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Mr. Howard indicated dissent.

Mr. Straw: The Secretary of State shakes his head, but it is not us but the Government who say that. Exactly that was said by the Government in their 1990 White Paper.

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The point was rubbed in by the right hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten) when, as Minister of State, Home Office, he said that minimum sentences

    "could result in juries acquitting more guilty men and women to avoid excessive punishment. That is always one thing that worries me about minimum sentences."--[Official Report, 20 February 1991; Vol. 186, c. 349.]

In response to that point, the hon. and learned Member for Burton said quite correctly that proper exceptions would have to be written into the Bill.

Mr. Howard: As, in general, juries do not know whether the defendant before them has previous convictions, they would not know whether a minimum mandatory sentence would apply in their case, so the hon. Gentleman's point completely falls.

Mr. Straw: I know that the Secretary of State had a very distinguished career at the planning Bar, but even from my--

Mr. Howard: Answer.

Mr. Straw: I was going to answer from my limited experience at the criminal Bar, and the much greater experience of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) at the criminal Bar. The Secretary of State does not live in the real world. In such circumstances, of course the character of the defendant would be given. Juries are not foolish or stupid. Perhaps the Secretary of State will explain why he, as a member of the Government, assented to the 1990 White Paper, which claimed categorically that minimum sentences could result in juries acquitting more guilty men and women to avoid excessive punishment. Why did the Government put that forward in 1990?

Mr. Howard: I have tried to explain to the hon. Gentleman, but he seems bereft of understanding this evening. There is a difference between the proposition identified in the White Paper, which deals with minimum sentences in general, and the very specific targeted proposals in the Bill that provide for minimum sentences for repeat offenders, for third-time burglars and for third-time traffickers in hard drugs. It would be a very bold counsel for the defendant who would automatically put before the jury the character of the defendant in those circumstances. That is the difference between the two.

Mr. Straw: But in any circumstance, one could arrive only at a situation where guilty men walked free as a result of the prospect of an automatic minimum sentence, if that was put in by the defence; and the Government of which the Secretary of State is a member clearly had that in mind when they asserted that absolute minimum sentences could result in juries acquitting more guilty men and women to avoid excessive punishment.

Mr. Alex Carlile: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, these days, it is far more common for defence counsel to include their client's character in order to be able to bring out all the other advantageous facts for the defence that can flow only from the character going in, and that juries these days are very fair about defendants whose character is put in? That is the experience of all of us who practise

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in the criminal courts. There is potential in the provisions for the totting up to be used by skilful counsel as a way of securing sympathy from the jury that would not be available currently. That, I suggest to the hon. Gentleman, is the real world in which those of us who practise as criminal barristers operate.

Mr. Straw: I agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman. Of course that is the real world, and that it is why there has to be proper provision for exceptions.

Without any regard for the facts of our amendment, the Secretary of State bleats that it would drive a coach and horses through the Bill. We have heard that phrase time and again, and it is increasingly less convincing. It will do nothing of the kind, as Ministers in the other place made clear. We heard that nonsense just now from the Secretary of State, but in the other place the Government Chief Whip, Lord Strathclyde, said categorically that the Bill, as amended by the House of Lords, provides for

Baroness Blatch added on Third Reading that the Bill

    "addresses some very serious concerns in the community about violent offences, dealing in Class A drugs and persistent burglaries."--[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 March 1997; Vol. 579, c. 838, 891.]

We agree with those sentiments. Much as they try, the Government cannot have it both ways.

Our amendment would give life to the intention of the Lord Chancellor to enable judges, within a framework of minimum sentences, to deal justly with particular cases. That was the phrase that the Lord Chancellor used. Why cannot the Government see that, or do they want the courts to deal unjustly with particular cases? Do they want to betray the interests of victims, as guilty people walk free from courts?

Our amendment has been carefully worded, and contrary to the claims of the Secretary of State, is very different in character and effect from that moved by the Liberal Democrats here and in the other place.

9.45 pm

Mr. Howard: The hon. Gentleman seems to be coming to the end of his remarks. Before he sits down, I remind him of the undertaking that he gave to the House before the Bill left for the other place that, when it was in its final shape, he would tell the House and the country of his attitude to it. We look forward to his answering that question, and the other specific questions that I put to him on whether he agrees with the remarks made last night about the Bill by his noble Friend, Lord McIntosh of Haringey.

Mr. Straw: Of course, I shall deal with our approach to the Bill. But as I was saying, our amendment is carefully worded, and is different in character and effect from that moved by the Liberal Democrats here and in the other place. There would be a clear presumption in favour of the minimum sentence. That was accepted when the debate on this amendment was held in the other place. The discretion of the court, which the Secretary of State has

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accepted in principle, would be properly defined to avoid injustice and the betrayal of victims that would follow from his wording.

In addition, there would be the added safeguard that in every case the Attorney-General would be able to appeal any sentence that he felt made undue use of the limited discretion being given to the court. If we are in government, we intend to make use of that discretion. I do not believe for a moment that 40 per cent. or 50 per cent. of cases that would otherwise trigger minimum sentences would result in an exercise by the courts of discretion. That was never the intention of this place or the other place. If that were to happen, it would obviously have to be looked at again by the House and by the Government.

In the other place, the amendment was supported not only by their Lordships on the Opposition Benches, but by 29 Conservative peers, including the noble Lord, Lord Hailsham, the former Conservative Lord Chancellor. The Secretary of State should consider that the next time he accuses anyone who supports the amendment of being soft on burglars and soft on drug dealers. Is he suggesting that that long list of distinguished former Law Officers, Lord Chancellors and other Ministers of the Crown in Conservative Administrations in the past 18 years are soft on crime, soft on drug dealers and soft on burglars? I hope that in the next six weeks he will seek to elevate the debate above such insults not only to us--we can take those--but to members of his own party.

The other place having made its decision on the amendment, the proper constitutional way would have been for this House to debate and vote on it in the usual way. It is for this elected House to make final decisions on all such matters. That is what I agreed with the Secretary of State, and what the Labour Front Bench in the other place voted on yesterday. I regret that that has not happened. In many respects, however, the other place did the Home Secretary a favour yesterday. The Home Secretary knows that there was substantial support for our amendment, on his own side in the House of Commons as well as in the other place. He knows that, had the amendment been subject to a vote here, he would have been in great danger of being defeated by his hon. Friends.

I have made it clear throughout proceedings on the Bill, and I make it clear now, that we support automatic life sentences for repeat rapists and other serious sexual and violent offenders, as laid down in the Bill. We support the principle of minimum sentences of three and seven years respectively for thrice-convicted burglars and drug dealers, and, under the amendment, the practice as well. If such arrangements are to achieve their end, however, they must work justly and efficiently. The amendments that we have tabled will help that process.

The Government go into this election with a worse record on crime than any Government since the war, and a worse record than any other major industrialised country. A former Home Office Minister, the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), toldThe Guardian on 1 August last year:

The Home Secretary has certainly lost the plot on law and order. Under his party, crime has rocketed, victims have suffered and communities have been disfigured by crime.

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The sooner the present Government are swept from office, the sooner we can again have measures to make our communities safe again.

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