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4 Dec 2002 : Column 933—continued

Mr. Bercow: I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend about trial by jury. I am not a lawyer—I say that as a matter of pride—and my exegesis of clause 36 may be flawed. However, whatever the other arguments about the clause, there is a danger that the Government may inadvertently create new confusion and complexity in subsection (6), which appears to suggest that people who have held office or employment in the administration of the civil or criminal justice system will be denied the right afforded to others to seek a trial without a jury. What is the reason for that?

Mr. Letwin: It is delightful that my hon. Friend, whose Buckingham constituency lies close to Beaconsfield, by telepathy understands the very points that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) has been making about clause 36 to me for the past few weeks. The clause is indeed inelegant, but I do not want to dwell on that unduly. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), we do not know why that inelegant structure is there.

Mr. Miller: As another non-lawyer, may I put the reverse argument to the right hon. Gentleman? In my constituency, a large sum of money disappeared from a pension fund. The police, looking at a chart as big as the Table in the Chamber, eventually told me, XIf it's legal, why aren't we all doing it?" They then concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to convince a jury. Either it is legal and we should all be doing it, or it is not legal and the current system for bringing such cases to justice is inadequate.

Mr. Letwin: My response is, XWhat has that got to do with the price of eggs?"

Mr. Miller: Tell that to my constituents who lost their pension fund.

Mr. Letwin: The hon. Gentleman misunderstands me. If there was not enough evidence to convince a jury, that is an extremely good reason for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service not to bring a prosecution. On the whole, I agree with the old-fashioned concept that convincing juries of guilt is an extremely important part of the criminal justice system.

Simon Hughes: May I make one final point on this issue? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one criticism of some charges being tried in judge-only trials and others in jury trials is that that would create a two-tier justice system? If someone were charged with serious fraud or another offence specified in the Bill, they could be convicted by a judge, not the larger population. A different view would be taken of sentencing, and the public confidence that stems from people like us or members of the wider public serving on juries would be

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lost. For the first time, not at the defendant's instigation, a judge alone would judge guilt and innocence in the most serious cases in the land.

Mr. Letwin: I agree.

Mr. Blunkett: If the right hon. Gentleman does agree, that puts the stipendiary magistrates and the higher courts in an interesting position. They do not just confirm sentencing—sometimes they make that judgment. By agreeing with his friend, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the right hon. Gentleman is going down a very dangerous avenue indeed.

Mr. Letwin: That is interesting—I think that the Home Secretary is going down a dangerous avenue. Stipendiary magistrates, he will recall, no longer exist.

Mr. Blunkett: They are district judges.

Mr. Letwin: Indeed, I do not quibble about that. They are now district judges because the Lord Chancellor is keen to replace people whom he apparently considers dreadful amateurs with serious professionals who will be efficient district judges. Let us call them district judges and let us have efficiency by all means. Let us have them concentrated in great centres. No more rural courthouses staffed by amateurs—they are to be replaced by large, centralised courthouses staffed by serious professionals: district judges. I have nothing against district judges; indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) is a district judge. However, I believe that the amateur has a great role to play.

In addition to agreeing with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), I fear that a precedent will be set and what will happen next is that those like the Lord Chancellor who fear the amateur will argue that efficiency has improved and that we should slightly widen the scope. So, by slow degrees over the next decade or so, we will find those of like mind persuading us that the jury system is actually old hat. I hear the word Xmodernisation"—I hear it loudly ringing in my ears, and I fear it in this context.

Miss Widdecombe: Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is another dimension? By and large, juries are anonymous—no one knows exactly who has sat on a jury. When there is a very big and controversial case, where there may be a great deal of public and tabloid pressure for a particular outcome, at least with a jury there is no individual pressure inasmuch as someone will have to answer to the public afterwards. A judge, of course, is fully identifiable. Could this be just the first step—I hate to use this phrase—on a rather slippery slope towards politicisation of the judiciary?

Mr. Letwin: First, my right hon. Friend, as so often, makes a very telling point with which I wholeheartedly agree. Secondly, the fears that she raises—although I will not go into them in great detail now for obvious reasons—range far more widely. The pressures leading to the politicisation of the judiciary from the scope of action given through the Human Rights Act 1998 and a wide range of international agreements, to the extent that we see in the Anderson judgment, is leading

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towards calls for parliamentary scrutiny or even election of judges. I fear the whole trend of thought that we see before us today in the British judicial system.

I am unashamed in wishing to defend the principle of trial by jury, even against slight inroads that may in themselves appear relatively unobjectionable.

Stephen Hesford: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who is generous in giving way for a second time. What does he say about clause 38 and the problems with jury tampering in respect of safeguarding the rights of victims in serious gangster crime, when jury nobbling in some parts of London is rife?

Mr. Letwin: We have very seriously considered that matter. It is the most serious accusation that can be made against the jury system in a given case. At present, juries are heavily protected when there is tampering. I am open to persuasion, as we move through the Committee stage, that we have not fully grasped the situation. However, we have considered whether there is evidence available that after the trial jurors who have convicted someone—but were protected during the trial because of tampering—have been subject to pressure, or worse. Were that to be proven on a significant scale, I would accept that it would constitute a significant argument for clause 38. I am not aware of such evidence at present. If the jury is adequately protected during the trial, and if there is no substantial evidence of jurors after the trial being subject to intimidation, and if jurors know that that is the currently the position—all of which are empirical points that can be verified by further investigation—the argument becomes very weak.

I can go further. The structure of clause 38 illustrates well the fears that I am expressing. As I understand the provision, it will be open to the prosecution to move to remove the jury and replace it with a judge, not in cases of tampering but in cases where it is alleged that tampering may occur. The scope is therefore wide. I do not suggest that the prosecution service, the barristers that it employs or the police are ill disposed; they are all trying to do their job. However, their job is, properly, to convict speedily. In some cases, they may perceive that it would be easier to convince a judge than a jury, and there could be a temptation to allege that jury tampering might occur. It will be difficult to be sure that that does not become general practice. That is the slippery slope.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the main strengths of the jury system is that it is almost impossible to corrupt a jury? It has been proved time and again that 12 jurors are infinitely more powerful than one judge. If there is an allegation of jury tampering, and the judge hears it and receives evidence in secret under public interest immunity rules, he could not in any circumstances go on to try the case. Has the right hon. Gentleman considered that?

Mr. Letwin: We have been discussing that internally.

There will be much more debate in Committee, on Report and in another place, but today's early discussion has already revealed the considerable doubts that must be harboured about part 7. My hon. Friends and I will take a great deal of persuading about it.

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Interventions from Conservative Members were not confined to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, who might be regarded as a louche moderniser. [Interruption.] He is also an old friend. They included contributions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe).

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