, is a video recording of an interview of the witness made with a view to its admission as evidence in chief of the witness.

(2) Subsections (2) to (7) of section (Special provisions relating to child witnesses) shall apply as follows in relation to a qualifying witness—

  1. (a) subsections (2) to (4), so far as relating to the giving of a direction complying with the requirement contained in subsection (3)(a), shall apply to a qualifying witness in respect of the relevant recording as they apply to a child witness (within the meaning of that section);
  2. (b) subsection (5), so far as relating to the giving of such a direction, shall apply to a qualifying witness in need of special protection as it applies to a child witness in need of special protection (within the meaning of that section); and
  3. 1328
  4. (c) subsections (6) and (7) shall apply to a qualifying witness in need of special protection by virtue of subsection (1)(b)(i) above as they apply to such a child witness as is mentioned in subsection (6).").

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 6 to 9.

We discussed at length, and quite rightly, the need for special protection for children involved in criminal cases. It was accepted by all who spoke that children need special help. They are better able to give evidence and suffer less distress if they are kept out of the courtroom. In particular, the sooner after the alleged offence they are allowed to give evidence the better their recollection of that offence is likely to be. That is why children in violent and sexual offence cases now routinely give evidence-in-chief on video, and further evidence at trial through a live television link.

The Bill extends eligibility for protection to all child witnesses. But it requires the court to consider, for all children, whether special measures would actually improve their evidence.

Several lobby groups told us that they were concerned that, for children in sex and violence cases, this Bill reduces the certainty they have under the current legislation that they will get help to give evidence. They were concerned that we were not making the best use of this opportunity to strengthen protection for child witnesses. So this group of amendments creates a new category of witness: those in sex and violence cases, who require special protection. These witnesses need and would have a high degree of certainty about how they are going to give evidence.

All child witnesses in these cases would give their evidence in chief by means of a pre-recorded video unless it were not in the interests of justice for the recording to be admitted. Child witnesses in violent offence cases would then go on to give further evidence through live link at trial.

When we are ready to implement the measure, children in sexual offence cases would be cross-examined on video before the trial unless they had told the court that they did not want to be cross-examined until the day of trial. This last provision is a target we are setting ourselves to work towards. We believe that video-recorded cross-examination can work, and we are committed to implementing it as the norm for child witnesses in sex offence cases. We have always been committed to making this measure available for witnesses who are most in need of protection. But, as we have discussed in earlier debates, there are a number of technical and procedural difficulties that we will need to work with all criminal justice agencies to overcome.

We shall consider setting progressive targets for implementation, if that is what it will take. The implementation programme is a question for the multi-agency implementation steering group which is already hard at work on deciding the best approach.

It may be that the working group decides that the best way to get this measure off the ground is first to bring it in for the Crown Court for very young witnesses, and we are prepared to consider that. If it is recommended that we wait until all eligible witnesses can be catered for nationwide, we shall consider that, too.

In Clause 18(3), the Bill gives the Secretary of State flexibility to commence provisions for different types of cases, circumstances or areas as he thinks fit. That is designed to bring about a method of implementation that is realistic and workable. Video-examination will mean a hearing centred on the child, on a day set aside for the hearing, with the child kept completely away from the trial himself. We believe that that is a fair measure to enable children in these very difficult cases to give their best evidence and suffer the least distress. However, the hearing will be under the control of a judge. The questioning will be conducted by the lawyer for the opposing party, through an intermediary if the judge approves one, and cross-examination can be re-opened if further evidence becomes available or it is otherwise in the interests of justice.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 6 to 9.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

5.45 p.m.