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Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Fisher: No. We are short of time. I shall try to speak for less than 15 minutes to allow other hon. Members to get in.

I was persuaded by the Home Secretary's argument that any justice system can be improved and that we should not be against change just because it was change. I am not against change, but I ask whether the Bill proposes the right change to give better justice, rather than, for example, proposing recategorisation of offences between summary and committal?

Therefore, as I listened to the Home Secretary's supporting arguments today, I had an open mind. He was generous in giving way to hon. Members. It is difficult to deny that his speech was more concerned with attacking his critics than giving a strong explanation and defence of the Bill, but he was brought to the point by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who asked whether he could tell us what the Bill was about. He said concisely, "It is about cheaper justice and better justice." He said exactly that. She asked, "Will it save money, or give better justice?" He said that it would do both.

On whether the Bill will give cheaper justice, I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, East (Jean Corston) and for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore): Governments are always concerned about saving money, but, on such an issue to do with our justice system, it should be the lowest priority, not a prime consideration.

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Like other hon. Members, I am baffled as to what money the Bill will save. I had not heard the figure of £128 million before the explanatory notes were published. I cannot see any detailed audit or explanation of where the money is being saved. Perhaps it is being saved in the prison system, but that is not the way to improve the prison system. We should find other ways to save money.

Probably the figure is a guesstimate. Perhaps it has to be a guesstimate in the nature of things, but the savings argument is not a strong case. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) said, the figure probably ignores the undoubted cost of more appeals; there will be more appeals. Whether his or the Government's figure is correct, people will appeal if they have the right to do so--as they must have--so I wonder where the savings will be and where the hard evidence of savings is. However, I am certain that savings should not be what the Bill is about.

The Home Secretary was on better ground when he said that the Bill would give better justice, but again I was not sure what he meant. Surely, he did not mean better justice in the sense of better judgments. That would be an aspersion on the Crown courts. I suspect that he meant better administration of justice.

Again, is that a sufficient reason for making what is a fundamental change? Everyone wants an efficiently administered system, but the Bill goes to a fundamental right. To introduce it in the interests of better administration seems a very narrow and constrained ambition for such a Bill. Indeed, it is an ambition that seems to have been refuted by the Government's own 1998 consultative paper on either-way cases, which showed that, in the past 10 years, the proportion of such cases going to the Crown court had decreased. In 1987, 53 per cent. of cases were in that category and now only 28 per cent. are. If we want a more efficient system, we seem to be getting one.

The Home Secretary has a good point about abuse of the system. If he wants to create a better and better-administered system that squeezes out abuse, everyone will support him. Nevertheless, people will try to get the best out of any of the world's legal systems, and, particularly if those systems threaten the liberty of human beings, they will try to work the system. If it is an abuse to try to seek the best for oneself in protecting one's liberty, there will always be abuses. It is in human nature to try to protect oneself. However, I suspect that there are better ways than those proposed in the Bill of attacking abuse--such as by making greater use of plea before venue and recategorisation--and of creating greater clarity in the administrative system.

Therefore, the Home Secretary did not prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that, on grounds of cost, time and abuse, we should alter the system as the Bill proposes.

As I said, I am not lawyer and have no legal background. I therefore thought that I should consult my constituents on the Bill. I certainly did not want not to support my Government--whom I am proud to support--without knowing my constituents' thoughts on the Bill. I therefore approached all 14 firms of solicitors in my constituency, the chairman of the magistrates bench, the clerk and as many magistrates as I could contact. This is what they replied.

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Mr. Eric Hodgkinson--who is president of the North Staffordshire Law Society, but stressed that he was replying in a personal capacity, rather than as a partner of Bowcock and Pursaill--said:

Mr. Steven Park, of Park and Co., said:

    I am most concerned. I do not believe that the present system is being abused. The biggest delay in getting cases into the Crown court is on the part of the prosecution preparing their committal file.

I expected the magistrates and their clerk to be enthusiastic about the Bill, which would increase their responsibilities and their work. Indeed, the clerk was enthusiastic about it. When I asked whether he would be able to cope with the presumably greater load on courts--the number of courts in North Staffordshire has been reduced considerably in recent years--he said that he thought that there was no technical reason why they could not cope with the Bill's consequences.

Interestingly, however, and to my surprise, both the chairman and the magistrates whom he brought with him to the meeting were very cautious and uncertain about the provisions. Although they agreed that they could cope with the changes, they said that the process was speeding up regardless, particularly because of the recent pilot scheme in which North Staffordshire was chosen as one of the five areas to participate. Although they could not give me any figures, their view was that the majority of either-way cases were already being dealt with in the magistrates court.

One thing on which everyone I consulted agreed was that they could not understand why the Government were proposing the changes now, rather than waiting for the review of the criminal justice system that they themselves established. The review is chaired by Sir Robin Auld and will report later this year. Both magistrates and solicitors in my constituency said that, until they saw the exact scope of Sir Robin's report, we should not be tackling this one, small--albeit very important--part of the criminal justice system. They thought that we should first have the benefit of that overall review of the criminal justice system--much of which they thought could be improved.

Why are we dealing with one tiny sphere of the justice system, comprising perhaps 5 or 6 per cent. of all cases, when we shall soon have the benefit of Sir Robin's views and report on the overall system? After we receive that report on the broader context, we shall be better able to judge whether the proposed changes are sensible.

The Home Secretary's reply to that point was deeply confusing and unimpressive. He said that Sir Robin had already obtained an answer on the point because he had consulted High Court judges. I presume that Sir Robin will consult more people, and a wider range of people, than only High Court judges. Furthermore, we should not anticipate what the Auld report will say. We should wait for it, and then consider possibly much wider reform of the overall justice system. We should then perhaps place particular emphasis on recategorisation, which has helped us in the past, and probably could be beneficial in future.

I was certainly persuaded by the Home Secretary's speech--but it was the speech that he gave in 1997. That speech was much more persuasive than the one that he gave today. Therefore, with regret, I shall today be

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supporting not the Government, but the reasoned amendment tabled by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway.

8.45 pm

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): It is always a privilege and a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher). I could not agree more with everything that he said. I, too, shall support the reasoned amendment. Like him, I entered the debate with some trepidation, as a non-lawyer, but I considered being called a Hampstead liberal sufficient provocation for someone of my interests to take part. When listening to a debate that appeared to be between the technocrats and the lawyers, I was uncomfortable to find myself on the side of the lawyers. I have now redefined the debate as being between the Treasury and the libertarians, and I am on the libertarians' side.

The Home Secretary clearly has a case for dealing with this aspect of the judicial system. He knows that I share some of his views, as set out in the National Audit Office report a few weeks ago. There is a real problem with the criminal justice system. It is the least joined-up aspect of government. That arises partly from the necessary independence of components of that system. That is unavoidable. However, it also arises from the manipulation of the system by criminals and lawyers, each for their own ends. The management of our judicial system has historically been slack, bordering on the slapdash.

The cost of the current system, which processes about 2 million people, is £9 billion a year. The process is undoubtedly inefficient. I could give the House dozens of statistics, but I shall not, given the limited time. The easiest proof can be found by looking at the variation in the amount of time that even magistrates courts--we have heard a lot of good about them this evening--take in dealing with cases: from 30 to more than 90 days on less serious cases, and between 60 and well over 100 days on serious cases. That is driven by the fact that they have up to 2.6 million adjournments a year, each of which ranges from one to 101 days.

Some 40 per cent. of adjournments are driven by errors and omissions on the part of the various players in the system. Many of them are significantly influenced by Government rules or agencies. I found an example of one police force that turned out 80 per cent. of the prosecution files late or of inadequate quality. That is hardly acceptable. One quarter of the adjournments were caused by defendants failing to attend. Almost another quarter were caused by a defence solicitor. I know that the Home Secretary is doing something about that. Another 15 per cent. were caused by defendants in custody being delivered late. That is hardly acceptable. More than 10 per cent. were caused by problems with advance information. There are similar problems in the Crown courts, leading to costs in each case--£41 million for the magistrates courts and £40 million for the Crown courts. There are serious management problems.

The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 brought into effect various measures to correct much of that. The pilot studies that we have heard about and the Narey report have brought down hearing times by 45 days in one of the six areas affected. However, that system went national only last November--barely three months ago.

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There is a great deal wrong and a great deal is being done to put it right, but in the midst of all that good work the Home Secretary has introduced this ill-considered measure. The proposal to remove the right of election for trial by jury in each-way cases is seriously flawed technically, as well as striking at what is without hyperbole called a foundation stone of British liberty.

Let us deal first with the supposed savings. When the Bill was being debated in the other place, we were told that the savings were £105 million. Now we are told that the figure is £128 million. There has been no explanation of that difference. A large proportion of the savings come from a reduction in sentences, which I am not comfortable with when assessing the value of the measure. Those in the other place were also told that there would be no loss of public service jobs. I spend a lot of my time looking at supposed economies in government, and those two claims strike me as inconsistent. I find the proposal implausible in financial terms.

We must remember the size of the costs that we are discussing--£9 billion a year. We are now talking about £128 million, of which a small fraction would be within the judicial system per se. We will never know whether these illusory savings are actually made. Even if they were, if we had to choose between money and justice, surely we would choose justice every time. The case thus falls apart.

A more important component--to which the Home Secretary referred implicitly when he talked about the better administration of justice--is the problem of delay versus justice, or delay versus fairness. We all understand that justice delayed is, in a sense, justice denied, but if we had to choose between delay and fairness, we would again choose fairness on every occasion.

The Home Secretary talked about time-wasting activities that are undertaken by some people, and that the Bill aims to eradicate. The primary problem of the system about which I take the right hon. Gentleman to be talking is the so-called "cracked trials"--the one third of Crown court trials that fail to go ahead on the day, very largely because of guilty pleas at the door of the court. To be fair, preparation for these trials costs £29 million.

I do believe that hardened criminals play the system, and the reason for that derives directly from the way in which the system is operated. The hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) pointed out earlier that the practice of reducing the charge en route to the Crown court occurs in fully half of the cases. That procedure is guaranteed to get the case-hardened criminal to go to the Crown court--it is a way of reducing the charge against him. We have put an incentive into the system, in the behaviour patterns of the Crown Prosecution Service. We should put that right before we even think about such a Bill as this.

We have a higher tariff for defendants who change their plea late in the process--that came in under the last Government. That ought to deter anyone from playing the system--either to delay or to spend some expected sentence in a softer remand prison. The evidence is that that is having an effect, hence the reduction in the numbers of each-way cases going to the Crown courts. However, it is not having as big an effect as the Home Secretary or I would like.

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The survey evidence, repeated in the NAO report, shows clearly that many defendants either do not understand or do not believe that they get the tariff. That should be put right also before we even consider this Bill. That could be done by increasing the tariff, as Lady Kennedy argued in the other place, particularly for those with numerous previous convictions--the group we are trying to target in this ill-targeted Bill. Most particularly, it could be done by requiring clear notification to the defendant of the consequences before the election and plea.

If we stop the overcharging mechanism and fix and communicate the steeper tariff, we may dramatically reduce the playing of the system. Had the Home Secretary tried to address that and allowed time for us to see the consequences, I might have been more sympathetic towards the Bill.

I view the right to jury trial as a foundation stone of our civil liberties, but I am not starry-eyed about it. It is not perfect, as many Members would agree. It undoubtedly leads sometimes to the guilty going free. There is no doubt about that. Sometimes--very infrequently--it leads to worse cases of an innocent defendant being found guilty. As an aside, if magistrates courts considered the sort of cases that appear before Crown courts, they would face similar problems of miscarriages of justice. However, the jury system is a better method of delivering justice than any other. That is why jury trials are expensive. They are, by nature, more thorough. They are a near-ideal balance between the professional skill and experience of the judge and counsel and the clear-eyed common sense of ordinary citizen jurors.

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