Confidence in any criminal justice system relies on its ability to convict the guilty and acquit the innocent and to do so quickly. Over the past three years, the Government have taken action to even up the scales of justice. At the same time, we have taken action to speed up our criminal justice process.
Progress has been made: in the Crown court, waiting lists fell by a fifth last year, and the number of cases outstanding has been reduced by a quarter. At magistrates courts, the proportion of summary only cases completed at first appearance reached 76 per cent. last year—10 per cent. more than in 1995.
However, more needs to be done. Although the number of indictable cases coming before the magistrates courts fell by 11 per cent. between 1985 and 1995, the average number of days taken to complete a case from the date of the offence increased by 36 per cent., from 98 to 132 days, and the number of adjournments increased by 44 per cent. Entirely proper safeguards for defendants, such as advance information and the reforms introduced in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, have made the process more complex; but on top of that, an adjournment culture has developed. That is why, last autumn, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and I decided to set up a fundamental review of the speed of justice. The review has now been concluded and today I am publishing its report and placing copies in the Library.
The Government see merit in the report and propose to invite interested parties to express their views. We shall reach decisions in due course, having considered those views. The report makes 33 recommendations. One of them, recommendation 23, is now largely superfluous as the Lord Chancellor and the four senior designated judges yesterday approved—subject to certain restrictions—the Law Society's application for rights of audience for employed solicitors in the higher courts. That meets the review's proposal that employed solicitors in the Crown Prosecution Service should be granted rights of audience for plea and directions hearings at the Crown court.
The report's remaining recommendations fall into five main areas. The first deals with bringing alleged offenders to court. Considerable improvements have been made in recent years in the relationship between the police and the CPS. Abbreviated files for guilty pleas dramatically reduce police paperwork. Joint performance management and CPS lawyer surgeries in police stations are delivering improvements. However, the business of getting cases ready for court still falls into two distinct halves: police preparation of the file, and the review of the file by the CPS. The report recommends that the two halves should be brought together. Some CPS staff should be brought into police stations on a permanent basis, to work with the police in what would visibly be a joint effort in bringing offenders to justice. The independence of the CPS would still be preserved, but independence does not require isolation.
The decision to prosecute would still be subject to two tests: whether the evidence was sufficient, and whether prosecution was in the public interest. However, the report recommends a change to the CPS public interest test, which currently allows a case to be discontinued if the alleged offence is minor, or the likely penalty trivial. That change would assist chief constables to target particular crimes, often of an anti-social nature, which in themselves would not necessarily be regarded as serious, but which can make life a misery for innocent people, creating conditions in which more serious crime can flourish.
One significant cause of delay at present is that the time taken by defendants to obtain legal aid means that cases cannot be brought to court immediately after charge. The report recommends that all defendants who intend to plead guilty should obtain legal advice and representation from the duty solicitor at court. That would be free of charge. It would also be extremely prompt, being given on the morning of the day on which the court appearance took place. That would mean that defendants who pleaded guilty would be dealt with the day after they were charged. The effect would be dramatic: for more than half of all defendants charged, the proceedings could be completed the next day—compared with under 3 per cent. now.
When a defendant pleaded not guilty, an application for legal aid would be made in the normal way, but it would have to be made promptly. The report recommends that courts should insist that defendants who fail to take adequate steps to secure representation or legal aid have to use the duty solicitor in court that day unless they decide not to be represented.
Next, the report recommends that those pleading not guilty should also appear in court the day after charge at an early administrative hearing, to be conducted by the clerk to the justices. At that hearing, the defendant would be told what the court needed in order to consider eligibility for legal aid, and also about the nature of the forthcoming proceedings. Those hearings have been shown substantially to reduce adjournments.
The report also recommends that clerks to the justices should hold pre-trial reviews and be given additional administrative powers very similar to those that they already have in family proceedings. Pre-trial reviews will focus issues of dispute between the parties, so that cases are fully prepared for trial before they are put to magistrates. The principle should be that a case should not go before magistrates until it is ready to proceed and should then proceed without unnecessary adjournment. No one reading the report could fail to be impressed by the evidence from one pre-trial review, completed in one morning and observed by the reviewer, which obviated the need for no fewer than 15 police officers to attend future hearings.
I want to stress, however, that the intention behind extending clerks' powers would be to reinforce the lay magistracy, which has been described, quite rightly, as a cornerstone of our system of justice. There has been some speculation in the press about stripping magistrates of some of their current powers. The reviewer makes no such recommendation and, had he done so, I would have rejected it.
The next area concerns the youth court. The proposals that I have already described for joint working between the police and the CPS and for legal aid reform would, in themselves, bring offenders to justice at the youth court much more quickly. In addition, the report makes recommendations specific to the youth court. The most important is that 17-year-olds should be returned to the jurisdiction of the adult court, leaving the youth court to deal more promptly with offenders of school-leaving age and below. It was the near-unanimous verdict of all those interviewed by the reviewer that 17-year-old offenders are too sophisticated for the youth court, where they account for about a third of all cases. They tend to be more experienced offenders and are often disruptive and unco-operative.
The second recommendation is that the police should make the decision whether to caution or to charge an offender immediately, rather than—as frequently happens now—refer the case for advice to a multi-agency panel. If there is any doubt, the case should go to the youth court. If the court decides that a caution might be appropriate, it should be able to give one and, when it sees fit, attach conditions to the caution, such as compensation or reparation to the victim. Young offenders would then be in court within days of being caught, rather than, as is frequently the case now, many weeks later.
Finally, the review makes recommendations about cases that go to the Crown court. About 20 per cent. of all those tried in the Crown court—about 24,000 defendants each year—insist on being tried there, despite magistrates having previously decided that the case was more suitable for them to deal with. About two thirds of those defendants then plead guilty at the Crown court. About three quarters are found guilty.
The reviewer recommends that it should be for magistrates to take the decision as to which cases triable either in magistrates courts or the Crown court, such as theft, handling stolen goods or burglary, need to be committed to the higher court. Those seeking Crown court trial without good reason, perhaps simply to delay proceedings, would no longer be able to overrule the magistrates' view that they should try the case. On the other hand, defendants with a good reason for jury trial—perhaps because of the complexity of the case, because they are defending an unblemished reputation or because of the potential effect of a conviction on the individual—would be able to present those reasons to magistrates, who would be free to commit the case.
That is not a new idea. It builds on a very similar recommendation made in 1993 by the royal commission on criminal justice. It recognised the need for a more rational basis for distributing cases between the courts and it noted that, in Scotland, the decision on whether a defendant should be entitled to jury trial is made by the prosecutor.
I recognise that this recommendation is extremely sensitive, as any proposal to restrict the availability of jury trial is bound to arouse strong feelings. Jury trial is a central feature of our system of justice and one to which the Government are entirely committed. We would not wish to restrict it without very careful thought. On the other hand, the report's recommendation offers substantial advantages. It would divert from the Crown court cases—often of a petty nature—which do not need to be there. It might also make it easier to pursue another of the report's recommendations, also favoured by the royal commission, under which the most serious offences, those triable only at the Crown court, could be handled more effectively and more speedily by starting there from the outset, rather than spending about half their life in magistrates courts awaiting committal.
We shall want to consider both those recommendations particularly carefully in the light of views expressed. If other avenues of approach are suggested, we shall of course consider them. There may also need to be a right of appeal against the magistrates' decision not to allow a case to go to the Crown court and, of course, anyone convicted by magistrates would, as now, have a right of appeal against conviction or sentence to a judge—but not a jury—at the Crown court.
Those are important proposals. More work needs to be done on the extent of the financial implications, and the Government want to listen to the views of those who work in the criminal justice system, on both the principles and the practicality of the recommendations, before making decisions. However, I am confident that, taken together, they could dramatically speed up the prosecution process, bringing the guilty to justice and acquitting the innocent more quickly and at lower cost.
Madam Speaker, let me remind you what the proposals would achieve if implemented. First, all defendants would appear in court the day after they were charged. Fewer than one in five do so now. Secondly, a pilot study has indicated that at least 50 per cent. of those defendants—those who indicate that they would plead guilty—would be convicted the day after they were charged. That happens in only 3 per cent. of cases now. Thirdly, the time taken to bring a young offender to court from the date of his offence—which is currently 10 weeks—would be no more than a few days. That would save the valuable time of all those engaged in the criminal justice process, including witnesses and victims. It would help to ensure that the energies of police officers could be spent protecting the public, rather than going backwards and forwards to magistrates courts.
Justice delayed is justice denied. The proposals have the potential, by drastically reducing delay and restoring the direct and speedy link between detection and conviction, to afford justice more speedily and in much greater measure to victims, to witnesses and to the general public alike.
May I first thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in allowing me to see this document in time for me to study it with care? We shall, of course, review it carefully, because it deserves detailed consideration.
Very late though they are, many of the specific proposals contained in today's statement are ones for which we have called, and they have our support. They include the proposal to reduce to 17 the maximum age at which defendants can go to juvenile courts—although I might add that that amounts to a complete reversal of a policy that the Government introduced only six years ago-and the change in the public interest test, to ensure that more minor offences can be prosecuted where local need requires that. It is doubtful, however, that issuing a consultative document such as this eight weeks before the general election will enable the Secretary of State to regain the initiative on law and order, which the Conservative party has so comprehensively lost.
Is not the real significance of the review published today that, to those who read it, it amounts to a catalogue of neglect and complacency on the part of the Government in their running of the criminal justice system? At long last, the Government have been forced to recognise crucial failings in the system on which the Opposition have demanded action for years, but in many respects, today's announcement is too little, too late. Is it not the case that when in May 1995 I called for major reform of the Crown Prosecution Service, Ministers said that none was needed? Now, the paper is as damning as we have been: it talks of "dislocation" between the police and the CPS and of the CPS "papering over the cracks". However, the proposals for reform—welcome though they are—do not go nearly far enough.
Is it not also the case that when nine months ago we published proposals for a root-and-branch reform of the shambles of the youth justice system, Ministers said that they were doing everything that was needed? Now, the paper confirms exactly what we have said—that it is the near-unanimous opinion of everyone connected with the youth courts that the system is unsatisfactory. The review quotes with approval the view of the distinguished youth justice stipendiary magistrate, Mr. Geoffrey Wicks, that the
largest contribution to youth crime reduction would be the abolition of the youth courts
in their present form. That is exactly what we have proposed.
Given the daily scandal of our youth justice system, in which half those found guilty are let off and in which persistent offenders wait for months and months for trial and offend time and again on bail, why is all that is proposed in this review just another review? Does the Secretary of State not recognise the urgency of establishing a fast-track system for persistent offenders, to halve the time taken between offence and proper punishment, as we have proposed?
Let me now refer to the proposal to end the right of many defendants to elect for trial by jury, even though they may face charges of dishonesty, and their reputation and their whole future may be at stake. I note that in his statement the Secretary of State has been altogether more tentative than those from his office who briefed the Daily Mail this morning. Surely, cutting down the right to jury trial, making the system less fair, is not only wrong but short-sighted, and likely to prove ineffective. I therefore urge the Secretary of State not to accept the proposal.
Is it not the case that that not only is the view of the Opposition and many practitioners and jurists, but was the view of the Secretary of State, at least until today? I wonder whether the Secretary of State has forgotten that in July 1995, in a consultation paper on the mode of trial, he said:
Since currently two thirds of committals to the Crown Court are the result of magistrates' refusing jurisdiction, this has the potential to retain a larger amount of business than by limiting the defendants' right to elect for jury trial.
Has the Secretary of State forgotten that the Government rejected restricting the right to jury trial in favour of that proposal, which is now in section 49 of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996, passed only last year?
Is the Secretary of State aware that just nine months ago, in his final response to the royal commission, he made the following telling point:
The Government … considers that such a fundamental change to the right to jury trial … should not be undertaken unless it is clear that would be the only possible way of achieving the objective"?
He went on to say that the effects of section 49
will be monitored and the Royal Commission's recommendations reconsidered in the light of the result of that monitoring exercise.
Is the Secretary of State aware that section 49 has not yet even been implemented? Yet he now appears ready to rush ahead to restrict the right of jury trial, breaking the clear undertakings about monitoring the effect of section 49, which he gave only nine months ago.
If a police officer, a Member of Parliament or even a Secretary of State were charged with an offence of dishonesty, would they not insist on being tried by a jury? If that is the case, why should others be denied that right of election?
I also press the Secretary of State on whether the proposal will work as intended. Is he not aware that, despite a reduced case load, during the past 10 years delays in the magistrates court have increased by 50 per cent.—more than in the Crown court? Will not the proposal, forcing mini-trials on magistrates about which court should hear a case, the delays that might occur when there was an interlocutory appeal against a decision, and more contested trials in the magistrates court simply worsen those delays?
Does not the author of the review, Mr. Narey, undermine his whole case by admitting that the
proportion of cases committed to the Crown Court … which are the result of defendant elections has dropped in recent years"—
and that the problem, which can be dealt with in other ways, is that two thirds of referrals to the Crown Court are made, not by the election of the defendant, but by the magistrates alone declining to hear the case in their courts?
As any defendant convicted in a magistrates court has an absolute right to a complete rehearing of his case in the Crown court, might not there be a significant increase in such appeals to the Crown court, thus increasing the Crown court work load, too? That aspect was wholly ignored by the author and the royal commission.
Overall, does not the Home Secretary's statement represent a profound failure of the Government to honour their promises to maintain law and order in our society? Will not the voters of Wirral, South and elsewhere recognise the indelible facts of that failure, given that, after 18 years and 34 separate criminal justice Acts, crime has doubled, while the number of people convicted of those crimes has fallen by a third? There have been 2.5 million more recorded crimes since 1979, but 150,000 fewer people convicted by the courts for those crimes—much more crime, and many more criminals, especially young ones, getting off scot free.
Against that background, was not the former Home Office Minister and Cabinet Minister, the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), entirely correct when he said that the Conservative party had "lost the plot" on law and order?
I begin by acknowledging the good sense of the first few words of the hon. Gentleman's response to my statement, when he said that the report that I am publishing today deserves detailed consideration; that is indeed what it deserves. Unfortunately, having begun his response in that way, the hon. Gentleman proceeded to dismiss out of hand one of the report's central recommendations.
The hon. Gentleman seems to have entirely overlooked the way in which I dealt with that recommendation in my statement. I said that we would want to consider both that recommendation and the recommendation relating to indictable only offences starting in the Crown court particularly carefully in the light of views expressed, and expressly said that if other avenues of approach were suggested, we would of course consider them. Taken as a whole, however, the report represents a coherent package of measures, which together could have a dramatic impact on delays in our courts. Those of our fellow citizens who come into contact with such delays day after day, in all sorts of capacities—as witnesses, as victims and as jurors—want action to be taken to deal with those delays, and, taken as a whole, the package represents a significant way forward.
The hon. Gentleman referred to his party's proposals to reform the Crown Prosecution Service, and to my initial response to those proposals. It is perfectly true that I opposed Labour's proposals for reform when the hon. Gentleman announced them—because they were the wrong proposals for reform. They would have led to widespread dislocation, and would have been entirely counter-productive.
"The fast track," says the hon. Gentleman from a sedentary position. I noted that he did not go into any details of his fast-track proposals. That is not surprising. Those who examine his fast-track proposals will find them very illuminating. As with everything else, the figures do not add up. Labour proposes to stop legal aid in cases in which it is hardly ever granted at present, and claims to be able, with those non-existent savings, to deliver a completely non-deliverable pledge. It proposes that stipendiary magistrates should try juveniles, and that lay magistrates should then come along to the same case and sentence them. Those proposals are half-baked, and would not be given house room by any decent think tank.
My right hon. and learned Friend is right to stress that two thirds of defendants in the either-way cases that go to jury trial end up pleading guilty. That must impose enormous costs on the courts, but more worrying is the delay that it causes for more serious cases that are properly tried by a jury. Would my right hon. and learned Friend care to speculate on how much of a saving could be made in terms of the current delays in serious trials, which worry so many of us?
The reviewer in the report reaches what he regards as the reasonably conservative conclusion that the savings that would result from his proposals overall might amount to something in the region of £110 million a year, of which £70 million would come from the specific proposal relating to the Crown courts. Let me emphasise, however, that those savings—welcome though they would be—are not the prime motive behind the proposals. We want to deal with the delays, with the dreadful inconvenience caused to those who have to go to court and with the extremely damaging effect on justice that is a consequence of those delays. That is the motivation behind the proposals.
I, too, am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for allowing me to see the review earlier today. It contains a number of worthwhile proposals, which we shall certainly consider, and which will speed up the criminal justice system.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not recognise, however, that one part of the review is extremely badly flawed? I refer to the Soviet-style rewriting of history in the section that deals with the right to elect jury trial. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that, ever since defendants were first given the right to give evidence on their own behalf in trials, they have had the right to elect trial by jury? Does he not recognise that that is a fundamental freedom, which is not to be done away with in the cause of saving money?
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman further recognise that, if the proposals on the abolition of the right to elect jury trial were brought into effect, there would be a considerable increase in delays in magistrates courts, unless the Government were to take the view that a large additional number of stipendiary magistrates were to be appointed? Further, does he not recall that when the Crown Prosecution Service was established by the right hon. and learned Member for Tunbridge Wells (Sir P. Mayhew), the independence of the CPS was the benchmark behind its establishment? Does he not agree that the arm's length independence of the CPS remains very important; that while it is, of course, appropriate for police forces to have lawyers in police stations, those lawyers should not be part of the independent CPS, but should be employed by police forces—as is the case in many forces now—and advise those police forces?
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for the qualified welcome that he gave to some of the proposals in the report. I do not think that his strictures on the perfectly accurate way in which the report deals with the history of jury trial were at all justified. I believe, as I said at the outset, that the proposal merits very careful consideration, and it has merit in it. I made it plain, immediately before he got to his feet, that we were not putting forward that or any other proposal in the package on financial grounds. I do not say that the savings will not be welcome, but that is not the reason why the proposals were made. They were put forward to speed up the system of justice that we have in this country, and to do away with the delays that disfigure it at the moment. That is extremely important.
As to the hon. and learned Gentleman's last point, I cannot see any justification whatever for erecting a whole new battery of lawyers in the system—lawyers employed by the police. I entirely agree with him and yield to no one in my recognition of the importance of the independence of the CPS. I believe that it has been a valuable addition to our system since it was set up in the early 1980s, but I do not believe, as I said in my statement, that independence need mean isolation. I do not think that that independence will be at all imperilled by the collocation of the CPS and the police in some police stations.
My right hon. and learned Friend will, perhaps, be aware that I do not agree with him that the right to trial by one's fellow men should be taken away in cases where dishonesty is involved. It is an ancient and well-tried right. One cannot be satisfied by the fact that we are told that two thirds plead guilty. What about the one third who plead not guilty? The whole concept of justice goes with that.
I am very worried that if we go down the road that the report advocates, many trials will have to be heard in the magistrates courts, and one of the problems with magistrates courts is that trials are often disrupted. Magistrates will hear one part one day, another part in a fortnight's time, and another a month after that. That cannot be justice in any sense of the word, but that is what happens. Is there anything in my right hon. and learned Friend's proposals to rectify that problem?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's criticism of the way in which some trials are conducted in magistrates courts and the delays that result from that. I believe that the proposals will go a considerable way towards improving that. The combination of early administrative hearings and pre-trial reviews will enable the justices' clerk to form a view before the case ever reaches the magistrates, for example, that it is a case that is likely to take three or four days to try. The clerk will then be in a position to make available justices for that period, so that the case will be heard in one go, as it should be, and not in the way that my hon. Friend identified, which happens far too frequently at present.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's criticism on that, and hope that some of the proposals will go a long way towards meeting it.
As someone who acts as a duty solicitor, may I give the Home Secretary two pieces of advice? First, we should be selective, because having a pre-trial review in every case adds to expense, cost and time. Secondly, although it sounds attractive for people to appear in court the day after charge, it presents the police with considerable logistical problems. For example, the policeman may have been on duty all night. If the defendant is not in custody, it is not necessary for him to appear the next day. There should be a close link between the criminal act and its consequences, which is Labour party policy. Many measures are introduced for headlines rather than for effect.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his first point, which we shall take on board. It is an important matter on which we may want to reflect. As to his second point, I think that there would be considerable advantages in defendants appearing in court the day after they have been charged and, when they intend to plead guilty, being convicted the day after they have been charged. That would be a dramatic improvement in the system. I have every reason to believe that the police will welcome the proposals, not least because they would have that consequence. Shortening the time between the offence and the conviction and sentence may be Labour party policy, but Labour has produced no proposals that would give effect to it.
In the 10 years I have been in the House, I have seldom heard such good sense from a Minister in a statement. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) said, I believe that we should never have abolished the practice of dealing with people in a magistrates court the day after they are charged, and that it should be reintroduced. It is not a problem for the police service: it certainly was not in my day. I believe that the police will welcome the proposal.
On either-way trials, if we can trust magistrates to decide guilt or innocence, why cannot we trust magistrates to decide whether cases are sufficiently serious to be tried by a jury in a Crown court?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend: there is much in his second point. At the moment, a number of serious offences that would undoubtedly have a considerable effect on someone's reputation are triable only summarily. Assault on a police officer is not an offence that gives rise to a right to trial by jury. The consequences of such an assault could be extremely serious, yet it is a summary only offence. Many serious offences with serious consequences for defendants do not have an automatic right to jury trial. We should weigh that in the balance when we make a final decision on the proposal.
Given the delays in the criminal justice system, would the proposals be of any assistance to Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence, who, for four years, have done their utmost to see to it that those who murdered their son Stephen are brought to justice? Is that not a glaring example of where the criminal justice system is not working? In those circumstances, is it not right for a newspaper to do what it can to ensure that those whom it believes are guilty of that terrible murder four years ago are brought to justice?
I have previously placed my views on that matter on the record. The hon. Gentleman is right to imply that the proposals, which do not pretend to cure every defect in our criminal justice system, would not have had any bearing on that case.
I am glad to see the hon. Gentleman nodding vigorously in assent to that proposition. I hope that he will nod equally vigorously in assent to my second proposition. What might have made a difference in the Lawrence case was the change that we made to the right to silence, which was not in force when that killing was committed. The police take the view that, had that change been in force, it might have made a difference to the outcome of that investigation and that case. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has not entirely forgotten that that change was opposed root and branch by the Opposition parties and that they spoke and voted against it consistently.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the criminal fraternity does not like him very much, but that the police to whom I have talked in west Yorkshire think that he has done a superb job in giving them the tools to fight those criminals, and that the result has been that in recent years crime has been falling? Is he aware, however, that the one concern that the police have is the amount of time that it can take for cases to come to court, so the police will no doubt welcome his announcement, which will, I hope, help to speed up the process of justice?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I understand that the police organisations have welcomed the proposals. They will no doubt wish to consider them carefully, but I hope that they will achieve precisely the result that my hon. Friend identified—cutting police paperwork and form filling and enabling the police to spend more time on our streets, helping to protect the public, which is, I hope, what we all want.
Can the Secretary of State remind the House where we are up to on the provision of more secure places for serious persistent young offenders? My recollection is that extra places have been announced about three times, but none has yet materialised. The provision of more secure places is the thing that would make most difference in my constituency, where a handful of persistent young offenders cause mayhem. There is no point speeding up the system, welcome though that is, if it just puts them back on the street to cause mayhem more quickly.
The places are coming on stream all the time and we have been financing many of them. Unfortunately, in some regions, local authority social services departments are reluctant to use the secure places that are available, just as, some time ago, Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled local authorities, including that in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, were reluctant to construct secure accommodation.
Is not the gravest impediment to justice delays to justice itself? Does not a most gross disfigurement to justice occur when young people are held on remand in prison, sometimes for many months—with old lags and people who try to corrupt them—and ultimately are found innocent? Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that his proposals will prevent such impediments to justice from taking place?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am reluctant to claim that any particular proposal or set of proposals will constitute a panacea, but taken as a whole, this package of proposals offers the prospect of substantial advance, of a substantial reduction in delay and of a substantial improvement in the system, but we shall listen carefully to everything that is said, particularly by those who work in the system, before we reach final decisions.
Very important new discretionary powers are proposed for lay magistrates, and those powers affect the liberty of the subject. In what form will guidance be given to justices on the exercise of that discretion? Will it be possible, for example, to hear applications in camera, in closed courts, in particular circumstances if sensitive matters are involved? Is the Home Secretary really convinced that the lay magistracy as composed now can take on the extra case load that will be generated by the proposals?
I believe so, if the other proposals in the package are implemented, as they will relieve many of the burdens that local magistrates suffer. I would envisage that if we proceeded to legislation, the legislation itself would identify the criteria that magistrates would take into account in deciding whether a case should be sent for trial by jury. The hon. Gentleman's proposal about the possibility of their sitting in camera when considering applications for trial by jury is a valuable one, to which we should certainly have regard when we examine the matters in detail.
May I warmly welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's statement, which should help to accelerate criminal justice cases? Can he shed any light on the injustice of innocent people being held on bail? Will the proposals help to reduce the number of people being held on bail and if so, how much would that save the criminal justice system?
That is a very difficult estimate to make. I think that there will be such savings. The proposals mean that fewer innocent people will be likely to be held on remand. That is an outcome devoutly to be desired, and, although my hon. Friend did not mean to suggest it, not simply because of the financial savings that would accrue, but because it is important from the point of view of the liberty of the subject. If we succeed in reducing delays, that will have the consequential effects that my hon. Friend identified.
At a time when the country is focused on miscarriages of justice, is the Home Secretary convinced that removing from defendants the right to choose a trial by jury will assist in preventing miscarriages of justice? Will it increase them or will it have very little effect?
If anything, it will prevent miscarriages of justice or reduce them. The report contains a reference by an extremely experienced magistrate, who says that she has never heard an application or representation made for trial on the ground of a blot on someone's reputation. She says that those who opt for trial by jury are experienced criminals who are playing the system, often in the hope that, for a variety of reasons, one of the witnesses in the case might not turn up and that might enable them to get an acquittal, which would be unjust. Although we must strain to ensure that no innocent people are convicted, it is also an injustice if those who are guilty are acquitted. The changes may well have the overall effect of reducing injustice in our system.
In considering the report and bringing forward proposals, will my right hon. and learned Friend avoid any policy that might lead to the separation of the consideration of juvenile cases from their sentencing? That would be complete nonsense and would lead to tremendous frustration for the victims of crime, who are not mentioned enough in this place. The police would also find it unacceptable.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. That proposal, emanating from the Labour party through the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), is so eccentric that I find it difficult to believe that the Opposition are seriously putting it forward.
Has the Home Secretary convinced us that there is a need to bring into our constitution the only demand of the Chartist movement 150 years ago that is not part of our law—the demand for annual Parliaments? Is it not extraordinary that today Opposition Members are in the unique and unnerving position of agreeing with the Home Secretary's statement? Is not that entirely because it is a last gasp statement by a death-bed Government?
Will the Home Secretary return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin)? I get precisely the same complaints from police and magistrates in my constituency, who say that there is a tiny group of young people, some of them adults, who are serious offenders, but no action can be taken to stop them committing offences. One such individual was guilty of 50 offences, but cannot be detained. According to the police and the magistrates, that is not because of problems locally, but because of difficulties emanating from Government action.
I think that the hon. Gentleman has been misinformed. I recommend that he' takes the matter up with his local social services department, which should be able to make use of secure accommodation if the youngsters to whom he refers come before the courts. Sometimes they are not dealt with because of the practice of magistrates of not dealing with a defendant who has committed a number of other offences after first coming before the court. The Magistrates Association has recently issued guidance that that practice should no longer be followed. If the proposals substantially reduce delays, fewer offences will be committed between the first offence and the defendant being dealt with, which will have substantial beneficial effects.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the miscarriages of justice that most concern most of our constituents are those that involve guilty parties going free because of eccentricities, technicalities and delays in the criminal justice system? I congratulate him on applying the energy that he has so far—extremely successfully—focused mostly on serious crime to the equally worrying problems of juvenile and petty crime. I also congratulate him on his carefully thought through package—the legal aid provision, the pre-trial hearings and other measures—which will provide faster justice instead of pious generalisations.
Of course, we are all concerned about all miscarriages of justice—the guilty going free from court or the innocent being convicted. We all have to recognise that no human system of justice is likely to be infallible. I believe that the proposals will help to improve the effectiveness of our system of justice, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support.