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4 Dec 2002 : Column 929—continued

4.44 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): We are at the beginning of what I suspect will be a long series of debates in this House and in the other place. The Home Secretary has laid out his position in some detail and at length—I do not criticise that; he was generous in giving way for many questions, which was worth while. It is therefore right that I should be relatively brief.

I want to set out our views about the generality of the Bill and to talk about the extent to which legislation is used and, by contrast, the extent to which it may be valuable to concentrate on administration. I also want to tackle the controversial elements that the Home Secretary mentioned: trial by jury, double jeopardy and the character of the defendant. Finally, I shall say a few words about what I understand to be the role of the Opposition—indeed, the oppositions—in this matter.

I have frequently debated issues relating to the generality of the Bill with the Home Secretary and Lord Falconer during statements to the House or in public. We support the general principle of reform of the criminal justice system. When I went to wash my hands before the debate, I was privileged to find an item in the gentlemen's cloakroom in the Lobby.

Mr. Bercow: Give us the details.

Mr. Letwin: I shall give my hon. Friend the details. I found a small rag, posing as something to wash one's

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hands on. A pink slip placed on it said that it was Xin need of repair". I thought that that was an apt analogy for the criminal justice system, and we agree with the Home Secretary that repairs are required. [Interruption.] I shall return the object in question after the debate. I need hardly fear that, if I were arrested, any fine against me would be enforced.

Measures such as the creation of the Sentencing Guidelines Council and the making of that council answerable in some form to the House and to Parliament are admirable. They are among many such admirable measures in the Bill. I have repeatedly said that the time is long overdue for the progressive codification of sentencing, of the procedures for the giving of evidence and of the procedures for the holding of trials. There is no doubt that the criminal justice system does not command the confidence of the ordinary public, victims, witnesses or, indeed, the professionals that it should command. All that argues for legislation, much of which is helpfully introduced in the Bill.

As I have frequently remarked in the past, this is not the first Criminal Justice Bill to come before the House in recent times. There is no reason to suppose that, alas, it will be the last. Legislation is not easy; it is arduous. However, it is easier than something else, and that something else is the improvement of the administrative systems that make the legislation live in practice.

There has just been some discussion of the enforcement—or rather the almost complete lack of enforcement—in some jurisdictions of fines. However, I draw the House's attention to a separate and parallel topic. Some years ago, the House passed the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, and one of its effects was to require a custody sergeant to be present in the custody suite. When a police constable brought into the station someone who had been arrested, the Act also required the custody sergeant to interview both the constable and the person arrested.

I am sure that the Home Secretary and his colleagues in the Home Office will have had the same experience that I have had in the past year. I have repeatedly been around the police stations of this country and talked to police constables and asked them how they spend their time—very often, their nights—when they are on duty. I am repeatedly told that they spend two, three or four hours queuing outside the custody suite of their own police station because there is a logjam with only one sergeant in the suite. I am told that they sometimes have to take the prisoner in a car—and with a colleague, if that is necessary for safety purposes—to a station further afield to book him in. I do not have, and I understand from unofficial contacts that the Home Secretary does not have, accurate statistics on what proportion of police time is occupied in that fruitless endeavour.

The example is non-partisan. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act was not the fault, so to speak, of the Home Secretary or his predecessor. On the whole, it is an admirable Act. Indeed, it happens to be a Conservative Act. However, it is a fact that it is allied to a failure of administration—not just in one police force or police station, but across the police stations of England and Wales—that is significantly diminishing the ability of an already overstretched police force to apprehend criminals.

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I have frequently said that the bulk of the problem of our population's failure of confidence, which is very real, in the criminal justice system arises not from the failure of the criminal justice system to convict, but from the failure to apprehend criminals in the first place. Judging by statistics in the British crime survey, which for various reasons understates crime such as retail crime and crime against the young, the likelihood of not being apprehended, let alone convicted, exceeds 80 per cent. When a criminal knows that his chance of not being apprehended is enormous, the idea that criminal justice is an effective system is risible. The problem that confronts us is clearly administrative. I suspect that no amount of additional legislation will cure the deficiency. I do not want, and I am sure the Home Secretary does not want, to abolish the PACE rules, but we need to find a way to address the administrative deficiency that causes people to queue outside the custody suite.

I have chosen just one example of the problem, and I recognise the great difficulty of achieving such an administrative change. The Home Secretary will no doubt taunt me with the fact that I am against centralised control and ask me how I can ask him to do something about it given that he is not in charge of each chief constable, but we need systems that impose pressures on chief constables and police forces in ways that make for sustainable improved administration. We do not have those at the moment.

I do not want to deal with those elements that may provoke detailed consideration in Committee and on which we are broadly agreed. Instead, I want to discuss the controversial elements that will occupy most of the public's attention and most of the time of the House and, perhaps more importantly, of another place.

On trial by jury, I recognise that part 7 does not contain the same measures as those proposed in the draft mode of trial Bill. For that we are truly grateful. I also recognise that some aspects of part 7 are carefully calculated to be minimally objectionable. For example, clause 36, which gives a defendant the right to choose his or her mode of trial under certain circumstances, has been constructed to be minimally objectionable.

Given that the Government have rightly abandoned the mode of trial Bill, and given their desire to be minimally objectionable, why do we need to address trial by jury at all? What is the advantage of so doing and, balancing that, what are the risks attendant in so doing? I do not see the issue as black and white and utterly binary. There may be advantages and risks, and those need to be balanced. I have searched with my colleagues on the Front-Bench team and others, who are learned in such matters, to understand what the great gain is anticipated to be from addressing trial by jury.

The hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) pointed out that the proportion of convictions by juries in serious fraud cases is approximately 85 per cent. I had thought the figure to be 83 per cent. That does not indicate any failure of the system to be able to bring the guilty face to face with their guilt, and I am in no way clear as to how the choice by the defendant of trial by judge rather than by jury under clause 36 will effect great improvement in the criminal justice system. We wait to hear the arguments

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that may be deployed in Committee and on Report by Ministers to defend the proposition that there will be a great gain in that department, and the same is true of the other clauses in part 7. However, against any such advantages—which, as I said, at the moment I cannot see to be very great—we must set out the danger.

Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West): Is the right hon. Gentleman saying on behalf of the Conservative party that, as a matter of principle, the tribunals that may try serious fraud cases and the like are incapable of delivering justice? Does he object in principle to that new procedure, which will, as the Home Secretary has said, remove from juries the burden of trying massive fraud cases?

Mr. Letwin: I am not saying that a new tribunal would be incapable of delivering justice. How should I know? It may be that such a tribunal would be capable of delivering justice; that is not the question that the House needs to address. The House needs to address the question that I am trying to address: is there such an advantage in moving away from a system that has served us a very long time as to justify that move in the light of any disadvantages?

I have asked, and we may hear from Ministers, what great advantages attend. In circumstances where there may be inconveniences for juries, but where juries have repeatedly shown themselves to be capable of understanding fraud trials and of convicting in such trials—indeed, they are more capable of convicting in fraud trials than in others—I do not yet see the force of an argument that starts from the presumption that there is a vast advantage. But is there a great disadvantage? It has to be admitted that the disadvantages to the propositions in part 7 are by no means so great as the disadvantages to the mode of trial Bill. I accept that wholeheartedly. However, I still worry greatly about these measures.

I harbour the thought, and I hope that it is not unworthy, that the Lord Chancellor, like some others, maintains scepticism about the validity of amateurs. He demonstrates that in his attitude to the lay magistracy, a feature of the British justice scheme that has long served us and is now dwindling fast. He demonstrates it also, I fear, in relation to juries. If this House and the other place eventually permit the Government to legislate as they intend in part 7, will we not be laying the ground for precedents that will later be used gradually to erode the scope for trial by jury and to enlarge the scope for trial by judge?

I know from long and bitter experience in dealing with matters European that whenever one uses the argument of the slippery slope, one is told that one is being unnecessarily alarmist and it is pointed out that the measure in question is slight. It is argued that no precedent can be taken from the slight to the major. It is pointed out that the measure that is before us, such as the Single European Act in place of the draft treaty of union, is nugatory in comparison with the horrors that might have been visited on us.

That structure of argument is familiar to all of us who witnessed that debate. Here we move to different terrain, but I fear that the structure of argument will be the same. I am sure that, as we pursue this issue through this

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House and the other place, we will be told that we need not fear because these measures are in themselves unobjectionable and no precedent will be set. However, I think that a precedent will be set, and I fear that precedent.

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