|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Allen: There are two problems with the hon. Gentleman's argument. First, let us say that the Home Secretary, in asking Parliament to overturn guidelines, would do so only on the basis that it would play well with the public. He would no doubt have a massive chorus behind him, calling for the overturning of those weak judges and those professionals. It could be built up in such a way, although I am not suggesting that the current Home Secretary would do that. I mention the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who may operate differently.
Secondly, alreadybefore the Sentencing Guidelines Council is in beinggreat rafts of its powers on murder, dangerous driving and firearms have been stripped away. It is not even up and running yet, but a Home Secretary can use this place to strip out the sentencing issues that he regards as particularly important to him.
Mr. Grieve: I take the hon. Gentleman's point and I shall simply say this. I am aware of the criticisms that he made; indeed, I share some of his disquiet, which I expressed earlier. However, the fact that the Government have chosen that course of action does show that the buck stops here. We already impose maxima and minima for certain offences. As the Minister accepted, it is wrong to say that Parliament has a role in sentencing not just in terms of policy but in setting certain maxima and minima for sentences. I would prefer Parliament to be engaged in that process in a responsible way, rather than being forced out completely; I cannot help thinking that that might ultimately play more into the hands of Executive power. However, the suggestion exists, and if I had the opportunity to press amendment No. 26 to the voteI understand that I almost certainly will not, which is a reflection of the state of our procedureI would seek to do so.
Mr. Kidney: I shall be very brief. If the hon. Gentleman is unsuccessful with that proposal, does he think that we can make much of the council's annual report, which will be laid before Parliament each year?
Mr. Grieve: It is certainly better to have an annual report than no annual report. I welcome such a report, and if it is laid before Parliament it will provide an opportunity for debate and for Members of Parliament to express their views.
I turn brieflyI am conscious of time pressureto a couple of other matters that feature in our amendments. The key amendment is No. 67, which is unrelated to the Sentencing Guidelines Council but concerns the fact that in considering sentencing, the Governmentvery properly, in our viewhave decided to increase the sentencing powers of magistrates to 12 months. We had a great debate on this provision in Committee, and we said that we had reservations about it because of the failure to link it with the introduction of sentencing plus and sentencing minus; indeed, we have real anxieties about the effect on the prison population. Nevertheless, subject to its being adequately linked to sentencing plus and sentencing minus, which would provide mechanisms through which people can be released early or not imprisoned at all, we take the view that it is acceptable to increase magistrates' powers in this way.
But lo and behold, clause 140 includes a further provision stating that the Government may increase the power to 18 months through statutory instrument. I simply do not think it appropriate to provide for such an enormous change in sentencing powers in that way. I am not saying that I cannot see a time when it might be correct to give magistrates sentencing powers of a maximum of 18 months imprisonment. However, if that is to happen it should be done through a short Bill that is brought before this House and considered in the ordinary wayin Committee, enabling a full debate and consideration.
The Government are asking us to approve the principle of 18 months and say that the measure can be brought in whenever it is convenient. That is not a good way to legislate. Apart from anything else, we simply do not know what will happen. We very much hope that extending sentencing jurisdiction will be a good thing and that sentencing plus and sentencing minus will work well, but there is a lot to fear. At the moment, there is no coupling of 12 months to sentencing plus and sentencing minus. Secondly, even if it that happens, it is possiblebecause human affairs are not always successfulthat in two or three years' time people will say that in fact, a mistake has been made in this regard.
In such circumstances, giving the Government a power to increase the sentencing period to 18 months after the shortest of debates appears to us to be fundamentally wrong. Labour Members may also wish to consider whether this is appropriate or necessary. Even at this late stage, I very much hope that the Minister is willing to say that the Government are prepared to reconsider this issue. If she were to do so, I would withdraw my objection and reserve it for another place. But at the moment, it is our decision that we will seek to divide the House and get its opinion on this power. Amendment No. 67 is intended to do that. The view of my colleagues, myself and, I believe, Liberal Democrats is that the power is unnecessary and dangerous. If it is to be introduced, that should be done properly and not through a Henry VIII clause.
Turning briefly to some of our other amendments, it may seem odd that amendment No. 120 deals with the schedule covering offences that will cease to be imprisonable, including the offence under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 of breach of contract involving injury to persons or property. When that Act was passed, that was considered an important safeguard, preventing violence and problems in trade union disputes, but it has not been explained why it should be included in schedule 19. We have tabled three important amendments to schedule 22.
We had a debate yesterday about whether the inclusion of cannabis as a class C drug meant that all class C drugs should be made arrestable. A related issue is that by virtue of making cannabis a class C drug the Government now intend to raise the sentence for trafficking all class C drugs from five years to 14 years. We have always accepted the arguments for retaining the 14-year maximum sentence for trafficking cannabis and cannabis resin as if cannabis were still a class B drug, but there is no justification for raising to 14 years the maximum penalty for trafficking other class C drugs. As we discussed yesterday, there are only about 400 prosecutions a year for such offences, most of which involve substances which, albeit undesirable and bad for people to take, are not abused in the way that cannabis and class A drugs are. There is therefore no justification for introducing a draconian sanction against offences involving drugs such as diazepam and anabolic steroids.
The Government have got themselves into a twist over this. They have tried to give the impression that they were reducing the classification of cannabis while in fact retaining most of the penalties for cannabis offences, keeping the arrestable offence and the offence punishable by a 14-year sentence for trafficking. The Government should provide a distinct category for cannabis and cannabis resin and leave the remaining class C drugs alone. A serious mistake is being made. If we had the opportunity to put our amendments to the vote, we would certainly seek to do so.
Mr. Allen: I congratulate the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) on the calm and rational way in which he made his case, just as he did in Committee. I extend that compliment to other Opposition and Government Members who served in Committeewe had a constructive debate, which is evident in some of the changes that we managed to secure from the Government. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) was a little harsh, as there have been a number of breakthroughs. The change to the Sentencing Guidelines Council is half a breakthrough, and the job can be completed another day.
The amended purposes of sentencing may be a minor change, but they, too, are significant. The Government have now tabled an amendment stating that the rehabilitation of offenders should be a separate purpose of sentencing. I commend the former Home Office Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), on listening to the arguments made by Committee members from all political parties, acting on them and tabling an appropriate amendment. It is a small one, but it is none the less significant that there will be independent consideration of the purposes of sentencing.
Colleagues will be amazed to hear that I do not want to say too much about the Sentencing Guidelines Council. I have said enough about it in Committee, and the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), kindly allowed interventions on the subject, as did the Opposition spokesman. The Parliamentary Secretary said that I have talked in the pastand I freely admit itabout the separation of powers. The paradox of sentencing is that we must recognise that there has to be a separation of powers. It is often quite murky in our constitution, but we must accept that the judiciary, the legislature and the Executive are all entitled to an independent view and an independent life without being constrained. The irony is that, in order to make progress, there must be a means of reconciling those three elements of state. That is all that the Sentencing Guidelines Council is seeking to do, as discussed in Committee.
We have only half a Sentencing Guidelines Council at the moment, which is certainly better than none, but I am sure that colleagues here and in the other place will seek to ensure that the job is completedif not entirely by the other place on this occasion, by ourselves on another and future occasion. Sadly, the lessons may be seared into our consciousness by a bidding war on the Floor of the House. A couple of serious offences were mentioned earlier, and one could almost hear someone thinking, "They should certainly get five years for this," while someone else was thinking, "No, six years," and someone else, "Seven or eight," and perhaps a "Nine" from the back.
Let us go back to the example of the multiple offender from the north-east who was drinking and driving and taking life by reckless use of a vehicle. In those horrendous circumstances, or those surrounding the shooting of two young girls in Birmingham recently, who is immune to feeling outrage and perhaps opting for a longer sentence than might be proposed in a more rational and calmer environment? That is why I believe that we should continue to seek a way forward through the Sentencing Guidelines Council, whose deliberations are slow, protracted and based on the hard miles ground out by the Sentencing Advisory Panel and its experts. One day I hope that we will get back to that.
On judicial discretion, I believe that the Bill has a weakness. Although we assume that judges always have the final say in individual cases, it is not stated clearly enough in the Bill that judges shall have the final say. That argument was advanced in Committee, and I tabled an amendment to that effect here, but it was not selected. However, if we are to secure the right balance between the Executive and the judiciarybetween the Sentencing Guidelines Council and what judges can do within the limits that it setswe must clearly define exactly what judicial power is. Otherwise theythe judges, and perhaps othersmight feel that the power could be eroded and diminished over time.
I do not look at any particular Minister or at the cuddly Front-Bench Members who currently speak for the Opposition, but in future, other personalities might seek to abuse the power and to erode the long-standing independence of the judiciary. Specific proposals to secure judicial independence in principle should appear in a Bill at some time, so that the House can, if necessary, defend the principle.
My final point, in response to this ragbag of new clauses and amendments, is about honesty in sentencing. By that, I do not mean the argument that life should mean life, but that when a judge sentences someone to two years' imprisonment, every single person in the courtroom knows that that really means one year in prison and one year out on licence or on probation. That does not play well in areas of the sort that I represent. I would far prefer us to be clear and honest about sentencing. A year in prison should mean just that. At the time of sentencing, we should make it clear that, in addition to a year in prison, for example, a person would also be given a year on probationor on recall, or licence, or whatever.
That would mean that people could not say, "That person got two years but they're out after half a sentence and I saw them in the street the other day." The real punishment given to an offender would not be changed, but we would be being honest about it. Unless we are honest, and stop concealing the truth about sentencing, we will not be able to reclaim our criminal justice systemnot for those who work in it or who supply its clients, but for the public whom it is meant to serve. We have had many learned debates in Standing Committee and on the Floor of the House, but for all that, people still feel alienated and distanced from the criminal justice system. I have made a very minor suggestion for dealing with that problem, and I raise it again for consideration by the House. I propose that the members of the criminal justice system in each locality should get together to produce a brief and snappy report for the people whom the system is meant to serve. That report would be distributed to each elector in the area, so that people can understand how the police work, for instance, and whether crime rates are going up. They would also learn about how they can help the police, who the local beat bobby is, and so on.
The report would also show people how the magistrates courts differ from Crown courts. Until one gets into the topic, that is quite a leap of knowledge. A lot of people regard courts as simply courts: they do not know the difference between the various types of courts. Other matters that the report could cover would be community sentences and how people can be involved in deciding them. People would be able to find out whether such sentences are a soft option, and what happens to those who receive them.
Information on all those matters needs to be communicated to people. We need to start educating people about their criminal justice system. A number of colleagues in Standing Committee went a long way towards nudging that process along, but Government intervention is needed. The Government need to tell the local criminal justice boards that have been created recently that they have a duty to make a connection with people at home. Those are the people who should own the criminal justice system, just as people who pay dues to a society or club have a right to know what is going on in their group. If we make that connection, we will go a long way towards ensuring that people understand, appreciate and adhere to the values of the criminal justice system that we are all trying to communicate.