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9.45 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): I agree with the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) that this has been a good debate, enlivened by some excellent speeches. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, East (Ms Corston), for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice) and for Salford (Ms Blears), but I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), who made well-considered speeches, albeit opposing the Bill.

We heard 19 speakers, 14 of whom--more than 70 per cent.--were barristers or solicitors. That constitutes a significant watering down of the lawyer content since the debate in the other place. A number of serious points were made. In an intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) asked my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to what extent cost was a motive. That was raised in a number of other contributions, which asked questions about, for instance, the legitimacy of the estimates. All those were fair enough points, but I emphasise that none of our case rests on the cost savings that may arise from the Bill--it derives entirely from the need to create a more transparent, clear and fair criminal justice system. That is why the Bill is before us, and that is its intention.

The law requires us to make an estimate of the cost savings involved, and we have set out those savings in the Bill to the best of our ability. I acknowledge that many of the points made about cost savings are fair, and that the proof of the pudding will be in the eating; but those points are not germane to the central issue, which is whether we want to enact a measure to modernise the criminal justice system and to make it more transparent. That, in fact, is the entire motivation behind the Bill.

Mr. Burnett: The Minister says that the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Would it not be wiser for him to look before he leaps, and to arrange an independent scrutiny of the figures that the Government are using to justify their actions?

Mr. Clarke: There are many scrutinies of the figures, but the hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. My point is that cost issues, significant though they are, are not the central motivation behind the Bill. The central motivation is the need to secure a modernised, efficient and effective criminal justice system.

I pay tribute to all who have spoken. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East observed, much of the discussion outside the House--certainly that in the other place--has tended to demean the role of the magistrates courts, but that has not been the tenor of our debate. The hon. Member for Woking, for example, said that it had nothing to do with the suggestion that one court

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was better than another, and many others have made similar points. Some outside and in the other place have rested their whole case, in an arrogant and sneering way, on the proposition that justice in the magistrates courts is somehow less worth while than that in the Crown courts; but no such suggestion has been made today, and I am glad that it has not. It is, of course, important that that should be the case, given that more than 95 per cent. of cases are resolved in the magistrates courts.

A number of Members made the point that this was a matter of balance and judgment. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) made it when he said that it was not an open-and-shut case. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) made it when he said--in response to an intervention from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary--that the issues depended on the balance of judgment, and lay on the margins.

It is a question of balance and judgment, but the issue is clear: we are seeking to achieve a transparent and clear criminal justice system.

Mr. Bermingham: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Clarke: I shall not at this stage.

A number of the arguments against the Bill have been somewhat overblown. The facts are that there are cases that go automatically to the Crown court, where the venue is clear, there is no choice for the defendant and the situation is set out--there are 24,000 on average every year; and there are cases that go automatically to the magistrates court--there are about 1.4 million every year--where, under current legislation, there is no choice for the defendant to go to the Crown court. The position is simple: they go straight to the magistrates court.

Some say that no question of reputation is involved. The list of cases considered in that summary way includes assault on a constable, common assault, brothel keeping, cruelty to animals, cruelty to or neglect of children, aggravated vehicle taking, indecent exposure, and driving after consuming alcohol or drugs. Those are serious offences, where a serious issue of reputation is involved. All are decided in the magistrates court today, without any question of the defendant or anyone else deciding that the matter should go to trial by jury--to a Crown court.

It is a substantial point: a significant list of offences goes at the moment directly to summary court and summary judgment, without anyone suggesting that they should go to the Crown court. It is important to place on the record that no one in the debate has suggested that we should change the law so that, in the sort of cases that I have mentioned, the individual has the automatic right to choose trial by jury.

We have talked about each-way cases: there are about 465,000 every year, 400,000 going to the magistrates court and 65,000 going to the Crown court. Those are the overall figures.

It is important to put the debate in perspective. As I say, today more than 95 per cent. of cases are judged automatically by the magistrates courts. Many of those cases include serious offences involving reputation in a variety of ways.

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The simple issue on each-way cases is: does the prosecutor, the defendant, the magistrate or the court decide, subject to appeal? Many international comparisons can be made. All the systems are entirely different in their character, history and orientation, but it is true that the English and Welsh system is eccentric in that it permits defendants to choose. In general in the rest of the world, either the court decides or, in some cases, which are equally eccentric, the prosecution decides. It is eccentric for the defendant to be given the right to decide. What is universal is the right of everyone to have a fair trial, whether in the magistrates court or Crown court.

Mr. Bermingham: Does my hon. Friend agree that, if we took away the right of the defendant and left it to the Crown Prosecution Service to decide the level of charge, those that it considered merited a sentence of six months or less could go to the magistrates court and those that it considered merited a sentence of six months or more could go to the Crown court? In that way, we would get rid of that argument and solve the whole problem.

Mr. Clarke: I am familiar with the idea. I have seen the correspondence that my hon. Friend has had with the Home Secretary. There are interesting arguments in the debate in relation to reclassifying some of the offences in different areas. Many issues arise.

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: On the subject of eccentric systems, what are the other systems in the world where there is a right of trial by jury--let us forget Scotland for a moment--and where that right is not exercised by the defendant? Let us have a list.

Mr. Clarke: I will let my hon. and learned Friend have the list, but I do not regard Scotland as an eccentricity in any respect whatever. No Labour Member could possibly do so.

The change that we have proposed is significant and important. It is focused on reducing opacity in the system--on increasing its clarity--and on reducing abuse.

Mr. Garnier: That is the third time that the Minister has mentioned either transparency or opacity. In what way is the current system lacking in transparency?

Mr. Clarke: I should be very surprised if the hon. and learned Gentleman does not see many cases in his surgery, as I do in mine, involving victims, criminals or jurors, for example, who say that they do not understand how the legal system has worked for them or that they have not had justice from the system. My hon. Friend the Member for Salford made an excellent speech containing some very specific examples showing why people might feel that way. I do not think that the criminal justice system does very well in those spheres.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Will the Minister give way?

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Mr. Clarke: No. I shall not give way again, as I am near the end of my speech and have to finish it in four minutes.

The Bill, for the reasons eloquently stated by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East, is supported by the royal commission, the Lord Chief Justice, magistrates and police. The matter involves a balanced judgment. Although I hear what the Bar Council and the Law Society had to say, I also know that there are divided opinions on the matter within the legal profession. It is important to stress that the case is very clear and straightforward. We need to change the criminal justice system--to modernise it and to take it forward--and that is what we are doing.


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