Perhaps it is in order to have a voice from these Benches. We have just heard a powerful speech from a government supporter and before that one from the Cross-Benches. It might be equitable for me to speak at this stage, and I hope the noble Lord on the Cross-Benches will allow me to do so.
This is a significant moment in the short life of the reformed House. We should see it in a wider context before we turn to the details of the Bill itself. No one will doubt that the decision we take today is the most important in this Session of Parliament, and in the life of the House as it is now composed. Many thoughtful people, whatever the extent of their participation in politics, will be waiting with some interest to see what the Committee decides on this issue. Will it be a straightforward vote on party lines--the adversarial system which has proved to be so weak a restraint on government policies and actions--or will it be on the merits of an issue that bears so directly on the preservation of individual liberty and the administration of justice?
We have heard several fine speeches, notably that by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, who speaks with all the authority of the present holder of the high office of Lord Chief Justice of England. But to my mind the issues are not finely balanced. It is not necessary to reject the arguments put forward on the importance of reducing delays, saving money, and eliminating what has been described as the manipulation of the system by seasoned offenders, in order to identify and give priority to the interests of justice.
Ever since the introduction of either-way offences--a classification which has brought about all the present difficulties--it has been a fundamental principle that an accused person should consent to having his case tried summarily by magistrates, provided the magistrates decide that it is a suitable case for their disposal. It is quite wrong, and the Government should neither use the description nor allow their spokesmen to do so, to describe the exercise of such a well-established right as an automatic "veto". That is the term now being used; a veto on the ability of the magistrates to try a case.
The argument that many of those who exercise their right to trial by jury in the Crown Court subsequently plead guilty takes no account of the fact that often charges against them have been reduced before the trial in the Crown Court begins. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, referred to that fact in his own speech. Although the official statistics are subject to qualification, they show that in as many as 26 per cent of assault cases in the Crown Court the charge has been reduced. There are lower figures for the reduction in charges of public order and burglary offences.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and Home Office officials, for the rapid way in which they responded to inquiries from myself and others. I accept that there are qualifications to the statistics. Nevertheless, the fact that in a substantial number of criminal cases in the Crown Court the charge is not the same as the one originally laid in the magistrates' court is of central relevance.
I should like to refer to two other matters, without speaking any longer than necessary. This debate, valuable though it is, has already continued for a length of time. The first concerns the ethnic dimensions to the mode of trial decision. Here again, some statistics have been produced, and we all look forward to hearing the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, who spoke on this aspect at Second Reading. He has special knowledge, and is listened to with respect on this, as on other, aspects. As has already been accepted in the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, it is perceptions that matter in considering the views of ethnic minorities. The crucial perception is how the institutions of justice are seen. If policies are formulated that overlook that reality, the result is bound to be flawed.
The second point is that the figures are already going down. The number of accused persons electing to go for trial in the Crown Court declined from 53 per cent in 1987 to 28 per cent in each of the two years, 1997 and 1998-- nearly half. So there is already a steady, downward path. The numbers are decreasing, and are likely to decrease still further as the impact of the plea before venue changes becomes more widespread.
I suggest to your Lordships that what we are considering today is a profound issue. It is one that cannot be resolved by differing interpretations of the statistics, or by rival calculations of cost or delay. Running through the Bill there is an undeclared assumption that bad people--meaning those who have previous convictions--should be faced by what will seem to many of them, whatever the realities may be, as a less fair and less thorough form of trial than the virtuous; namely, persons with an established reputation or livelihood. Those terms appear in the Bill, and are crucial to the proposed changes. To my mind, although there are other reasons too, that is the fundamental reason why the Bill is objectionable, and why this amendment should be accepted.