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House of Commons

Monday 9 June 1997

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


Mandatory Minimum Sentences

1. Mr. Streeter: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what plans he has to introduce mandatory minimum sentences. [914]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): I am considering the relevant provisions of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 against the need to ensure that sufficient provision is available within the Prison Service.

Mr. Streeter: I am afraid that that answer does absolutely nothing for me. The Labour party talked tough in opposition and, apparently, is already acting soft in government. Why will not the Secretary of State join us in sending a clear signal to serious repeat offenders, by agreeing today to introduce minimum mandatory sentences?

Mr. Straw: I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I dare say that it will be the first of many occasions when I do so. The hon. Gentleman, however, is way behind the times. I made it clear on 19 May, in the debate on the Loyal Address, that I fully intended to implement section 2 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 relating to life sentences for serious violent and sexual offenders as soon as possible and, I hope, within the time frame laid down by the previous Administration.

Mr. Beith: What is the Home Secretary's estimate of the number of new prison places that would be required to implement each of the mandatory sentencing provisions of that legislation? Is he seriously prepared to contemplate the massive diversion of resources from policing and crime prevention that would be involved in building another 10 or 20 new prisons over and above those required to deal with the present trend in prison numbers to implement that legislation, which had much of the character of a confidence trick by the previous Administration, willing the end without willing the means?

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right in his last point. The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) made several undertakings about the future of the prison population

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without the backing of his right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke)--a habit which he has not broken out of in opposition.

However, I was asked specific questions. It is estimated that section 2 would lead to an increase of between 600 and 800 prison places over a 15-year period. As most of those offenders--the serious violent and sexual offenders--are bound to be sentenced to prison in any event, the impact in the next five to 10 years on the prison population will be small.

It is estimated that section 3, relating to drug dealers, would have an impact on the prison population over a similar period of about 200 places.

The estimated impact on the prison population of section 4, relating to repeat burglars, is significant. It is also significant because the most that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe could do was to provide an illustration of when that policy might be implemented, sometime in 2001--near the next general election.

Mr. Llwyd: I remind the Home Secretary that, in Committee, there was much talk about the need for a working definition of "exceptional circumstances" in which a judge could exercise discretion not to impose mandatory sentences. In view of the considerable time spent on that subject in Committee--I remember that the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) spent much time, as I did, trying to knead that out--does the Home Secretary have any information on that very important aspect?

Mr. Straw: My view is that section 1, which sets down the special circumstances that would apply to sections 3 and 4 of the Act relating to drug dealers and repeat burglars, is in satisfactory order. When he was Secretary of State, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe denied that. He put his argument to the people of this country at the recent general election. It was the only law and order issue that he argued about throughout a six-week campaign; the people of the country gave a clear answer in that regard.

On section 2, relating to automatic life sentences for serious sexual and violent offenders on a second or subsequent occasion, I am also satisfied that the narrower definition of "exceptional circumstances" is the appropriate one.

Criminal Activity

2. Mr. Jim Cunningham: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what proposals he has to address the circumstances that lead to criminal activity. [915]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alun Michael): As well as speeding up youth justice, we plan to implement a wide range of measures to divert potential offenders away from criminal activity. We intend to have parental responsibility orders to ensure that parents face up to their responsibilities when their children misbehave and new child protection orders to help keep children off the streets and out of trouble late at night. We are also determined to break the vicious circle between crime and

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drug and alcohol misuse, and, through our welfare to work programme, enable young people to find work and stay in work.

Mr. Cunningham: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment to the Front Bench. This is the first time that I have had an opportunity to do so. Does he recall the series of meetings held both in Coventry and in the House of Commons to discuss juvenile crime and, in particular, community safety orders? Can he give us an idea when those safety orders will be introduced so that we can satisfy people in Coventry, who have been extremely concerned about that?

Mr. Michael: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I know of the great interest that he took in this matter during the last Parliament. I was grateful for his active support on a number of Committees dealing with legislation. We should also pay tribute to the efforts made by Coventry city council, working with the local police, to find a way, despite the gap in legislation, to control some of the difficult problems that have arisen. I agree that there is a problem. When we were in opposition, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary touched a chord when he proposed community safety orders, which will enable the police and local authorities to tackle the real problems experienced throughout the country, and he was applauded for that. We intend to make allowance for introducing those orders within the crime and disorder Bill, which will be debated later in the Session.

Mr. Greenway: Will the new Labour Government honour the pledge of the last Conservative Government and introduce more closed circuit television cameras in towns and villages, as they have had a devastating effect in reducing crime?

Mr. Michael: The hon. Gentleman's question would have been more impressive had he checked the Home Office budget. He would then have seen that although the previous Home Secretary made statements during the election period, he made no financial allowance to fulfil those manifesto commitments. He has not put the money in the budget.

Mr. Cunliffe: Is not one of the principal reasons for the rise in youth crime pointed out by many licensees and suppliers: under-age drinking is on the increase? Does he agree that the best deterrent would be to introduce some form--voluntary or compulsory--of identity card, to include photograph and age?

Mr. Michael: A voluntary identity card is still under consideration, but my hon. Friend is right to identify the problem of youth drinking and rising youth crime. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), has taken up the issue of alcopops with the industry and is pursuing it vigorously. Alcohol-related crime is a serious problem. The steps that we intend to take in relation to youth crime will have a significant impact, but the problem of drink-related crime among young people, as among older groups, is serious.

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Prison Population (Growth)

3. Mr. Boswell: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what plans he has to curb the rate of growth in the prison population. [916]

Mr. Straw: Within a broad sentencing framework laid down by Parliament, who is sentenced to imprisonment and for how long is a matter for independent decision by the courts. On present trends, the prison population is likely to rise in the foreseeable future. In the longer term, the growth in the prison population should be affected by action that we are taking to deal with the appalling delays in the criminal justice system and, above all, by our policies to tackle youth crime to stop so many young offenders graduating to adult crime and adult prisons.

Mr. Boswell: I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new position. He will have heard the earlier exchanges on the importance of differentiating between dangerous criminals and society's demands for their incarceration. Does he accept that we simply cannot go on building prisons for ever? Will he take the longest and most careful possible look at the distinction between those who must be in prison for the public's safety and those for whom alternative approaches may be appropriate, whether or not he gets the benefit of his social policies in due course? Will he undertake to look carefully at the situation in Onley in my constituency, where his proposal for a second prison is giving rise to a great deal of concern on the part of my constituents?

Mr. Straw: I thought that there was a reason for the question, and it emerged right at the end. Everybody wants criminals locked up, but not in his own backyard.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations. Despite the debates that took place at the end of the last Parliament about mandatory minimum sentences, every single person currently serving a prison sentence is in prison because of sentencing decisions made under the Criminal Justice Act 1991 by independent sentencers. Any Government must take account of the public spending consequences of a rising prison population. At the same time, we must recognise that, after a period of 18 years during which crime doubled, there are many serious criminals whom courts consider it appropriate to lock up in prison.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: Does the prison system that my right hon. Friend inherited from a Conservative Government really work, or will there have to be revolutionary changes in it?

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend is right to say that prison works for some prisoners. It plainly works to incapacitate prisoners. Of the 60,000 people currently in prison, the courts have made their own independent judgment that that is the most appropriate place for them to serve their sentence. Like almost every other hon. Member, I do not want people to be sentenced unnecessarily to prison, but sentencers will not use community sentences to the extent that perhaps they should, unless and until there is more public confidence in those sentences, and the public can be assured that their safety is guaranteed as far as possible when people serve community sentences.

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Madam Speaker: Before I call the next speaker, may I ask Ministers to remember that they are addressing the House and not the individual who put the question? We would all like to hear the answer, and I like to see handsome faces, even if they are only in profile.

Miss Widdecombe: I invite the right hon. Gentleman to note that I have two prisons in my backyard, of which I am extremely proud. Considering that he will have to house the population growth and additional prisoners as a result of the previous Government's very apt sentencing policy, will he clarify once and for all what hitherto has been fudged on a number of occasions? Will he tell the taxpayer and the public at large whether he will honour current private sector contracts and let all prisons be privately managed in future under the private finance initiative?

Mr. Straw: I apologise for the fact that I was turning away from you, Madam Speaker. That was a serious omission on my part.

I made it clear before the election that we would honour existing contracts that were in the pipeline. I said that in a lecture to the Bourne Trust in January 1995. With regard to renewal, that depends on value-for-money considerations, as I made clear on 19 May.

Mr. Flynn: When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State drafts his welcome new law which will apply to hon. Members and introduce prison sentences for acts of corruption, will he ensure that that Act applies retrospectively?

Mr. Straw: Much as I would be tempted to make such an Act apply retrospectively, it is an important principle that Parliament should not pass retrospectively Acts which make into crimes previous acts that were not crimes.

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