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Jury Trial

8. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): If he will postpone his plans to change the right to jury trial until after the publication of the review of criminal justice under the chairmanship of Sir Robin Auld. [112579]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): No. This measure is part of the Government's programme to modernise the criminal justice system to make it more responsive to the needs of the victims of crime, of the public, and of defendants alike. This issue has been considered extensively over the past seven years, not least by the royal commission on criminal justice in 1993. On each occasion the conclusion has been the same--that reform is required. Lord Justice Auld is aware of our intention to legislate and will, no doubt, take this into account in conducting his review. However, the Lord Chief Justice has already made it clear that our measure has his support and that of an overwhelming number of the senior judiciary.

Mr. Heath: At the risk of being accused of being a Hampstead liberal, and a bearded one at that, may I suggest to the Home Secretary that those who oppose the measure do so not because they are weak on crime or because they wish to preserve the salaries of lawyers but because they have a real interest in British justice?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he has failed to persuade many Labour Members who have not yet subsided into acquiescence? Will he consider again whether there is a case for an independent and considered view to be taken before he proceeds with legislation, which in any event will fail in another place?

Mr. Straw: On independent and thorough review, this issue has been considered time without number by senior and independent people, including the members of the royal commission on criminal justice, who came to a unanimous view that the proposed change was needed in the interests of justice. On that basis, it is needed both in respect of victims and defendants. I am aware that there was some anxiety and concern among Members on both sides of the House, but I am delighted to say that there was a majority of 126 on Second Reading, and that only one Labour Member voted against the Bill at that stage.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is well aware of the research that shows that the majority of defendants who opt for Crown court trial in an either-way case plead guilty once they reach the Crown court. Those of us who have worked in magistrates courts are aware that putting off the evil day is a powerful motive for defendants. Does he agree that this approach imposes an intolerable stress on the victims of crime and prevents other defendants who are awaiting trial inthe Crown court from having their cases dealt with

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expeditiously? Will he take that into account in proceeding with his proposals, so as to ensure that other defendants are given an equal hearing in any discussions?

Mr. Straw: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who brings considerable experience to the issue. The truth is that these are cases in which, typically, the defendant will plead guilty anyway, and knows that he or she will do so, and the amounts involved--a can of Tennents lager may have been stolen--are relatively small. They string the system out in the vain hope that they will get a shorter sentence when, in practice, they get a longer one. The Conservative party, having originally supported the proposal, has to explain why it is contributing to substantial extra delays in serious cases coming before the Crown court that could and should be tried only by the Crown court.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): The Home Secretary must recognise that he has considerable lack of conviction on this matter, having attacked the proposals--which were not supported by Conservative Members as he suggests, but put forward for consultation--when they were made by the royal commission. In view of that attack, it is a bit rich to tell the House and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) of the royal commission's support. When, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, the Home Secretary's Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No. 2) Bill is thrown out by the other place, like the (No. 1) Bill, and as he failed to convince some 29 of his own Back Benchers in last week's debate, will he recognise that, as the proposal was no part of the Labour manifesto at the last general election, he would be entirely wrong to try to force it through the other place after a defeat? Will he then lick his wounds and crawl away?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is being a touch economical with his recollection of the position of the previous Administration. We had it confirmed by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) only last week that, had the Conservatives won the last general election and had he been in office, he would have introduced the measure. It was not put out for consultation, but for deliberation and for decision. As for the position of the other place, I hope that it will recognise that this is the elected House and that the will of the elected House must take precedence. If the hon. Gentleman is offering the alternative suggestion, I have to tell him that having any truck with it is dangerous for the future of the Conservative party.

Reparation Orders

9. Mr. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East): How many reparation orders have been made since September 1998. [112581]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): A total of 1,110 reparation orders were made across the five pilot areas from 30 September 1998 to31 January 2000. The reparation order requires young offenders to face up to the consequences of their offence for their victims and the wider community. The order will be implemented nationally on 1 June.

Mr. Goggins: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and assure him that there is widespread support for

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reparation orders, not least as a measure of restoration to the victims of crime. What assessment has he made of the effectiveness of the orders that have been made so far and what steps is he taking to ensure that the courts make maximum use of the orders when they become available nationally later this year?

Mr. Clarke: We are analysing carefully the effects of the various schemes in the five pilot areas: the London boroughs of Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea and the City of Westminster; Hampshire, Southampton, Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight; Wolverhampton; Sheffield; and Blackburn. The general impression--I have seen a number of the schemes myself--is extremely optimistic and we are encouraged by the extent to which people are taking part. Our assessment of the courts' willingness to use the orders is that they are positive and enthusiastic because they recognise the major advantages of reparation as a means of dealing with young offenders.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): How many of those who have received reparation orders have committed further crimes?

Mr. Clarke: I cannot answer that question, but I can say that 5.1 per cent. of all reparation orders made in the period have been breached compared with 13 per cent. of probation orders. Generally, there has been less breaching and we believe that there has been less return to crime.

DNA Tests (Norfolk)

11. Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): How many DNA tests his Department has carried out in Norfolk in the last two years; and with what results. [112583]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): Between April 1998 and December 1999, the Forensic Science Service received from Norfolk 8,425 criminal justice samples taken from suspects charged, reported, cautioned or convicted of a recordable offence, and 719 samples from stains left at scenes of crime. From those samples, the FSS reported 871 matches on the national DNA database between criminal justice samples and samples from crime scene stains, and 61 matches on the database between stains from different crime scenes.

Dr. Gibson: Clearly, the Norfolk service is using the new DNA technology to great effect. Is my hon. Friend aware that the technology is in some disrepute in some quarters in the United States, because some commercialised labs have misinterpreted and miscalculated the data? Will he ensure that, as we build up the national DNA database, we use the best and most up-to-date DNA technology, and that the information that is fed into it is accurate and independent?

Mr. Clarke: I can give the House those assurances. During the process, we shall introduce more up-to-date methods of sampling DNA. As my hon. Friend is aware, I know the force in Norfolk very well. It is one of the forces that has been leading in the use of DNA technology. What is most impressive is that a crime stain loaded on the database has a 40 per cent. chance--a four in 10 chance--of being matched against a potential

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suspect. Approximately 500 matches are reported to the police for investigation each week. It is a substantial means of attacking crime.

Prison Service

13. Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): What steps he is taking to reduce absence through sickness in the Prison Service. [112585]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng): We have targeted staff days lost and introduced an annual key performance indicator to measure success in reducing staff absence through sickness. We have taken steps to improve data collection so as to provide managers with better quality information, and have introduced new guidance for managing and reducing days lost through sickness.

Mr. Chaytor: I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply, and congratulate him on his firm, thorough and systematic approach to this difficult problem. Does he share the views expressed in last year's report of the Public Accounts Committee that certain prisons are vulnerable to unrest as a result of the high level of sickness absence?

Mr. Boateng: I am grateful to the Prison Officers Association and the National Audit Office for their work in this area. There is no doubt that excessive staff absences due to sickness have an adverse impact not only on good order and discipline, but on our capacity to deliver programmes to reduce reoffending. We are determined to bear down on those absences to stamp out bad practice. We also want to celebrate good practice, because prison managers, in conjunction with staff and their unions, are doing excellent work to get a grip of this problem.

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