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Absconding By Persons Released On Bail

Volume 405: debated on Monday 19 May 2003

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"(1) For paragraph 6 of Part 1 of Schedule 1 to the 1976 Act (defendant need not be granted bail if having been released on bail he has been arrested in pursuance of section 7) there is substituted—

"6 (1) If the defendant falls within this paragraph, he may not be granted bail unless the court is satisfied that there is no significant risk that, if released on bail (whether subject to conditions or not), he would fail to surrender to custody; but this does not require the court, if so satisfied, to grant bail (disregarding other considerations).

(2) Subject to subparagraph (3) below, the defendant falls within this paragraph if—

  • (a) he is aged 18 or over, and
  • (b) it appears to the court that, having been released on bail in or in connection with the proceedings for the offence, he failed to surrender to custody.
  • (3) Where it appears to the court that the defendant had reasonable cause for his failure to surrender to custody, he does not fall within this paragraph unless it also appears to the court that he failed to surrender to custody at the appointed place as soon as reasonably practicable after the appointed time.

    (4) For the purposes of subparagraph (3) above, a failure to give to the defendant a copy of the record of the decision to grant him bail shall not constitute a reasonable cause for his failure to surrender to custody."

    (2) In section 6 of the 1976 Act (offence of absconding by person released on bail) after subsection (9) there is inserted—

    "(10) Section 127 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 shall not apply in relation to an offence under subsection(1)or(2) above.

    (11) Where a person has been released on bail in criminal proceedings and that bail was granted by a constable, a magistrates' court shall not try that person for an offence under subsection (1) or (2) above in relation to that bail (the "relevant offence") unless subsection (12) or (13) below applies.

    (12) This subsection applies if an information is laid for the relevant offence within 6 months from the time of the commission of the relevant offence.

    (13) This subsection applies if—

  • (a) subsection (12) above does not apply,
  • (b) none of the events mentioned in subsection (14) below occurs during the period mentioned in subsection (12) above, and
  • (c) no later than 3 months from the time of the occurrence of the first of those events to occur after the end of that period, an information is laid for the relevant offence.
  • (14) Those events are—

  • (a) the person surrenders to custody at the appointed place;
  • (b) the person is arrested, or attends at a police station, in connection with the relevant offence or the offence for which he was granted bail;
  • (c) the person appears or is brought before a court in connection with the relevant offence or the offence for which he was granted bail.""
  • [The Solicitor-General.]

    Brought up, and read the First time.

    5.15 pm

    I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

    With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

    The following amendments to the proposed new clause:

    Amendment (a), in proposed new paragraph 6(1), leave out from 'custody' to the end of the paragraph.

    Amendment (b), leave out proposed new paragraph 6(4).

    Government new clause 53—Supplementary amendments to the Bail Act 1976.

    Government amendments Nos. 443 to 448, 232 and 449.

    Amendment No. 171, in page 12, clause 16, line 20, leave out 'not' and insert 'only'.

    Amendment No. 172, in page 12, clause 16, line 20, leave out 'unless' and insert 'if'.

    Government amendments Nos. 450 to 454.

    It is not as bad as it sounds, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall speak to new clauses 52 and 53, together with a number of consequential and technical Government amendments, and comment on the relevant Opposition amendments.

    New clauses 52 and 53 tighten up bail for people who have been granted bail but breach it. They are being introduced at this stage because this issue has been raised under the street crime initiative and brought to the fore by those considering how to tackle street crime. I know that hon. Members are familiar with the issue and that it will have been raised with them.

    The problem is that people feel strongly when someone is granted bail by the court but then breaches it. Nearly one defendant in four offends while on bail, and one in eight fails to turn up in court. That wastes time and resources, but more importantly it leads to delays that frustrate and often upset victims and witnesses. Victims, in particular, find it hard to understand how, despite all the efforts invested by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service in apprehending and charging the alleged perpetrator of a crime, he can fail to appear and yet be given bail again. Basically, they turn up but he does not, which undermines public confidence in the criminal justice system.

    At the moment, a defendant arrested for breach of bail loses the usual presumption in favour of bail, but the Government believe that it is necessary to send a more powerful deterrent message to defendants who, for no good reason, do not turn up in court. New clause 52(1) therefore goes one step further than the current position by creating a presumption against bail in those circumstances. It requires the court to refuse bail to an adult defendant—this applies only to adults—who fails without reasonable cause to surrender to custody in answer to bail in the same proceedings, unless the court is satisfied that there is no significant risk that he would again fail to surrender if released on bail.

    Conscious as we are of our obligations under the European convention on human rights, the Government are satisfied that the proposal is compatible with those obligations.

    My right hon. and learned Friend says that the measure relates to adult offenders; will she take evidence from me, as it were, on this issue? I met senior police officers on Friday and asked them what their most frustrating experiences with the criminal justice system were. In particular, they named young offenders who refuse to attend, or for some other reason do not attend, a court hearing when everyone else is present and ready to go, and the fact that such offenders can laugh at the court and just be given another date.

    My hon. Friend is well aware of the challenge of young offenders as he raised it on many occasions in Committee, in which he played an active part. Like other hon. Members who served in Committee, he will know that many parts of the Bill seek to deal with the difficulty of tackling offending behaviour early on in a young person's life. However, we though it right to apply this new clause, which reverses the presumption of bail and requires the court to make a presumption that bail will not be granted, to adults and leave the situation as it is in respect of breach of bail for under-18s.

    Will the Solicitor-General explain why it is necessary to make that distinction? I find it very difficult to understand why a 17-year-old should not be expected to behave in exactly the same way as an 18-year-old in this regard. It is all very well saying that the Government think it right, but I cannot understand on what possible grounds they can do so; perhaps she might explain to the House why she thinks it right. I think it wrong, and that the measure should apply to all persons who are given bail.

    The point that the right hon. Gentleman raises—it is the same as that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr.Allen)—is an important one. All I can say is that no amendment before the House now would have that effect, but the Bill will go to the other place and it might be possible to consider the point there. For the moment I want to make it clear that the proposals currently before us deal with adults. If an amendment to make the bail regime much tougher on juveniles were necessary, my ministerial colleagues in the Home Office would want to reflect on it: it might then be available for discussion in the other place.

    Would my right hon. and learned Friend allow me to write to her so that she can advise me on the best way to proceed—perhaps, for example, by a pilot scheme for young offenders on bail? It might be helpful to develop the policy in that way.

    I am sure that my colleagues in the Home Office would welcome a letter from my hon. Friend, putting forward that point for their consideration.

    The Solicitor-General will know that I am a parliamentary virgin on this matter, because, as I explained earlier, I did not have the good fortune to sit on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill. I am flummoxed, but I am sure that the Solicitor-General is about to release me from my state of ignorance. Did the Government not consider the position of 17-year-olds, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) referred, or did they consider the matter and not think it worthy of inclusion? I am perspiring to know which is the case?

    The Government considered it, of course, but decided to introduce the new clause in its current form, which does not apply to juveniles. Provisions on juveniles have not been brought before the House, but that does not mean that further consideration cannot be urged in future. I say no more than that.

    Refusal of bail will not be automatic, because the court will still have to consider the risk that the defendant will again fail to appear. A previous failure to surrender to custody is not, of itself, reason for refusing bail, but it is highly relevant to assessing that risk.

    It may be convenient to deal with amendments (a) and (b), tabled by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who has yet to speak.

    I am most grateful to the Solicitor-General for taking another intervention. I listened carefully to her introductory words, in which she said that, when people do not appear after being released on bail, it undermines public confidence and that a more powerful deterrent message should be sent out. I could not agree more. In those circumstances, given that we have again—quite rightly, in my view—suspended elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, making it impossible to devolve criminal justice and policing to the Assembly in the foreseeable future, will the Solicitor-General give an assurance that the bail provisions will be extended to Northern Ireland?

    I shall have to come back to the hon. Lady on that. She has made her point and I shall try to be forthcoming with an answer in due course.

    Before the Solicitor-General moves on to the most important amendments, she described other amendments, such as amendment No. 232, as "tidying-up" measures? Amendment No. 232, which deals with drug offenders on bail, would add "(or both)" to "assistance or treatment". Is not such tidying up sheer nonsense, because the term "(or both)" is already contained in the meaning? What is required is the replacement of the word "or" with "and", because any drug offender requires medical treatment. Leaving the probation service or other qualified persons with an option not to incorporate medical treatment will only make re-offending more likely.

    I shall deal with my hon. Friend's points when I come to the amendment in a moment. For the sake of those who are not as deeply cognisant of the issues as my hon. Friend, I shall continue with questions surrounding the presumption of bail, and return to his points later.

    Will the Solicitor-General assist the House by giving the Government's estimate of the increase in the remand prison population that will result from the amendments restricting access to bail? That information would be useful, if the Government have made such an estimate—and I hope they have.

    The intention is that fewer people will be on remand, because the message will be clearly sent out that people cannot take a risk by not turning up to court, because it will be one strike if they are out, so to speak. There will be no misunderstanding in the minds of defendants, because it will be clear that if they have been granted bail by the court to return on a certain day, they have to return on that day. Otherwise, when they are later arrested and brought before the court, they will be remanded in custody. The aim is that people will be clear about the need to turn up to court. The aim is to bring offenders to justice so that the courts can deal with cases, instead of having more people on remand in custody.

    We do not want a situation in which the police witnesses, the lay witnesses, the victim and the prosecution are all present, and the only person missing is the defendant, so the case has to be adjourned. That undermines public confidence in the system, which is why we have brought the provision before the House. Those who advise clients can be clear that the presumption will be that the defendant will not get bail, unless they can show some good, overriding reason why they were not able to attend, such as being locked up somewhere else. With a really good reason, the person may escape being remanded in custody; otherwise, failure to appear will be an offence that is dealt with by imprisonment.

    Amendments (a) and (b) were tabled by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and others. It might help if I explain the Government's view, although I anticipate that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) will speak to the amendments. I hope that I do not pre-empt him too much by saying that the amendments are modest, but—without wishing to exaggerate matters—they would certainly do some damage to the Bill.

    Amendment (a) would remove words that are designed to make it clear that when a court is satisfied that there is no significant risk of a defendant failing to appear, it is not under an obligation to grant bail irrespective of other considerations. That must make sense. If there are reasons for refusing bail other than the question of absconding—for example, a risk of interference with witnesses—the provision as it stands makes it clear to the court that it retains the power to refuse bail, notwithstanding that the defendant is not considered likely to abscond again. We did not want to create a situation in which, on clear evidence, it was apparent that a defendant was not likely to abscond again, and the court therefore felt that it should grant bail, irrespective of other issues that should have led it to refuse bail.

    I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for giving way, because this may be the only opportunity that I have to speak on the amendments. We have some sympathy with what the Government are trying to do, but we wanted to retain at least some vestige of the presumption in favour of bail and give the courts the discretion to make the decision. The problem with the Government's interpretation is that it reduces the discretion to a nugatory amount.

    Clearly, if the hon. Gentleman's desire is to retain the presumption in favour of bail, I shall disappoint him because the whole point of new clause 52 is that, if someone is arrested, charged, brought before the court and bailed to appear on another day but simply fails to turn up, they will not have the presumption in their favour that bail will be granted. At that point, the presumption will be that bail will not be granted.

    5.30 pm

    The hon. Gentleman also mentions the court's discretion. Of course the court will still have discretion. If the defendant can show reasonable cause for his not turning up, he can rebut that presumption. So the presumption is rebuttable, but it must be included in the Bill. That is what new clause 52 will do, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman must think that that is right. People find it very undermining when the same issue is simply played over and again, but the presumption is still in favour of granting bail.

    Amendment (b) would remove the provision that states:
    "a failure to give to the defendant a copy of the record of the decision to grant him bail shall not constitute a reasonable cause for his failure to surrender to custody."
    Those words merely replicate those already used in section 6(4) of the Bail Act 1976 and are intended to avoid technical arguments that a defendant could not have been expected to know his bail date because the court had failed to give him the required copy.

    New clause 52(2) deals with a technical obstacle to proceeding against defendants who fail to answer to bail granted by the police. In those cases, unlike those involving police bail, section 127 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 applies. That prevents summary proceedings from being instituted more than six months after the commission of an offence, so if a Bail Act offence is committed and the offender manages to stay out of sight of the police for more than six months, it is not possible to prosecute that Bail Act offence. Surely that cannot be right. Therefore, subsection (2) will disapply section 127 in respect of offences under section 6 of the Bail Act 1976 and apply a new limitation period of three months from the defendant's surrender to custody, arrest or court appearance. So the time limit is three months from when the person is apprehended.

    Amendment No. 445 would insert into clause 12 a new provision—

    On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I believe that time has now run out for this group of about 40 amendments, most of which are Government amendments, but the Solicitor-General has not even been able fully to explain important Government amendments to the House, leaving aside the amendments tabled by the official Opposition or the Liberal Demorats. Can any protection be provided to the House to enable us to give some rudimentary consideration to important measures, rather than being left with this complete pantomime, which brings the House into disrepute?

    Order. I shall respond to the point of order, but I am required under the programme motion to put the Question at this time. My reply to the hon. Gentleman is that, of course, I am governed by the programme motion, which was duly agreed to by the House, and I must therefore follow the directions in that motion.

    Order. I must put the Question now, but I will come back to the hon. Gentleman afterwards.

    It being two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the programme motion, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER, pursuant to Orders [4 February, 5 March, 2 April and this day], put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair.

    Question accordingly agreed to.

    Clause read a Second time and added to the Bill.

    MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour.