Previous SectionIndexHome Page

13 Jan 2003 : Column 416—continued

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. I have no intention of attempting to compete with him in my powers of intellect, but I suggest to him that the Government's policy is very simple. It is to say one thing and then appoint subordinates such as the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice who will quietly arrange for something else to happen at ground level.

Mr. Letwin: I would assume because of the source and its plausibility that my hon. Friend is right, except that I think it is very difficult to describe the Lord Chancellor as a subordinate. Indeed, I suspect that, were it not said in this House, my hon. Friend's remark about the Lord Chancellor might lead to a legal action. I believe that the Lord Chancellor might think that it lowered him in the expectations of right-thinking men to be regarded as a subordinate. He may well believe that the Prime Minister is some form of subordinate; after all, I believe that he was one of the Lord Chancellor's clerks or pupils. The Lord High Chancellor of the United Kingdom is not a subordinate. He is clearly the most senior Law Officer of the United Kingdom, or at any rate of England and Wales—or at any rate of something.

I heard with my own ears what the Lord Chancellor said when he appeared on a radio programme. It was not an April fools' joke; it may be that the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis was merely trying to fool us, but he was not. In a briefing, Mr. Alastair Campbell or some other Downing street minion who is genuinely a subordinate said that they were not sure what he said, but I heard him, so I was sure. What I do not understand is what on earth he meant. I do not know what the Prime Minister's spokesman meant when he slapped down—I believe that that is the phrase—the Lord Chancellor. I would not like to try doing it myself, but he apparently did so. I do not know what the Home Secretary said when he stood with the Attorney-General and the Lord Chief Justice—

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): Waffle.

Mr. Letwin: Yes, that it is exactly it. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Nobody in the United Kingdom has the slightest idea what the Government's policy is on the sentencing of burglars, but the burglars are beginning to get an idea. Their idea is roughly that, on the whole, except in appropriate circumstances, as the Prime Minister said—we do not know what those circumstances are—they should not expect to go to jail. That is, of course, if they are investigated. If they are not investigated they are unlikely to go to jail because they will not be caught in the first place. However, if they are caught, and thus among the unlucky few who have been investigated, they might go to jail, but they will not.

13 Jan 2003 : Column 417

Perhaps they will under appropriate circumstances or after the second or third time that they have been caught.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Letwin: I shall give way shortly in anticipation of some blinding insight into the Government's policy.

I have been jesting, but there is a serious issue. Confusion has been sown, affecting a subject that is not a laughing matter for many of our constituents. They regard burglary as serious and they want to be protected against it. They have noticed what we, the Home Secretary and his statisticians and researchers have noticed. The Home Office has paid for a thorough survey, entailing great expense, of sentencing policy and its effects on crime. Lo and behold, it shows that burglary is the one crime that tends to be significantly affected by sentencing policy. It shows exactly the same as the British crime survey and recorded crime figures.

That is why I said to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) that we would return to the efforts of my right hon. and learned Friend the current shadow Chancellor. From the moment he put pressure on the judiciary to increase sentences for burglary, the trend decreased. According to the BCS, that trend levelled off from 2000 and the burglary rate started rising.

The announcements, counter-announcements, unannouncements and disannouncements of the past week will affect burglary statistics badly and they are therefore no laughing matter. They will affect our constituents adversely.

Ian Lucas: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that sentencing individual burglars in individual cases should be a matter for the individual judge who has heard the facts?

Mr. Letwin: Yes, but—[Interruption.] No, I unequivocally agree with the hon. Gentleman, but guidelines exist, and the Lord Chief Justice currently sets them. Under the Criminal Justice Bill, a sentencing council will set them, with some consultation with Parliament. We shall propose amendments. It is time to remove Ministers—of all parties—from the position, which they have held for many years, of well-informed commentators on sentencing policy, holding forth from the public bar of a public house. It is time for the House to take charge of sentencing policy guidelines.

The judgments of judges in individual cases are properly the preserve of the judiciary, but I have long considered the matter in the past year and the events of the past week have crystallised my view.

Mr. Blunkett: Does that constitute a sudden spasm, a new initiative, a knee-jerk reaction or has it taken 18 months, the Bill, our proposals for sentencing guidelines and our decision to involve Parliament for the

13 Jan 2003 : Column 418

right hon. Gentleman to make the amazing intellectual leap to wishing to ensure that Parliament has control over sentencing guidelines?

Mr. Letwin: Oddly enough, none of those things. I began speaking about the matter in July, having begun considering it in March.

Mr. Bryant: Began.

Mr. Letwin: No. XHaving begun" is a form of the verb that takes one backwards, not forwards, for the hon. Gentleman's education.

In December, I issued a statement that it was official Tory party policy to move an amendment to the effect that I described. Given the circumstances, I do not blame the Home Secretary for not noticing. However, I hope that we can reach consensus on the matter and give the Government room for manoeuvre. I accept that some members of the judiciary will be critical of the step that I would like to take. However, I hope that creating a clear distinction between an individual judge in a case and policy guidelines means that we achieve a lasting settlement.

I am conscious that the Home Secretary's problems with, for example, gun crime, are not unprecedented.

As things stand, Parliament has but three options. It can set a maximum that has little effect in practice, and is modulated through the guidelines into whatever the then judiciary seek to modulate it into; it can set mandatory sentences that are too rigid to accommodate the judgment of an individual judge; or it can set mandatory sentences with exceptions that quickly become the norm through policy guidelines set by the Lord Chief Justice.

None of those methods is satisfactory. Our fellow citizens expect that, when they elect us and send us to this place, they will influence not just the legislative definition of crimes but the effect of so defining them. The ordinary person believes, I suspect, what I believed 18 months ago, before I took on this crazy job. I was under the lunatic misapprehension that Parliament set the basic sentencing framework and judges then interpreted it in individual cases, but that is not so at present, and it is the state of affairs that we need to achieve.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Is my right hon. Friend aware of a case that arose in my constituency last week? Gary Callaby admitted three offences of burglary, one of theft and one of arson, and asked for four other offences of burglary to be taken into consideration. The judge said that if the latest guidelines had not come out, it would have been a prison sentence. There is one burglar in my constituency who is laughing, and one judge who is extremely angry about the way in which his hands were tied.

Mr. Letwin: My hon. Friend makes a serious point, which relates to a specific case. If he and I were judges, we would be bound to pay the most solemn attention to the guidelines produced by the Lord Chief Justice. That is the problem: there is a disjunction between the view of the very senior judiciary and what I think is the view of about 98 per cent. of our fellow citizens, and—this is the

13 Jan 2003 : Column 419

irony—the joint view, I suspect, of the Home Secretary and myself. Both sides of the House overwhelmingly support a particular stance on the guidelines; many of the judiciary themselves support it; a vast weight of the population supports it; yet we are powerless to bring it about, which cannot be right.

We find ourselves in a bizarre situation. The current Prime Minister came to power with some great slogans. XEducation, education, education" I think I remember, dimly. I recall also Xfrom welfare to work". Above all, however, I recall Xtough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". That is well on the way to becoming this Government's version of XCrisis? What crisis?".

The fact is that we have a crisis of police demoralisation. We have a crisis of confidence, or lack of confidence, of the people in the criminal justice system. We have a crisis of old people too frightened to leave their homes, who are in effect subject to a life sentence. We have a crisis of young mothers who dare not take their children to playgrounds. We have a crisis of streets and neighbourhoods that are under the control of gun gangs, pimps and drug dealers. We have a crisis that amounts to a retreat of civilisation and a loss of control of the streets for the honest citizen. The Government are failing on crime, and in so doing they are failing English society.

Next Section

IndexHome Page