Clause 40 - Intimidation of witnesses

Criminal Justice and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 1st March 2001.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

The official Opposition have pressed for the introduction of new powers in law to prevent intimidation or threats of witnesses in previous legislation. We welcome the fact that the Government have introduced such a provision here, and we do not intend to block it. However, I was personally involved in some debates on other Bills in which we called for such measures and said that an early opportunity should be found to bring forward legislation. We are pleased that the Government have responded.

The provisions are, sadly, necessary at this point in time. That was reinforced for me during a visit in a neighbouring constituency with one of the Minister's colleagues—the Solicitor-General. He was making an official visit to the Crown Prosecution Service for the south-east, which is based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn). I was visiting as a neighbouring Member and a shadow Minister. Both the Solicitor-General and I were surprised to hear that a notorious family of criminals from another area had not only been threatening witnesses but issuing personal threats and taking action against a senior prosecutor. I would not want to exacerbate the problem by drawing attention to the people concerned, but it was happening to someone involved in the administration of justice at a senior level, who suffered serious fears about what was being threatened against him and members of his family. If people involved in the administration of justice can be subject to attempts by serious criminals to exercise such intimidation, how much more necessary is it to protect witnesses and potential witnesses? We fear greatly that we may have to return to the matter and consider yet stronger powers than the Government are introducing in this and the subsequent two related clauses. Although we welcome the fact that action is being taken in response to calls that the Opposition have made for some time, it may be necessary to go even further. However, we do not want to delay the Bill's passage by tabling amendments, as it is worth seeing how the protections that it will introduce will operate.

Photo of Mrs Jackie Ballard Mrs Jackie Ballard Liberal Democrat, Taunton

I do not want to take up too much time. The clause relates to the intimidation and protection of witnesses. A lot of progress has been made on the treatment of victims and on recognition that they need to be kept informed at every stage of the process. However, there is not yet enough understanding of how witnesses feel. Many people are reluctant to come forward as witnesses, especially in relation to serious crime. Even if the crime is less serious, potential witnesses might not want the hassle of going to court.

Photo of Mr David Lock Mr David Lock Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

I do not know whether it will affect the hon. Lady's remarks if I point out that the clause relates primarily to witnesses in civil cases and the small category of criminal cases that are not provided for under section 51 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. It is designed for someone who would be a potential witness in a domestic violence or antisocial behaviour case, rather than one relating to a serious crime.

Photo of Mrs Jackie Ballard Mrs Jackie Ballard Liberal Democrat, Taunton

I thank the Parliamentary Secretary. He spotted that I was taking the opportunity to say something more general.

Photo of Mrs Jackie Ballard Mrs Jackie Ballard Liberal Democrat, Taunton

Yes, he is too clever for me. I will not develop the point that I was going to make.

As hon. Members will know, my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has a special interest in criminal matters. However, he wanted me to make a couple of points on his behalf in this context. What steps are being taken or are envisaged to encourage witnesses to come forward in future? His second point might relate more to criminal proceedings, but not necessarily exclusively. It concerns the ability of witnesses to be moved before the trial takes place. He says that the current system is a complete lottery and depends partly on how well local authorities co-operate. He suggests that witnesses could be moved to a network of addresses or accommodation. I can imagine all sorts of practical difficulties in that, but I would be grateful if the Minister were to tell us the Government's thinking on the matter.

Photo of Mr David Lock Mr David Lock Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

As I mentioned, the clause relates to new powers to provide similar protection for witnesses in civil cases and other categories of criminal cases as is currently provided under section 51 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. That Act provides for protection of witnesses purely in criminal cases.

The hon. Lady asked what is being done to encourage witnesses. I assure her that the Government are committed to encouraging witnesses. She might be interested to know that we are currently rolling out an additional programme to make Victim Support available at all 413 magistrates courts following an announcement by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in February 1999. I had the pleasure of visiting the Birmingham magistrates court Victim Support service on Monday. It provides an excellent service. Victim Support is well recognised in Crown courts and now operates in magistrates courts as well. We look forward to the rolling out of that programme during the next two years. Support will also be provided for witnesses in civil cases in the magistrates court, notably in family cases in which, I am afraid, there is as much intimidation of witnesses as in many criminal cases.

The hon. Lady also referred to the moving of witnesses' accommodation prior to trial. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey was extremely brave and prepared to go public in his support for witnesses in a recent case. He received commendations from across the political spectrum for the stance that he took.

The hon. Member for Taunton is right in that if Whitehall imposed a ``one size fits all'' system, it would cause enormous administrative inconvenience. I assure her that I shall pass her observations to the Home Office, which is co-ordinating the Government's approach to support witnesses, and ensure that they are taken into consideration before any decisions are taken. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 40 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 41 and 42 ordered to stand part of the Bill.