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Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway): May I say, with a heavy heart, that I agree immediately with the observations made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who asked the private notice question? The way in which

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this fundamental matter has been brought before the House is a disgrace, and shows contempt for hon. Members on both sides.

I shall make one or two observations and ask questions in respect of the matters that my learned Friend--or rather, my hon. Friend--raised. First, does he not understand--from his experience, or anecdotally--that the vast majority of people elect for trial by jury on advice because they believe that they will thereby obtain a better standard of justice in a more judicial arena?

Secondly, does my hon. Friend seriously advance the proposition that those of bad character--that is to say, those who have had the misfortune, probably justly, to have been convicted in the past, and sentenced and punished--should now be rewarded with the further penalty of the loss of their rights in perpetuity to jury trial?

Thirdly, and while we are on the subject of saving money--because we may suspect that the proposal is Treasury driven--how will it save money to have three hearings instead of one? If the proposal is adopted, a Bench of magistrates will have to decide whether someone has a right to be heard in the Crown court. That Bench of magistrates cannot later try the trial, because they will have heard all about the defendant's antecedents. The trial will have to go to another Bench of magistrates, but before that it will have gone to the Crown court on appeal, no doubt on legal aid, for the benefit of the profession.

If a person with a string of previous convictions is convicted in the magistrates court, he will be sent back to the Crown court because that is the only place where he can be sentenced. That would make four hearings instead of one. How much research has been done into how many people would arrive at the Crown court in any event but will now, under this procedure, spend so long getting there?

Mr. O'Brien: My hon. and learned Friend is a lawyer, and he is obviously concerned that the issues that the legal profession holds close to its heart are safeguarded. I, too, am a lawyer and like him I have represented people who sought to go to the Crown court merely to delay the point at which they would have to go to prison. They wish to remain on bail for longer, or to remain on remand for longer with the privileges of remand prisoners. I find it difficult to believe that he has not had clients who have taken that view and pleaded guilty at the door of the court, because throughout they have sought to abuse the system of election for trial. That has unduly wasted the time of prosecution witnesses and the police, and given rise to costs for the Exchequer.

Police time would be better spent on catching criminals than on sitting outside a court door waiting for barristers and their clients deciding to plead guilty after all. It is about time it was recognised that nine out of 10 defendants who elect to the Crown court have previous convictions and many are simply abusing the system.

Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Speaker: Order. I felt as if I was in court during the last questions. Now may we have brisk questions, and only one from each Member?

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): Quite apart from the bizarre way in which the matter

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was announced, the Minister has overstated his case. More than 90 per cent. of criminal cases are already dealt with in the magistrates courts. Are not those people the Minister describes as manipulating the criminal justice system exactly the people who will appeal each and every time and clog up the Crown court with needless appeals?

Mr. O'Brien: No, we do not believe that there will be needless appeals. The hon. Gentleman is right that most people who are accused of offences are dealt with in the magistrates courts. Indeed, when given a choice, most people of previous good character choose to be dealt with in the magistrates courts.

There is much hot air and theory, particularly among some lawyers who believe in an ancient view of the protection of the right to election. Once we cut away from the stories and fairy tales about the right of election, we get down to reality. The magistrates courts are capable of delivering efficient and effective justice. We have had faith in them for many years--since the middle ages, indeed--and we should continue to have faith that they will be able to deal with appropriate cases and that matters that should be referred to the Crown court will be referred there.

Audrey Wise (Preston): I listened with interest to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on the radio this morning when he implied that some new evidence had emerged that had caused him to change his mind. Exactly what new facts have emerged in the two and a half years since we heard my right hon. Friend give his statement, to great approval from the Labour Benches? Will my hon. Friend also accept that some of us are less than enchanted with the idea that we are going back only 150 years rather than to the middle ages?

Mr. O'Brien: My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that he had re-examined the issue and considered whether new safeguards could be introduced which the previous Government had not suggested when they supported change. My right hon. Friend had felt that there were insufficient safeguards for defendants, but now takes the view that an additional requirement that magistrates should look at the reputation of a person who is convicted and the impact on his or her livelihood would provide an extra safeguard. A right to appeal to the Crown court on the issue of which court--venue, as the lawyers call it--the case should be tried in would provide the additional safeguard that would allow my right hon. Friend to support the views of the royal commission on criminal procedure and the Narey report into dealing with delays in the criminal justice system.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): Is not the protection afforded by the right of appeal illusory when one considers that magistrates will have the discretion to make a decision and that appellate courts rarely interfere with the discretion of the lower courts? While the Minister may pump up his story about the protection of the appeal, there is no such protection in reality.

Mr. O'Brien: I am sure that magistrates will exercise their judgment in a considered and proper manner. If there is no such due and proper consideration, a Crown court will,

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on appeal on the issue of venue--a new procedure--be able to make an alternative decision if appropriate. That is a good and effective safeguard.

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East): Having been a magistrate rather than a criminal lawyer who might benefit from cases taking a much longer time, I very much welcome my hon. Friend's statement. He is right to say that nine out of 10 of those who elect to go to Crown court are people with previous convictions. In my experience, the vast majority of the people who turn out to be innocent want their trial to take place as quickly as possible. The adage that justice delayed is justice denied is one that hon. Members on both sides should consider carefully.

Mr. O'Brien: My hon. Friend is entirely right and her welcome for the proposals is justified. I suspect that constituents of Members on both sides will feel that our proposals are about delivering a system that puts the criminals where they ought to be while safeguarding the rights and interests of the individual.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): Has the Minister no shame at having to give the House a preview of what seems to be a Queen's Speech, at seeming to defend clauses in a Bill that the House has not seen and at arguing for something that we will address in due course, perhaps next year? Is this the Queen's Speech? Will he publish the draft Bill so that we may read it? Will he accept that for many of us, the constant tilting at the interests of the innocent--those whose interests are the first that our system was designed to defend--is deeply disturbing? The Government, in their bureaucratic rigour, are increasingly squeezing out some of the classic freedoms of this country.

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman rather overstates his case. A majority of the people who elect for crown court trial plead guilty. They are not innocent; they plead guilty. Nine out of 10 are not of previous good character. The hon. Gentleman has to be careful about over-egging the pudding. The matter has been the subject of a royal commission, a report, and a consultation paper. We are merely announcing now the results of the consultation. The hon. Gentleman is just overstating things.

Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): As my hon. Friend said in his answer, there is no right of election in Scotland. Before I became a Member of Parliament, I practised for 20 years in that system. The choice of forum--as we call it in Scotland, not venue--lies with the prosecutor. Only 2 per cent. of criminal cases in Scotland are prosecuted before juries. It is instructive that the system in Scotland has enjoyed the consistent support of both the House and the Scottish people. Does my hon. Friend believe that the system of criminal justice in Scotland is inherently less fair than the system in England and Wales?

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