Previous SectionIndexHome Page

4 Dec 2002 : Column 919—continued

Mr. Blunkett: I would not dismiss out of hand the point that my hon. Friend raises, but although it would be an interesting experience for the Home Secretary, it would not do us any harm to be exposed to the vagaries of what is going on in various services that we use, which is the case regularly in other areas of our lives. We—certainly those of us who get a recess—might be able to serve on a jury.

Mr. Banks: Ah! In the recess.

Mr. Blunkett: Well, we may be able to defer to a point at which it becomes possible for us to perform such a

4 Dec 2002 : Column 920

service rather than refuse altogether. We need to examine the point with an eye to not avoiding what we ask of others. Of course, I suggest in the Bill that certain trials go on for so long—we will come to the relevant clauses under part 11 in a few moments—that they bedevil people's lives generally. We would be as sympathetic to ourselves as we would be to them.

I want to make a point on part 7. There has been a debate, not necessarily among Members of the House, but certainly elsewhere—again, I look across Central Lobby—as though we were introducing the previous mode of trial Bills and as though the 20,000 jury trials that were allegedly affected by those Bills will be affected by this Bill. Of course, we are giving people not only the right to opt for jury trial, as they do now, but the right to opt for a judge-only trial, which they do not have at the moment. We are giving people more rights, not taking them away.

As for very difficult, prolonged and complex trials—serious frauds and complicated commercial cases—we estimate that there will probably be a maximum of about 100 a year. There will be more when people themselves have opted to go to trial. Roskill in 1986 and Sir Robin Auld made suggestions on serious fraud and what it means. It is worth reflecting for a second on what happened in the Maxwell trial: there were 131 working days in the first, and the second and third trials, which were scheduled, never took place. That followed 60 days of pre-trial work, which took up the jury's time.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Blunkett: I will in two seconds. Let me take the point further. The trial judges were both concerned about the impact of that. In fact, the second trial judge made it absolutely clear that he believed that there was a major problem in terms of the jury in the first trial being able to assess the full weight of the evidence in that trial, because they were not able to hear the second and third trial evidence. They were unable to do so because, as the first trial judge said, they could not face the likelihood of those three lots of evidence being put together in one trial. It was unthinkable, he said, that it was possible for that to be done. That is why he separated matters into three different elements, two of which were never heard for the reasons that I have enunciated. Therefore, that is why the second trial judge recommended that such trials should in future be heard by a judge rather than by a jury.

David Winnick: Like most members of the Home Affairs Select Committee, I entirely accept that there is a strong argument for most serious fraud cases, of the kind referred to by my right hon. Friend, to be heard without a jury. There is, however, a worry—touched on by my right hon. Friend—that the Government want, or he as Home Secretary somehow wants, to weaken the jury system. I will not use the word Xundermine". Does my right hon. Friend accept that the jury system has served the country very well—and long may it continue?

Mr. Blunkett: Yes, I do accept that—which is precisely why I, along with the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General, decided not to pursue the proposals in the two mode of trial Bills.

4 Dec 2002 : Column 921

I will not take offence this afternoon, or Melanie Phillips and Anne McEvoy will have another go at me in the papers later this week. I would be really upset and it would really throw me. I would be timorous at the Dispatch Box. But it takes the biscuit that those who argued vehemently against those Bills cannot distinguish between this Bill and legislation that is no longer being presented to the House. I know that my hon. Friend is not one of those people; I just wanted to make the point, and I feel better for it.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): Some of us, not least those who were on the Home Office team at the time, supported the mode of trial Bills. One reason for that was a wish to prevent abuse of the system whereby cases for which jury trial was not appropriate were referred to juries in an attempt to get someone off with a shorter sentence. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that although such measures are not being pursued in this Bill, it will be able to deal with some of the opportunities for abuse of the system by lawyers? Will he stress that the system exists to provide justice for victims, not justice for lawyers?

Mr. Blunkett: Amen to that. Indeed, that is the thrust of what I am trying to do.

I hope I have picked out the best parts of what was in other respects an excellent Bill from my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). The aspects that gained it support—enunciated just now by my hon. Friend—are precisely the aspects that I am supporting today. We are, for instance, extending the role of magistrates, ensuring that people can opt for jury trial and introducing measures to stop people from interfering technically with the process of seeking after truth.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway) rose—

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) rose—

Mr. Blunkett: I will give way two more times.

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: As the Home Secretary knows, juries convict in 85 per cent. of serious fraud cases, or at any rate there are convictions in 85 per cent. of such cases. That is considerably above the norm. Does the Home Secretary accept what is the view of the vast majority of judges and lawyers in serious fraud trials—that juries have no problem whatever in dealing with the matters put before them?

Mr. Blunkett: It is not a question of whether we can immediately lever up the level of conviction—although there are issues in regard to what cases are currently brought forward, under the current system, and how they are brought forward. That also involves the reforms that we seek to make, including reforms of the Serious Fraud Office. No, it is a question of what juries must face. I gave an example of that. If my hon. and learned Friend and others think that the Maxwell trial is not a good example, I am sure they will say so during the Bill's passage; but I believe that where there is a problem, we should try to address it. We must take into account complexity, the length of time involved in jury service, and the enormous burden placed on individuals

4 Dec 2002 : Column 922

who would not wish to serve on a jury in such circumstances. We must take account of those factors if we are aiming for justice.

Mr. Lilley: The two Bills that the Home Secretary rightly discarded were justified by arguing that it was wrong in principle for the defendant to have the right to choose jury trial. Now he is saying that it is right in principle for the defendant to have the right to be tried not by jury, but by a judge. If that amounted to a change in his principles, I would be happy, but is it not a common feature that he and the Government favour only those measures that result in fewer jury trials?

Mr. Blunkett: I shall turn the point around. If the right hon. Gentleman's argument concerns choice and I am providing greater choice, I can hardly be accused of doing something heinous. Either he is arguing for choice or he is not, and if he is, he can rejoice. I am obviously a convert to choice, so I had better plead guilty to that now to save the House a lot of time, and to save a lot of money in fees for lawyers representing my interests.

Part 8 of the Bill is straightforward. It is concerned with the use of technology, and it brings us into the 21st century. Part 9 deals with prosecution appeals, and will enable, before and during trials, an appeal against a stop. Part 10 deals with double jeopardy. I know that controversy surrounds this issue, on which my party made a manifesto commitment, and that it will be argued closely. We believe that, given our approach and the safeguards that we have built in through the Crown Prosecution Service and the Appeal Court, it will be possible to find a way to implement this measure without denying rights.

I am painfully aware that people are worried that publicity will make matters difficult for juries; however, we must trust them. They have to assess the evidence and the facts. These points are true of all trials. A lot of publicity surrounds high-profile trials in the first place, never mind those in which new DNA evidence and forensic evidence has come to light, and in which modern techniques make it possible to return to failed evidence. I believe that, if we are careful and the safeguards are right, we can trust the jury to get it right, and that we can trust the Appeal Court not to allow through the gateway presentations of evidence that do not stand up to scrutiny.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North): All Members accept that double jeopardy must be handled very carefully and that appropriate safeguards must be put in place, but does my right hon. Friend recognise that concern nevertheless exists in the community that people are allowed to go free, even though new evidence points to their having committed a very serious offence? If there is to be confidence in the criminal justice system, there must be an assurance that, in such cases, the evidence will be weighed very carefully and that, if necessary, such people will face another trial.

Next Section

IndexHome Page