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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): May I begin by expressing my sympathy to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for being confronted with having to read out 118 amendments? Quite rightly, you declined to do so, for fear of taking up the time of the House. It is impossible to do justice either to the compass of the amendments or their details in the context of this debate. I do not think that any of us will be able even to try to do so.
However, it is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), especially when he is in the sort of mode that means that I agree with everything he says. Sometimes he is not in that mode, but he is today. He has played an important part in consideration of the Bill, and he has made two very important points.
First, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to demand what he calls honesty in sentencing. The same point was made a little earlier this afternoon by my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). When a sentence is pronounced, everyone involved in the caseinside or outside the courtshould know exactly what it means, and what the consequences will be. That is the system that we must aim for. For a lot or people, the present system smells of some sort of deceit. Things happen that they do not expect: those in the know are aware of what a particular sentence means, but those outside that charmed circle do not. That is wrong, and it is something that we need to deal with.
The second point made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North was about the Sentencing Guidelines Council. He has been trying to widen the compass of the council and to involve us, as a legislature, in it. He is right to do so, and a variety of mechanisms could be employed.
The hon. Gentleman chided me for being harsh on the Government, even before I had opened my mouth on the subject. However, Ministers and the Home Department have listened to some of the points that we made in Committee. The amendments are welcome and I shall certainly not oppose them. There are still some deficiencies in the proposals, however. I am not sure that, prior to setting the guidelines, our objectives are right; in some ways, they are mutually antagonistic. There is still a lack of clarity, although representation is much wider than it was.
My greatest concern is that some of the aspirations for the Sentencing Guidelines Council will not be met in practice, simply because the compass of its work is so enormous. It is important to establish a working council in which people have confidence, which reconnects members of the public to the judicial process of which they often have little experience. People know of it only as it involves them and have no points of comparison with similar cases elsewhere in the country. They are often told what is outrageous by a press that does not necessarily consider carefully the consequences of its proposed sentencing policy. We watch a tawdry Punch and Judy show involving the Home Secretary and the senior judiciary, which is demeaning to the office of the Home Secretary and corrosive of the authority of the judiciary. Given that context, the establishment of a working, effective Sentencing Guidelines Council is extremely important.
The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) talked about the extension of powers to magistrates. I agree with the points that he made. There is serious concern both about the synchronicity of the extension of those powers with the introduction of custody plus and about the extension of sentencing powers by fiat of the Executive. We were signatories to amendment No. 67, so if there is a Division, I commend my right hon. and hon. Friends to support that provision.
Amendment No. 492 and some subsequent amendments relate to drugs testing, a subject that has not yet been aired in this debate. However, we explored it fully in Committee, so to do so again on Report would not be the best use of limited time. However, I am worried about the inconsistency of provision across the country and the lack of facilities for proper treatment after testing. A positive test should lead to positive consequences for the individual, who should be given help to deal with the results of drug abuse. My concerns about young children are shared by the organisations that work with them; the Government may not yet have the balance right in the current regime for providing support and help to young children who have a problem with addictive substances.
There are two points on which I want to spend a little more time. The first is new clause 10, which deals with the consequences of fine default and suggests that prison is not a good solution. There have already been changes. In 1993, about 26,000 fine defaulters were imprisoned, but by 2001 the number had gone down to about 1,500. We know, for instance, that 830 people were imprisoned for non-payment of television licence fees in 1993, and that the figure was down to 30 in 2001.
However, the fact is that a significant number of people are imprisoned for defaulting on fines, while at the same time we have huge problems not only with the burgeoning prison population but with the non-collection of fines, as shown in the National Audit Office report, which revealed that in the relevant year £387 million in total was imposed in fines but only £228 million was collected. When corrections have been made for previous payments and so forth, the collection rate is about 59 per cent. Frankly, that is not good enough.
My suggestion to the Government is to forget about imprisonment for fine default. By all means, use imprisonment as a final consequence of contempt of court, and if the contempt of court resides in a persistent abuse of the fine system, let the contemnors finally face that penalty, but that will not be the answer in most circumstances. We need to be much more imaginative in the way in which we apply sanctions to those who default on fines.
The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois)I am pleased to see him heremade a very good suggestion to consider whether credit rating adjustments might be one way to deal with those to whom a credit rating is important, as a way to remind them that if they do not pay they are failing in their duty to the wider community. Various measures for the sequestration of assets could be considered. Certainly, depriving some people of the use of their motor vehicles while they have motor vehicle fines unpaid might be a very good way of concentrating their minds. All those ways are better than imposing a prison sentence, which is proving to be not a deterrent but a burden on the state. Frankly, that position should not be sustained.
Mr. Kidney: Alongside the decline in imprisonment for non-payment, which the hon. Gentleman recalls and which is largely due to some High Court judgments, there has been a fall in the proportion of total fine income paid. There has also been a fall in using fines as a sentence of choice by magistrates because they do not think that the fines will be paid. That is why I join him in saying that we need more effective enforcement, but the one method that he did not mention is direct payment from people's employment, from their bank or even, dare I say it, from their benefits. What is his view of that being more routine?
Mr. Heath: There are ways of proceeding as the hon. Gentleman suggests, as we have seen not with fines but with support payments using the Child Support Agency mechanism. Clearly, such a mechanism could be used, but I have my doubts about the Inland Revenue administering anything else until it has got what it is supposed to be administering working correctly. However, he is right to mention that possible mechanism.
Finally, I wish to deal with a very important new clause that we have tabled: new clause 6, which deals with hate crime. Undoubtedly, a wide spectrum of crimes are motivated by hate against certain groups of people. Indeed, the Government recognise that fact in relation to aggravated crimes involving race or religion. Many hon. Members have a difficulty with the limitations in the scope of clause 130. There is a lack of logic in arguing that aggravating factors should be applied to some hate crimes but not to others because of the difficulty in applying such a test to the satisfaction of the courts. I acknowledge that there is an argument that proving intent is always difficult. Having such an aggravating factor is a complication in terms of investigation, prosecution policy and how the courts deal with it. Clearly, however, that is not the Government's view, as clause 130 shows.
Having said that, it seems to us that there is a very strong argument for having a more generalised aggravating factor for hate crime. We are not alone in that. Many other jurisdictions have precisely that, and the wording of new clause 6 is in fact lifted directly from the amended hate crime sentencing legislation dealing with federal crimes in the United States. A similar arrangement also exists in the great majority of individual state jurisdictions in the United States.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): Can the hon. Gentleman tell us why he has decided not to include in the new clause the issues of size and age? Is it not just as offensive for someone to be the victim of a hate campaign or a crime on the grounds that they are extremely small, extremely fat or just plain old?
Mr. Heath: If a class is discriminated against to the extent of criminal behaviour, there is an argument in that respect. That is not a reduction to the absurdI hope that that is not the right hon. Gentleman's intention. The reason that we have used the words in question is simply that they have proved to be workable in a jurisdiction that has some similarities to ours, which is not an unreasonable suggestion. If it is possible, however, to identify a group in society that is subject to violent crime in particular on the basis of belonging to that class of society and no other reason, they deserve the protection of the laws and the courts of this country.
Let me give two examples of areas that are not covered by the present legislation. First, there are homophobic attacks, which are frequent, as we know, and they are recognised by the police and the courts, but they do not appear in statute at present. Secondly, there are crimes against those who have learning difficulties. In that respect, I am indebted to Mencap for its recent survey on the basis of 900 questionnaires. Of those surveyed, 88 per cent. reported being targeted during the past year, 66 per cent. reported being targeted regularlymore than once a month32 per cent. reported being targeted on a daily or weekly basis, and 47 per cent. reported name calling as a kind of harassment, but only 17 per cent. told the police about it. That is a huge abuse in our society, which should be dealt with.
I am not satisfied that, however well-meaning the Association of Chief Police Officers' guidance is, it is sufficient to the task. ACPO does a splendid job in providing guidance to the forces and the constabularies of this country, but guidelines should not be a replacement for statute. We have an opportunity to address this issue in this Bill, which we should take, so unless the Parliamentary Secretary is able to satisfy me that the concerns that I have expressed are in her mind and will be dealt with later in the Bill, I am minded to press new clause 6 to a Division.