So far the custody time limits in force in Avon, Somerset, Kent and the west midlands are working well. From 1 April I propose to extend the tighter limits in the first three areas to Greater Manchester, the whole of Wales and to Cheshire, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, the Isle of Wight and Wiltshire. In the west midlands the time limit to committal will be reduced from 98 to 84 days, and time limits will be extended to the Crown courts at Coventry and Dudley.
As a lawyer, I hesitate to suggest that lawyers never do today what they can put off until tomorrow. The news from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is not only desirable but necessary. When can we expect the experiment to be extended to the whole country? Does my right hon. Friend agree that when that is done there will be less pressure on prisons and their staff, a saving of money and a reduction of the time during which innocent people can be kept in gaol?
We are proceeding gradually so that we can benefit by experience. So far our experience has been good, and that is why I have today referred to a further substantial step to reduce delays in justice. As we get on, I hope to extend the provisions over the whole country and to re-examine the time limits to see whether they can be tightened further.
As a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which made that recommendation, may I remind the Home Secretary that one of our major concerns was that enormous numbers of those in our prison population were on remand? Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us what is happening to the proportion of prisoners on remand in areas where the experiment is in operation'?
Not without notice. However, I hope and estimate that, as a result of the extension of the time limits that I have announced, there will be a reduction of between 300 and 600 in the prison remand population.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that if the 110-day rule that operates in Scotland and the United States—with which he is tinkering in the experiment—were introduced, there would be a substantial reduction in the time spent in custody awaiting trial and in the prison population? Will he consider bringing forward an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to introduce such a provision as speedily as possible?
We have the powers. We took them under the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985, and we are using them. My hon. and learned Friend is aware that the Scottish procedures are different, and the 110-day procedure is not absolutely applicable across the border. With the exception of the west midlands, we are working towards 56 days to summary proceedings, 70 days to committal and 112 days to arraignment in the Crown court.
Because I want to make sure that the arrangements are in place and that the limits are practicable. Nothing is worse than to introduce a substantial change of this kind at a pace and in a way that brings it into discredit because people cannot operate it. We are gradually extending and tightening it. The Opposition might be a little more gracious about the progress that we are making.