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Mr. Burnett: My hon. Friend is making a most powerful speech. Is he as surprised as I am that the figures for the proposed savings have changed in the past month from £105 million to £128 million? Is he not amazed that there has been no independent validation of those figures?

Mr. Hughes: It may disappoint my hon. Friend if I say that nothing now surprises me. A Bill is coming back to this House tomorrow in which free post for the London election was originally stated as costing £40 million, when it has now been agreed that it will cost £1 million or thereabouts. Independent auditing of the Government's figures does not seem to be a characteristic of this Administration. Although I am not surprised, my hon. Friend is right to argue that there should have been an audit.

The Scottish point is another very poor point. The Government say that they want the system in England and Wales to move more in line with that in Scotland. If we are to have a debate about whether the legal system in England and Wales should be more like Scotland's, let us have it. Perhaps we should have juries of 15 people; perhaps a straight majority on a jury should be enough; perhaps we should have verdicts of "not proven"; perhaps we should have an entirely different court system. The Scottish system has a better reputation than the English one, with sheriffs and judges having better reputations than magistrates. However, a system in which there is no right to send to the higher court once someone elects conviction in the lower court is not a proper parallel. Scotland has different judges with different powers in different courts. There is no parallel.

The Government are on weak ground in arguing the Scottish case. They cannot say that we must follow their legal system but not their stance on tuition fees. The Government say that we should not pray in aid the view of a devolved Administration. We may think that to do so is fair enough--we believe in devolution. However, let us not argue false parallels.

Let me now deal with the ridiculous argument that anyone who knows anything about the subject is in favour of the Government's proposals. First, Lord Bingham spoke out in favour of the proposals. He cited the fact that he had had a conference and called on other High Court judges to give a view, and that the majority had apparently given their support. However, in a vote in the other place, these senior judges voted as follows: Lord Donaldson voted with the Government; Lord Ackner, Lord Brightman, Lord Lane--a former Lord Chief Justice--Lord Oliver of Aylmerton, Lord Simon of Glaisdale and Lord Wilberforce voted against the Government. Of the judges who voted, the majority were not on the Government's side but against them.

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Secondly, the High Court and the Court of Appeal are not the most appropriate forums to judge such matters. Crown court judges have a very different view--they deal with these offences and with jury trials every day. From my correspondence with them and knowledge of them, they have a different perspective. Praying in aid Lord Jenkins of Hillhead and his amendment in the 1970s to reduce the verdict in juries from unanimous to majority is no argument, as Lord Jenkins himself said in another place. He did that with significant cross-party support and only a small minority of opposition in this place. The Government cannot get away with arguments that are not supported by the facts.

Finally, of course the Government have evidence on their side. There was, for example, the royal commission view--its report was unanimous--and the Narey recommendation. There are, however, equally strong bodies of evidence, commissioned by the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department, that show that it is not an open and shut case. The parliamentary answers show that the changes introduced by the previous Government are having an effect. Taking the plea before the venue is decided has resulted in fewer cases going to the Crown court. Delays are reducing.

A National Audit Office report in December made many further good proposals to speed up the legal system. Nobody wants a slow legal process; nobody wants to block justice being done quickly. The Auld committee is there--the issue can be referred to it. Even if Labour Members are committed, bizarrely, to supporting the Government on what will become an increasingly unpopular position, I hope that they will take the option to refer the matter to a Special Standing Committee. All parties will be able to call people in to explain the position and come up with a better formulated response.

I am not against considering whether some offences should be tried by a different method. However, it should be done in the context of looking at the criminal justice system as a whole rather than pushing through one untested, untried and unpopular item against the will of the other place and, as far as it can be judged, the will of the public.

This is piecemeal criminal justice legislation, which is a bad way to legislate. It is populist without being principled, which is a bad way to legislate. It is not popular with people who have considered the issue and looked at the facts, which is not a good way to legislate. This measure is unworthy of the Government and many people find it particularly surprising that it should come from a Labour Government.

The Government may discover that their proposals are politically foolish as well. They have already had one defeat in the other place. It is almost certain that they will not get the Bill through in this Session. So they will be back for the fourth time--the fourth argument, the fourth row--after the next Queen's Speech, in the run-up to the election. If Labour colleagues think that this is good election-winning stuff, they underestimate the criminal justice affinity and the liberal instincts of the British people. I hope that they learn their lesson soon. If they push the Bill through tonight, they should not expect any support for their wider criminal justice agenda. This Bill will not help reduce crime, it is not in the interests of defendants, it is not in the interests of liberty, and it should be opposed.

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7.20 pm

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch): What are we going to do about the Home Secretary? I found his speech deeply depressing. Until today, in my innocence, I had thought that the function of Cabinet Ministers was to get good publicity for the Government and the political party whom they represent. If the Home Secretary thought that his speech today would get him good publicity, he and I come from different planets.

One of the Home Secretary's major arguments--taken up by at least two Labour Back Benchers--went roughly like this: in the past, when anyone tried to change the English legal system, there was an outcry, but subsequent events proved it unjustified, so the outcry in this case must be unjustified. I know 11-year-olds who could tell the Home Secretary that that is a false Aristotelian syllogism, in which the conclusion has not come from the premises.

As the Home Secretary seeks to drive an indelibly stained Bill through the House, we should give him a touch of his own retributive justice. We should strip him bare, whip him to the bone and send him into exile to a land governed by tyrants. I am tempted to say that the rule for the Home Secretary should be not "three strikes and you're out", but "one strike and you're dead, Jack." However, I am a bit diffident about adopting that approach, because something about the Home Secretary calls on one to temper condign criticism with admiration--if it is possible.

In addition, I have a reputation to uphold. In recent months, I have been described as an odious, obsequious, toadying Government lackey; a Blairite loyalist; and an unthinking supporter of the project. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has sedulously put it around that I have given up the search for truth and have become a desperate man in search of ermine. I can only refer hon. Members to Michael Foot's wonderful biography of Byron, who, as he lay on his death bed and the priest asked him whether he would confess and return to God, replied, "Let's not be silly at this late stage."

I hope that my criticism of the Bill and its progenitor, the Home Secretary, will be temperate, targeted, restrained and worthy of a hearing. Let me begin not with the fatal flaws in the Home Secretary's character or the iniquities of a fallen politician, but with a few general comments on the jury system that might explain to the irrational, the uncomprehending and the totally stupid why the Bill has aroused such hostility in those who believe that freedom and justice are not accidents of the English character, but necessary constructs for civilisation the world over.

While the jury trials that are about to be abolished are, as far as the Home Secretary is concerned, "irritations"--a word so offensive suggests that he was on Prozac when he uttered it--they live deep in the psyches and the history of most English men and women, and they are a matter of national pride. I say nothing about the Welsh, who have the same legal system as the English, because of what that nasty, bloody Welshman Judge Jeffries did to my ancestors after the battle of Sedgemoor in the summer of 1685.


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    Those words were uttered by Lord Devlin, who was quoted in part by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews). Lord Devlin went on to add that if a tyrant took over our country, one of his first acts would be to diminish trials by jury because


    no tyrant could leave a subject's freedom in the hands of twelve of his countrymen.

Well might the Home Secretary ponder those words tonight as the Division Bell sounds.

Before trial by jury, England had trial by ordeal, which was certainly summary justice, the scope of which the Home Secretary is intent on extending. The ordeal often involved submerging people in cold water. If the suspect sank, God had accepted him, and he was innocent. If he bobbed to the surface, however, God had rejected him, and he was guilty. Today, we would call that a catch-22. I suspect that the Home Secretary, as a born-again Christian, and though constrained by the mores of modern civilisation, has a sneaking admiration for that quick, cost-free kind of summary justice.

No matter what Home Office officials and Ministers think, there appears to be general agreement that jury trial originated in 1166 with the Assize of Clarendon, at which Henry II ordained that 12 lawful men of each hundred, and four of each vill, should report to the royal justices or sheriffs those persons reputed to have committed certain serious crimes. Out of that developed the grand jury and, later, jury trials.

However, the most important event in the history of the criminal jury was the abolition of trial by ordeal by the edict of the Roman Catholic church in 1215, when God's messengers here on earth realised that summary and retributive justice was, perhaps, not all that it was cracked up to be. Slowly, democratic instincts replaced God as the arbiter of justice.

My point is that a system that has a lineage stretching back not to, but beyond, Magna Carta should not be tampered with lightly. To that, the Home Secretary replies that either-way offences have been with us only since the mid-19th century. Even if we ignore a certain sophistry in that, the Home Secretary is tampering with a system that has survived for 150 years. I should be surprised if he could point to any other thing under the purview of his Department that is deemed to be good and that has lasted 150 years--150 days, perhaps. Indeed, I defy the Home Secretary to come to the Dispatch Box to tell us of any such thing.

The Home Secretary cites three reasons for supporting the change. I shall not go over his "irritations" again, but the other two are delay and cost. I agree with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) that we should put cost aside, but we cannot. Like every Member of Parliament, I know that cost, cost and cost are what drive the Bill. It has nothing to do with the Home Secretary's irritations, as if he had problems with his bowel movements. It has nothing to do with delays and with whether old lags are fiddling the system; it is all about money.

I am prepared to cede the Home Secretary the argument on cost. I do not know whether he is right or wrong, but I have examined the figures produced by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway and I have listened to the Home Secretary. My hon. and learned Friend should give up trying to challenge the Home Secretary on those grounds. Do we really want the public

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to believe that our battle hymn should be "Cry freedom--so long as it doesn't cost too much"? Who wants to follow a leader who utters such limp and palsied words? Our battle cry must be "Cry freedom--even though 'twould cost the earth". We should fight the Bill on principle, or not at all. We should leave it to the mean, small-minded Poujadists, shopkeepers and tradesmen on the Conservative Benches to haggle over the price of freedom and justice.

The Bill will undoubtedly lead to miscarriages of justice, by which I mean the conviction of the innocent. It will undoubtedly disadvantage young black people and other ethnic minorities. It will lead to an increase in excessive charges and convictions in magistrates courts. By definition, it is, therefore, a very bad Bill indeed.

At times like this, when I want to rail bitterly against the Home Secretary--whom once I considered nice, kind and wise--I seek refuge in the words of the poet Shelley, who wrote, in "Prometheus Unbound", perhaps the greatest cry for freedom and justice:


Let us, therefore, this day in the House of Commons, with our hearts and our minds, vote to preserve the freedom of and the right to trial by jury.


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