Cross-examination of Vulnerable Witnesses

6th July 2016

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this debate. What she says is no surprise to me, because in our meeting with Lord Judge the other day we discussed this issue in terms of what would be the right thing to do, and I praise her diligent work. She does not give up on these matters; she goes on and on. I also join her in praising Lord Judge—one could argue that he is brilliantly named because of his previous occupation.

Perhaps not many people are in the Chamber because on previous occasions other Ministers have not been able to say what I am about to say. As Minister with responsibility for the criminal justice system as well as for victims, this issue forms part of the package that I will announce in a moment. We seek to make more victims feel safe within the criminal justice system, and I have pledged to the House that we will publish a Green Paper on a victims law before the summer recess—I have worked on that extensively with Her Majesty’s Opposition and other parties in the House.

I have also considered the Scottish system, but our provisions will possibly go a little further, meaning that we can learn from each other. That is always a good thing when trying to protect the most vulnerable people in society. This is not just about children; there are people with mental illnesses and those in other situations—particularly those under pressure—who are vulnerable in other ways, although I know we have been talking particularly about children.

Measures have been introduced over the last few years, and the criminal justice system has moved on enormously. In particular, the attitude of judges and those who deal with criminal law has changed. There are now screens in some courts, but we are not there yet.

It is regrettable—a very polite term for a Minister to use in the House—that section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 was not rolled out sooner. I think everybody accepted that it had to be piloted. There was a degree of concern that there might be some cases where vulnerable people were recalled, but, as the hon. Lady said in her very articulate and factual speech, that has happened only once. All the other evidence shows that not only does it make a much better situation for the witness, but it is much better for the criminal justice system. It speeds up the criminal justice system, in particular in the courts, and there are a substantial number of guilty pleas.

There is no need to delay the House massively. As the hon. Lady knows—she met me only a couple of days ago—I agree with nearly everything she says. I have yet to receive full Government clearance. However, I intend to instruct my officials to work with the judges on a roll-out. The roll-out will start by the end of the year. It says in my notes it will start in January, but I think the end of the year would be better. I am sure we would all agree on that. We will start with the roll-out in the Crown courts for those under 18 and for witnesses with mental illness.

This needs to be rolled out. It is wrong to have a situation where my pilots are continuing as pilots when we know just how successful they are. The postcode lottery will end. I am not certain we will reach the full roll-out by March 2017. If I cannot do that, I will come back to the House to explain why that is the case. I have some technicalities within Government procedures to address in the meantime, but I cannot see any reason why we cannot start planning now to work with judges on how we are going to implement it. I spoke about this extensively with Lord Peter Gross, who has recently stepped down, and his replacement. I think we can go with this. The judges want it. It seems completely logical to me that if I have something new and the judges want it—as the hon. Lady said, that is quite strange—then let us get on and do it.

With that in mind, let us work together across the House to implement section 28 as soon as possible to protect vulnerable witnesses and victims, something we all came to this place to do.

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