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The BBC's Sean Curran
"Ministers had been expecting a defeat"
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Home Office minister, Charles Clarke
"The whole criminal justice system needs to be modernised"
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Friday, 29 September, 2000, 10:48 GMT 11:48 UK
Labour presses on with jury reform
House of Lords
Peers on all sides united to block the government plans
The government is to press ahead with plans to end the right of some defendants in England and Wales to choose trial by jury, despite an embarrassing defeat in the House of Lords.

Rebel Labour peers joined Liberal Democrats in supporting a Conservative wrecking amendment which killed off the controversial proposals.

The House of Lords has again refused to accept the erosion of what is a fundamental English liberty

Opposition peers leader Lord Strathclyde
But a Home Office spokesman said the government would continue to try to introduce the measure.

The spokesman said: "We will not be deterred by the opposition of the House of Lords.

"We have already introduced this bill twice this session, and we will bring forward further legislation when parliamentary time allows.

"The bill represents a modest but important modernisation of our criminal justice system, to speed up justice in the interests of victims, witnesses and the public at large."

'Lawyers' interests'

Home Secretary Jack Straw said that if the Lords had been as representative of victims and victims' representatives, and of the police and the public as it was of lawyers, the decision would have been different.

Mr Straw said it was interesting that at the Labour Party conference, no voice was raised against the bill.

Mr Straw has repeatedly argued that changing the law would save the taxpayer millions of pounds and stop some defendants from abusing the system.

But the plans were rejected overwhelmingly on Thursday when peers voted to throw out the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill by 184 to 88, a majority of 96 votes, after a passionate second reading debate.

Call for 'humility'

Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe seized on the vote as "another slap in the face for the home secretary and overwhelming evidence of the arrogance at the heart of New Labour".

She said: "I hope Jack Straw will now listen to reason and have the common sense and humility to drop these proposals."

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes said: "A government which claims to be committed to human rights and civil liberties cannot go on threatening one of the oldest rights of all."

Thursday's vote was the second time the Lords has rejected the legislation.

'Fingers burned'

Labour backbencher Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws - a barrister and QC - sent a tough warning to ministers that if they pressed ahead with the bill "it would be seen as a terrible display of arrogance".

Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws
Labour's Baroness Kennedy opposes the plans
If the government refused to "take the public into your confidence about what you are trying to do, you inevitably get your fingers burned," she said.

The Lords rejected the bill last January and it was withdrawn in the face of bitter opposition from peers who said it infringed an ancient and fundamental right.

It would end the right of about 18,000 defendants a year in England and Wales to elect trial by jury.

Those charged with middle-ranking offences would lose the right to choose whether to be tried by a magistrate or by a judge and jury.

The Attorney General, Lord Williams of Mostyn, said a jury trial was important as the appropriate remedy in serious instances, where "the state and citizens' interests collide".

Home Secretary Jack Straw
The defeat is a setback for Jack Straw
"It is not suitable for every case to be available to the choice of the defendant in 'either way' cases," he said.

But opposition frontbench spokesman Lord Cope, in asking peers to back the wrecking amendment, said: "We don't believe we should weaken public confidence in the criminal justice system by removing this long standing right in exchange for the small and doubtful benefits of delay and government expenditure."

Ministers will now have to decide whether to push the bill through by invoking the Parliament Act.

Leader of the opposition peers Lord Strathclyde called on the home secretary to make it clear the bill would now be dropped.

He said: "This was an utterly decisive verdict. The House of Lords has again refused to accept the erosion of what is a fundamental English liberty.

"Only on Tuesday, Tony Blair was insisting that this was a listening government. Was that just talk? Or did they mean it? Here is a litmus test."

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See also:

28 Aug 00 | UK Politics
Curb on trial by jury to go ahead
25 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Bills backlog 'causing shambles'
08 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Straw unmoved by Commons rebellion
08 Feb 00 | UK Politics
Lords refuse to toe the line
20 Jan 00 | UK Politics
Peers 'kill' trial reform bill
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