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7.18 pm

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): There has been a good deal of ding-dong on police numbers during the debate. They are a problem for us in Bedfordshire. The numbers have fallen since the last election. The main figure that I have in mind is that, during the previous 18 years, they rose by 16,000 nationally, which puts the fact that they have fallen under the present Government into perspective.

The other worry about policing is the difficulty of recruitment and problems of morale. It is not easy for the police. I know--and I see beside me my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney)--that there are real problems at Huntingdon Life Sciences as a result of the serious misbehaviour by the animal rights movement, which is putting the police in great difficulty. I urge the Home Secretary and the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), to turn their attention to that. I am sure that they will do so.

I join my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) in deploring the reappearance in this short Session before the general election of the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No. 2) Bill to abolish the right to trial by jury. That is hopelessly ill judged. It is remarkable that a Labour Government--who, to their credit, had leading shadow opposition posts occupied by the Home Secretary who then condemned any such suggestion, and by the Attorney-General and Prime Minister who condemned such ideas--should then make a volte face to bring in such a thoroughly illiberal and inappropriate measure.

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This is the third time that the Government have introduced the measure. On the first occasion, it was thrown out by the other place because it was inequitable with regard to different types of defendant. Far from learning their lesson and leaving it there, the Government then reintroduced the measure in an even more inequitable form, which tried to ensure that ordinary people who sought the right to trial by jury could not even have their personal circumstances taken into account. The Government managed to get some support from the Runciman royal commission for their first Bill. They also gained support for it from the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, albeit in a speech that was, I am bound to say, rather lukewarm.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for a succession of lawyers to keep making these points when not one of them has declared an interest in the issue?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): That is a matter not for the Chair, but for the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), who is addressing the House.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I think that the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) is fully aware that I have been a member of the Bar for 35 years. I have not done any criminal work since before I entered government in 1986, but my position as a Queen's Counsel is well recorded. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman does not want to address the important points.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke: I rise in case my silence is taken as assent to criticism. I have not practised for 20 years and I have no intention of doing so again. Members of an illiberal Government who are damaging civil rights will not do their cause any good by attributing base motives to hon. Members who are defending the right to jury trial.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I return to the faults of the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No. 2) Bill. When I read the Gracious Speech, I was astonished not only that the Government were reintroducing the Bill that opposes the right to jury trial, but that it had exactly the same words and title, which demonstrated that they intended to use the Parliament Acts to force its passage if they were so minded.

In an intervention on the Home Secretary, I pointed out the disgraceful inequities of the Bill, apart from my opposition in principle to the underlying concept. The right hon. Gentleman said that the Government would listen carefully, so I hope that he will at least consider making some amendments. As he knows, the Bill has been attacked by Lord Bingham, who wrote to him to say that he was thoroughly unhappy with the fact that all circumstances cannot be taken into account. The Bill has also been attacked by Professor Michael Zander of the Runciman royal commission. One of the express reasons why the commission supported such an idea, however, was ensuring that all relevant matters were capable of being taken into account. If we have to take time to consider the Bill on the Floor of the House and in Committee, I hope that it will be examined with an open mind. I shall continue to oppose it root and branch as it is of no benefit whatever to the criminal justice system.

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It constitutes a serious deprivation of one of our fundamental liberties--a liberty that goes back as far as the century after the Magna Carta, if not to the Magna Carta itself.

Mr. Garnier: My right hon. and learned Friend may be disappointed to learn that he will not be able to discuss the Bill in Committee or on Report on the Floor of the House. I understand that the Government intend to table a motion to dispense with the Committee stage and with Report.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: If my hon. and learned Friend is right about that--I hope that the Minister will respond to that point--it shows the Government's complete disregard of democracy in this country. The Bill has been thrown out twice by the other place, which contains more Labour peers than ever before. The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary know perfectly well that some of their most respected lawyers in the other place oppose the Bill. In those circumstances, it is disgraceful in constitutional terms for them to think it right to deal with a measure that removes the rights of private citizens by introducing it for a third time.

What shocks me most, however, is that the Home Secretary does not fully understand what the Bill covers. He sought to justify it by speaking about petty offences relating to Mars bars. Indeed, he used the Mars bar example on several occasions during his speech. I invite him to acquaint himself with the rights removed by the Bill. It removes the right to trial by jury with regard to the whole swathe of what are called either-way offences.

The document "Criminal Statistics England and Wales 1998" contains 10 pages of either-way offences. I think that that will open a few eyes. The indictable-only offences cover only three pages. In the 10 pages of either-way offences, a mere petty theft offence can hardly be found. The pages cover offences as widespread as fraud, forgery, grievous bodily harm, wounding and the whole range of drug offences, from the most serious to mere possession. They also cover theft, violent disorder, the entire range of public order offences and of firearms offences, obscene publications offences and environmental protection offences. They cover more than 500 different offences for which the rights of the ordinary citizen to trial by jury are to be removed.

Mr. Lammy: The right hon. and learned Gentleman referred to the Magna Carta and the 12th century. Does he accept that we are now in the 21st century? The Government have been encouraging people in communities such as mine to enter the justice system. My brother is going into the magistracy. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman have no confidence in our magistrates and in people who are well equipped to take care of such matters?

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I have great confidence in our magistrates. I grew up in a legal family. My stepmother was a magistrate and chair of the Bench for 25 years in Dacorum, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) well knows. Of course I have that confidence. However, the hon. Gentleman will also realise the quality of trial by jury. As my right hon. and learned

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Friend the Member for Rushcliffe said, it provides the opportunity for proper disclosure, much better legal aid and a wider degree of defence.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Sir Nicholas Lyell: No, not for the moment.

Trial by jury provides many more opportunities for careful trial. The important point is that there is confidence in the system as it currently stands. The examples given by the Home Secretary and the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Norwich, South, on saving money undercut their case. Indeed, after we had dealt with the Bill in Committee last time round, the Minister of State said that he was not prepared to rely on saving money as a reason for introducing the measure. One wondered what the reason was. On analysis, there is no good reason for introducing the Bill. The money that the Government intend to save will supposedly come from shorter sentences--not for people who steal Mars bars, but for regular thieves who are currently receiving an average sentence of 10.9 months. They will supposedly--I find this supposition curious--be given sentences by the magistrates court averaging merely three and a half months. That is the most bogus sort of statistic that can be advanced to justify a Bill of this nature.

However, the Bill is more fundamental, which is why my references must extend through our history, to the middle ages and beyond. Our right to trial by jury confers the right not merely on the citizen, who may or may not be worthy of it, but on our communities at large to control and supervise our criminal justice system. That is an important democratic right. It applies whether or not the offence is serious, like the Ponting offence. It applies in respect of a comparatively trivial offence such as stealing a telephone call--an offence that arose in a case that I tried when I became an assistant recorder. The jury threw out the case. For the young man involved, the decision probably made the difference between a successful career in the hotel trade and the loss of that responsible career. However, the jury threw it out because, I suspect, they thought the charge was disproportionate.

In this democratic society, our criminal justice system is controlled by our democracy--by ordinary people through the little parliaments of the jury. As Lord Devlin rightly said, every jury is a little parliament. That is a tremendous foundation of our liberties. The Government are wrong to take that away, and we ask them to think again.

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