Previous SectionIndexHome Page

13 Jan 2003 : Column 423—continued

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Do not knock the media.

Mr. Blunkett: I am not—I am taking up the point that no one believes the figures. Is it any surprise that that is so when people who have the intelligence to know better suggest that official statistics are either confusing or fiddled?

Mr. Cash: Does the Home Secretary remember that during an interview on the XToday" programme about first-time offenders, and in the context of the agreement between the Lord Chief Justice and the Attorney-General, the Lord Chancellor used the words

Does the Home Secretary agree with that statement?

Mr. Blunkett: For first-time offenders, I agree entirely and have just said so. I have made it absolutely clear that people who have committed non-violent offences for the first time should be considered for tough community sentences or drug rehabilitation—that is not a mixed message. The right hon. Member for West Dorset, started off by saying that I would agree with him—I do, on the importance of community policing and the role of the community. I agree with what he said on the XToday" programme in December, which was reprinted in a number of newspapers. He said that

an Opposition Member just guffawed when I suggested that—

I have this on the record. Surprise, surprise, on 9 January the right hon. Gentleman had changed his mind. When Jim Naughtie quoted his own words back to him, he said that, no, he did not have much sympathy with the idea, although he went on to say that he was looking carefully and learning. He had obviously changed his mind between the third week in December—when, in a spirit of Christmas cheer, he was going to give first-time offenders a chance—and 9 January, when it was expedient not to do so. That is the truth.

Mr. Letwin: I am going to do something that the Home Secretary may or may not be surprised by. He is right: I changed my mind. Let me explain why. I started looking at what had happened to burglary, and I found that, since 1992, with more and longer custodial sentences, burglary rates, unlike those for many other crimes, really responded. That was the evidence from the Home Office's own publications. I hope that he will now join me and change his mind, too, because when the facts tell us that custodial sentences can impede burglary, we should listen.

Mr. Blunkett: There are times, I hope, when I am prepared to change my mind. Indeed, I can think of at

13 Jan 2003 : Column 424

least one in the past 18 months. However, I cannot remember changing my mind within a fortnight about something that I had said on the radio.

Mr. Bryant: Mixed messages.

Mr. Blunkett: Yes, it would be a terribly mixed message, because if the right hon. Gentleman were Home Secretary, he would have said something before Christmas and then, having heard the Lord Chief Justice, he would have thought about it, then he would have contradicted the Lord Chief Justice, who would then have had to go back to the position that he had held in the first place, before the right hon. Gentleman had had time to think about it.

Mr. Letwin: The Home Secretary has now made my case for Parliament to consider and decide on the sentencing guidelines. Had we been in a position—as I hope he will agree that, through an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, we need to be—to debate these matters properly instead of having to react to a comment from the Lord Chief Justice one fine morning, we could have come to a settled view after sensible democratic debate. That is one of the reasons why I have become convinced that we need to make such a change.

Mr. Blunkett: I am very pleased, because I do not disagree at all, other than to say that the suggestion about the Sentencing Guidelines Council was mine, not the right hon. Gentleman's—and it is in the Bill. I give him this pledge. I am very happy for Opposition Members in Committee to table amendments to strengthen the role of the Sentencing Guidelines Council vis-à-vis Parliament. Let us debate it, not least because, a year last July, when I talked about sentencing and we published the White Paper, I said that I would be happy for Opposition parties to make proposals on sentencing. That was part of the nationwide consultation process.

We all suffer amnesia at one point or another. In chiding me about minimum sentences for the illegal carrying of guns, the right hon. Gentleman had a little moment of amnesia, having forgotten that on 2 December, before I went into hospital, I made it clear in Home Office questions, in a reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), that we were in the process of responding to the chief constables' call for a five-year minimum sentence.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): I thank my right hon. Friend for saying again, as he did on Second Reading, that he is prepared to entertain rational, sensible change to make the Criminal Justice Bill a better Bill. That has been his position right the way through. I hope that he will allow sensible amendments not only from Opposition Members, but from his own colleagues. Many of us feel that any sentencing council should include members of the Executive, the legislature and the judiciary, and that had we had such a council, with all our political arms represented, some of the strange decisions that individual members of the

13 Jan 2003 : Column 425

judiciary appear to have made might not have taken place. I thank my right hon. Friend again for his warm expression towards open government.

Mr. Blunkett: I shall weigh those commendatory words very carefully. I am in favour of fewer but good amendments, rather than lots of them, and the Committee will no doubt share that view.

Simon Hughes: This is a very important issue. As it happens, today I spoke to some circuit judges about how one establishes a sentencing guidelines council that reflects the community at large. Will the Home Secretary look seriously at a proposal that, unlike the current one, does not require all nominees to be nominated by the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice or the Home Secretary? There should be some way to enable people to put their own names forward, and to enable those who do not hold high office to choose who sits on such a body. Such people should range from 18-year-olds to 80-year-olds, so that the body is really representative of the public at large.

Mr. Blunkett: I am in favour of trying to ensure that we get people on to the Sentencing Guidelines Council who reflect the wider views, age and make-up of the community whom we serve. Someone has to decide who sits on this body, and certain people—the Government—have to take responsibility for the medium and long-term consequences, including the reaction of the judiciary. We do have a separation of powers, and we walk a tightrope in terms of maintaining it. I say to the whole House that it is no good someone's being in favour of the independence of a particular sector of our balanced constitution one minute—or one fortnight—and being against it the next, when it is expedient to change their mind.

Mr. Letwin: I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way again—he is being very generous—as we are discussing a very important point and we are near to making progress. Our proposal is not that we should make some minor or major alterations to the Sentencing Guidelines Council, but that Parliament should take the power to set the guidelines. That is a critical distinction, which observes the independence of the judiciary—in the sense of the utter independence of an individual judge in an individual case—but gives to Parliament the right to set the guidelines. Will the Home Secretary consider that proposal?

Mr. Blunkett: I certainly would not rule it out, and for this reason. Often—although not in every single detail, and not in respect of every one of the thousands of sentencing possibilities—for major sentences the House does take that power. What Parliament expects to be done is included in legislation, and that is what we are doing in respect of the Criminal Justice Bill. We are doing that by toughening up enormously on the most dangerous violent and sexual offenders, and I expect us to do so through legislation on sex offenders and sex offences that we will bring forward shortly. So the principle of Parliament's deciding on particular aspects of sentencing is already established; however, the extent to which it could cope with the work currently undertaken by the advisory panel—in future, it will be undertaken by the Sentencing Guidelines Council—is an interesting and moot point.

13 Jan 2003 : Column 426

I know that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), will want to mull over this issue before we reach the point in Committee where we have to consider how many hours are available in the day, and how many Members—on both sides of the House—would be able to spend their time on this issue. However, getting the principles right is unexceptionable, and we should do so for the sake of the British people's confidence in the criminal justice system, for the legitimacy of our democracy, and for the credibility of Parliament itself. I said all that on 4 December, when we moved the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice Bill.

Next Section

IndexHome Page