Labour rebels to ambush Blair over trial by jury

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair faces his third Labour revolt in a fortnight on Monday when about 40 backbenchers rebel against proposals to restrict the historic right to trial by jury.

Amid growing concern that Labour MPs have "caught the habit of rebellion", Labour rebels will join forces with Tories and Liberal Democrats in an attempt to water down the Criminal Justice Bill, which proposes that judges sit alone in long or complex cases such as fraud trials and where intimidation or bribery is a danger.

Ministers are increasingly worried that the rigid parliamentary discipline which Labour imposed after winning power in 1997 has broken down after a record 139 MPs opposed the war in Iraq in March. Since then, 63 MPs have voted against Mr Blair's plans to set up foundation hospitals and 27 opposed a Bill allowing the Government to impose a settlement in the firefighters' dispute.

The spate of rebellions, and the resignation of Clare Short, have fuelled Tory allegations that the Government is in disarray as Mr Blair faces a growing "enemy within". Although ministers dismiss the charge, they are worried that the Commons revolts are portraying Labour as a divided party.

Some 53 Labour MPs have signed a Commons motion opposing the Government's proposals on trial by jury, and party whips fear that about 40 will rebel in Monday's vote. The protest could be fuelled by ministers' plans to cut short debate on the Bill by using the guillotine.

Although most Labour rebels refused to vote with the Opposition over foundation hospitals, they have formed a common front over the Criminal Justice Bill. The Tories said last night that they would vote against the proposed curbs on jury trial. Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, told The Independent: "The Home Secretary believes that being tough on crime inevitably involves undermining institutions that have protected our fundamental liberties."

He added: "We believe that trial by jury is an institution well worth preserving and the bulwark of liberty in this country. Accordingly we shall be seeking, either in the House of Commons or – failing a sufficiently large Labour revolt – in the Lords, to defeat the Government and preserve trial by jury."

The Tories have tabled amendments to preserve the right to a fair trial. They want to retain juries for long and complex cases and address concerns about their frequently protracted and complicated nature by allowing "expert juries" to sit.

The Labour MP for Medway, Bob Marshall-Andrews, a QC, said he will vote against the Government. "This is probably the most serious challenge to fundamental civil liberties for half a century," he said. "The erosion of the 800-year-old right to trial by jury in serious cases is wholly unjustified."

Criticising David Blunkett, Mr Marshall-Andrews said: "This Government tends to be authoritarian. The Home Secretary represents its most authoritarian part."

Mr Blunkett is already facing allegations of interference by announcing a rigid scale of jail sentences for convicted murderers. Judges have complained that this undermines their ability to impose sentences to fit individual crimes.

Wide-ranging plans by Jack Straw, Mr Blunkett's predecessor, to curb the rights to jury trial were thrown out by the Lords in the last parliament. Discontent also extended to the Commons, where 29 Labour backbenchers rebelled in March 2000. It appears that the number ready to rebel next week has grown since then.

RECENT REBELLIONS

26 February 2003: 121 MPs vote for an amendment opposing war in Iraq.

18 March 2003: 139 MPs vote for anti-war amendment.

7 May 2003: 63 MPs vote against foundation hospitals.

8 May 2003: 27 MPs vote against Fire Services Bill.

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