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Mr. Hughes: For sentence--and those with previously good character will be more likely to be tried summarily. One old discrimination, namely, reputation, is being substituted for a new discrimination, and neither is a satisfactory resolution. That compares with the old and present alternative, which is that the defendant makes the choice, and has to be accountable only to himself for the choice that he makes.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): The hon. Gentleman will recall that, in the debate on the Football (Disorder) Bill last week, we had a similar discussion about the role of people's past records in deciding what sort of justice would be available to them--in that case, for a police officer. Does the amendment that the hon. Gentleman supports mean that any examination of people's previous records could not be taken into account in deciding whether they had a right to a jury trial?
Mr. Hughes: Liberal Democrats support only amendment No. 19. We do not believe that there should be a revelation of antecedents, and so on. The circumstances of the accused should not come into consideration at the beginning, only the circumstances of the offence; otherwise those with previous convictions are bound to be discriminated against.
Mr. Hogg: I want to comment briefly on amendments Nos. 15 and 19. I adopt the same position as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). The Bill is a bad measure, but the question is whether we should accept amendment No. 15. We should not make a bargain because the Bill is bad. However, the measure would be much less bad if amendment No. 15 were incorporated in it.
I accept that there is a perfectly legitimate difference of opinion; I understand that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall- Andrews) take a different view, but I feel strongly that justice requires the courts, when determining venue, to have regard to character and antecedents. I therefore urge the Government, in the interests of making a bad Bill less bad, to accept amendment No. 15, or a similar proposal.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) spoke to amendment No. 19, and I strongly endorse his comments. There is a class of prosecutions which can reasonably be deemed oppressive--or, alternatively, in which the investigation or prosecution process prior to trial has been oppressive. The right of a jury to throw out a case that it believes should not have been brought, because it is oppressive or has been badly handled, is an important safeguard of citizens' liberty.
We would not need amendment No. 19 if we were not embarking on the Bill. However, as we are embarking on it, we need a safeguard that is the same as, or similar to, that advocated by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire. I therefore commend amendment No. 19 to the House. I fear that we will not divide on it, but I commend it to those on the Government Front Bench in the hope that Ministers may take the spirit of the amendment on board.
I agree with the views of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell). The Government's proposal is wrong in principle, and they have found the worst way in which to implement it. The Bill is a bad measure.
Mr. Leigh: It is obvious from my remarks in Committee, and earlier this evening, that I have considerable sympathy with the Government's objective. I know that some of my hon. Friends, Liberal Democrat Members and the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) rightly take a purist line about the Bill. I understand their view, but we must be aware of the general public's opinion, the cost to the criminal justice system and the widespread view that people who have criminal antecedents abuse that system. That may not be a popular view; hon. Members tend, rightly, to put
None the less, the Government must listen carefully to the debate. The current Home Office team does that, and its members are generally concerned about the criminal justice system. I hope that Ministers will take away from the debate the clear view from all parties that, whether we are opposed in principle to the Bill or whether we simply seek to amend it, we believe that proposals such as those in amendments Nos. 6 and 15 would considerably improve it. That is a perfectly sustainable argument.
There is widespread concern that being charged with a small offence such as shoplifting could affect a person's livelihood. I am sure that the Minister accepts that and is trying to find a way forward. I support the amendments, but the hon. and learned Member for Medway eloquently put the alternative view that they would create two classes of justice--and that point was strongly supported by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). In a sense, they are right. Two classes of justice would be created, as a person without antecedents would have the absolute right to elect for trial by jury and receive gold-plated treatment, while those with antecedents would not have that right. However, we must accept that. In a world that is never ideal, surely it would be better to have justice for some people.
Mr. David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman talks about gold-plated justice. Can he make more explicit his apparent belief that the justice afforded in magistrates courts, whether by lay magistrates or stipendiaries, is substantially inferior to that afforded by the jury system? Is that what he is saying?
Mr. Leigh: The hon. Gentleman and I had that debate in Committee. He has a long and distinguished record of service as a magistrate and is rightly convinced, as are all of us who have appeared in magistrates courts, that magistrates are fully equipped to deal carefully with the evidence. They represent the local community, just as juries do, and I recognise where the hon. Gentleman is coming from. He is committed to the magistrates courts system. However, in the previous Parliament a Member, in a fit of absent-mindedness, walked out of the Army and Navy Stores carrying a couple of books. The case went to a summary trial and he was found guilty, but he insisted on trial by jury and appealed to the Crown court. Eventually, he was found not guilty.
Would any Member of Parliament accused of such an offence, which would finish his career, prefer not to go to the Crown court? Let us be honest with ourselves. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) points to himself and says that he would rather go in front of the beak--the London stipendiary magistrate. He would rather appear before my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), but, with respect, I would rather appear before a jury--not case-hardened individuals like my hon. Friend, but people with a fresh insight on the criminal system. That is why this issue is so important to so many people. To dismiss it out of hand by saying that the amendments must be thrown out, and that the Bill is rubbish because we cannot get it absolutely right, is not the right way to proceed.
There is a middle way, which is to proceed, but only after adopting the amendments. They would protect the person of good character who came before the criminal justice system, perhaps for the first time, and allow him to insist on trial by jury. That is an essential compromise. The Government may be unable to accept the amendments tonight, but when they are confronted by the other place--an independent House where they do not have an overwhelming majority, whose members do not come in to vote for whatever is placed before them by the Whips--I hope that they will accept similar proposals.
Mr. Charles Clarke: In the time available to me, I shall make two points. In answer to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes)--yes, as a Member of Parliament and as an individual, I would be happy to be tried by magistrates. I have great confidence in magistrates. A lack of confidence in them has lain beneath a great deal of the debate. It was put most clearly by the hon. Gentleman, who said in Committee:
Secondly, in answer to the points made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews), I shall list the offences that are currently dealt with directly by the magistrates without defendants having a choice, although they relate to reputation and dishonesty: assault on a constable, keeping a brothel, cruelty to animals, cruelty or neglect of children, night poaching, stealing, unauthorised taking of a conveyance--
It being five hours after the commencement of proceedings on the allocation of time motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker, pursuant to Order [this day], put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair.