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Paul Farrelly: I want to intervene on my hon. and learned Friend on the point about the balance and the representativeness of juries, which is already causing much false indignation and misrepresentation on the Opposition Benches. I covered the Blue Arrow case; it was my first journalistic assignment. It was strange, because I was in the scribblers’ dock when one of my former colleagues, an investment banker called Nick Wells, appeared in the dock because he had worked for County NatWest. I remember clearly that a way in
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which professional jurors got off doing jury service in great numbers was either to declare to the judge that they were account holders at the NatWest bank or to go and open such an account. A large number of white-collar jurors disappeared from that court through jury selection, and there was a serious question about the representativeness of the jury.

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend has experience of that particular case, and others have had experience in other cases. The view of the Opposition appears to be that we should just ignore this problem and pretend that it does not exist. They seem to think that we should not address it, and just get away from it. We are saying, however, that we will address the issue and put in place a system for trying the most complex cases—a small number—which will work more effectively.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Some internal contradictions seem to be opening up in the Solicitor-General’s case. First he said that the stupidity—to use a word that was used elsewhere—of the jury was not a factor, but he went on to say that juries had difficulty in understanding the complexities of such cases. Secondly, he said that the only criterion that is moving the Government to take this action is the length of the cases and the stress that that places on juries—yet the measure will not apply to equally long and equally stressful cases in other parts of the judicial system. Thirdly, he said that because a jury that would be available for such a long time might be unrepresentative, he intends to remove the jury, so that a wholly representative judge can hear the case instead. Is that the sum total of his argument?

The Solicitor-General: No. The hon. Gentleman has traduced my argument quite badly. I did not argue that juries could not understand the case; I have been clear in not arguing that. I said that the way in which such cases can develop is burdensome, and that we as Members of Parliament need to take account of the burden that we place on ordinary members of the public. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not want to do that, but we have a responsibility to ensure that we do.

Mr. Grieve: Will the Solicitor-General give way?

The Solicitor-General: Not at the moment.

We do not want to deal with the issue of unrepresentative juries by having an unrepresentative judge. That suggestion again traduces my argument. The argument of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is that juries are somehow going to be representative of the man in the street, of members of the public. The evidence suggests, however, that that is not as clear an outcome in these very long cases as he might like to think. If there are better ways of conducting complex serious fraud cases, we should deal with them in this way.

When a trial takes place before a judge alone, evidence that would have been presented orally to a jury can simply be read by the judge—

Mr. Grieve rose—

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The Solicitor-General: I have been generous in giving way to the hon. Gentleman, but I will do so again.

Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to the Solicitor-General, because he is now touching on an important area that he hinted at earlier but has not clarified. What is the procedure to be in these trials by judge alone? He has just suggested that there will be a shortening of time because judges can go off and read large amounts of material, which will not be presented formally to them in front of the defendant, to cut their way through the process. If that is indeed what the Solicitor-General is contemplating, I do not think that fairness in the trial system will be maintained. I have serious doubts that there is any shortening of time to be had. I would have thought that all evidence would have to be presented in open court, and either read out loud or presented orally in the usual way. If the Solicitor-General is suggesting something else, the House should be told about it.

The Solicitor-General: In our trials, arguments must be set out orally, at length, before a jury, and those arguments can be dealt with much more expeditiously by a judge. A judge will, for example, be able to curtail speeches by barristers who go on at great length, in a way that would be impossible when a jury is involved.

Several hon. Members rose—

The Solicitor-General: While I am on the subject of great length, let me say that I have now been on my feet for about 40 minutes, and the reason for that is that I have been very generous in giving way. I now wish to conclude.

Mr. Malins: Will the Solicitor-General give way just once more?

The Solicitor-General: I will finish my point. Before I finish my speech, I promise the hon. Gentleman that I will give way to him, but only to him.

Mr. Hogg: That is discrimination. What about our human rights?

The Solicitor-General: In response to the sedentary intervention of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I, or rather you, Mr. Speaker, will be the judge of the rights of Back Benchers in this case. Let me not usurp the right of the arbiter.

A judge can curtail lengthy speeches by windbag journalists— [Interruption.] Sorry, I meant windbag lawyers, although perhaps journalists too might be involved; one never knows. By doing that, the judge can ensure that the trial proceeds much more expeditiously. Most importantly, there will be less need for cases to be severed, or for sample charges. On the whole, cases could be dealt with more expeditiously—but shorter trials, however desirable, are not our primary objective. We want to enable justice to be done by exposing the whole criminality of the case in a single trial. If trials are short, that will be a bonus.

Rather than having a case severed, or some of the charges dropped, we believe that judge-led trials will enable the full culpability of defendants to be exposed
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in court and the crime to be considered in the round. Yes, longer indictments will be involved, and cases will be examined in one trial rather than being severed into two or three. That may well lead to some trials taking as long as they do at present, but without the intolerable pressure on individual members of a jury. If found guilty, defendants could also be punished for all that they have done, whereas we sometimes find now that trials are severed and they are punished for part of it here and part there, and the whole of the evidence is never exposed before members of a single court. The point made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield that some do not believe that trials by judge alone will be shorter is not as telling as he thinks, as the aim has always been to ensure that the full culpability of individuals can be brought before the court, which is currently being prevented in some cases. He seems to want that full culpability not to go before a single court, but our view is that it should.

Section 43 offers a further all-important advantage to defendants—a reasoned verdict. Defendants convicted by jury are not at present entitled to know the reasons for the verdict on them. When a trial is conducted without a jury, and a court convicts a defendant, the judge will be required to give a full reasoned verdict as soon as is reasonably practical after a conviction, and to demonstrate that all proper procedures have been followed.

Mr. Malins: A few minutes ago, the Solicitor-General was telling us about a fraud case that he argued was eminently suitable for trial by judge alone—a case of huge complexity that lasted many months and involved complicated documents and financial transactions all over the world. I was involved in a case in the Isleworth Crown court a few years ago that was equally complex, equally long and involved equally complicated financial documents, but it was on a drugs charge. Would he have that case tried by a judge alone?

The Solicitor-General: We do not intend drugs cases to be dealt with in that way, but some cases brought by the Revenue and Customs Prosecutions Office, which involve substantial financial transactions that could have drugs deals as an adjunct, might well come before such a court. Our view, however, is that the number of cases involved will be limited. We are really considering the sorts of cases dealt with by the Serious Fraud Office. I suspect that the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers was not prosecuted by the SFO— [Interruption.] He indicates that it was not. By and large, the sorts of cases dealt with by the SFO are those that we are considering. Some cases prosecuted by the RCPO might also fall within that category. A fairly limited range of cases are involved.

The Bill also contains a provision, which was requested by the Opposition, for a High Court judge both to hear the application for a non-jury trial and to conduct such trials. I therefore hope that the Opposition now feel able to support the Bill.

In conclusion—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Perhaps these provisions have been more fun for me than for others to deal with. Section 43 is not a general assault on trial by jury—far from it. The number of cases that can be tried by High Court judges will be few
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compared with the more than 28,000 contested trials each year. Substantial safeguards have been put in place to ensure that the interests of the defendant are protected, but also to safeguard the public interest in seeing justice done.

The Bill does not introduce a new policy but rather takes steps to give effect to a statutory provision passed by Parliament in 2003, which was likely to be frustrated by the Opposition in another place. Our aim is to ensure that the full criminality of the most serious cases can be exposed to public view in a criminal trial, and that those convicted can be punished for the totality of their criminality. In some long trials, that is not currently happening. The Bill will be a valuable reform aimed at fulfilling the Government’s commitment to tackle fraud, and at creating a criminal justice system that deals effectively and fairly with all kinds of crime.

1.27 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I suppose that one thing I can say to greet the Bill is that I am at least pleased that the Solicitor-General and Attorney-General have lived up to their promise to introduce a stand-alone Bill for this proposal. Marginal though it may be, the decision that such trials and the mechanism to determine whether they should take place should be dealt with by High Court judges is a tiny improvement. Beyond that, I can welcome nothing in the Bill in any shape or form.

Mr. Hogg: In welcoming the fact that we have a stand-alone Bill, is not the problem that we are enabling the Government to put the proposals into force? The affirmative resolution will never pass in the other place, and the Solicitor-General is thinking of using the Parliament Act to get the Bill through.

Mr. Grieve: I have no doubt that my right hon. and learned Friend is right. The history of the Bill is littered with examples of broken promises. The one promise that has been kept was made during the passage of the Fraud Bill, which was to the effect that there would be no attempt to include the provision in the Fraud Bill, and that a stand-alone Bill would be introduced. The Law Officers have observed that promise. The Bill has a long history, albeit not quite the history given by the Solicitor-General.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): My hon. Friend says that having a stand-alone Bill is an advantage. Does he agree that one advantage of stand-alone legislation is that it can easily be repealed? Will he say now from the Front Bench that an incoming Conservative Government will do so?

Mr. Grieve: I cannot think of a reason why we should not. Indeed, if anyone asks for my view, I shall say that we should. I hope that gives some indication of my thinking on the matter. It is true that stand-alone legislation can be removed from the statute book fairly easily.

The Solicitor-General comes to the Dispatch Box with all sorts of honeyed assurances that we should not consider the Bill to be part of a general attack on the jury system. The history of the past 10 years suggests,
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however, that the system has come under repeated attack from the Government, that on numerous occasions we have had to stand up to the Government’s attack—not always with complete success—and that there has been a progressive erosion that goes beyond that of the jury system.

The Solicitor-General mentioned district judges in magistrates courts. I am a firm believer in district judges in magistrates courts—a deputy district judge who sits in magistrates courts is sitting behind me now—but there is no doubt that, over the past 10 years, the Government have shown themselves to be highly inimical to the lay magistracy. Indeed, they wanted to reduce its work to nothing more than road traffic cases, until the cost was revealed.

In summary jurisdiction courts, lay magistrates perform exactly the same role of representing the community independently as juries, and the Government do not like juries. If they did, it would be inexplicable that in the Bill that became the Criminal Justice Act 2003 they proposed—until we stopped them—to allow people to elect for trial by judge alone if they were so minded. We had to oppose that proposal, and it was in the final stand-off that we ended up with a double-lock mechanism in section 43. I must tell the Solicitor-General that I had no doubt—and I am sure the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) had no doubt—that that was a face-saving device, because we had told the Government in the clearest and most unequivocal terms that in no circumstances, either here or in the other place, would any of the Opposition parties vote to allow the implementation of the proposal. To suggest otherwise is a rewriting of history that causes me even more anxiety when I consider it.

The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) mentioned consultation. The Government promised consultation after the 2003 Act: it took the form of a morning seminar, with none of those invited realising that it was the only formal consultation. I could not attend, but my noble Friend Lord Kingsland went along, and was not aware even while attending the seminar that it was in fact the formal consultation. I think the Solicitor-General would have to confirm that there has been no further formal consultation whatever since then—certainly I am not aware of any.

I acknowledge, and place on record, that on a number of occasions I have met the Attorney-General, and indeed the Solicitor-General, for amiable discussions about possible ways of changing the current jury system in fraud trials. However, none of the suggestions made by me or by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey was accepted, and it was clear that there was no meeting of minds.

We should ask ourselves what the Bill is really trying to do. I always listen carefully to the Solicitor-General, but I have to say that the first thing I look at when the Government propose legislation is the Home Office propaganda statement released to the press, in which the form of words and the nuances are often rather different.

This Home Office statement begins with a little preamble about the new legislation. It states

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How often have we heard that statement used in the House to justify authoritarian, draconian, unfair measures to interfere with the criminal justice system, without there being a shred of evidence that they will rebalance the system in favour of the law-abiding majority?

Apart from anything else, I think the Solicitor-General must accept that if he is telling us the truth, the impact of his proposals on criminality in the United Kingdom will be so minimal as to go totally unnoticed. I believe that 99.9 per cent. of trials will still take place before juries, with possibly half a dozen a year taking place without them. If this is really the Government’s answer to how we are to reduce crime and the fear of crime in our country, they are going about it in a very strange way.

Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Grieve: I will give way if the hon. Gentleman’s intervention relates to that point.

Stephen Hesford: It relates to the point about reducing the fear of crime. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that if the Government get their way today and the Bill comes into force in two or three months’ time, it will make defendants in cases of this kind more likely to think of pleading guilty, rather than trying to use the system to get off when they know they will be able to spin out the process for a year or so?

Mr. Grieve: I think it most unlikely that it will make any difference at all. One of the Solicitor-General’s arguments for the Bill was that some cases collapsed after long periods without ever reaching a conclusion. That is absolutely true, but jurors have not had a role in it. In my experience—and I have some experience of fraud trials—such cases usually collapse because the prosecution case was poorly presented, failed to identify the key issues and presented far too much evidence. Cases are thrown out at half time on submissions of “no case to answer”, without a jury ever considering a verdict. Unless by some extraordinary circumstance judges take a different view from the view that they would otherwise have taken at half time because they are sitting without a jury—and I hope that that is not the case, because they ought to be applying their minds in exactly the same fashion—I think the number of long fraud trials that collapse will be identical.

There are new protocols, which we have discussed, there are directions from the Lord Chief Justice, and there is a new Fraud Act, the Fraud Act 2006. All those developments might well help. I hope very much that fewer fraud trials will collapse at half time, because I hope that cases will be dealt with better. I hope that the charges on the indictment will be right, and that fewer prosecutions will be brought in cases in which manifestly the wrong charge has been brought or no charge should have been brought at all; but I do not think that juries are the key to such improvements.

Stephen Hesford rose—

Mr. Grieve: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman again, but after that I want to make some progress.

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