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Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): Are we not in danger of losing another safeguard if we remove the right to elect for trial by jury? Is it not correct that about 70 per cent. of those accused who opt for trial and then plead guilty at trial actually plead guilty to different charges, and that the removal of the right to jury trial would invite overcharging through the magistrates courts, which would be their own perversion of justice?

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: That is absolutely right. The findings of the royal commission were clear--one of the principal reasons why defendants change their plea when they get to the Crown court is because, in 50 per cent. of

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cases, charges are reduced. That is as a result of something that is well known--namely, overcharging in magistrates courts. That accounts for the otherwise inexplicable point that people elect jury trial and subsequently plead guilty.

Mr. David Taylor: Will my hon. and learned Friend give way?

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: Before I do, could I clarify a brief point, Mr. Deputy Speaker? I was told by your immediate predecessor in the Chair that, as that I was to move the amendment, I would be allowed injury time on my fifteen minutes to take interventions.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. and learned Gentleman will not be given any special treatment. Interventions on him are allowed, but his responses are not.

Mr. Taylor: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for allowing me this brief intervention. He refers to overcharging in magistrates courts, as though it were the magistrates courts bench that is responsible for that. Is it not at least possible that those cases which will be retained and heard in the magistrates courts under a revised regime will result in a lower charge to which defendants can, with some equanimity, plead guilty?

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: Obviously, it is the police who overcharge, but they do so in magistrates courts knowing full well that the expertise, experience, learning and knowledge to deal with that practice does not exist in magistrates courts. When a case of overcharging comes before the Crown court, it is immediately perceived. The statistics are against my hon. Friend.

I shall give two examples of what will happen if the Bill is passed, and in both I have in mind real cases. The first is the case of a schoolteacher who has taught for 30 years, is widely respected in his community, and stands charged on one offence of indecent assault on the uncorroborated evidence of one pupil. The sentence would not be custodial, but it would destroy his life. In those circumstances, the man will almost certainly lose his right to jury trial because the magistrates are deliberately precluded from being told of the nature of the penalty that will be imposed.

Ms Blears: Does my hon. and learned Friend accept that the national guidelines issued to magistrates on the circumstances of the offence could include the fact that one person was in a position of trust and responsibility over the other person? Magistrates would be able to take that into account when deciding venue.

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: That is right, but for that to be brought before the magistrates they would have to be told that the case concerned a teacher of immense reputation who had been teaching for 30 years and who had abused that trust.

Fiona Mactaggart: Will my hon. and learned Friend give way?

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: I am sorry; I cannot do so because I have to finish.

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My second example is dear to all our hearts. It is the case of a young man, of impeccable character and background, who has spent much of his time fighting and demonstrating against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Let us suppose that one day he is charged with theft--not robbery--from a bank, on the basis of a patently false identification. Under the Bill, that young man would almost certainly be denied the right to jury trial.

Mr. Straw: There is no doubt that such a case--of the kind that was faced by an hon. Friend--would go to the Crown court because of its complexity. My hon. and learned Friend knows that, and so does our hon. Friend.

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: My right hon. Friend and I can argue that point, but it was not a complex case. However, our hon. Friend would be at risk if he were in that position today because he would no longer have a right to opt for jury trial. The decision would be a lottery as to whether a particular bench of magistrates had decided that it was too complex or not complex enough. It is too serious a matter to be left to a lottery in that way.

My time is up. I am grateful for your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall simply say in closing that the Government have, possibly unjustifiably, a reputation for being authoritarian. The jury system is the main and principal bulwark against authoritarian--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am afraid that the hon. and learned Gentleman's time is now up.

6.54 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I am happy to follow the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews). My colleagues and I will vote for his reasoned amendment, and if that does not succeed we will vote against the Second Reading of the Bill. If we still have not prevailed, we will seek to persuade the House that the Bill should go to a Special Standing Committee to take evidence on the facts, so that people can make up their minds on the facts instead of on the Government line. I do not claim that we have not had internal difficulties about the issue or that everybody in our party originally had the same view, but after a considered debate we have come to the view that the proposal is wrong in principle and would be wrong in practice.

It is not an argument to say that something is good because it is modernising. That was the argument used for the poll tax, which is hardly a commendation. The issue is whether a proposal will improve the law and make the system fairer and more just. The fact that a system has been long established is also not an argument against it. We are clear that the history and effectiveness of trial by jury both argue in favour of its retention.

After the general election, we were surprised to discover that the Home Secretary had changed his mind on the issue. One of the reasons why people voted the Tories out was that they wanted an end to what were perceived as right-wing policies, but they have now come from another source. Some of the arguments from the Home Secretary and Ministers have just oversimplified the case. They say that the system is abused, but that is not borne out by the facts. They claim that the concession

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made since the House of Lords threw out the Bill has solved the problems. That is an oversimplification, because it has not solved some problems. Ministers also claim that great costs will and should be saved. Both points are arguable, but the bigger point is whether a small amount of cost-saving is the price that should be paid for a large amount of loss of choice.

Sometimes people get bogged down in the detail of the arguments, but I wish to return to the starting point for the Bill. We have a system--we can argue about how we got here--in which some cases have to go for jury trial. Those are the big cases. Some cases--the smaller ones--have to go before the magistrates. In between are many offences--interestingly, when I asked Ministers how many they could not tell me--that are either-way offences. There are 370 categories of such offences in English law, applicable in England and Wales. The proposal is that--without considering the detail or whether it is appropriate for the individual offence--all those offences will be changed in one go from a situation in which the defendant chooses the venue to the court choosing the venue.

There will be no review of whether the Bill should apply to all the offences. No one is asking whether some summary or some indictable offences should be either way. Many of the offences included in this sweeping change are significant offences. They include making threats to kill; assault occasioning actual bodily harm; putting people in fear of violence; child abduction; indecent assault; indecency between males; burglary; theft; handling stolen goods; affray; possessing firearms; possessing controlled drugs; supplying controlled drugs; and cruelty to children. It is callous of Parliament to think that the right way to deal with that huge number of serious offences is to say to defendants to charges of any of them--it could be one of us one day--that at a stroke they will lose their right to choose where they will be tried.

Mr. David Taylor: I shall try to help the hon. Gentleman. He is right to detail the litany of serious offences that fall into the each way category. He will know from the detailed documents that of the 1.8 million cases processed by the judicial system every year, some 65,000 are each way cases. By simple subtraction, some 47,000 cases are already referred to the Crown court on the decision of the magistrates bench, so the offences to which the hon. Gentleman refers are already properly handled by the magistrates courts.

Mr. Hughes: The House is aware of the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. The truth of the matter is that most of these cases are decided by the courts and the defendant is happy with the decision. As the hon. Gentleman says, many of the cases are sent to the higher courts by the magistrates, not at the election of the defendant. However, I shall give the hon. Gentleman two facts that he may not have picked out of the raft of parliamentary answers on this topic over recent weeks. First, only about 18,500 defendants elect trial every year, whereas, as we know, magistrates send more than twice that number to Crown courts. Secondly, although three quarters of defendants plead guilty in Crown courts, the significant fact is that there is very little difference between the numbers of people who plead guilty who

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have elected for Crown court trial, and the numbers who plead guilty whose cases have been sent for trial in the Crown court. Clearly, those answers show that people are not abusing the system.

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