HC Deb 13 March 2000 vol 346 cc14-5
8. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

If he will postpone his plans to change the right to jury trial until after the publication of the review of criminal justice under the chairmanship of Sir Robin Auld. [112579]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

No. This measure is part of the Government's programme to modernise the criminal justice system to make it more responsive to the needs of the victims of crime, of the public, and of defendants alike. This issue has been considered extensively over the past seven years, not least by the royal commission on criminal justice in 1993. On each occasion the conclusion has been the same—that reform is required. Lord Justice Auld is aware of our intention to legislate and will, no doubt, take this into account in conducting his review. However, the Lord Chief Justice has already made it clear that our measure has his support and that of an overwhelming number of the senior judiciary.

Mr. Heath

At the risk of being accused of being a Hampstead liberal, and a bearded one at that, may I suggest to the Home Secretary that those who oppose the measure do so not because they are weak on crime or because they wish to preserve the salaries of lawyers but because they have a real interest in British justice?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he has failed to persuade many Labour Members who have not yet subsided into acquiescence? Will he consider again whether there is a case for an independent and considered view to be taken before he proceeds with legislation, which in any event will fail in another place?

Mr. Straw

On independent and thorough review, this issue has been considered time without number by senior and independent people, including the members of the royal commission on criminal justice, who came to a unanimous view that the proposed change was needed in the interests of justice. On that basis, it is needed both in respect of victims and defendants. I am aware that there was some anxiety and concern among Members on both sides of the House, but I am delighted to say that there was a majority of 126 on Second Reading, and that only one Labour Member voted against the Bill at that stage.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is well aware of the research that shows that the majority of defendants who opt for Crown court trial in an either-way case plead guilty once they reach the Crown court. Those of us who have worked in magistrates courts are aware that putting off the evil day is a powerful motive for defendants. Does he agree that this approach imposes an intolerable stress on the victims of crime and prevents other defendants who are awaiting trial in the Crown court from having their cases dealt with expeditiously? Will he take that into account in proceeding with his proposals, so as to ensure that other defendants are given an equal hearing in any discussions?

Mr. Straw

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who brings considerable experience to the issue. The truth is that these are cases in which, typically, the defendant will plead guilty anyway, and knows that he or she will do so, and the amounts involved—a can of Tennents lager may have been stolen—are relatively small. They string the system out in the vain hope that they will get a shorter sentence when, in practice, they get a longer one. The Conservative party, having originally supported the proposal, has to explain why it is contributing to substantial extra delays in serious cases coming before the Crown court that could and should be tried only by the Crown court.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

The Home Secretary must recognise that he has considerable lack of conviction on this matter, having attacked the proposals—which were not supported by Conservative Members as he suggests, but put forward for consultation—when they were made by the royal commission. In view of that attack, it is a bit rich to tell the House and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) of the royal commission's support. When, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, the Home Secretary's Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No. 2) Bill is thrown out by the other place, like the (No. 1) Bill, and as he failed to convince some 29 of his own Back Benchers in last week's debate, will he recognise that, as the proposal was no part of the Labour manifesto at the last general election, he would be entirely wrong to try to force it through the other place after a defeat? Will he then lick his wounds and crawl away?

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman is being a touch economical with his recollection of the position of the previous Administration. We had it confirmed by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) only last week that, had the Conservatives won the last general election and had he been in office, he would have introduced the measure. It was not put out for consultation, but for deliberation and for decision. As for the position of the other place, I hope that it will recognise that this is the elected House and that the will of the elected House must take precedence. If the hon. Gentleman is offering the alternative suggestion, I have to tell him that having any truck with it is dangerous for the future of the Conservative party.