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Volume 932: debated on Wednesday 18 May 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he has received any representations about the book "Negotiated Justice", to be published as a result of research at Birmingham University commissioned by the Home Office; and if he will make a statement.

The main subject matter into which the Home Office, in 1974, commissioned research by Birmingham University is acquittals at contested criminal trials in the Crown Court. Dr. John Baldwin and Dr. Michael McConville of the University, who are conducting this research, plan to write a book, "Negotiated Justice", of which I have been shown a draft, about late changes of plea by defendants who plead guilty in the Crown Court. This is not an issue which we had contemplated would be treated at such length and it is questionable whether the research has shown enough evidence to allow any particular conclusions on it.I have received representations from the Senate of the Inns of Court and the Bar. In reply, I have told the Senate that, as has already been made clear in response to Press inquiries, the Home Office has no desire—and, indeed, no power—to stop publication of this book. We point out to the authors what we believe to be errors, but it is not our job to act as censors. Nor is there any question of stopping the grant payable to the university for the main research project. It has, indeed, largely been paid already. The authors have told us that their preliminary report on the main project should reach us next month, and we look forward to receiving it. Any further applications by the university for Home Office grants towards research will be considered on their merits.But since the Bar and the judges—whose views are essential to any assessment of injustice connected with plea bargaining—have not been consulted about individual cases the authors have had to rely almost entirely on the interviews they have had with convicted defendants, aided by assessors whose views were based only on such paper evidence as was available to them. This is an insubstantial basis for the criticisms that the authors have made of the judicial system and the police, and I must make it clear that, therefore, the Home Office gave no encouragement to the preparation of this book. The good faith in which the authors have come to their conclusions is, of course, not in question, but we do not believe that the conclusions are made out.I very much share the Senate's concern that allegations that there have been miscarriages of justice should be most carefully investigated. I have, therefore, instructed officials to write to the authors to express doubts whether the steps the the authors have so far taken to alert convicted defendants to their rights are enough. The authors will be urged to write again to all the convicted defendants who said they were innocent, except perhaps those whom the authors confidently disbelieve, to point out to them that they ought seriously to consider whether they might pursue the remedies that are open to them; that is, seek leave to appeal or apply to the Secretary of State for the exercise of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy. The Home Office would, if necessary, be willing to give what help it could in tracing convicted defendants whom the authors found difficult to trace.