Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5.51 pm

Mr. Walter Sweeney (Vale of Glamorgan): I welcome the Government's proposal to abolish automatic early release from prison. Hon. Members who have experience of representing defendants in criminal proceedings will be aware that everyone involved in the court system--particularly old lags who have done time before--make an immediate mental calculation when the sentence is handed down of what it really means after allowing for

19 Jun 1996 : Column 917

the appropriate discount. Some people would argue that we already have realism in sentencing, because even the general public know enough about the law to know that an automatic discount applies.

I believe that the present system brings the law into disrepute. The public are entitled to know that the sentence when passed is the sentence that will be served, subject to a small discount that will have to be earned through good behaviour. It is in the interests of the smooth running of prisons and of rehabilitation that inmates should have an incentive to maintain good behaviour throughout their sentence to maximise the discount earned.

There has been speculation about whether honesty in sentencing would lead to a big increase in the prison population. Judges will, of course, be able to reduce the sentence to achieve the intended net objective. If judges choose not to reduce the nominal sentence passed, on the face of it the prison population will increase, but there would be an increased deterrent effect if effective sentences were seen to be longer. That would, I hope, reduce the number of defendants coming before the courts.

I warmly welcome the proposal to introduce automatic life sentences for people over 18 convicted for a second time of a serious sexual or violent offence. Such a measure would ensure that it is possible to prevent such offenders, who remain a danger to the public, from being released. The need for such a measure is demonstrated by statistics that show that 10 per cent. of offenders released after serving a sentence for serious sexual or violent offences go on to commit similar terrible offences again.

I also welcome the proposal that persistent dealers in hard drugs should receive an automatic minimum prison sentence of seven years. My right hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd) was worried that this might involve people who were not serious offenders receiving a mandatory seven-year sentence. My answer to that is that they should think of that before they commit the offence. The imposition of such a significant minimum sentence would ensure that offenders received their just desserts, particularly the most serious offenders, who, morally, should receive the death penalty or, failing that, a life sentence for the terrible despair, pain and loss of life that they produce in exchange for personal gain.

The proposed automatic minimum prison sentences for persistent domestic burglars are also welcome. It is outrageous that a professional burglar convicted of seven or more burglaries spends little more time inside than they would for a first conviction. Any professional criminal weighs up two things in deciding whether to commit a particular offence: first, the risk of getting caught; secondly, the severity, or otherwise, of the likely sentence.

So far as certainty of detection is concerned, the Government have rightly increased resources for the police. In my constituency, some two dozen extra police officers have been appointed in the past few months--and very necessary they are, too. The police are targeting known and persistent burglars and are increasing detection rates. The success of Operation Bumblebee, launched by the Metropolitan police in 1991, has been emulated by other forces. As every person with any common sense knows, it is no good catching criminals unless they are convicted and given an appropriately severe sentence. A

19 Jun 1996 : Column 918

minimum sentence of three years for persistent burglars will help to persuade them that crime does not pay and that they would be better off earning an honest living.

There are, of course, do-gooders on the Opposition Benches who question the value of prison sentences. In the past three and a half years, the prison population has risen by 25 per cent. and crime has fallen by 8.5 per cent. In my opinion, that is no coincidence. In 1995, 468,000 fewer crimes were recorded in England and Wales than in 1994--the largest ever continuous fall in the number of annually recorded crimes. When criminals are behind bars, they cannot commit crimes against the general public. About two thirds of all crimes are committed by one fifth of offenders, so it is common sense that the number of crimes falls when persistent offenders are out of circulation. Home Office research suggests that between three and 13 offences could be prevented when each domestic burglar is imprisoned for a year rather than given a community sentence.

Mandatory sentences are nothing new. They already exist, as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. Butler) pointed out, for drink-driving. Who can doubt that it is the certainty of losing their licence if caught and convicted that has deterred many people from drinking and driving?

Prison sentences do not only prevent offences; they deter offenders. The police and the public clearly believe that. As the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Mr. Jim Sharples, said on BBC Radio 4's "Today" programme on 14 October 1995:

Recent research has also shown that prison has a deterrent effect. For example, Burnett's 1992 study, which was based on interviews with prisoners, found that, for the whole sample, avoidance of imprisonment was the most frequently mentioned reason for not wanting to reoffend.

Those who argue against prison sentences say that they make bad people worse. The facts do not bear that out. The latest reconviction rates, published in February 1996, show that 51 per cent. of prisoners reoffended within two years of release, compared with 55 per cent. of those who were given community service orders. Given that offenders sent to prison are higher up the tariff than offenders given community service, prison is even more successful than those bald figures suggest.

It has been suggested in some quarters that it is somehow wrong to risk upsetting judges by creating minimum sentences. There is nothing wrong with Parliament legislating to impose maximum, minimum or mandatory sentences. Indeed, Parliament would be failing in its duty if it did not continue to address the issue of excessively lenient sentences.

5.59 pm

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): Ministers should find it enlightening and humbling to read the record of a debate that took place in the other place on23 May. Indeed, that debate is important to all of us, including the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan(Mr. Sweeney). In that unprecedented debate, the Lord Chief Justice issued a comprehensive critique of the Government's proposal. What was unprecedented was the fact that a direct criticism of the Home Secretary was

19 Jun 1996 : Column 919

made by the most senior lawyers in the country and by former Home Office Ministers. Indeed, a former Home Office Minister, the right hon. Member for Fareham(Sir P. Lloyd), spoke today. That should give the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan and others at least cause for reflection and consideration. They should take account of the words of those who have had to make decisions about individuals and policy in connection with a very complex issue.

In the other place, there was also a comprehensive mauling of the way in which the Home Secretary had used statistics in the White Paper, making them less and less credible. Phrases such as "flimsy and dubious evidence", "partial and tainted", "shallow and untested" and "highly misleading" were used by figures such as Lord Donaldson and the Lord Chief Justice. That should give the Home Secretary and other Home Office Ministers cause to reflect.

Rather in the style of Mark Antony, those who spoke in that debate said that they were not aiming directly at the Home Secretary's bona fides, because the Home Secretary was an honourable man. The message was clear, however: everyone considered the White Paper on sentencing to be a highly partisan exercise, unrelated to the needs of criminal justice. The Home Secretary has, uniquely, managed to array against him and his policies the senior judges in the country and the great majority of practitioners.

The Home Secretary may say that that does not matter: that the editorial writers of the tabloids are on his side, and that he is confident that public opinion--or, perhaps, the electorate--is also on his side. It is true that the public are anxious about the doubling of crime over the past few years and the decline in law and order, but it is wrong for politicians, particularly Home Secretaries, to pander to that opinion, pretending that they have the answers and implying that judges cannot be trusted to impose the appropriate sentences.

Although the immediate response of many individuals--the person in the street--is "Yes, sentences should be more severe," that was not reflected in the only major test involving people who had followed cases through and observed them at first hand. I refer to the research of Professor Zander, carried out for the Runciman commission. Of nearly 10,000 jurors--average citizens--only 15 per cent. thought that sentences in cases that they had heard should have been more severe and were surprised that they had not been.

Why is such a wide array of criminal justice practitioners so profoundly hostile to the Home Secretary, his proposals and his practice? Partly because they see the White Paper as just another partisan initiative from this most political of Home Secretaries. He is all too ready, for example, to rely on examples from the United States, as if that country were a paragon of success in criminal justice. We know that, per head of population, the United States imprisons far more people than any other developed country.

The practitioners see the proposals as part of an election manifesto, or as a man trap for the Opposition, rather than a serious attempt to deal with real problems. They know that--as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn(Mr. Straw) pointed out--the proposals cannot come into

19 Jun 1996 : Column 920

effect until the year 2000, although the Home Secretary could deal with the problem immediately if he wanted to, either by revamping the means of referral to the Court of Appeal's criminal division or by way of a sentencing council. They cannot see how the prison population will not escalate--and explode--as a result of the Home Secretary's proposals, unless judges are in effect told to pronounce shorter sentences, as the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) said in his excellent speech.

The practitioners consider the proposals unnecessary, because judges now have the power--in rape cases, for example--to impose life sentences. Moreover, there can be a referral by the Attorney-General in respect of lenient sentences. Above all, those with experience of the criminal justice system see the proposals as unjust, as an affront to basic constitutional principles and as removing judges' discretion to do justice in individual cases.

The right hon. Member for Fareham gave a good example in respect of young people in drug cases. Burglaries are another instance. A young man may go into the private area of a public house and take an ashtray as a first offence; he may put his arm through a window--which is technically a burglary--as a second offence; and he may do something relatively minor as a third offence. In effect, the judge has no discretion in cases of that kind.

We need consistency and openness in sentencing. I would agree with the introduction of sentencing bands, so that a judge could make it clear what a sentence meant in practice--although, as has been pointed out, most criminals can estimate what a sentence will mean in their case. However, we should pay attention to the anxieties expressed by the public. The key role of the criminal justice system is to protect the public--that should always be the starting point--but the policy makers should then act, not in a partisan spirit, and not as if they were delivering yet another speech to their party conference, but after cool appraisal and on the basis of respectable research that is accepted in the profession as a whole.

Senior judges, including the Lord Chief Justice and Lord Donaldson, cast clear aspersions on the validity of the research on which the White Paper was founded. Policy makers should also listen carefully, and with respect, to practitioners who know the problem of applying complex considerations to the infinite variety of individual cases.

Next Section

IndexHome Page