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Liberal Democrats will vote against the new clause, as I have made clear to Ministers, because we believe that, although Parliament should set the principles, it should not prescribe the minimum number of years to be served for certain offences. Indeed, the statement that the Home Office issued on 25 November last year, after the court case that ruled that the Home Secretaries of the future should not be able to set tariffs, talked about Parliament setting the principles, not sentences. Things have moved on, in our view, in an unhelpful way. We share the view of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, who has maintained in Committee and on Report that the Sentencing Guidelines Council, together with some indirect parliamentary representation, whether through Government nomination, representatives of the three major parties or in another form, should set the guidelines for murder, as well as for driving and firearms offences—the three specific offences for which we are legislating in this debate.

Parliament should therefore set the principles, not the specifics, of sentencing, It should set the maximum sentence, but it is not for politicians to announce what sentences will be, nor is that a matter for the press. There should be guidance on sentencing, and specific sentences should left to the discretion of the court. We share the view of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and many others that the proposals will, in fact, result in sentences being ratcheted up—that is another reason why we will vote against the new clause. There will be many more life sentences, 30-year sentences and 15-year sentences, contrary to all the advice that has been given. That was why I questioned the Home Secretary, who may not have been asked formally to agree with the

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Sentencing Advisory Panel last year. However, I understand that he was consulted on the practice direction issued in May to which the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) alluded. I understand that the Home Office had not previously objected to the advice that was given. I also understand that since the court cases at the end of last year no consultation has achieved consensus with the judiciary—if I am wrong, I am happy to be corrected. The proposal categorising who will get life, 30 years and 15 years is a political one—it is not a proposal agreed by the Home Office and the judiciary.

We must question whether that is right. In this country, we already have a disproportionate number of prisoners serving life sentences—5,352 in England and Wales in February this year, a considerable rise on the figure of 3,092 in 1992. The current number is proportionately higher than that of any other country in western Europe, and is the third highest in Europe as a whole. There must be a logic or argument justifying our actions if we are going to continue putting more people in prison for life. There must be an evidence base—we have not had one yet—and, as the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) told the Home Secretary, there must be the opportunity of a new start for most people. Most people, we must assume, are capable of rehabilitation and can start again.

The proposals are objectionable in their current form. May I tell the hon. Member for Beaconsfield that the term "life sentence" is not reasonable if it means entirely different things for different people? A 70-year-old and a 21-year-old who receive a life sentence will clearly not receive the same sentence, so the proposals are inappropriate. Under the proposals, the starting point for the sadistic murder of a child is a 30-year sentence. Why is that not applicable to the sadistic murder of a pensioner or someone with a learning or physical disability? The distinction is an invidious one. A particularly high tariff is suggested for the murder of a police officer. I accept the argument, but why not such a tariff for the murder of a nurse, a teacher or another public servant in the front line? The distinction is invidious.

The starting tariff for young people is miles off current practice and experience. When I checked the figures on prisoners released in 2000 who had been sentenced as juveniles, I found that the average minimum term was 10.8 years; the average time served after sentencing was 13.9 years; the longest time served after sentence was 20 years and the longest minimum term 16 years. Those figures are out of proportion. Sentence recommendations in the past were based on the notion that—for reasons on which others have elaborated—the younger someone is sentenced, the shorter should be the expectation of serving time. The Government are proposing to sign up to the European arrest warrant, but under those proposals, endorsed by the Government, every life sentence must be reviewable throughout Europe after 20 years.

The objections are fundamental and we will have to return to the issue. I sense from the hon. Member for Beaconsfield that there may be some common ground in establishing principles, but not on the specific number of years proposed. We will work with other parties to reach

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common ground, which should unite the judiciary and, I hope, a much broader base of politicians and public opinion.

Mr. Grieve: There is certainly common ground on some of the principles, but I agree that it is more difficult in respect of the specific figures. It is possible that one figure may not be the correct approach. It might be better to have a bracket and list possibilities of departure from that bracket. That could be another way of approaching the problem.

Simon Hughes: I am entirely willing to have such a debate, but it should have happened long since and we should have sought to reach agreement much sooner. It is always better when some form of agreement is evident, as opposed to highly divergent views.

We cannot vote in the present group of amendments—we will try later—on new clause 7, which proposes that there should never be mandatory sentences. That makes our views on firearms offences closer to the position that the Government have currently arrived at, rather than what they said they would arrive at. I understand why the Government wish to sound tough, particularly after the killings of the two poor young women in Birmingham. Far too many people have been shot dead in my constituency. I had previously known some of them and have had to cope with family difficulties afterwards.

I am well aware of how evil firearms violence can be, but there is no more logic in having a mandatory fixed minimum term for that than for any other offence. A person who carries a gun, given by a cousin, for 10 seconds while he runs into a shop and subsequently has no more contact with that gun no more merits a minimum five-year sentence than someone who also plays a minor subsidiary role in what may or may not be a serious criminal enterprise. A person who goes out with a gun intending to shoot someone deserves a much higher sentence. The punishment should always fit the crime. If the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham presses his amendments, which would allow justice to temper the hard-line proposal, we would support him because we believe that the courts should have flexibility, not a prescriptive starting point.

Lady Hermon: Before the hon. Gentleman concludes, I invite him to reflect on experience in Northern Ireland. The Belfast agreement included a provision whereby prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment were freed very early, having served only the bare minimum in prison. That did huge damage to the community's confidence in the Belfast agreement. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that life should mean life?

Simon Hughes: Under the present regime in the mainland, which I understand still applies in Northern Ireland, when someone is given a life sentence, the judge quite often does not set a minimum. That allows the decision to be deferred. It might turn out to be a life sentence. Unless it is decided that the prisoner poses no risk to the community, they will not be released. I support the position that a sentence be set, but where there is uncertainty about how long is necessary before it is safe to release someone, the power should be reserved to the court. The court—not the parole board,

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people hidden away behind closed doors, or officials out of public view—has to hear the evidence and decide whether it is appropriate to release someone. If the judge who made the original sentence is not alive or unavailable, another judge can decide. The hon. Lady and I may not be that far apart. In some cases, no tariff will be fixed because it is inappropriate to do so. Unless it is safe to release someone later, they will have to remain in prison. However few cases there may be, the power should always be reserved to the court.

I conclude by discussing driving issues. I have already said that we greatly support Government new clause 39, which is broadly in line with our new clause 9. We are not going to press it to the vote, but I ask the Government to reflect favourably on our amendment (a) to new clause 39.

I end where I started—by drawing on my personal experience of death by dangerous driving court cases. Currently, people can be prosecuted for having no insurance or other easily provable offences. However, such cases are triable only in the magistrates court, and unless proceedings are initiated within six months they cannot be initiated at all. Often no charge is brought in such cases. I ask the Government to ensure that, if death follows as a result of driving offences, the six-month time bar be removed. They should also make it possible for charges to be heard in either the magistrates court or the High Court. We could then assess what happened in the round and not deprive people of justice by a time rule. I understand the history of it, but it is acting against the justice of individual cases. I hope that the Government are sympathetic to that view: we will work with them, even though we disagree on other important issues in the debate.

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