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4 Dec 2002 : Column 1003—continued

Simon Hughes: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, linked to those two things, which I agree must go together, must be the resources—almost as soon as the Bill becomes law—so that custody plus and custody minus can be implemented? A resource implementation of five or 10 years hence is clearly ludicrous if magistrates courts are to have real alternatives to custody.

Mr. Grieve: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right. I cannot see how this centrepiece of the Bill, which is in many ways its key part, will work if there is a dysfunctional system in which the parts have not been brought together.

Much has been said about jury trial, but I want to make one or two further remarks. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) in an intervention seemed to be right. I do not understand the criticism of jury trial and the reason why we are to get rid of it, as it seems that the Government have answered their own question in the Bill. It sets out to suggest that people may opt for trial by judge alone as an alternative that the state sees as identical in quality to jury trial, yet it puts in caveats to deny it to certain categories of individual to provide public reassurance. If the Minister thinks carefully about that issue, he should incline to the view that the jury trial proposals should be dropped.

Similarly, it was suggested that long trials would be a problem for jurors. It was also suggested, which surprised me, that we should be concerned if trials were broken up. My experience as a barrister is that the best service that judges ever do in trials is to order the severance of indictments. Far from leading to bad justice, that means that issues are discussed much faster,

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and if, at the end of the first trial, someone is found not guilty, the prosecution tends to think long and hard before proceeding with the second, and if it does not succeed on the second, it thinks long and hard before proceeding with the third. That is a great cost saving, and if the defendant is convicted on the first, he is sometimes willing to plead guilty to the indictments on the second. I therefore do not accept that argument.

Mr. Allen: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some of the esoteric legal games about which he is talking are the very things that drive witnesses away from participating in the process? The longer the delays, and the more options that are available, the easier it is for defendants to get at witnesses. That is not only prevalent in gangland cases but in the case of abandoned cars, antisocial behaviour—indeed, right across the board.

Mr. Grieve: I appreciate the strength of the hon. Gentleman's feelings, and we can certainly look at the matter carefully in Committee, but he has not understood my point. I disagree with him entirely that severance of indictments by judges to have short trials on discrete issues leads to any of the mischief with which he is concerned.

Further detail and careful consideration are needed on the rules on hearsay. In relation to double jeopardy, we have centred on scientific evidence and the question of DNA. A meeting that I had with DNA experts only yesterday, however, suggests that it may be of much less use than we think, because the conditions in which scientific samples were collected in the 1960s and 1970s properly raise issues of contamination that may make subsequent DNA analysis worthless. We should be wary of getting carried away with the idea that there is a quick fix. However, I accept that double jeopardy should be examined carefully.

I shall wind up my remarks to give the Minister a chance to reply, but I make a final point. We have had a good debate. If the Home Secretary's words are true, I am confident that, in Committee and subsequent stages, the Bill can be improved and turned into a worthwhile monument of the House's endeavour. However, I make a simple plea. It is all too easy to trivialise the issues and to play to the gallery. The Prime Minister's remarks at Question Time today did not encourage me in the view that the measured approach that we have adopted today will survive if there is genuine debate when matters are raised that are contrary to what the Government are trying to achieve. There are good things in the Bill, and we can make a positive impact. However, if we get carried away with rhetoric, we will fail the country and the criminal justice system.

9.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Hilary Benn): I begin by declaring an interest: I am not a lawyer. However, I agree entirely with a lawyer, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), when he described this as an excellent and considered debate. I will do my best in the time available to respond to as many points as possible. Where that is not possible, I shall write to hon. Members.

Although this a complex and lengthy Bill that will keep us occupied for many happy and occasionally disputatious hours in Committee, it is important to keep

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in sight the purpose of these green pages. The purpose was set out clearly by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in his measured opening speech, and by the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) when he said at column 289 on 17 July 2002, XThe system needs reform." I agree. That is what the Bill seeks to do. It seeks reform to make the criminal justice system work more effectively in the search for truth.

Dr. Desmond Turner: There is one problem that the Bill does not currently address. More than 200 children under two are either killed or seriously injured every year in their homes, and only about a quarter of those cases result in prosecution of any kind. Can my hon. Friend assure me that that point will at least be considered in Committee?

Hilary Benn: I am happy to assure my hon. Friend that we will consider that point although, currently, it is not directly covered by the Bill.

The reform is about trying to increase confidence in the system and about developing and making available a range of sentences, including effective community penalties. It seeks to do all this in a way that upholds the fundamental principles of presumption of innocence and the prosecution having to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

The right hon. Member for West Dorset conjured up a vision of the queue before the custody sergeant. It is an issue with which we should be concerned but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) pointed out, clause 3 on street bail will, I hope, shorten that queue. The proposal has been widely welcomed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, referred to amendments to the PACE code. We are happy to consider the arrangements for parliamentary approval and guidance for time limits on custodial bail.

I say to the hon. Members for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) and to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) that I welcome very much their welcome for the new sentencing structure—custody minus and custody plus. We have to ensure that it is properly resourced. I also welcome the theme that has run through a number of speeches on the importance of rehabilitation.

The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) asked about Northern Ireland, and whether some of the provisions will be extended there. For example, those on disclosure, double jeopardy and prosecution appeals will be extended there and others could be so extended if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland wishes. A review of sentencing is currently going on in Northern Ireland, and I agree very much with the points the hon. Lady made about the importance of restorative justice.

The Bill will in part help to tackle the issues addressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). His eloquent words expressed the anger, fear, bewilderment and even sometimes the tears of my constituents who stand before me not understanding what is happening. They cannot cope and cannot understand why they have to live their lives in the way that they do.

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Three main issues occupied hon. Members. The first was trial by jury. We propose to amend the principle of trial by jury in a very limited number of cases. One or two hon. Members used the phrase Xa slippery slope". I think it is more a friction incline. We have changed our mind on mode of trial, a fact acknowledged most eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney). The mode of trial proposals, which we are not proceeding with because we have listened to the arguments, would have removed jury trial from about 20,000 defendants a year. The proposals in this Bill will affect perhaps fewer than a hundred cases a year. The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) asked, quite reasonably, about the extended sentencing power for magistrates, and mentioned 6,000 fewer jury trials. Notwithstanding that change, defendants will retain the right, if they wish, to opt for jury trial in either-way cases.

There are only two motivations for the proposed change: one is to protect jury members from the burden of long complex trials, a point acknowledged by the Select Committee in its report today and the second is to protect the integrity of our legal process from those who attempt to subvert it. In the light of some speeches, in particular by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) and the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, I simply ask the House to consider whether our proposal is a fundamental assault on the principle of jury trial, or are there, as the Select Committee reasonably said in its report, Xcogent reasons" and Xcogent arguments" for change in two specific sets of circumstances?

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