Peers threaten 'war' over jury trial reforms

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Indy Politics

Peers of all parties threatened a five-month guerrilla campaign to rip the heart out of David Blunkett's plans to overhaul the criminal justice system last night.

Without big concessions, the Home Secretary's proposals to limit the right to trial by jury appear doomed in the Lords. He also faces concerted opposition to moves to allow defendants to be tried twice for the same offence and to disclose their previous convictions.

Mr Blunkett is refusing to change his plan to remove jury trial in complex fraud cases, where there is a danger of jury "nobbling" and where the defendant has requested it.

More than 30 Labour MPs rebelled on the issue this month. But without Labour's huge Commons majority to rely on, Mr Blunkett is heading for defeat over a main element of the Criminal Justice Bill, which returns to the House of Lords next month.

The Tories are threatening to spring a rebellion during the Bill's committee stage towards the end of June. But they may delay it to the "spill-over" session of the Lords in the autumn. They vow to fight "to the last breath", all the way to the end of its parliamentary process.

Opponents of the jury measure believe they have assembled a coalition of Tory peers, Liberal Democrat peers, 20 crossbenchers and 20 to 30 Labour peers who will defy the Government. A rebellion on that scale could mean a defeat by a majority of up to 60, raising the prospect of the proposal shuttling backwards and forwards between the Houses.

Labour's Baroness Mallalieu, a barrister, said there was "considerable disquiet" on the Labour benches. "We have a system that is not perfect, but about as good as you can get," she said. "We try all really serious offences with a jury, and when you start chipping away at that, you undermine that whole principle."

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