Vulnerable Witnesses

Oral Answers to Questions — Home Department – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th March 1998.

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Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Labour/Co-operative, Basildon 12:00 am, 30th March 1998

What plans he has to ensure that vulnerable witnesses are afforded greater protection in court. [35164]

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

In June last year, I announced a wide-ranging review of the way in which vulnerable and intimidated witnesses are treated in the criminal justice system. The review, which is nearing completion, has looked at issues from the investigation stage through to the trial, including ways to assist such witnesses to give their evidence safely to the court.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Labour/Co-operative, Basildon

I, too, welcome the review. I should like, however, to press my right hon. Friend a little further about its aims. I should like a commitment that vulnerable witnesses will be able to give evidence safely and without fear of retribution.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The whole House resiled in horror from some of the stories about rape victims being cross-examined by defendants, quite unnecessarily, about their sexual histories in a way that was not relevant to the issue before the trial.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

While it is right that the Home Secretary should look into safeguarding the interests of vulnerable witnesses, will he take care to ensure that the proper interests of defendants are not prejudiced?

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the fact that witnesses in local drugs trials face a great deal of intimidation, with the result that many cases that should be prosecuted are probably not being prosecuted?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Yes. As well as the action that we hope to take in respect of vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that in the current Crime and Disorder Bill, which will have its Second Reading next Wednesday, we have provisions for anti-social behaviour orders, which are designed to crack down heavily on anti-social behaviour, including drug dealing. Those are civil orders where the burden of proof is lower and, therefore, action against people causing such intimidation should be easier to secure.

Photo of Dr Brian Mawhinney Dr Brian Mawhinney Shadow Secretary of State

The right hon. Gentleman knows that across the House we find unacceptable the way in which some rape victims have been interviewed and cross-questioned in court by the defendants. The Home Secretary said that he would introduce legislation on that matter, but not until the next parliamentary Session in a proposed criminal justice Bill. Because there is a shared view that such cross-questioning is unacceptable, may I persuade the right hon. Gentleman to introduce such legislation by way of amendment of the Crime and Disorder Bill in this Session of Parliament and not to wait for another year?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

There is one thing worse than no law, and that is bad law. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not make the issue a political football between the parties. My predecessor as Home Secretary was concerned about the matter and so am I, but, precisely for the reasons mentioned by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), we must balance the interests of witnesses against the necessary interests of defendants. This is a complicated matter on which it is important to get the law right. For that reason it is appropriate for the working party to submit its report, for that to be digested and considered, not least by Members of Parliament, and for legislation to be introduced next Session.