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4 Dec 2002 : Column 971—continued

7.33 pm

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): Bills of this sort worry me hugely. Like the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore), I see no philosophical underpinning for many of the proposed changes. That does not apply to most of the legislation with which we must deal.

The Bill is supported by both Labour and the Conservatives, and of course it contains much that is good. Nevertheless, ending the double-jeopardy rule, allowing hearsay evidence and the admissibility of previous convictions constitute huge changes to our legal system, and, as far as I can tell, they are being proposed for reasons of administrative simplicity rather than on the basis of a deeply held conviction that they are right. They are not about securing justice.

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These measures do not form part of Labour's traditional view of justice, or of the judicial system; nor do they emanate from Conservative principles. Indeed, I believe that Conservative principles clearly state the opposite. F.A. Hayek—who has had a profound influence on much Conservative thinking over the past 30 years—pointed out that ancient, and therefore sometimes bafflingly obscure, traditions, tenets and principles had evolved over the centuries as a result of hundreds of thousands of instances of experience, and that the cumulative knowledge gained from those was far beyond the capacity of any one human mind. We may not even understand the reason for a particular tradition until it has been abolished, when the errors and catastrophes that it was designed to avoid start to occur again.

That does not mean that rules cannot evolve. Of course they can evolve and change, particularly through specific precedents in the Court of Appeal. That does not, however, mean the wholesale change proposed in the Bill. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) said in a briefing to The Independent in May 2000, ending the double-jeopardy rule would be

He said that Britain's Xunbreakable" tradition that all citizens are equal before the law and innocent until proved guilty would be Xseriously damaged" if the rule was scrapped. He added

So where do these measures come from? They certainly do not come from philosophical belief, but nor, it seems, do they come from experts and practitioners in the legal profession. We have heard from members of that profession in the Chamber today, but both the Bar Council and the Criminal Bar Association strongly oppose the measures to end double jeopardy. According to their briefing,

If these measures do not stem from philosophical belief and are not demanded by the practitioners, they can only have come from that source of ideas that parties can draw on only when in government—Home Office civil servants, bless them. I fear that once again we are being presented with a Bill based on administrative convenience, with no regard for the historic safeguards that formed the rock on which our freedoms stand. It is a rock that has been chipped away by both parties with increasing speed over the past few years. This is yet another Home Office Bill that deals only with the immediate symptoms, and does nothing to tackle the roots of crime.

The real problem that the Government should be—maybe are—seeking to address in the Bill is the problem of rising crime. Whatever Government figures may suggest, there is no doubt that crime is rising. Britain now experiences more crimes per 100,000 of the population than the United States, Italy, Germany and

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a host of other countries. The Government may from time to time produce figures that show something else, but I believe that the fact that we have dealt with 12 criminal justice Bills since 1997 speaks volumes.

The question is, how do we stem the rise in crime? Clause 126 sets out XPurposes of sentencing", which it says are punishment, reduction of crime including deterrence, protection of the public and reparation. I consider deterrence overwhelmingly the most important of those four principles, but if prison is to be a deterrent sentences must be of appropriate and sufficient length. Over the past 30 years prison sentences have become shorter, initially as a left-wing experiment to test the validity of prison but later because, under both parties, there was an attempt to control the ever-growing prison population as crime continued to rise. For example, the maximum prison sentence for burglary is 14 years, but the average sentence is just 22 months.

As a libertarian Conservative I strongly believe in the maximum freedom of the individual. I believe in keeping the number of laws, particularly criminal laws, to the minimum necessary to preserve that freedom. Once a person breaks those laws, however, he should be subject to severe penalties. I believe that the increase in crime over the past 30 years is largely due to the increasing leniency of sentencing, and I am optimistic that the Home Secretary agrees.

For many habitual criminals, a prison sentence is merely an occupational hazard rather than a life-changing catastrophe. Eighteen months in prison is a risk worth taking; eight full years is something else.

Mr. Andrew Turner: I find my hon. Friend's argument compelling, but he has introduced a mechanistic solution to what did appear to be a problem relating to the way in which the bulwarks that society is built on are being undermined. Which is more important, the failure of society to support and educate those who might commit crime, or the failure to punish them sufficiently after the crime has been committed?

Mr. Gibb: My hon. Friend makes a good point about recidivism and rehabilitation in prison, but the important point about the poor recidivism rates in this country is that the sentence itself is not a sufficient deterrent.

I welcome the fact that the Bill contains many provisions to increase maximum sentences, but a lot of discretion will still be left to judges. My concern is that the Bill may well discourage courts from passing further increases in prison sentences. The US has demonstrated beyond any doubt that raising the level of sentences leads to falling crime. For example, in the US, prison sentences for murder are, on average, three years longer than in England; sentences for rape and for robbery are four years longer; and sentences for assault are almost three years longer. Sentences for burglary are two years longer than in England and Wales. The consequence is that burglary rates in the US have declined dramatically since the mid-1980s—from about 75 burglaries per 1,000 households to just 28. Violent crime in the US has fallen year on year since 1994, to the lowest level ever recorded by 2001. In 1994, there were 51 episodes of violent crime per 1,000 population; by 2001, the figure had fallen to 24.

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If we in this country are to impose severe penalties on those who have committed crimes, however, we need to be sure that our judicial system is as infallible as humanly possible. We need in place every safeguard possible to avoid errors. We need principles such as the inadmissibility of previous convictions, so that we can be absolutely sure that a jury is not prejudiced in its duty to examine objectively the facts put before it. We need to keep the carefully constructed and evolved set of rules that govern the use of hearsay evidence, to ensure that what the jury is hearing is absolutely what was said. Sweeping away these safeguards will lead to an increase in the number of unsafe convictions, many of which will be traced back to this legislation. Magistrates courts already find 72 per cent. of those tried guilty, and Crown courts find 76 per cent. guilty. As the Financial Times commented recently:

There must be no shortcuts on the way to prison. Once a person is convicted, they should serve a sentence that is commensurate with the crime committed. If the state takes short cuts to get a conviction, the reputation of the judicial system will suffer as people lose faith in its ability to convict only the guilty. Notwithstanding the measures in the Bill, the consequence of that will undoubtedly be a reluctance to impose long prison sentences, because of a vague feeling that convictions are perhaps unsafe. That in turn will mean that conviction and punishment will continue to fail to provide the deterrent necessary to bring rising crime under control. In other words, a Bill designed ostensibly to help cut crime will actually result in crime continuing to rise.

I believe that the Bill is fundamentally and profoundly flawed. It will fail to deliver what the public want—less crime—while promising to do the opposite. It will fail to ensure that criminals serve sentences that deter them and others from committing crime in future. The public expect such measures, but I fear that they are not what the Bill will deliver. Instead, it will damage the reputation of the judicial system, and above all it will be responsible for a rise in the number of unsafe convictions and the perpetration of deep injustice.

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