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Attorney-General

Volume 114: debated on Monday 6 April 1987

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Wright Case (Appeal)

42.

asked the Attorney-General what discussions he intends to have about the progress of Her Majesty's Government's appeal in the Wright case.

I have had discussions with my colleagues within Government and with counsel in the case and these discussions will continue during the preparation of the appeal. As Members of the House will know, the Government lodged their notice of appeal on 31 March.

Speculation about some of the allegations of this obsessive, senile twerp range from "predictable" in the case of Walsall to "reasonable" in the case of Leeds, South, but does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the main issue is the bounden duty of somebody who has taken an oath of security to the Crown to honour those pledges of confidentiality? As the Opposition parties fall over themselves to criticise the Government for the course that they are following, will my right hon. and learned Friend take some comfort from the fact that most of our fellow citizens applaud the Government's firm, albeit uncomfortable, line?

I think that it would be right if I did not comment on my hon. Friend's opening words. After that, he put his finger on exactly the point that the Government are seeking to make.

Will the Attorney-General comment on the allegation that has also been raised in connection with this affair: that there were serious breaches of the law by agents of MI5? Will the Attorney-General now confirm that if the Government thought that it was a serious enough matter they could have an independent investigation into it, without having to wait until the end of the case?

I shall make certain that the right hon. Gentleman's remarks are made known to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, because that is not a matter for me.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend seek an undertaking from the office of the Leader of the Opposition that during the appeal his office, and those Opposition Members who behaved like that during the hearing at first instance, will not contact the office of Mr. Malcolm Turnbull? What steps does the Crown propose to take to ensure that Mr. Paul Greengrass is not present in court when hearings take place in camera, because he informed other journalists waiting outside the court about the proceedings inside the court, and it is strongly suspected that this information filtered back to this House and that it was used by Opposition Members? What action will be taken to prevent a repetition of what happened last time?

It is not for me to advise the Leader of the Opposition. It is up to his good sense as to how he behaves during the course of the appeal.

As for Mr. Greengrass, that will be a matter for the Court of Appeal to decide, just as Mr. Justice Powell, against the Crown's wishes, allowed Mr. Greengrass to attend the hearings.

Does the Attorney-General recognise that all the legal ramifications and the rest will not stop Labour Members demanding that there should be a full judicial inquiry into the serious allegations that criminal and subversive elements in MI5 tried to destabilise an elected Government in the 1970s? Are not the Attorney-General and his right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General not concerned at the way in which the Prime Minister has, over a number of years, seriously besmirched their office and used various ways to undermine the position of the Attorney-General?

With regard to the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I am satisfied, as is my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, that there has never been any case in which any improper influence was brought to bear by the Prime Minister upon our office. I want to make that absolutely clear.

Bail Act 1976

43.

asked the Attorney-General if the Lord Chancellor has received any representations from the judiciary about the working of the Bail Act 1976: and if he will make a statement.

The Lord Chancellor does not reveal confidential communications between judges and himself. The Lord Chancellor has, however, authorised me to say that he has not received any representations from the judiciary on this subject. The working of the Bail Act is a matter for the Home Secretary.

Bearing in mind last Wednesday's vote on capital punishment, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is more important than ever that the circumstances under which Winston Silcott was released from gaol and subsequently murdered PC Blakelock must never be repeated? What assurance can he give the House that the matter is being looked into and that suitable action will be taken?

Everything practicable must be done to ensure that those circumstances — I am referring, of course, to the murder of the police constable by somebody who was on bail—are not repeated. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is looking at the events that led to the grant of bail to Winston Silcott. The Government will consider whether there are any lessons to be learnt and will take into account the points made in the House since the case.

The Attorney-General is fond of telling the House about the importance of collective responsibility. Which side are the Law Officers on? Are they on the side of the Lord Chancellor, or of the Home Secretary? In an outburst the other day the Lord Chancellor said that the Bail Act was not working and that he had prophesied that it would not do so. However, the Home Secretary had been saying how important it was to ensure that not too many people were kept in prison, that the courts are more reluctant now to let people out on bail and that one fifth of the people in prison have not yet been convicted. Will the Solicitor-General bring the importance of collective responsibility to the attention of the Lord Chancellor?

The opening part of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's question owed more to careful preparation than good judgment. The Lord Chancellor has said—I have taken the trouble to see a transcript of the broadcast—that there might be a case for reviewing the operation of the Bail Act and, equally, it may be necessary to allow the Act to remain in force for rather longer before a clear picture will emerge. I do not think that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was saying anything different. As I have just told the House, he is looking at the events leading up to the granting of bail to Winston Silcott, he will consider whether there are any lessons to be learnt and he will take into account all the points that have been made.

Divorce (Child Custody)

44.

asked the Attorney-General what information he has about the average time taken in settling disputes in divorce cases over the custody of children.

For an application estimated to last half a day, the average time between the issue of the application and the hearing is seven weeks. For an application estimated to last one day, the average is eight weeks. Expedition is possible in urgent cases on application to the court.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that with 160,000 children under 17 being involved in divorce cases annually, all too often it is they who are the innocent, inarticulate and often unrepresented parties who pay the price? Will he look at the Law Commission's recent working document, which suggests that disputes often take over six months to settle? That may be long for an adult, but it can be almost a lifetime for a child. Will he consider imposing a time limit in those cases?

My hon. Friend, who sits as a magistrate and knows a great deal about cases such as this, is absolutely right when she says that it is children who suffer as a result of delays. The Government will not reach a decision in advance of a final report from the Law Commission, and the commission itself is awaiting responses from the public and various organisations which have been consulted on its working paper.

Is the Solicitor-General aware that one of the reasons for the delay in custody cases is the extreme difficulty of arranging conciliation appointments, because of the shortage of court welfare officers to carry out those appointments? Will he take steps to ensure that more court welfare officers are appointed quickly so that that part of the process can at least be dealt with?

The hon. and learned Gentleman is right to say that one of the factors causing delay between inception and determination of these cases is the need to get welfare reports. I shall draw the attention of my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor to this point.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that the Law Commission expedites its recommendation, as this matter is causing considerable concern? What is the time scale likely to be before its deliberations come before him?

I am sure that it is necessary that there is a considered final report from the Law Commission, but I do not think that my hon. and learned Friend would wish that to precede careful consideration of the responses to the consultation.

Is the Solicitor-General aware—I am sure he is—that the answers that he is giving in response to this question are the reason why there is so much support for the family courts campaign? What is the Government's attitude to that campaign? Will we have a debate on family courts in Government time?

A family court would not of itself cure the problem of delay, but I agree with the implication of the hon. Gentleman's question—that the setting up of family courts would provide the opportunity for reviewing procedures. The Government are considering the position in the light of the responses to the consultation paper on family and domestic jurisdiction, which was published last year.