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Exeter Office

11. Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): What recent discussions he has had with staff at his Department's office in Exeter about reorganisation of his Department; and if he will make a statement. [131274]

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The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): I refer my hon. Friend to the answer given on Monday 24 July, Official Report, columns 472-73W. As he knows, because he was present, I last met union officials in Exeter on Saturday 8 July and I have met and corresponded with other hon. Members who have a direct constituency interest in the reorganisation.

Mr. Bradshaw: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his wise decision to keep the Exeter MAFF office open and convey on behalf of the staff in Exeter and the wider community their heartfelt thanks for his vote of confidence in their work. Will he say something about the reports that we might get even more jobs in Exeter as a result of the restructuring? That would be extremely welcome in a city that suffered so grievously under Government job cuts under the Conservatives, particularly in respect of defence.

Mr. Brown: The sites that will be the basis for the new--CAPPA--Common Agricultural Policy Payments Agency proposals can expect an inflow of employment, although the numbers are not yet finally decided. Clearly, however, all the jobs that are at present on the site are safe and there is a real prospect of new jobs being created.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): On behalf of all farmers in Cornwall and Devon I also welcome the Minister's announcement. Will he take a step further in recommending to the Government generally that the way in which the regional service centres operate must be more closely aligned to the work of other Government agencies in the south-west as in other regions? I also congratulate the Minister's staff in the regional service centres on the work that they do. Does he recognise that they too have a problem in that they are often unable to use their own discretion and common sense in deciding on the issues that come before them? All too often they feel that they are too restricted by the regulations and prevented from using their intelligence.

Mr. Brown: A number of things struck me in making this series of difficult decisions. First, all Members of Parliament with a legitimate constituency interest perfectly properly made representations on behalf of their area offices, as did hon. Members representing neighbouring constituencies. Secondly, I was deluged with representations from user groups speaking up for the services that they received from their regional offices. In part, that conditioned the Government's response to the representations received.

I considered the question of closer working with Government offices alongside the proposals for changes in the administration of the common agricultural policy payments through the regional offices and the intervention board. I intend to move the regional directors and policy support staff into the Government offices of the regions. That reorganisation is now being discussed. In addition, I want to retain a regional presence in each region, although not necessarily in the Government offices of the regions. That presence will provide a face-to-face interface with the client groups--an element of the representation that came through very strongly. Also, that regional presence will carry out the all-important work on the rural development regulation, by which I set enormous store.

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The Solicitor-General was asked--

Football Hooligans

29. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): What discussions he has had with representatives of the police on prosecution policy in respect of football hooligans. [131293]

The Solicitor-General (Mr. Ross Cranston): The Crown Prosecution Service prosecutes those accused of football-related offences whenever appropriate. It also plays a key role in seeking suitable bail conditions to prevent further offending and in reminding the courts of their powers and duties to make orders to prevent hooliganism, both at home and abroad. I have received no representations from the police on the subject.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for that answer, which was a triumph of diplomacy over candour. I hope that he will now answer the question that I posed instead of the one that I did not. What discussions has he had, or does he intend to have, with the police? What criticisms of Government policy does he expect to hear? Why, given that anti-social behaviour orders have become a non-event under this Government, should we take the Government's intentions on this matter remotely seriously?

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman does not often allow facts to stand in the way of rhetoric, but the Government have pursued the matter since the Football (Offences and Disorder) Act 1999 came into force. The CPS has prosecuted cases involving ordinary offences arising from football hooliganism, such as assault, public disorder and criminal damage. The police refer cases to the CPS, which deals with them as the law requires--by looking at the evidence and taking into account the public interest.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that many football clubs now have more police-free matches than ever before, because discussions with police have led to a reduction in violence? No one condones the actions of the minority hooligan element, but people want action to be taken where necessary to ensure that hooligans do not deter normal supporters from going to games and do not cause disturbances in town centres.

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend makes a good point. In the Football (Disorder) Bill, which the House will consider again today, the Government have taken what we regard as the minimum steps needed to deal with the public order problem that has infuriated and shamed the nation. The Opposition have been playing games with the Bill, but I hope that it will be dealt with efficiently and effectively this afternoon.

I should tell the House that, since the 1999 Act came into force, some 255 domestic football banning orders have been obtained, and 36 international orders.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Does the Solicitor-General agree that if the police and judges were

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half as tough in dealing with hooligans and miscreants as Madam Speaker has been in dealing with the parliamentary variety of the species, the world would be a better, safer and saner place?

The Solicitor-General: On this, Madam Speaker's last Question Time, I have only words of commendation about her, especially as we both represent part of the Tipton area in the west midlands.

The courts deal with these matters effectively. Sentencing is a matter for the courts; it is not a matter in which the Executive should have a role.

Sentencing Referrals

30. Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): What criteria the Law Officers apply when determining whether or not to refer an unduly lenient sentence to the Court of Appeal. [131294]

The Solicitor-General (Mr. Ross Cranston): The Attorney-General and I have the power to refer sentences to the Court of Appeal if we consider them to be unduly lenient. An unduly lenient sentence is one which is not merely lenient but falls outside the range of sentences that a judge, applying his or her mind to all the relevant circumstances of the case, could reasonably consider appropriate. The appropriate range must be determined by consideration of the principles of sentencing and other guidance laid down by the Court of Appeal.

Shona McIsaac: I have been prompted to ask the question by unduly lenient sentences for sex offences, and sex offences involving children. No doubt many right hon. and hon. Members have received representations from families and victims who rarely believe that a sentence is appropriate. Are families and victims consulted in these distressing cases, and are there any plans to extend powers in relation to sex offences and sex offences against children?

The Solicitor-General: Unduly lenient sentences come to us for referral from the Crown Prosecution Service or, in some cases, from victims and relatives of victims who write asking for the sentence to be considered. We act at the prompting of victims and relatives and of the CPS.

On sex offences, an order was laid the other day that will come into force by October. It extends the range of sentences that can be considered by us to be unduly lenient and can therefore be referred to the Court of Appeal. The range includes sentences for drug trafficking, illegal importation of pornographic material involving children and for offences specifically against children, such as unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under 16, inciting a girl under 16 to have incestuous intercourse and gross indecency with a child.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Can the Law Officers take any steps in respect of judges who persistently pass inappropriate sentences, whether too lenient or too harsh? I have in mind the recent case of a headmistress who slapped a pupil who was attacking her in the classroom and was threatened with jail. Does that

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not show that some judges are almost as out of touch with public opinion as this Government are increasingly seen as being?

The Solicitor-General: If anyone is out of touch with public opinion it is Conservative Members.

As I said a moment ago to the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who has since disappeared, we cannot interfere with the judiciary. The independent judiciary is a very valued feature of our system but, in particular cases, unduly lenient sentences can be referred. I do not think that the figures would show that the sentences passed by particular judges are being referred more than once.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that it is rare to be able to talk to the victims of crime or to those who apprehend the criminals. However, they raise the problem, as they perceive it, of overly lenient sentences. I understood my hon. and learned Friend to say that action was taken only if the judge strayed outside the prescribed range of sentences. That must cover a multitude of possible degrees of guilt. Is there not a case for allowing the questioning of a sentence, even when it is within the prescribed range, if it is not appropriate?

The Solicitor-General: Sentencing depends on particular circumstances. A whole range of circumstances applies to manslaughter, for example--a death might be akin to murder, or it might follow from fortuitous circumstances. The range of circumstances in any particular case is quite wide. Therefore, the sentencing guidelines laid down by the Court of Appeal are similarly broad, giving a range of sentences. It is only when the sentence falls outside that range, given the particular circumstances, that we refer the matter. My hon. Friend is right that the courts sometimes do not seem to take into account the facts of the case. However, the facts are often mediated through the press and we do not get a full report.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): At the risk of giving you praise, thanks and congratulation fatigue, Madam Speaker, may I add my own heartfelt and sincere thanks, praise and congratulations on your long and successful period in office and wish you a very long and happy retirement from your duties in this House?

Is the Solicitor-General considering yet further widening the range of offences for which unduly lenient sentence applications may be made by the Attorney-General or the Solicitor-General to the Court of Appeal, beyond the order that he has just announced?

The Solicitor-General: In our manifesto, we said that we would look at the matter. We considered it, and the three areas that I identified came immediately to mind for extension. There are problems in terms of resources and work load, in that the Attorney-General and I have to consider each application. The number of cases coming to us from victims, relatives and the CPS is tending to increase every year. However, we certainly have not excluded a further extension of the offences that can be referred.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): As a member of the Magistrates Association, I am concerned

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about judicial inconsistency. Is there not a strong case for more use to be made of fixed penalties, whether they are applied through an administrative mechanism or through the courts themselves?

The Solicitor-General: As my hon. Friend knows, there are a certain number of mandatory sentences. Fixed penalties have been effective in terms of a number of less serious offences. There is no reason why other offences should not come within the net.

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