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Consequential Amendments

Volume 972: debated on Thursday 25 October 1979

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Amendment made: No. 24, in page 12, line 21, after 'accused', insert 'or an appellant'. [ The Solicitor-General for Scotland.]

5.38 p.m.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I am sure that both sides of the House agree that this Bill, a short and for the most part uncontroversial measure, will improve the law of Scotland in a way that will be in the interests of the general public. One part of the Bill removes the compulsory requirements for Saturday morning sittings of the sheriff courts although it will still be possible for sheriff courts to sit on a Saturday morning if there are special circumstances justifying that requirement.

The more important part of the Bill is the general reform of the whole concept of bail, removing money bail almost completely and replacing it by a system of bail on conditions. The Government hope that one of the consequences of the reform will be that substantial numbers of people who are admitted to prison in Scotland because of inability or unwillingness to meet money bail requirements will in future not have to suffer that misfortune. Conditions imposed by the court will, by definition, be reasonable conditions. If they are not reasonable, they can be appealed against. There will, therefore, be no monetary reason why in the vast majority of cases the accused person or the appellant should not, if he wishes, meet the conditions imposed upon him. This will be a significant improvement. We are conscious of the great problems that have arisen in Scotland because of the necessity, through non-payment or non-provision of bail money, of admitting significant numbers of people to prisons in the course of any one year.

The Bail Bill is an introductory phase of the Government's general intentions regarding criminal law reform. It is our intention during this Session to introduce a major Criminal Justice Bill. The reason for introducing this Bill so quickly was to deal with the specific and urgent problem of Saturday morning sittings of the sheriff court. It is on that basis that I commend the Bill to the House.

5.41 p.m.

The Bill has been generally welcomed from these Benches. The fact that it was in Committee for only two sittings shows that our intention in that regard was honoured. There was no obstruction by the Opposition. However, it is somewhat cauld kale, because the main provisions were included in the Labour Government's Criminal Justice Bill.

This is also a first instalment in the grand design for criminal justice on which the Solicitor-General for Scotland has been brooding these long years. We all wait with some fascination for the new restyled law of Scotland "à la Fordell" when it is officially unveiled.

One thing that worries us a little is when the next part of the grand design will be unveiled. The Under-Secretary of State will be stuck on the Housing Bill, which I suspect will be in Committee for a very long time. As presumably we cannot turn to criminal justice until he is relieved from that somewhat dishonourable occupation, it may be well into next year before we get the Criminal Justice Bill.

I have continuing worries. I accept the spirit and intention of the Bill in the main. It is helpful that the prisons will not be cluttered up as they are now with a large number of people for short periods because bail has been set at a nominal amount but still cannot be found by those with big family commitments and comparatively modest weekly benefits. Once these people no longer end up in prison, the system will be welcomed by the prison service.

I also hope that Ministers' intentions will be realised and that the police will be encouraged not to hold people overnight unless there is a good reason of public safety. At the moment, as anyone with any connection with the courts will testify, a large number of people are appearing bedraggled from the cells at 10 o'clock in the morning, having been held overnight for no good or apparent reason. I hope that the abolition of money bail—most of these people are released on payment of some comparatively nominal sum—will encourage the police to hold fewer people overnight.

Having given that general welcome, I turn to my worries. The first is that we have a weaker measure than that which formed part of the last Government's Criminal Justice Bill. Money bail has been retained in tandem with the new system. Ministers went to great lengths to explain that it was not expected that money bail would be imposed on any broad spectrum of cases, that it was retained with an eye to the big company fraudster, the specialist criminal, of whom substantial sums could be demanded to ensure that he did not skip the country but whom it was not necessary to have "in jug".

Those specialist cases are a small number, but the number of occasions on which money bail is imposed may be much larger. Without going over ground that was well ploughed in Committee, I would say that sheriffs are men of independent mind, who, to use an old Scottish phrase, are often gae thrawn and will gang their own gait. On some occasions, some will say "Whatever the Solicitor-General's fine words in Committee and whatever the intention of Parliament, I have the power to impose money bail and I will do so".

Those of us who are still in contact with the sheriff courts—in my case at one remove—will be watching with great interest to see whether money bail is really dead except in that small number of specialist cases, or whether, as I suspect, it will live on, perhaps intermittently but still to the disadvantage of the public because certain sheriffs do not take the message of Ministers.

Clause 10 has not been debated today, although it was discussed in Committee, when we tried to convince Ministers that the Saturday courts should not be abolished. We have often been exposed to the oratory of the Solicitor-General to the effect that justice is very special and that the quality of justice cannot be weighed in terms of administrative convenience. Sometimes he rather overdoes that, but it is a fault on the right side. I am sorry that he has had to be connected with a Bill which somewhat damages the quality of justice purely for administrative convenience.

The only argument for abolishing Saturday courts is that they cost money and are unpopular with staff. In the context of some things which the Solicitor-General said—I will not embarrass him with direct quotations—about the attitudes of court servants who put expediency, in his view, above the administration of justice at the time of their industrial action, it is rather sad that we are making a significant inroad into individual liberties by ensuring that some people arrested on Friday night will now be held until Monday without the normal right to appear the next day before a sheriff to get bail if that is possible. It is a shame that that has been introduced into the law of Scotland.

I know that this provision was also in the Labour Government's Bill, so my strictures apply to my Front Bench as well, but I let them lie. I can do nothing but record my protest. However, we on the Back Benches will watch carefully to see whether Ministers' instructions to chief constables to ensure that fewer people are held over the weekend are effective.

I have already put down questions on this matter—for instance, one in July about the June figures—and I intend to keep putting down questions to discover the figures for the 10 sheriff courts. If there is not a significant diminution—I will not say that Ministers have promised this, because they cannot necessarily deliver—and if their influence is ineffectual and their hopes unjustified, we shall return to this matter in the months and perhaps the year or so that lies ahead.

I hope that the influence of Ministers will be effective and that there will be a decrease in the number of those held in custody not just on Friday but throughout the weekend. If they wished to, the police could considerably reduce the number of people that it is necessary—I use that word in the fullest sense—to hold in these circumstances.

In general, we welcome the Bill. We gave it a fair wind. However, it leaves residual worries and we shall monitor one or two points of real principle in the months ahead.

5.49 p.m.

I congratulate Ministers on this important addition to the criminal law of Scotland. However, the Bill, in its passage through the House, has not been greeted totally uncritically and on some points there were reservations on both sides of the House. Those points have now been largely met, particularly with the assurance that the Crown Office will remember that in introducing the Bill we are not slavishly following any English model. I hope that in considering how the Bill operates we shall not look simply at the English experience but will ensure that there is an independent and careful assessment of how this legislation works in Scotland.

I hope that the Crown Office will pay regard to the conditions attached to bail now—in particular that condition relating to an offence being committed during the period of bail. I also draw attention to clause 3 relating to the circumstances in which the power of arrest may be operated.

The misgivings that were expressed earlier may be set aside for the moment, but I trust that in the years ahead those problems will be looked at carefully by the Crown Office. This may be the Solicitor-General's first movement of his magnum opus, but if the Bill is not working I hope he will be prepared to score out a note here and there.

5.51 p.m.

It is not the intention of the Opposition to divide the House on the Bill. I am anxious to see the Bill on its way to another place as soon as possible and to have it on the statute book. This Bill will become famous for a number of reasons. I have been following a story in the Sunday Mail recently and I understand that this is the first piece of legal work in which the Solicitor-General has been involved when he has not had to send for Beltrami. For that reason, the Bill will be a showpiece for several years.

I also have reservations about the retention of money bail. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) has said, the Bill is a direct lift from the Labour Government's Criminal Justice Bill. In that Bill there was no intention to retain money bail. I suspect that sheriffs will not change quickly from money bail to a series of release conditions as people find it difficult to change their ways. Sheriffs are no exception to that rule, and are often very set in their ways. I shall be delighted if I am wrong. I hope that the Minister is right—that money bail is not used extensively and that the number of people finding themselves in prison because they cannot meet it will be reduced drastically.

The prison service will be aided if the number of people in prison is reduced, as it is bogged down in the paperwork involved in receiving people in custody and releasing them again. There will be difficulty with money bail and we shall want to monitor it. I am sure that neither the Solicitor-General nor the Minister will object to that as it may prove helpful.

The question of the sheriff courts not sitting on Saturdays was contained in the previous Labour Government's Criminal Justice Bill. I accept the reservations that have been voiced, although I am prepared to give the question of not sitting on Saturday a fair trial. I do not, however, accept that a short period would provide a fair trail. An extended period is required before we would be able to assess whether it had had any ill or good effect. We must be fair, and wait for an extended period before considering the impact of that charge.

We support the Bill. We are grateful to the Minister and to the Solicitor-General for the further thought they have given to it during the recess and for the amendments they have brought in on Report. It is seldom that a former Government Minister has an opportunity to pay tribute to a civil servant. I take that opportunity because the civil servant to whom I wish to pay tribute has now left the service. I refer to Mr. Norman Shanks, who worked on the Bill when I was a Minister and when the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) was a Minister. Mr. Shanks has now left the Scottish Office and is following a new career at the College of Divinity, with the intention of becoming a Minister in the Church of Scotland. I am sure the House joins me in wishing Mr. Norman Shanks well in his chosen career. I thank him and all those civil servants for the work they do in non-political matters—I am sure the Bill is better for that. With those words, I welcome the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.