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4 Dec 2002 : Column 946—continued

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Prime Minister's comments today introduce a slightly worrying feature to the debate? It is important that we have a rational debate, but for the Prime Minister to suggest—I also heard his words today—that those who are acquitted by juries are

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guilty seems to run counter to the entirety of our legal principles and to start our serious debate on quite the wrong foot.

Simon Hughes: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was extremely troubled by what the Prime Minister said in answer to the question asked from the Labour Benches. The Government are becoming increasingly obsessed with putting up the conviction rate as though that were the right test and with trying to produce a system that makes that outcome more likely. The danger is that they will start to cut corners, to eat away at liberties and to undermine the criminal justice system, which used to have the best reputation in the world.

Other things concern me. I hear mixed messages from the Government about whether the number of people in prison ought to be increased or decreased. The Prime Minister seems to say that more people need to be put in prison; the Home Secretary seems to say that fewer people need to be imprisoned. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches believe that many people who are in prison do not need to be there and that we should not seek to go on increasing the numbers.

It would be helpful if the Government would make it clear whether it is their wish that prison numbers should start to go down and that the recent huge increase and huge overcrowding are trends that should not be replicated, with the danger of 100,000 people being locked up, increasingly two to a cell and with increasingly unsuccessful outcomes.

Miss Widdecombe: Of course there is a difference between deploring overcrowding, as I did today, and taking a view as to whether more or fewer people should be in prison. With overcrowding, the number of places is inadequate no matter how many people there are. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that the aim of the justice system is not to imprison more or fewer people; the aim must be to find places where courts determine that custody is appropriate to protect the public.

Simon Hughes: I agree with the right hon. Lady, but if she looks at the figures—she probably knows them as well as I do and will probably remember them specifically from her time as a Minister—she will see that, 10 years ago, one in 26 people who appeared before the courts went into custody. Now, one in 13 do so—exactly double the number. The same number of people appears before the courts and I cannot believe that is it necessary for double the number of people to be sent into custody now compared with 10 years ago. That happens because fines or alternatives to custody are not considered or thought to be inadequate. [Interruption.] The right hon. Lady says from a sedentary position that there is more crime, but I have to challenge her: there is not.

Miss Widdecombe: I said that the system has brought crime down.

Simon Hughes: It may or may not have brought crime down, but the Liberal Democrats share the view of the Director General of the Prison Service that the length of

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prison sentences imposed by the courts, especially magistrates courts, is drifting upwards, as is the frequency with which they impose prison sentences, and that more effective alternatives to custody should be available so that the best punishment and treatment is provided.

Miss Widdecombe: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time; it is extremely generous of him. What I said from a sedentary position—I did not dare test his generosity by standing up again—was not that there is more crime now, but that the system brought crime down. Does he accept that, in fact, a sharp increase in the prison population has coincided with the only sharp decrease in crime that we have had in 30 years?

Simon Hughes: The answer is that, as the right hon. Lady rightly suggests, there is one recent period when an increase in the prison population coincided with a fall in the crime figures, but whether the two things are directly linked is much more disputable. All that I know from those who do such things for their day jobs all the time is that, at the moment, the prison system has a high failure rate in terms of reoffending, particularly for young people, but for adults as well. We need a more successful punishment regime, with fewer people being imprisoned and more people receiving punishment in the community so that they can keep their jobs and stop their families breaking up. That must be a better alternative.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he has been generous. Does he agree that community sentences will not work as an alternative to prison unless they are viewed as tough and rigorous by those who impose sentences—magistrates, mostly—and by victims? That is absolutely key if we are to keep the prison population down. What does he think about weekend prison, which seems expensive in terms of prison places? The key is to have community sentences—whether picking up litter or wiping away graffiti—that people can see are rigorous, tough and meaningful.

Simon Hughes: I have always taken the view that community sentences not only need to mean something, but to be seen to mean something. They must be seen to be worth imposing. They are getting much better. The Youth Justice Board and many other people have recently done a lot of work on them, but I entirely accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I agree that such sentences will often not be adequate, unless victims and others think that they represent real alternatives. As a postscript to that point, one of the things being explored in the hon. Gentleman's police authority area is the idea of victims and defendants confronting each other, so that the defendant understands the effect of his crime on the victim. The pilot schemes are not concluded, but it appears that it is much more likely that people will be persuaded not to repeat certain behaviour when they realise and accept the trauma that has been caused to the victim.

I am conscious that many other Members want and ought to be heard, so I shall be brief about my two other concerns about Government mixed messages, one of

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which is about money. The explanatory notes include the bill for the Government's custody plus and custody minus schemes. We have also had an announcement of more money in the coming year for the probation service. It is quite a large bill. The costs of implementation, over the next five years, will be £34 million, £195 million, £301 million, £361 million, £378 million and £390 million. According to the projection, the costs will continue at £390 million per year thereafter. It would be very helpful if, at the end of the debate, the Minister could tell us whether it is true that if we pass the Bill the Government will be able to fund the custody plus and custody minus schemes. Alternatively, is it true, as some of his ministerial colleagues have suggested recently, that it will be 10 or 12 years before the money comes through the system to provide the kind of intelligent sentencing system that we all agree is necessary?

The last mixed message relates to clause 9 on drugs. It is unclear to send a message that cannabis is much less harmful than heroin, crack cocaine and the rest yet legislate to make an arrestable offence with an imprisonment consequence for possession, as well as other things, as clause 9 seeks to do. It would be far better if the dealing and commercial exploitation of drugs was seen as the iniquity that needed to be punished and dealing in cannabis for personal use was seen in a different league.

I must refer to the three giant issues of the Bill. Liberal Democrats stand up for lay justice. Like the Conservative spokesman, for us, lay magistrates and lay jury trials are the cornerstone of a criminal justice system in which the public have confidence. Because we are dealing with the fundamentals of liberty—whether people are arrested, detained, convicted and imprisoned—the best people to decide those matters with confidence are those who come from the community concerned, not the professionals. We cannot therefore accept the changes that are currently recommended.

On the change in the rules of evidence, it cannot be right, as the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee said, that there is wider scope for evidence relating to a defendant's previous life to be brought into a trial when what they are being judged on is the specific offence with which they are charged. There is a huge risk that people will in future be judged not by whether they have done something on a particular day, but by how they have lived their life and whether they have done things wrong previously. Rehabilitation is not possible if people cannot escape from their past. It is too easy to pick up people who have been regular offenders. That changes the presumption of a fair trial and the presumption of innocence in a way that we cannot accept.

In relation to jury trials, the Minister knows—because we have had a conversation and debates about our objections—how successful serious fraud trials are. We have been reminded of that today. There are other ways of dealing with such cases. We can have assessors together with the judge, a smaller jury, a jury in which people are able to commit themselves for a long period, additional written material to help jurors, and an adviser to make sure that people understand the issues, but we need not get rid of the principle that, ultimately, the jury decides.

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On the dangers in relation to the risk of intimidation, we understand the issue, but the threshold is too low. The serious risk applying to one defendant could suddenly mean that the jury trial disappears for all. We do not believe that that is right, and we hope that the Government will accept that that must be changed.

On double jeopardy, in answer to the question asked by the right hon. Member for West Dorset, we do not have an absolutist view. We do believe, however, that questions must be answered before we need to change the law. How will we ensure that, in future, any acquittal on a serious offence in the list will not, in effect, be a conditional acquittal? How will the press be prevented from determining the jury's view as it starts the second trial? We also express concern, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) said in his intervention on the Home Secretary, that the Law Commission recommendations in relation to the test and the charges—namely, murder—have been greatly widened by the Government. Again, we would require a much narrower range of opportunities for retrial. My honest judgment is that retrial only on the basis of scientific evidence that was not previously available might be agreed across the parties and would be likely to find more acceptance outside the House.

I have a long list of lesser first division points, although I can only deal with a couple. We share the concerns of the Home Affairs Committee that increased detention may not be the right answer, but more effective inquiry is needed in the time provided. We are worried that the criteria for the most serious violent and sex offenders—from whom we agree the public need greater protection—have been drawn too widely. For example, one of the offences in the list of those that would put someone in the indefinite sentence category is soliciting by men, which will be abolished in the sexual offences Bill that will be introduced in only a few months' time. It seems to us that the net is too wide. Ministers should seriously consider whether a decision later in a sentence on whether someone who has been convicted for a serious sex or violence offence is safe to be released should come back to court, so that a judge, having heard the case in public, can decide whether that person is fit to go back into the community. I do not accept the Home Secretary's view that there can never be redemption or rehabilitation, however terrible the crimes are. People may commit crimes that make them reviled as the scum of the earth, but even some of those individuals may later come good and be safe to be released. We must always allow for that eventuality.

In relation to the increase in magistrates' powers, the risk is that we have much more severe sentences, although we do not have objections in principle to more severe sentences for persistent offenders. In our view, however, there should never be mandatory sentences; otherwise, we will end up with a nonsense in which people are sentenced to a long term of imprisonment when their last offence may have been after a very long interval or may have been much less serious than those that they committed previously. That is why we are clear too that Ministers should not set tariffs. Parliament should set a maximum sentence, judges should set the actual sentence and, in dangerous and violent cases, the courts should decide when somebody should be released.

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Since I have been my party's spokesman, I have tried to make it clear, along with my hon. Friends, that our party is not weak on crime or naive about the causes of crime. Like everybody else, my focus group is my community. We are all formed by our experiences, and crime is at the top of many people's agenda. But neither will we be weak on justice nor on defending the rights and liberties of an ordinary person who happens to be a defendant, possibly for the first time in their life, and possibly only once in their life in a criminal trial.

Like the hon. and learned Member for Medway, although we tabled a reasoned amendment, it was not accepted, about which we make no criticism. We will therefore vote against the Second Reading of the Bill. That is not because we think that everything in the Bill is wrong—as I said to the Minister, we welcome many aspects of it—but because we believe that we need to register our opposition to some fundamentally wrong elements in it. We invite hon. Members on both sides of the House who feel able to do so to join us in that opposition. We will then work constructively, in this place and in the other place, because, when legislating for criminal justice, it is important that everybody thinks that justice has won, and that everybody feels that the system will treat them more justly in the future than it does at present.

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