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Witness Protection

Volume 281: debated on Wednesday 17 July 1996

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3.40 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to help the witnesses and victims of anti-social behaviour give evidence against criminal neighbours.
This Bill has attracted cross-party support. I am sure that hon. Members have much experience of anti-social behaviour. The Bill does not apply only to council house tenants but to private tenants and owner-occupiers.

Half a century ago, William Temple wrote:
"Man is naturally and incurably social."
How little could he have imagined the situation that plagues us today. There is a rising tide of anti-social behaviour, and each successive wave further erodes our communities. Even as I speak, someone's quality of life is being destroyed or eroded by people to whom the values of social responsibility and tolerance are merely words.

Tenants are affected by anti-social behaviour, and in Coventry, 742 cases of anti-social behaviour were reported in the past 12 months. That is but the tip of a huge and growing iceberg. Much anti-social behaviour goes unreported because of fear of reprisal or intimidation. It is that problem at which my Bill is aimed. It goes to the heart of the problem, while understanding that much more needs to be done if anti-social behaviour is to be combated comprehensively. It recognises the priority given to witness anonymity by local authorities and tenants' associations alike.

I must explain what I mean by the much-used phrase "anti-social behaviour". It is not an easily defined activity. Different people are annoyed by different things. What is anti-social to one person is not necessarily anti-social to another. Yet it is fair to describe it as behaviour that limits our ability to enjoy a quiet life. We can agree that all citizens have the right to go about their daily business free from the fear of harassment, persistent interference or criminal behaviour. Civil society is built upon that basic premise. It is a balance between the rights we have in society and the duties that we owe to each other. That balance is destroyed daily by vandalism, verbal and physical abuse and racial harassment.

Although it is difficult to define anti-social behaviour, its results are easy to see. The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration has said:
"Anti-social behaviour by a small minority of people can have a devastating effect on a neighbourhood, causing misery and despair."
Communities are besieged by a daily torrent of abuse and criminal behaviour. Whole streets or estates are controlled by people who rule by fear. The victims are left fearful, miserable and helpless. They are helpless because they dare not report their aggressors. To do so would invite further intimidation, especially as they usually live in close proximity to each other.

According to a Home Office study published in 1994, as much as 25 per cent. of anti-social crime goes unreported. It is a classic Catch-22 situation. Either the victim suffers in silence, allowing the aggressor to go unpunished, or he or she takes action, in the knowledge that doing so may put him or her, and, in many cases, their families at great risk.

It is not difficult to understand why victims feel that the criminal justice system is weighted against them. The whole process is reliant on bravery and that courage must be extended to the courtroom itself. The threat of intimidation spreads to the courtroom, as the 1993 royal commission on criminal justice made clear. As a member of one of the families giving evidence against a certain family in Manchester put it:
"I was afraid. I've young children. But in the end I knew what I had to do."
Yet without witnesses' evidence, nothing can be done to tackle the perpetrators of criminal behaviour. So although local authorities have developed innovative responses to the problem within the existing legislative framework, there is only so much that can be done without initial evidence.

A nucleus of authorities has established the local authority officer working group. It has introduced a range of measures including strengthened tenancy agreements and 24-hour emergency teams. Coventry city council has led the way with the use of injunctions, but it is restricted by the fact that power remains in the hands of the aggressors as long as victims are too afraid to start proceedings against them. It need not be that way under the provisions of my Bill.

In essence, by ensuring that those witnesses who give evidence remain anonymous, the Bill goes a long way to encouraging them to come forward with their vital evidence. Under the Bill, witnesses or victims of anti-social behaviour would give initial evidence to a police or housing officer. Justification as to why mediation would be inappropriate to their case would have to be given. The ultimate discretion would lie with the police or housing officer. That provision recognises the benefits that mediation can have in resolving cases of anti-social behaviour, as outlined in a Department of the Environment paper that was released in 1994.

Many hon. Members present will be aware of the work done by the umbrella organisation, Mediation UK. Yet mediation is often inappropriate, especially in cases involving violence. Should mediation be deemed unsuitable, the police or housing officer could provide the content of the witness statement in court without revealing the identity of the witness. Of course, such action could take place only if there were reasonable grounds for believing that not to do so would place the witness at possible risk. The police or housing officer would have to testify on good evidence to the complaints that had been received.

At present it is possible for an individual judge to accommodate the fear of reprisal. He can consider evidence that does not identify the names of victims. That is by no means a regular facility, and more often than not potential witnesses withdraw from any proceedings as soon as they realise that they may be identified.

One question that may be asked of the Bill is that of natural justice. That principle demands that witnesses appear in court to answer for the evidence that they give. That need not be subverted by my Bill, which, if necessary, allows for a court-appointed official to interview or cross-examine the witness in closed court. The defendant or defendant's lawyer would be absent. Again, if necessary, questions to the witness may be suggested beforehand by the defence, and it would be provided with a transcript of the interview. Of course, throughout the proceedings the identity of the witness would not be revealed, so the principle of natural justice is upheld and the due legal necessities remain intact.

The Bill is fundamental to helping the victims of anti-social behaviour. It is not enough to offer them protection only after the event, for that does little to encourage witnesses to come forward in the first place. Furthermore, that is expensive and often results in witnesses being forced to leave their homes. No, it is time to help communities to win back their streets. We must offer victims the surety of anonymity in reporting anti-social behaviour either to the police or local housing officers.

I urge the House to give its wholehearted support to the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Jim Cunningham, Mr. James Pawsey, Ms Janet Anderson, Mr. Ian Pearson, Mr. Brian David Jenkins, Ms Liz Lynne, Mr. Geoffrey Robinson, Mr. Robert Ainsworth, Mr. Simon Hughes, Mr. Michael Connarty and Mr. Bill Olner.