Previous SectionIndexHome Page


12. Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): If the Government will press for (a) new elections to be held in the Chaldo-Assyrian and other non-Kurdish minority areas in northern Iraq and (b) the establishment of an autonomous administrative region for the Chaldo-Assyrians in northern Iraq. [5706]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): The national elections held in Iraq on 30 January are internationally recognised. The Chaldo-Assyrians participated and won seats in the Transitional National Assembly. Regional self -government is a matter for the
21 Jun 2005 : Column 654
Iraqis to decide. The transitional administrative law guarantees the administrative, cultural and political rights of all minorities, including the Chaldo-Assyrians.

Mr. Leigh: Does the Minister accept that the Chaldo-Assyrians are one of the most fragile and vulnerable Christian groups in the middle east; that, in fact, 150,000 of them were prevented from voting in these elections; and that their position has actually got worse since the invasion? What will his Government and other Governments with a responsibility for Iraq do to ensure that, in future elections, these minority groups are indeed allowed to exercise the democratic rights over which we went to war?

Dr. Howells: I respect the hon. Gentleman's view on this matter. I was certainly not aware that such a large number of Chaldo-Assyrians were prevented from voting and I would greatly appreciate seeing the hon. Gentleman's information about that. However, the drive for an autonomous administrative region for the Chaldo-Assyrians is not Iraq-based. The Chaldo-Assyrians in northern Iraq rejected the idea of such an autonomous administrative region as they fear that it would make their community more, not less, vulnerable to attack. It now seems to be an issue that the UK-based Chaldo-Assyrians, not those in Iraq, are pursuing.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. I attended a meeting yesterday with the high representative of the Iraqi-Kurdistan Assembly and I read the speech of Massoud Barzani, the new President of the autonomous region, in which he welcomed all the people, including the Chaldo-Assyrians, who have places in the assembly of northern Iraq. They are happy to be there and have made no demand for a separate assembly.

Dr. Howells: I am very glad to hear that. I know that my hon. Friend is very much aware of what often happens in circumstances like these when a balkanisation occurs with added, rather than fewer, tensions. Iraq can do without that.

21 Jun 2005 : Column 655

Jury Trials (Fraud)

3.30 pm

The Solicitor-General (Mr. Mike O'Brien): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement dealing with the Government's intention to implement section 43 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. This statement is also being made in the other place by the Attorney-General.

In order to ensure that people accused of serious frauds do not escape justice, we propose to implement this provision for trial without jury in serious and complex fraud cases. It would be subject to judicial safeguards. The Government have decided that in the autumn they will seek affirmative resolutions from both Houses of Parliament in order to implement section 43. Section 43 will enable serious and complex fraud trials to be conducted by a judge sitting without a jury. The provision can operate only where the judge is satisfied that the length or complexity of the trial is likely to make it so burdensome on the jury that the interests of justice require it—subject to the Lord Chief Justice's approval in each case.

The Government gave a commitment to consult further on these issues when the 2003 Act was passed. That commitment was made good at a seminar held in January of this year, at which Opposition spokesmen, the judiciary, prosecuting authorities and the legal profession were among those represented. I am placing a record of the seminar proceedings in the Library of the House.

A protocol for dealing with lengthy trials, which was issued by the Lord Chief Justice on 22 March 2005, emphasises the need for robust and well informed case management to enable the court to focus on the real issues, and it is hoped that that approach will contribute towards reducing the length of trials. The Government consider, however, that better case management will not of itself be sufficient to confine the duration of the most complex serious fraud trials within reasonable bounds, or prevent such trials from imposing an intolerable burden on the jury. Complex and serious fraud cases can last six months or in some cases a year.

This provision is not part of a general assault on jury trial. The Government are in favour of trial by jury in the vast majority of cases where it will remain appropriate. To put it into perspective, there are around 40,000 jury trials in England and Wales annually, and this provision will affect perhaps 10 to 20 of them. The Government therefore propose in the autumn to take the action necessary to obtain parliamentary approval for the implementation of section 43, with a view to bringing it into force in January 2006.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I am very sorry to hear the Solicitor-General's statement, which is flagrantly in breach of the assurances that the Government gave to the House as to how they would proceed on this matter. I note that a policy that I would usually expect to be run by the Home Office has been transferred to the Law Officers for implementation. One can assume only that the Government's knowledge of their own breach of faith has prompted them to use their lawyers to cover up for them I am sorry that, yet again,
21 Jun 2005 : Column 656
the Law Officers have been tainted by what I suspect is a machination coming straight from No. 10 Downing street.

At the end of the passage through the House of the Bill that became the Criminal Justice Act 2003, this issue was debated at length. On 20 November, the then Home Secretary told the House that the Government were

which is now section 43—

Later, the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) intervened to ask:

The Home Secretary replied:

We are now told that consultation has taken place and that the Government are set on implementing section 43 as it stands. However, there has been no proper consultation. The Solicitor-General mentioned that a seminar was held in late January. I could not attend it, but at no time was it suggested that that seminar was a formal consultation. My noble Friend Lord Kingsland was able to attend, but he was given no impression at the time of his attendance that the seminar was a formal consultation. If indeed it was a formal consultation, it departed from all established Government practice in the way that it was carried out.

I saw the minutes from that seminar for the first time this morning. If the Government thought that the seminar had discharged their undertaking in full, why were all interested parties not provided with copies of the minutes, or invited to submit further comments? Furthermore, the Home Secretary gave the assurance that the matter would be dealt with, if at all, by primary legislation, as that offered this House the opportunity to improve and amend any proposals put forward. Why has that been abandoned?

The Fraud Bill introduced in the other place would provide a perfect vehicle for this matter. Why has it not been used? The proposed changes to the fraud law, and the changes in respect of multiple offences introduced since the Criminal Justice Act 2003 came into being, have a direct bearing on the ability to shorten fraud trials. What is the basis for ignoring those changes and for trying to prevent the detailed debate that they require?
21 Jun 2005 : Column 657

The SFO's record of conviction was extremely high until last year, with an overall average of just under 80 per cent. Will the Solicitor-General confirm that many recent acquittals have had nothing to do with juries but have been on the direction of judges? Earlier this year, the Government expressed concern at the collapse of the Jubilee line fraud trial. An inquiry was ordered to ascertain the causes of that collapse. I understand that that inquiry is still continuing. Indeed, it is suggested that the basic cause of the collapse was prosecution mismanagement of the trial process. Why have the Government elected to proceed when we do not have the benefit of that inquiry report into the trial's collapse?

The Opposition are always prepared to consider improvements to the criminal justice system. I made that point during the consideration of jury trial in the criminal justice debate in 2003, but we also believe that jury trial is a great asset and a safeguard, which ensures that it is the independent representatives of the community who find guilt or acquit in serious criminal cases, not the state. As the Government's approach is currently without any justification whatever and in breach of their undertakings to the House, I can tell the Solicitor-General that we will oppose these measures both here and in another place.

Next Section IndexHome Page