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4.41 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I did not intend to speak, but I feel that I must correct the impressions with which the House has been left.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) on presenting what would be a wide-ranging and--in her view alone, probably--welcome addition to the statute book, but I feel that I must oppose it and provide the House with the information with which it can make up its mind. I should point out, for instance, that the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equal Pay Act 1970, which came into force in 1975, derive their power from article 119 of the treaty of Rome.

The original all-party list of single-sex candidates submitted for selection, consisting only of women, was deemed out of order for a simple reason: "equal opportunities" means not just equal opportunities for candidates, but a free choice for the selection committee from both men and women. I think the hon. Lady will find that, according to leading opinion, the regular issuing of either all-male or all-female lists would be deemed illegal under the Sex Discrimination Act and, indeed, article 119.

I am extremely proud to have been elected as one of 14 lady Conservative Members, who, I believe, were selected fairly and on merit. Let me place on the record that it was indeed the Conservative party which, in 1979, made legal history by electing the first woman party leader and, indeed, Prime Minister. I know that it is disappointing that the hon. Lady's party has not seen fit to follow our proud record.

The hon. Lady mentioned all-night sittings. As a former Minister, she will appreciate that it is the duty of Governments to try to push through their business programme, and the duty of Oppositions to frustrate that programme with whatever procedures are at their disposal--especially in the face of a rather larger Government majority than one would like.

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I do not want to detain the House by forcing a Division, but I think it important to realise that "equal opportunities" means not just the ability of candidates of both genders to apply to be placed on a list, but the ability of a selection committee to choose from both males and females.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Joan Ruddock, Jackie Ballard, Mr. Malcolm Chisholm, Lorna Fitzsimons, Barbara Follett, Dr. Ian Gibson, Ms Harriet Harman, Dr. Evan Harris, Dr. Ashok Kumar, Fiona Mactaggart, Ms Julie Morgan and Dr. Jenny Tonge.

Sex Discrimination (Amendment) (No. 2)

Joan Ruddock accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 with respect to the selection by political parties of candidates for parliamentary or local government elections: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 14th April, and to be printed [Bill 82].

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Orders of the Day

Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No. 2) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): I should inform the House that Madam Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews).

4.46 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill is part of the Government's programme to modernise the criminal justice system and to improve public confidence in it. Its purpose is to make the system more responsive to the needs of victims, witnesses and the public at large--and defendants. The proposal has been considered extensively in the past seven years. In 1993, it received the unanimous backing of the royal commission on criminal justice.

Today, it enjoys the active endorsement of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, and of the vast majority of the High Court Bench of nearly 100 senior judges; of the Magistrates Association, representing 30,000 justices of the peace; and of all three police associations, representing more than 125,000 police officers, each of whom has to deal every day with the victims of crime and its perpetrators and who know that justice is not served, either for victim or defendant, by an antiquated and time-wasting procedure, which the Bill seeks to remedy.

The Bill is justified in its own right, but it will produce considerable savings of more than £120 million a year, representing resources which could, and will, be better used elsewhere in the criminal justice system.

I understand the concerns in the House about the effect of the Bill on the principles of trial by jury. I understand those concerns not least because, when I first considered the matter, my instincts were similar; I acknowledge that. However, as the House knows, I have changed my mind--there has never been any dubiety about that--because the more I have examined the arguments in favour of the present arrangements, the weaker they appeared to be and the stronger the case for reform.

In no sense does the Bill undermine the availability of trial by jury for appropriate offences. What it does is to ensure that there is a fairer and more objective basis than the decision of the accused for determining which cases involving the middle range of offences should be so tried. In doing so, we bring ourselves into line with the better practice of almost all comparable jurisdictions and come closer to the practice in Scotland.

Often, Scotland is, rightly, held out to be a nation with a more effective criminal justice system than ours. There, the decision on mode of trial has never rested with the defendant, but is made by the prosecutor. The Bill provides greater safeguards for the defendant by having the initial decision made by magistrates and the final one, on appeal, by an experienced Crown court judge.

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Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South): Perhaps my right hon. Friend could assist me a little in that respect. Although I understand the Scottish example, if the Bill became law, unusually we would have trial by magistrate and perhaps sentence by judge, whereas in Scotland there is trial by magistrate and sentence by magistrate. Will he not think again? If the matter is to be tried in the magistrates court--he knows of the extensive correspondence that I have had with him and of my views on the matter--sentencing should be in the same court.

Mr. Straw: I understand my hon. Friend's point, which he and I have discussed at length. It would be better explored in Committee. However, I tell him now that one of the reasons why, in Scotland, it is possible to have a system in which the judge in the sheriff-only court has limited powers to sentence--three months in the case of a first offence; six months in the case of a second or subsequent offence--is that the prosecutor has access to a full record of an accused's previous convictions and makes that choice. Our system is different, but the fundamental similarity remains. Once the Bill becomes law, in neither system will the defendant have the right to choose his or her forum.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Straw: I shall give way in a moment to my hon. and learned Friend.

I remind the House that, in another place, my hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate, Lord Hardie, while acknowledging that he was from what he called a "foreign jurisdiction", said:

I am not aware of any campaign north of the border to change the system, which is widely held to work well. Moreover, it is held to work well not simply because of the limits on sentencing power.

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in the Scottish system, there is a three-months' sentence limitation for sheriffs or magistrates sitting without juries? In those circumstances, any prosecutor making the decision on where any case warranting more than three months' imprisonment should be heard must elect for jury trial. Is my right hon. Friend not aware that, in our jurisdiction, in any event, all three-months cases are summary-only cases? Therefore, the parallel with the Scottish system is completely false.

Mr. Straw: That is not the view taken by experienced Scottish lawyers and jurists, who see very sharp similarities in the way in which the Scottish system and our system operate. If my hon. and learned Friend were proposing that the prosecutor should determine trial venue in every case, rather than what we are proposing--which would provide much greater safeguards for the accused, and entail the magistrates court making the initial

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decision, with a subsequent appeal to an experienced Crown court judge--he would have some argument in his favour. However, I do not accept that argument.

It has long been a feature of our system that magistrates have a power to commit a case for sentence. There is nothing objectionable about that. However, as my hon. and learned Friend will know--as he has studied with some care the small print of my Bill--if the magistrates come to the view that the punishment that a magistrates court would have to impose for an offence would be inadequate, clause 1 requires them in any event to commit the case to the Crown court.

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