On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Earlier this year, I introduced a private Member's Bill of one clause only that sought to increase the penalties for illegal trading in endangered species. On the Second Reading of that Bill, the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life gave me the following undertaking:
"As I said, we hope to address this issue through amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill . . . In view of the fact that the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent said that he is prepared to withdraw the Bill on the basis of the assurances that I have given, I am certain that we can move forward in a way that will be applauded on both sides of this House."—[Hansard, 21 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 1260.]
We are now moving to Third Reading of the Criminal Justice Bill, there is no sign of the amendment and neither has the Minister contacted me to explain why it has not been tabled. As the occupant of the Chair acts as the protector of Back-Bench interests, can you give me any advice about how I can take up this matter with the Minister?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Government's assurance was repeated in the Standing Committee on
"we shall return to the issue on Report."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B,
I say to both hon. Gentlemen that comments, assurances or any other utterances made by Ministers are not a matter for the Chair. However, those on the Government Front Bench are present in the Chamber and will no doubt have heard and taken note of the comments that have been made.
Order for Third Reading read. 7.4 pm
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I said yesterday that I wanted to say a word of thanks to the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my hon. Friend Hilary Benn, who was my colleague as Under-Secretary at the Home Office until last week. I wish to repeat that. [Interruption.] If Conservative Members would be kind enough to listen, I shall deal with the point that they raised in a minute or two. I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he did throughout the time that the Bill was in Committee and for all his work in the Home Office. We wish him well on the international stage. I thank hon. Members from all parties who served on the Committee, especially my hon. Friend Mr. Heppell, who was the Whip in Committee and has done a sterling job over the past few months, the past two days, and even the past few minutes. He has my undying gratitude and respect;
I cannot say fairer than that.
The Bill was considered in 32 sittings in Committee and for three days on Report and Third Reading, which I understand is a record in terms of the time allocated. We have brought about very challenging changes during the three days on Report and Third Reading.
I wonder whether the Home Secretary heard clearly what my hon. Friend Hugh Robertson said about the assurance that was given in Committee about the Government providing an opportunity to introduce a measure that would protect endangered species. Will the Home Secretary now clearly comment on that issue?
I said a moment ago—the loudness of the hon. Gentleman's voice must have clogged up his ears—that I would deal with the issue, and I shall. I have all sorts of problems in my life, but not fulfilling promises is not one of them. [Interruption.] Not yet, anyway.
I was about to say, if my hon. Friends on the Back Benches will forgive me, that all wisdom is not confined to the Government Benches. We—certainly my hon. Friends in Committee—tried to demonstrate that by being prepared to listen and respond. We demonstrated it by making the amendment to part 10 that was welcomed yesterday, addressing the composition of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, and indicating that we are prepared to return to certain matters in the House of Lords.
On the issue that was raised by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent, I was not aware that a commitment had been given. If it has, I give my personal guarantee that we will table an amendment in the Lords to deal with it. Had I been aware of it earlier, I would have ensured that we attempted to deal with it on Report here in the Commons.
We benefited not only from debate in Committee, but from the work of the Select Committee on Home Affairs and the Joint Committee on Human Rights. We shall continue to pick up issues that have been raised over the past few days, not least this afternoon, when we had interesting discussion about sentencing in the debate that I led and in the subsequent debate on the Sentencing Guidelines Council. We should take that forward. We have said that we are prepared to listen and learn in respect of PACE codes, parliamentary scrutiny, prosecution interviews and defence witnesses.
There are other areas on which we wish to act. As I said, we shall return to the amendment process in the Lords. We want to return to the issue of cases involving a multiplicity of charges where only specimen charges can be dealt with owing to the complexity or length of the trial, and the way in which that disables the public in getting true justice.
I repeat my earlier comments that we want to ensure time for proper scrutiny by the Home Affairs Committee between now and consideration in the Lords. Let me give an example for the benefit of those who are not familiar with the matter. Someone could be apprehended on a range of criminal offences to do with credit card fraud. However, only a specimen sentence could be applied. If we could bring back the whole range of sentences for that crime, as the Law Commission recommended, we could ensure that the sentence was commensurate with the number of offences. We want to revert to that subject.
First, I endorse my right hon. Friend's comments about my hon. Friend Hilary Benn and his conduct in Committee when he was Under-Secretary in the Home Office. Both he and the Opposition Front-Bench Members made it a pleasure to serve on the Committee, perhaps not for the Government Whip, but for Back Benchers who could participate and make a genuine contribution to the Bill. That is greatly appreciated.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the Sentencing Guidelines Council. Great progress was made on that and I thank him and his colleagues for extending the membership of the council. Did I hear correctly that he retains an open mind? Is he open to persuasion about the need for additional members, perhaps even including him or members of the Select Committee Chairmen's panel?
I have said that I am open to persuasion when there is a good case on any issue that we considered in Committee and on Report. When a rational and sensible case has been argued, we will consider an alternative solution to our proposals. For example, this afternoon, the official Opposition presented a coherent case for examining an alternative for juveniles and the mandatory 15 years for murder. I am prepared to consider a rational alternative. Governments should conduct their business in that way, especially when they have a large majority. I hope that that circumstance will prevail for a long time. Others should reciprocate by accepting that they must put their case in a manner that is conducive to achieving the Bill's intentions.
I shall give an example of another issue, apart from multiple offending, that has disquieted the public for a long time. I believe that members of all parties want to tackle it and effect change. People who proportionately defend their person, their families or their homes sometimes find that the offender, who has intruded into their homes, has the audacity to claim compensation for injury incurred while committing burglary or another offence on their property. I believe that all hon. Members would want us to table amendments in the House of Lords to prevent offenders from turning the law on its head and making a victim of the offender through civil action.
There has been much talk about the matter. I held a short dialogue on the radio at the end of February with Mr. Letwin. I gave a commitment to examine the issue. It has not been possible to find an acceptable solution yet, but with good will, we shall do that. I have not forgotten what I said on
Common sense has prevailed in Committee. We have had sensible, sometimes vigorous debate during the three days on Report. The majority of hon. Members want us to get the Bill right because the purpose of being here is to change the world for the better, make a difference and ensure that perpetrators are put away, that those who are innocent are not wrongly convicted and, above all, that the public know that the system works in their interests. In moving Third Reading, I intend that we should, as a party and a Government, put those aims at the forefront of our consideration in the House of Lords.
I have been deliberately low-key. I think that we have made tremendous progress, and that this is a flagship measure. The Bill, which I hope will receive Royal Assent in early autumn, will make a difference to people's lives and, above all, to the way in which they see the justice system. I invite all who work or have worked in that system to join us in ensuring that it progresses through all its stages, that we make the system work better, and that we make it work better not in the interests of history or vested interests but in the interests of those who elected us so we could create a safer, more secure world in which they could live, work and bring up their children. That is what we seek to do in the Bill.
I echo what the Home Secretary said about a Minister who has departed from us but not from the Government—the Minister of State, Department for International Development, Hilary Benn, who, along with Lord Falconer, handled proceedings here and, before that, elsewhere with delicacy, tact and intelligence. I also thank my hon. Friends who have laboured so mightily in the vineyard of the Standing Committee on a Bill that is both large and tortuous. I am sure that the Home Secretary is right in saying that significant progress was made there.
Today, the Home Secretary was in his most charming and eirenic mode. I am tempted to reciprocate in kind, but I fear that I cannot quite do so.
I have tried, but I have failed.
I have accepted from the outset that the Bill contains things that are good. It would be nice if those things could be saved, but I do not think any of them is heroically wonderful, and I fear that in its present form the Bill includes proposals to which we cannot subscribe. They have been enumerated during our debates, but I am thinking of the provisions concerning DNA—late in the day—the double jeopardy provisions as currently constructed, the provisions relating to the retailing of previous bad character as currently constructed and, most notably, the provisions on trial by jury, which we debated yesterday.
I do not think the Bill contains enough that is sufficiently good to overcome the harm that will be done if those provisions, in that form, become law. I hope that by the time we reach the end of the parliamentary process—which I suspect may be slightly later in the autumn than the Home Secretary suggested—those elements will have been changed to an extent that will make it possible for us to accept the Bill; but that is not the case today. I shall therefore ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to oppose Third Reading, although I hoped not to find myself in that position.
The Home Secretary sighs with "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar", but that is all an act. In fact he is delighted that I am taking this stance, as it will enable him to say for months, whenever a criminal outrage occurs, that if only his Bill had not been opposed by a recalcitrant Opposition all would have been well—and while we are at it, we should bear it in mind that the Prime Minister will use the same excuse on every possible occasion during Prime Minister's Question Time. I am fully aware that that will be the sequel; but I could not live with myself if I suggested to my colleagues that we participate in the acceptance of propositions that I consider deeply offensive to those who care about fundamental liberties.
I ought to say a further word, which is that there has been a tendency as the Bill has proceeded for the Home Secretary to regard it as a No. 11 bus on to which he can climb from time to time and deposit a new goody. He has arrested the bus at various stops and climbed on with new goodies with such energy and so prolifically that I cannot recall a Monday morning recently when I did not wake up to have somebody from the media ask me for a comment on the latest initiative that the Home Secretary has said will be included in the Bill.
I have to admit that, in one case at least, I am also culpable, because I engaged in a spot of negotiation by airwave with the Home Secretary, and I am duly grateful to him for being willing to include whatever his version is of our amendment that would prevent burglars from suing. Largely, however, my record is clean while the Home Secretary's is not. He has introduced so many initiatives so hastily that the Bill contains much that was not in the White Paper, that was not discussed by the Home Affairs Committee in its full deliberations and that my hon. Friends and I have not had time properly to consider.
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, especially as I attacked him yesterday. This is very courageous of him indeed. May I invite him to explain to my constituents, to whom the vast majority of the Bill sadly will not apply, why he and his party are to vote against Third Reading? The provisions on firearms and on sentencing will not apply to the people of North Down and of Northern Ireland, and I would love to see him give that explanation to them.
It is with great delight that I can tell the hon. Lady, for whom I have considerable respect, that I would not dream of daring to address her constituents. She alone is capable of the business of explaining these things to them, and I have no doubt that she will do so with eloquence.
I am convinced that there is a paradox in treating the Bill in such a way. One of its best elements, although we have not quite agreed on its form, is the process that it seeks to establish for deciding on sentences. My hon. Friends and I have suggested further amendments, which will no doubt be debated in another place. We can argue about the precise format of the process for agreeing sentences, but it is common ground between the Government and us that there needs to be a transparent and proper process so that none of us wakes up on a Monday morning and suddenly discovers that the guidelines have altered, that the Home Secretary and the Lord Chief Justice are locked in mortal combat or that the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor are locked in mortal combat. Indeed, combat should be avoided on the whole in the proceedings of this nation, especially when it is mortal.
The Bill rightly sets out to create an orderly framework, so what does the Home Secretary do to it? He introduces a series of sporadic measures—one of which at least we strongly agree with, as it happens, and some of which we have doubts about—on sentencing rather than allowing the very process that the Bill will establish to be invoked for setting the things that the Bill says the process should set. I give that as one example of the irony that the No. 11 bus approach to such a Bill tends to create.
May I end with this? I hope that, as the Bill proceeds through the Lords, the Home Secretary withstands the temptation to turn it into a yet fuller bus and that the Bill as it leaves us now can be debated in a mature fashion in another place so that we can eventually arrive at legislation without the obnoxious bits that are preventing me and my party from supporting it.
I welcome the Bill, which is a good one from the Government's point of view. There are a lot of excellent things in it that will be well received out in the country. The changes to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the bail provisions will be welcomed by the police. The changes on double jeopardy are long overdue. A small number of cases will be affected, but they are important cases none the less. The changes to the jury trial system in a small number of cases are also long overdue, although that has been a matter of controversy. On sentencing, which Mr. Letwin alluded to, we are halfway there, and with any luck we will be able to finish the job very soon. The Bill contains many good ideas and a lot of good progress has been made.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the valiant campaign that he fought in Committee to make these provisions intelligible to ordinary people and to ensure that the man in the street could fully understand the law. In the same light, will he apply those considerations to trial by jury, and in particular address the risk that the Government's provisions might lead matters to fall within the domain of lawyers and become unintelligible to members of the public, so that justice might not be seen to be done?
I shall come to the intelligibility or otherwise of the Bill shortly.
As a Government Bill, it has been a resounding success; the failures have been by party and Parliament. In party terms, the Bill was eminently saleable to the electorate, yet they have been bypassed. The people on estates in my constituency and in other constituencies—they were referred to constantly in Committee—have not engaged with or been involved in the process of the Bill. In many ways, we have missed an open goal. So much of what is in the Bill has been demanded by the people out there, yet we have tried to stuff it through Parliament as fast as possible, rather than explaining what we are doing. I understand that the same is happening, I am afraid, with the Anti-social Behaviour Bill, which could also be used to connect with the people out there, rather than simply consisting of changes that are of interest to—or annoyance to—practitioners. We need to ensure that people understand that Parliament has a genuine role in connecting with people.
Parliament's fundamental process failures, the first of which was pre-legislative, have been very evident. We failed to engage all those involved in the daily coalface activities of criminal justice: serving police officers, probation officers, housing officers and victims, all of whom could have been drawn into our process by having a responsible and lengthy discussion of the Bill's fundamental principles. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Mullin, who is Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. It had a valiant and brief effort at pre-legislative scrutiny, which proved of great assistance during our consideration of the Bill. Had the Committee been allowed openly to gather evidence from those who will be influenced by and use the Bill, I feel sure that it would have been far better even than it is now.
Although I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman about the advantages of pre-legislative scrutiny, as he will realise—he is doubtless coming to this point—much of what is in this Bill could not have been the subject of such scrutiny so long as Governments persist in introducing entire provisions of substantial scale on Report. Unless we re-commit Bills to Committee, and perhaps to a Special Standing Committee that can hear evidence from probation officers and people who are trying to look after witnesses and victims of crime, this mistake will go on being made.
When the Government are trying to push through legislation and are under the constraints of the parliamentary timetable, it is difficult to understand that the people out there have something to offer to the process—that a partnership of Parliament and the people is available to make the Bill better. I speak as someone who led for my party on the Child Support Bill, which we had five or six subsequent attempts to get right. I believe in listening to the voices out there, because the practitioners are the very people who can point out—often in minor detail, but significantly—the ways forward for the House and indeed the Government. If we are treated as partners, we will produce better Bills.
On pre-legislative scrutiny, we now have the technology to talk to just about everybody through e-mail. We can open up the pre-legislative process so that probation officers in Glasgow can make a relevant contribution.
Order. I am anxious not to cut the hon. Gentleman off in full flight, but he is in fact talking about the procedures of the House rather than the content of the Bill before the House. I have been quite lenient until now, but he ought to return to the content of the Bill.
I will make my remarks relevant, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the parliamentary process could do with a little burnishing. The legislative aspect of our work, as has been said, needs to be improved, as we effectively started off with a third of the present Bill. I served in Committee and worked hard on the Bill, but over the past two or three days, an additional Bill has been created which, frankly, should have been referred back to Committee before it came to the Floor of the House. That would have made it a far better Bill. Perhaps we need to look at recalling Standing Committees in similar circumstances and situations.
Having dealt with pre-legislative scrutiny and the legislative process, let us deal with the post-legislative situation. The House should be allowed to conduct a review of the way in which the legislative process and the legislation worked. We should assess whether it has been effective and what we should consider in future. Mr. Clappison spoke about the Bill's connection to the public. I am sorry that Ministers have missed a great chance to reconnect members of the public with their criminal justice system. People out there feel that the criminal justice system is owned by the producers—lawyers, judges and practitioners—and has very little to do with them, and they have lost faith in it. Over the past few months in Committee, and in the past few days on the Floor of the House, we could have helped to reconnect some of them with their criminal justice system. A great opportunity has been missed, but the Bill certainly includes a large number of practical proposals, some of which will have a great impact locally.
My only wish is that when we come to do this again, the Home Secretary and his ministerial team do not regard Parliament and the people as something to push the legislation through, merely rubber-stamping what has been devised in the Home Office and put on paper by esteemed experts, but use them to road-test legislation rigorously. If we did so, some of the additions to the Bill, and the many more additions that will be made in the second Chamber, would not be necessary. We would have a far better Bill that would not require revisiting and tinkering with in 18 months' or two years' time.
I shall start, as the Home Secretary did, with thank yous. I join him in thanking his parliamentary colleagues who led the Committee and all the other stages of the Bill. I pay tribute to the collaboration and helpfulness of the former Home Office Minister, Hilary Benn, and Lord Falconer—we are very grateful to both. I also thank the Conservative spokesmen for their collaboration—we all tried to work constructively, and succeeded in doing so. As a result, there was much more light and, I hope, less unproductive heat. I thank my hon. Friend Mr. Heath who shouldered with me the burden of a rather long Committee stage—[Interruption.] The Home Secretary deserves to be put on the record, as he said that it was not long enough, apparently. It would have been long enough to consider what was put before us at the beginning, but in the event it was not, given what appeared within a couple of minutes of the Committee reporting. The Home Secretary is entitled to expect us to do a bit more work in Committee, but he must give us the materials before we start the process, not after it has finished. Finally, the Government's civil servants are no doubt assiduous, diligent and competent. Opposition parties do not have such a battery of people, so I pay tribute to our senior adviser, the head of my office and others who have given us bullets to fire and ammunition to use.
This is the flagship Bill, as we can see from the fact that it started Report stage with 280 clauses and 29 schedules. It is clear that the Government think that it is a ship that they need to load heavily, given the many additions—
The hon. Gentleman anticipates me. The Government have added large groups of amendments, one of which, for example, had 118 new proposals in it. One result is that, in addition to the issues that were causing difficulty before, we now have additional matters that we have not even had the chance to check properly. Therefore, like the Conservatives—and, I am sure, others in the other place—we cannot allow the Bill to sail on as it is, and we will oppose it later tonight.
There is some good in the Bill and some bad, and at least one provision is mad. The mad provision is that at the same time as the Government put cannabis in class C, they decide that possession of a class C drug will become an arrestable offence—in other words, a much more serious offence. By any objective definition, that is mad. If the public are expected to receive a simple message from the Bill—and I share the view of Mr. Allen that it is good if the public understand what we do—this is one policy that the public will be entitled to say that it is impossible to understand, because the messages are thoroughly confused. We will have to return to the issue in the House of Lords to achieve some sanity in the Government's drugs policy.
The parts of the Bill that are good are parts 1 to 6, 8, 9 and 12. That is three quarters of the Bill. The parts of the Bill dealing with sentencing are also good, by and large. The Liberal Democrats believe in honesty in sentencing and we agree with the proposals for custody plus and custody minus. However, those can be delivered only if funding and support are provided for the probation service for the work outside custody. Time served in the community must be put to good effect. The money is not available and the people are not in place yet to achieve that. The idea is still theoretical and it is not likely to be delivered.
I pay tribute to the people in the criminal justice service—the police, the probation service, the people who run the courts and the prisons—but they need the tools to do the job that we are asking them to do. I also pay tribute to one late runner in the good ideas stakes, which is the proposal that we debated earlier today to allow greater penalties for driving-related offences. That has been the result of much campaigning, and I am glad that the issue has at last found a home in the Bill.
Before the raft of late additions, the Liberal Democrats opposed parts 7, 10 and 11, which concerned the rights of defendants. I represent a constituency similar in many ways to that of the Home Secretary, and I share with him the belief that we need to give victims more confidence in the criminal justice system, and that we need to reduce their number. I am sad that we have not had the promised victims and witnesses Bill, which has been much trailed but apparently has now been forgotten. We will not increase the rights of victims, and their confidence in the criminal justice system, by taking away rights from defendants. They are not two sides of the same coin, nor are they two ends of the same seesaw. The objective should be to increase the confidence that everybody has in the criminal justice system, which means more entitlement for victims but does not mean decreasing the confidence of those who end up as defendants.
We have made clear our objections to some of the late additions to the Bill in the past two days. They include the suggestion that if a person is arrested, has DNA samples or fingerprints taken, and is then released with no charge, the state may hold the information. That is entirely illogical. We hope that it will be removed in the other place.
Today, we have opposed proposals that Parliament should set the tariff—the starting point—for sentences in murder cases. We think that that should be left to others. The House should set the principles, but politicians should not set the starting sentences. We have made it clear that mandatory sentences, including mandatory minimum sentences, are bad sentences, as the courts can always judge best, up to a maximum set by Parliament.
However, the best test of the Bill is whether we have ended up with the police being as independent as before. We fought that battle last year, and by and large we won it. Another test is whether the judiciary—lay magistrates and judges—remain as independent as before. That battle has not been won, in my judgment. We will need to change parts of the Bill to ensure that judges have the independence, within the law set by Parliament, to reach their own views on the person before them in the dock, and on the guilt or innocence in the case.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his campaign, which he knows that we support, to ensure that the Sentencing Guidelines Council is established. It could be given another name, if people wanted that, but it should include representatives other than from the judiciary to give advice about what the tariffs should be across the range of sentences. I hope that that is a battle that will be won in the House of Lords.
My penultimate point concerns an aim that we have failed to achieve, that of ensuring that all the criminal justice agencies are equally accountable to the public. The police are very accountable, and increasingly so, but I believe that the prison, court and probation services all need to be accountable as well.
People often ask why a certain offence is happening more often, or why crime is rising in a particular area, and it is the police who come and answer their questions. However, that is not only the police's responsibility. It is a responsibility for the probation service, for the courts, and for the people who look after our prison and custody services. The criminal justice system needs to be more broadly accountable if the public are to have confidence in it.
We all want crime to go down. We all want the crime figures to go down, and to do so clearly. We all want prevention and deterrence to go up. We all want the clear-up rate to go up, and we all want reoffending to go down. However, if we are going to have improved justice, we must ensure that everyone ends up with more confidence in the criminal justice system.
We have campaigned for fair trials abroad, and I hope that, when we have finished with the Bill, trials at home will be no less fair. That depends on keeping the jury system, on ensuring that the public own the criminal justice system, and on retaining those elements that have the confidence of the British public. Rebalancing the criminal justice system means improving the bits that do not have the confidence of the public, not lessening the advantages of those bits that do.
So far, the Government have tried to undo some of the good that already exists. We shall vote against Third Reading tonight because parts of the Bill are not right yet and are going in the wrong direction. We hope that, by the time scrutiny in the House of Lords has finished, those parts will have been changed. We want to make this Bill a generally good Criminal Justice Bill that raises everyone's confidence. We do not want a Bill that is good in parts but still unnecessarily and harmfully bad in others.
I rise to say what a pleasure it was to serve on the Standing Committee scrutinising the Bill, and to add my praises to those already heaped on my hon. Friend Mr. Benn, who is now the Minister of State in the Department for International Development but who until recently was a Home Office Minister. He dealt with matters with brilliance, courtesy and, from time to time, a very sharp wit.
I should also like to thank the Committee Whip, my hon. Friend Mr. Heppell. He was very nice, and very adaptable—especially when dealing with Back-Bench Labour Members with strong views. I hope that I have not done for his career. My primary purpose in rising, however, is to respond to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who said that he would be prepared to listen to rational argument about further change. I hope that I and my hon. Friend Dr. Turner were able to bring rational argument to the Standing Committee, and we would have done so again today, if new clause 25, which we tabled, had been reached this afternoon. It dealt with a matter that concerns us greatly: the fact that, in the UK, in each week of each year two children aged under 10 are killed or seriously injured when in the care of either parents or carers. Only about 25 per cent. of those deaths are followed by prosecution, primarily because of the current state of the law on joint enterprise.
The new clause that my hon. Friend and I tabled in Committee was slightly different from the one that we tabled on Report. Even our second attempt was far from perfect, but I sincerely exhort my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to look into the prospect of introducing a better piece of legislation to ensure that protection.
It is a genuine pleasure, especially after the polite clashes between my hon. and learned Friend and me on this and previous Bills, to say that the matter is close to my heart, too. In the months ahead, if I still hold my current portfolio—as I sincerely hope—I am determined that we shall find a solution to that difficult problem.
Order. I do not wish to spoil the happy party atmosphere, but as the hon. and learned Lady has got that point off her chest, I remind her that Third Reading is strictly about what is in the Bill, not what she hopes might be.
It is a pleasure to follow Vera Baird. I might not have agreed with everything that she said in Committee, especially her comments about the Queen sitting on a jury—[Interruption.]—given Her Majesty's age. However, I always listened with great interest to her points.
I refuse to let Mr. Letwin off the hook so easily. I insist that Simon Hughes accompany him to North Down. The Conservative party organises in Northern Ireland, as does the Lib Dems' sister party, the Alliance party of Northern Ireland. I should love the two of them to visit North Down and explain why they are voting against the Bill.
I thank the Liberal Democrat spokesman; I appreciate that acceptance. However, he is not allowed to let the right hon. Member for West Dorset off the hook. The right hon. Gentleman must visit in his own right.
I shall move swiftly on. As the only Northern Ireland Member to be selected to serve on the Standing Committee, may I say what a pleasure and honour it was to do so? Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, I rose with great enthusiasm and a smile on my face to turn up at 9 o'clock for the 32 sittings of the Standing Committee. If there was a hint of sarcasm in those remarks, it was only because I am not an expert in criminal law, although I certainly was by the end of those sittings.
I pay tribute to all the members of the Committee, especially the hon. Member for Leeds, Central, who provided wonderful inspiration. He was an extremely able Minister. As others have remarked, he showed great courtesy and ensured that the Committee worked as a collective unit to try to improve the Bill. I think that, collectively, we did so. The Home Secretary should be reassured that even though his able Minister has been moved to another Department—he is indeed a rising star—his replacement is a welcome new member of the Home Office team.
I take this opportunity to thank Home Office officials for their attention to all matters concerning Northern Ireland. There is, however, one slight oversight. When the Bill leaves the House, will they pay attention to new clause 54? The provision deals with a serious point: the definition of "police force" in Northern Ireland. Mr. Mandelson, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in taking on board the recommendations in the Patten report, knew the sensitivity of changing the Royal Ulster Constabulary's title. He also recognised that the Patten report recommended that the RUC should not be disbanded, so the proper legal title, as defined in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, is the Police Service of Northern Ireland (incorporating the Royal Ulster Constabulary), which was only changed for operational purposes. I ask that the provision be reworded.
The second point that I should like to make—I do so as someone who remains strongly enthusiastic about and supportive of the Belfast agreement—is that it is undoubtedly the case that 30 years of violence have coarsened society in Northern Ireland. We constantly read about attacks on elderly people by people carrying firearms, and antisocial crimes are unfortunately increasing, so I appreciate the Home Secretary's offer, made after an intervention by my right hon. Friend Mr. Trimble, that he would open consultations with Northern Ireland Members on the extension to Northern Ireland of the very important provisions in relation to firearms, sentencing and antisocial behaviour.
It is important that the people of Northern Ireland feel as protected as those throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. Otherwise, I warn the Government that confidence in the agreement will be further damaged, because with the greatest respect to those who talk about decommissioning, it does not affect people's everyday lives. What does affect them is antisocial behaviour, gun crime and the illegal possession of weapons that are used in robberies or to burgle houses, so will the Government please pay attention to those provisions?
May I say again what a pleasure it was to serve, with the other hon. Members, on the Standing Committee? I give credit to the Home Secretary and his team for taking on board the many amendments that were proposed in Committee.
It has been pleasure to be involved with the Bill, and it is also a pleasure to follow the contributions by the hon. Members for North Down (Lady Hermon) and for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), and by Vera Baird. They have certainly been concerned to seek to do justice throughout the consideration of the Bill. I hope that I will not fall foul of you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I say that I hope that the hon. and learned Lady's suggestion to do justice in a certain type of case is listened to, as I do with all the other contributions that she has made on the Bill.
I join in the general comments about the way in which the Bill has been considered and about the conduct of those on the respective Front Benches. I certainly join in the tributes that have been paid to Hilary Benn, and I join my colleagues in wishing him well at the Department for International Development.
It was a pleasure to serve on the Standing Committee. Whatever one's views of the substance and merits of the provisions in the Bill, it has been a pleasure to be involved with it. The Bill has been a long time in Committee, and I served on the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which has also scrutinised it, as well as being involved with its long consideration on Report. One thing about such a long Bill is that, no matter how long its consideration lasts and no matter how much we think that we have already heard everything that it is possible to hear, a surprise always comes along.
The surprise for me this evening has been listening to Simon Hughes and finding that I agree with him. It is the first time that I have agreed with him throughout our debates on the Bill. To coin a phrase, that convergence may, I suspect, be only temporary, but it is certainly welcome. I have listened to a lot of unadulterated rubbish, quite frankly, from the Liberal Democrats about the Bill and a lot of other criminal justice legislation. I do not want to spoil the effect of what I have just said—I have heard a lot of rubbish said at great length—but I agree with the hon. Gentleman's comments this evening about reclassifying cannabis as a class C drug and making such offences much more serious by attaching the power of arrest to them. We seem to have passed legislation that leaves us facing both ways at once in respect of that policy, which shows a lack of joined-up thinking by the Government—perhaps that is part of a wider picture.
I also join the hon. Gentleman in relation to his important comments on trial by jury, and I fully support the stand taken by my right hon. Friend Mr. Letwin with regard to the trial by jury provisions. The hon. Gentleman is right about this at least: there is no trade-off between the rights of the defendant and the interests of justice and tackling crime. Reducing the rights of the defendant, and diminishing them in respect of trial by jury, will not help the fight against crime one whit.
My right hon. Friend is right that the trial by jury provisions in this Bill cannot be allowed to stand as they are. He referred to a number of matters in the Bill that he found objectionable, and he has advanced extremely lucid arguments with regard to each one. In my judgment, however, it is the trial by jury provisions that are the most obnoxious. They are made more obnoxious by the fact that the Government have form in this regard, following their earlier attempts to curtail the right to trial by jury. If we take the two together, we can conclude only that something in the Government, and perhaps in the Home Office, is deeply antithetical to the right of trial by jury, which is a fundamental right. I hope that the Home Secretary will take notice of the comments not only of Opposition Members in that regard but of Labour Members, and of the comments made more widely about the effect on our system of justice of diminishing the opportunity for defendants to have the right to trial by jury.
Clause 37 is an obnoxious clause. Putting aside the question of tampering with juries and all that follows from that, it will take away from an individual the right to have a trial by jury on the grounds either of the trial allegedly being burdensome to the lives of jury members, or because it is said to be too complex. Who decides whether it is too complex? It is the prosecuting authorities making representations to judges. Members of the public are cut out altogether, and potential members of the jury are never asked. Instead, we are told that it is all too difficult for them to understand. I agree with my right hon. Friend that if we put ourselves in that position we are indeed proceeding on to a slippery slope, which I suspect will lead only one way—further downhill, with more and more cases being tried without juries, and with one of the fundamental principles of our system of justice, which goes back hundreds of years, has been enjoyed by so many people in this country and is imitated throughout the world, being undermined. That is a price that is too high to pay. However much other matters in the Bill may be worthy additions to our system of justice—
It being six and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker, pursuant to Orders [