Criminal Justice Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 15th July 2003.

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Photo of Baroness Scotland of Asthal Baroness Scotland of Asthal Minister of State, Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Criminal Justice and Offender Management) 6:00 pm, 15th July 2003

I would say yes. It is always a delight, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, knows, to look back at history and see what was said by those who went before us. All these arguments, as has been so graphically said from the Liberal Democrat Benches, were made before. We were told it would be the end of the world as we knew it to have majority verdicts. Everything would grind to a halt—the ceiling would fall in, juries would be undermined. That is what people said.

They then came to peremptory challenges. I stand in the dock on peremptory challenges. I remember thinking at the time, "Doing away with peremptory challenges—whatever next". But the roof did not fall in, jurors' will was not suborned and justice has been done.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Cooke, took us through the history of juries. Juries have changed many times; the core has remained the same. Nothing in these provisions seeks to damage the sanctity of the jury. Noble Lords who say that if you suppress discretion one way it will bubble up elsewhere should bear that in mind when we look at these issues, because they will come back. If we do not face them now, we will have to find a way of facing them later.

We have balance in these provisions. We need to talk, perhaps, about the provisions themselves, but as to whether they should stand part, I say that they should. Let us debate, if we must, the detail. Let us debate balance; let us debate proportionality. But I ask noble Lords to open their ears and their minds. If it was not in relation to these issues, I certainly know all these concerns from looking in the documents from New Zealand and Australia. They come from the same root as do we—from the common law. All these concerns were played out in those jurisdictions.

I understand the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon. I do not hide the fact that I wince at his suggestion that the independence of our judiciary will ever be impugned. For so long as I remain anything to do with this Government, that will not happen. But I rely not on myself but on thousands of years of good tradition which has never been suppressed. I believe that the judiciary we have today, who sit in judgment, will be with us, by the grace of God, for a very long time. If the longevity of this House is anything to go by, they will be with us for a very significant time indeed.

This country has produced some of the greatest jurists. Many of them I have been privileged to listen to today. I do not feel that they will go away; I do not see them weakened, either in their passion or in their content. I listened with great care to everything that was said by all Members of the Committee. I almost wish that I could read out the roll call, which sounds a little like Henry V, of all the great names who have participated in this debate. Noble Lords have given justice.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, rightly raised the question of the proper sensitivity about what we should do about black and minority ethnic defendants. How do we look at those issues? That is something of which the Government are very aware, and we have had discussions with the CRE. We are looking at what we need to do to monitor the provisions. The Home Office race equality scheme is, as noble Lords know, a living document, which recognises that it is often necessary to take a pragmatic approach to arrangements for assessing and consulting on new policies. The Home Office has committed to a regular review of its functions and to assessing them to determine their impact on the public, including minority ethnic communities.

I myself wrote to Trevor Phillips, the chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, to confirm that we will assess the proposals in the Bill that the commission has suggested would benefit from assessment. That was in his letter of 11th June. Those provisions include: on Clause 5, limits on periods of detention without charge; on Part 7, trials on indictment without a jury; on Part 10, retrial for serious offences; on Part 11, Chapter 1 evidence about character; on Clause 146, as noble Lords know, an increase in general limits on magistrates' courts' powers; on Clause 271, the minimum sentences for certain firearm clauses; and on Clause 274, powers to limit periods of detention without charge of suspected terrorists.

We have agreed that all those should be included in the assessment that we shall make in relation to the proposals. We will have a watching brief on those issues, and I hope that I can assure noble Lords that the Government are very committed and concerned about them. We want to ensure that the provisions of the Bill apply with equality to all our citizens in a way that is not disproportionate and really does inure to the interests of justice.

I ask noble Lords to consider long and hard, first, whether this is an issue on which the Committee feels that it is proper to divide and, secondly, whether they are content with the results that will flow therefrom.