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Mr. O'Brien: As for the way in which the matter was announced, the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware that the Home Secretary has a reputation for being scrupulous about the prerogatives of the House. He certainly intends no discourtesy and would regret it if anyone believed otherwise. The Home Office consults on a wide range of issues, and normally reports the results--if there is a wide-ranging series of conclusions--in a statement. However, a more narrowly based statement of a broad intention is often given in a written answer, as it was today. In due course, perhaps a consultation paper or a White Paper on the detail might be the time for a statement.

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In the meantime, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was to speak to the Police Federation conference. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will know that the Police Federation conference--like party conferences and other events--is a place where broad-based statements can be made. My right hon. Friend was anxious to be scrupulous about the way in which he dealt with the House. He wanted to be sure that a parliamentary answer was given today, before he made the statement, so that he could be sure that the House was aware of the situation--even though all the detail was not in this statement.

During yesterday afternoon, it became clear that the press had been alerted by a question on Tuesday's Order Paper, and was making inquiries of the Home Office press office. I am assured by the press office and officials at the Home Office that they did not actively brief, but reacted to inquiries in broad terms. However, there was a concern this morning that some of the press might mislead in their reports, so the Home Secretary decided to clarify matters on "Today". However, he is scrupulous in the way in which he deals with this House.

The change is not motivated primarily by finance: it is a recommendation of the royal commission and the Narey report. There will be safeguards for people of previous good character, as I set out in my original reply. There will be a right of appeal on venue, and the judge can take into account the effect on the reputation of a person of good character. That will apply to either-way offences.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): What evidence is there that the existing arrangements are widely abused? My hon. Friend says that many people who have elected for a jury trial plead guilty at the door of the court. Is not that in many cases because the charges have been substantially reduced?

Mr. O'Brien: My hon. Friend is right: some defendants seek Crown court trial for all sorts of reasons. I have already said that Home Office research shows that nine out of 10 are not persons of previous good character. People choose Crown court trial to apply pressure on the Crown Prosecution Service to reduce the seriousness of the charges, as he suggested, and they think that it is less likely that prosecution witnesses will attend, because of the elapse of time--which could also make memories more vague--and because those witnesses may be fearful of the Crown court. They also do it simply to put off the day of sentence, so that they can be held in a local prison, perhaps close to their friends and partners in crime, enjoying the privileges of being unconvicted prisoners for a longer time.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield): I join my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) in protesting at the way in which this announcement has been made. Over the past two weeks, we have had important announcements on refugees from Kosovo, on privatisation of the Tote, on the Macpherson leak inquiry, and now on trial by jury, and in not one of those cases has the Home Secretary volunteered a statement to the House. Indeed, he is not even here to offer a response today.

There will be a strong feeling among Government as well as Opposition Members that that is an entirely wrong way to treat the House. Does not the Minister realise what

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resentment is caused throughout the House when self-evidently important announcements are first leaked and then announced outside Parliament?

Does not the Minister feel that there is a particular obligation on the Home Secretary to volunteer a statement when, as in this case, he has totally reversed the position that he set out two years ago? Is not it a fact that on 27 February 1997 the Home Secretary spent half his response to the statement by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) on criminal justice attacking the very proposals that he is now making? Did not he say on that occasion that time was needed to see whether the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 improved the position? In so doing, he put his finger on one of the reasons why we will oppose the proposals.

Do not the Crown Prosecution Service figures givento my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) show that, whereas in 1988 46 per cent. of those charged with an either-way offence elected for trial in the Crown court, the figure for 1998 was down to 28 per cent.? On the radio this morning, the Home Secretary suggested that some other European nations regard the English and Welsh system as unusual, but surely the view of other countries is not remotely the deciding factor in changing our law. By and large, our system of justice has worked well; above all, it has the confidence of the majority of the public.

The Home Secretary made his announcement to the Police Federation conference in Blackpool, where I was yesterday. Many will feel that if he wants to tackle crime effectively, he should concentrate on strengthening the police rather than changing the jury system.

Mr. O'Brien: I have already dealt with the way in which the announcement was made. I gave a full explanation, and I will not take the synthetic anger that the right hon. Gentleman displays, after everything that we have seen in the House from his party over the years.

The Home Secretary properly gave a written answer to a question, so as to give notice of a view that he had taken following a consultation. He did that in the proper way, and I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman's criticisms are justified. However, my right hon. Friend does not wish anyone to think that he is less than scrupulous in his approach to the House. He always seeks to do things in the proper way, which is why the question was tabled.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about people changing their minds, but the Conservative Government were committed to taking away the right to jury trial. They made an announcement to that effect, without putting in the safeguards that my right hon. Friend now wishes to see included.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): Wrong.

Mr. O'Brien: It is true that my right hon. Friend changed his mind. He has considered the evidence, and the possibility of other safeguards that were not proposed by the previous Government.

Those safeguards include a right of appeal to the Crown court on venue, and the fact that magistrates will have to consider the issue of reputation before deciding at which venue the trial will take place. My right hon. Friend

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believes that, with those safeguards, the proposals of the royal commission and the Narey report should be supported.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Is there not something seriously wrong when the Home Secretary does not even recognise that this issue is sufficiently important to require a Minister to appear before the House and answer questions? Is there not also something seriously wrong with arguing that a right that has been an important principle of the justice system of England and Wales should be removed simply because it does not apply in other countries, however different their jurisdictions may be? In Scotland such cases are tried before a professional judge, not by magistrates, so that comparison is not appropriate.

Will the Minister confirm that the consultation elicited many expressions of concern about the proposal, not least from representatives of the ethnic minorities, who had particular fears about its effect? What will be the grounds on which people can appeal against magistrates' decisions? Will there be legal aid for such appeals? Does the Minister not realise that the Government will create a new bureaucratic complication, just to take away a right exercised only by a limited and falling number of people?

Mr. O'Brien: I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman dismisses with such cavalier disregard both the report of the royal commission on criminal procedure and the Narey report. Those reports fully considered the issues surrounding the right to choose the venue, and dealt with the arguments in a sound and reasoned way. We should have due respect for the views of the royal commission and of Mr. Narey.

There have been some suggestions that the ethnic minorities will have concerns, yet according to the statistics, ethnic minority defendants tend to be given longer sentences, partly because disproportionate numbers of them elect for Crown court trial--and following conviction, Crown courts can give longer sentences.

The Lord Chancellor is engendering greater confidence in the magistrates courts among ethnic minorities by appointing more magistrates from ethnic minority communities. That process is under way; we are also putting in additional safeguards to help to build confidence among ethnic minorities. Not only will more magistrates come from such communities, but they will be able to consider the impact on the reputation of a person within those communities before determining the venue.

There will be a right of appeal on venue to a Crown court, where all those issues can be considered, if necessary. There will also be an automatic right of appeal to the Crown court on a sentence or a finding of guilt. Those safeguards will be sufficient to ensure that ethnic minorities are satisfied with the way in which the decision has been made.

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