Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Dr. Lynne Jones: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Ms Blears: No, because time is limited, and I know that other hon. Members want to contribute.

There are genuine concerns about the possibility of more cases being dealt with by magistrates. They already hear 90 per cent. of cases, and the appeal rate is very low. I do not for one minute believe that magistrates will suddenly want to hear cases that it is inappropriate for them to deal with. I think that it was Lord Justice Bingham who said that magistrates are respectful of the Crown court. In fact, they are deferential to the Crown court, so I do not think that they will take on very serious cases.

I would like to see improvements to the magistracy, irrespective of the changes proposed in the Bill. We need more representative magistrates, particularly in inner cities. Three wards in my constituency have no magistrates at all. The majority of them come from the better off, affluent areas of the city, and we have a responsibility to recruit more representative magistrates. They need more training, and we need more consistency in sentencing. We should recruit more stipendiary magistrates, who offer quicker and more efficient justice and who are not intimidated by lawyers--prosecution or defence--or heavily influenced by the police.

I am pleased that improving the criminal justice system is a top priority for the Government. Tackling crime is fundamental to making communities such as Salford safer for people to live in, for businesses to locate in and for people to bring up their families in. In some areas, we must acknowledge, there is a criminal culture. Theft and burglary have become a way of life, and experienced criminals prey on the most vulnerable people.

We have set tough targets for reducing crime, we are providing extra police officers and we have anti-burglary initiatives. All that is welcome, but we must ensure that people have confidence in the criminal justice system. Witnesses must feel safe if they come forward. It is disastrous when they are forced to wait for months to give their evidence, only for the trial to collapse at the last minute. That will not encourage them to come forward again.

Hon. Members are properly concerned about the fundamental rights of defendants, but I must ask them to think about the rights to freedom that many of my constituents have lost as a result of the tidal wave of crime that has swept over them in recent years. All of us--victims, witnesses, defendants and the wider community--have a stake in the criminal justice system. We need always to strike the right balance, and the Bill will bring fairness, objectivity and transparency into the system. It will reduce delay and manipulation by experienced criminals. The right of appeal on venue and the general right of appeal will safeguard defendants' positions.

7 Mar 2000 : Column 957

I shall vote for the Bill because I believe that it is another step forward in our battle against crime. It will help to make the criminal justice system swift, effective and fair to everyone. I urge hon. Members to support it.

9.12 pm

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Like several hon. Members, I declare an interest as a practising member of the Bar. I come from a family long associated with the law. It happens that both my sisters are members of the judiciary--one a judge, the other a magistrate. I therefore come to the debate with some baggage.

I have a lot of sympathy with the Home Secretary. My criticisms of him are perhaps less dramatic than those made by some of his hon. Friends. That said, I think that he is wrong. Over the years, I have been rather attracted by propositions of the sort that he advanced, but I have always recoiled from them in the end because they do not satisfy the proper requirements of justice. In truth, as the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) said, the sense of the debate has gone against the Home Secretary. If a decision were genuinely to be made on the basis of what had been said in the House, there would be no doubt that the Bill would fail.

I shall begin with two preliminary points. I am extremely cautious--indeed, wholly unpersuaded--on cost. The figures are extremely suspect. For example, if the appeal against a decision to allow a jury trial means anything--I suspect that it does not, and that it will exist only on paper--there will be a great many appeals, which will be extremely expensive. In addition, if the Bill proceeds, I suspect that there will be many more appeals against conviction to the Crown court. Those two considerations lead one to suppose that the figures on costs with which we have been supplied are defective. In any event, they are not particularly relevant. Unlike the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears), I am sure that the Bill is Treasury driven, and I have had some experience of spotting such Bills. It should not be so. We should not determine this matter on the basis of cost--the real motive causing the Government to advance the Bill.

My second preliminary point, which does not go to the substance of the matter, is the criterion of reputation, to which justices ought to have regard when determining whether a trial by jury should be allowed. If we are to have the Bill, justices should have regard to the impact on a person's reputation of refusing or allowing a jury trial. However, the Bill prohibits that. If it is so offensive for reputation criteria to be enshrined in the Bill, we should not have the Bill; the matter simply comes down to that.

In relation to the substance of the Bill, I make a proposition that is self-evident: a conviction--especially for dishonesty--can be wholly disastrous for a person of good character. We should therefore be slow to remove the protection that such persons enjoy.

The Home Secretary expostulated when I intervened during his speech to make a point about the character of the judiciary--of which I have considerable experience. Labour Members constantly made that point in opposition, although, curiously, few of them make it now. If one spends a long time exposed to criminal courts, one develops a certain attitude of mind. If one spends a lifetime listening to dishonest explanations of what people get up to, one develops a predisposition in favour of the prosecution. There is nothing odd about that.

7 Mar 2000 : Column 958

I spent many years in the criminal courts, so I know that that is true. I have often thought that the judiciary--lay or professional--had a predisposition in favour of the prosecution, but seldom in favour of the defence.

Mr. McWalter: Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that that might be directly related to the fact that members of the judiciary work closely with the police and that often, after a long and difficult investigation, they do not want to let down the police?

Mr. Hogg: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am grateful to him because he supports what I am saying. I am not making a criticism; I merely point out that we need to face life as it is. There is a risk of a predisposition in favour of the prosecution within the judiciary--whether lay or professional.

The role of the jury is to prevent that predisposition from doing injury to defendants. That is why I attach such high importance to juries. By definition, there are no juries in magistrates courts to redress that predisposition--although, of course, there are juries in Crown courts.

Although I have the greatest respect for stipendiary magistrates--they do an extremely good job and I should like to see more of them--that does not alter the fact that a stipendiary sits alone and is the only person to make judgments as to fact, honesty and so on. If that person has a predisposition in favour of the prosecution, the defendant is in serious trouble. When I was a young man at the Bar, I knew several stipendiary magistrates to whom my comments would have applied.

Incidentally, the processes in the magistrates courts, especially on determining the admissibility of evidence--the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) spoke to that point--and on disclosure, tend to mean that the trial is less satisfactory for the defence.

I am concerned about the predisposition in favour of the prosecution among some members of the judiciary--I make no distinction between lay and professional members.

I ask the House to consider some related points. Our jury system is diverse--in ethnic mix, age, background, experience and so on. The hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice) shakes her head, so I shall make a concession. The magistracy is better than it was. When I first went to the Bar years ago, it was a very middle class and professionally oriented organisation. It is better than it was, but it is not as diverse as the jury system. The professional judiciary most certainly is not.

Many of the questions that juries or the judiciary have to determine in a criminal case are very much questions that ordinary people are perhaps best suited to answer because of their own experience of the ordinary events of life that give rise to criminal actions. For example, the cases relate to what has happened in a street, pub or supermarket. Juries have to consider whether provocation existed and was likely to cause someone to act in the way that he did. They consider whether a degree of force was reasonable and whether people could really believe that something happened in the circumstances described. Ordinary people, drawing on their experience of ordinary life, are perhaps better placed to answer such questions than the judiciary, either lay or professional. I am anxious not to remove the protection that the jury system provides.

7 Mar 2000 : Column 959

Finally, I wish to make an unusual point that the House should take into account. In a small number of cases, the elements in the charge are established but, for one reason or another, it would be unconscionable to convict. For example, there may have been a high degree of provocation that fell short of lawful justification. That can happen in assault cases and in cases dealing with sexual offences. In another type of case, the offence may be intrinsically trivial, but the consequences may be dire. Therefore, a conviction would be unconscionable.

In such cases, a jury serves as the public conscience in a way that the members of the lay or professional judiciary--I include myself in this--would find difficult. We are attuned to applying the law more strictly than a member of a jury would. He would have more regard to the broader interest and the public conscience test that I just mentioned. I would be very reluctant to see the jury trials system withdrawn in the sense that we are debating.

Next Section

IndexHome Page