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4 Dec 2002 : Column 974—continued

7.44 pm

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree): The problem with speaking late on in a debate is not only that most of the good arguments have been made, but so have most of the good jokes. I should begin by declaring an interest—these days, it has to be a vested interest—in that I am a partner in a firm of solicitors.

There are so many aspects of this Bill on which one could comment that the debate could go on for a very long time. With that in mind, I shall seek to address the three salient issues that have troubled Members today, the first of which is, of course, trial by jury. Underlying our comments has been the assumption that every criminal offence can be tried by jury, but as we know—and as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) wisely pointed out—many offences are summary only, and do not have jury choice. It is only in certain bands that such choice is available. I am committed at least to maintaining the existing bands, so that a defendant retains the choice of being tried by jury.

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I accept that the two Bills that came to a sorry end in the previous two Sessions were much more wide ranging than the current proposal. One could argue that the latter is pragmatic—that we are seeking to tidy matters up and to help out jurors, so that they do not have to deliberate for too long, and so that we can create a family friendly jury system. However, I am not certain that juries were ever family friendly. Some things in life are by nature quite hard, and the preservation of some of our essential liberties is sometimes a hard task to follow through in its entirety. The fact that jurors may sometimes be inconvenienced when a trial goes on for a long time may not be a sufficient reason, therefore, to allow a further ebbing of the current jury trial system. On the face of it, such a suggestion seems practical and relatively harmless, but therein lies the danger. When something seems harmless, matters creep forward, but when there is an outright onslaught—such as we witnessed in the previous two Bills—it is easy to condemn and to say, XWe are not going down that route."

The question of how to deal with the intimidation of a juror has been well explored and answered fully by other Members, but I would go a little further by arguing that we should consider extending jury trial. In essence, trial by jury has been on the defensive for years. The recent Bills that went the way of the frailty of flesh were not in fact the first attacks on jury trial. Over time, various offences have lost the right to elect trial, and have become summary only. I would argue that one category in particular should have the option of trial by jury: allegations of assault or attack on a police officer or other persons in a position of public trust. I say that because those who are charged with such offences should be judged by their fellow citizens. In other words, cases involving victims who are employees of the state should be judged by the citizenry at large. Legislation passed in the 1960s specifically exempted the assaulting of police officers from those categories involving trial by jury, unless it suited the prosecutor to make the charge of actual bodily harm.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): Does the hon. Gentleman think that magistrates tend to be too deferential towards, or too believing of, police officers?

Mr. Hurst: That view has been current for many years among those who practise in the criminal courts—prosecutors and defenders alike. For that very reason, in cases where police officers or other public officials are the victims, it is even more important for the defendants to have the right to elect jury trial.

Prosecutors get a very bad press these days, but in the main they are wily people. In the past few years, it has become the practice that, where the injuries on the victim clearly constitute actual bodily harm, trial by jury can be elected. The prosecutor or the police may well decide to make the charge of common assault, because by so doing they will deny trial by jury. It could be argued that that subterfuge is an insult to the victim. The victim has clearly been assaulted—they have suffered actual bodily harm—but the defendant is charged with common assault, which used to be regarded as the most trifling of matters. Perhaps we need to look again at the

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question of which offences are summary, and which are either-way. There needs to be an adjustment back in favour of jury trial, rather than continuing on the road to excluding it.

I shall touch briefly on the question of double jeopardy. We humble solicitors in the magistrates courts do not often deal with great cases, at least not with their final stages, although I know that some learned and hon. Members have done so. However, it is possible to see the grave difficulty that could arise from the proposal in the Bill. It has been argued that we should be allowed to reopen cases in which evidence based on later scientific advances, such as DNA testing, had not been available. We were told that protection and safeguards would be put in place, so that the information would not percolate down to the second trial jury.

However, there are newspapers in foreign countries such as Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, France and so on. People who travel will be able to read in lurid detail about a trial, as they allegedly did about the Duke of Windsor and Mrs. Simpson. People who travelled abroad knew about that case, whereas those who stayed at home did not. Those of us who live near Stansted know that everyone now travels abroad, and that similar information would be widely spread.

Even if people did not travel so widely, there is no doubt that titbits of judicial and legal gossip would be peddled on the internet. Few jurors would be able to approach a case fresh, saying that they knew nothing about it. They will know about any such case, as it will be notorious.

If we adopt the proposal in the Bill, there will be no verdict of acquittal, but of Xnot proven, yet". Essentially, the ending of the double jeopardy rule would mean that all cases that did not result in a guilty verdict would be considered to be Xnot proven, yet". That would remain the decision until the state decided to open up the matter again, with the leave of the courts.

Like other hon. Members, I shall touch on the matter of character and previous convictions. I admire the confidence of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews). It is no trouble for him to brush aside the fact that a client may have a number of convictions. I concede that there may be times when that would be the right thing to do, tactically. Generally, however, as the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) noted, most jurors are likely to say, XIf he's done it before, why not this time?"

For example, a person with previous burglary convictions might be charged with, say, drink driving. The proposal in the Bill would mean that that person's character could be attacked. What about the difficulties arising from a person's demeanour or dress? If the person charged with drink driving arrived in court with a briefcase, the prosecution could say that he should have a striped jersey and a bag bearing the word Xswag", and that he was a burglar trying to delude the court into thinking that he was a clerical worker.

We can go down a ludicrous road and make it almost impossible for a defendant's character not to have a bearing on a case. If that happens, the balance will shift heavily towards conviction. That may be the purpose of the change. However, the balance will also shift in favour of trial by judge alone. If a person faces the risk

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that all of his past life could come out before a jury, he may well opt, if the case is one for which it is permitted, for trial by judge alone.

For those reasons, I hope that it is clear that I have my doubts about some of the important parts of the Bill. The evil to be remedied may not be sufficient to justify the evils of the remedy. I am concerned about the Bill. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and other Ministers will think hard and long about these matters as the Bill passes through the House.

7.54 pm

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): Like many of those hon. Members who have spoken before, I accept the need to reform the criminal justice system, but not at the expense of increasing the risk that innocent people will be convicted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) has outlined the three problems that especially concern Liberal Democrat Members. The same concerns have been expressed by hon. Members of all parties, in particular about the need to retain trial by jury.

The three main issues have been discussed pretty thoroughly and, as the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) said, by this time of the evening there is some repetition of the points to be covered. I shall therefore look at other issues, but I do not in any way belittle the importance of the three issues that are of such great concern.

I welcome some of the proposals in the Bill. In particular, I welcome the recognition that the rehabilitation of offenders is a major goal of sentencing. I look forward to further developments in terms of restoration and reparation, and I welcome the comments made by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon).

In a general sense, it is important to go beyond what is being said about crime and examine some of the potential outcomes. We need to get right the perspective and balance involved in being tough on crime and its causes. All hon. Members share the aim of controlling and reducing crime, but an overwhelming emphasis on being tough on crime has had unintended consequences that have exacerbated existing problems and created others. In saying that, I realise that I am rather disagreeing with the previous speaker, the hon. Member for Braintree.

Although the Lord Chief Justice and many other key figures have publicly recognised that we should send fewer people to prison, and that short prison sentences generally serve no useful purpose, it seems that the phrase Xtough on crime" has merely come to mean that more people are locked up. There are more than 72,000 people in prison in this country, and more than half of our prisons are overcrowded. Attempts by the Prison Service to make prison a constructive experience are being seriously hindered. Reoffending rates are still as high as 60 per cent.—although I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), will tell me that they are falling—and the rates are even higher for juveniles and young offenders.

On 30 September this year, there were 2,633 children locked up in 25 jails in England and Wales. Young girls are being held in adult prisons, despite a commitment to

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remove all those under 18 from prison by April 2000. In both instances, there are huge issues concerning the distances from home at which those young people are being held.

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