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Mr. Simon Hughes: As the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said, new clause 1, in the name of Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members, is a composite of two clauses moved by each party in Committee--the one to which the hon. Gentleman alludes in relation to assaults on police officers, which we supported, and one tabled by the Liberal Democrats dealing with assaults on ambulance, fire service and NHS personnel. We are happy that those matters have been rolled together, resulting in a portmanteau proposal.

In Committee, the Minister put forward certain arguments for not accepting the new clause or one like it. I am aware that two relevant matters are in the background--the review by Lord Justice Auld of the criminal justice system and the review on sentencing, both of which are due to report shortly. Whoever takes office after the next general election will be obliged to consider both of those, take advice and consult on them, and may well be minded to introduce legislation as a result.

I understand that in relation to all the new clauses, it is perfectly reasonable to say that they might properly be left until those two reviews are complete; I accept and understand that. I think that the Minister of State accepted that, although the criteria for home detention curfew were arrived at in a different way, there was nothing to preclude an exemption from that criteria by category of offence, and that it would be perfectly proper to review the system to achieve the results that we wanted.

I urge the Minister to be more positive and, ideally, to accept the new clause, even though there is a review coming. I am not naive enough to pretend that the argument that we should wait for the review is not reasonable, but the proposal has already achieved a great deal of agreement.

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In addition, the concern about the issues addressed by the proposal is very great. Therefore, if we want to ensure that our legislation is credible and that we appear to respond to reasonable public demand by means of joined-up government, it would be logical to give a signal to the police that officers will be better looked after by the criminal justice system. The same signal must also be sent to personnel in the public services and emergency services.

I do not doubt for a moment that Ministers and hon. Members of all parties representing constituencies across the United Kingdom want us to support and work with those who carry out those key, front-line jobs. Sometimes, those people are attacked, assaulted, injured or even, in some tragic cases, killed while on duty. We must reduce the chances of that happening.

Dr. Ladyman: As I understand it, the new clause would exempt certain prisoners from the early release scheme not because of what they did, but because of who they did it to. That strikes me as a very illiberal concept. I believe that the hon. Gentleman accepts the principle of the early release scheme, but does he not agree that it should apply across the board, irrespective of whom a crime is committed against? That should not be the criterion that should inform a judgment.

Mr. Hughes: That is a perfectly proper consideration, and I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. In fact, two different types of criterion exist. The first has to do with the type of offence committed; the second with the risk associated with releasing people early, as the Minister set out very clearly. Liberal Democrat Members have been careful to refer to the scheme as the home detention curfew scheme. Under it, people are still detained, technically; they are not at liberty and they must meet certain requirements. The scheme means that a risk assessment has found it to be safe for the person involved to serve the final part of a sentence at home.

In fact, the scheme has proved to be safe in more than nine out of 10 cases. All we argue is that a third consideration should be that, for some people, the person against whom an offence was committed is relevant. That is why I and my colleagues have been careful to limit the new clause to people whose work requires them to be in uniform in places that are obvious, unarguable and logical to the public. It would be difficult to widen the scope of the proposal to include all public sector workers. Some public sector workers might not wear a uniform, for example, and there would be difficult debates about private sector employees who are contracted out to public bodies.

I understand the argument, but a severe problem exists, as Ministers from the Department of Health and others have made clear. There are assaults on NHS staff, on emergency workers in the fire service and, especially--as I have heard myself--on workers in the ambulance service and on police officers.

The present law contains offences against a police officer and defines an assault on a constable as a separate offence. There is no offence of assault on a Member of Parliament, and I am not arguing that there should be. However, I merely want to show that the law already contains a provision similar to the one contained in the new clause. It is not new in law, and the public policy requirement makes it proper to introduce the proposed measure now.

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As I indicated in Committee, Liberal Democrat Members are not minded to support the other new clauses in the group at the moment. I hope that I said straightforwardly then that we were reserving our position on the proposal that is now new clause 2 and the other proposals. We believe that it is better to wait for the review and a general debate about sentencing policy in the context of a debate about criminal justice policy. That debate can be reasonably held later in the year, whether or not a general election is held in the meantime.

6.15 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): I wish to make a few remarks in relation to new clause 3. There is some confusion about what the Government think goes on in the courts, and what in fact goes on there. The same confusion is evident also within the Government.

I discussed this matter with the Minister of State when we met at a criminal counsel consultative committee reception in Lancaster house before Christmas. He candidly admitted that the Government had failed to implement many of the intentions expressed in the 1997 general election manifesto and in other public pronouncements since the election.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), I am a Crown court recorder. I sit in court and sentence defendants who have been found guilty by juries of criminal offences. From time to time, I sentence them to prison, but I also deploy sentences involving a community penalty. However, at no time in the several years that I have been a recorder have I ever mentioned in my sentencing remarks the home detention curfew scheme.

I made some inquiries of the Judicial Studies Board, which is located just above Labour party headquarters in Millbank, to see whether I was in error in that regard. I telephoned and asked whether, since January 1999--when the Government's amendment to the criminal law came into force--I should have made mention of the scheme in my sentencing remarks. However, the JSB staff to whom I spoke were unable to tell me anything at all about the need for sentencers to mention the HDC scheme in their sentencing remarks.

I wrote to the JSB, either just before or just after Christmas--I cannot remember exactly when--but have yet to receive a substantive reply. However, I am reasonably sure that, were I required as a recorder to mention in my sentencing remarks the effect of the HDC scheme, the JSB would have issued amended sentencing guidance. That has not happened, and the board is usually very good at keeping us up to date with procedure and the law.

I comply with the practice direction of January 1998, as do full-time judges and other recorders. That direction was issued by the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham. Last autumn, I attempted to give some young offenders a non-custodial sentence that involved being tagged and kept at home. That sentence was within the law, but those people in the Home Office or the Prison Service who administer the home detention curfew system were unable to carry out the sentence. They did not have the required bits of equipment, nor any ability to monitor the young offenders whom I had sentenced. In the case that I was

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dealing with, it seemed sensible not to send the teenage offenders into custody. That would not have done the public much good, and I came to the conclusion that custody would have done the offenders a great deal of harm.

A month or so later, in my capacity as the recorder with the carriage of that particular case, I received a letter telling me that, unfortunately, I could not hand out the sentence that I proposed as the relevant department lacked the necessary equipment. I therefore had to reconstitute the court and call back to it, at some public expense, the lawyers involved--both solicitors and counsel--and the defendants. In essence, I had to set them free, because there was nothing that could be done that lay within the competence of the prison service, the Home Office or the police, or for which those bodies had the appropriate equipment.

I was told--either in the letter that I received, or in some other way that I cannot now recall--by the relevant administrator or civil servant that, given the absence of any monitoring equipment, the home detention curfew system would have worked only if the police had, by chance, picked up the defendants for some other offence. If that had happened, I was told, it was possible that the police would have discovered that the defendants should have been in doors at the times specified by the sentence--say between 7 pm and 7 am.

I was not very happy with that, and neither, I think, was the Minister when I told him about it at Lancaster house last year. He made an excellent speech at Lancaster house, on the occasion of the funeral of Donald Dewar--the hon. Gentleman can check the date. He spoke about his work and the Government's intentions in this sector of public policy. Unfortunately, the Government have failed to implement the promises that they made in their manifesto and in their other public pronouncements.

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