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Mr. Thomas McAvoy (Glasgow, Rutherglen): Never an old cynic.

Ms Prentice: I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

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Many legal advisers are allowing, or perhaps even persuading, their clients to opt for trial by jury, knowing that it will prolong events and may well financially benefit themselves. When a considerable number of defendants, having opted for jury trial, would prefer to have been dealt with in the magistrates court, we owe it to them to ask whether they were given the best advice in the first instance.

Opponents of the Bill say that we cannot compare our system to that of Scotland, in which the procurator fiscal decides where a trial should take place. They accept that the people of Scotland believe that their system is just and fair. They are upholding the civil liberties of the people of England and Wales, but they are saying that it is all right for the prosecution to decide where a trial should take place, but not for lay justices to do so. That is a strange argument to make, from a civil libertarian point of view.

Victims want swift justice. So do most defendants. Those defendants who go court shopping, looking for the venue that will give them the best chance of delay or acquittal, are bringing the system into disrepute. That is wrong in principle because it puts the interests of the defendant above those of witnesses, victims and everyone else. No other country that I am aware of allows the defendant to decide where he should be tried, and it is beyond me why we should do so in a minority of cases, and not even the most serious ones.

I hope that whatever money is saved as a result of the Bill will be used to fight crime, not to pay lawyers. I do not blame the legal trade unions for fighting the Bill, but let us get real and not pretend that they are doing it for reasons of altruism and civil liberties. The Bill will make the justice system fairer and more efficient, and it will show that we value the magistrates system and the jury system, because both will be allowed properly to do the job that we ask them to do. I hope that we will take this opportunity to say loudly and clearly that we value juries and magistrates, and in doing so we will legislate for a better system of justice for everyone.

7.58 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): I am afraid that after the speech of the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice), I have to declare an interest as a member of the Bar. I suspect that her criticisms of barristers are sometimes justified, but I do not agree with her criticism of the jury system. Her contribution and that of the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Jean Corston) swam against the tide of opinion on both sides of the House.

There is concern about the future of the jury system, and there has not been much support for the Government's position on either side of the House, with the partial exception of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who made clear his position and his support, in principle, for the Government, but not for their methods in the Bill. He can claim to have spoken frankly today and to have been consistent in his behaviour towards the jury system.

In opening the debate, the Home Secretary was wise to warn against overstating one's case, so I shall confine myself to saying that I have not been convinced by the arguments of the Home Secretary and his supporters that there is sufficient justification for removing a civil liberty and what used to be a right for the ordinary man in the

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street. I agree with the analysis of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), who made an outstanding speech. The Bill removes a right enjoyed by all our fellow citizens, and exercised by many of them. The measure will result, at the very least, in perceived unfairness, especially for many members of the public of relatively humble origins and good character.

The Home Secretary may have been wise to warn against overstating one's case, but he is not in the best position to give that warning. In his speech he spoke as though the proposals in the Narey report on the jury system and in previous reports were self-evident truths, and as if all those who opposed them were blinkered and hysterical. The Home Secretary read out a long list of previous examples.

I shall not labour the point, as it has already been touched on, but I recollect the approach of the Home Secretary in dismissing the Narey report shortly before the last general election. He said then that it was wrong, short-sighted and likely to prove ineffective.

When the right hon. Gentleman dismissed the Narey report with those words shortly before the general election, he must surely have considered all the underlying arguments and the example of the Scottish system and all the European systems that he now prays in aid.

I do not want to hear about the Scottish system this evening. The Home Secretary considered all that and dismissed it when he opposed the Narey report. I wait to hear from the right hon. Gentleman, but so far in the debate, he has not produced a shred of new evidence to have emerged since February 1997 in support of his position. He can produce long lists of eminent people who support his view now. We can all produce long lists on one side of the argument or the other, and we could have done that in 1997, but there is not a single piece of new evidence to justify the Home Secretary's change of mind.

The number of committals generated to the Crown court by defendants exercising their right in a magistrates court has gone down. We heard the percentages and we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Woking some of the reasons why that is happening. The Home Secretary said in 1997 that the then Government should wait and reflect. A diminution has occurred in the problem that he perceived then, which he now prays in aid as a reason for making the change.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe comprehensively demolished the Home Secretary's argument that the new right of appeal is some sort of magic ingredient. It existed in 1997, but the shadow Home Secretary then, now the Home Secretary, did not even bother to mention it in his response.

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Mr. Hogg: I accept that the point that I am about to make could be debated, but when the last general election took place, the electorate judging the Labour party's position would have done so on the present Home Secretary's then stance, which was hostile to the proposal. Not only was the Bill not in the manifesto, but the electorate would have assumed from the posture adopted by the Home Secretary at that time that it would never be introduced.

Mr. Clappison: My right hon. and learned Friend is right. There is no way that the Home Secretary can rebut the criticism made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe.

The Home Secretary is entitled to say that he has changed his mind, but he cannot convincingly rebut the criticism that he has not been consistent and that he has been opportunistic. I wait to hear from him any new evidence in support of the complete volte-face that has taken place since 1997.

I am not attracted by the argument on savings. No doubt the Home Secretary was aware in 1997 that there would have been savings. The argument is flawed and doubtful. There will be delays and additional expense as a result of the new right of appeal, and the magistrates court system will become clogged up. I place no trust in the estimates given by the Government.

I do not like the argument, anyway. The Government are telling us that the price of law and order is the curtailment of freedom--we can have a properly staffed police force, but only if the Government save money by doing away with one of our rights. Without being partisan, I do not think that the Home Secretary and the Government are best placed to present arguments about police numbers and police forces, especially in respect of my constituency, after the terrible problems that we have experienced in Hertford--but I shall not go down that road.

The line of argument pursued by the Government is not an attractive one. We have heard the argument before that the price of law and order is the curtailment of freedom, and we know where it eventually leads. It is a dangerous argument.

The Home Secretary got off to a bad start by having to perform a complete volte-face, but matters have got worse since then because of the way in which the Government have introduced the legislation. By trying to address the problem of reputation, which is a real problem, the Government got into trouble and were criticised for creating a two-tier system of justice. Some legitimate criticisms were made in that regard.

The solution to the problem is even worse. Under clause 1(2)(b), the court may not take into account the circumstances of the accused. That means that reputation cannot be taken into account. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe made clear, that is extremely damaging. It is inevitable that men and women of good character, whose reputation and livelihood will be at stake, will be deprived of the right to trial by jury--just the sort of people who many members of the public would think should have the right to a trial by jury, if they so wish.

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Mr. David Taylor: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Can he adduce evidence to demonstrate that the prospect of such a defendant obtaining justice in the Crown court is greater in each-way cases than in a magistrates court? If he has, he should tell the House.

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