Blunkett saves flagship legislation with climbdown on trial by jury

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Indy Politics

David Blunkett last night backed down over key proposals to limit the right to trial by jury as he agreed a compromise to save the flagship Criminal Justice Bill.

He pledged not to implement legislation allowing judge-only trials in complex fraud cases while alternative proposals for specialist juries are investigated after a frantic day of negotiations to prevent the legislation being killed by the House of Lords.

Mr Blunkett also abandoned attempts to allow defendants to waive their right to a jury trial, but pushed through proposals for judge-only hearings in cases of jury "nobbling".

Controversial measures allowing previous convictions to be revealed in criminal trials were agreed, however, under a deal with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to put clear limits on the new powers.

A Home Office spokesman said the deal was "an honourable draw", but Tories and Lib Dems branded it "a major government climbdown".

Under it, the provision to allow serious fraud cases to be heard by a judge sitting alone will remain in the bill.

But it will be subject to the passage of a parliamentary order approving its implementation, which will require debates and a vote in both houses.

A spokesman for Mr Blunkett said the Home Office would now examine compromise solutions, such as expert juries and judges sitting in panels in complex fraud cases.

He insisted that the controversial limits on trial by jury were only a small part of the Bill, which introduces new guidelines on sentencing, allows defendants to be tried twice for the same crime and gives police greater powers to use the latest DNA evidence.

The agreement came after a frantic day of wrangling that threatened to kill the Bill at the end of the Parliamentary session last night.

Tony Blair was accused of vetoing a peace plan yesterday amid determination not to succumb to a humiliating defeat at the hands of Michael Howard, the new Conservative leader.

Downing Street denied that the Prime Minister intervened in the deal, which was finally struck by Mr Blunkett and David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary late yesterday afternoon.

In dramatic scenes at Westminster, the Government was forced into an emergency vote to delay yesterday's prorogation of Parliament to allow MPs and peers to sit on Monday and Tuesday next week to prevent the Criminal Justice Bill legislation being lost. But Opposition peers backed away from a revolt over Foundation Hospitals, dropping their objections to the proposals and allowing the Health and Social Care Bill to pass into law.

Conservatives and LibDems claimed victory over trial by jury. Mr Davis said: "All parties have been very clear that they want to improve the criminal justice system.

He told BBC Radio 4: "What we have got now is a proposal that creates some time for all the parties to put together really creative ways of solving problems without throwing away trial by jury."

Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on the Bill, said: "This climb-down has ensured that fundamental constitutional principles have prevailed. We have stood up to preserve the benefits of jury trials and to guarantee that previous offences are not used in later cases."

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