Nick responds to the Justice Secretary's statement on witness anonymity

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con):

I am grateful to the Justice Secretary not only for early sight of his statement but for the open way in which he and the Attorney-General have consulted the official Opposition as they tackled what we all agree is a very difficult question. We recognise that the Law Lords' judgment revealed a dilemma. On the one hand, the use of anonymous evidence has allowed witnesses to be protected and successful prosecutions to be brought. As Sir Igor Judge said:

"Without witnesses, justice cannot be done."

On the other hand, it must be paramount that trials be fair. However valuable anonymous evidence can be, it cannot be justified if its use undermines justice.

Does the Justice Secretary agree with me that while the judgment of the Law Lords has caused immediate problems that must be addressed, their duty is to uphold justice and the law, and that some of the personal attacks on the judiciary that we have seen this week are wholly unjustified? The Law Lords have invited Parliament to settle this question. Indeed, as the Justice Secretary noted, Lord Bingham said that the problem of witness intimidation may very well call for Parliament's urgent attention. We appreciate the danger that trials will collapse. No one wants to see a situation where violent criminals evade justice because of a hiatus in the law.

We recognise our constitutional duty to scrutinise as best we can all legislation, especially emergency legislation, and not to attempt to hinder the Government improperly. However, for emergency legislation to be justified, the House will want to be assured that there is a pressing need and to understand the scale of the problem. Estimates of the number of cases affected have varied widely-from the claim of around 40 by the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, to other suggestions of hundreds. Can the Justice Secretary say when he will be in a position to indicate more clearly the number of cases affected and their nature? Will he also undertake to publish an assessment of the growth and nature of witness intimidation, so that judgment may be exercised about the severity of the problem? Can he tell us what the Government are doing to ensure that victims and witnesses receive the support and protection they need, beyond the granting of anonymity during a trial?

We welcome the Justice Secretary's indication that these measures could be refined in the forthcoming law reform, victims and witnesses Bill, but will he accept that the sunset clause to which he referred in this emergency legislation should be an express time limit on the face of the Bill? The House should be wary of emergency legislation with an open-ended time scale.

My party is committed to working with the Government in a constructive way to deal with this problem, but will the Justice Secretary consider carefully whether it is wise to rush through all stages of the Bill in this place in one day? The history of one-day legislation is not a happy one. Even if we need to pass laws urgently, we must do so carefully, particularly where public safety and the liberty of the individual are concerned.

Can the Justice Secretary provide more clarity on the Bill's application and how it will apply retrospectively? In particular, what will happen in cases in which anonymous evidence has already been given but the trial is still in progress? Will these provisions act to ensure that existing convictions are not threatened unless the trial was otherwise unfair? Where the adversarial system cannot operate fairly because one side is denied vital information, is there not a case for adopting a more inquisitorial approach? In the New Zealand legislation, the judge is permitted to appoint special counsel to investigate important considerations of witness credibility. What consideration has the Justice Secretary given to granting similar powers to English judges?

The use of anonymous witnesses in criminal trials should always be a last resort, not a first response. Does the Justice Secretary therefore agree that the purpose of the legislation that he has announced today should be not simply to allow the use of anonymous evidence, but to ensure above all that justice is done?

Nick Herbert