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4.34 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I am one of the few non-legal minds contributing to the debate, so it could be said that I speak for the jury side of the equation, and for the common man, or the uninitiated. I rely simply on common sense. Trial by jury is a matter of fundamental principle that defines our national character and traditions of fairness.

My story starts at Runnymede in 1215, when King John, who was about as popular then as the Prime Minister is now, was forced to adopt the Magna Carta, which became the keystone of what I believe is our constitution. Over the years, it has underpinned many legislatures around the world. It has helped to seed good governance and fair and transparent justice, and to prevent corruption in judicial systems.

Even today, countries such as Iran can benefit from its guidance, at a time when the Prime Minister is trying to destroy it in this country. The Magna Carta is more than just history: it is alive and well today. It has led the world in developing principles of fair play and freedom, and getting right the balance of power and control between the state and the individual. It is also about ending the tyranny of the too often brutal power that the state sometimes exercises over its people. Now is no time to be dismantling such protection.

Perhaps the most important provision of the Magna Carta was that it codified the existing and long-standing practices of trial by jury. Under habeas corpus, no person may be imprisoned or have his property confiscated without prior trial by his equals. That is a vital feature of the story of democratic development because it represents the first time that the authority of the state was ever specifically limited. It was the first step on the long road to what became universal enfranchisement.

The principle of trial by jury of one’s peers, which was established in Magna Carta, was consolidated by the William and Mary declaration of rights of 1689. It continued the encoding of our constitution and the fundamental protections of the individual against the not unknown possibility of an overbearing state. The 1689 declaration stated:

That is as relevant today to us as the American declaration of independence is to the American people. It is not some old archaic curiosity. I accept that it may sometimes appear attractive to dispense with inconvenient rights and principles that seem, on sloppy analysis, to stand in the way, but when those rights have been won through
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blood, sweat and tears over 850 years of history, and when they underpin our very freedoms, we dump them at our peril.

The Government do not seem to have in their heart a love or even a respect for our history and traditions. I sometimes doubt whether they value at all the fight led over centuries by this mother of Parliaments for freedom and human rights around the world. For the Prime Minister to start to destroy trial by jury, and drive home the thin end of what I will argue is a destructive wedge, would be an act of historic folly. That is not just incompetence or unknowing tort, but an act of vandalism—and for what purpose? What possible prize is to be won by that? How cheaply will the Government cast aside our historic freedoms? Incredibly, they will do so, they assert, simply to get easier, quicker or more certain convictions in a few serious fraud cases. Fraud is a property crime, which does not compare to crimes of violence, the abuse of children or terrorism. That only adds insult to the injury of this House, which has fought long and hard over centuries to win and then to protect the rights of the individual, of which trial by jury is one of the most important.

Having set out the historic backdrop, let me turn to the contemporary and pragmatic arguments. The Bill is particularly invidious when we consider the existence of much better solutions to the problem of long and complex fraud trials. There is no evidence that juries prolong trials or that jurors are incapable of following the evidence in a fraud trial any more than in any other class of trial. Jurors have generally done a good job over hundreds of years and thousands of trials. They have secured and maintained high levels of public confidence in the judicial system.

A panel of 12 independent members of the public has generally managed to grasp the essential issues of innocence or guilt, even when the legal issues are complex. The lawyers can argue the legal machinations. If they make the effort, they can put the issues across coherently to a jury. That is important in itself, to ensure that justice can be seen to be done by ordinary people, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) explained to the House. Barristers are clever and decent people—we all know that, because the House is full of them.

Fraud trials are special in that they often pivot on the question of whether the defendant has acted dishonestly. The technical legal test for dishonesty centres on what an ordinary citizen perceives to be dishonest. It is not just an optional extra in fraud to have ordinary citizens sitting in judgment. It is absolutely essential that ordinary, independent people decide on the matter of dishonesty in fraud cases. Judges have a sophisticated and intimate knowledge of the process of law, but, with respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) who spoke earlier, that necessary strength in a judge may get in the way of the more detached, ordinary and independent insight of a group of 12 fair-minded members of the public applying their experience and common sense in a collective manner to the issues that they are considering. The jury sees the issues from a totally different perspective from that of the judge. Neither perspective is better than the other. My contention is that both perspectives are essential, valuable and indispensable parts of the whole system.

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It is not obvious why the Government have resurrected this ill-considered measure. A number of my colleagues have speculated on why they might have done so. It is not obvious, because there is no public demand for it. People do not stay late at the “Hoy and Helmet” pub in Benfleet to argue the case for the Bill to be brought forward.

One of the benefits of jury trials is that they underpin the renowned incorruptibility of judges, which relies, at least in part, on the checks and balances of the jury system, as the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) pointed out earlier. There would be significant procedural and safety issues, because judges see and hear evidence and submissions during a trial that are rightly kept from juries because they might improperly influence their verdict. I am thinking, for instance, of previous records and items that are ruled inadmissible. Just how that is to be handled has not been explained at all by those on the Government Front Bench.

We are told that the measure would affect only 10 or 20 out of tens of thousands of jury trials. However, those few trials each year could well be the thin end of the wedge. Experience has taught us to distrust the Government, so their indication that the measure is just for serious fraud is pretty worthless. Trial without jury could be expanded to other types of crime. For instance, terrorist trials can be extraordinarily complex and lengthy—the stated problems that engendered the Bill—but the international consequences of terrorist trials without jury may be unhelpful in retaining the moral high ground and in securing hearts and minds in the battle for international and national security. Some would argue that corporate manslaughter demands specialist knowledge from jurors. We can also add to the list serious organised crime, corruption and conspiracy. The way in which the Bill is drafted suggests that its scope is intended to go much wider than a few serious fraud cases. A future Government, under pressure from hard cases, might find it irresistible to bring other types of crime into the provisions for trial without jury. We all know the axiom: hard cases make bad law.

I do not accept that there is a unique problem with fraud trials. The Attorney-General told Parliament that fraud conviction rates were 70 per cent., compared with a general conviction rate of 75 per cent.—although the Solicitor-General pointed out earlier that in a restricted survey, he found that the conviction rate for serious fraud was 61 per cent. However, even that is a much better conviction rate than the miserable rates for some cases of rape or child abuse, so will the Solicitor-General be arguing that we abolish juries for those trials?

If there is a serious problem with a few fraud cases each year, we could tackle it without destroying one of the key tenets of good governance and justice. The Crown Prosecution Service could manage cases better and set them out more effectively. It could present fewer and clearer issues that could be more quickly and easily explained and supported by evidence. We could hold a trial of specimen counts before a jury and put remaining counts to a judge alone to make cases more manageable.

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I do not subscribe to the Government’s implied “stupid jury” argument. Nevertheless, we could get more professional people on to juries by tightening up the jury exemption rules that some people use to avoid their public duty. We could give better support to juries during the process, without removing their duty to decide the matters in front of them. Many of those points were covered very well by the Wooler report. The Bill will create the concept of a first and second-class justice system, with white-collar crime treated differently from blue-collar crime. That will carry enormous risks for the justice system and would be likely to undermine public confidence.

The Bill will move trials to the High Court instead of the Crown court. Sadly, I depart from our Front-Bench policy on this, although no doubt my Front-Bench colleagues will disabuse me of my thoughts later. I do not think that it is necessarily a good idea to put serious fraud into the civil rather than the criminal jurisdiction. That would

That is a quote from Liberty, which promotes civil liberties and human rights.

The Solicitor-General seemed to contradict his own arguments at the start of the debate. He said that he thought that juries could not understand complex and long cases, but he also said—I quote him—that stupid juries are not a reason for the Bill. He said that over-long trials were a key reason for the Bill, but he also said that he had no plans at present to employ trials without jury in other equally long cases. His presentation was riddled with anomalies and contradictions.

The Solicitor-General: It is important that we do not misrepresent people in the House. The hon. Gentleman is quoting selectively. When I used the words “stupid jury”, I was quoting a Conservative Member who had used the phrase, so that I could dismiss the point. It was not worthy of the hon. Gentleman to attribute those words as a comment that I had made. On reflection, I am sure that he will wish that he had not tried to use such phrases to misrepresent me.

Bob Spink: The Solicitor-General is absolutely right that he was quoting someone else when he used the phrase. However, I did not attribute the phrase to him, but simply said that he had used the phrase. I think that the record will show that. The record will also show that underlying his opening speech was the thesis that juries could not understand the issues in front of them. He said that on several occasions, and both the Liberal and Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen have made that point before.

The Government seem to be hellbent on pushing through the measure, even though it has previously been heavily opposed in both Houses. I voted against it then, as I will now. I suspect that the Government plan to use the Parliament Act to force through the Bill, because it will not go easily through the other place this time either. Ironically, such a draconian and authoritarian act would of itself be an act of vandalism against the parliamentary procedures that we enjoy.

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The main clause in the Bill simply removes the order-making powers in section 330 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. We will thus have little opportunity to improve the Bill by amendment, so it must be voted down today on Second Reading.

The Prime Minister said that he thought the criminal justice system an outdated relic of the 19th century in urgent need of reform. This is the third attack in recent years by this Government on the criminal justice system and on our civil rights. I say that this is a matter of protecting our precious constitution, our human rights and freedoms, and our influence for good in a troubled world. It would be vandalism to bulldoze this Bill through Parliament without the specific will of the English people, but that is how the Government now do their business. The people know that, and they want to change that.

On this, as on other key issues, the Prime Minister is simply wrong. He is proposing an act of historic folly. He should look elsewhere for his elusive legacy. The criminal justice system is now fair, transparent and publicly accountable through the use of trial by jury, and that is how it must stay.

4.50 pm

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): I refer to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Interests.

It is a privilege to be called to speak in opposition to this odious Bill and to follow so many fine speakers, every word of whose speeches I agree with, except for one remark. That was the comment by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) that only English Members were present in the Chamber, and that it was a certain sense of Englishness that gave rise to disgust at this appalling measure. I can assure him that such a sense is prevalent throughout Wales, and that Wales has enjoyed the same adherence to liberty as the English since 1536, when a Welsh monarch annexed England as part of greater Wales.

Mr. Hogg: We should keep it in mind that the Bill also extends to Northern Ireland.

Mr. Jones: It does indeed. My right hon. and learned Friend is quite right. I have no doubt that the adherence to liberty is also reflected among Irish Members, although unfortunately I cannot see any present in the Chamber today.

For more than 800 years the right to a trial by jury has been one of the cornerstones of liberty in this country and this conjoined jurisdiction of England and Wales. The crucial importance of the jury system cannot be overstated. It tempers a potentially oppressive prosecution, and the occasional phenomenon, which is not unknown, of the case-hardened judge, by the application of the common sense and breadth of experience frequently provided by 12 ordinary men and women of diverse backgrounds.

The jury system has an important role in encouraging and binding a developed civic society by ensuring that people from all walks of life—young, old, men, women and people of diverse ethnic backgrounds—contribute to and play their visible part in the administration of our legal system. In that respect, it may fairly be argued—indeed, it was argued by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills—that the jury system plays a fundamental part in our democracy.

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My hon. Friend quoted from Devlin’s well-known work, “Trial by Jury”, in which he refers to every jury being a little parliament. Devlin deserves to be quoted further, because he went on to say:

Devlin also said that the jury was

We therefore undermine the right to a jury trial at our greatest peril. By doing so we are undermining the very democracy that should be the bulwark of this country.

As other Members have pointed out, the Government have made repeated attempts to reduce the circumstances in which trial by jury is available. They have presented to Parliament two mode of trial Bills, whose purpose was to eliminate the right of the accused to elect for trial by jury in either-way offences. In the face of robust opposition, principally in the other place, both Bills were defeated.

It is interesting to note—as was pointed out, I think, by the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews)—that having attempted and failed to attack the jury system by approaching the less serious cases, the Government have now changed tack and seek, through an amendment to the Criminal Justice Act 2003 in this Bill, to remove the right to trial by jury in the more serious cases. It is clear that now that the Government have failed at one end of the criminal spectrum, they are seeking to undermine the jury system by attrition, from the other end, by starting with the more serious cases. Like many other Conservative Members, I firmly believe that the right to jury trial is such a fundamental right that any attempt to erode it should be strongly resisted. If we do not resist that attempt, it will send us down the slippery path towards being deprived of our democracy.

The ostensible reasons behind the proposal have already been analysed to some extent, but they deserve further scrutiny. We are told that the removal of the right to jury trial would occur only if a High Court judge was satisfied that the complexity or length of the trial was likely to make the trial

The question of what is “burdensome” immediately arises.

The Solicitor-General has said that the Government’s approach is to relieve jurors from the burden of participating in long criminal trials, but that is a dangerous path to take. Many jurors regard serving on a jury not as a civic duty but a civic privilege, and we heard my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) speak on the subject. For centuries, citizens have regarded it a part of their duty to sit on juries, if called to do so, and give a fair hearing to their fellow citizens when they are charged with an offence.

On the issue of complexity, the Solicitor-General suggested that he was not advancing the “stupid jury” argument, but it is hard to see what other construction can be put on the word “complexity”. Presumably, it is intended to suggest that some cases are so difficult that
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it is likely that jury members will lack the power of concentration or the intellectual capacity to deal with them. That is an arrogant and patronising attitude, and it is offensive not only to juries but to every citizen of this country who may be called on to serve on one. It is clear that the Government do not trust their own citizens to have sufficient mental capacity or powers of concentration to focus on the issues that may be dealt with in serious fraud trials.

Juries consist of people from all walks of life and backgrounds, and they comprise university dons and dustmen. However, it is the collective wisdom of the jury that prevails, and that collective wisdom may frequently be equal to, if not greater than, the wisdom of those who present the case in court. It is patronising in the extreme to suggest that juries are incapable of understanding the issues in a complex fraud trial, as was pointed out by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). At the heart of all serious fraud cases is the issue of dishonesty, and it has been demonstrated amply, over many years, that jurors are more than capable of deciding whether an individual is honest or dishonest. Furthermore, to second-guess the intellectual capacity of a jury is to second-guess the intellectual capacity of the country at large. That ought not to be countenanced, and we ought not to go along with it.

Previous speakers have used the words “slippery slope” and “thin end of the wedge”, and they were absolutely right to do so. Today, we are considering whether a fundamental building block of our national democracy should be removed—the issue is as serious as that. I am glad that the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) has re-entered the Chamber, because I found it offensive when he referred to the proposal as a “case management” issue. It is not that; it goes to the very heart of our democracy and our liberty. If that is the attitude of Labour Members, it shows the contempt with which they regard the British people. This is an odious, reprehensible Bill. I will oppose it, as will other Conservative Members, and I hope that it will be savaged in another place.

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