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Juries (Disqualification) Bill

Volume 57: debated on Friday 30 March 1984

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Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Third Reading [23 March].

Question again proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

9.36 pm

Last Friday it was alleged by some Conservative Members when I was on my feet that I would not be here today to continue my speech Clearly they were wrong. Today I can promise them the same dedication and commitment to get rid of the Government at the first possible opportunity.

The promoter of the Bill, the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Watson), said last week:
"I tried to do some research to see what my attitude should be. I discovered from a survey carried out in 1971 that 58 per cent. of those awarded probation orders went on to commit an indictable offence within the following six years. I would therefore be reluctant to put anyone on a jury who had a six in 10 chance of going on to commit an indictable offence."—[Official Report, 23 March 1984; Vol. 56, c. 1361.]
Although he spoke of six years. that length of time does not appear in the Bill. If he had taken 10 years, he would have found a higher percentage of people going on to commit further indictable offences. It is an elastic argument for longer disqualification and it could be used in the future to extend this legislation.

The most obnoxious point about that statement is that it judges people before they are found guilty. That cannot be in accordance with the principles of law in this country. Why should the other four in 10 who do not go on to commit indictable offences be punished also by being arbitrarily disqualified from jury service for five years?

I have a constituent who can only be described as a respectable pillar of society. She is a public-spirited woman, married with three children who have been brought up impeccably, with a lovely home. She is a deeply religious woman, a Quaker, which no doubt is why she is committed to peace. She felt it her duty to the human race to express solidarity with the peace women at Greenham. On visiting Greenham she was arrested when the police were wading in and arresting many women. My constituent received a suspended sentence. Under this measure she would be banned for five years from serving on a jury. It must be wrong for such an honest and decent woman to be banned in that way.

It makes the case expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) when he said last week that the Government, in supporting the Bill, were vetting the attitudes of jurors so that there would be on juries only the type of people they wanted. Because the Bill extends jury disqualification for five years for those who have committed very minor offences, and because it takes no account of subsequent reform, it will undermine the jury system and remove civil rights. Such provisions are excessive and unnecessary.

9.40 am

I paused before rising because I thought that other hon. Members might wish to speak and I wanted to make my contribution at the end of the debate. I assume that the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) does not wish to speak.

On Second Reading we were faced with a Bill that excited some interest but no controversy. As the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) will recall, the Bill was given a Second Reading without a word of opposition. It is curious that we should have been treated last week to the rather unedifying spectacle of hon. Members who were willing to wound but not to strike and who did their best to prevent the Bill from being passed.

I listened to the arguments last week and failed to understand exactly what the Opposition were trying to do. Are they against the Bill, or have they some other curious intent? The GLC makes grants to groups of people which, any objective view, cannot be said to be trying to deal with the problems of crime and law enforcement in London. At the same time, the GLC has spent £600,000 or more on groups that many people believe are anti-police and anti-law and order.

London Members come to the House and occasionally discuss interesting topics, but more often, because of lack of preparation or lack of real case, they make speeches which do not address the serious issues. No hon. Member has said that he is opposed to the Bill, but some hon. Members have said that a fair trial by a jury is impossible unless there is a reasonable chance of a recently convicted criminal serving on the jury.

The hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs) may say that, but he listened to the speeches last week, as I did. When one hon. Member asked why we should ensure that juries do not have criminals on them, the hon. Member for Battersea did not make it plain that he thought it reasonable to exclude recently convicted criminals. I understand that the purpose of the Bill is to prevent recently convicted criminals from serving on juries, not just because they are likely to fail to convict people who should be convicted, but because, in view of their personal experience, they might be more likely to convict people who should be found innocent.

The argument for the Bill basically is that recently convicted criminals and people convicted of serious criminal offences should not immediately serve on juries. That is the sum of it.

The hon. Member for Leyton argues that a person who is a pillar of his constituency would be unreasonably excluded from jury service. He will accept that many criminals are not convicted because they have not been detected. They can serve on juries, but that is not an argument for doing away with jury trials. We must accept that there are rough edges. Many people would be happy to have the hon. Gentleman's distinguished constituent on a jury, but the law cannot be so precise as to include every decent criminal and exclude every unsavoury non-criminal. I am glad to see the hon. Gentleman nod in agreement.

It was clear last week that members of the Labour party, for reasons known only to themselves, did not want the Bill to pass, but not one hon. Member voted against the closure. I exclude the hon. Member for Battersea from most of my strictures because he is well known to be a decent, serious Member of Parliament—like most of his hon. Friends, but he shows those qualities more clearly. I cannot understand why he was involved in the exercise. If we had been asked whether we thought that the hon. Member for Battersea would be leading what was close to a filibuster to stop the Bill, most of us would have said, "What, him! No, never."

I should not have expected such behaviour from the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Deakins). Some surprising people have been doing some surprising things. When the Bill is given its Third Reading I hope that a veil will be drawn over the hon. Members who last week did their best to block the Bill.

Two years ago there was a lot of evidence showing that people were serving on juries who should not have been. People began to consider whether the rules covering jury qualification should be tightened. It is worth remembering, although Opposition Members made no mention of it last week, that not many people spend their time breaking down court room doors demanding to serve on a jury. Most people look for every excuse not to serve on juries, not because they are not interested in justice, but because they are not particularly interested in spending time away from their work or their families. It would have been more realistic if that balance had been reflected in speeches by Opposition Members.

It is possible to deal with the views of some of the people who know something about the subject. For example, in a letter to The Times, Lord Harris said that he hoped that the Bill would succeed. He has served on the parole board and has a distinguished record of public service. He also spent five years as a Labour Minister. We should pay attention to what he says.

I do not want to make a long speech, because I fear that Labour Members will arrive in hordes. Much can be said, but simply.

If the hon. Gentleman has learnt something since last week, when he went on at great length, at least something has been gained.

My hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Watson) has guided the Bill through its Report stage, and, I hope, through its Third reading, with distinction, courtesy and a great deal of patience. I believe the Bill to be necessary. It will be generally welcomed. If there is further delay and nitpicking, I shall make it my business to send to each person in my constituency who complains about burglaries, delays in trials or about any part of the criminal justice system some speeches by Opposition Members. The Opposition are fortunate that the reporting of last week's debate was so limited. If their constituents knew what they had said they would be most surprised. When my constituents complain to me about burglaries I shall have a great deal of pleasure in sending them the pack of information from the GLC police committee which seems to pay attention to everything except the victims of crime and how to detect criminals.

I wish the Bill a fair passage. I hope that it gets through the other place in good time and that the result will be fair juries, fair trials and an acceptance that Parliament has responded to the needs of the moment in ensuring that recently convicted criminals do not suddenly pop up to serve on juries.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time:—

The House proceeded to a Division—

(seated and covered) On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. At the time you called the Division, I was seeking to catch your eye to make a brief speech on Third Reading.

I recollect that the hon. Member was still in his seat when I put the Question to the House. I am sorry, but we cannot go back.

The House having divided: Ayes 24, Noes 0.

Division No. 216]

[9.50 am

AYES

Berry, Sir AnthonyMellor, David
Boscawen, Hon RobertMoynihan, Hon C.
Braine, Sir BernardNeubert, Michael
Cope, JohnNewton, Tony
du Cann, Rt Hon EdwardPatten, John (Oxford)
Fletcher, AlexanderSteen, Anthony
Franks, CecilWakeham, Rt Hon John
Freud, ClementWatson, John
Garel-Jones, TristanWolfson, Mark
Heathcoat-Amory, DavidWood, Timothy
Henderson, Barry
Hunt, David (Wirral)Tellers for the Ayes:
Knight, Gregory (Derby N)Mr. Peter Bottomley and Mr. Stephen Dorrell.
McQuarrie, Albert

NOES

NILMr. Harry Cohen and Mr. Gerald Bermingham.
Tellers for the Noes:

It appearing on the report of the Division that forty Members were not present, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER declared that the Question was not decided and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.