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Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): Is not the difference between the witty examples offered by the Home Secretary and the measure the fact that those examples were of universal application, but his Bill is discriminatory?

Mr. Straw: I do not begin to follow the hon. and learned Gentleman's comment. The examples I gave were applicable to the criminal justice system; so is the Bill.

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I understand that the hon. and learned Gentleman, rather than the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), will open the debate for the Opposition. I suggest that he should argue why it is wrong for there to be objective criteria for mode of trial--such as the royal commission suggested and the previous Government came close to agreeing.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Straw: Many people want to speak and there is a 15-minute limit on the speeches of Back Benchers. I have a few more comments to make.

One of the most powerful arguments made in 1988 came not from the Labour Benches, but from those of the Liberal Democrats--from Alex Carlile. It is interesting that all three of the Members to whose comments I have referred were elevated to another place on the strength of their opposition to those changes. Alex Carlile protested loud and long against the reclassification of criminal damage and common assault offences as summary only. He made the point that there would be no right of election to trial and no right of trial at a Crown court. He said that a defendant in those circumstances--charged with criminal damage and common assault offences--

That was in 1998. I searched in vain--I made the search myself, to avoid any accidents--in the 1992 Liberal Democrat manifesto for any proposal to restore those offences to the either-way classification. The manifesto was silent. Those changes--

Mr. Simon Hughes rose--

Mr. Straw: There is no need for the hon. Gentleman to intervene. That is the truth. I warrant that the same will be so of the opposition to this Bill.

The proposal was recommended not only by the 1993 royal commission but by the Narey report on speeding up the criminal justice system, which the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the then Home Secretary, commended to the House on 27 February 1997, when I famously expressed my opposition to it. I have made no bones about that--how could I? I have told the House that I have changed my mind. I do not often do that, but every so often one is entitled to do so on the basis of the evidence.

It is true that the right hon. and learned Gentleman never quite committed himself to legislating on that proposal, but he did everything but. When the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), who until last month was the deputy to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, asked about either-way trials and asked

the right hon. and learned Gentleman greeted his remarks with approbation.

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My guess--it can only be a guess--is that had the previous Administration been re-elected in 1997, they would have gone ahead with the proposal, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman hinted heavily that he would. No doubt, if the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald were to speak this afternoon, she would say that this was yet another issue on which she was profoundly opposed to her then boss, although not sufficiently opposed to him to resign. She now says that it is a matter of fundamental principle, but not such a matter of fundamental principle that she will make a speech about it.

The Bill represents a modest and important modernisation of our criminal justice system and will speed up justice in the interests of victims, witnesses and defendants alike.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Straw: I shall give way, as I always do, to my hon. Friend.

Mrs. Dunwoody: It is no secret that I am not a lawyer. I have listened carefully to my right hon. Friend, who was doing quite well until he started quoting Lord Jenkins.

I want to ask my right hon. Friend a simple question, because I need to be convinced. Is the change being pushed through because it will save money, or is it being pushed through because it will improve the law? I am really not clear.

Mr. Straw: The Bill is being put through the House because it will improve the administration of the law; it will also save money. That is the answer.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): Will the Home Secretary give way on that point?

Mr. Straw: No, I am sorry. I must finish my speech. As the House knows, I always give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), and I explained the special circumstances for that yesterday.

As I said, the Bill represents a modest and important modernisation of our criminal justice system and will speed up justice in the interests of victims, witnesses and defendants alike. It commands the widespread report of practitioners. As the Lord Chief Justice said in Committee in the other place

supported the proposal. He added that

    there seems to be a considerable unanimity of opinion on the topic.

He hoped that the Committee would attach

    some weight to a body of people with a close and current knowledge of the administration of criminal justice who are--

I point this out particularly to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich--

    to the last man and woman, very strong supporters of jury trial in appropriate cases. There have been many occasions in the past when the judges have been united or almost so in resisting change. It is

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    difficult to think of cases where they have been as much of one mind in approving it.--[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 January 2000; Vol. 608, c. 1255.]

The Lord Chief Justice said that about this Bill.

We have made improvements on the recommendations originally made by the royal commission and the Narey review. We have listened to, and acted on, concerns expressed in the other place and elsewhere. The Bill threatens no hallowed rights. It is just, fair and proportionate. It will enhance public confidence in the criminal justice system, and I commend it to the House.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I call the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), I point out that Madam Speaker has said that there will be a 15-minute limit on the speeches of Back Benchers.

5.34 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): I think that the Attorney-General made a better and shorter speech in the other place.

I declare an interest as a practising member of the Bar who appears before juries in defamation and other civil trials but not--or at least not for the past 20 years--before juries in criminal cases save when sitting as an assistant recorder of the Crown court. My experience as an assistant recorder and as an advocate in civil and criminal cases tells me that we tamper with the current system of jury election in either-way cases not just at our own peril as legislators, but at the peril of the system of justice itself and the public's confidence in it.

I make it clear at the outset that my arguments and those of my party against the Bill do not depend on attacking or denigrating the lay magistracy. Magistrates do a magnificent job for no pay and mean expenses. Over 90 per cent. of all cases that fall within the criminal or quasi-criminal jurisdiction go before magistrates. That includes parking and motoring matters, licensing applications and cases that we would all recognise as criminal. Magistrates form a vital part of the jigsaw of local justice, which Conservative Members want to strengthen and enhance. Our argument is not that magistrates cannot do the job that the Bill gives them, but that, as a matter of justice and fairness, they should not have to.

The Home Secretary has had a Bill similar to this one defeated in another place. It was defeated not by the much maligned but in-built majority of the hereditary Conservative peerage, but by an alliance of peers who, in the Prime Minister's reformed House of Lords, take the Whip not only of my party but of the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party. They were not alone in their disapproval of the first Bill, because they were joined by Cross Benchers and bishops.

The Government were defeated by 96 votes overall, but it should not be forgotten that the Prime Minister, who created the new House and who has created more life peers in his short period of office than any other Prime Minister in a comparable or even longer period, was defeated by a majority of 50, if one considers only the votes of life peers. That was a vote of the new House, whose decisions the noble Baroness Jay--new Labour's equivalent of a hereditary peer--said would command the respect of her party and Parliament as a whole.

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If the Government had half an ounce of the common sense of their Members and half an ounce of real respect for their new House of Lords, they would pay attention to the vote in the other place on 20 January. It is not as though they were taken by surprise--or was Homer nodding or too arrogant to pay heed to the reasoned arguments deployed against the first Bill on Second Reading last December? Alternatively, are the Government now too stubborn to pay any heed to the lessons that they have been taught about the futility and sheer stupidity of trying to ram the new Bill through the House tonight?

If the Home Secretary were bad or stupid, or both, I could perhaps forgive him the Bill, but he is neither: quite the contrary. Yet he has allowed himself, either on his own initiative or perhaps at the behest of others, to introduce a bad and stupid Bill. It is fair to point out, and I do so willingly, that all Cabinet Ministers work hard and they work long hours. Every Cabinet post is a strenuous job, particularly for the Minister who is in office for reasons that have more to do with balancing the various interests of the Labour party than with intellectual or political ability.

I readily concede that the Home Secretary is a hard-working Minister who was appointed because he has the abilities to make a good Home Secretary. He works harder than most, if not all, of his Cabinet colleagues, and I will not permit the mauling that he received at the hands of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) in the debate on the dismissal of Derek Lewis in the previous Parliament to detract from my high opinion of him.

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