Tony Blair faced his fourth rebellion in two months last night as 34 Labour MPs defied government whips and voted against plans to curb the right to trial by jury.
In one of two votes, the Government squeezed its plans to reduce the right to jury trial through the House of Commons with a majority of only 72 MPs.
Labour rebels including the former Transport minister Glenda Jackson, the former paymaster general Geoffrey Robinson, and the former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle joined the Tories and Liberal Democrats to vote against government plans in the Criminal Justice Bill. Clare Short, who recently resigned as International Development Secretary, was among about 100 Labour MPs who abstained.
The rebellion follows a series of acts of defiance by Labour MPs over Iraq, foundation hospitals and the fire dispute.
Bob Marshall-Andrews, MP for Medway and a QC, who led the rebels, argued it would be wrong to give judges the right to decide whether an accused person should have a jury trial. "If you are, in however small a number of cases, giving to judges the right to decide whether someone should have jury trial or not, how can you say you are not removing the right to jury trial?" he said.
Gwyneth Dunwoody, the MP for Crewe and Nantwich, said the proposals would amount to taking away "an ancient right to be tried by however a motley crew gathered in court and giving it to one person, professional though they may be." She asked "Is it the principle in this House that we do not make laws which rely almost entirely on exceptions for the convenience of the executive?"
But David Blunkett rounded on Labour critics, arguing that the moves would boost the court system's credibility. The Home Secretary came under fire from his own benches as he defended moves to limit jury trial in complex fraud cases, where there was jury nobbling and where a judge-only trial was requested by a defendant.
Mr Blunkett said the plan would affect fewer than 100 prosecutions a year and insisted it was "entirely fallacious" to suggest it represented the Government's lack of confidence in the system. He said that by preventing "manipulation and interference" to jury trials, the Government was protecting their integrity.
"We are actually strengthening the credibility, the well-being and confidence in jury trials and the criminal justice system as a whole," he said.
Mr Blunkett said fraud prosecutions lasting months had struggled to find jury members that could set aside the time needed. He told MPs: "I am merely asking that we address the real world as it is out there in terms of the worst of society and what they will do with the innocents abroad in terms of destroying the system that serves us well."
Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "If we end up with certain cases in the higher courts being tried by a judge alone and certain cases by a jury, don't we inevitably have a two-tier justice system?"
Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, warned that the Government was heading down a "slippery slope" on the issue. If ministers were not prepared to compromise, Tory peers would be urged to "fight to the last breath" on it.
"If it means cratering the Bill, I am prepared to see the Bill cratered," he said. Jury trial was "critical" because it involved the ordinary citizen in the law and prevented the court from becoming a party to the state opposing the citizen.Reuse content