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Crime (Sentences) Bill

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse): I have to acquaint the House that a message has been brought from the Lords as follows. The Lords have agreed to the Crime (Sentences) Bill with amendments, to which the Lords desire the concurrence of the House. I understand that copies of the Lords amendments are now available in the Vote Office.


Lords amendments accordingly considered.

New clause

Lords amendment: No. 1, before clause 1, to insert the following new clause--Conditions relating to mandatory and minimum custodial sentences--
(".--(1) This section has effect for the purposes of setting out the basis on which the court shall carry out its sentencing functions under this Part.
(2) Under section 1 below, when determining whether it would be appropriate not to impose a life sentence the court shall have regard to the circumstances relating to either of the offences or to the offender.
(3) Under sections 2 and 3 below, when determing whether it would be appropriate not to impose a custodial sentence of at least seven years under subsection 2(2) or, as the case may be, of at least three years under subsection 3(2) the court shall have regard to the specific circumstances which--
(a) relate to any of the offences or to the offender; and
(b) would make the prescribed custodial sentence unjust in all the circumstances.")

9.17 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard): I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 4 to 7.

Mr. Howard: These amendments all relate to the circumstances in which the court should have discretion to set aside the mandatory sentences prescribed by clauses 2, 3 and 4. These are of course the automatic life sentence for second serious violent or sex offences, and mandatory minimum prison sentences for persistent burglars and drug dealers. The Bill, as passed by the House with a majority of more than 200, provided that, where the stringent qualifying conditions are satisfied, the court must impose the mandatory penalty unless it considers that there are exceptional circumstances that justify not doing so.

The amendments that were carried, against the Government's advice, in another place retain the exceptional circumstances test in relation to the automatic life sentence but substitute a different test in relation to the mandatory minimum penalties in clauses 3 and 4. The new test provides that the court must impose the mandatory minimum penalty unless it considers that there are specific circumstances which relate either to the offences or to the offender, and which will make the prescribed custodial sentence unjust in all the circumstances.

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I, my noble Friend Lady Blatch and the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), have explained the Government's view on this matter many times during the Bill's passage. We accept that there may be exceptional cases for which a mandatory penalty would be unjust or inappropriate, and that the court needs to have discretion to set aside the mandatory penalty in such cases.

At the same time, the whole purpose and point of mandatory minimum sentences is to ensure that persistent burglars and drug dealers know that they can expect a stiff minimum penalty if they continue to offend. Mandatory penalties would have the salutary effect that we expect and intend them to have only if offenders knew that they would be imposed as a matter of course in the generality of cases.

This will not now happen. The Lords amendments drive a coach and horses through the provisions of the Bill that deal with burglars and drug dealers.

In Committee, Plaid Cymru, supported by the Liberal Democrats, proposed a very similar amendment--but the Labour party abstained. The moment the Bill left the spotlight and went to another place, however, Labour did a U-turn. Its spokesman in the other House proposed this amendment himself. Opposition Members sometimes pretend that these are minor amendments, designed to clarify, which will have little effect. Not so. Indeed, the Master of the Rolls has said, of a form of words which was virtually identical:

He is right. There would seem to be a difference of opinion about that between the two Liberal Democrats in the Chamber. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) appears to be nodding in agreement with the Master of the Rolls; the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) shakes his head in disagreement. On this occasion the Master of the Rolls is undoubtedly right--

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery): Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the Bill will still contain mandatory sentences, and that the courts will have to go through a quite different sentencing exercise in order to reach a sentence that is not of the mandatory period? Does he therefore agree that the Master of the Rolls was somewhat overstating the case when he said that we will return to the present position?

Mr. Howard: No, I do not agree. The hon. and learned Gentleman is right to say that a different process would have to be undergone in order to reach, in the Master of the Rolls' words, "the present position" again; but that--a return to the present position--would be the effect of the amendments.

The Lords amendment would allow the present pattern of sentencing broadly to continue. A first-time burglar gets an average 16.2 months. A third-time burglar gets an average 18.9; and a seventh-time burglar gets an average 19.4 months. Almost 30 per cent. of burglars convicted for a seventh time in the Crown court are not sent to prison at all.

Is it any wonder that career burglars treat a sentence of this kind as a minor occupational hazard? I want to change the terms of trade against the career burglar. I want the career burglar to take up an alternative career.

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Opposition Members say that they changed the Bill because they did not want to be unfair to burglars and drug dealers. I want to be fair to their victims--that is the difference between the Conservative party and the Opposition parties.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn): If I heard him correctly, the Secretary of State has just said that Opposition Members have said that they do not wish to be unfair to burglars and drug dealers. When did any Opposition Member say that?

Mr. Howard: The hon. Gentleman should read the debates held in another place. He will find that the thrust of the arguments behind the amendment showed the extraordinary lengths to which he and his hon. Friends would go to ensure that there was no possibility of a third-time burglar getting a minimum mandatory sentence under any circumstance in which that just might not be entirely in accordance with the wishes of the judge in the case. That is the effect of the amendment which the hon. Gentleman and his party supported in the other place.

Mr. Straw: The Secretary of State has not answered my question. He made a serious allegation that Labour Members believe that such sentences would be unfair to burglars and drug dealers. Will he give one example of a Labour Front-Bench Member making such an assertion?

Mr. Howard: I said that that is the effect of all the arguments that were used--

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth): The Secretary of State is withdrawing.

Mr. Howard: No. That is the effect of all the arguments used in another place in support of the amendment.

There is a fundamental difference on this matter between the Conservative party and the Opposition. The Opposition are both soft on crime and soft on criminals. They always have been and they always will be. I wish to take this opportunity to make it clear that we shall amend the Bill to reverse the change as soon as possible after the election. The Opposition cannot and will not give the same pledge. That is the message that we shall take to the country in this general election: on law and order, as on every other issue, people can be sure only with the Conservatives.

We have accepted the amendments simply to get the rest of the Bill on to the statute book.

Mr. Michael: It will be voted down by Conservative Back Benchers.

Mr. Howard: The hon. Gentleman, from a sedentary position, makes a preposterous allegation.

The Labour party pretends that it supports much of the Bill but its spokesman in another place, as he always does, gave the game away late last night. Unfortunately for him and his party, Hansard was still present, alert as ever, to record his words. The noble Lord said:

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    He went on to say:

    "The issues which the Bill raises will involve considerable heart searching after the election. I still do not know whether that will be done in statutory form, but something will have to be done about the provisions of this Bill."

That threat cannot be left unchallenged. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) repeatedly said that he would not tell the country what his attitude was to the Bill until he saw its final shape. Its shape is now there for all to see. It is time for the hon. Gentleman to come clean. Does he support the Bill? Does he agree with his noble Friend, who said that he would rather not have the Bill at all? Does he endorse his noble Friend's call that something will have to be done about the Bill after the election? Does he endorse the praise that his noble Friend heaped on the Liberal Democrats? Does he agree with him that

    "the Liberal-Democrat party has maintained its principle of civil libertarianism . . . in a relentless way"?--[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 March 1997; Vol. 579, c. 885.]

The hon. Gentleman must answer those questions--and answer them tonight.

The Bill, which provides automatic life sentences of imprisonment for repeat rapists and other serious sexual or violent offenders, honesty in sentencing so that no one can be released after five years when he or she has been sentenced to 10, and the principle of minimum mandatory sentences, constitutes the most radical step change in criminal justice this century. For the time being, for the reasons that I have given, I beg to move that the House accepts the Lords amendments.

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