Coroners and Justice Bill - Justice Committee Contents

4  Sentencing

28.  The Coroners and Justice Bill proposes abolishing the current Sentencing Advisory Panel and Sentencing Guidelines Council and creating a single "Sentencing Council for England and Wales". The new council will execute the roles of the current bodies in consulting upon, formulating and publishing guidelines but undertaking a single round of consultation. In addition, the reformed Council will have new responsibilities to:

  • monitor the operation and effect of its sentencing guidelines, including with regard to their impact on promoting public confidence; and
  • publish information on sentencing practice in local areas.

29.  The bill also places duties on the new Council to assess the impact on prison places and probation resources of its own draft guidelines and of Government policy and legislative proposals referred to it. It is not clear, however, whether the Council may assess the impact of existing policies and legislative provisions. The Council's annual report must also contain a "sentencing factors" report—setting out how changes in sentencing practice are likely to have an impact on demand for prison and probation resources—and a "non-sentencing factors" report which considers how other factors, such as recall to prison or breach of orders, are likely to affect the resources needed to give effect to sentences. The bill also changes the duties of the court so that sentencers would be required to "follow" relevant guidelines, where currently they are only to "have regard" to such guidelines.

30.  We reported on sentencing policy in July 2008 in Towards effective sentencing (Fifth of 2007-08) looking at, amongst other things, the evolution of Government policy on sentencing via successive statutes. At the very heart of the debate is a consensus that the prison population is growing too fast and that custody, especially short sentences, is not an effective approach for many offenders in terms of achieving rehabilitation or reform; with prison often characterised as "an expensive way of making bad people worse"[24].

31.  The origins of the provisions in the bill on sentencing guidelines lie in the review of the use of custody in England and Wales that the Government commissioned Lord Carter of Coles to undertake in 2007. In December 2007 Lord Carter published his report entitled, Securing the future: proposals for the efficient and sustainable use of custody in England and Wales which recommended a twin-track approach. On the supply-side, he recommended a significant increase in prison capacity; the titan prison programme. On the demand-side, in addition to a raft of medium term measures, he recommended a study of the merits of establishing a sentencing commission to implement a structured sentencing framework which might relate sentencing to available resources. That study was undertaken at high speed and reported in July 2008.[25]

32.  In our Towards effective sentencing report, we recorded our concern that an over-ambitious timetable had been set for the working group on a sentencing commission and recommended that "the Government should not seek to implement major changes in this area without effective evaluation of the potential consequences and the resources required to make such changes effective." We remain of this opinion. Accordingly, we recommend the most careful consideration of those provisions of the Coroners and Justice Bill relating to the remit of the new Sentencing Council for England and Wales.

33.  This Committee, and its predecessor, has had responsibility for the scrutiny of draft sentencing guidelines which was formerly the role of the Home Affairs Committee.[26] However, the role of Parliament in considering sentencing guidelines has never been formally set down and existing arrangements are in place by mutual agreement between the Committee, the Ministry of Justice and the current Sentencing Guidelines Council. The potential for formal submission of draft sentencing guidelines to Parliament for approval, as is to be the practice in New Zealand, was a matter of debate within the sentencing commission working group and resulted in minority and majority recommendations. A minority believed that parliamentary approval would give such guidelines greater democratic legitimacy but the majority felt that this constituted a "significant and unwarranted change in the relationship between Government and Parliament on the one hand and the judiciary on the other" and would inevitably result in the politicisation of the guidelines.

34.  By convention this Committee has been consulted by the Sentencing Guidelines Council in advance of the issue of new definitive guidelines; and has taken evidence in specific instances when appropriate and practical to do so. It is not clear from the face of the bill what role is envisaged for Parliamentary scrutiny of draft guidelines in the future. In our view it is essential for Parliament to continue to be involved in the process whatever new structures are put in place.

24   Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence taken before the Justice Committee on 18 November 2008, HC (2007-08)425-x, Q 488 Back

25   Sentencing Commission Working Group, Sentencing Guidelines in England and Wales: an evolutionary approach, July 2008 Back

26   See, for example, Justice Committee, Session 2007-08, HC 407-I (Causing Death by Driving) and HC 649-I (Theft and Burglary (non-dwelling)) Back

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