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6 May 2008 : Column 571

Points Of Order

3.34 pm

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Today’s Order Paper gives notice of a written statement entitled “New investment in Headley Court”. We warmly welcome the news, but we question why it was given to the weekend press in advance of the statement. Defence Ministers are becoming serial offenders when it comes to manipulating politically sensitive material that should first appear before this House. The media had advance knowledge of the answers to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) on 11 March and to my question of 12 March on the number of medically unfit servicemen. I appreciate that a beleaguered Government must media-manage as best they can, but I would welcome your guidance, Mr. Speaker, on how Defence Ministers can be persuaded not to use our armed forces, and abuse this House, in a way that I fear is becoming routine.

Mr. Speaker: The only thing I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that the House should be the first to be told of these matters.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. A recently filed freedom of information request returned a 92 per cent. bed occupancy ratio at Kettering hospital. The Health Minister, however, provided a different figure. Is it not disturbing, Mr. Speaker, that the Government are putting different figures to Members?

Mr. Speaker: Let us not extend Health questions. I did, after all, run into three minutes’ injury time—and the hon. Gentleman is trying to extend that even further.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(7) (Programme Motions),

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Lords Amendments Time for conclusion of proceedings

    Nos. 9, 301, 327 and 86 to 91

    An hour and a half after the

    commencement of proceedings on

    consideration of Lords Amendments

    Nos. 285, 115, 173 and 117 to 149

    Four and a quarter hours after the commencement of those proceedings

    Nos. 116, 1 to 8, 10 to 85, 92 to 114, 150 to 172, 174 to 284, 286 to 300, 302 to 326, and 328 to 348

    Six hours after the commencement of those proceedings, or 10 p.m., whichever is the later.

Question agreed to.

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Orders of the Day

Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill

Lords amendments considered.

Mr. Speaker: I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that privilege is involved in Lords amendments Nos. 92 to 95, 304 to 306 and 173. If the House agrees to any of these amendments, I shall ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the Journal.

Clause 10

Abolition of suspended sentences for summary offences

Lords amendment : No. 9 .

3.35 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Speaker: With this we may discuss Government amendment (a) to the words so restored to the Bill, Lords amendment No. 301, Government motion to disagree thereto, Government amendment (a) to the words so restored to the Bill, Lords amendment No. 327, Government motion to disagree thereto and Government amendment (a) to the words so restored to the Bill.

Mr. Hanson: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I was listening so intently that I almost forgot my part in the script.

May I say what a pleasure it is to return once again to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill? I am pleased to see in their places both the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) and the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes). Today provides an opportunity to return to the discussions we have had on this important Bill since the beginning of the parliamentary Session—discussions that are now reaching their denouement. I should also like to welcome the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) to his Front-Bench position for the later stages of our proceedings on the Bill.

Having noticed the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) in his place, I want to pay tribute to him. When we started our consideration of the Bill in Committee, the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) were the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesmen. Since then, there has been a change in Front-Bench responsibilities, but I wanted to put on record at this late stage my thanks to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome for his consideration in Committee and on the Floor of the House. I hope that he will recognise that although there were major disagreements between us, some movement has taken place on some issues, and indeed that I have been able to accept some of his positive suggestions. I hope that the hon. and learned Member for Harborough and the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate will also recognise that changes have been made in response to some of their suggestions.

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That brings us up to today, when we will have a full debate on a number of key issues. The amendments before us return us to the matter of ending suspended sentence orders for summary-only offences. As you are aware, Mr. Speaker, I am inviting the House to disagree with the Lords amendment, which would altogether remove from the Bill the proposals in clause 10. On reflection—I know that there was an ordered and considered debate in the other place—I believe that that legislation is necessary, for reasons that I hope briefly to set out.

There is an honest disagreement between the hon. and learned Member for Harborough and myself—and, indeed, between the other place and myself—in respect of the use of suspended sentence orders for summary-only offences. On reflection, I think that it is an inescapable conclusion, on the basis of sentencing figures, that the courts are now using the new suspended sentence orders for substantial numbers of cases that would previously have received non-custodial sentences.

As you will be aware, Mr. Speaker, I am very much in favour of non-custodial sentences when appropriate. I hope shortly to introduce a campaign to support greater use of such sentences in the community at large, because they have a place in our society and are an important part of the overall armoury of sentences. However, if we look carefully at the use of the new suspended sentence orders, we see that a substantial number of cases are now being drawn into the framework that would previously have involved non-custodial sentences. That is important, and although it has already been considered in another place, I think we should reflect on it closely here today.

Let me take the hon. and learned Member for Harborough and the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate back a few years. As they will observe, there has been a huge growth in the use of suspended sentence orders by the courts since their introduction in April 2005. However, I am sorry to say that there will be no equivalent drop in the use of immediate custodial sentences. I conclude that whatever changes were intended in April 2005, suspended sentence orders are not, in most cases, being imposed instead of sentences to immediate custody.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): The Minister said that there had been no equivalent drop in immediate imprisonment, but does he not agree that in the case of summary offences there has been a drop?

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Let us look at the figures for magistrates courts alone. The immediate custody rate remained stable, at about 4 per cent., between 2005 and 2006. However, the use of suspended sentence orders increased from just under 0.5 per cent. in 2005 to 1.7 per cent. in 2006. Some 7,081 suspended sentence orders were made in 2005, compared with 23,274 in 2006, 12,397 of which—this returns me to the point made by the hon. Member for Cambridge—were for summary offences, compared with 4,007 in 2005. According to my ready reckoning, that amounts to an increase of some 8,300 over the period, and indicates some difficulty over the way in which suspended sentence orders have operated. If we examine particular offences, we see that such orders are gaining ground at the expense of non-custodial outcomes.

In the context of people who may face a prison sentence as a result of the Bill, we should consider, in
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broad terms, whether a community-based non-custodial sentence is more effective than a custodial sentence in helping to prevent reoffending in the long term. We must inevitably conclude that whatever the original motivation for the introduction of suspended sentence orders in April 2005, they are leading to greater use of custody at the expense of non-custodial outcomes. That is clear from a comparison between the figures for 2004, before the new suspended sentences were available, and the 2006 data.

Let me give two examples of summary offences that have given rise to a substantial number of suspended sentences. The first is common assault. Suspended sentence orders accounted for 7 per cent. of all sentences in 2006, compared to fewer than 2 per cent. in 2005. Over that period, community sentences and immediate custody remained stable. Fine, we may say; I very much encourage greater use of community sentences where appropriate. However—this is a key issue for us today—fines also fell by two percentage points, as did conditional discharges. That is for the offence of common assault.

3.45 pm

An equally serious offence that I know causes hon. Members a great deal of concern is drink-driving, a summary motoring offence. When I look at the 2006 figures in detail, I see that suspended sentence orders accounted for 3 per cent. of all sentences, compared with 1 per cent. in 2005; the difference, of two percentage points, is a considerable number of cases. Over this period, community sentences fell by two percentage points and immediate custody fell by one percentage point. Fines and conditional discharges on both issues remained stable.

If those involved at the time recall the debates on the Criminal Justice Act 2003, they will know that the Act, quite rightly, treats the suspended sentence order as a custodial sentence. The courts must believe that there is an offence that justifies a custodial sentence before they can give a suspended sentence. Indeed, I recall having a discussion about that issue in Committee prior to Christmas. On any reading of the situation, it is clear that something has changed, or the figures would not show that movement from community disposals to suspended sentence orders.

There have been arguments that offences coming before the courts are now more serious, thereby lifting substantial numbers of offences into the custody bracket. I do not believe that changes to the seriousness of offences have caused that. I am not aware of any evidence that would show that that has occurred and it seems very unlikely that such a change would coincide exactly with the availability of the new suspended sentence. More tellingly, the use of immediate custody for summary-only offences in the magistrates courts has been stable at around 2 per cent. for the past 10 years up to and including 2006. That argues against a change in seriousness. It seems implausible that a change in seriousness would result in offences moving from community disposals to suspended sentence orders, but not in offences moving to immediate custody. It is much more likely that, faced with a new range of sentencing options, courts have not maintained the previous custody threshold.

There may well be training issues that are important in this sphere. I know that the Magistrates Association, including in submissions in our initial hearings—they
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now seem like 1,000 light years ago, but they were actually in October—spoke about the need for examination of further training and support for magistrates. We should be able to look at that. Training will be important, but it boils down to the fact that courts have not maintained the previous custody threshold. It is easy to say that courts should go through a simple process where they label an offence as being on one side or the other of the custodial threshold in complete isolation from consideration of sentencing options. In practice, as every hon. Member will know, this is a grey area where a prison sentence might or might not be appropriate for an offender. With such offenders, it is hard for the courts to consider the question in isolation from the available options.

It is important that we have pre-sentence reports, which can influence a sentencing decision by suggesting whether particularly suitable community punishments are available in a particular case. I have been keen to look at strengthening that area, including through the announcement recently of an additional £40 million for probation services to look at how they can support pre-sentence reports for sentencing decisions. I hope hon. Members will recall that the £40 million was money that we were able to secure from the Treasury to help to give strength to probation areas to look at how we can influence the greater use of community penalties in our communities and our courts. Even with that extra resource, however, and taking into account the issues mentioned and the discussions we will shortly have on the strengthening of the community sentence, it is still important that the pre-sentence report can influence a sentencing decision.

Handing down a suspended sentence must, intuitively, differ from handing down an immediate custodial sentence, where the offender has no chance to avoid prison. I consider that introducing a freely available suspended sentence, which was intended to be a useful tool to the courts as an alternative to custody, has had the effect of blurring the level of the custodial threshold. We had that debate in Committee, and it was also discussed in another place. Let me be honest about this: perhaps I and my colleagues in Government could and should have foreseen that, and maybe we should have considered it when the measures were previously before the House.

I have looked at the statistics over the past two years—I have given them to the House this afternoon, and the 2005-06 figures show that the immediate custody rate has remained stable at 4 per cent. but the use of suspended sentence orders has increased by 7,000 to 23,274 over the same period—and they tell me that there is a difficulty that we need to address. I hope that the proposed legislation before us addresses it, which is why I am arguing against the suggestion from another place to remove the measures altogether.

In any event, we believe that if suspended sentences are no longer available for summary offences, courts will impose immediate custodial sentences in those cases where they are clear that they have no alternative, and in other cases they will use community disposals. I believe that if they do not have the option of passing a suspended sentence, but instead have to choose between sending somebody to prison—with all the difficulties there will be for their family, their employment, their housing and their potential drug or alcohol behaviour—or finding a suitable alternative community sentence,
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magistrates and sentencers will look to use community disposals in a more productive manner. Under those circumstances, I believe that the custodial threshold is likely to revert to somewhere close to its previous level. Again, let me be honest: I might be wrong, and we might need to reflect upon this. That is why we have considered an amendment of our own to assist another place in the examination of these issues, in the event that what I have said proves not to be the case.

However, I simply put myself in the position of a magistrate or sentencer who is faced with the possibility of sending an individual to jail, rather than giving them the suspended sentence order. At a time when, admittedly, we have crowded prisons with difficult conditions, sentencers will be faced with a choice of putting somebody in prison—for, perhaps, a short period—when deep down they will know that a custodial sentence will potentially be more detrimental than a community sentence.

We plan to increase discussion on these matters shortly, and to promote the use of community sentences. There are a number of available options to help support the greater use of community sentencing. With proper support from probation, greater help with pre-sentence reports and effective focus on what works for the individual to help prevent reoffending, a sentencer choosing between a marginal custody threshold and a community sentence would rather give the individual concerned the benefit of the doubt by giving them a strong community sentence aimed at dealing with their offending behaviour.

There is unanimity between the major parties on this; the hon. and learned Member for Harborough has shared my views on the matter. We need to look at what works in preventing reoffending. In the circumstances under discussion, the sentencer examining the options is not going to be able to use the suspended sentence order, and the choice between custodial sentence and community sentence has very real consequences for the future reoffending rate of the individual before the court, because short custodial sentences ultimately lead to a greater reoffending rate than short community sentences. There is a clear correlation. I know the hon. and learned Gentleman supports that view, as we have debated this matter on many occasions.

The fears that have been expressed in another place about raising the custody threshold will not be met with the stark reality of individuals facing a court decision and the difference between prison and a community sentence. That is my firm belief, and I am of the view that if I do not restore clause 10 to the Bill as proposed, the courts will continue to impose suspended sentence orders where they would previously have used community orders.

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