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Constituency Visit

Q11. [83679] Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): What plans he has to visit Southend, West.

The Prime Minister: I have no plans to visit Southend--and I rather think that the hon. Gentleman did not either, until he saw the writing on the wall in Basildon.

Mr. Amess: There you are, Madam Speaker. Labour has never got over the fact that we kept Basildon for the Conservatives--and today half my old constituency is still represented by a Conservative. Anyway, it is just as well that the Prime Minister is not going to visit Southend, West, given the anger that is felt there about the way in which he has broken up the United Kingdom.

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If the Prime Minister did visit my constituency, however, he would learn at first hand about the effect of reducing class sizes to 30 and under. That policy means that parental choice will be ended this autumn. Why do the Prime Minister, his party and his Liberal partners in crime despise working-class people so much that they want to prevent them from having the choice that he and his colleagues have as a result of their power and money?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman says that working people in Southend will not support the Government's policies. I believe that they support the statutory minimum wage introduced by us, the 20 per cent. rise in child benefit introduced by us and the £40 billion of investment in schools and hospitals introduced by us--and they certainly support the lowest interest rates for more than 30 years.


Q12. [83680] Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): Why should a Member of the House of Commons who has a Scottish seat and represents some 52,000 people be paid the same as a Member of this House who has an English seat and represents some 100,000, given that after 1 July, when the Scottish Parliament starts to act, the Member with a Scottish seat will have only half a job? Is that the Prime Minister's idea of fairness at work?

The Prime Minister: I do not agree with what the hon. Lady says. I think that it would be wrong to have two classes of Member of Parliament. When Stormont was sitting in the 1960s and before, we had precisely the same arrangement in relation to Northern Ireland. The argument used by a then Conservative Prime Minister is the argument that I use now: it is in the interests of the United Kingdom that we have devolution, it is fair that we have devolution, and to have two classes of Members of Parliament would be wrong.

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): Given the Government's pledge in advance of the election to reduce class sizes for every five, six and seven-year-old in the country, will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Telford and Wrekin council and Shropshire county council, which have delivered on that pledge to infants in my constituency--not on schedule, not one year ahead of schedule, but, because of Government funding, two whole years ahead of schedule?

The Prime Minister: The fact that more than 130,000 five, six and seven-year-olds are now in classes of under 30 who would not be otherwise, and the fact that the size of primary school classes is falling for the first time, underscore this Government's commitment to education. Once again, every single one of those measures has been opposed by the Conservative party.

Q13. [83681] Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Is it all right to lift the beef-on-the-bone ban in one part of the United Kingdom, but not in another?

The Prime Minister: That, of course, is what devolution provides for. I hope that that was a statement of support from the hon. Gentleman.

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We introduced the ban because of the advice of the Chief Medical Officer. The reason why the issue of any ban on British beef has arisen is, of course, BSE--and the hon. Gentleman will know who was responsible for

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introducing BSE. That is, I am afraid, an outstanding example of the rare combination of incompetence and financial profligacy that was the true legacy of the last Conservative Government.

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Jury Trial

3.30 pm

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will inform the House as to his proposed restrictions on trial by jury.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary sends his apologies. He has a longstanding commitment to speak at the Police Federation conference. I am sure that hon. Members would want him to keep that commitment.

In response to a written question that appeared on Tuesday's Order Paper, the Home Secretary has announced--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister. I ask Members who are leaving to do so less noisily. We still have business to do here.

Mr. O'Brien: Thank you, Madam Speaker.

The Home Secretary has announced that the Government propose to change the way in which the mode of trial is determined for those cases that are triable either way.

In 1993, the royal commission on criminal justice and, more recently, the 1997 Narey review of delay in the criminal justice system recommended that defendants should not be able to choose to be tried in the Crown court in either-way cases where magistrates have indicated that they would be content to hear the case.

We have considered that recommendation, along with the responses to the consultation paper that the Home Secretary issued on 28 July last year. Today's answer to the parliamentary question indicates that we will be introducing legislation, when parliamentary time allows, to abolish the ability of defendants to decide for themselves whether to be tried in a magistrates court or the Crown court in either-way cases. Magistrates should decide whether the trial should properly take place in the Crown court.

Some believe that to remove the defendant's veto on the magistrates' decision that they should hear a case would erode fundamental individual liberties that were established in the middle ages, if not by Magna Carta itself. However, although trial by jury is ancient, a defendant's ability to choose to be tried by a jury rather than by the justices was introduced in 1855.

The Government agree that jury trial is right for certain sorts of case. The question is whether it should be available on demand by a defendant, or whether it should be restricted to business that objectively warrants it. In the same way as defendants do not have a choice of which magistrate, judge or jury hears their case, we believe that defendants should not be able to choose where their case is tried. In Scotland, there is no ability to elect for trial. Indeed, the prosecution decides the venue. I know of no other country in which such an ability to elect is allowed on this scale.

The majority of cases in which the defendant elects for Crown court trial result eventually in guilty pleas, but only after greater inconvenience and worry to victims and witnesses, and at considerable extra cost, sometimes using

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up valuable police time to little effect. Home Office research shows that nine out of 10 people who elect to be tried in the Crown court have previous criminal convictions. It is clear that some persistent offenders are abusing the system of election. The Government's proposal will end the practice that many rightly regard as a manipulation of the criminal justice system: defendants demanding Crown court trial for no good reason other than to delay proceedings and the evil day when they should be sentenced.

There will be safeguards for those of good character. When determining the mode of trial, magistrates will be required to have regard not only to the defence's representations, but to such features as the gravity of the offence and the complexity of the case, as legislation already requires. There will be an added safeguard, in that the effect of conviction and the likely sentence on the defendant's livelihood and reputation should be taken into account.

In addition to the automatic right of appeal to the Crown court against conviction, defendants will be given an extra safeguard--a right of appeal to the Crown court against the magistrate's decision on mode of trial. We believe that our proposals will ensure that justice is delivered in a fair, just and efficient way.

Mr. Hogg: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response. Does he understand the concern in this House that the Home Secretary should have failed to make a statement in this House with regard to a matter of this magnitude, but rather preferred to announce it outside on the radio this morning, and--as I understand it--in a speech this afternoon? I hope that proposals of this importance will be made the subject of a White Paper and, thereafter, that a Bill will be published early and then referred to the Special Standing Committee procedure.

Is it true that the proposals are motivated primarily by considerations of finance, not by considerations of justice? Will the proposals apply to persons of previously good character? If so, does the Minister understand the real concern that will be felt in the House? In respect of the right of appeal, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that any proposals to that effect will give the trial judge an unfettered discretion in the matter of the decision of the magistrates court, that there should be no presumption in favour of that decision, and that the trial judge should have a right to take into account the damage to the reputation and good name of the defendant?

Finally, will the hon. Gentleman tell the House precisely the class of offences to which the present proposals relate?

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