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17 Jun 2008 : Column 896
9.3 pm

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): May I begin by apologising to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert)? I missed the first few minutes of his speech, because I had other, inescapable business elsewhere in the House, but no discourtesy was intended.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), not least because we share a surname. I take slight issue with one of the contentions in his speech. On reflection, he may care to rethink his position. He said that, basically, there seem to be no circumstances in which prison works. However, there can be a debate about what regime is most appropriate.

David Howarth: I did not say that. I was trying to point out that in different countries, prison works. In Denmark, reconviction rates are very low, and we need to think about why their prison system works far better than ours.

Mr. George Howarth: I am sure that there is no great difference between us, but I should make two points. First, manifestly, in one sense, prison at all times does work. By definition, anybody who is incarcerated is not at large to commit further offences. That is self-evident. The second point, which may be nearer to that of the hon. Gentleman than I am comfortable with, is that some regimes work better with certain kinds of offender than others, and we need to have a better understanding of how that process works.

Part of the debate has centred on the Carter report and the working group chaired by Lord Justice Gage, which is considering that report’s implications. I want at this point to make a confession. A Member of this House is a member of that working group—namely, me. I therefore need to be careful about what I say during the course of the debate. I would plead with the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs not to prejudge the report that the working group will produce. There has been a great deal of thought and work on the part of all its members as to how they should proceed. I do not want to prejudge the report, as it is not yet fully written and no definite conclusions have been arrived at, but he may find some of its conclusions interesting—he may even find reasons to agree with some of them.

Mr. Garnier: I am particularly interested in the right hon. Gentleman’s response to the Secretary of State’s assertion that Lord Justice Gage’s working party may produce greater consistency in sentencing. Is it actively considering that, or is it only in the mind of the Secretary of State?

Mr. Howarth: If the hon. and learned Gentleman will let me develop my speech, I may answer that question in a slightly different way, but I hope that he will recognise it when I come to it.

It is important that I flag up some of the issues without arriving at definite conclusions from points that the working group has considered, which echo some of those made by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs. The first issue is judicial independence and whether anybody who managed a sentencing system would be in any way inimical to that. Under the current process, the Sentencing Advisory Panel and the Sentencing
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Guidelines Council have, to some extent, an influence on judicial decision making. There is still a lot of scope for those who decide on sentences to be able to decide within the ranges that are produced what is an appropriate sentence in an individual case. They are not tied down by the guidelines, but the guidelines must have some influence on the decisions that are arrived at. There is already an element of that in the system, if not to the degree considered by Lord Carter.

Mr. Garnier: The right hon. Gentleman touches on an interesting area of conflict between the Executive and the judiciary. At the moment, the court of criminal appeal provides the sort of guidance that the Secretary of State and the right hon. Gentleman have been looking for. If the new body comes to fruition, it will be an executive body that provides yet another layer of “guidance” on sentences. Although there may be some variation in sentencing between magistrates court areas, does he not accept that the variations often reflect differences in local concerns? What may be an appropriate sentence for a crime in the Liverpool area, where a particular type of crime is prevalent, may not be necessary in another part—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. May I remind the hon. and learned Gentleman that interventions are meant to be brief? There are still a number of Back Benchers wishing to make a contribution to this debate.

Mr. Howarth: The hon. and learned Gentleman is presumably aware that the Sentencing Guidelines Council already exists and is a long way along the road of publishing fairly comprehensive guidelines on a large variety of key offences. That process is already under way. The issue of inconsistency between one magistrates court area and another is complicated, and if I got heavily into that, my speech would take longer than it should. For certain offences, there has to be consistency. The hon. and learned Gentleman intervened; perhaps he would do me the courtesy of listening to the response. There are some types of offence—not necessarily those that will be heard in magistrates courts—for which it would be absurd if there were not consistency, particularly more serious offences, and I am sure that he would agree.

The second issue that I wanted to mention concerns the data we have and how well we understand decisions taken in sentencing, whether in a magistrates court or a higher court by a judge. When they depart from guidelines, we need to know how they have arrived at a decision—whether it was by taking into account aggravating or mitigating factors. We do not have a great deal of data on that at the moment, and it is difficult to understand what is going on in such circumstances. The working group has conducted a survey of where there are such variations, and those interested in such matters may find its conclusions interesting. It is not complete yet, and the information has not been analysed, but I suspect that the information provided by that survey—probably the first of its kind—will be useful to all of us.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs mentioned the Minnesota model. Lord Justice Gage and some of the secretariat from the working group
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visited Minnesota and North Carolina, which have sentencing commissions. Without revealing too much of the thinking, it is understood that those two types of system are not appropriate for our judicial process. I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to go much further, but difficulties lie in the differences between the sort of legal system that exists at state level in the United States and what we have in this country. The hon. Gentleman need not concern himself overly with the comparisons that may be made between the two.

My final point concerns the relationship at the heart of the discussion between the totality of sentencing decisions and the correctional facilities available, and how we arrive at a balance between the two. I probably have more sympathy with the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs than I ought to about this, but at the moment we deal with the matter through a form of early release system. That is not unique to this Government; every Government have had to do it from time to time. In my view, that is entirely unsatisfactory because it means that decisions are fairly arbitrarily taken away from the courts. If a court decides that somebody should be sentenced in a given range, and an early release system of some sort kicks in, the offender does not serve the sentence in that range. That is unsatisfactory, yet we currently do that. It is certainly not the answer.

The second method of dealing with the problem is providing sufficient headroom in the correctional facilities that are available so that, whatever the number of people sentenced, there will always be room. That is an attractive proposition, but is any Parliament, when determining the funds for social policies—health, education and so on—likely to vote sufficient funds to a prison estate that will be larger than anyone can predict to ensure that there is never a crisis in the prison system? I suspect that, if we are honest and realistic, that will never happen.

There must be a system of balancing the two methods. Overcrowding is the other method that has been mentioned, but what constitutes overcrowding is a difficult debate to hold, and I should probably not follow that route, other than to acknowledge that it is one way in which to deal with the problem.

I honestly believe that there is scope for changes that should attract a consensus in the House. I hope that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs and his colleagues will not prejudge the report of the working group, on which I serve. I hope that they will give it serious attention and accept that, although I sit on it, the group set about its work on a non-partisan, non-party political basis. I did not make my contributions on a party political basis. We have given the matter serious thought and I hope that those who read the report will recognise that, whatever its conclusions, it has been produced in a non-partisan spirit, in the hope of attracting some consensus.

9.17 pm

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): As always, I begin by declaring an interest as a Crown court recorder and a part-time district judge. Sentencing is an important issue and it is a pity that the debate is not longer, that it has not been better attended and that Opposition Back Benchers have 23 minutes between us to make our points.

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I speak from experience in the House and in the courts across London and the south-east. In the time available, I want to focus on sentencing, especially in relation to two crimes and our approach to them. First, I want to consider knife crime. We are in the age of the blade, and all hon. Members will have been horrified in the past few months by so many nasty knife crimes around London and other cities. Some have been mentioned tonight.

I have been in court and listened to witnesses describe what it is like when somebody brings out a knife—the flash of steel, the terror, the legs turning to jelly; the evil of a knife when it is shown to one. I heard a troubling statistic when the Violent Crime Reduction Bill was considered in Parliament three years ago and I asked about knives in schools. I was told that, according to Government figures, some 20,000 children aged 11 to 16 carried a knife into school for offensive purposes and some 40,000 children aged 11 to 16 carried a knife into school for defensive purposes—60,000 children with knives in our schools.

It was and is an horrific figure, and it should trouble us all tonight much more than anything else that we have heard. How can it be, in this age of the blade, that 60,000 children are taking blades into school? What about the children outside school, across the cities? How many tens of thousands are carrying knives? How many hundreds of thousands? If Government figures say that 60,000 children are taking knives into school, we are facing a true tragedy, but we have not got to grips with it.

There have been far too few prosecutions. In 2005, only 73 youngsters were prosecuted for having a bladed article or offensive weapon on school premises. Only a modest amount received any form of custodial sentence. It is no wonder the public are in despair. Can someone not get to grips with knives in school? What are we going to do? The police and head teachers have plenty of powers already. Somebody, somewhere, has got to send out the message that it will not do for 11 to 16-year-olds and 16 to 18-year-olds to carry knives, and that it will be punished with custody.

In debates on what became the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, I suggested a mandatory three-month sentence for such offences, unless there were exceptional circumstances. What happened? The Government rubbished my proposal, saying that there were probably not enough prison places. What summed up the Government’s position at that time? I shall tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker. As I said in Committee, they had answered a written question, saying—can you credit this?—that

Encouraging initiatives? Tell that to people on some of the estates that I have seen in London. We in this House must send the message that knife carrying among young people must be stamped out, and stamped out hard.

I turn to my next point. Come with me to a court in south London, Madam Deputy Speaker, and look over at the dock. You see a man who looks 50 years old. He is scratching his arms. He is grey haired. He is stuttering. He is wobbling. He can barely lift his head. He is
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charged with stealing £60 worth of razor blades yesterday from a local supermarket. Why? To sell them, to get the money to buy his heroin. He looks a beaten man. He looks quite elderly. I ask him how old he is. He says 26. This is his 35th conviction in that court for a drug offence. He steals to fund his habit.

When are we going to get to grips with the issue of drugs? Every heroin addict I have seen—and my God they come from some bad backgrounds; I shall say a word about that later—started with cannabis and solvents at the age of 11 or 12, and moved on to cocaine, crack cocaine and heroin. They are ruined at 26 years old. They have no self-esteem. They come from the most rotten estates.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that this Government have done more than any other to help support people who have problems not only with drugs but with alcohol? I appreciate that there are not enough services in my constituency, but they are there and we are starting to tackle the problems faced by people with drug and alcohol problems who go on to commit crimes.

Mr. Malins: Oh, if I had time tonight, I would tell the hon. Lady just where the Government have failed. She was not here earlier when we discussed drug treatment and testing orders—the great panacea—which were introduced a few years ago. Does she know anything about them? They collapsed—abandoned; failed—with an 80 per cent. reoffending rate and a 90 per cent. breach rate. Does she know that? She comes out with these platitudes about what the Government are doing here and there, but they need to do a lot more.

What about the young man from the rotten estate, who has a Prozac-addicted mother and a violent father—alcohol, no self-esteem, no education, no job, nothing—and who has to be sentenced? He has drifted into heroin and we have got to get him out of it. It is no good sending him day after day through the revolving door of prison. That is no good at all. What we have to do is think constructively, which brings me to my last point on sentencing.

We should think more about residential rehab for drug offenders. I have seen it; I know it can work; I have passed the sentence. There are no statistics showing how successful it is, but my goodness it can often be better than prison because sometimes these heroin addicts are victims just as much as criminals. Something has to be done. Prison costs £800 a week; residential rehab, on average, costs £675 a week. All around the country, these residential centres cannot get enough money; there is no money around. Yet the judges want to pass that form of sentence more and more.

There are two further issues. First, on knives, we have got to do something rather than just talk about it and snatch a headline, which we can all do from time to time. Secondly, drugs are, in my judgment, the biggest evil that the criminal justice system has faced during the past 15 years. It is the thing that destroys most lives and ruins otherwise good young people. I repeat that we have got to take a more positive attitude.

What is my last word? Cannabis. Sentencing on cannabis has been a joke for 25 years. “Smith, you are charged with possession of cannabis, how do you plead?” “Guilty.” “Stand up. You are fined £50 and the drug will be
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forfeited and destroyed. Next case, please.” Spare a thought for the next case, which is crossing a red traffic light—the penalty: £100. We do not take it seriously enough, early enough. That is my last comment.

9.27 pm

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I am conscious of the time, so I shall be brief in order to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) to share his important thoughts with us. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) on making a speech that was brief, but also wise and thoughtful; he is a man of great experience and integrity.

The Secretary of State was slightly embarrassed earlier when my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) reminded him of the record prison population—and rightly so, because overcrowding is unhealthy, it increases risk and is perhaps itself unlawful. My concern is for prison staff, as I believe overcrowding is increasing the number of assaults on them. It clearly causes great stress within these facilities. Indeed, prison officers are often going off work with stress, which in some cases leads to long periods of sick leave because of the extra pressures in overcrowded prisons. The Government have a duty to look after not only the prisoners but, perhaps even more so, the prison staff within their employ. They are failing to do that.

I would like to focus on Shrewsbury prison, which is a major prison in Shropshire and the nearest to my own constituency. The prison provides accommodation for 181 prisoners, but the actual population, on the basis of figures released just a few months ago, is 329. That means an overpopulation of 182 per cent. Shrewsbury prison is the most overpopulated prison in England and Wales. That is a disgrace, not only for those seeking education and rehabilitation within the prison so that they do not carry on reoffending, but for the hard-working, committed and dedicated public servants who staff the prison.

We heard earlier from the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), but he neglected to tell the House that Leeds prison is currently 151 per cent. overpopulated. It is wrong that West Mercia police are being called upon time and again to act as full-time custodial officers, taking prisoners not only from Wales but from parts of the west midlands such as Wolverhampton. Once again, that is down to the neglect and failure of the Government. The right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) said earlier that he did not want to be partisan or party political—absolutely not, but it is interesting that those comments are made only when the Government are desperate for friends; when they do not need friends, they are very happy to be adversarial and partisan. On an issue of such importance, it is right that we bring the Government to account, as we are attempting to do this evening.

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