HC Deb 23 March 1984 vol 56 cc1319-32

'In this Act references to sentences of imprisonment will include custodial sentences under the Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955 or the Naval Discipline Act 1957 or a disciplinary court constituted under section 50 of the said Act of 1957 or a Standing Civilian Court including such sentences that have been awarded or served outside the United Kingdom or the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man.'.

Mr. Dubs

First, I want to congratulate the Bill's promoter, the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Watson), on having got it this far. Of course, I have some disagreements with the details of the Bill, some of which he knows about. Others I shall outline in our debate today and on subsequent Fridays, when we shall give the Bill the detailed scrutiny that it requires.

I mean no disrespect to the hon. Member when I say that, on examining the Bill in detail. I feel that it does not appear to have been as well thought out as it might have been. I appreciate that the Home Office has been helpful to the hon. Gentleman, but it is no compliment to the Home Office when I say that the Bill merited further thought. Points of detail show the desire to put the Bill on the statute book with speed without considering the longer-term implications for the integrity of our jury and criminal justice system. Therefore, it is a matter of regret to me that, along with my hon. Friends, I felt it necessary to table several amendments to change the Bill in major respects.

Hon. Members will appreciate that it is unfortunate that the House did not decide to give the Bill a proper Second Reading because that would have ironed out some of the Bill's defects. It would have clarified many of the issues and might indeed have shortened our deliberations today.

I understand that there is a problem regarding the composition of juries in Britain, and I am in no sense saying that there is nothing the matter and that we should simply leave the law as it stands. I recognise that there are defects and I am anxious to try to help to make the Bill as sound as possible.

The Bill's first major defect concerns those matters that are left out. It is not my intention to argue for major increases in the number of people disqualified from jury service, but there are major omissions. The fact that those omissions have occurred is recognised by the hon. Gentleman and the Under-Secretary of State. I do not know whether the Government will seek to make up for those defects later.

New clause 1 seeks to bring within the scope of the Bill people who have been given custodial sentences which have been served outside the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. On the face of it, it is absurd that a person sentenced to imprisonment in Britain who serves that sentence in Britain, should be disqualified from jury service for either a period of 10 years or for life, depending upon the nature of the sentence, when an individual who has had a similar conviction in France or Germany should, on his return to Britain, be fully eligible to serve on a jury. That makes no sense at all.

I have only to mention football hooligans to make that clear. If, after the regrettable behaviour of our football supporters abroad, one of them is convicted and serves a sentence of perhaps a week or two in gaol abroad, on his return to Britain he would be eligible to serve on a jury immediately. A football hooligan who commits his offence not in Paris, Vienna or Brussels, or some other European capital, but in London, Manchester, Liverpool or Southampton would be debarred from jury service for 10 years. I need not give many more examples to show that this must be a defect in our law. It need not apply only to British people who commit offences and serve their sentences abroad. It could also apply to people from abroad coming here, but that will be the subject of later amendments.

9.45 am
Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that people who are convicted of football hooligan offences, for which they would usually receive short sentences of imprisonment, be put on probation or made to serve a community service order, should be stopped from serving on juries?

Mr. Dubs

I am saying that it is an anomaly that we should not put on an equal basis people who have been sentenced abroad and people who have been sentenced here. The hon. and learned Gentleman's detailed points are more properly the subject of later amendments. I have serious reservations about the way in which the Bill seeks to disqualify from jury service people who have been placed on probation or who have served a community service order. However, the hon. and learned Gentleman will appreciate that I want to deal with that later. At the moment I am saying that there should be parity between people who have served sentences abroad and those who have served sentences here as regards their eligibility for jury service.

I want to reduce the disqualifications, both for community service orders and for probation, so that there would still be parity between the two. Because of the differences in the criminal justice systems of various countries, it is more difficult to equate non-custodial sentences than it is to equate custodial sentences. A month in prison is understood to be a specific sentence, whether it is served in Paris or London. Other criminal justice systems are different, so the concept of probation and community service orders are more difficult to define. However, I take the hon. and learned Gentleman's point. We can deal with that later.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

Is it common practice for foreign countries and their courts to inform the British authorities when they sentence a British national to a term of imprisonment? If not, does the hon. Gentleman seriously believe that that should be the general practice?

Mr. Dubs

As far as I know, it is not the general custom and I have serious misgivings as to whether it should be. Indeed, I do not think that it should. However, I take the hon. Gentleman's point. He will go on to ask how a provision of the sort that I am advocating in new clause 1 could be enforced. I want to come later to the question of enforcement because it runs throughout the Bill, not just in relation to the new clause.

In Committee there was widespread recognition that this was a particularly difficult area and the Home Office gave us no clear sign of how the Bill would be enforced, even for those who were sentenced and imprisoned in Britain or who served community service orders here. It is a difficult area. I am certainly not advocating that there should be a major bureaucratic system whereby one country informs another of such offences. In any case, it would have sinister implications for civil liberties if that were to happen. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 has a bearing on the Bill, and I shall say something about that later.

There are difficulties in the enforecment of the Juries Act 1974 now. It is by no means certain that all individuals who are disqualified from serving on a jury are prevented from so doing. If the nature of the disqualification is made clear to people who are empanelled on a jury, they would be committing a criminal offence by serving on that jury. In the end, that may have to be the main safeguard in the enforceability of this legislation. Any other system would have major implications for civil liberties.

I had a good look at the Juries Act 1974, the basis for this legislation, in relation to the new clauses that I have tabled. The points covered in new clauses 1 and 2 appear not to be covered by that Act. Therefore, the defect in the Act has been carried forward into the Bill. The sin of omission of the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon is not as serious as it would have been had there been scope for the provisions in new clauses 1 and 2 within the Juries Act 1974.

The Bill covers areas outside the United Kingdom—it covers the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. Later amendments will be concerned specifically with the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, so I shall not deal with those territories now. I have mentioned the problem of football hooligans and difficulties in European countries, but the issues go wider.

One other matter will impinge significantly on offences committed abroad. I understand that this Session the Government will present a Bill to allow prisoners to be transferred from one country to another.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)

indicated assent.

Mr. Dubs

The Minister nods.

As the Bill is drafted, if a prisoner serving a sentence in, for example, Holland, is, under the new proposals, to be transferred to serve the remainder of his sentence in the United Kingdom, if that is his wish, he would automatically come within the scope of the Bill. That is my interpretation. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that point. Under the proposed arrangements, the prisoner would no longer serve all his sentence in Holland, but would serve part of it in a prison in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, we do not yet know what the scope of the prisoner transfer treaty legislation will be, so we do not know which countries or offences will be covered. As far as I know, mainly European countries will be covered, and the legislation will not extend to countries where sentencing practices are different from ours. There are obvious reasons for that which are not the subject of our debate.

We would be left in an anomalous position if new clause 1 were not passed. I welcome the idea of prisoner transfer because it is right in principle that prisoners should serve their sentences, wherever possible, in their own country and near their families rather than in distant parts. However, there is a difficulty in that a prisoner transferred to this country would be disqualified from serving on a jury because he was obliged to serve the remainder of his sentence in a British prison, whereas a prisoner in a country with which we did not enter into such an arrangement would have to serve the whole of his sentence in that foreign country and, on return to Britain, would be eligible for jury service as soon as his name came on to the voting list. Within a year—or five months, if the prisoner returned to this country at the beginning of October — the prisoner would be eligible to serve on a jury. For that reason, there is a major anomaly.

Another difficulty is the reason for the latter part of new clause 1. Sometimes an offence in another country is not an offence in this country. Also, what is regarded as a minor offence in this country may be regarded as a serious offence in another country. Therefore, there would be anomalies if there were not the qualification in the second part of new clause 1— provided that the conviction would have resulted in a custodial sentence in a court in the United Kingdom or the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man. I shall give some examples. It is well known that in some countries, for religious reasons, it is illegal to drink alcohol. It is not illegal in this country. It would he absurd to disqualify someone from jury service if he had been sentenced in a foreign country for breaking its law on alcohol. Another example is that in Moscow people have been convicted for selling bibles. It is an offence in some countries to be a member of a trade union. It looks as if that will soon be an offence in this country, but we have not quite got there yet.

Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

The situation is not as clear as the hon. Gentleman makes out. A person who sells bibles in Moscow might also be unjustly charged with an offence that, if committed in this country, on conviction, would carry a custodial sentence. However, for a so-called crime of selling bibles we would not impose such a sentence. The comparison is not as simple as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Dubs

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Sometimes the offence is not selling bibles. Sometimes it is described as an offence against the state. Acts such as the Official Secrets Act concern offences against the state. Therefore, it is difficult in one new clause to cover all the possibilities. We should have had not one new clause but about 15, but that would have been unduly complicated and beyond my drafting abilities.

Nevertheless, as no proposal was forthcoming from the Government when the Bill was debated in Committee, it would be wrong for the House to allow the measure to go through without the opportunity to consider the implications of the points that the hon. Gentleman and I have made. Otherwise, we should do a disservice to the concept of a jury system that works sensibly and is widely understood.

I shall give one or two other examples. Sometimes political refugees come to this country, who, after a time, would normally be eligible for jury service, but they may have run foul of the law in their own countries. That may be why they sought admission to this country as political refugees. It would be absurd for us to penalise them, by denying them their civil rights, for an offence committed in another country. If we penalised them, that would be in breach of the standards that we advocate.

An example is the number of refugees who have sought admission to this country from Iran, who were fleeing for their lives and may have run foul of the law in that country for reasons that we would consider not reprehensible but worthy. People who object to regimes in other countries such as South Africa, El Salvador and Chile, make their way to this country as political refugees. We would not wish to penalise them. That is why I inserted the provision that the conviction would have resulted in a custodial sentence in a court in the United Kingdom". It is a difficult matter. I appreciate that the way in which people are charged in a foreign country would have to have some influence on the way in which the charge was interpreted here.

Mr. Waller

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, if his new clause is to be practical, it would be necessary for someone in this country to make a value judgment about whether the charge was trumped up or genuine?

10 am

Mr. Dubs

I accept that the wording of new clause 1 is defective to that extent, if not in other respects, because of the difficulty of interpreting the nature of charges in other countries. Whether a charge would be equivalent to a charge in this country is a quite different matter. In practice, it would not apply to all that many people. Individuals coming from abroad to Britain, possibly as political refugees, would not be eligible to go on the voting list, which is a precondition of being selected for jury service. Section 1 of the 1974 Act provides that eligibility applies if he is for the time being registered as a parliamentary or local government elector and is not less than eighteen nor more than sixty-five years of age; and he has been ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man for any period of at least five years since attaining the age of thirteen. Some of those about whom we are talking would be debarred from serving on juries because of the 1974 Act. But whereas the criterion of being on a voting list is clear and can be tested and seen objectively, the qualification that someone should have been in this country for at least five years since attaining the age of 13 is rather more difficult. I doubt whether all those who serve on juries necessarily qualify in that respect.

Given the length of time that people will be disqualified under the Bill, we shall have to consider the matter under a later amendment. My only concern is to bring a little sanity to what would appear to be a major anomaly. Some of the examples I gave may be a little far-fetched, but the question of British football hooligans or other Britons committing offences abroad, serving sentences abroad and then returning to Britain is relevant to the Bill—even if, because of the existing nature of the qualification arrangements under the 1974 Act, some of the examples I gave would not be relevant until people had been in this country long enough to qualify for jury service.

New clause 2 concerns a different matter. It deals with people who have been sentenced by court martial or standing civilian court under the various statutes specified in the new clause. Such people would mainly be in the armed forces, or civilians working in association with and helping the armed forces in some station abroad. I interpret the Bill as meaning that any soldier court martialled and given a custodial sentence—indeed, possibly some other sentence—in Britain would be disqualified. Although that is my interpretation of the Bill, there is an element of ambiguity and I would welcome some clarification of the matter.

It would clearly be anomalous if a soldier who had committed an offence which would also be an offence under civilian law were allowed to serve on a jury subsequent to his discharge from the forces, while an ordinary citizen would be disqualified. That is the basic thinking in trying to get new clause 2 within the ambit of the Bill.

There are one or two difficulties. Not all sentences by court martial are civilian offences. I have been studying information about custody within the armed forces. It is not easy to obtain, but I understand that there are two service detention establishments in Britain — the royal naval detention quarters at Portsmouth and the military corrective training centre at Colchester. When I did my national service, we called them glasshouses. Perhaps that expression is still used.

There may be a number of similar establishments abroad, but I do not have the details of them. There are bound to be such establishments wherever British troops are serving. It probably depends on the severity of the sentence whether a person will serve his sentence abroad or whether he will be brought back to Colchester or Portsmouth. The figures that I have apply to both Colchester and Portsmouth. Some of the offences would be parallel with civilian offences.

I obtained my figures from the minutes of evidence given to the 1976 Select Committee dealing with the Armed Forces Bill, and they relate to 1975. They show that in that year 1,328 military people were admitted to the military corrective training centre at Colchester and 882 to Portsmouth. The offences included vehicle offences, indecency, drugs, violence and theft. However, they also included two offences that would hardly have a civilian parallel—desertion or absence without leave, for which 714 persons were admitted to Colchester and 282 to Portsmouth, and disobedience or insubordination, for which 27 persons were admitted to Colchester and 229 to Portsmouth. I wonder about the differences between the figures for the two establishments, but that is not relevant now.

Obviously it would be necessary to look at the nature of the offence. It would hardly be right that desertion or absence without leave from the armed forces, for which a custodial sentence had been imposed by a court martial, should disqualify someone from jury service. I appreciate that it is a tangled and complex area. To allow for all the possibilities would make what is a very simple Bill into one that would be far too complicated.

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Gentleman is giving a virtuoso performance. He is proposing a new clause and then arguing against it. What is he saying to the House? Is it that the Bill should include all court martials, or that because they comprise some offences that are not general civilian offences we should not include them? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is just taking up time that he should not take up.

Mr. Dubs

The last possibility put forward by the Minister is not correct. I have put forward a new clause but I have admitted that there may be some anomalies in its wording. We had no guidance in Committee from either the Minister or the promoter of the Bill, so it is reasonable to put questions to the Government. It is clear that the Minister will admit that there is a major defect in the Bill. It is reasonable for me to put forward the new clause even though I appreciate that there may be technical difficulties in one or two respects. I was hoping for more help from the Minister as he has had the opportunity to study the Bill in far more detail than I have been able to do.

Mr. Lawrence

A more substantial defect and criticism of what the hon. Gentleman said is that existing law already makes provision for the disqualification of persons who have been convicted under the Acts that he has cited. He must make a case that it is necessary to introduce the new clause at all. Is he really arguing that the Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957 are not already covered by existing legislation and that, therefore, they must be included in any amendment?

Mr. Dubs

I have studied the Juries Act 1974 several times. I cannot find any provision covering my intention in new clause 2. My understanding is that, currently, a soldier may serve six months in custody in Colchester, could be discharged from the forces and would be eligible to serve as a member of a jury as soon as his name went on the electoral register. If that is wrong, it is a misinterpretation on my part.

The fact remains that because of the wider provisions of the Bill — that is, the larger number of people who will be disqualified — the new clause must have relevance, whether or not I am right on the first point. I am arguing the point for the sake of logic and consistency, not because I want to get into the deeper complexities of some offences which are military and not civilian offences.

As I pointed out, I am concerned because not all sentences before courts martial are civilian offences. It is also difficult to draw a precise parallel between probation and community service orders in civilian courts and what happens to members of the armed forces, because the punishments are of a different order and, again, there is difficulty in equating a military punishment with a civilian one.

We have arrived quickly at some tangled points of detail. Nevertheless, there is a point of principle here and there are defects in the Bill. Probably the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon was reluctant, if he thought of the point at all, to deal with it because it would have made the Bill more complicated. I am simply saying that, while we are considering what is a significant measure in terms of the jury system, we should not readily allow anomalies either to creep in or to be perpetuated.

Mr. John Watson (Skipton and Ripon)

I am grateful for the opportunity of a Report stage and — glancing hopefully at the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs)—a Third Reading for the Bill today.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Battersea for the personal diligence with which he has researched the measure and for the painstaking care with which he has combed through every line. The attendance on the Labour Benches behind him, at least for the first 30 minutes of his speech, was a living testament to the extent to which his sentiments are shared by his hon. Friends.

The hon. Gentleman said that he meant no offence to me when he said that the Bill might have merited further thought. I hope that he will accept that I mean no offence to him when I say that the same could be said about some of the amendments. I can see a certain degree of logic behind new clause 1, although I shall, for other reasons, ask the House not to support it. If the purpose of the Bill is to keep serious criminals off juries, obviously there is a strand of logic in saying that it should not matter too much whether he is a criminal in the United Kingdom or anywhere else in the world. That I understand and acknowledge. However, that understanding and acknowledgement is not sufficient to lead me to support the new clause.

One of the great merits of the Bill as drafted is that it is simple to understand. The disqualification from jury service is based on the sentence received. In being sentence-based it has the benefit of simplicity. It follows, however, that the Bill, if it were to apply to anywhere other than the United Kingdom, could apply only to a legal and penal system which had a sentencing policy directly compatible with ours. That situation does not exist elsewhere in the world. The hon. Member for Battersea may mention other countries, but no other country has a sentencing policy directly comparable with ours, and immense complications would creep in if an amendment on the lines that he has suggested were adopted.

10.15 am

The secondary purpose of the Bill is to ensure that people in Britain who serve on a British jury have faith in the British system of justice. There is no reason why somebody who feels that he has been offended by the Botswana or Saudi Arabian system of justice should carry that offence forward into a feeling of offence against the British system of justice. Indeed, the reverse might have occurred; his faith in the British jury system could have been restored as a result of the treatment that he received in some other country.

I ask the House to reject the new clause because it would be impracticable and unworkable. Not only would it ask people to consider what offences they might have committed in the past and where they might have been committed; it would ask the highly hypothetical question whether those offences, if committed in the United Kingdom, would have resulted in a custodial sentence. That would be an entirely unrealistic question to ask any potential juror.

I ask hon. Members to put themselves in the position of somebody who happened to be abroad seven or eight years ago. That person is now living at home in Bishops Stortford or somewhere suitably anonymous in the home counties. Through the letterbox one day drops a little form inviting him to serve on a jury. At the bottom of page 4 of the form he sees the small print of the new clause. At that point he remembers the occasion, seven years previously, when his ship put into port at, say, Fernando Po. He remembers the port well. He remembers the evening, the night club, what went on afterwards and, with dismal regret, he remembers the following morning in the local magistrates court and the sentence that he then received.

He is now asked to remember whether, if that offence had been committed in the United Kingdom, it would—not could, but would — have resulted in a custodial sentence. He must, in addition, put himself in the position of the average magistrate on the Clapham omnibus and try to decide whether that offence committed at that time would, under British law, have resulted in his being sent to prison. On the basis of that judgment he must fill in his jury form. If that judgment is held to be in error by some court official who comes to the conclusion that the offence would have resulted in a prison sentence in the United Kingdom, the potential juror would have committed an offence through filling in the jury form falsely. Because of that impracticality, the new clause would damage the Bill.

The second new clause has a greater strand of logic to it, a strand that I can cheerfully accept, though it is virtually superfluous as the law exists. The hon. Member for Battersea said that he had turned several times to the 1974 Act. It is regrettable that he did not turn to the 1967 Act which, if not the parent of the Bill, is at least one of the grandparents. In that Act there is reference to the Criminal Justice Act 1961, section 38(2)(b) of which refers to custodial sentences awarded in the armed forces and covers virtually all the points that the hon. Gentleman made. The House can, therefore, readily reject both new clauses.

Mr. Lawrence

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Watson) on bringing forward a much-needed measure, which will make a substantial contribution to the public appreciation of the sanctity of the jury system. It will remove some of the criticism and absurdity when people who have no interest in justice are sitting on juries and thereby taking an important part in the administration of justice.

I thank the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs) for his close interest in the Bill because it is important that even the most simple and necessary of measures should be made subject to close scrutiny. Only by that process can we make sure that every eventuality is covered and that matters that would otherwise slip by are given due attention.

I do not, however, agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon if he is saying that we should be attacking only the evil of someone who has contempt for the British legal system. That is one of the evils that we must be opposing but it is not by any means the only one. I do not accept that those who have a clear and proven propensity to dishonesty should sit on our juries, irrespective of whether they have a contempt for the British system of justice. I do not think that those who are mentally unstable and given to acts of violence for which they have been punished in courts of law should sit on our juries, irrespective of whether they may or may not have contempt for the British legal system. If my hon. Friend is advancing the Bill on the narrow basis that it must deal only with someone who has contempt for the British legal system, I beg leave to disagree with him. I think that the Bill's attention should go wider than that.

That would bring me logically to support new clause 1. The spirit of the clause is right for the reasons that I have given. Any kind of acutely dishonest person should not sit on juries, and the same goes for any violently unstable person who has been proven to be unstable. However, logic is one thing and practicality is another, and I am inclined to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon that it is somewhat impracticable to apply the criteria that would be necessary in the circumstances to make new clause 1 effective.

However, a certain amount of justification for the clause will be joined to this measure in due course. For if the Repatriation of Prisoners Bill becomes law, those who are eligible for sentences of imprisonment in Britain, even though they have been imposed abroad, will automatically be covered by the provisions in the Bill to a substantial extent. Those who would otherwise be outside the ambit of the Bill will be brought into it. Some of the difficulties that the hon. Member for Battersea envisages will be embraced within the system in any event. I accept that the impracticalities of new clause 1 would be considerable and therefore reluctantly, for there is much merit in the spirit of the hon. Gentleman's arguments, I must support the opposition to new clause 1. I do not see any point in introducing a new measure to the statute book which is too complicated for people immediately to understand.

As for new clause 2, I make no criticism of the hon. Member for Battersea for not knowing that offences under military legislation come within the ambit of existing civil legislation if they result in custody. Why should he know that merely by reading the parent legislation? I expect that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will confirm what I have just said with all the authority that he brings to these matters. If that is so, and my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon and I seem to be in agreement, there is no point in cluttering up the statute book with additional words that are unnecessary. I do not think that there will be many left in doubt that the position is well covered by existing legislation. I join in the opposition to new clause 2.

Mr. Mellor

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Watson) on introducing the Bill and on having taken it so far. I hope very much that the House will enable the Bill to pass successfully through its consideration on Report and will give it a Third Reading today. On behalf of the Government, I pledge our total support for it.

It is clear to us that there are too many people with quite serious criminal records who are permitted by the present arrangements to serve on juries, because the present system of disqualifications is outmoded. It has been rendered outmoded by the emergence of new sentences such as suspended sentences and community service orders, expressly devised alternatives to imprisonment that catch people who 15 to 20 years ago would have gone to prison but who now do not. As a consequence, they do not find themselves disqualified. This is not acceptable and the issue has been drawn to our attention in many newspaper articles, which have highlighted the consequences of convicted criminals serving on juries. We discussed some of the cases in Committee and if necessary I shall remind the House, as I know my hon. Friend will, of some of them later if anyone really needs persuading that the Bill is necessary.

The proposals of my hon. Friend will markedly widen the bands of disqualification, but in no sense does he go too far. I shall demonstrate later that the Bill contains relatively modest proposals compared with others that have been put before the House.

If the integrity of the jury system is to be maintained, it is crucial that people should not serve on juries who might be seen in the light of their criminal records to have little or no allegiance to the system of justice and no interest in maintaining it. I hope that that will be the view of all those who are gathered in the Chamber today. I cannot think of anyone on the Opposition Benches who would have the remotest interest in trying to perpetuate a situation in which those with lengthy criminal records were permitted to serve on juries.

The hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs) began rather pretentiously by talking about difficulties. We shall see during the course of what promises to be a lengthy and interesting day precisely what the nature of those difficulties is. At present we see them only "through a glass darkly". There is some evidence that the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman sees are those on the side of making it more difficult for those with criminal records to serve on juries. However, there is more than a hint—this is a point to which I shall return if later debates take their promised course—that the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman finds are those that will lead to too many crooks continuing to serve on juries. If that is the way in which his argument develops, I am not sure that that will be regarded outside the House as a particularly reputable argument to be advanced in the House by a spokesman of the official Opposition.

We shall find whether on these matters of detail the difficulties upon which the hon. Gentleman dwelt at considerable and perhaps inordinate length, especially in moving the new clause, are those of real substance or are only difficulties that exist in his own mind, rather in the way of the man who thinks that he has pink elephants in his drawing room, is utterly convinced that they are there, and takes a great deal of persuading that they are not. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) has said, only those who are sentenced by a court martial overseas to 28 days or less and are not sent back to Britain will not be covered by the Bill.

I do not want to take up the time of the House by repeating the arguments that were advanced so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon. My hon. Friend pointed out with striking eloquence the difficulties presented in new clause 1.

The hon. Member for Battersea is starting what promises to be a lengthy day as close to a good point as he is likely to get. At least he has made reference to a possible difficulty and hiatus in the Bill—one that we all acknowledge. Plainly, if someone is convicted of a very serious offence overseas, it can be said that he should be brought within the provisions of the Bill. If there were an easy way of doing that, I would be much attracted to the idea. However, there is no consistency in sentencing practice outside the United Kingdom, or any consistent view of what or what is not a criminal offence.

If minded to make such a provision—and there are reasons why, in many cases, I would want to do so—we would have to indulge in the speculative venture of predicting what the sentence might or might not have been had the individual committed the offence and been brought to book in Britain. That would be contrary to the interests of justice overall to a greater degree than the danger to justice that is posed if people return after serving in foreign prisons and are then called to jury service. The point is narrowly balanced, but, on balance, I am persuaded by the eloquence of my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon that we are right to resist it.

The hon. Gentleman's principal concern seems to be that the civil rights of offenders should not be denied. There is therefore a slight illogicality, to put it mildly, in his advancing a new clause which involves the very difficult exercise of predicting — presumably not just upon the view of the offender — what the sentence imposed in this country would have been. That does not sit easily with the hon. Gentleman's primary concern which, to judge from his arguments in Committee, is that the civil rights of offenders should not be violated by the proposals in the Bill. Our concern is for the best interests of justice.

Mr. Dubs

The Minister's accusations against me are totally unfounded and have no basis in the new clause. The upshot of what the Minister is saying is that it would be too complicated to change the Bill in order to pre vent a British football hooligan sentenced abroad from serving on a jury, whereas a similar football hooligan sentenced in this country would be debarred.

Mr. Mellor

Yes, that is precisely what I am saying. Because of the reasons connected with people sentenced in Arab countries for drinking offences and so on, it 'would be difficult to remove that anomaly. Although the hon. Gentleman detained the House for 33 minutes, he did not suggest any practical way in which that distinction could be made. That suggests that, in the case of his new clause, all is not quite as it appears on the surface.

It is only fair that I should give the hon. Gentleman candidly, on the first opportunity that I have to do so on the Floor of the House, my initial impression of his new clauses. I did so with equal forthrightness in relation to the amendments that he tabled in Committee. I believe that his concern with the Bill is that it attempts to keep too many crooks off juries. If he wishes to make lengthy speeches today in order to tell me that I am wrong, I will give him three cheers. I hope that in the hours of debate before us he will make it clear that the official Opposition share the concern of the police force, many members of the public and many reputable organs of the press about the presence on juries of a number of people who 20 years ago would have been disqualified but who, because of an uncorrected anomaly, are now free — notwithstanding a lengthy list of convictions—to serve on juries. If he can show that the problems that that will pose—the possibility of the bringing in of perverse verdicts and the fact that such people would be much more readily open to bribery or blackmail—are of as much concern to the Opposition as they are to me, this debate will have been a useful exercise.

10.30 am
Mr. Dubs

I will return to the point that the Minister has put to me when we discuss the later amendments. However, if we follow the logic of his arguments, is he not saying that anybody who is convicted of any criminal offence in this country, even if the sentence is a fine, should be debarred from serving on a jury? I am not saying that too many crooks are being kept off juries. I am saying that there is a dividing line and one must decide where to draw it.

Mr. Mellor

No doubt the hon. Gentleman will refine his points during the debate, but if that is all that he wishes to say I shall have a little more sympathy for his position, even if I cannot agree with him.

Many people would prefer the list of disqualified persons to be widened even further than it is by this measure. When the hon. Gentleman rehearsed his arguments in Committee, it was not just my hon. Friends who were profoundly sceptical. The hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Ryman) who, having been a practitioner in the criminal courts for some 20 years, is more concerned with the administration of justice and a little less troubled about interference with the civil rights of criminals, also felt that this was too modest a measure, and indeed gave the hon. Gentleman the biggest tongue-lashing that he has probably ever had from a colleague.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mellor

I will give way in a minute. I do not include the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) in my strictures. I know that he is troubled by many of these points.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) introduced a private Member's Bill last Session which would have disqualified anyone who had been convicted of an offence that could have led to a sentence of imprisonment being imposed — whether or not it did so — unless the sentence was one of conditional or absolute discharge. Under such a Bill over 1 million people would have been disqualified. I made it clear that I supported that measure. However, it met with some opposition, and my hon. Friend has therefore thought it right to restrict the grounds of disqualification to come to terms with that opposition.

The House of Lords contains many distinguished Members with considerable experience of legal matters, and it is right that they should play an active part in these proceedings. Last Session, Lord Wigoder introduced a measure providing for the extension of disqualification to those convicted on two occasions of offences that could have been tried on indictment, even if they were in the event tried in magistrates courts. That formulation was too complex. My hon. Friend has thought about these suggestions and come back to the House with a measure that in effect merely recognises the advances and changes in penal policy since the present list of disqualifications was formulated in the 1967 Act after the Morris committee sat in 1965. Suspended sentences and community service orders are express alternatives to custody, and one must assume that anyone convicted and sentenced in that way would otherwise have gone to prison.

Mr. Soley


Mr. Mellor

It is also clear that as a result of the dramatic increase in resources the probation service is now better equipped than ever to deal not just with the minor offender but with more serious offenders. It therefore seemed right to my hon. Friend—and I agree with him—that we should extend disqualification to those who have been sentenced to a term of probation. My hon. Friend recognises that at this point he is drawing near to a borderline. He therefore halved from 10 to five years the length of time for which someone will be disqualified. Intellectually, this is a cogent set of proposals.

I have praised the hon. Member for Blyth Valley, and eureka, he has appeared. He and my learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) and a number of criminal law practitioners whom I know only too well believe that this proposal is not too severe but too modest.

Against that background, we will view with ever-increasing scepticism the proposals of the official Opposition to water down what is already a fairly effectively watered down proposal.

Mr. Soley

I had not intended to intervene at this stage, although I intended to do so later. I do so now because the Minister has taken the argument much wider than I expected. He cited the example of suspended sentences. As we know from his public statements, he is well aware that the effect of such sentences has been to increase rather than to decrease the number of people going to prison because the powers were inappropriately used and added a further rung to the ladder of escalation to prison——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Paul Dean)

Order. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) has been tempted by the Minister to go rather wide. I appreciate that the Minister is trying to help the House by setting the scene, as it were, for the amendments which are to follow. Nevertheless, we must not anticipate amendments or stray into a Second Reading debate.

Mr. Mellor

I was conscious of straying in that direction and I accept your courteous guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should merely add that I am not prepared to suggest that the courts have been using the powers improperly, but anyone who has transgressed to the extent of receiving a suspended period of imprisonment should not, in my view, play a crucial part in the administration of justice in the 1980s.

If that is the division between the position of my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon and the Government and that of the official Opposition, for which the hon. Member for Hammersmith speaks in another capacity, let us be clear about it as the public should know what credibility to attach to recent rather populist observations from the Leader of the Opposition suggesting that law and order policy would be safe in the hands of the Labour party. As the hours roll on, we shall listen with great interest to the official Opposition spokesman on this as I believe that the proposition that law and order is safe with Labour is very much on trial in the Opposition response to my hon. Friend's Bill.

Question put and negatived.

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