Previous SectionIndexHome Page

13 Jan 2003 : Column 456—continued

6.30 pm

Ian Lucas (Wrexham): I should like to focus my brief remarks on the statement in the Opposition motion that the Government have an

the problems of crime. I profoundly disagree with that statement because I believe that when the Government took office in 1997 there was a major change in the approach to crime in our communities. The key word is

13 Jan 2003 : Column 457

Xcommunity". It is much over-used, but, importantly, it was recognised from the outset that crime is a community issue.

Another hackneyed phrase is Xtough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". It may be a soundbite, but it has a resonance. It was important because it expressed our constituents' knowledge that crime cannot be confronted simply by sentencing criminals. Crime is a community issue that needs to be confronted jointly by all the organisations in our communities, and that has happened since Labour took office in 1997.

We have had the introduction, for example, of crime and disorder partnerships and young offenders teams, both of which are highly respected throughout the criminal justice system. They reintroduced the role of local authorities, of which the Conservative party appeared to have a pathological hatred in the years leading up to 1997, to the extent that it would simply not recognise the fact that they had an important role in dealing with crime.

Whenever I speak to those involved in the criminal justice system in my community—from the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the probation service to defence solicitors—they all praise the structure that has been set up, involving crime and disorder partnerships and young offenders teams, and the work that is being done in our communities.

A coherent approach is being taken across our communities and it is having a major effect on crime, but we all recognise that there is a continued problem with persistent young offenders, on whom the Government's current policy is focused.

The Government have confronted many offenders who committed crimes in the 1980s and the early 1990s by providing them with routes out of crime through work and other measures—for example, opportunities through the new deal scheme. Those measures have provided people with the chance to work in our communities and not to commit crimes. However, we still have a problem with the young people who continue to commit crime, often because they are drug-related offenders.

The Government instituted a process to consider our criminal justice system—the Halliday report and the Auld review—and to try to find a better way to deal with repeat offenders. That coherent, measured and considered approach has developed over a number of years. It is important to adopt that approach, and I sometimes hear echoes from the Conservative party that it is buying into it, but it should try to avoid the temptation to create headlines such as those sought in today's motion.

It is simply not true to say that there has not been a long-term approach to the proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill. Two years ago, I held a sentencing conference in Wrexham to discuss the proposals set out in the Halliday review. Victims of crime, magistrates and the police attended, and we put our submissions to the Home Office. Those submissions and many others led to the proposals in the Bill, so there is a coherent view.

I share many hon. Members' great distaste of catching and seeking headlines, which, in my view, always creates bad law. We politicians must try to resist the temptation, which is felt by Members on both sides

13 Jan 2003 : Column 458

of the House, to react by trying to introduce legislation to confront single events. We must follow the coherent, positive approach of consulting as widely as possible, trying to reach consensus on criminal justice matters if at all possible and introducing sensible measures that the courts can apply.

We have debated the Sentencing Guidelines Council and the possibility of Parliament taking a more prescriptive role in setting sentencing guidelines. I have some sympathy with the suggestion that the courts should be more responsive to public concerns about certain offences. I suspect, however, that Parliament is not the right forum in which to devise a sentencing policy. I should want a much broader forum to be consulted, so that the issues raised by the victims of crime, the police and CPS could be taken into account more directly.

The Sentencing Guidelines Council represents a sensible approach, but we need to ensure that we draw directly on the experiences of those in our communities who are concerned and feel helpless. I shall draw my comments to a conclusion by saying that I profoundly disagree with the suggestion that no coherent approach has been followed since 1997. The approach that has been taken has led to major improvements on our streets.

6.36 pm

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I should like briefly to focus my remarks on the need for honesty in sentencing and on the effect of overcrowding on the quality of rehabilitation programmes for persistent offenders.

First, let us deal with honesty in sentencing and consider the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997. That Act provided for the imposition of mandatory minimum three-year prison sentences for adult domestic burglars thrice convicted. It is true—it is important to put this on the record—that the legislation contained a provision for the exercise of judicial discretion to facilitate a 20 per cent. reduction in a sentence when the person charged made a timely plea of guilty. However, the legislation specifically emphasised that the mandatory minimum sentence itself could be waived only in exceptional circumstances. So Parliament thought that it was legislating to create a new mandatory minimum sentence that would apply in the overwhelming majority of relevant cases.

The legislation itself took effect in December 1999 to a fanfare of trumpets and was announced by the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). In rightly referring to burglary as a sickening offence, he emphasised:

Moreover, I must emphasise that the Government's apparent intentions and seriousness of purpose on that subject were further underlined by the then Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who is now, of course, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. He emphasised in an answer published at column 137W of Hansard on 23 April that the Government intended to persist with that policy and to undertake an evaluation of it

13 Jan 2003 : Column 459

throughout the criminal justice system, including its effect on the incidence of burglary in 2003–04, with a final evaluation of its efficacy to be undertaken in 2010. As right hon. and hon. Members will have already noted from my remarks about the time scale, however, it has been in effect for more than three years, so we are entitled to take an interim review. At the end of two years of the policy, only six such individuals, thrice convicted, had suffered the mandatory minimum imprisonment term of three years. I have not so far been able to obtain the statistics, which would be significant as they would tell us the other side of the equation: the number of individuals to whom that mandatory minimum sentence could have applied. Has the mandatory minimum sentence been applied to a tiny minority, or has the incidence been relatively small? We do not know that for certain. What we do know, however, is that, during 1999–2000, the police in England and Wales recorded 442,600 domestic burglaries, and no fewer than 16,800 people were sentenced for the commission of that offence. It therefore looks at least dangerously as though what Parliament willed and intended to be the application of a majority cases policy has somehow transmogrified and deteriorated into a policy applied in exceptional cases, rather than one that is waived in exceptional cases.

That leads to the obvious question: do the Government believe that their policy in the implementation of the mandatory minimum sentence is right, and that the judiciary has been wrong to circumvent it? Alternatively, do the Government believe that they are wrong in their insistence on the mandatory minimum sentence of three years and that the judiciary have been right to circumvent it? I put it to the Minister who will wind up the debate, to whose response we look forward, that only one or other of those positions can be correct. It is not possible for both to be correct. We need to know the answer.

On the subject of parliamentary oversight and scrutiny of sentencing guidelines, I largely endorse what a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends said. I am bound to say in support of the eloquent testimony of the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), that a Sentencing Guidelines Council that is chaired by the Lord Chief Justice and appointed by the Lord Chancellor is no substitute for the rigorous parliamentary scrutiny that I favour. That scrutiny could, and, I would suggest, should take place under the auspices of the Home Affairs Committee, which is admirably chaired by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). What is not an option is the do-nothing approach. What we need—I say this to hon. Members on both sides of the House, and not in a partisan spirit—to counter the pervasive cynicism that characterises the conduct of our public life and the attitude of most people towards politics is demonstrable evidence for the public to observe that we say what we mean and we mean what we say. To do nothing would be an abdication by the Government of the responsibility to Parliament, and would simultaneously be an abdication of responsibility by Parliament to the public, who desperately seek the reassurance of a predictable, robust, credible and honest sentencing framework. That is the first issue of importance.

13 Jan 2003 : Column 460

The second issue is the impact of overcrowding. We know that, in June 2002, the prison population was 71,220. It is variously predicted to rise to 99,000 or 100,000 by 2009, and, dependent on the incidence of criminality and the length of sentences imposed by the courts, to as high as 109,000 or 110,000, even before we take account of the provisions of the Criminal Justice Bill. It is estimated that 14,000 current prisoners are effectively doubling up in shared cells that were originally designed for occupation by only one person.

What more do we know about the effect of that overcrowding? We know that, in young offender institutions, for example, what operates is the phenomenon entitled Xthe churn": the process of constant transfer and movement of prisoners, including young offenders, from one institution to another, often taking place with little or no notice. That is exemplified by Glen Parva young offenders institution in Leicestershire, where, astonishingly and shamefully, only 4 per cent. of the 800 occupants are there for more than a month. We know the damage done to rehabilitation programmes and to the opportunity of training, education and job preparation in those circumstances.

We know, too, because the evidence testifies to it, that purposeful activity has been declining since this Government took office. In only one of seven years, to the eternal discredit of Labour Members, has the target for purposeful activity, which is critical to the chances of reformation of character of criminals, been achieved. Six out of 15 key performance indicators have been flunked. The people affected are those persistent offenders in aid of whom the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) spoke sincerely and with integrity a few moments ago. Eighty-four per cent. of 14 to 17-year-old young offenders are reconvicted within two years of release from custody—we are talking about people in secure training centres, typically aged 14, who have been brought up in local authority care and have had no fewer, on average, than 22 convictions. Those people need more, better-funded and increasingly effective and tailored programmes of rehabilitation if they are to get off the conveyor belt of crime and have a chance of success in the future.

My judgment is that the Government are guilty as charged of two serious offences in relation to sentencing policy and the effects of overcrowding on the critical objective of reforming prisoners. That reform must not be a Cinderella service, an optional extra or a belated afterthought in pursuit of the banner headline for the eye-catching initiative, the effect of which, whatever its intention, is invariably to betray the very people whom it intends to serve.

Next Section

IndexHome Page