Fourth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.


Tuesday 23 May 1989



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The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Barnes, Mr. Harry (Derbyshire, North-East)

Brandon-Bravo, Mr. Martin (Nottingham, South)

Campbell, Mr. Ronnie (Blyth Valley)

Clark, Dr. Michael (Rochford)

Currie, Mrs. Edwina (Derbyshire, South)

Emery, Sir Peter (Honiton)

Glyn, Dr. Alan (Windsor and Maidenhead)

Heathcoat-Amory, Mr. David (Wells)

Hicks, Mrs. Maureen (Wolverhampton, North-East)

Hughes, Mr. Robert, G. (Harrow, West)

Maclennan, Mr. Robert (Caithness and Sutherland)

Mahon, Alice (Halifax)

Mills, Mr. Iain (Meriden)

Pattern, Mr. John (Minister of State, Home Office)

Randall, Mr. Stuart (Kingston upon Hull, West)

Shepherd, Mr. Richard (Aldridge-Brownhills)

Vaz, Mr. Keith (Leicester, East)

Wardell, Mr. Gareth (Gower)

Mr. S. A. L. Panton, Committee Clerk

3 Fourth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Tuesday 23 May 1989

[MR. MICHAEL SHERSBY in the Chair]


10.30 am

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the draft Magistrates' Courts (Remands in Custody) Order 1989. The order gives effect to section 128A of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 in four areas: the petty sessional division of East Central, in inner London—commonly known as Highbury corner—the outer London borough of Croydon, the metropolitan district of Manchester and the petty sessional division of Nottingham. Section 128A was inserted into the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 by section 155 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. The principles at stake were debated fully by the Standing Committee that considered the Criminal Justice Bill, and I recall that some notable contributions were made by the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham), who is, alas, not with us this morning. The Government listened, and demonstrated that they listened, to the concerns expressed about the new provision in that Committee, and gave an undertaking then to introduce experiments to implement section 155 of the Criminal Justice Act. That is what the order does. Since 10 October last, information about the use of remands in custody and the length of time spent in custody under the old system, has been collected from the four magistrates' courts over a period of almost six months. That information is being collated and analysed by the Home Office research and planning unit. It will provide a basis for comparison between the time before and the time after the introduction of this new power, should the order be passed. We are now in a position to proceed to the second stage by introducing the new power in the four areas so that we can compare what has been happening until now with what will happen after the new powers are introduced. The introduction of the new order will demonstrate that the fears expressed earlier in the Standing Committee were groundless and that the order will work in the interests of people appearing before the courts on remand. However, the Government appreciate that there is concern. That is why the experiments will be monitored fully and why the results of the monitoring process will be fully published so that they can be evaluated by all who are interested. Most importantly, we as policy makers will be able to learn what they show before deciding whether to ask the House to approve the extension of the power to the rest of the country. I commend the order to the Committee.

10.34 am

Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West): 4 Initially I shall be brief, because I should like the Minister to tell the Committee a little more about the collection of information which is at the core of this order. My major concern is whether the change to eight days will increase the number of remand prisoners. We had no details from the Minister about the experiment; it is taking place now and we do not know when the results will be produced and what decisions will be made as a result. At the heart of the order is the crucial question of what we do about the number of remand prisoners. A modern society should do all it can to reduce the number of people held on remand. I wrote to the Minister recently about a case involving two brothers who were in a security business. They were held in prison under appalling conditions for 23 hours a day and treated like criminals, although they had not been convicted. I shall not ask the Minister to comment on the case, but on the principle involved. Many steps could be taken to nullify the effect of the order, or to make it unnecessary. The number of bail hostels should be increased considerably, and there should be a much greater consistency in sentencing by the magistracy. It is crucial to adopt the Scottish scheme, whereby a suspect must be brought to trial within 110 days. Furthermore, every member of the Committee will agree that there is terrific scope for improving efficiency and making the system more effective. The existing seven-day rule is costly, as people must be taken from the remand prison, wherever that may be—it may even be a police cell—and carted to the court at a phenomenal cost when one considers the resources needed for vehicles and security. We must take steps to reduce the number of people held in such a way. The Government's obsession with privatising remand centres also hinges directly on the order that we are debating, and the Minister is the leader of the band in that respect. I believe that privatising them is wrong in principle. As a modern, civilised society, we must ensure that people held on remand are not looked after for profit; the quality of the service is paramount. Will the Minister say more about the experiments to which he referred? How will they reduce the number of people held on remand, and how will the order affect the new eight-day rule?

10.36 am

Mr. John Patten: I am happy to respond to the points raised by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall). He referred to the important issue of how the experiments would be conducted; he asked what would happen at the end of the experiments; and he mentioned the number of people currently held in police cells. I shall answer the points in that order. For periods of about six months before and after the introduction of the order—if it passes through the Committee—we shall ask the four courts to give us detailed information about the remand hearings of every defendant remanded in custody. That information will include the length of each adjournment, the reasons for each adjournment being granted, whether bail was granted at a hearing and, if so, which. By comparing information on the old and new systems we shall be able to calculate the total time that each defendant has spent in custody and the percentage of defendants who were given bail after a period in custody. That is important. Comparisons of the data before and after the introduction of the new rules will allow us to test two important aspects, to which the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West 5 referred. We shall know whether the time that defendants spend in custody or on remand is likely to increase or to decrease and whether the percentage of defendants who are granted bail after a period in custody decreases or—which is unlikely—increases. If the time that defendants spend in custody increases after section 155 is introduced, the reasons given for each adjournment will be studied to determine why. That is how the experiment will be conducted. On the hon. Gentleman's second question, I cannot say what we shall do at the end of the experimental period until the results of the experiment are known: that is the purpose of experiments. We shall publish the results so that the House can make up its mind. I agree that people should not be held in police cells and I can give the Committee some good news on that. As of yesterday, 163 persons were held in police cells; 136 were in the northern region and they were locked out of prison as a direct consequence of the dispute at Risley—I am sure that the Committee will appreicate that—and in the south-east the number was down to 27, which is the lowest number of prisoners held in police cells for two years. That is good news. We believe that the experiments will be successful and will lead, except in emergencies, to the total abolition of the need to retain prisoners in police cells, but we must await the results of the experiment.

10.43 am

Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower): I shall be brief, but I am worried that there are to be only 21 days before the order is implemented. It is not the first time in a Committee of this kind that I have commented on the length of time allowed. It would be more reasonable to have longer between the time that a statutory instrument is laid and when it is implemented. I should like to know how the four areas were chosen and the extent to which they will form a meaningful experiment. They are all urban areas and presumably stipendary magistrates sit in some courts. How can we have a meaningful experiment without including rural or semi-rural areas? Before extending the experiment into such areas, great care should be exercised. The Minister said that monitoring the experiment would be done carefully and the results published. It is important, as so few courts are involved, that great care is exercised in interpreting the results of such a limited experiment. It would be fallacious to read too much into the fact that certain good practices may have occurred in a limited number of instances. I am sure that the Minister will bear that in mind in considering any extension of this extremely limited experiment to other parts of the country. The news release from the Home Office on 15 December 1986 said: "If magistrates were satisfied that the case could not reach the next stage in the judicial process quickly, the defendant could be remanded for any period up to an overall maximum of 28 days." Does that mean that the defendant will be guaranteed a committal or summary trial at the end of those 28 days? That would be useful, but I assume that it will be impossible to give that guarantee. I suggest that in the interests of vulnerable members of our community—as some prisoners on remand are—the defendant should have the option of being remanded for longer than eight days and that that change should be spelt out when the remand position is considered at the first or second hearing. The prisoner must be fully aware of what will happen to him in those 28 days. A lengthening of the remand period from eight to 28 days could 6 have three consequences, especially if the hearing took place at a considerable distance from the prison in which a prisoner was being held. By appearing every eight days, prisoners maintain easier contact with their families. Prisoners are often brought to a police station to wait for a hearing in a magistrates' court. By the good grace of the police authority, good access is provided so that the prisoner can be visited by his family. If the period were extended from eight to 28 days and the family had difficulty visiting because they lived far from the magistrates court, the prisoner's well-being would be adversely affected and it would be more difficult to maintain a close link with his family. The same principle applies to legal advice and preparing the case. Solicitors have much easier access to thier clients if they can meet and confer with them every eight days. Access by a probation officer would also be more difficult if the extension were granted. I shall give an example which is as valid as the four examples in the experiment. Probation officers in the Caerphilly magistrates court—which is not in my area—may wait for up to 10 days to visit a client in Cardiff prison. I am informed that it is extremely difficult to get into that prison. That difficulty will be exacerbated as a consequence of the extension of this experiment. If a prisoner were taken from Swansea prison to a court in Aberystwyth every eight days, it would involve a considerable journey, bearing in mind rural transport in west Wales, and the consequences could be dramatic. It is fundamentally important that, when the person on remand is informed that he will be remanded for 28 days instead of eight, the consequences for him are made clear so that they can be fully considered. That would be a great improvement. I am concerned about this experiment. I am sure that the Minister will monitor it carefully. I hope that he will consider all the disadvantages and pitfalls that may occur with such a limited experiment. Before extending it, I hope that he will consider introducing it into non-urban areas.

10.51 am

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton): Does the Minister have statistics of the trends of the percentage of remand prisoners found guilty and subsequently found not guilty? If he has such trend figures, one could adduce whether remand is being applied too strictly, or not strictly enough. That is very important in the consideration of the outcome of the experiment.

10.52 am

Mr. John Patten: I welcome the opportunity to reply to the points raised by the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery). The hon. Member for Gower raised the question of consideration of procedure. Mercifully, I am not responsible for matters of procedure. Those are matters for the House and must be discussed by House authorities in the normal way. The areas decided on for the experiment have been carefully chosen. One area, the metropolitan district of Manchester, has Risely in its hinterlands. That will allow us to check carefully the effects of the experiment in an area where remand has been a major problem for the Government recently. However, not all the areas chosen are urban. Nottingham, for example, includes the city and the county of Nottingham. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon Bravo)—an urban area—will 7 confirm, much of Nottingham county is extremely rural. So we will have quite a good statistical picture over a fairly limited period of the desirability of introducing the experiments. I am advised by people in the Home Office research and planning unit—no tougher custodians of statistic verity exist in Whitehall—that the results will be statistically valid. I accept the unit's judgment. It has ensured that over the past 20 or 30 years, no changes have been made to the series of criminal statistics of recorded crime except, from time to time, to inflate the numbers. So I always take its advice on statistical issues very much to heart. The hon. Member for Gower referred to a press release issued in 1986. I was not in my present Home Office post in 1986; it must have been issued by another writer of press notices. I plead not guilty to that. The principles that the hon. Gentleman mentioned are perfectly clear, although I do not have the notice in front of me. Despite the introduction of these provisions, a prisoner on remand has an unfettered right to ask for bail at any time, despite the 28-day remand provision being in force. Many of the other issues that the hon. Gentleman raised were discussed in full during the Standing Committee stage of the Criminal Justice Bill 1988 because they are matters of principle. I do not wish to reopen discussion of them now for fear of falling out of order. The hon. Gentleman asked whether there would automatically be a committal after the 28-day period. There is no guarantee of that. Twenty eight days is the maximum period in which a person can be held in remand without there being a hearing. If a committal is made within that period, the time on remand will be less than 28 days. Defendants already have some choice. They can opt to have remand hearings held in their absence and that stretches the period to 28 days. Not all prisoners choose to appear in court every eight days. I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Gower about ease of access for parents, wives or husbands, friends, other relations, solicitors and the probation service. However, the hurried circumstances of a remand hearing, which when it operates effectively means that prisoners are in and out all the time, do not provide the best way of allowing family visiting or consultation with solicitors or probation officers. I noted what the hon. Gentleman said about Cardiff gaol—fortunately it is as difficult to get out of as the hon. Gentleman suggested that it was to get into—and Swansea gaol. I shall refer the points to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department who is responsible for prisons under my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department. My hon. Friend the Member for Honiton asked for national figures on remand prisoners. I do not have them to hand, but I shall write to him and place illustrative figures in the Library which show substantial regional variations in the length of time that people are remanded in custody. The regional differences are as much a problem as the overall picture. Practices vary between the petty sessional divisions.

10.58 am

Mr. Randall: I shall be brief because, as the Minister said, many of the points were debated during consideration of the Criminal Justice Bill. It would not be useful to go over those matters again. The Minister has highlighted the fact that this is an experimental measure. However, the policy could result in an increase in the number of people held on remand. That is worrying. It is my intuitive judgment that we shall see an 8 increase in that number. My hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) referred to the problems of access to legal advice and the difficulties of family travelling and consultation with probation officers. They are serious matters. The new shiny, new-born Labour party with its super policies.

Mr. John Patten: Place a copy of them in the Library.

Mr. Randall: I am sure that a copy will be put in the Library because we are an open party and discuss our policies openly. The Minister has probably already seen a copy of them.

Mr. John Patten: I have seen a leaked copy.

Mr. Randall: That shows we are not worried about disclosing such matters. The initial reaction to them has been good. The Opposition's policy on remand would show that the measure is unnecessary. The Government are being mean about investment in bail hostels and setting up the appropriate infrastructure. Their attack on inefficiency has been very short. If those funding problems did not exist, the problems of crime and law and order and the need for the type of statutory instrument that we are debating today would be invalidated. We shall divide the Committee because we feel so strongly that the Government's emphasis and ethos are wrong.

Question put:

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 3.

Brandon-Bravo, Mr. Martin Hughes, Mr.Robert G.
Emery, Sir Peter Mills, Mr. Iain
Glyn, Dr. Alan Pattern, Mr. John
Heathcoat-Amory, Mr. David Shepherd, Mt. Richard
Hicks, Mrs. Maureen
Barnes, Mr. Harry Wardell, Mr. Gareth
Randall, Mr. Stuart

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the draft Magistrates' Courts (Remands in Custody) Order 1989.

Committee rose at two minutes past Eleven o' clock.



Shersby, Mr. Michael (Chairman)

Barnes, Mr. Harry

Brandon-Bravo, Mr.

Clark, Dr. Michael

Emery, Sir P

Glyn, Dr.

Heathcoat-Amory, Mr.

Hicks, Mrs. Maureen

Hughes, Mr. Robert G.

Mills, Mr.

Pattern, Mr. John

Randall, Mr.

Shepherd, Mr. Richard

Wardell, Mr. Gareth