Coroners and Justice Bill

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Bridget Prentice: That is absolutely right.
Q 38Mr. Boswell: Will the chief coroner broker that, so that representations can be made if the family or the local authority do not want that?
Bridget Prentice: Exactly. It would be for the chief coroner to make those directions.
Q 39Mr. Bellingham: Briefly, I want to ask the Minister about clauses 11 and 12. This is the most controversial section of this part of the Bill and we will debate it at length in Committee. Existing powers are in place to prevent the disclosure of harmful material: there are public interest immunity certificates, reporting restrictions and so on, and we are talking about only very few inquests where this will apply. Do Ministers—Mrs. Prentice, in particular—feel that damage will be done to the credibility of the coronial service if these clauses become sections in the new Act? Does she feel that the damage done will be worth it for the benefits that accrue? We are talking about so few inquests, and powers are there already to prevent harmful material from being made available.
Bridget Prentice: No, I do not agree. It is right to say that this will affect only a tiny number of inquests, and not some of those that have been mooted in the media—it will not affect military inquests, for example. At the moment, where sensitive material has to go before an inquest, it can be redacted. However, in cases of extremely sensitive material relating to the security services, it might be that the coroner would need to see the evidence. The family can be involved in all other parts of the inquest. This would apply only when dealing with extraordinarily sensitive material. That is why clause 11 is necessary.
The Chairman: Mr Howarth, as the last inquisitor on this section, may I ask that once you have spent your rounds on this particular target, you adjust your sights and concentrate on the section on sentencing?
Q 40Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): I will try to comply with that target-shooting analogy, Mr. Cook. I have a brief point on the coroners provisions. I have read them and the notes on clauses. On Second Reading, I highlighted the difficulties that bereaved families experienced in the Hillsborough inquest. It is not clear to me how the reforms will apply in a case where, for example, instead of there being an inquest about one particular death, there is a series of mini-inquests about deaths that took place within a wider disaster. I suspect that asking the Minister to speculate on how that will work would be asking rather too much. She may not be able to do that. Will she consider preparing a memorandum on how she sees the reforms working in that sort of case?
Bridget Prentice: I will happily do that. I will not speculate too much, except to say that under the reformed system there will be proper training for coroners in dealing with multiple deaths and therefore with a wide variety of families and kinships.
Q 41Mr. Howarth: If I may interrupt, I am not talking about the conduct of coroners, but about the process.
Bridget Prentice: I will come back with a memorandum on how we envisage the process taking place.
Q 42Mr. Howarth: I am grateful. I will move on to sentencing as you requested, Mr. Cook. I have three, hopefully, quick points. I should declare an interest in that I sat on the Gage working party, which considered the Carter report that led to some of these provisions.
First, there has been speculation about the role of the Lord Chief Justice in the new enhanced sentencing commission. The Gage working party took the view that it would be asking too much of him to chair the commission. However, there must be a role for him. What does the Minister think that role might be?
Secondly, on the balancing of correctional resources with sentencing, on Second Reading the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said effectively that to try to do that would be to undermine the principles of our criminal justice system. I think that he misunderstood slightly what is being proposed. Will the Minister say how there can be judicial independence while forecasting what correctional resources are necessary to deal with the totality of sentencing over a given period?
Finally, will the Minister comment on any role that Parliament might have in dealing with sentencing guidelines that come from the new enhanced sentencing commission?
Maria Eagle: First, may I say how useful it will be for the Committee to have you present, Mr. Howarth, when we get to this part of the Bill?
Mr. Howarth: Too kind.
Maria Eagle: You will certainly keep me on my toes—not that other Committee members will not. It will be helpful to have the experience you bring from having sat on the Gage working group.
On the role of the Lord Chief Justice, the new council will have a judicial majority and a judicial chair. The Lord Chief Justice will appoint those members in consultation with the Lord Chancellor. Similarly, he will be consulted by the Lord Chancellor, who will appoint the non-judicial members of the council. He will certainly have an important role to play in the composition of the individuals who sit on the council. As head of the judiciary, he has an important general role. It is probably correct that he is too busy and has too many other important things to do to take a day-to-day part in the council’s activities.
The intention of establishing the council is not to produce a fetter to wrap around individual judicial office holders in doing their jobs, whether they be magistrates or judges. The Gage working group made it clear that it did not think that “correctional resources”—I hate to use that horrible phrase—should be tied to the work that was part of what the council took into account when producing its guidelines. That is not the intention. The Government agree with the recommendation from the Gage working group that they should not be tied together. I can make it clear that there will be no connection between individual sentencing decisions and correctional resources. No obligation will be placed on a sentencer in a case to take resourcing into account when making his or her judgment and dispensing justice as judges and magistrates do.
There will be a big improvement in the system of data collection and analysis provided by the council, which will be able to predict the impact of its guidelines on correctional resources and will give policy makers and those responsible for finding the money—Ministers and officials in the Department—much better and clearer information about the implications of sentencing practice. That is the intention. I hope that I can provide substantial reassurance to Committee members and those in the wider world who fear that the purpose of the sentencing council is to tie sentencing decisions in individual cases to the available resources for prison places. That is neither the intention nor what the Bill will do, if enacted in its current form.
On the role of Parliament, the Justice Committee already has a role in considering such matters. We hope to ensure a continuing role for the Committee, and we will be happy to hear from its Chairman, who is not with us today—he is not on the Bill Committee—about what he believes is the best way to proceed. We do not anticipate Parliament having the capacity by regulation to implement the sentencing guidelines, but we expect it to take its usual interest in such matters. We will consider ways in which to achieve that.
Q 43Mr. Garnier: I, too, must declare an interest. If this Bill becomes an Act, as a sentencer, I shall have to comply with the Sentencing Guidelines Council’s directions. Can you give us an example of how the point about correctional resources will affect a particular sentence? Sitting as a sentencer, will the judge or magistrate look at guidance and read, “The guideline sentence for such and such a crime is x number of years”, with an addition reading, “but we are a bit short of prison places this week”? Can you explain it in practical terms?
Maria Eagle: No, there will be no such addition to the guidelines for individual sentences.
Q 44Mr. Garnier: What is the practical difference? Apart from the duty to follow, which is new, what is the real difference between what is currently in place and what is proposed?
Maria Eagle: There will be a duty to follow, as you put it, subject to an interests of justice test. It will always be for the sentencer to decide, on the basis of the facts, and the aggravation and mitigation in front of him or her, what happens in an individual case. Although there will be an enhanced duty to follow the guidelines, there will be ranges and the capacity for the sentencer to depart from the guidelines, in the interests of justice. It is for the sentencer to decide what is in the interests of justice. There is no fettering of discretion. The real difference is that there will be much more information and monitoring of what is happening, and of the impact of the guidelines and the sentences.
Q 45Mr. Garnier: Will that information be for the use of Ministers and public policy makers, or for the use of sentencers? What is the point of collecting the information if it is not to influence sentencers?
Maria Eagle: It ought to be useful for all, but there will not be an obligation on the individual sentencer in an individual case to take into account available resources, such as the local prisons. That is not what we seek to do. There will be more monitoring and information about the impact of sentences on rehabilitation and punishment, and there will be more information about the variation in sentencing practice from area to area. There will be more and better information, and more monitoring, which will be available for both policy makers and sentencers. There will be no commensurate obligation for a sentencer on an individual case to take into account available resources, such as what prison places are like locally.
Q 46Mr. Garnier: Is not the more intellectually honest position to take this: we—the Ministry of Justice—will collect this information, and based on that information, we will advise judges to alter their sentences according to the resources that are available in any particular aspect of the correctional system?
Maria Eagle: No, Ministers will not be doing that.
Q 47Mr. Garnier: Will you not be placing on the judiciary an additional factor? Beyond the facts of the case, judges will also be influenced by the information that is pouring down from the Ministry of Justice, which will have been drawn up by the information-gathering system that you have just been talking about, otherwise there is no point in it.
Maria Eagle: With respect, I think that there is a point to these changes because they will ensure that there is better monitoring of what currently happens, and that better information is available both to policy makers and sentencers, none of which will impact on the individual sentencing discretion of either the magistrate or the judge in a particular case to do justice. Judges will not be fettered in any way by the provisions in the legislation.
Q 48Mr. Garnier: But clause 107(1)(a) says that every court must “follow any sentencing guidelines.” Those sentencing guidelines will be informed by the resource information that someone has gathered.
The Chairman: Mr. Garnier, you pose the questions and then express dissatisfaction with the answers.
Mr. Garnier: I am just testing the answers with further questions.
The Chairman: Just a moment, we can always test them in Divisions at a later date. I am afraid that you must live with your dissatisfaction for the time being.
Q 49Alun Michael: I want to raise three points. Again, I am conscious that our time is limited, so if you want to give a headline and expand afterwards, I will be happy with that.
First, in the information that you have given to the Committee on the assessment of the impact of the Bill, I was rather concerned to see, in the reference to the sentencing council, a lot of emphasis on closer adherence to sentencing ranges. As a member of the Justice Committee—you are right to think that that Committee could be of great assistance to Ministers and officials if that opportunity is taken—I ask whether it is not in the interests of effectiveness to reduce reoffending? It is the effectiveness of sentencing that should be emphasised rather than narrowing ranges. That seems to go against what you have been saying to us.
Maria Eagle: It is correct that the more information that sentencers have about the efficacy of sentences that might be available to them, the better positioned they are to make their judgments in individual cases. That will not be tied into saying in this particular instance that only a certain type of sentence will be available according to available correctional resources.
Q 50Alun Michael: I would be a lot happier if that were visible in what the Department is saying about the intentions. I support the idea of the sentencing council. Clearly, the use of data to ensure that sentencing is effective is the whole point. Again, we have a majority of judges, to which we have already referred. I cannot say that that reassured me. In fact, it had the opposite effect. We need people who will be critically examining the evidence on what works within the sentencing system. In a recent Justice Committee, we heard from the previous Lord Chief Justice about the lack of confidence of judges in community sentences. We have also heard about some recent research on the lack of knowledge of community sentencing. That might explain why we have a lot of ineffective sentencing.
Maria Eagle: I hope that the extra availability of information and monitoring will make the effectiveness of sentences much clearer, more transparent and more open to sentencers to see.
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