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13 Jan 2003 : Column 429—continued

4.46 pm

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Following last week's publication of the recent crime figures, a debate on the criminal justice system and law

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and order is especially timely. To that extent, I welcome the debate initiated by the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and his colleagues.

Despite some positive long-term trends, it is clear to us all that crime is a hugely unwelcome feature of everyday life throughout Britain. Statistics published last week show that one person in four was a victim of crime last year—an unacceptably high level.

I want my remarks to be fair, so I must say that the Government have done some good things—but they have not done enough to reassure the public that problems are being brought under control and that crime is going down. The statistics are abundantly clear: the public are not persuaded that we are moving in the right direction. The result, sadly, is that people are losing faith in both the police and the criminal justice system. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), who, like me, is a member of the Standing Committee on the Criminal Justice Bill, regularly makes the point that we are all trying to restore faith in the twin pillars of a civilised society: the belief that the police can and will do their job properly and that, thereafter, the criminal justice system will do its job properly; both might be trying hard, but at present they are not succeeding.

In our view, which we share with the Conservative Opposition, one of the problems is that the Government keep trying to tinker with the system. There have been hundreds of targets and hundreds of headline-grabbing initiatives, but they do not amount to a coherent strategy. There have been too many instances of the Government manipulating the figures to try to make things sound the way they want them to sound. I gave the Home Secretary an example of that when, in respect of something that happened only three months ago, I referred to the remarks of the chairman of the Statistics Commission.

After this debate, I hope that we shall achieve a better consensus, based on independently produced facts and figures. I pointed out to the previous Home Secretary, now the Foreign Secretary, who was keen that we should agree on such things, that if we could reach agreement on the statistics and the evidence about what does or does not work, we would make huge progress. I hope that that is the wish of the Government and I commend the work of Home Office research, development and statistics directorate. If everyone read its work rather than the front page of the tabloids, we should make much more progress.

Policies must be seen to be fair to all people in society, because the poorest often suffer the most. The most deprived areas may suffer from the most crime, but they also have the most victims. Our police service must be much more effective at deterring and catching criminals. The clear-up rate is one in four across the country and one in eight in London, so the statistical odds for those who want to try crime are pretty good and they offer a high incentive to do so.

We need an effective sentencing system. If someone asked me to give a quote or a soundbite, I would replace the soundbite that the Prime Minister used when he was shadow Home Secretary—Xtough on crime, tough on the causes of crime"—with Xeffective on crime, effective on the causes of crime", because sometimes what sounds

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simplistically tough may not be nearly as effective as something that initially does not sound effective but proves to be so in practice.

Mr. Allen: Achieving consensus on which statistics are accurate or even on the need for some new form of sentencing, whatever form the Sentencing Guidelines Council takes, might be classic territory for pre-legislative scrutiny. Instead of hurrying Bills into Committee, as it is apparently necessary to do, it would be better to have at least four, five, six, seven or eight weeks during which we could determine some of the core issues without partisanship. Surely that would be a better way to proceed than the sometimes rather sterile, lawyerly debates that we have in Committee.

Simon Hughes: I agree. To their credit, the Government asked Mr. Halliday to review sentencing and Lord Justice Auld to review the criminal justice process, after which they published a White Paper. I compliment them on the fact that there has been much pre-legislative activity, but it would have been better if there had been pre-legislative scrutiny as well.

Another suggestion is that bodies such as the Select Committee on Home Affairs could nominate people to the Sentencing Guidelines Council, thereby ensuring cross-party agreement. That would command more confidence than the current proposal. However much the Home Secretary does such things on the best evidence available, by definition they are perceived as being done by a party office holder, and I am sure that we could do better than that.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): Is it not the case that parts of the Criminal Justice Bill have not been scrutinised in Committee because the Government's timetable fails to make enough time available? In fact, far from having pre-legislative scrutiny, we are enacting legislation that will not have been adequately scrutinised by a perfectly co-operative Standing Committee.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman will know that I agree with him about that. I see the Committee Whip on the Treasury Bench, and it is not at all his fault; he has been entirely co-operative and reasonable. We are constrained, and since the election the Home Office's legislative programme has been the greatest victim of such constraints. Bill after Bill has not been fully debated in the House of Commons. Additional amendments have been tabled in this House or the House of Lords, and large parts of Bills have not been debated at all. Whatever we think about the policies, that is clearly an absolutely crass way to legislate on issues of law and order, liberty and freedom, which matter to all of us and to all those whom we represent.

I wish to mention one other general matter. Whether we are talking about the big villains or the little villains, we should not tolerate a lawless society. Violence must be met with a presumption of custody, as I have said at my party's conference and in other places.

I would add three other categories for which the presumption should be custody. Those who drive in such a way that they risk and sometimes cause injury or

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death should expect to go away. Many families are victims of so-called road accidents that are actually not accidents at all; they involve intentional or reckless activity by drivers. Those involved in child pornography should expect to go away, because it is such an abuse of innocence and childhood. Those who interfere with the course of justice should also expect to go away, so that everybody knows the score. I would include in the violence category those who burgle residential property when they know that there is somebody in the property or that there is a risk that somebody is in the property. For me, that crosses the line between something that does not personally affect or threaten somebody psychologically, mentally or physically, and something that does.

Mr. Cameron: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Simon Hughes: No.

This is a difficult area, and it has been the subject of great debate recently. There are differences. I accept the attempts being made to make sure that the first-time burglar does not go to prison on that occasion, and I shall explain why that would be the wrong course. When somebody enters a property and frightens an elderly lady out of her wits, however, the egg-shell skull principle, as it used to be called in civil law, should apply: one must take a place as one finds it. If there are kids, people on their own, elderly or vulnerable people, the offender must expect the courts to punish him. That is why I am sympathetic to the constituency case raised by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), which was reported in The Sunday Times, where an offender was returned to live three doors from the person whose house he had burgled. The courts should have taken that into account: it is improper for the victim of a first-time burglar to feel that that person is at liberty, three doors away, having been into their house only a few months previously.

Mr. Allen: I thank the hon. Gentleman for being generous in giving way to me for a second time. One of the comments that we hear most when we are in our constituencies is that a sentence does not mean what is stated when it is passed. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that, in respect of the offences that he has listed or others that the Government may care to add, standard sentences should be set out in a schedule to the Bill that is being considered Upstairs? Everybody would therefore know exactly what the sentence would be in a normal case, and that information would be available in one place. Would he propose that to the Government, along with me?

Simon Hughes: There are several things with which I hope the hon. Gentleman would agree. First, we must get all the legislation in one place so that it can be seen and read easily. At the moment, we struggle with amending Bills, and it is difficult to find things, which is unhelpful. Secondly, a penal code would be helpful—which, to his credit, the Home Secretary favours and which I support, as he has heard me say. I am in favour of there being easy access to information on what the maximum sentence should be for each crime, and to what the guidelines say that the sentence should be. I support both those proposals.

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I am clear, however, as Liberal Democrats have always been clear, that there should never be mandatory sentences. We have argued against such sentences for murder and in respect of lesser crimes. In the case of murder, there is all the difference in the world between somebody who plans to go out and shoot somebody with whom they have had a row the previous day and somebody who kills their husband after 30 years of domestic violence. It is entirely inappropriate to have the same automatic starting sentence for those two incidents.

Offenders who do not use violence, however, should expect that a custodial sentence would not be the presumption. I agree with the Home Secretary that we must guard against going down the road of arguing for prison to be the answer to a whole list of offences, especially non-violent ones. For those offences, the option should be supervision and treatment in the community wherever possible. To pick up the point of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North—this is why the Halliday reforms are welcome—we should have a sentencing system in which the first half of a custodial sentence is served inside, but the second half, which is equally part of the sentence, is served outside, as the Government, to their credit, are proposing, by and large, in their sentencing reforms. What has been hopeless in the past is that people have thought that their sentence finished the moment they came out through the prison door, but the reality is that, without support, supervision, probation, drug treatment or alcohol treatment they have started to reoffend. The sentence should continue for an equal period, or at least a significant period, outside as well as inside prison. That should be part of the sentence, and the offender should know that. If he reoffends in that period, he should expect to go back to court to be dealt with.

My final general point relates to an issue that has been debated a great deal since the terrible killing of two young women on new year's eve in your part of the world, Madam Deputy Speaker. Those who carry knives or guns should absolutely expect to go away. Society has gone down the road so that people fuelled by drink or drugs often think that it is acceptable to carry such weapons. Ten years ago, they would have carried knives, but now it is more likely that they will carry guns. It is never acceptable to carry such weapons. There is a difference, however, between a 16-year-old who is given a gun to hold for 10 seconds while his cousin goes into a shop to pick up a newspaper and the 21-year-old who goes out carrying a machine gun as part of a gang. We must distinguish between the two, but the presumption should be that anyone who goes out armed and who is caught will lose his liberty.

The messages must be clear. Anyone who is caught carrying a gun or a knife can expect to lose his liberty. Burglars who terrorise or intimidate people in their own homes should not expect to escape custody either. If we get the measures for such crimes right, dealing with low-level disorder will follow. We will be able to start work on the causes of criminal misbehaviour. As the right hon. Member for West Dorset rightly said, and as experience in New York and other places has shown, criminal behaviour often starts with children of five, six, seven or eight who live in disordered homes with bad parenting and no appropriate discipline at home.

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The test is whether the punishments are effective. Sometimes the better punishment is to provide an alternative that offers a good option for lawful activity. That does not necessarily mean locking someone up or treating him in a disciplinary fashion. Other options can be effective in dealing with crime and with the causes of crime if they are used to deal with people who are young when they start their criminal behaviour. We must send clear messages, but I fear that the messages sent in the past few months have been unclear. However, I believe that we could deal with that problem.

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