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Mr. Straw: We have just been treated to a foretaste of the technique that the Secretary of State intends to employ during the election. He makes assertions with no factual base and, when challenged, he shamelessly tries to wriggle out of the claim that he has just made by changing the words that he used. The Secretary of State laughs about this serious matter; no doubt he will laugh all the way to his Government's defeat in six weeks' time. It is a serious matter to stand at the Dispatch Box and charge Labour Front-Bench Members and Liberal Democrats with saying that it is unfair to gaol drug dealers and domestic burglars for three and seven years and, when challenged on that, to be unable to produce a single reference to justify it. To my knowledge, no such speech has ever been made. When the Secretary of State realised his error, he did not even apologise, but simply wriggled out of it by saying, "Oh well, it is the effect."

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment.

We had another example of that technique this morning on the radio when, in an increasingly hysterical interview, the Secretary of State said that the Opposition parties had sympathy for career burglars and dealers in hard drugs. The right hon. and learned Gentleman smirks about that. Every time he makes such ludicrous statements on the radio, all that happens is that more and more people have confidence in the Labour party's policies on law and order, not in his party's policies.

The simple truth is that the Government have been soft on burglars and drug dealers over the past 18 years. If the Secretary of State wants to judge on the record, not on

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the rhetoric, burglary has rocketed since 1979. It has more than doubled. At the same time, there has been a threefold increase in the chance of a burglar getting away with his appalling crimes--getting off scot free. In 1979, one in 11 burglars were caught and convicted. Last year, the number had fallen to an appalling one in 33.

Illegal drugs now pervade and disfigure our society in a way that was unthinkable two decades ago. In the first five years of the present Prime Minister's Administration, the number of drug addicts notified to the Home Office more than doubled, from 18,000 in 1990 to over 37,000 in 1995.

9.30 pm

Mr. Howard: If the hon. Gentleman and his party are so keen to get burglars, drug dealers and other criminals convicted, why did they oppose the changes to the right to silence, which have led to a reduction of almost a half in the number of suspects refusing to answer questions put by the police and an increase in the number of guilty men convicted in the courts of this land every day of the year? Why did the hon. Gentleman's party oppose that change?

Mr. Straw: Yet again, the Secretary of State is trying to rewrite the record. We proposed what the royal commission recommended--[Interruption.] He now says that it did not go far enough. That is a different point from his claim that we wholly opposed what the Government were seeking to do.

Let the Secretary of State remember what happened. The royal commission recommended that inferences from the exercise of the right to silence ought to be adducible by the trial judge to the jury, in particular circumstances. We tabled amendments to put that into practice. The Secretary of State put forward a proposal that went further. At the time, those two were voted on. I made it clear to him in correspondence about six months ago that we are happy for the current law to remain.

As for the right hon. and learned Gentleman's claim that the number of suspects refusing to answer has declined by a half, that is accurate in one sense, but it is worth remembering that it is a percentage of a percentage. The proportion who are now willing to answer has increased from 75 per cent. to about 85 per cent. I am happy that that has happened, but it is a rather different figure from the one that the Secretary of State implied.

Mr. Beggs: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Secretary of State should make it clear when he refers to the Opposition parties that the Ulster Unionists would not wish to be associated with any effort not to impose the maximum sentences on repeat burglars, rapists and drug dealers?

Mr. Straw: Of course I accept what the hon. Gentleman says.

I mentioned the fact that the number of drug addicts had doubled in the five years between 1990 and 1995. Where there is such drug addiction, there is inevitably much more crime, not just in the drug dealing itself, but in theft, burglary, robbery and all kinds of dishonesty to obtain the cash to feed the drug habit.

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For all the Home Secretary's ridiculous, absurd bluster and his thrashing around to blame anyone and everyone for the rise in crime but the Government who have presided over it, he knows that the Government have been soft on burglars and drug dealers, as they have been on crime overall.

The Bill is an admission of 18 years of failure, for it fundamentally reverses the sentencing policy of 16 of those 18 years and turns on its head the Criminal Justice Act 1991, for which the right hon. and learned Gentleman voted. That Act, as he knows, sought not to increase the length of prison sentences, but to cut them. It sought to prevent the courts from taking into account the character or the previous criminal record of defendants. That Act introduced the badly worded unit fine system, which almost brought the magistrates courts to their knees.

The Secretary of State voted for the lot. He now has the audacity, however, to claim that others are soft on crime. He complains about inconsistency in sentencing, yet in 1990 he voted against Labour's proposals to secure more consistency. He did so on the ground that what we said would interfere with judicial independence. He talked about

and argued that we would end up with the experience of the United States.

Reverses of policy have taken place on each of the 34 criminal justice Bills introduced over the past 18 years and during the passage of other Bills. The policy behind the Bill before us in respect of minimum sentences and much else has been characterised by one botch after another, one U-turn after another.

What exceptions should there be to prescribed minimum sentences for repeat burglars and drug dealers? That is the issue before the House. When the Secretary of State made his speech at the 1995 Conservative party conference, his message was at least clear:

There were to be no exceptions of any sort. No exceptions were mentioned in any part of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's speech that October. It is--[Interruption.] The right hon. and learned Gentleman shakes his head, but we can call for a copy of his speech. There were to be no exceptions. The word "exceptions" was never mentioned. No synonym was ever mentioned and there were no mentions of exceptions in the explanations added in the notes to editors, which are always a feature of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's speeches to party conferences. The message was clear and unequivocal. As I said, there were to be no exceptions. Three convictions for burglary meant three years and three drug dealing convictions meant seven years.

Two months later, there was the first signal of a U-turn. The Law Society's Gazette was told in December 1995 by the Secretary of State that there might have to be exceptions. When the White Paper appeared in November last year, there was a reference to variations from the minimum in "genuinely exceptional cases". When the Bill was published in November, the wording had changed again. We were told through the Bill that there could be a lesser sentence in "exceptional circumstances".

Two people were probably responsible for the Secretary of State's U-turns. First, I suggest, was the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence), who in

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1991 warned the House about the problems of minimum sentences. He described them as a "slippery slope". He argued that if one case is allowed as an exception, it becomes difficult to resist others. The hon. and learned Gentleman made it clear that exceptions there would have to be because, as he explained, there are many degrees of blameworthiness.

I suggest that the second influence on the Secretary of State in his U-turns on exceptional circumstances was the Lord Chancellor. Lord Mackay has made no secret of his unhappiness with the way in which the sentencing policy outlined in the Bill was originally proposed, nor his unhappiness with the Secretary of State himself.

Lord Mackay gave a revealing interview in The Times on 5 November, which appeared on page 8. Having admitted in the interview that he had balked at the idea of minimum sentences, he said of the exceptional circumstances wording that he had ensured that that phrase was included

He added:

    "I think it"--

the phrase--

    "enables them"--

the judges--

    "to deal justly with particular cases."

No one doubts the good faith of the Lord Chancellor. The problem is that the more the Bill has been examined in this place and the other place, the more it has become clear that its wording would not enable judges to deal justly with particular cases, as the Lord Chancellor said.

This is not a matter of speculation. Indeed, it is one of the few issues on which both Ministers and senior members of the judiciary are at present agreed. The Minister of State, for example, quoted with approval the view of the Lord Chief Justice that the relevant phrase will be construed narrowly. The Lord Chief Justice has led his colleagues in arguing that the wording will produce injustice.

In its abstract sense, injustice would not have been the only consequence of the Government's wording. There would have been personal, concrete injustice for any near-mentally defective individuals, whom not even Ministers in their quieter moments believed should have been locked up for three years, but who, on the tiny examples that we have been given by the Secretary of State, could easily have been, on three individual convictions.

There would have been even worse injustice to victims and their communities as, with the wording proposed by the Secretary of State, many more guilty criminals would have walked free from court.

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