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Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): Is the Solicitor-General aware that I served on a jury at the Old Bailey in a murder trial earlier this yearI may have been the first Member of this House to appear at the Old Bailey, at least in the jury box? All my fellow jurors took their task immensely seriously and meticulously studied the highly complex evidence. Will he say why juries are not capable of mastering the complexity of a fraud trial, when they are perfectly capable of dealing with a charge as serious as murder?
The Solicitor-General: I did not know that the hon. Gentleman had served as a juror in a trial earlier this year. We owe a great debt to everyone who serves as a juror, and I thank him and all other jurors for their work as citizens. Jurors take the issues seriously and, as a lawyer, I have seen jurors take a serious interest in cases and manage complex issues. With respect, however, that is not the point. No one is suggesting that juries are a bad way of making decisions. Indeed, we want the vast majority of cases, including many complex cases, to continue to be dealt with by jurors, but for the past two decades judges and others have said in report after report that we have a serious problem with a tiny percentage of cases0.05 per cent. We cannot continue to ignore the seriousness of such fraud cases and to allow justice not to be done, and we must introduce a system that enables justice to be done in serious and complex cases.
John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Surely the real problem is not with juries but with lawyers. I put it to the Solicitor-General, whose statement I personally found thoroughly unpersuasive, that the real challenge is for lawyers more effectively to distil their arguments and present their evidence. On a personal note, as one who admires the Solicitor-General, the way in which he sniffily dismissed the expressions of concern from Members on both sides of the House and was so manifestly patronising and arrogant towards my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) did a Minister of his great experience no credit whatsoever.
I did not notice that the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham was particularly put down. Having known him over many years, I think that it would take far more than humble me to achieve that.
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The hon. Gentleman, like the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, almost crystallises the problem. He says that it is all the fault of lawyers who do not put the case properly or distil it properly. Such cases are often very complex and difficult, and what sometimes happens now is that they are simplified in a way that prevents the full complexity of the injustice and criminality from being exposed. The problem is that lawyers are continually trying to do that distilling process, and we must ensure that the full nature of the issue is not prevented from being exposed. We need to create a situation in which the complexity can be dealt with and justice can be properly done.
Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): Although I accept that the number of cases that the Solicitor-General is talking about in this context is very small, does he not accept that the difficulty with this proposal is that the arguments that he is deploying can be used to justify the removal of jury trial in a large number of other cases? Arguments of complexity and length apply to more than just serious fraud trials.
That is the first thing that is dangerous. Does the Solicitor-General accept that it is also dangerous to include reference to conviction rates in a statement to justify the removal of jury trial? The fact that conviction rates do not include every case may indicate that the system is working as it should be.
The Solicitor-General: It may indicate that certain people are not guilty and therefore should not be convicted, as is of course the case. However, the hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that the arguments that I have put forward can be used to apply to the vast majority of the 40,000 jury trials that take place across the country. Many of those cases are straightforward. Many are complex. Many concern serious fraud matters but ones that can properly be put before a jury and have their complexity exposed before it.
I certainly do not accept the hon. Gentleman's proposition that in advancing these arguments I would seek further to curtail the number of cases that a jury would try. In the long term, it is our intention that the vast majority of the 40,000 cases that are tried by juries today will continue to be tried by jurors. However, we want to ensure that in all those cases the jury is able to do justice where it can, and that justice is none the less done where the case is very complex and serious enough for it to go before a judge rather than a jury.
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[Relevant documents: The Sixth Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 200405, on Terrorism and Community Relations (House of Commons Paper No. 165) and the Government's reply thereto, Cm. 6593.]
The offence had been agreed by the House twice previously: as part of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 and, only a few months ago, as part of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. On both occasions, the relevant clauses had to be withdrawn because of timetable pressures to secure the passage of other important legislation.
Since those considerations, two significant changes have been made. First, we made a clear manifesto commitment to legislate to outlaw incitement to religious hatred and the electorate have endorsed that manifesto. We have moved quickly to fulfil the manifesto commitment. Secondly, the proposed offence is in a single-issue Bill and has not been tied to other measures. That caused some hon. Members genuine concern on the previous two occasions and we have listened to those anxieties by introducing the Bill in its current form, rather than including the provision in other legislation. Tackling the matter in a single-issue Bill will ensure that the proposals receive the detailed scrutiny that they deserve, and I hope that hon. Members of all parties will welcome that aspect of our consideration.
Some things have not changed, however. It is clear from the coverage in the media and elsewhere that misconceptions about the purpose and effect of the Bill remain and are still widespread in some areas. I therefore begin by emphasising that the Bill deals with hatred and incitement to hatred. It is about the nasty and extreme behaviour that drives people to hate others and sometimes, as the recent desecration of Jewish cemeteries shows, to turn that hatred against people and property. It is about behaviour that destroys individuals' lives and sets one community against another.
In evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on religious offences, the Association of Chief Police Officers said that hatred stirred up by extremist groups contributed to the Bradford and Burnley riots in 2001. The Bill is intended to help tackle that sort of hatredI emphasise "hatred".
The Bill does not stop anybody telling jokes about religion, ridiculing religions or engaging in robust debate about religion. It will not stop people from proselytising and it will not curb artistic freedom. Neither the purpose nor the effect of the Bill is to limit freedom of expression, with all the robustness that one would expect and, I would say, desire in a democracy.
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There is no evidence to show that the Bill will have that effect. Indeed, the current offence of incitement to racial hatred already covers Jews and that has not stopped anyone telling jokes about Jews or criticising the Jewish faith.
Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): In the past, I have voted against such a provision. Since the Government have granted an amendment to make it clear that the offence is incitement against people on the ground of religious hatred, I am happy to support the measure today. I do not believe that it prevents people from speaking out about their antipathy to specific religions. However, will the Government consider extending the provision to take into account hatred against people on the ground of their sexual orientation?
Mr. Clarke: First, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that clear statement about her approach and the change of view that she described. If we can find a form of words during consideration of the Bill in Committee and elsewhere that provides further reassurance to my hon. Friend and others who are likeminded that freedom of expression is not inhibited, we are flexible about examining amendments to that effect.
Secondly, there are big issues to consider on sexual orientation, but I do not believe that it is appropriate to do that in the framework of the Bill. The reason that I gave earlier stands: narrow consideration of the issue is the best way in which to proceed. That does not deny the legitimacy of my hon. Friend's concern about the need to consider hatred on other bases. However, we should not draw the Bill widely.
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