Criminal Justice Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:51 pm on 16th June 2003.

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Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Labour 5:51 pm, 16th June 2003

My Lords, I begin by echoing the congratulations already given to my noble friends on their respective promotions.

I rather suspect that this Bill will not be without controversy in your Lordships' House. However, I also believe that many of the concerns that will be raised over the weeks and months ahead, and indeed many that have been raised today, will seem incomprehensible to many of those outside this House among the general public. I declare an interest as I chair the Metropolitan Police Authority. However, as an elected member of the London Assembly, I have to say that I am sure that most of my constituents will be—as I am—broadly and indeed enthusiastically in favour of the general thrust of the proposals.

For many people there is a crisis of confidence in our criminal justice system. It is being brought into disrepute by some of the problems that the Bill is designed to remedy. There is no question but that that system has in the past failed sufficiently to support the needs of victims and witnesses. Listening to the remarks from some noble Lords, I also fear that rather than defending juries, we are in danger of failing to treat them as adults by neglecting to give them the maximum amount of information and failing to allow them to use all the available evidence to make fully informed decisions.

It seems to me that what the Bill does is to create a level playing field on the admissibility of evidence. I cannot understand why those who oppose the Bill's provisions refuse to trust the wisdom and common sense of juries. I know that many noble Lords are or have been barristers; so I shall be careful in what I say. However, it almost seems to me that those who practise in the law have an arrogance towards those who do not. There is an assumption that jurors are poor bewildered souls who cannot be expected to understand the complexities of evidence and cannot be trusted to weigh the differing matter that is placed before them.

Let me give some examples of cases where the new provisions might have made a difference in terms of the admissibility of evidence. Two men were estimated to have stolen £140,000 from a number of victims by way of a scam at railway stations. One of them would put a suit carrier down next to another's luggage on the platform and the other would then remove both suit carrier and luggage. Both were identified and charged. One claimed that the clear CCTV evidence actually showed his wayward twin brother, while he was a sober businessman. The jury did not hear, as a result of his misleading claim to good character, of his previous 12 convictions for dishonesty.

In North Wales, a man was arrested for going equipped to steal in a hotel in Llandudno. He had in his possession thin strips of mica which, as I am sure your Lordships are aware, can be used for slipping room locks. The CPS discontinued the case as there was insufficient supporting evidence. Yet the man had 200 previous convictions for similar offences.

In West Mercia, someone with a series of previous convictions for burglary was found coming out of a house. He was acquitted in court, without the previous convictions being disclosed, on the basis of his rather strange explanation that he had gone into the house to look for his lost dog—a dog of which there was no trace.

As has been said, there are undoubtedly some who will argue that the Bill will be a charter to the police to round up the usual suspects. However, I believe that things have moved on since the bad old days. Much tighter rules are now in place and the police themselves are subject to far more internal checks and balances. Modern policing now applies transparent decision-making criteria and audit trails before charges are brought. Suspects have their rights safeguarded through the rules under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. There is independent CPS scrutiny, and that is strengthened by the Bill.

Moreover, juries are by no means automatically pro-police evidence; indeed, they are often very questioning of what the police put before them. In any event, it will be for the jurors themselves to decide. It is rather patronising for people to assume that jurors will not be able to make up their own minds as to whether or not the similar fact evidence is relevant. It cannot be right—nor do the public at large believe that it is right—to ask a jury to reach a just decision on guilt or innocence when such a significant piece of information as the existence of one or more previous similar convictions is deliberately and permanently withheld from them.

There will also no doubt be much fuss about the proposals for trials without juries. Again, however, let us ensure that this is put in proportion. Why should it not be open to defendants to opt for a trial without a jury? They may feel that there has been so much pre-trial publicity that their interests will be better served without a jury, or alternatively that their public reputation for other matters—perhaps they appeared in the "Big Brother" house or some such—was such that a jury might be prejudiced against them.

Moreover, the proposals in Clause 43 to allow the prosecution to apply for a trial without a jury where there is a real and present danger of jury tampering have to be in the interests of justice. The Bill makes it clear that the conditions for that will make such cases rare and exceptional. However, the rareness and exceptional nature of the cases should not obscure the growing significance of this problem. I am told that the cost to the Metropolitan Police over the past two years for jury protection in nine full trials has been £9 million, equivalent to more than 26,600 police days a year diverted from mainstream policing in London. I might add that that significant cost has to be met by the Metropolitan Police with little or no notice and irrespective of which force or agency has had the lead in the investigation.

If the public are to have confidence in the criminal justice system, then the outcome of all trials has to be seen to be free from undue influence. Far from undermining a fundamental principle of the legal system, these proposals will protect its integrity. In addition, surely there should be some duty of care towards individual jurors. It is not right that they, and those closest to them, may be put at risk from the acts of a small but dangerous group of criminals in particular cases. Nor is it a means of ensuring a conviction by means of a jury-less trial. In practice, most cases where there is currently jury protection lead to a conviction. If anything is likely to be prejudicial, it is to be told as a juror that the case you are trying requires you to be physically protected from the defendants and their associates.

For similar reasons, the provisions in Clause 27 and Schedule 2 to provide for conditions to be placed on pre-charge bail are to be welcomed. The proposed arrangements can ensure that there is no attempt to intimidate or interfere with witnesses or evidence. However, it is important that the resource implications of enforcing such bail conditions are acknowledged, and it is not clear why in the Bill the power to impose such conditions is so limited. Surely in the interests of protecting communities from intimidation or persistent criminality, the power to impose pre-charge conditions should be available in all cases.

The Bill also contains a welcome provision on defence disclosure, which, again, is about creating a level playing field. It is about there being no surprises, and that must be sensible. It will reduce legal argument in the court and thereby reduce court costs. It will also allow accounts of events and alibis to be verified, with the possible consequence that cases can be ended earlier and in the defendant's favour.

The requirement under Clause 34 is similarly important. At present it is not uncommon for the defence to approach several expert witnesses but to use only the one who supports the defence offered. Why should the other, rejected expert testimony be kept from the jury? Why does that add to justice?

Clause 271 sets out minimum sentences for unauthorised use of firearms which are welcome. I sincerely hope that they will act as a deterrent to the routine carrying of firearms as a fashion accessory, the risk of which is that a minor dispute or scuffle can quickly escalate into a serious incident in which a firearm is used.

In a recent case an individual was shot by someone with whom he had had a minor dispute on a dance floor. The bullet killed the first victim, and, having passed through him, travelled through a partition wall and killed a second unrelated victim. If this clause proves an effective deterrent in reducing the number of people carrying firearms in public, such incidents will become less likely and public safety will be improved and lives saved.

Similarly, Clause 296 is also about saving lives by increasing potential penalties for those who cause death by drink driving, aggravated vehicle taking and dangerous driving. That is welcome and long overdue. People need to understand that a car can be just as lethal a weapon as a gun; it must only be driven responsibly, and with care. However, I regret that the opportunity has not been taken in the Bill to enforce a ban on the sale of imitation firearms, and anything that could reasonably be mistaken for a firearm.

Finally, I want to say a word about Clauses 7 and 8, which permit fingerprints and DNA samples to be taken from those arrested for a recordable offence. The technology now exists in all Metropolitan Police custody suites to allow fingerprints to be taken electronically with results being produced in minutes. These provisions will help to prevent mistakes of identity. They will prevent people from providing false identities in order subsequently to abscond. They will ensure that arrested persons who are wanted in connection with previous offences can be identified more quickly.

I fail to see why that can be against the public interest, or against the interests of justice. In terms of those subject to these procedures, the action of taking fingerprints and a DNA sample is minor. However, the potential benefits to the victims of crime and society generally in detecting crimes and protecting the general public from criminality are enormous.

The changes before us today will, I believe, go a long way towards improving public confidence in the criminal justice system. They will also do a considerable amount to ensure that victims and witnesses are presented with a system that is fair and just for them and where there is a genuinely level playing field between the rights of those accused and the often neglected rights of the victims of crime. I urge your Lordships to support the Bill.