I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I thank colleagues from across the House who have been able to join me today in support of this, my first private Member’s Bill. I am very pleased the House has been able to give a significant portion of time to debate this Bill this afternoon. At one point I feared that may not come to pass when I was allocated the third slot in today’s proceedings. I have discussed with colleagues outside the Chamber how that would have been a disappointment, as not only do I believe this is an important and valuable Bill, but I also believe it is right that it should be given proper debate in the Chamber this afternoon.
Its subject is miscarriages of justice and the gathering of evidence and information to assist in such cases. We have already had two Second Reading debates today, led by my hon. Friends the Members for Dudley South (Mike Wood) and for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), and although their Bills had different fates, we have had two excellent debates, and like an actor waiting in the wings, I watched with a mixture of enjoyment and trepid anticipation.
So I present to the House the Criminal Cases Review Commission (Information) Bill. If enacted, it would extend the powers of the CCRC to obtain information and evidence, testimony, documents and other material which would assist in its proceedings of appeal and review cases where a miscarriage of justice is believed to have taken place. In essence, it would allow the CCRC to obtain such information from a person other than one serving in a public body, as it is currently restricted to doing. This new measure would apply to private-sector organisations, persons employed by, or serving in, private companies, and private individuals. If passed, it would strengthen the CCRC’s ability to overturn wrongful convictions and miscarriages of justice, and improve further our system of law and order, which is rightly the envy of the world.
I intend to lay out my proposal of support for the Bill in three sections: first, to set out the context of the Bill, what it seeks to achieve, and the workings of the CCRC at present; secondly, to detail what the Bill does and how the amended law would work in practice; and, lastly, to explain why I believe this Bill is necessary, and how it would improve justice in our country. May I also say at the outset that I hope to encourage a strong debate, and although our time is limited, colleagues are more than welcome to make the odd intervention?
I shall lay out for context the background to the Bill and the journey I have been on to get here today, and the current working of the CCRC. I was very fortunate to be drawn in the ballot of private Member’s Bills in my first year as an MP. I never imagined when I was elected to this place just seven months ago that I would be standing here leading my own debate on a piece of primary legislation.
Following my selection in the ballot, while discussing with colleagues potential topics for my Bill, I decided I wanted to be involved in securing a piece of legislation that would do some good, make a real difference in people’s lives, and improve the justice system.
I commend my hon. Friend on his choice of Bill. Is he aware of the words of Richard Foster, chairman of the CCRC, to the Justice Committee, who said:
“you can be confident that there are miscarriages of justice that have gone unremedied because of the lack of that power”?
Does my hon. Friend agree?
I entirely agree. This is a vital amendment to the law, allowing the gaining of private evidence to assist in those cases of miscarriage of justice. My hon. Friend is right to raise that.
The CCRC was set up in 1997, following the Criminal Appeal Act 1995, to investigate possible miscarriages of justice. It was the world’s first publicly funded body to review alleged miscarriages of justice, set up in the wake of notorious mishandled cases such as the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six—two high-profile cases of two groups of men, both convicted and imprisoned for connections to bombings carried out by the IRA in the 1970s.
Both sets of convictions were found, after repeated appeals, to have had serious breaches in the due process, irregularities in police evidence and, in the case of the Six, serious accusations of police brutality. All the men spent between 10 and 20 years behind bars before their convictions were eventually quashed after being ruled “unsafe”.
The royal commission reported in 1993, which led to the Criminal Appeal Act 1995, which established the Criminal Cases Review Commission in 1997. Although none of those may be a household name, as anyone who has ever been subject to a miscarriage of justice will attest, it is a deeply damaging experience and the CCRC is often victims’ only opportunity of salvation.
Before turning to the new powers, I must first explain how the CCRC operates under its current powers. The CCRC currently has the power to investigate alleged miscarriages of justice in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and to refer convictions and sentences to the relevant appeal court for a new appeal. Its jurisdiction was extended to the armed forces by the Armed Forces Act 2006 to cover courts martial and the service civilian court.
Parliament established the CCRC specifically to be a body independent of Government, and although sponsored by, and funded through, the Ministry of Justice, it carries out its operations completely independently. The commission investigates convictions on application by the offender or, in a case where the offender has died, at the request of relatives. It has special powers to investigate cases, and to obtain information which it believes is necessary to review a case. If the CCRC concludes that there is a “realistic prospect” that the Court of Appeal will overturn the conviction, it can make what is termed a “referral” and send cases back to court so that an appeal can be heard.
Applications are free to make to the CCRC and defendants cannot have their sentences increased on account of having made an application for review. In principle, cases should only be examined by the CCRC where all other routes of appeal have failed. Only in “exceptional circumstances” may the commission consider cases which have not previously been appealed. However, as the commission usually deals with cases which have already been appealed once, if the commissioners are to be able to send cases for review it is usually on account of some new evidence or legal argument that has come to light.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this important Bill. As I understand it, the Bill would bring the private evidence position of the Criminal Cases Review Commission in England and Wales into line with the position in Scotland. Would he like to reflect on that?
My hon. Friend is correct. The equivalent body in Scotland has the full powers to subpoena private evidence, whereas the CCRC does not have those powers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. That might have been an oversight in the 1995 Act, but he is right to make that point at this juncture.
The subject of the Bill hinges on what are commonly referred to as section 17 powers. Currently, section 17 of the 1995 Act gives the CCRC the power to require public bodies and those serving in them to give the commission documents or other material that may assist it in discharging its functions. That includes police, local councils, the NHS, the Prison Service and so on. It should be clear how all such bodies could and do serve as vital sources of evidence in such appeal cases. As I said to my hon. Friend, the CCRC currently does not have equivalent powers to get those materials from private organisations and individuals. The Bill contains provisions that would allow the CCRC to do so.
The House should be aware that the current working arrangements and effectiveness of the CCRC were the subject of a dedicated inquiry by the Justice Committee in the previous Session, as my hon. Friend mentioned. The impetus behind the legislation comes directly from recommendations of the Committee’s report from the inquiry, which was published in March 2015. I am grateful to have the support of several current and previous members of the Justice Committee. The Committee’s thorough inquiry ran for two months and collected evidence from legal academics and others.
My hon. Friend mentions the Justice Committee. Is he aware of comments of the former Chair of the Committee, Sir Alan Beith, who said:
“There has been a failure by successive Governments to grant the CCRC an obvious and much-needed power to require private bodies to disclose documents to it…We could see no good reason as to why it has not been introduced, considering it has universal support”?
My hon. Friend anticipates a remark I was about to make and is absolutely right to quote the then Chairman of the Select Committee. To answer what Sir Alan said, I stand here today with such a new criminal justice Bill. I hope to put right the failure of successive Governments to which he rightly referred.
I am delighted that the Bill has such widespread support from both sides of the House, including from experts in the fields of law, justice and home affairs. The co-signatories and supporters of the Bill may in themselves have grabbed the attention of fellow Members, given that they are drawn from diverse corners of the House, spanning a chasm of political and ideological opinion. They include solid figures of the traditional right such as my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), as well as the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition and the shadow Chancellor. Supporters of the Bill are hardly the most natural political allies.
As well as having supporters of diverse political colours, the Bill has the support of those who have a wide range of experience, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry), who is a criminal law barrister, and the long-standing Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). The Bill enjoys the support of both current and past members of the Justice Committee, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) and the aforementioned hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), whose names are listed as contributors to the Justice Committee’s excellent report. As hon. Members will observe, the report is slightly larger than the shadow Chancellor’s more recent preferred reading material, but I will not be tempted to throw it towards the Minister.
The reason for the wide basis of support is not that, in my first six months in this place, I have become an adept and charming schmoozer of parliamentary colleagues and someone who is able to win over a diverse range of unlikely comrades to my cause—far from it. I hope the reason for the wide basis of support is that its merits are clear. What the Bill seeks to achieve is good and necessary. The motivations for legislative change were endorsed unanimously by the all-party Justice Committee from the previous Parliament.
It will be of benefit to the House if I outline what the Bill does and how its implementation would work in practice. The Bill would insert new section 18A into the 1995 Act so that the CCRC can obtain a court order requiring a private organisation or individual to disclose a document or other material in their possession or control. The court will be able to make an order only if it thinks that the document or other material might assist the CCRC in the exercise of its functions and investigations into miscarriages of justice when there is
“a realistic chance of a conviction being overturned by the Court of Appeal”.
As with the current power to require material held by public bodies, the new disclosure requirements will apply notwithstanding any obligations of secrecy or other limitation disclosure. That will mean that companies will not be able to use excuses such as the Data Protection Act to deny the CCRC information, as the CCRC has previously experienced. It will also mean that when information carries security classification, including restricted and secret information, that will also not be able to cited as a reason for non-disclosure. That could be particularly important in cases of court martial, with which the CCRC has been involved since the Armed Forces Act 2006.
Even after the Bill is enacted, the CCRC should always attempt first to obtain information voluntarily before reverting to court order.
Will my hon. Friend clarify what safeguards will be in place to prevent abuse of these new powers?
The key safeguard is the fact that there must be a court order, with that judicial oversight. That should give assurance to all Members of this House that the appropriate safeguards are in place in the Bill.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his Bill. In seeking to ensure that the provisions of the Bill apply to England and Wales and, potentially, Northern Ireland, does he agree that the very similar provisions that have been in place in Scotland for 18 years have not resulted in any record of abused power or privacy invasion?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which is very helpful. We can use Scotland as a case study. Similar powers have been in force, as he says, for nearly two decades and there has been no recorded abuse of them.
I should state for clarity that the provisions of the Bill will extend to England and Wales and Northern Ireland, as, as we have discussed, Scotland has its own measures in place. The Bill does not contain any provision that gives rise to the need for a legislative consent motion in the Scottish Parliament or the National Assembly for Wales.
I want to elaborate now on why this change in the law is necessary. When I visited the CCRC’s headquarters in Birmingham, I saw how the section 17 powers were used. They are an essential tool in the commission’s work. Provided that the power is exercised reasonably, the CCRC’s ability to obtain public sector information is not restricted by any obligation of secrecy or limitation on disclosure. The power extends, for example, to information relevant to national security and to personal information held by the police, by the Crown Prosecution Service, in previous court material, by the NHS, by Government Departments and so on.
The commissioners have also explained to me that the absence of a power to obtain material from the private sector has often hampered their efforts. When material relevant to the CCRC’s work is held outside the public sector, the commission relies on requesting voluntary disclosure by the individuals or organisations with control of the material. Although voluntary disclosure is not uncommon, increasingly organisations regard themselves as unable to assist the CCRC as a result of statutory restrictions on the disclosure of information. Even where voluntary disclosure is made, that will often be after protracted negotiations have caused lengthy and expensive delays in the case review process.
One such example is with solicitors firms, which one would have thought would be among the most co-operative of sources. However, that is not always so. In the past the commission has seen a good level of co-operation in respect of its requests for case files from solicitors who represented applicants at trial and/or on appeal. In part, that co-operation has been thanks to the relevant professional codes of conduct. In more recent times, however, and perhaps owing to increasing pressures on legally aided defence firms, the commission has faced greater difficulties. It is often readily apparent that requests from the commission are placed at the bottom of a solicitor’s list of priorities. On occasion the commission has also been forced to enter protracted negotiations about who bears the cost of transferring the materials in question. The commission tends to encounter four typical situations that, as a result of its lack of power in relation to the private sector, operate to the applicant’s disadvantage. These are, first, the inability to obtain information from a private individual; secondly, the inability to obtain information from a private sector organisation; thirdly, partial information is provided, or a summary of information, which the commission is not in a position to scrutinise or verify; and fourthly, the information sought is obtained, but protracted negotiations with the private sector create lengthy delays in the case review process.
In the brief time remaining to me this afternoon, I shall deal with concerns expressed to me by Members and offer them reassurance. On privacy, I want to address up front one of the principal concerns that Members may have about the extension of the powers—the concern that the proposed power will be an intrusion into the lives of private individuals. Although consent and privacy are to be valued, where information, even of a personal or distressing nature, could make the difference between a person’s incarceration or freedom, it is right that the information should be requested, subject to due process and provision of strict safeguards.
Members should know that there are significant safeguards in place, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South when he intervened. The Bill provides for judicial oversight of the process. The CCRC could compel a private individual or organisation to provide material only by order of the court. All the same safeguards that currently operate in relation to section 17 disclosures would also apply, and the commission agrees that such a process would be appropriate. The main safeguard against improper intrusion is judicial oversight. As specified in clause 1(1), a person will only be obliged to provide the CCRC with that information subject to the order of a Crown Court judge.
A second area of foreseeable objection is cost. Although the Bill has no financial implications, and will not impose any financial costs or charges directly on the CCRC or private bodies, Members may be asking themselves whether the new power could place an unjustified financial burden on private companies—for example, will the power be damaging for small businesses? The best answer to this question is to look at the equivalent power as it operates in Scotland. The Scottish commission advises that there has been only one case in 15 years where a request to inspect material had led to contested proceedings in court.
Let me recap the main reasons why I believe the Bill deserves the support of the House today. First, this important power to request privately held information is currently lacking and hampering the important work of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. The limits placed on the CCR by its governing statute can hinder its working practices and limit its ability to help victims who may be factually innocent. The chairman of the CCRC, Richard Foster, has said on the record that he is confident that there have been miscarriages of justice that have gone unremedied because of the lack of this power. It is impossible to tell in retrospect whether the outcomes of any cases would have been different had additional information been made available, but I hope I have made it clear how that gap is a problem that should be fixed going forward.
In addition, this power has been lacking and wanted for a long time. The CCRC has long complained of this weakness and, as I said earlier, the Justice Committee, after a thorough inquiry, said that there has been a failure by successive Governments to right the situation. The time to right it has come. The Bill is the direct implementation of an unambiguous recommendation of the Justice Committee in the previous Parliament. The proposed new powers are supported across the board, as evidenced by the list of sponsors of the Bill.
Finally, we must consider the human aspect in this debate. Although the British system works well for the vast majority of cases, mistakes do occasionally happen. Prisons are not nice places. They are not supposed to be, which is why we use them as a criminal deterrent. However, imagine the compounding of that experience when someone has been convicted of a crime and sent to prison, when they know that they are innocent of that crime. They are victims themselves, and there are countless cases of people wrongly convicted who, due to the psychological pressures of their miscarriages of justice, end up taking their own lives, after protesting their innocence, and sometimes while still locked up in prison.
Members who have heard me speak in the Chamber before will know that, as I am a former teacher with a history degree, they are unlikely to escape without at least one reference to history. It was the great British legal thinker Sir William Blackstone—considered the pre-eminent English scholar of and most authoritative speaker on common law in his day—who said on the matter of miscarriages of justice:
“It is better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.”
I do not quite agree with that sentiment, because I believe that it would be better if both numbers were closer to zero, and the role of our justice system, and the place of the CCRC within it, is to shrink those numbers. However, I think that it is apt to quote US President Jimmy Carter:
“The measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most helpless citizens.”
Who is more helpless than those who have been wrongly convicted and failed by our justice system?
My comments will be brief, because the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (William Wragg) has set out the case for the Bill and its contents very clearly. The Opposition will support this modest but important Bill. I very much hope that the Government will respond positively to what we have heard today and indicate that they will support it.
As the explanatory notes make abundantly clear, the Bill will extend the Criminal Cases Review Commission’s power to obtain documents and other material so that it can acquire them from a person who is not employed by or serving in a public body. In other words, it will extend the commission’s powers to include private organisations and individuals. As has already been said—it is worth emphasising—this situation already exists in Scotland. As a shadow Scotland Office Minister, I think it is excellent that the House is learning from the good example that has been set in Scotland—almost a case of devolution in reverse, hopefully.
The proposal is particularly important as far as the Forensic Science Service is concerned. The Opposition’s view is that the Forensic Science Service was unnecessarily privatised. There was no difficultly when it was a public body, but it is now in the private sector. It is important that the current unnecessary delays and wasted resources are eliminated so that there is a smooth process when it is necessary to access critical information in certain legal cases. That is precisely what the Bill will do.
We have the important report from the Justice Committee, which stated in clear and unambiguous terms that
“it should be a matter of great urgency and priority for the next Government”—
meaning the current Government—
“to bring forward legislation to implement the extension of the CCRC’s powers”.
I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Hazel Grove said about his discussions with the CCRC. Again, I very much hope that the Government will take on board its informed professional comments, as well as the hon. Gentleman’s. I hope that the Bill will receive Government support and become law in due course. The Opposition will support it.
The rule of law is the bedrock of our society. Relied on at home and aspired to abroad, it is one of the things that defines what it is to live in this great country: to be free under the law. But even in the UK the rule of law can be undermined, and the principal way in which that can happen is through miscarriages of justice. The most famous among them trip off the tongue of any student of criminal law: the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, the Maguire Seven and Judith Ward. It is inevitable in a justice system that relies on humans—police officers, prosecutors, judges and juries—that human error and improper motive will creep in. Thankfully, that is rare, but the risk cannot be eliminated in every case.
We maintain the integrity of the justice system as a whole by having a robust system for dealing with miscarriages of justice. There can be no doubt that our Criminal Cases Review Commission does vital work, but it needs tools to do its job, key among which is the power to obtain disclosure. Under section 17 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1995, the commission has the power of disclosure against public bodies. The Bill seeks a modest extension of that power to private bodies and individuals. Quite why private bodies and individuals were not included in section 17 is a mystery. Even to the extent that there were ever a justification for that limitation, it has long ceased to hold good. The exclusion of private bodies is an anomaly that is neither justified nor justifiable today. The Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (William Wragg) provides a modest extension to end that anomaly and make sure that the CCRC can, with the consent of a Crown court judge, obtain all the disclosure it needs.
The absence of that power is no imagined difficulty. The briefing note provided by the commission for this debate gives a number of examples of situations where it has not been able to obtain disclosure, and a number of examples of private organisations that it would wish at times to obtain disclosures from. Banks, shops, news agencies, private health clinics, charities, campaign groups and law firms are all private bodies.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, should this Bill be enacted, its very existence will make it more likely that private companies and individuals will co-operate fully and without delay when they receive a request for information from the CCRC?
My hon. Friend is right. The knowledge that the CCRC will obtain a court order if a request for voluntary disclosure is refused will certainly provide encouragement where needed. All the private bodies I have listed may have that one piece of information that will establish that someone serving a prison sentence has been wrongly convicted. The chairman of the CCRC himself has said that
“you can be confident that there are miscarriages of justice that have gone unremedied because of the lack of that power”
to obtain disclosure from private bodies. My hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove has promoted this Bill to end that unacceptable situation and I thank him for doing so. The Bill deserves the unanimous support of this House.
Let me start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (William Wragg) on bringing this important Bill before the House and on his excellent speech. I also thank those other Members who have spoken in support of the Bill, including the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), who spoke on behalf of the official Opposition.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission performs a vital function in our justice system. When thinking about criminal justice, we tend to focus on the front end and concerns that the processes involved in bringing criminals to justice and ensuring that victims are properly supported are as effective and efficient as possible. Sometimes we tend not to focus on the times when those processes go wrong—when, for whatever reason, someone is convicted who was, in fact, innocent. The purpose of the CCRC is to ensure that those people have someone to turn to who will thoroughly investigate and consider their case and, if there is a real possibility that their conviction would not be upheld, refer their case to an appeal court. I know that Members will agree with me about the importance of the commission’s investigations, and that it should have all the powers it needs to inform them.
The commission’s counterpart in Scotland—the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission—was established with the power to compel both public and private organisations to provide it with the documents or other material necessary to its investigations. The Bill’s provisions would put the CCRC for England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the same position. To avoid confusion, I should point out that the term “person” in the Bill should be read as covering a body of persons corporate or unincorporated. That means that the measure covers all natural and legal companies, including companies and partnerships, except those serving in public bodies.
In practice, when the Scottish commission notifies a private sector body or individual that it wishes to inspect relevant material, a reminder of the statutory power to make an application to court is usually sufficient to secure voluntary compliance. The Scottish commission advised us that there has been only one case in 15 years in which a request to inspect material has led to contested proceedings in court.
Hon. Members may have seen the Justice Committee’s 12th report of the last Session, to which colleagues have referred, on its inquiry into the Criminal Cases Review Commission. One of the Committee’s most urgent recommendations was that the commission should have the powers that this Bill will give it. It argued:
“The extension of the CCRC’s section 17 powers to cover private bodies is urgently necessary and commands universal support.”
The absence of a power to obtain material from the private sector has often operated to the disadvantage of applicants to the commission. The problem has become more acute in recent years. The difficulties are best illustrated by some examples from cases that have been reviewed by the commission. The first example relates to a media organisation. Shortly after trial, a newspaper published an interview with a complainant in a rape case. It was important for the commission to establish whether she entered into negotiations to sell her story prior to giving her evidence. It could be argued that the defence was unfairly deprived of an opportunity to cross-examine her regarding her motives for making the allegations. In a case where the conviction rested solely on the complainant’s testimony and credibility, this was particularly important. Despite repeated communications with the relevant journalist and the legal department of the newspaper, no response was received and the issue could not be resolved.
The second example involved an organisation in the banking sector. In respect of a serious fraud investigation, considerations of customer confidentiality were cited in response to the commission’s requests for information, despite the commission providing assurances about how the information would be handled and disclosed. The assertions made by the applicant could not be proved or disproved.
The third example demonstrates the problem as it relates to companies that have no direct involvement or interest in a case. In a drug importation case, the commission sought timetabling and cargo information from a ferry company. In the event, the company volunteered the information, but the commission could not have compelled it to do so. If the information had not been obtained, the commission’s overall decision on the case would have been less robust.
Companies sometimes refuse to provide details of employees. For example, in a murder conviction, the commission contacted a bank to seek the employment details of a former employee, a witness at trial, as the information was directly relevant to the credibility of the employee’s testimony at trial. After long correspondence, the police liaison officer for the bank agreed to provide the information requested, although there was no obligation to do so. However, the decision to co-operate with the commission was expressed as being only because the employee had left their employment in the bank.
In the past, the commission has seen a good level of co-operation in respect of its requests for case files from solicitors who represented applicants at trial and/or on appeal. Such requests are supported, as necessary, by waivers of legal professional privilege. In part, this level of co-operation has been thanks to the relevant professional codes of conduct that apply to solicitors. However, in more recent times—perhaps owing to pressures on legally aided defence firms—the commission has faced greater difficulties. It is often readily apparent that requests from the commission are placed at the bottom of a solicitor’s list of priorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove made that point.
Files held by social services, schools and the NHS have been obtained and examined by the commission under the provisions of section 17 in other cases. However, the complainant in one case under review had been referred to a private sector counselling clinic, and despite lengthy correspondence, access to the private counselling records was denied. The significance of this information in relation to the complainant’s credibility and the safety of the applicant’s conviction remains unknown.
Charitable bodies such as the Samaritans, ChildLine and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children often hold vital information relevant to commission reviews, particularly in cases of intra-family sexual abuse. Such organisations may agree to assist when the consent of the individual concerned is obtained. If consent is not forthcoming, such organisations will generally decline to provide the commission with the information on the basis of confidentiality.
Campaign groups sometimes hold information vital to the progress of a review. In one case, a miscarriages of justice campaign group had gathered witness statements that were of apparent relevance to allegations of police misconduct. The organisation failed to respond to repeated commission requests and the statements were not obtained. The case was referred to the Court of Appeal in any event, but the statements may have provided useful additional support.
It is only right to acknowledge that the overwhelming number of private individuals approached by the commission agree to be interviewed, but some simply refuse to assist. The reasons for refusal are manifold. Some individuals do not wish to be bothered and are indifferent concerning the outcome of the commission’s investigations. Some may be hostile to the commission. Some come from gangs and may be reluctant to talk to the commission for fear of reprisals.
A key aspect of the commission’s work is the re-examination and retesting of material from crime scenes. With the abolition of the Forensic Science Service, such material will be held by private companies and may not be available to the commission. We therefore need the Bill.
The final example relates to the experts who appear as witnesses at trial. Many of them keep personal notes in addition to their professional notes and reports. Forensic medical examiners may receive information or notes from victims of crime during the course of their examinations. Short reports and second-hand accounts within NHS files are generally provided to the commission as a result of section 17. The original contemporaneous notes of interviews recorded by clinicians are not. That type of information is private rather than public, and the commission therefore cannot require its disclosure. The Bill will change that.
The commission will not simply be able to demand information or documents from private organisations or individuals. The Bill will require it to apply to the Crown court for an order, which will ensure that it can use the power only when a judge agrees it is necessary for the carrying out of its functions. We intend, once the Bill has received Royal Assent, to ask the criminal procedure rule committee to make rules of court that will ensure that, where appropriate, the court holds an inter partes hearing, giving the private organisation or individual the opportunity to make their case as to why disclosure should not be required.
The Government support the Bill because we believe that the provisions are necessary and that the terms of the Bill will ensure that the powers are used appropriately and proportionately. I therefore commend it to the House.
I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House, my hon. Friend the Minister and the Opposition Front Benchers for their support this afternoon. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).