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Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I welcome the amendment. The noble and learned Lord has performed a public service by highlighting what is required in the process of criminal justice. I say that because, in the matter of crime and punishment, the need for a co-ordinated approach has been well rehearsed; indeed, it is not something new. What has come out very clearly is the fact that there is a need to look at the criminal justice system from the process of arrest right through to the prison situation. The discrepancies within the system have been clearly demonstrated on a number of occasions. They have

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been clearly highlighted by Louis Blom-Cooper and Sean McConville in a paper published by the Prison Reform Trust. If the Minister has not read the document, I recommend that he does so. It is not good enough to say that the Government receive ample and adequate advice. Indeed, despite all this "ample advice", why is it that we have a prison system which is bursting at the seams? What are the issues that we should be highlighting?

I suspect that one of the things that we are not very clear about quite often is the use of public opinion as a means of promoting legislation on criminal justice. Yet, study after study has demonstrated that the public are not as punitive as some people seem to imply. There is a tendency for a knee-jerk reaction to legislation. The classic example would be the dangerous dogs legislation which was introduced some years ago. We tend to forget the impact that such legislation has on society over a long period of time. If the Government say that they have adequate consultation or that they receive adequate advice, I should certainly like to know what sort of advice they received on parenting orders, which we are discussing in this Bill. I should also like to know what sort of advice they received as regards curfews. Indeed, what sort of advice did they receive on the age of criminal responsibility? In other words, were people adequately consulted on such matters? I suspect not.

Perhaps I may give the House an example which is supported by what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, said about the need for research. I believe that to be crucial and perhaps I may cite one or two examples in that respect. There is a disproportionate number of black people in British prisons. I have said that before and I repeat it. Indeed, 15 per cent. to 17 per cent. of our prison population is black, as against their representation of 5 per cent. in the community; 25 per cent. to 27 per cent. of women in prison are black--that is, one in four. There is no evidence to show that black people commit more crime than others, yet the criminal justice system has produced that discrepancy. Despite a number of representations that I made to the Home Office in my capacity at the Commission for Racial Equality on matters of criminal justice, the matter was not seriously considered-- and would never have been addressed--until we commissioned a study with the Institute of Criminology at Oxford to look into the process of the sentencing of black people. In that study over 4,000 cases of people who had already been sentenced were examined in certain courts in the West Midlands. What came out most clearly was the discrepancy in sentencing and the greater propensity to send black people to prison.

I do not believe that it is important at this moment in time to look at the detail of that particular study, but, without such a body with that function of advising, and so on, such matters would not have been adequately considered by the Home Office at that particular time. What the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, is quite rightly proposing is not a body that will dictate: he is talking about such a body in terms of advising the Secretary of State on the

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adequacy and effectiveness of criminal law; advising the Secretary of State on certain aspects of the penal system; and,

    "providing such advice and assistance as may enable the panel the better to discharge its functions".
All we are talking about again and again are the advisory functions which the Government may or may not wish to take on board.

Perhaps I may just add that the extent to which research should form the basis of our criminal policy is most important. We would not have been aware of the situation until research and other evidence demonstrated clearly that across the country 25 per cent. of people who are stopped and searched are black youngsters. Some 40 per cent. of people who are stopped and searched in London are black people. Only one in 10 of those incidents results in some kind of criminal justice process. These are the discrepancies we have created within the criminal justice system. I do not denigrate the important function of the criminal justice council, but that body seems to be reactive. What we require is an independent body outside the political arena which is able to advise the Home Secretary on issues of paramount importance. I support the amendment.

4 p.m.

Lord Elton: My Lords, as two Front-Bench speeches have been permitted from the Liberal Democrats, I hope the House will permit two Back-Bench speeches from the Conservative Party. Grateful as I am for the support of my noble friend on the Front Bench, I regret that, loyal as I may be, I think no one who has served in the Prison Service can be bound by loyalty to his own party not to support this amendment. I shall speak briefly because we have been over this ground before. I remind your Lordships that it was apparent that the increasing flow of prisoners into the Prison Service over the past few years was politically motivated. Once the political bandwagon was rolling there was no machinery by which any politician could resist it--with an approaching general election--without suffering political damage.

This amendment proposes a small piece of machinery to which a Home Secretary, and a shadow Home Secretary--let that be emphasised--could turn for advice which the public might respect, although it may be contrary to what the tabloid newspapers advocate. That is what has been lacking. That is why we have an unbalanced system at the moment because the fourth estate is more powerful than your Lordships and the other place together on issues such as this. If we can recruit an ally by means such as this I must support that proposal whatever my Front Bench advises.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I have not spoken previously upon this Bill. I rise to speak briefly in support of this amendment. I do so because during the years I worked for my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead at the Home Office I became aware of the grave limitations within the Home Office as it lacked precisely such a body. What I particularly like about this amendment is that it provides a relatively independent and dispassionate mechanism for giving authoritative

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advice to the Home Secretary without binding him in any way, without diluting his power in any way, and involving the senior judiciary in the process.

It seems to me significant that the amendment has the support of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice and of the senior judiciary. Speaking for myself, I believe that this would enhance the intelligent development of penal policy and criminal justice policy. My noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, who is not in the Chamber at the moment, has indicated to me that, speaking as a former Home Secretary, he would have regarded a body of this kind as being quite invaluable during his stewardship. I therefore very much hope that this amendment will be carried and carried in another place too.

Lord Lane: My Lords, at the risk of repeating some of the matters which have been mentioned before, I add one or two brief words. For justice to be done in the realm of criminal penalties and trials one of the prime requirements is consistency. Over the past 10 years or more there have been wild fluctuations in political views as to how those matters should be conducted. Those fluctuations may well have been caused by too much regard being paid to that will-o'-the-wisp, public opinion. Public opinion is fostered, if not caused, by the tabloid press and that is a poor basis upon which to base matters as important as these. It seems to me, if I may say so, that the one great advantage of this amendment would be to prevent that sort of fluctuation happening in the future and to provide some consistency and some basis upon which courts can operate knowing that the whole system will not change overnight. This proposed amendment seems to me to be ideal. It certainly has no disadvantages that one can see.

Lord Lowry: My Lords, we are debating a very political subject. It is one which cannot be taken out of politics. I prefer to put it in the following terms. Let us have an advisory committee which in a sense comes into politics to redress the balance because, as noble Lords have pointed out, we have this thing known as public opinion which is largely moulded by the press. It may not even reflect what people really think about subjects on which perhaps they are not particularly well informed but on which they have, or are easily made to form, strong views.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, is legendary for his humanity. I thought that he advanced the clinching argument from a government point of view, no matter which government are in power. On this occasion he has been humane to the Home Secretary because he pointed out the enormous advantage it is to a man otherwise of the most humane and, may I say, sensible outlook when he is faced with the kind of situation which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, described so graphically to have this advisory committee. There are other committees. My noble and learned friend Lord Ackner and the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, have analysed the relative unsuitability of those committees to achieve the object which your Lordships are considering. Therefore I shall not go into further detail on that point.

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The advisory committee which is proposed will give so much better support and provide so much better protection--if I may use that word--to a conscientious Home Secretary than any or all of the committees which we have heard mentioned. For that reason, as well as those which have been advanced already, I strongly support the amendment. With respect, I strongly commend it to the Government.

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