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Mr. McWalter: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the delay to which the process is liable has the potential for seasoned criminals to try to put pressure on witnesses to withdraw? That is a significant aspect and the Bill seeks to address it.

Mr. Davis: First, such pressure is rare, and secondly, if it worked, 60 per cent. of defendants would not plead guilty at the door of the court--they would go through it with their intimidated witnesses. Thirdly, and most importantly, my argument is that we should try every other mechanism first to reduce the number of manipulations of the system before we throw away a fundamental civil liberty. That is what the Bill will do.

The jury trial is a better mechanism, but that is not to say that magistrates do not do a very good job. The proceedings of jury trials are carefully recorded and the procedures are carefully designed. While we are on the subject, those procedures have improved after every miscarriage of justice, but the reforms that have arisen from that process have not necessarily had the same impact on the magistrates court. It is not a criticism of individual magistrates to say that the jury trial procedure is better--it is more expensive and ponderous, but it delivers a high quality of justice.

My concern is not with the 60 per cent. who eventually plead guilty--we can reduce that figure by other methods--but with those people who go on to face trial by jury and who might not have that option under these proposals. We should not swallow the presumption that has been floated today that all those who elect for jury

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trial are playing the system. Some are, but a significant number are not. We should remember that almost 40 per cent. of those who eventually go to trial are acquitted. Those people will face the prospect of real and perceived injustice under the Bill.

Trial by jury may not go back to the Magna Carta or Henry II's Clarendon fields. In fact, its original roots date back to Anglo-Saxon times, but we need not worry about that. The system that we are talking about today has been in place for 150 years and it is stable.

Mr. Straw: Could the right hon. Gentleman explain why he believes that because there is an acquittal rate of 40 per cent.--it is a little higher than that--in the Crown court, it would lead to manifest injustice if the magistrates court were to deal with those cases? Many of the cases would still be heard in the Crown court, but in wholly contested cases in the magistrates courts, there is an acquittal rate of about 33 per cent. If one takes account of relative seriousness and complexity, there is little difference in acquittal rates in magistrates courts compared with the Crown court.

Mr. Davis: The Home Secretary misses my point. Actually, 38 per cent. of each-way cases are acquitted, and my point was that those people were not just a group of manipulators of the system. My other point is that jury trial is a fundamental civil right. It is the right of the British citizen in an each-way case to choose the more thorough process, in the reasonable belief that that will give him more opportunity of being proven innocent. It is those people about whom I am concerned.

The current arrangements go back almost 150 years. They have been in place longer than universal suffrage, and nobody calls that ill-founded. We should not remove that foundation stone without great care and without testing every other option first. That requires more care than has preceded the Bill.

There is a natural tendency in all Governments to be authoritarian. That tendency becomes more pronounced as time passes. However, the proper and natural role of the House is to defend the civil liberties of citizens. We shall do that today by supporting the amendment.

9 pm

Ms Hazel Blears (Salford): I am delighted to follow the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), who adopted a very managerial approach to some of the judicial system's problems. He noted, in the context of the Narey report, that some people think that justice and managing the system are contradictory. However, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that managing the system properly is vital to making it more efficient.

The contribution from the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden contained many sensible suggestions, but it missed the point. I believe that the Bill is right in principle. It transfers the decision about the venue for a trial from the defendant to the court. Defendants should not have the right to veto, on the basis of their personal interests, the venue in which the trial will take place. It is right that the court should decide, in an objective, transparent and straightforward way, the right venue for the charge that has been brought. The court will hear representations on the matter and will have to give its reasons for its decision, which will be subject to appeal.

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That is the right way to proceed, as it allows an objective decision to be made, whereas the current system allows one side of the case the right to veto the decision.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): As a Labour Member talking about principles, does the hon. Lady feel comfortable arguing a case that is the opposite to the one being put by organisations such as Liberty and Justice?

Ms Blears: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I have been a member of Liberty for many years. However, I represent a constituency that has suffered tremendously from crime and disorder in recent years. In some respects, my community has lost faith in the criminal justice system. My duty as a constituency Member of Parliament to represent my community weighs more heavily with me than the pursuit of self-interest that has been the main concern of organisations that are dominated by the legal profession.

Dr. Lynne Jones: How will the Bill help the community whose concerns my hon. Friend rightly wishes to represent? For example, how will it help victims of crime?

Ms Blears: I strongly believe that the Bill will tackle the problems of delay and manipulation by experienced criminals. As a result, the confidence of victims and witnesses in our system of justice will be increased, as they will know that the process can no longer be manipulated by experienced criminals simply stringing out trials for their own self-interest. That is an important point.

The changes proposed in the Bill will mean that it is for magistrates to determine the appropriate venue for trial, in light of the circumstances of the offence. I agree with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who is no longer in his place, that balance in the criminal justice system is crucial. However, I believe that the balance at present errs on the side of the defendant, rather than in favour any of the other parties involved.

At the moment, defendants choose where they will be tried. Home Office research shows that nine out of 10 of those electing Crown court trial have previous convictions, that five out of 10 have three or more previous convictions, and that two out of every 10 have in excess of 10 previous convictions. Most of those who plead not guilty and elect for Crown court trial end up pleading guilty when their cases are finally heard.

No one who has heard the debate can deny that some defendants manipulate the system to delay their eventual sentences. Perhaps stupidly, they are even prepared to risk a heavier sentence in the Crown court if by doing so they can remain on bail, at liberty, for a few more weeks or months. It is a sad fact that some defendants hope that witnesses will not come forward if there is a delay, or that they will be intimidated and not give evidence, with the result that the defendants will be allowed to go free.

Research has also shown that 27 per cent. of defendants who plead not guilty and elect for Crown court trial intend to plead guilty later. That means that nearly 6,000 cases are a complete sham from start to finish. It means that the full machinery of the Crown court system has to be put into action. Victims and police are involved, witnesses are

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warned and a great deal of money is spent--when, in 6,000 cases, the defendant knows from the outset that he intends to plead guilty to the offences charged.

I have a couple of examples from my city. They are not from a royal commission or any theoretical report but are real-life cases that have taken place in Salford in the past 12 months. In one case, two defendants were charged with possession of a class B controlled drug, cannabis. The date of the charge was 5 May 1998. They were found in possession and charged with possession. The matter was committed to the Crown court on 13 November 1998. They had a plea and direction hearing a month later. Four prosecution witnesses were made absolute and, on 10 June 1999--seven months later--the defendants appeared before the Crown court at Manchester. All prosecution witnesses were in attendance--police officers not patrolling the streets of Salford but stuck in the Crown court because they had been called to appear. The defendants changed their pleas to guilty; they were each fined £100, and that was the end of the matter. The case took 13 months to dispose of, all the witnesses were in attendance and, at the end of the day, the defendants were each fined £100.

The second case involved indecent assault on a female under 16. The date of the charge was 20 April 1998. Nine prosecution witnesses were made absolute in July of that year, including young people who had to give evidence. The trial was set for 2 December 1998. All nine prosecution witnesses attended, including police officers. The defendant changed his plea from not guilty to guilty. No jury was sworn. The case took 26 weeks to be dealt with, an enormous amount of police time was wasted and the distress and anguish caused to the witnesses was considerable.

My third example is a little closer to home. A young man reached into a parked vehicle on a garage forecourt and stole a handbag. He committed that offence on 25 July 1998. It took a year to deal with him in the Crown court. Five prosecution witnesses attended and were sworn.

That example is close to my heart, because last year I was the victim of the same offence. A young man stole my handbag from my car. I chased him for 400 yd. I shouted, "Stop, thief, I'm a Member of Parliament," but that did not seem to have much effect. He jumped over a 7 ft wall and, as can be imagined, I was not able to follow him. A month later I identified him on an identification parade. He arrived with his solicitor and said, "She'll never pick me out," but despite his having shaved off his hair, I managed to identify him. He then took the case all the way to the Crown court. It took seven months to resolve. Witnesses were warned and appeared, and on the day of the hearing he pleaded guilty to the offence against me and asked for 30 other similar offences to be taken into consideration, including robbing Bev Callard of "Coronation Street". I am glad to say that he was dealt with very severely.

Those are examples of what is happening week in, week out, month in, month out, up and down this country, when defendants play the system.

In my view, this is not a cost-driven measure. If we save £100 million, all well and good. But this measure has been introduced because it is the right thing to do.

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I have discussed the matter with the chief constable of Greater Manchester, who said that the provisions are likely to save him about £2 million in wasted police time. Greater Manchester is about to get 378 extra police officers, and I want them on front-line policing duties, not tied up in the Crown court on the sort of wasted cases that I have described.

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