§ '.—(1) The Commission may make a grant to any individual whose case has been referred to the Commission for consideration or who wishes the Commission to consider his case—
- (a) on the grounds that the case raises an issue of general principle which should be tested and considered in the public interest, or
- (b) by reason of any other special consideration—
§ (2) The powers under this section shall be exercised only—
- (a) under regulations drawn up by the Commission and approved by the Secretary of State, and
- (b) from within the Commission's agreed budget.
§ (3) Grants made under this section shall be applied only to the specific purposes agreed by the Commission which may include obtaining advise or assistance from a solicitor or counsel or such other person as the Commission may specify— 908
- (a) to prepare a submission to the Commission,
- (b) to conduct an investigation requested or guided by the Commission,
- (c) to respond to statements, reports and opinions disclosed by the Commission, or
- (d) to make representations to the Commission on whether a person's conviction should be referred to the Court of Appeal.'.—[Mr. Michael.]
§ Brought up, and read the First time.
§ Mr. Michael
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
The new clause deals with a power that we seek to add for the commission to make grants to individuals in special circumstances, where the commission feels that there is a good reason to give special consideration to making money available. The individuals whom we have in mind are those who allege that they have been the victims of miscarriages of justice.
On Second Reading of the Bill, we cast doubt on the Government's calculations of the costs of its operation. Indeed, we pointed out then that if we aim to ensure that people have the capacity to be represented at the outcome of the commission's consideration of their cases, when matters come to court and when decisions are taken, the explanatory and financial memorandum was extremely lightweight.
The paragraph on the financial effects of the Bill provided to assist us on Second Reading lumped together a whole range of activities and demands on the work load of different aspects of the criminal justice system, with only one passing reference to the costs of legal aid, as follows:
This increase in the workload of the courts and the widening of the powers of the magistrates courts to reopen cases is likely to give rise to total costs of about £1.7 million (including court and prosecution costs and legal aid)".It is open to doubt whether that is a correct estimate, and it is certainly questionable whether adequate support will be available for individuals in all the circumstances that may arise. At present there are often gaps, and it is clear that people who seriously believe that they have been victims of miscarriages of justice cannot obtain legal aid or other forms of support to undertake the work of providing the evidence necessary to get a court to consider their case, or to persuade the Home Secretary that there is a case that the Court of Appeal or his Department should consider further.
That is a serious problem, which has been illustrated by a variety of organisations, including Liberty and Justice. Many of us in the House have cause to be well aware of the shortcomings of the system, as a result of having dealt with individual cases involving our constituents.
So there is a gap which is not filled by the Bill. As I read the Bill, the commission does not have the capacity to choose to make a grant in circumstances in which it believes that something needs to be done to correct or avoid the continuation of a miscarriage of justice.
New clause 10 does not seek to confer a wide discretion. It confers on the commission only the power to act within the budget that is made available to it. The power is equivalent in many ways to the power given to the Commission for Racial Equality when it was established. Therefore, there is a precedent for the provision of such a power.
909 The purpose of new clause 10 is to allow for a power tomake a grant to any individual whose case has been referred to the Commission for consideration or who wishes the Commission to consider his case".It sets out the limited grounds on which such a grant might be made. The first isthat the case raises an issue of general principle which should be tested and considered in the public interest".It is surely in the public interest that justice should be done and be seen to be done, and that miscarriages of justice should be dealt with. So there is that public interest requirement.
The second ground is:by reason of any other special consideration".It is not possible to anticipate the experience that will develop as the commission undertakes its work. The new clause also limits the grant-making power to:under regulations drawn up by the Commission and approved by the Secretary of State".So the new clause does not take things outside the control of the Home Secretary and it limits grants to within the commission's agreed budget. Ministers have no reason to fear that a wide gap is being driven through proper controls or financial accountability. The new clause ensures that within the legislation there is a possibility to make grants and that new legislation will not be required if, as we suspect, such a power and such a system comes to be needed in the fullness of time.
As subsection (3) of new clause 10 says, we are looking at specific purposes such as the preparation of a submission to the commission, which can be difficult and onerous in some circumstances, undertaking an investigation in circumstances in which the commission felt that it was best undertaken by or on behalf of the applicant rather than directly by the commission, responding to statements, reports or opinions disclosed by the commission or making recommendations to the commission on whether a person's conviction should be referred to the Court of Appeal. There are circumstances in which the commission might find it extremely helpful to enable that process to take place.
The new clause does not impose obligations or onerous duties. It ensures that powers are provided in the Bill that can be triggered should the need be revealed in the fullness of time. I suggest that it is also an opportunity for the Minister to deal with the point that I made at the beginning of this brief speech. The other means of providing assistance to individuals is the existing legal aid system, which is not changed by the provisions of the Bill or, indeed, of new clause 10. There will be occasions on which individuals will seek to go through the existing legal aid system in order to prepare a submission to the commission, conduct investigations which might lead towards a submission, respond to the statements, reports and opinions of the commission or make representations to the commission. It would be helpful if the Minister gave us some reassurance about the way in which legal aid issues will be dealt with in practice.
The Law Society has expressed concern that lawyers will be required to be involved in certain processes if the commission is to be effective and the whole structure that 910 we seek to create in the Bill is to be as effective as we all want it to be. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to clarify that, as well as to respond to a new clause which we have carefully limited in its scope and direction so that Ministers have no fears about allowing the Bill to be amended. The new clause makes the Bill far-sighted and enables it to cover eventualities that might arise in the future. In that light, I hope that the Minister will respond positively to the new clause.
§ Mr. Maclean
Now that the hordes of rebellious Scots have been crushed and have retreated from the Chamber, the hon. Gentleman and I can return to the constructive dialogue that we have had throughout the debates in the Committee and in the Chamber tonight. I am grateful to him for explaining the intentions behind his new clause. Although he makes a careful and beguiling case, I regret that I am unable to accept it.
First, I am not sure what is meant byan issue of general principle which should be tested and considered in the public interestin subsection (1)(a) of the new clause. It could easily be argued that the cases most deserving of funding were those in which there was no issue of general principle beyond the issue of whether there had been a miscarriage of justice in the particular case in question. Nor am I sure what other special considerations may be thought to be relevant. In any case, there seem to be a number of practical difficulties with the scheme proposed.
If the commission were to pay out money to applicants, it could and probably would add significantly to its costs. According to the hon. Gentleman's new clause, they would be met from within the commission's existing budget, but it would have to be a budget much bigger than we would envisage setting if it did not have to pay out grants. It would also be a burden on the commission's resources in terms of the amount of time that it would take to draw up the regulations, to consider each application to see whether it met the conditions set out in subsection (1), and to ensure that each grant was used for the specific purpose agreed by the commission.
The Public Accounts Committee would be the first to condemn us if we gave a grant-making power to such a body and that body did not have full and detailed scrutiny mechanisms to make sure that the money was properly and wisely spent and the Government knew what was going on. So I am afraid that we would need a great palaver of machinery, rightly so, to satisfy our requirements and those of the PAC. I do not think that we want the commission to get bogged down in that sort of work.
In Committee the Opposition moved amendments in which they expressed their view that if the commission troubled itself with the few cases that it would have each year of people appealing against their sentence, it would be an inappropriate use of the commission's time. For the reasons that I advanced in Committee, I believe that it is an appropriate use of the commission's time, but I must admit that the Opposition's arguments tonight are weaker than those which they advanced against us in those circumstances.
I do not believe that the proposal in the new clause would be an effective use of the commission's time. Nor do I believe that the new clause is necessary as both potential applicants and those whose cases are under consideration by the commission will be able to apply for 911 legal aid to obtain the assistance of solicitors in making representations to the commission under the existing green form scheme. That is the main point.
The hon. Gentleman asked for my assurances. I am delighted to give them. Legal aid will continue to be made available to people who make applications to the commission through the green form scheme. This scheme will assist convicted persons to make representations to the commission, both at the original application stage and following the disclosure of material gathered in the course of the commission's investigations. I know that whenever I clarify something about the Bill, the hon. Gentleman says that I have made a tremendous admission and moved the Government's position considerably. I do not think that I have, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to say that he has won a marvellous concession from me tonight, I am happy to accede in the interests of brevity.
I note that subsection 3(b) of the new clause would enable the commission to make a grant for an investigation which was requested or guided by the commission. That again is unnecessary. The costs of the commission's investigations will be met by the commission or, if it requires the appointment of an investigating officer from a police force, by the force which conducts the resulting investigation. Costs of inquiries made by investigating officers appointed by public bodies other than the police will be met by the public body which originally investigated the offence in question. No additional provision for investigations by applicants is therefore necessary.
I hope that, in the light of what I have said, particularly my firm assurances on the availability of legal aid to applicants, the hon. Gentleman will feel that it is not necessary to push the new clause and will be willing to withdraw it in as nice as possible a Celtic manner, of which he and I are both exponents.
§ Mr. Michael
The Minister is trying a new approach on me—charm. I look forward to seeing whether, within the charm of his response, there are one or two nuggets. He sought to reassure us about the availability of legal aid in respect of the different activities to which I referred: the preparation of submissions to the commission; the conducting of investigations responding to items, statements and other matters that are disclosed by the commission; and making representations on whether a person's conviction should be referred to the Court of Appeal. I am grateful to him for that reassurance.
I hope that, once the commission starts its work, the reality turns out to be as generous as the Minister's words this evening. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating and we must wait and see. His words will have been noted by all those interested in such matters. Either they will be taken as the touchstone for how those matters are dealt with or they will return to haunt the Minister in the fullness of time.
The Minister has misread the new clause. If the powers are not needed, they need not be implemented. If he is right to suggest that things will be so perfect in the scheme of affairs that he set out, the provisions would simply be unused. But if, as we suspect, there are anomalies and difficulties, Ministers will say that we must wait for an appropriate opportunity to amend the legislation before they can put those matters right. The new clause provides the opportunity in advance to ensure that the legislation is sufficiently flexible to put matters 912 right as soon as the problems are recognised by Ministers, or Ministers receive recommendations from the commission in the light of its experience.
I am sorry that the Minister has seen fit to reject this constructive new clause. The proposal may be debated further in another place and the Minister may have had an opportunity to reflect on this short debate by the time one of his colleagues deals with further discussions on the Bill. In order that we may progress to other issues, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
§ Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.