Criminal Justice

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 27th February 1997.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office) 3:32 pm, 27th February 1997

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?