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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): My Department has no plans to change the ability of juries to engage in deliberations, but we are looking at proposals to ensure that the best facilities are available to them.
Bill Wiggin: I think that the Department admitted, in its statement of priorities, that too many fraud cases take too long and do not reach a conclusion. What will the Minister do to improve that, without risking defendants' ancient and automatic right to trial by jury?
Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point that has implications for justice as a whole as well as for juries. Long cases do not serve justice well, and jurors face difficulties if cases go on for any length of time. We intend to seek ways to ensure that cases are shorter and we support the rules adopted by judges to that end. We believe that pre-trial management of cases is the best option, because that will ensure that jurors, defendants and victims are best served by the justice system.
Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): In my experience, the length of trials is one of the most serious problems faced by jurors, because a long trial can cause problems at home and at work. Will my hon. Friend the Minister give the House more specific details of her plans to work with judges to case-manage jury trials and to reassure the public that trial by jury will remain safe under this Labour Government?
Bridget Prentice: I welcome my hon. Friend to the House and look forward to his contributions to our debates. He is right to say that our first priority is to maintain public confidence in the jury system and that jurors involved in long trials face problems as a result of disruption to their family and work life. The Department has a team looking specifically at the facilities available for jurors and we are considering how they can be improved. We need better pre-trial management and we must ensure that judges have better control in the court system. In that way, the justice system and jurors will be best served.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I welcome both the Under-Secretary and the Minister of State to their respective posts. My only regret is that the right hon. and learned Lady is not in the Chamber as Secretary of State.
I hope that both Ministers will resist the Home Office's frequent raids on trial by jury. I refer the Under-Secretary to the impasse in respect of section 43 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. She will recall that, to get that provision through the House, the Home Secretary at the time had to promise that it would not come into effect without prior discussions involving all three main parties in the House aimed at finding a better way of
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securing trials for complex cases. To date, the section has not had a commencement order and no discussions have taken place. When will they take place?
Bridget Prentice: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. Section 43 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which would allow a single judge to hear a complex fraud case without a jury, was thoroughly debated during the passage of that legislation. It has not yet been implemented because it would need an affirmative resolution of both Houses before that could happen. It is within the remit of the Attorney-General, who is considering the issue, and it is my understanding that he will make an announcement on the issue shortly.
Ms Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that those of us who have worked in the criminal justice system are more or less unanimous in our belief that nothing should undermine the sanctity of the jury room? Despite pressure from the media and other sources to allow investigations into what happens in jury rooms, we ask that the Government remain firm that nothing should infringe on that privacy.
Bridget Prentice: I welcome my hon. Friend to the House. She is right about that privacy, not only for the sake of the jurors, who are performing an important public dutywe should remember thatbut to maintain public confidence in the jury system. That is why we have no intention of allowing further investigation into the deliberations in the jury room.
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): I, too, welcome the Minister to her new position. We support research on juries, as long as it is controlled to safeguard jury confidentiality and to avoid interference. If the Government accept the need for such research, how can they justify their intention to abolish trial by jury in fraud trials before such research has been undertaken? Is not that just another unjustified attack by this Government on people's civil liberties?
Bridget Prentice: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words at the beginning of his question, but I am sorry that he felt the need to go on to attack what the Government propose. He is wrong on that point. The Attorney-General has already set up a review, under Stephen Wooler, to look in detail at the Jubilee line case, how it was conducted and the effect that it had on jurors and others. I cannot comment any further on that until the review is completed, but that might be a better time to discuss whether fraud cases should be tried by jury or under section 43 of the 2003 Act.
The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman):
My Department is conducting an official level review of the experiences of the new systems for the election of Members of the
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Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the European Parliament and the Greater London assembly and Mayor.
Mr. Grogan: I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on her appointment. Has she noticed that the Cabinet Committee that is reviewing electoral systems is chaired by none other than my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister? While I am sure that he will approach the issue in open-minded fashion, does she agree that the issue would benefit from discussion by the full Cabinet, not least because some members would share my fear that, under our current electoral system, one day 36 per cent. of voters may elect not a progressive Labour Government but, almost by accident, a right-wing Tory one?
Ms Harman: As my hon. Friend understands, the purpose of the electoral system is not to elect any particular party, but to give voters a fair opportunity to express their will through our representative institutions. We have embarked on a considerable programme of voting system reform, as well as constitutional reform, and it is right that we look at the experience of the new proportional voting system and understand the effect of the electoral reform that we have already achieved.
Ms Harman: That is one of the things that we need to look at[Interruption.] We are undertaking a review and, as the House will know, there is a balance to be struck between proportionality and simplicity. We want a fair system where there is a strong connection between the elected representative and their constituents, but in the new voting systems that we have introduced in the devolved Assemblies, and for the Mayor and the European system, there is an element of proportionality and we are reviewing those experiences.
The right hon. and learned Lady will remember that, in summer 2004, a great deal of fraud and risk of fraud was uncovered during the all-postal ballots that took place then. Afterwards, as she knows, the Electoral Commission produced a report calling on the Government to put a stop to all-postal ballots. The Government refused. Since then, we have had the Birmingham case in which our system was described as similar to that of a banana republic. The Electoral Commission produced a further report urging a stop to all-postal voting. Will she make that commitment now? May we have some fresh thinking? Will the Government say, "No all-postal ballots for the future"?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome to me in my new position. Over the coming months and, I hope, years, I imagine that he and I will work closely together on this matter. The question of
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electoral systems is not a partisan one although all Members think that we are experts on it and feel strongly about it.
On the all-postal voting system, we have no plans to go beyond what the House decided in the Representation of the People Act 2000, which was that any application for all-postal voting should be decided by the Secretary of State. We have no plans to go further than that, but nor do we have plans to repeal that section of the Act.
On the points that the hon. Gentleman made about fraud, I think that we can all agree not only that we want an electoral system that provides access to voting and convenience, which postal voting gives, but also that legitimacy of the outcome and security of the vote are essential. I remind him and all Members that I have sent them for discussion a policy paper on electoral administration to give them an opportunity to consider the issue before the electoral administration Bill is brought to the House, when there will be further opportunities on Second Reading and in Committee. Before I bring the Bill to the House we will listen to what Members on both sides of the House have to say, which is why I issued the consultation paper in advance. We want accessibility but we must have security, too.
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