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Although I do not want to embarrass him, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase), who sits beside me, said just now that a jury trial is the criminal classes trying the criminals. I do not agree with that. However, having heard my hon. Friend the Minister speak, I was reminded that Gladstone once said of Disraeli that his only principle was lack of principle. We are not discussing a Bill that is bobbing between two Houses with people trying to come to some convenient solution. We are discussing a fundamental principle. If we lose sight of that, it seems to me that we lose sight of what justice and liberty are about.
I was not involved in consideration of the Bill in Committee, but I have read the reports of all the proceedings. It seems that most of the statements that have come from the Home Secretary have been both banal and didactic. An argument must be constructed before cursing people who disagree with a proposal. Perhaps one of the problems in this debate is that most of us can agree that we have the worst Home Secretary for the past 100 years, but some of us are suspicious that we may have the worst Home Secretary for the next 100 years. That is not good enough, and I do not say that in jest.
People have different sticking points in politics. I can only say that this is one of my big sticking points, and I would hope that it is a big sticking point for all my colleagues. My researchers have gone through all their election addresses individually since 1997, and none of them has advocated the abolition of jury trials in his or her election manifestos. What is this all about? Why are we striving might and main, according to the Home Secretary, to deal with about 20, 25, 30, 40 or 50 cases a year? I say for myself that I am debating whether it is worth while taking the Whip of a political party that will make a fundamental interference in liberty and justice.
Mr. Hogg: We have been told by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore), for whom I have the greatest respect and against whom I have frequently appeared in court in the past, that we have the worst Home Secretary, probably for 200 years. I am bound to say that I think that he is probably right. The Home Secretary is one of the most illiberal individuals whom I have had the misfortune to listen to since I entered the House of Commons. I hope very much that the House of Lords will stick to its position. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) set out the detailed arguments, strongly reinforced by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch, so I do not have to repeat them. I agree with them. I shall just make three points.
Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for taking an intervention, as the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) did not do so, which I regret. May I say on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland that the present Home Secretary is regarded as a very brave and courageous Home Secretary, precisely because when the Bill was first drafted, it did not extend to Northern Ireland. It was the Home Secretary, at the request of my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and myself, who agreed to extend key provisions to Northern Ireland. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman please explain to me and to the people of Northern Ireland why he and his party do not object to non-jury Diplock courts, but continue to object to non-jury trials in respect of a small issue?
Mr. Hogg: The last thing I want to do is to be critical of the hon. Lady, for whom I have the greatest respect, but last night my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield set out in considerable detail why we thought it right to retain the Diplock trials in the Province. I share that view. The special circumstances in the Province justify them. As for thinking that the Home Secretary is a brave and liberal chap, he may have his virtues, but liberality is not among them. He is one of the most illiberal Home Secretaries I have had the misfortune to see or read about in all my study of politics and history.
I shall make three points, the first of which relates to clause 41. Let us be clear about it. The effect of the Government's provision is to create a presumption against jury trials. I do not believe that a liberal
Clause 42 is a spectacular own goal on the part of the Government. What is being offered by way of a compromise is a private conversation between the trial judge and the Lord Chief Justice. I entirely agree with the kind remarks made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) about the Lord Chief Justice, but the idea that a trial can be regulated through a private word is bizarre. The people who are being tried have a right to say something about their position. What is proposed is a private word between two judicial figures, with the people actively involved being utterly deprived of any opportunity to make representations, and the ultimate decision being no doubt motivated by the decision of the Lord Chief Justice, which will never be announced to anybody. If that does not offend the principles of fair trial, I cannot think what does.
Mr. Garnier: My right hon. and learned Friend and I recall that in the last Parliament the Government were keen that we should pass the Human Rights Act 1998, which brought into domestic law the European convention. He and I also remember that article 6 brings with it into domestic law a right that the common law already recognisesthe right to a fair trial. If a trial is to be continued through the means of a private conversation between the trial judge and the Lord Chief Justice we know not where and when, surely that conflicts with article 6 and the Human Rights Act.
Mr. Hogg: Manifestly so, and my hon. and learned Friend and I will have great fun with that, should the matter come before courts in which we are engaged. The prospect of the forum being determined as a result of a private conversation is deeply offensive.
I want to make two further points. First, in what I suppose passed for his peroration, the Under-Secretary told the House that, if the House of Lords stuck to its views, the entire Bill would be lost. That is complete rubbish; it does not even begin to approximate to the truth. The reality is that, if the Government want to make a concession on the several clauses involved, they can do so, and the Bill will then be saved. The Bill will be lost only if they refuse to make a concession, so I have the very nasty feeling that the House has been a trifle misledwould that be an appropriate word, Mr. Deputy Speaker?as to the impact of the position that we are adopting tonight.
Finally, I would commend to the Under-Secretary, his officials and his Front Bench colleagues a little modesty. The plain truth is that, in the other place, by a very substantial majority, the noble Lords have expressed their view. It was largely a free view, unconstrained by the Whip and expressed by those who know something about the matter and are not seeking
I have prosecuted the worst of them and I have defended the worst of them, and I have gloried in the successes and suffered the defeats in that respect. I come here to defend the jury system only because it is part of us, not because it is anything else. It is part of us inasmuch as this Chamber is part of us. It brings together an enormously eclectic number of people in order to judge their fellow citizens. The idea that they are not capable of doing it is an insult to them and an insult to us. We are an extraordinarily eclectic group of people. The days when the squirearchy came here to sit on the Tory Benches and to patronise the representatives of organised labour on this side of the House are all gone. [Interruption.] Of course, they have toffs on those Benches, and let me say straight away that we have toffs on our side as well.
We have become a glorious and eclectic mix of people and we trust ourselves to wrestle with the most profound, difficult and sometimes incomprehensible legislation. One message that I have is: for God's sake trust the jury system, which has served us for 800 years. The idea that juries do not understand the complexities of fraud trials is an insult to juries and an insult to those who have lived with them for 800 years. Nobody in the business or game would support that view. It is borne out by juries' high conviction rate; they know dishonesty and fraud when they see them.
Let us support the system that has served us so well, and stop, at this stage, any erosion of this great liberty that we have. There were those who said that we should do away with jury trial for the least serious offences, and we beat them back twice in the last Parliament. Now, they have come back and said that we should do that with the most serious offences. Had we lost last time, we would now be squeezing into 800 years of liberty a tiny section of criminal activity, which would be wholly unacceptable.
I want to finish on the question of jury nobbling. The jury is the strength of the system, not its weakness. It is almost impossible to corrupt 12 people, whether with money, bribery, threat or violencethat simply does not existbut it is possible to corrupt, bribe or threaten one man. The great strength of our system is that it involves 12 people. In a very long life of crimeI used that phrase the other day as a joke, but the point is trueI have never known a jury to be corrupted or distorted to the extent that an unjust verdict was delivered. But if I were asked whether, if the Bill goes through, I could say that the prospect is that I will never see a single judge corrupted or bribed, I would describe that as myopia.
This country's glorious and wonderful system has been copied and adulated throughout the world. The Houseon both sidesshould resist with every sinew and vein of its body any attempt to erode what we have.