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20 Nov 2002 : Column 696—continued

6.46 pm

20 Nov 2002 : Column 697

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley): I am very grateful for the chance to speak in this debate. I realise that at this stage in our proceedings, it is likely that a great many excellent points will already have been made, so I hope the House will forgive me if I reiterate a couple of those points, and especially those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) about the European arrest warrant, which is potentially very alarming indeed.

Let me give another example of why the warrant might go wrong. Let us imagine that a journalist is responsible for the production of some virulent anti-Welsh rhetoric of the sort that A. A. Gill produced not so long ago in The Sunday Times—I would not dream of repeating what he said, fond as I am of the Welsh, having contested a Welsh seat in 1997. The article might well be reprinted in a Spanish newspaper or read in an English newspaper on the Costa del Sol by a Welshman. It would then be possible under the laws of Spain to extradite the journalist to Spain for the crime of xenophobia against the Welsh.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): Hear, hear.

Mr. Johnson: I hear cheers of approval on the Labour Benches, but I do not think that that would be the right approach. It would be absurd. Even if my example seems frivolous, the problem that it illustrates is very far from frivolous. Two criminal systems cannot operate effectively in the same territory. The people of this country should be governed by the laws of this country. I say that not necessarily because I have any objection to the laws of any other country, but because the people of this country cannot vote out of office the legislators of Spain and did not elect them or give their approval to the laws under which A. A. Gill would be arraigned in my hypothesis. No matter how good the law might be, the approach is fundamentally undemocratic and alarming.

I am also alarmed by proposals to reform aspects of the criminal justice system. I do not quite understand why it is necessary to change the law on double jeopardy, which has protected citizens since the 12th century, as far as I can remember. We are told in the White Paper that the necessity arises from the tragic failure of the prosecution of the alleged culprits in the Stephen Lawrence affair, but as I think the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) pointed out, there is no earthly prospect of a fair retrial of those culprits. It is therefore nonsensical and illogical to introduce a change in the law on double jeopardy on that basis. Abolishing the rule against double jeopardy is a considerable potential extension of the power of the state to oppress the individual and could encourage the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to be less than diligent in preparing cases in the knowledge that they can always have a second bite at the cherry.

Speeches throughout the afternoon have made it clear that hon. Members of all parties are united in their desire to reduce crime, especially violent crime, and in their consciousness that the threat of crime eats away people's confidence and security.

The genuine deterrent to crime is not elaborate and possibly illiberal reform of the criminal justice system but helping police to catch criminals. To that end,

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the Government would be better advised not to monkey around with laws that have existed since the 12th century, but to consider methods of alleviating the bureaucracy that oppresses the police and that they use all too often as an excuse for not doing the job as effectively as they might.

I want to speak briefly about the problem of rural crime in my constituency, and people's genuine fear that the police will not come to help them. When people ring, the police say that they do not have sufficient numbers to attend the scene of the crime. The other day, a farmer rang the police to say that there were burglars in his barn. The police said that they did not have the numbers to attend, so the farmer rang back to say that he had shot the burglars. At that point, the police attended the scene.

There are too few police on the beat in south Oxfordshire. My constituents also face the problem of magistrates courts closures. Henley magistrates court was closed three years ago, and Thame magistrates court has subsequently been closed. No adequate reason has been given for that. I suspect that the demon of property prices in the area lurks somewhere at the bottom of the matter. Consequently, witnesses have to drive for a considerable distance, sometimes for more than an hour, to testify. That is a deterrent and leads to the possibility of delay and the collapse of cases. There is also a problem for local newspapers, which are unable to report the cases.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) attacked the fourth estate for causing hysteria. I want to make a brief defence of newspapers, which play an important role in our criminal justice system through alerting the public to what is happening and to cases that come before the courts. In recent months, it has been impossible for the Henley Standard—a great newspaper for which, I should declare, I write a column, unpaid—to receive advance warning of cases. They used to get them when cases appeared before Henley magistrates court and Thame magistrates court, but they receive no warning from Oxford of the cases that are coming up. That is absurd. Justice is a public matter. It should be a utensil of public shame, and the newspaper has a vital role in that.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury): Like my hon. Friend, I have a magistrates court—Trowbridge—that is threatened. Does he agree that it is shameful for Ministers to try to hide behind magistrates courts committees and blame them for closures when Lord Justice Auld made it clear that responsibility lay with Ministers?

Mr. Johnson: I agree. The Government cannot evade responsibility. The Lord Chancellor recently tried to do that with the immortal declaration that he was all in favour of local justice but did not necessarily believe that it had to be administered locally.

Mr. Blunt: My hon. Friend referred to my Xattack" on the fourth estate. I agree that justice must be public and that newspapers have a proper role to play. However, my point was to do with the way in which newspapers

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deal with sexual crime. I believe that there is a case for anonymity for the defendant when that is granted to the complainant.

Mr. Johnson: I agree 100 per cent. with my hon. Friend. I simply wanted to show that I had listened attentively to his comments. I impute to him no disrespect for the Henley Standard and other local papers.

I want to refer briefly to the interesting contribution of the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Denzil Davies), who is no longer in his place. He asked whether we were genuinely tackling the big issues. There are six Bills that are supposed to solve the problem of crime in this country to consider. The right hon. Gentleman asked good questions about parental authority, the collapse of the family and education, which the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) also mentioned. I agree that those are the main questions.

There is a nexus of problems that centres around children who go through school without showing respect to their teachers because they have no reason to show respect to their parents. Unless we begin to deal with the collapse of respect for authority, we will not begin to tackle the deep causes of crime. That may be a pompous thing to say, but one is entitled to be pompous in politics. It would be good if all hon. Members agreed that the collapse and loss of respect was the central problem for British politics and we all had the courage to say so from time to time.

6.55 pm

Vera Baird (Redcar): I shall spend all my eight minutes on one issue, just as I used to spend all my pocket money on one toy every Friday, but the issue is not to be toyed with: it is jury trial.

What are the virtues of jury trial? First, it is democratic. Society suffers from crime and pays for its effects and for the incarceration of those convicted by the courts. Society should therefore be represented in the system that determines guilt or innocence.

Juries make better decisions. Twelve jurors have a breadth of experience and insight that no judge—indeed, no individual—could hope to match. They cancel out each other's prejudices and they have the advantage, which a judge who makes a decision alone does not share, of debate.

Juries are free from any suggestion that they are pro-prosecution or pro-defence; their independence is uncompromised. Trial judges, however, are selected. I do not know who selects them, but however much a judge tries to be impartial, it will not prevent public misgiving about a tribunal being less than independent.

Let us consider the way in which judges are selected. They do not simply appear out of the ether to try specific cases; they are put in place, and there are some interesting anecdotes about that. The trial of the Archer One was mentioned a short time ago. Hon. Members will recall that it was conducted against the background of a libel trial in which the defendant's wife had given evidence, been called Xfragrant" and provided

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important support for him. Gossip around the Bar, of which I was formerly a more active member, suggested that the defendant would act in the same way: he would not give evidence but get his wife to do so. The trial judge was subsequently announced. I shall not name him, but he is the greatest misogynist who has ever belonged to the judiciary of England and Wales. It was plain that he had been put in place by someone who had the power to do that to prevent a recurrence of events at the previous trial.

That information will not help Jeffrey Archer, even if he is told about it, because the jury, not the judge, makes the decision. However, the judge sets the framework, and selecting a judge to try a case is not an open process. If I were offered trial by judge instead of trial by jury, my first question would be, XWhich judge?"

The critical issue in most trials is the honesty and reliability of witnesses. The standards that should apply to both tests are those of ordinary members of society. Full-time judges do not qualify as that because of their background, training and the lives that they lead.

Who will opt for trial by judge? Judges will not try a cross-section of cases. They will have a diet of appalling sex cases because the defendants will believe that a jury cannot overcome its prejudices when making a decision. Unattractive, upper-middle-class fraudsters will believe that they might be better off with someone who broadly derives from their social segment rather than with a jury that comprises a cross-section of people. Cases in which defence lawyers hope for a technical victory in the court of trial or on appeal because of possible defects in the reasoned judgment would also probably be tried by a judge instead of a jury.

Allowing such opportunistic incursions into the fairest form of trial—that by jury—goes in the opposite direction from all other Government policies and risks bringing the law into disrepute. For the public at large, the perception is likely to be that some defendants can avoid justice by removing juries—the guardians of our democratic values—from the decision-making process.

I have a profound anxiety that, if we have the ability to elect trial by judge alone, it might not seem such a great variation, at some later date, to relocate the right to elect trial by jury to the judge and away from the defendant. The proposed change would pave the way for a future Home Secretary completely to remove the right to a jury trial, leaving it as a form of trial available only at the discretion of a judge at a directions hearing, which is an appalling prospect.

This argument reaches its height in the context of serious and complex fraud trials. The White Paper refers to a small number of serious and complex trials lasting six months or so, which highlight—it does not say how—the difficulties of jury trial. The Serious Fraud Office prosecutes such serious and complex fraud trials. Between 1988 and 1991, there was a 63.6 per cent. conviction—that is, success—rate; between 1999 and 2002, the conviction rate was 86 per cent. Those rates are both higher than average and are on an upward trend. Juries brought about those convictions. If the cases were so complex that the convictions were brought about by incomprehension and were therefore wrongful convictions, it is a surprise that there have been so few appeals.

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It is the job of the lawyer to outline and present to the lay jury the evidence of the offences. Complex and unfamiliar medical or forensic evidence has to be given in wounding trials and rape trials; psychological and psychiatric evidence in murder trials may be crucial in distinguishing between murder and manslaughter, between life imprisonment and probation. I have been involved in trials with five or six psychiatric reports in them, and technical and scientific evidence about tissues, fibres and DNA can be relevant to every level of crime. In all cases, it is the job of the lawyer to convey to members of the jury sufficient information to allow them to follow the case.

The public explanation of the charges performs the further important task of ensuring that members of the public and the press also understand the nature of the case. The jury not only represents the public at the trial; its presence ensures a comprehensible exposition of the case. The assumption seems to be, however, that some cases are so complex that only experts are capable of understanding the allegations, and that, consequently, there can be no public explanation that is comprehensible to the layman. The trial is then reduced to exchanges between lawyers and the judge, probably in impenetrable jargon, and occasionally falling into Latin. The tribunal will then pronounce to the public that, as a result of its proceedings, which neither the public nor the press have been expected to follow, it has concluded on the guilt or innocence of the accused. I do not believe that the public would, or should, be satisfied with a criminal justice system in which people are at risk of long sentences of imprisonment following trials in which the state has admitted that it cannot make its evidence comprehensible to the public.

There are many defects in the criminal justice system, to which the Home Secretary referred. It is slow, cumbersome, inefficient, unco-ordinated, at times chaotic, and intractably unwilling to be changed. Change it! If I had a hundred minutes, I could tell the House a hundred ways in which it could and should be changed, but I can make no link between the need for change and the proposal to curtail jury trial. We should be proud of trial by jury: please, leave it alone.

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