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4.30 pm

Mr. Grieve: The Government should be commended on recognising the strength of the view expressed in Committee that the current arrangements for sentencing, and indeed their own proposals, might not be sufficient. I thank the Home Secretary and the Minister for producing what is probably a better alternative.

Nevertheless, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), there remains the considerable issue of whether the Sentencing Guidelines Council in its new form will be deemed representative enough. As was said in Committee, tension will inevitably surround the options of a council consisting of professionals and one that might be seen as broadly representative of the public at large.

Amendment No. 177, tabled by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, lists the people whom he would like to be on the council. I will not read out the entire list, which in any event may be altered according to influences brought to bear on him by other Members; but it includes a representative of the business community, a representative of a victims' organisation, a teachers' representative and a representative of ex-offenders' institutions. The hon. Gentleman is trying, as he did in Committee, to widen the council's scope and to make it rather different from what the Government intended.

The Government originally described the council as a judicial body, providing also for the continued existence of a Sentencing Advisory Panel to contribute alternative input. One issue that the Minister has not clarified to my satisfaction is the continuing interaction between the two bodies. I suspect she will say that the panel is intended to operate exactly as it was always intended to operate, but given the proposed inclusion of new council members it could be argued that a measure of duplication is developing. I fear, however, that because of the timetabling and the whole way in which our business has been handled, we shall not have time to engage in a proper dialogue on the subject this afternoon.

Mr. Allen: I am quite content with the Government's list of four or five additional members. The "shopping list" of potential members was drawn from various suggestions from all quarters of the Committee. I will spare the hon. Gentleman's blushes by not specifying his own suggestions.

Mr. Grieve: I should be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that.

The key amendment tabled by us is amendment No. 26. The point is that however we approach this issue, the general public input simply is not there. I do not criticise the Government for that, because I accept that the detailed process of setting sentencing guidelines is a matter for the professionals. Indeed, I think that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, having said that he was broadly satisfied with the list produced by the Government—which includes policing, criminal prosecution, criminal defence, the promotion of the welfare of victims of crime, sentencing policy and the administration of sentences—takes the view that it already goes a long way towards meeting his requirements.

The difficulty that will always exist is that the proposals might not be in accordance with the public's perception when they are published, even though there could be public discussion and debate on them. I take the Minister's point that the Home Affairs Committee will be able to look at the guidelines and publish a learned document, although I am afraid that history shows that such a document would be perused for about 24 hours—if not 24 minutes—by the wider public, and for a little longer by the Government when they come to publish their response.

Mr. Mullin: If the hon. Gentleman looks at just about all the Home Office legislation passed in this Parliament, he will find clauses that have been introduced as a result of suggestions made by the Home Affairs Committee. Some things are also occasionally deleted at the suggestion of the Committee, so the hon. Gentleman should not be too hopeless.

Mr. Grieve: I certainly would not wish to disparage the work done by the hon. Gentleman and his Committee—far from it. My comment came from my own experience of serving on other Select Committees—I served on the Environmental Audit Committee—which showed me that a huge amount of work goes into Select Committee activities in the House. Although that work sometimes has an impact, I sometimes wish that we were more successful in making a greater impact through the reports that we produce. But that is in no way to diminish what the hon. Gentleman and the other members of his Committee attempt to achieve.

Unless the public have a sense that suggestions can be taken up, we shall see the problem of a hole appearing between professionals and the general public over sentencing. When we considered this matter in Committee, my hon. Friends and I, and my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), came to the conclusion that we could see no reason why Parliament should not have a role in the setting of sentencing guidelines. I am extremely mindful of what was said earlier about not having bidding wars, and I certainly do not wish to see any taking place on this issue. That is one reason why amendment No. 26 specifically would not allow Parliament to initiate the setting of sentencing guidelines. The initiation of any change to existing guidelines must be a matter for the Sentencing Guidelines Council.

The amendment envisages that, once the guidelines have been published—not as definitive guidelines, but as draft guidelines—the Home Affairs Committee should first have an opportunity to consider them and to produce a report. On publication of that report, the guidelines—or any changes to them, because the starting point would be the existing guidelines—would come into force after approval by both Houses of Parliament. I would envisage that process being carried out under the affirmative resolution procedure, and I would expect that it could be done shortly. Obviously, if Parliament refused to alter the existing guidelines, that would mean not that there were no guidelines but that the existing ones would remain. That would have the consequence of remitting the guidelines back to the Sentencing Guidelines Council for further consideration.

I accept that that process would not be free of difficulty. I sometimes feel, however, that we do ourselves a disservice by constantly assuming that we shall engage in bidding wars or that we are incapable of taking responsible decisions and echoing public concerns. My experience in life—not just in this place—tells me that people who have responsibility tend to rise to it. If they are denied responsibility, we will have only ourselves to blame when the public cease to take us seriously.

Mr. Allen: In the past couple of days, the hon. Gentleman has had a taste of how the Executive treat Parliament and how strong Parliament is when it wishes to discuss matters, perhaps for more time than we are being allowed today.

There is a problem that the hon. Gentleman has to confront: while the judiciary has one hit, the Executive have two. The Government and the Home Office are very powerful and they are rightly listened to, but the Government also control the House of Commons. Parliament is their puppet. Therefore, if we allow the Executive two shots to the judiciary's one on sentencing, we will end up with a sentencing regime that is wholly formulated in the Home Office. Once again, that is why all three arms of state need to be properly represented, and they need to sit around the table at the Sentencing Guidelines Council and reach a consensus, however long it takes.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but the mechanism that I am suggesting has within it a number of safeguards that might well prevent that from happening. I see him crossing his fingers. We must be careful of wishful thinking, but we can have wishes.

First and foremost, the guidelines council would produce the recommendations. I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that, although it may be swayed by the Government, it will, on the whole, be independent of them. I know that there is supposed to be a telephone line that links the Home Secretary to the Lord Chief Justice.

Mr. Allen: It has been discontinued.

Mr. Grieve: It may be discontinued, but in any event there would be sufficient other members of the Sentencing Guidelines Council to prevent excessive influence from being brought to bear.

We would have recommendations from the Sentencing Guidelines Council, not from the Government, so Parliament would be asked to approve something from an independent body. It would then be vetted by the Home Affairs Committee, which the hon. Member for Nottingham, North would agree has shown a remarkable spirit of independence, absence of partisanship and willingness to work on a cross-party basis. The Committee would make sensible recommendations and reach sensible conclusions, as most Select Committees do.

If the Home Affairs Committee approved the sentencing guidelines and thought them highly desirable, and bearing it in mind that Parliament would have the last say, let us assume for a moment that the Government would bring great pressure to bear on the Commons and on Members as to how they would vote on the matter. If the sentencing guidelines were rejected, based on what was clearly perceived to be Government pressure, the Government would have to live with the consequences, including, I suggest to the hon. Gentleman, considerable criticism and public debate, which, in itself, is one of the things that we seek to stimulate.

On the other hand, the Commons may be seen to be acting independently of the Government, or perhaps even contrary to their views—a Government would be most reluctant to overturn Sentencing Guidelines Council recommendations—and it is more likely that the Commons would flex its muscles on the one or two occasions when the Home Affairs Committee says that there has been a mistake and that it is not prepared to go along with it. I cannot help but think that that would provide a mechanism that protected the public and public opinion and which might also improve the position. Of course there is no perfection, but the matter ought to be given serious consideration.


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