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Shoplifting (Sentencing Guidelines)

2. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What recent representations he has received on the sentencing guidelines for shoplifting offences. [240226]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): The hon. Lady has made a number of representations on sentencing guidelines for shoplifting offences and we have met representatives of retail trade organisations to discuss available disposals for shoplifting. The independent Sentencing Guidelines Council has today published its definitive guideline on sentencing for theft from a shop.

Miss McIntosh: May I thank the Justice Secretary for the kind words that he recently said about me to the Magistrates Association? May I also refer him to the representations that the association has made on this issue? Will his hon. Friend the Minister go so far as to admit that the Magistrates Association still has concerns about fixed penalty notices being imposed for first time offences, about fines going unpaid— [ Interruption ]—she should feel free to answer for herself, rather than conferring—and about community sentences not being completed? Does he or she therefore share my concern that there should be a court—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am just wondering how many supplementaries the hon. Lady has left.

Maria Eagle: The hon. Lady is simply showing the great interest in this matter that my right hon. Friend was right to say that she has shown over a long period of time. We are aware that the Magistrates Association has concerns, and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), who has responsibility for the Courts Service, will meet its representatives tomorrow and will no doubt have an opportunity to discuss some of those concerns. I should like to point out to the House that more people are prosecuted for shop theft than receive penalty notices for disorder, that the use of custody to punish shoplifters has increased in percentage terms since 1997, and that the courts are empowered to make custodial sentences for this crime and, where appropriate, do so.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Are not the Minister’s remarks a little complacent? Paragraph 11 of today’s announcement by the Sentencing Guidelines Council makes it clear that burglars and shoplifters who steal to feed an addiction will get a lesser sentence. She must be aware that the retail sector is suffering from a chronic recession, so this must surely be the worst possible time to downgrade and devalue those offences. Is not there a danger that this will encourage even more retail crime, and a likelihood that this will be seen as a shoplifters’ and burglars’ charter?

Maria Eagle: I absolutely refute the hon. Gentleman’s latter point, as no doubt would one of his hon. Friends on the Conservative Front Bench, who last year was urging us—quite rightly, in my view—during the passage of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 to ensure that those who commit crime through addiction get proper treatment. Indeed, early-day motion 132,
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tabled by the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), makes that very point, and urges the Sentencing Guidelines Council to ensure

That is all that the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which is independent of the Government, is saying—that drug rehabilitation orders should be given, where appropriate, to try to ensure that those who commit crime in part as a result of their addiction have a chance to get rid of that addiction. The evidence shows that those who complete those tough community orders are only half as likely to reoffend as those who do not complete such orders.

Parliamentary Privilege

5. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the interaction between the judicial system and parliamentary privilege. [240229]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): The interaction between the judicial system and parliamentary privilege is well settled, and specifically defined in the sub judice rules of Parliament. The rules were extensively revised by this House in November 2001, following the recommendations by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, and set out on page 437 of the current edition of “Erskine May”. The issue occasionally arises incidentally in ministerial discussions but, as it is a matter for Parliament and not for the Executive, I can recall no occasion on which it has been an agenda item for ministerial deliberation.

Mr. Harper: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. He will know that the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 created three categories of material susceptible to searches, one of which was legally privileged material. If the police think that a piece of evidence is legally privileged, they are unable to seize it. Has the Secretary of State considered whether it would be worth extending that definition to include items that are subject to parliamentary privilege, so as to make clear the legal position and to put it beyond doubt?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I am perfectly happy to consider such recommendations, but I suggest that, in the first instance, they should come from the privileges Committee and not from the Executive.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Yesterday, the Leader of the House suggested that a High Court judge might be the appropriate person to grant a warrant, if one were required, for a police search of these premises, and of Members’ correspondence in offices or homes around the country. How would that proposal be carried forward, given that, according to the Government’s motion, the Committee to consider the matter is not allowed to meet other than for the purpose of electing a Chairman, and that the Prime Minister has indicated that nothing will change until he has had the results of that Committee’s inquiry?

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Mr. Straw: On the specific proposition, as the Queen’s Speech made clear, there will be a police Bill and a Bill in respect of justice and coroners. The right hon. Gentleman is an experienced parliamentarian, and I would be astonished if he could not ensure that amendments to achieve what he suggests were in order, if he wished to table such amendments. Of course we would be happy to consider them without waiting for a particular report from a specific inquiry.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Would the Secretary of State resist the temptation to freeze into statute law the complex system of principles and precedents that constitute parliamentary privilege, as if an Act attempted to do so, it would be judiciable outside the House, whereas privilege is in fact better defended by ourselves as it has been over the centuries? In any case, many of us have little faith in the Government’s ability to deal with this in an unpartisan way, especially in the light of recent events, so any Bill that they bring forward could further weaken the powers of this House and allow outside authorities unnecessary further access.

Mr. Straw: On the issue of parliamentary privilege—in other words further defining what is in article 9 of the 1689 Bill of Rights—I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege said in 1999 that the matter was best defined by this House. However, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) spoke about changing criminal procedures and if the House wished to proceed with that—I am not committing the Government, but we would certainly be happy to consider it—it could be effected only by a change in the general criminal law because it applies not only to behaviours in the House or in respect of the House, but to outside agencies such as the police.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): On the subject of interaction with the judicial system, the Justice Secretary recently thought it right roundly to attack what he described as “nervous judges” for applying the Human Rights Act, which made the European convention on human rights justiciable in our courts. Although we came to expect the right hon. Gentleman’s successors as Home Secretary to abuse judges for party political advantage, are we now to expect the Lord Chancellor, whose statutory duty is to uphold the independence of the judiciary, routinely to make attacks on judges who apply the laws enacted by Parliament at his Government’s request?

Mr. Straw: I think that that is a slightly extravagant interpretation of what I said. I think that citing my comment on nervous judges as if it were an attack on the judiciary is an abuse of language. The article also made it clear that I had been extremely careful not to pass any adverse comment on the judiciary—nor have I. I recognise my responsibilities in respect of the protection of the independence of the judiciary acutely.

Civil Service Impartiality

6. Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Whether he plans to introduce legislation on civil service impartiality. [240230]

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The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): The constitutional renewal Bill, which we published in draft in March, included proposals to enshrine in statute the core principles and values of the civil service, which include impartiality. The Government reiterated their commitment to continue to take forward their proposals in the Queen’s Speech last week.

Martin Linton: Does my right hon. Friend agree that impartiality remains important for some quite junior civil service posts? Does he agree, for instance, that appointing a civil servant who had stood as an Opposition candidate only four years ago to work in the private office of the Home Secretary would be inappropriate?

Mr. Wills: I am obviously not going to comment—just as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State refused to comment—on ongoing police investigations, but I hope that the whole House will agree that, whatever party Ministers come from, they must be able to rely on the impartiality of the civil service—and at all levels. That is fundamental to the civil service: those core civil service values are set out in the civil service code and they actually form part of a civil servant’s terms and conditions of employment.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): But why cannot the civil service clauses be detached from the rest of the constitutional renewal Bill and be proceeded with in this Parliament, as they had widespread support and were anticipated in several Government manifestos?

Mr. Wills: Quite simply because they do not need to be. We intend to proceed with our proposals for the constitutional renewal Bill. May I say that we published those proposals in draft because they are constitutional and we believe that they deserve the widest possible scrutiny? Indeed, we have had the benefit of extremely important scrutiny from the Justice Committee, the Public Administration Committee and, indeed, from the Joint Committee on the draft Bill. We have benefited from all that scrutiny, we are drafting the clauses as we speak and we will introduce those proposals.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I do not wish to be too critical of what we have discovered today to be the erstwhile occupation of the Minister’s boss, but does the Minister not agree that one of the elements most corrosive of civil service impartiality over the past 10 years has been the explosion in the number of special advisers employed by the Government? What would he do about that?

Mr. Wills: I certainly do not agree, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman was not referring to his boss, the leader of the Conservative party, when he spoke of corrosive elements in our public life. I am sure that he was not—I am glad to receive that confirmation from the hon. Gentleman.

I do not agree that the civil service is being corroded. I think that we should be proud of our civil service, which plays an extraordinarily important role in our constitution. If the hon. Gentleman reads the evidence given to Select Committees by the current head of the civil service, he will see that the latter paid tribute to the important role played by special advisers in our constitutional arrangements.

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Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): Some of us remember being special advisers and protecting the impartiality of the civil service, and I pay tribute to the Lord Chancellor for what he did in that respect long ago. However, the Minister has said once again that the constitutional renewal Bill will be coming forward. As was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who served on the Committee that examined the draft Bill, it is an important piece of legislation, and we were all looking forward to it. We all consider the impartiality of the civil service to be the very cornerstone of our democracy. Action has been promised again and again, yet we do not see the Bill in the timetable now. If it is really to come forward, can the Minister tell us when it will do so?

Mr. Wills: We plan to present proposals in April or May. [Interruption.] This is not news, however excited Opposition Members may be about it. We have made our intentions clear. I hope Members agree that we need to take constitutional proposals seriously, and to reflect on the scrutiny that they have been given by three Committees of the House. However, we will present those proposals, and given what the hon. Lady has said, we expect to receive the Conservative party’s support for every measure of this kind that we present in future.

Custodial Sentences

7. Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of custodial sentences of three months or less. [240231]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): The Government regularly undertake research on the effectiveness of various sentencing disposals, including both custodial and community-based sentences.

Sandra Gidley: Ministers have consistently told us that tough, firm community sentences can be more effective in reducing reoffending than short spells in prison. Given that our prisons are bursting at the seams and 92 per cent. of young men given a first-time short custodial sentence reoffend within two years, does the Minister really believe that sending 34,613 people to prison in the last year alone is the best way of tackling recidivism?

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Lady needs to understand that we consider both custodial and non-custodial sentences to be important parts of the judicial system, and that courts must have the flexibility to be able to pass sentences that they believe to be appropriate. Last year alone, more than 6 million hours were spent serving non-custodial community-based sentences. The hon. Lady and her party need to reflect on what is important for the victims of persistent young offenders, and what is important in terms of the flexibility of the court system.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Does the Secretary of State think it appropriate that prison staff at HMPs Whitemoor and Peterborough are, at a cost of more than £3,500 to the taxpayer, running errands to pick up takeaways for inmates in the name of diversity? Does he think it acceptable to my tax-paying, law-abiding constituents that that is happening under his Government?

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Bridget Prentice: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we do not think that appropriate, and that steps have been taken to ensure that it does not happen again.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) about custodial sentences of three months or less, can the Minister tell us what impact such sentences have on convicted offenders who are addicted to hard drugs?

Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend makes an important point in reflecting what the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), said earlier about the importance of ensuring that sentencing deals with those who are addicted to drink or drugs. That is one reason why flexibility must be at the disposal of the courts: they must be able to ensure that those who commit crimes because of their addiction can be properly dealt with in an appropriate fashion.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Minister was right in the answer she gave to the original question, but does she not agree that, regardless of whether the sentence is three months, three years, 13 years, 23 years or 30 years, it should involve genuine rehabilitation, including education and training?

Bridget Prentice: Absolutely.


8. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): What assessment he has made of the effect of indeterminate sentences for public protection on prison overcrowding; and if he will make a statement. [240232]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): Indeterminate imprisonment for public protection—IPP—sentences are an important part of sentencing options for the protection of the public. The Government will ensure that there are prison places for those whom the court sends to custody.

Andrew Stunell: I thank the Minister for that answer. As he knows, I have been in correspondence with him and other Ministers in the Department since October of last year about my constituent, Mr. W, who is in prison serving such a sentence. The time has come when he could have been considered for parole, had he been able to gain access to the courses which were a condition for that. He could have been considered in March, but he cannot access those courses. I understand that there might be up to 800 prisoners in similar circumstances.

The Minister will also know that, through the changes made in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, sentences with such attachments to them can no longer be given. Will he look at my constituent’s case and consider whether he and others like him might be brought under the terms of the 2008 Act, and thus be made eligible for parole rather than left in the current Catch-22 situation?

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