Previous SectionIndexHome Page

The Solicitor-General: I note that, during the hon. Gentleman's questions, he spent a lot of time talking about the process and did not really address the substance of what we propose to do.

On the process, it is complete nonsense to suggest that there is a breach of any undertaking. It is the case that my right hon. Friend the then Home Secretary made a commitment, and if the hon. Gentleman looks at the wording of that commitment, he will see that he said that we would look at these issues. It is the case that a letter sent to the hon. Gentleman and others about the seminar held on 24 January 2005 clearly stated:

the undertaking given by the Home Secretary. So it is very clear from the substance of the letter that that was what that seminar was about.

It is the case that the shadow Lord Chancellor, the noble Lord Kingsland, the noble Lord Thomas of Gresford on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, and representatives of the Bar, the Law Society, Justice, the Serious Fraud Office and Customs, as well as Lord Justice Thomas, Lord Justice Judge and Mr. Justice Field all attended the seminar. The hon. Gentleman indicated that he was unable to attend. He accepted initially, but tendered his apologises later.

It is also the case that that seminar included a full and robust discussion of the issues and that everyone at that seminar accepted that there were issues with serious fraud trials and that a way had to be found to resolve them. Those issues are, indeed, quite serious. They apply to a very small number of cases—10 to 20 a year, out of 40,000—so it is simply hyperbole for anyone to suggest that this proposal is somehow an attack on juries. It is the outcome of two decades of debate since Roskill suggested in 1986 that we should move to such a position.
21 Jun 2005 : Column 658

The key problems are very clear. Serious and complex trials can last six months or a year. They are an intrusion into the private and working lives of jurors. They can cause great hardship and economic loss—many jurors seek, and are granted, excusal—and they lead to concerns about the representative nature of juries in some cases. Juries are faced with the quite extraordinary physical and mental tasks of listening to often complex and obtuse evidence. Some fraud trials involve the explanation of interlinking transactions, involving complex financial instruments and often occurring over a number of years, and detailed cross-examination, requiring constant cross-references to documents and records. That is tough on any juror.

Judges can read much of the background material and agreed evidence much more quickly, so some of those trials can be properly shortened without compromising justice—indeed, possibly leading to a higher level of justice because the complexity of some of those cases can be considered. Prosecutors sometimes have to split trials into two or more separate trials to make them manageable and comprehensible to juries. Thus the full criminality of such fraud is not always exposed. There is also the risk that, to reduce complexity, prosecutors are sometimes tempted to reduce the number of charges to make it easier for jury trials to take place. That itself is unsatisfactory because it does not enable the full complexity of the criminality to be exposed. Judges can deal with such cases more quickly. The hon. Gentleman's objections are not accepted by the Government. He said that the House has not had the opportunity to debate the issues, but resolutions will be put before both Houses and there will be full opportunity for debate at that stage.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to confirm that acquittals were often at the direction of the judge. Yes, that certainly is the case. However, I disagree with his figure for the past five years; the Serious Fraud Office's conviction record was about 70 per cent. Stephen Wooler is indeed looking into the background of the Jubilee line trial and will no doubt make his report in due course, but the House needs to know when the Government have made a clear decision. The Government have made a decision, and I remind the House that this is a power for the courts, not a requirement. As I made clear throughout my statement, the Government want jury trials to continue in the vast majority of cases. The provision will apply only to a very small number of serious and complex fraud trials.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway) (Lab): The Minister implies by his opening remarks that as a result of jury trial people are being acquitted who would otherwise be convicted, which runs wholly contrary to the statistics, as he knows. Will he amplify that point and let us know which trials he has in mind—he need not identify them by name—where that occurred?

Will the Minister tell the House how far in advance of the collapse of the Jubilee line trial were his office and the office of the Attorney-General informed of the serious and unique difficulties that had occurred, and what did he or the Attorney-General do about it?

In respect of the seminar about which we have been told during this debate, many Labour Members in both the House and the other place spoke against the measure
21 Jun 2005 : Column 659
and voted against it or abstained because they were gravely concerned about it. How many of them were invited to the seminar, and who were they?

The Solicitor-General: I have set out the reasoning behind the decision. Contrary to my hon. and learned Friend's suggestion, I did not base my argument on the rate of acquittal. I was careful not to do that; I actually based it on the length, complexity, costs, dangers and risks—for example, that a juror or jurors can become ill during a trial and proceedings can be frustrated. There is a series of reasons why trials last longer because they are conducted before jurors. All the background information must be carefully set out—issues that could be dealt with and resolved much more quickly by judges at a substantial saving to the taxpayer but, more than that, with an increase in the justice that is done because the complexity of the crime can be revealed.

My hon. and learned Friend asked when the Law Officers were informed of certain matters relating to the Jubilee line case. He will be aware that I was not a Law Officer at the time that some of those matters were dealt with, so I will check and write to him on that matter.

When my hon. and learned Friend reads the report that I have placed in the Library, he will be aware that a substantial number of Labour Members attended the seminar. Yes, they were Ministers, but the views of the Labour party were represented.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Will the Solicitor-General comment on the constitutional propriety of Law Officers bringing forward an order of such contention, especially given the fact that the Government were defeated on the matter in the last Parliament? Is it appropriate for Law Officers who have control of the prosecuting authorities to determine how a prosecution is to be heard in court?

On the so-called inter-party discussions, I note the fact that several Ministers were present, but I can assure the Solicitor-General that there were no Conservative or Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesmen on home affairs or constitutional affairs, so they were not inter-party discussions but a discussion between the Attorney-General and some chums from the Lords. Can we therefore assume that we cannot rely on a solemn and binding undertaking given both privately and in the Chamber by a Cabinet Minister—in this case a former Home Secretary?

Baroness Scotland gave the further undertaking that there would be linkage with the Law Commission's recommendations on multiple offending and further work on corruption, so what has happened to that linkage? What consideration has the hon. and learned Gentleman given to the Criminal Bar Association's 10-point plan to reduce the length of trials, which builds on the work already undertaken by the Lord Chief Justice?

The Jubilee line case has been mentioned. Is it not true that a juror interviewed after the collapse of that trial said:

Is it also not the case that Chris Newell, the casework director for the Crown Prosecution Service, in defending jury trials in complex cases, said that it was
21 Jun 2005 : Column 660
clearly in the public interest to bring such cases before a court and jury? Are we to take it that the Law Officers do not agree with the CPS in this respect?

Many Opposition and Labour Members believe that a jury is the best way of determining the honesty or dishonesty of the accused, and many will agree with the Labour party's former Attorney-General, Lord Morris of Aberavon, when he said:

Liberal Democrats will resist the loss and erosion of jury trial, whether that is done by primary or secondary legislation.

Next Section IndexHome Page