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Crime and Sentencing

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on crime and sentencing which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

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    18 or over who is convicted of a serious sexual or violent offence for a second time should be sentenced to life imprisonment.

    "In these indeterminate life sentence cases, the trial judge, not Ministers, would set the tariff--the minimum period to be served for retribution and deterrence. Once that tariff had been served the Parole Board would decide whether it was safe to release the offender or not. If the Parole Board decided that offenders still posed a danger to the public, then they would remain in prison. Those considered safe would be released on life licence and subject to recall to prison at any time during the rest of their lives.

    "Thirdly, drug dealers. Drug dealers are a scourge on society. They prey on the young and the innocent. They wreck people's lives. And because addicts often resort to crime to finance their habits they wreck the livelihoods of others. Dealers in hard drugs like heroin, ecstasy and cocaine usually receive prison sentences. But in many cases these prison sentences are not long enough for those who persistently commit this very serious crime.

    "A recent sample showed that the average sentence for a third conviction of dealing in hard drugs was just over four years. And these offenders are automatically released after serving only two and a half years. We need to send a strong and clear signal that persistent dealing in hard drugs is not something we are prepared to tolerate. I therefore propose that anyone aged 18 or over who is convicted on three separate occasions of dealing in Class A drugs should receive a minimum sentence of seven years in prison.

    "Next, burglary. All burglary is disruptive and costly. But domestic burglary is particularly distressing for victims who lose their treasured personal possessions and feel that the sanctity of their home has been violated. I believe persistent domestic burglars deserve long prison sentences. Yet they rarely get them.

    "A sample of domestic burglars convicted in the Crown Courts in 1993 and 1994 showed that the average prison sentence for a first time offender was 16.2 months. Even after three or more convictions it was only 18.9 months. And after seven or more convictions it was barely higher at 19.4 months-- and they actually serve just half of that. Indeed, 28 per cent. of offenders with seven or more convictions for domestic burglary in the Crown Court were not sent to prison at all. And in the magistrates' courts that figure was even higher at 61 per cent. I simply do not believe that this gives the public the protection they deserve. And these sentences do not deter career burglars for whom the occasional short stretch in prison has become an acceptable occupational hazard.

    "That is why I propose a minimum sentence of three years for anyone aged 18 or over convicted of domestic burglary for a third time. In addition, I hope the courts will use to the full their new powers to seize burglars' assets. The prospect of long prison

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    sentences, coupled with loss of their possessions, will, I have no doubt, deter many burglars altogether. Others will not be deterred. But at least communities will get a lengthy break from their criminal activities.

    "There will be 5,000 more policemen to help catch burglars; new vigorous police tactics designed to take the offensive to the burglar; long sentences for persistent burglars; and the prospect of their own property being seized. These are my proposals to take on the burglar as never taken on before. I have no doubt that they will be warmly supported by the public.

    "I accept that there may very occasionally be cases where it would not be reasonable for the court to impose the minimum sentence. I therefore propose that the courts should have the discretion not to impose it in genuinely exceptional circumstances.

    "I summarise my proposals. Automatic early release from prison will be ended. Anyone convicted of a second serious sexual or violent crime will receive a life sentence. Persistent domestic burglars will receive mandatory minimum prison sentences of three years and those dealing in hard drugs, seven years.

    "These are deliberately tough sentences designed to deal with serious persistent and wholly unacceptable offending by individual criminals. I accept that they are likely to lead to an increase in the prison population. The necessary prison places will need to be built and this will require extra resources. But I believe that we simply cannot afford not to take this action.

    "I intend to phase in the proposals. The provisions to deal with second-time serious sexual and violent offenders and drug dealers will be implemented as soon as possible after Royal Assent. I intend to implement the provisions to deal with persistent burglars and honesty in sentencing two years later as new prison places become available.

    "I intend to consult fully on the proposals set out in this White Paper. I shall carefully consider the points made. Having done that, I propose to introduce a Bill giving effect to my proposals in the next Session of Parliament.

    "Madam Speaker, the first duty of government is to maintain law and order; to protect people's freedom to walk safely on their streets and sleep safely in their homes. We have taken action to ensure that the balance in our criminal justice system favours the law abiding public, not the criminal. The police have revolutionised the way they fight crime--targeting known and persistent criminals with impressive results. And the public are increasingly playing their part--through Neighbourhood Watch, Street Watch and the Special Constabulary.

    "The proposals I have set out today are aimed at protecting the public from those who persistently commit offences which cause particular public concern--serious violent or sexual offences, drug dealing and domestic burglary. They will ensure that once caught and convicted, persistent and dangerous criminals are properly punished. The proposals are

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    tough. And they should be. They are needed to protect the public and to build a safer Britain. I commend them to the House."

My Lords, that concludes the text of the Statement.

4.42 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. I should introduce my remarks with a caveat. The Minister knows that, apart from 20 minutes, I have been in my place since 11.30 this morning. Therefore, I have had no opportunity to consult my honourable and right honourable friends in another place. Therefore, I preface my remarks with what I may call--in variation of a cigarette packet--an Opposition health warning. Any differences that are detected between my response and that of Mr. Jack Straw will be the subject of full and frank discussion in the future.

By any standards, this is an extraordinary Statement, and it is an extraordinary Statement to make on the day on which the House rises even for a brief Easter Recess. It starts with a series of statements which depart widely from the experience of ordinary people in relation to crime, and it fails to reflect at all the experience and incidence of crime over the period of 17 years of this Conservative Government.

The Secretary of State says that everything possible is being done to prevent crime. But he neglects to remind Parliament that it is the Labour Party which has emphasised throughout the importance of crime prevention and the relationship between the police and local authorities and local communities in crime prevention. The Government have resisted those changes.

The Secretary of State talks quite rightly about the powers and resources needed by the police, the need to ensure that the innocent are acquitted but the guilty convicted and that criminals are properly punished. Nobody disagrees with any of that but all that must be seen within the context of a free civil society. After all, that is the basis of our criminal justice system.

The Home Secretary talks about evidence that the strategy is working. He did indeed announce a fall in recorded crime; but it is noticeable that violent crime, including burglary--in other words, the kind of crime with which his proposed minimum sentences are concerned--has actually increased, as has all crime in the past six months.

I turn to the issue of honesty in sentencing. We must remind the House that the provisions for automatic remission were not invented by a Labour Government. They came out of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 which was put forward by this Government. This Government introduced the idea of automatic remission. They persisted in saying that that automatic remission is important from the point of view of discipline.

Throughout, the Labour Party has been in favour of honesty and truth in sentencing. We do not believe that there should be automatic remission at the half-way stage of a sentence. We believe that sentences should be adjusted to reflect the reality and that the parole system,

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rather than the remission system, should be used both to reward good behaviour, to keep discipline in prisons, and above all to ensure that there is the potential for release for those, and only those, who can safely be released into the community.

Therefore, we agree with the Home Secretary that automatic early release from prison is undesirable and we support legislation to that effect. But we must remind him that it is the Government's problem and not a problem which has been introduced by anybody else.

At the same time, we remind him that unless there is a change in sentencing guidelines to make sure that that does not result simply in a doubling of effective sentences, then the effect on the prison population will be dramatic.

The Home Secretary then turned to the issue of minimum sentences. First, he talked about persistent sexual and violent offenders. We share with him his concern about the increase in sexual offences in particular. But again I remind the House that the incidence of rape has increased four-fold since this Government first came into office in 1980; that the possibility of conviction for rape has been improved, in particular as a result of the possibility of DNA testing; and yet in absolute terms, there are fewer convictions for rape than there were 16 years ago. There is something seriously wrong with our law in relation to rape but it is the problem of failing to secure convictions for rape rather than the sentences which are important.

Instead of proposing minimum sentences or automatic life sentences for repeated rapists, we have a much more wide-ranging proposal which has been publicised in recent weeks by the shadow Home Secretary--that is, all sentences for sexual offences of this kind should be subject to review before release is made possible, even at the end of the sentence.

We recognise the genuine and proper concern about those who serve their full sentence for rape without receiving parole and who are released into the community not having been cured of their impulse for rape. I know that it is a difficult thing to do when there are normally determinate sentences but a way must be found to ensure that the protection which is possible when prisoners are released on parole is available also at the end of their sentences for those who have disorders of the kind which lead to rape and who would be a danger to the community if released. We are just as concerned as the Government about protection for the community from both sexual and violent criminals but we believe there are ways other than the imposition of minimum sentences to deal with that problem.

The Statement then goes on to deal with the issues of drug dealers and burglary. Of course, the Secretary of State is right to say that drug dealing is a dreadful scourge. He is right to say that dealing in Class A drugs is one of the worst ways of breaking up civil society in this country. He is also right, although perhaps to a lesser extent, about burglary. The shock and offence caused by burglary, even when the amounts are small, are very profound as anyone who has been burgled knows from personal experience.

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I seriously wonder whether minimum sentences of the kind proposed by the Home Secretary are the right way to deal with the problems. After all, both drug dealing and burglary are conspicuous among offences which vary enormously in their severity. Even drug dealing in Class A drugs could be on a very small scale while burglary might consist simply of putting one's hand through an open window to steal a milk bottle. Is it seriously proposed that there should be minimum sentences of the sort proposed for three separate offences of putting a hand through an open window to steal a milk bottle? I cannot believe that that would be the case. I am surprised that the Minister picked on offences where, very often, cautions are used rather than arrest to introduce the new concept of minimum sentencing.

Of course we must protect the public, but I do not believe that minimum sentencing of the sort proposed is the right way to do it. All the omens are against it. After the proposal was first mooted by the Home Secretary in his speech at the Conservative Party conference, the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, wrote a very effective letter to The Times in October of last year in which described the situation in California. There is huge encouragement there for people to plead not guilty because a guilty plea automatically leads to imprisonment for life, 99 years or whatever it is, even for stealing a pizza. Indeed, that has actually happened in California. The courts and remand places in prison have become clogged up, the prison population has increased enormously and the prison budget is now greater than the higher education budget. That cannot be the right approach to the problem. I am sorry that it has not been possible for the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, to be in his place today. I am sure that he would have delivered a withering attack on the proposals, as he did in October last year.

Similarly, Ministers now appear to be deriding the work of the Parole Board. I find that extraordinary when we consider that it was the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle of Bucklow, who carried out a review of the board. It has been suggested that prison sentences are not being served enough in custody and that that, apart from remission, is the responsibility of the Parole Board. Yet a review of parole procedures revealed that parole was not being used excessively and that it was essential not only for deterrence but also for securing a civilised regime and discipline in our prisons.

To make our sentences more literal than they are now will cause enormous difficulties for the Prison Service. I have in mind the effect of the proposals in terms of the prison budget. Estimates of the increase in the prison population vary greatly but none comes to less than about 10,000. That means that over the period to which the Home Secretary referred we are talking about at least £1 billion in capital expenditure, and a huge increase in revenue cost and budgets for the Prison Service. Can the Minister say from where--what other budget--that money will come?

The Statement represents a complete U-turn on everything the Government have said, especially on the Criminal Justice Act 1991. We are discussing a problem which has occurred and grown within the lifetime of the

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Conservative Government and which has been exacerbated by the lack of consistency and progression in sentencing which the Conservative Government have either encouraged, as they did in legislation, or allowed to happen. The Statement must be taken in the light of the complete failure of the Government seriously to tackle the problem of violent crime and to deal with the problem of the failure of conviction for violent crime. It is a deplorable Statement. I realise that the proposals will come before the House for scrutiny during the next parliamentary Session. Let us hope that the next Session is sufficiently curtailed to make it impossible for the proposals to become law.

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