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Mr. Marshall-Andrews: Does not my right hon. Friend understand that these statistics about the conviction rate of black defendants in magistrates courts come as no surprise to civil libertarians? They vindicate the view, and the resource material that is available, that black defendants are regularly and repeatedly overcharged in magistrates courts. Regularly and repeatedly overcharging people means that it is highly likely that they will have a greater incidence of acquittal. Indeed, it vindicates precisely that view.

Mr. Straw: I do not accept my hon. and learned Friend's implication with regard to these figures. I believe that, if they are properly considered, it is impossible to follow his line of argument. He makes one fundamental error in talking about the offences charged at the magistrates court. The magistrates court does not charge offences. My hon. and learned Friend should know better than anyone that the police charge offences. That is of fundamental importance.

There is no evidence to suggest that black defendants, even if they are overcharged by the police, are treated in a discriminatory way by the magistrates court as opposed to the Crown court. In both the magistrates court and the Crown court, there is a higher acquittal rate for black defendants over white defendants.

Mr. Marshall-Andrews indicated dissent.

Mr. Straw: There is no point in my hon. and learned Friend shaking his head. That is a fact, and it is in the House of Commons Library data. There is no difference at all there.

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Let me deal with whether the changes might adversely affect mentally disordered defendants. Interestingly, the Royal College of Psychiatrists offered us a view about this. It said:

The Bill amends the relevant provisions of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980, omitting the requirement for the defendant's consent to summary trial in either-way cases. I have already explained about the changes that we have made in respect of livelihood and reputation. I believe that the safeguards that we have introduced will make a significant difference to the operation of the criminal justice system and that they maintain the right to jury trial for appropriate offences. At the same time, the system will not be brought into disrepute by cases such as the one that I am about to quote. Far from being a dim and distant case given in evidence to the royal commission six or seven years ago, it happened only last month.

A 26-year-old man with 15 previous convictions covering a total of 63 offences, including 36 offences of theft, elected trial for the offence of stealing one bottle of champagne. I ask the House whether it is sensible to have a system that allows that kind of election for trial.

Mr. Hogg: What if you were charged?

Mr. Straw: If I were charged with that offence, I should be happy to go before the magistrates because I happen to believe that they are capable of conducting fair trials. If I were convicted, I should have a right--

Sir Nicholas Lyell: Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: No. If I were convicted--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We cannot have shouting across the Chamber.

Mr. Straw: I have given way a great deal but will give way shortly to the former Attorney-General, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), before I make some progress.

The seriousness of the offence and the nature of the case are the criteria that should, in our judgment, determine whether a case is dealt with by the Crown court or the magistrates. We can discuss that point in Committee, but I believe that our proposals will fairly and sensibly achieve that end. We have also strengthened the safeguards, moving away from those proposed by the royal commission, by providing for an interlocutory right of appeal. The appeal would go to the Crown court, and the procedure would be fast and efficient with most cases determined within 48 hours. That will not hold up progress with the case in the magistrates court.

We have sought to improve the safeguards relating to appeals by providing that magistrates would be required to give reasons for their decisions. The Lord Chief Justice

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has suggested that appeals on mode of trial should be heard by the resident judge or by a judge nominated by the presiding judges of the circuit. The Government agree that that would help to ensure public confidence in high standards of decision making. Appropriate arrangements will be made by way of a practice direction.

I shall give way--for the last time--to the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I am most grateful to the Home Secretary. Did he not become carried away by his own rhetoric in his example of his being accused of stealing a bottle of champagne? Does he recognise that those of us on the other side of the argument fully respect the way in which magistrates conduct themselves in the great majority of their hearings? However, the logic of the Home Secretary's argument is that, because magistrates generally provide a fair trial, the right to trial by jury can be largely dispensed with.

Mr. Straw: I am afraid that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is being carried away by his own rhetoric, but it is not very good. In any system of courts in which a hierarchy exists, there must be some criteria by which to select which cases go to the higher and lower courts. One criterion is sentencing power, but another is the seriousness and complexity of cases. Of course, some cases are serious in themselves, and serious enough to trigger the criterion of sentencing power. In addition, other less serious cases may have complicated evidence that makes it appropriate to take them before the Crown court.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: No, I have given way a great deal.

The logical conclusion of the argument being presented against us is that magistrates courts should never try cases--except, perhaps, for failure to pay a parking ticket. It is being continuously insinuated that magistrates are unfair. That was the clear implication of what was said by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham.

Mr. Hogg rose--

Mr. Straw: As I have referred to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I suppose I must give way.

Mr. Hogg: I am most grateful. What I actually said applied to both the lay and professional judiciary. It was that there is a predisposition on the part of the judiciary--lay and professional--to favour the prosecution.

Mr. Straw: The right hon. and learned Gentleman seems to suggest that one cannot get a fair trial anywhere.

Mr. Hogg: From a jury.

Mr. Straw: I know. But the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that it is not unheard of--indeed, it happens often--for a judge with a fairly clear view of a defendant's guilt or innocence to suggest cleverly that a jury might come to one conclusion rather than another.

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I am only too well aware--not least from the debate--that our proposal, modest though it is, has aroused some controversy, in the House, in the other place and outside. I have taken careful note of that, and have sought to respond by strengthening the Bill's safeguards and amending the criteria to make them as objective as possible.

In putting the Bill before the House, I draw some comfort from the fact that at almost every point that a Home Secretary has sought sensibly to modernise our system of jury trials, he has been met with similarly vocal opposition. Yet once the measure has gone through, the opposition has faded, as the sense of the measure has been appreciated.

In 1967, Roy Jenkins proposed a change to the system of jury trial far more fundamental than this one: to change the requirement of a unanimous verdict to that which the European Union now likes to call a qualified majority. The proposal was met with howls from all sides. I give the House a flavour of the reaction by quoting the then Labour Member for Oldham, West, Mr. Leslie Hale, who said of the proposal made by the noble and Liberal Lord Jenkins--then the Home Secretary--that

He was joined by many Members on both sides of the House. His comments could even have been written by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway, who has just come back into the Chamber. I am glad that he has returned.

The measure had a bumpy ride, but it passed. None of the consequences foretold by its opponents came about. Even a year later, no one suggested that the clock should go back.

The story is remarkably similar for the proposals made in 1988 by Douglas Hurd. He proposed an end to the right of pre-emptory challenge to jurors; that a prosecution might appeal against unduly lenient sentences; and a reclassification of offences, such as drink-driving and taking a vehicle without consent, to summary only.

The whole of the then Opposition--myself included--trooped into the Lobby against that Bill on an amendment tabled by my now noble Friend, Lord Hattersley, claiming that it

Notwithstanding our ritual opposition, the Bill passed. The claim that those changes would substantially reduce civil liberties disappeared like snow in the sunshine, never to appear again.

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