In both years, around 900,000, or 98 per cent., of defendants were convicted in magistrates courts, and around 80,000, or 90 per cent., in the Crown court. In relation to contested cases in the Crown court, 12,705, or 59.6 per cent., of defendants were convicted in 1995, and 12,185, or 59.8 per cent., of defendants were convicted in 1996.
I think that the hon. Gentleman is misinformed. I look forward to receiving from him—I mean that—details of examples of dropped charges, of charges not proceeded with or of charges being altered by the CPS. As I have said in the House time and again, that complaint is frequently made but very seldom substantiated. I invite him to substantiate it, and then to consider whether that is the right problem on which to focus.
When the Crown Prosecution Service has brought successful prosecutions and my right hon. and learned Friend has felt that the sentences passed were unduly lenient, what success has he had when he has referred them to the Court of Appeal? Has it been the rule or the exception for the Court of Appeal to impose heavier sentences?
My hon. Friend makes an important point of relevance to victims. It is right that offenders should not only be brought to justice, but be properly punished in accordance with law. The power to refer what seems to me to be an unduly lenient sentence has given the Court of Appeal the opportunity to redress that, and to lay down guidelines for the future. In the years since the power has been in force, the court has increased approximately 87 per cent.—seven out of eight—of the sentences that the Attorney-General has referred to it.
Is it because of the Home Secretary's aim or hope to achieve a higher number of convictions that we are told to expect proposals to deny the right to trial by jury to a large number of offences triable either way? Was the Attorney-General consulted, and is it his professional view that if that came to pass there would be a higher number of convictions?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman will have noted that that was one of the recommendations made by the Runciman royal commission some years ago. It has not been implemented. The Government are considering proposals on the matter and will make their position clear in the near future.
Current proposals are designed to increase the speed and efficiency of internal communications, make the case-tracking and management system easier to use and, through a private finance initiative contract, provide an infrastructure for links with other agencies in the criminal justice system.
I welcome my hon. and learned Friend's reply. Does he agree that information technology has enormous potential to improve communications between the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts, the police, defence lawyers and the probation service, and that effective use of it may enable us to avoid many unnecessary adjournments and improve the efficiency of justice?
My hon. Friend is right. I understand that he had the advantage of seeing a system in operation in South Glamorgan on a recent visit to his local CPS office. He will have seen the speed with which communication can take place when e-mail links are in operation. Apart from that example, where the police have provided the system, two other systems are being piloted at the moment: one in Suffolk and one in Southampton, which I have seen. My hon. Friend may be interested to know that there is co-ordination of computerisation under the criminal justice system initiative, in which the CPS, along with other agencies in the criminal justice system, is playing a full part. There is obviously great potential to speed up the flow of information throughout the whole of the criminal justice system.
But is the hon. and learned Gentleman aware that there is great urgency in this matter because sometimes simply bringing a case to court can take up to five years? That damages the justice system and is impossible for victims to understand. In addition, is he sure that any private initiative will be totally confidential and secure?
I can give the hon. Lady that undertaking. She speaks of delays of up to five years; that is another example of the type of complaint to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General just referred—vague and unsubstantiated generalisations—[Interruption.] If she will give us chapter and verse, we will follow it up, but it does not help the CPS, the victims or anyone else to make vague generalised complaints of that nature in public.