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Lord Oliver of Aylmerton: My Lords, I came here this afternoon intending not to speak on this amendment. But having listened to the debate I cannot refrain from saying that anyone listening with an open mind cannot, I think, but be utterly convinced of the rightness of this amendment. We have all been educated by the press and the media into a belief that the only effective method of dealing with crime is prison. Perhaps we should bear in mind those chilling words of Oscar Wilde:

The statistics and the projections which have been adumbrated by my noble and learned friend Lord Ackner indicate that the Government of the country and all of us face not just a serious situation but a crisis. Surely to goodness there is only one question: aye or no--do we need, ought we not to have, an independent advisory body to look into this and to assist the Secretary of State in what is essentially a very difficult political decision? To that question there can be only one answer and for that reason I support the amendment.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, it would be useful to focus on the terms of the amendment to see what is requested and what consequences might sensibly be anticipated. The amendment recommends the constitution of a standing advisory council with the following purposes:

    "(a) advising the Secretary of State on the adequacy and effectiveness of the criminal law and procedure of the criminal courts;

    (b) advising the Secretary of State on such aspects of the penal system as he may from time to time refer to it; and

    (c) at the request of the Sentencing Advisory Panel referred to in section 71 [of the Bill] providing such advice and assistance as may enable the panel the better to discharge its functions".
Your Lordships will forgive my pointing out what the amendment seeks. With infinite respect, what is sought by the amendment is not likely to produce the remedies and the panaceas for which so many of your Lordships earnestly hope.

It is said that this will be a protection for the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State looks for and seeks no such protection. He looks for informed advice. I will deal later with the sources of advice he has at present. No committee of the sort referred to in your Lordships's speeches will produce an immediate reduction in our overcrowded prison system.

It is easy to say that the media are ill-informed; that the press get it wrong. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, made his stance quite plain. He wishes to

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see criminal policy taken out of the political arena. The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, having once been an elected representative, did not go that far. Nor do the Government go that far. We believe that the press has a function in a free democracy. Simply because the views of some newspapers are different from some of our opinions or prejudices does not disentitle them having the opportunity of making their point.

If a party of whatever political complexion places itself before the electorate with the request "Please will you vote for use?", the electorate will rightly and inevitably say "What is your policy in those areas which deeply concern us?"--not because of the puff of the moment in a tabloid newspaper. I do not view our fellow citizens in that light.

One of the central issues that concerns the people of this country is whether or not they are enabled by the government of the day and the criminal and penal regimes of the day to have a reasonable, decent opportunity to live a calm life. That is one of the duties of the Secretary of State for Home Affairs. I repeat, he looks for no protection. He does not wish to shirk the responsibilities for which the Government were elected and the reason why the Prime Minister entrusted him with this difficult work.

It was said today that the question may be: do we do what is right or do we do what is popular? I reject that as a necessary option. Sometimes what is right is popular and sometimes what is right is deeply unpopular. It is said that the public need re-education. The public are entitled to information, they are entitled to avoid dictation from us.

I deliberately mentioned the purposes of the amendment because, having heard the detailed speeches of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, and others, and having reflected upon the helpful tone of the intervention of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice, we thought very carefully about whether we should change our views. We approached it with an open mind. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, has said, the Home Secretary had a full discussion with the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice and wrote fully to him in the letter that has been quoted.

First, I deal with the adequacy and effectiveness of the criminal law. We have the Criminal Justice Consultative Council which has on it representatives from throughout the criminal justice system and we have local practitioner-level groups. We believe that that is a good, practical source of advice.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, will the Minister tell us what that council initiates? What research does it carry out?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, it can deal with any issue it thinks relevant. I had intended to deal with the question of initiation later, but the noble Lord offers me the opportunity. Paragraph (b) in the amendment states that the council is to advise

    "the Secretary of State on such aspects of the penal system as he [the Secretary of State] may from time to time refer to it".

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I continue. We have the Trial Issues Group which deals with the effectiveness of the procedure of the criminal courts. That is part of the amendment. The reports from the Chief Inspectors of Prisons and Probation do not limit themselves solely and simply to a report of the facts they have seen. Even if they were to do so, their reports cast ripples which affect penal policy. They produce thematic reports on issues of concern in the penal field.

We have the Law Commission which does excellent, informed, authoritative work. What is its work? It is to deal with the effectiveness of the criminal law. That is what this amendment is asking for another body to do.

We have the Audit Office and the Audit Commission which deal with efficiency and effectiveness. We have reports which are of great value from the Institute of Criminology. We have reports from international institutes. We have a very well run research and statistical department in the Home Office.

Added to all these, within this Bill will be the representative youth justice task force. As the Home Secretary mentioned in the letter to which reference has been made, the youth justice board will provide advice on the operation of the youth justice system, and the sentencing advisory panel will have regard to the range of disposals available.

That is not all. I mentioned--I hope not disagreeably--that we live in a representative democracy. The House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs does a great deal of valuable work. I do not believe that it is party politically partisan. Its work, which is necessary on occasion, has at least two purposes: first, to address legitimate public complaints; and, secondly, to provide advice to the Home Secretary as appropriate. Most of these bodies were not in existence when the predecessor body carried out its work, sometimes rather slowly, before its abolition.

We gave the matter a good deal of careful thought. I hope that the nature of my response to your Lordships today indicates that. We want to have consultation. We want to have openness. But we want to avoid that extremely seductive temptress: "There is something wrong in the prison system. Set up another body".

Lord Ackner: My Lords, I am deeply grateful to those who have taken part in the debate and supported the amendment.

I was struck when the noble Lord, Lord Williams, said that there would be no immediate reduction in the prison population if this amendment were passed. No one has ever claimed that there would be. A process of re-education would take some time. The noble Lord is right that there will be no immediate reduction in the prison population. But there would be no reduction at all in the prison population if the matter were left to the Government as it stands at the moment because they have suggested no initiative of any kind which will bring about the reduction in the prison population.

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As one of its functions, the council can seek to bring out information which will show the limits of imprisonment as a means of dealing with crime. It will bring out, one hopes, the advantages, in some but not all cases, of punishment within the community. It will seek to explain how it is that we have over 3,500 lifers in prison which is more than all of western Europe put together. It will seek to explain why, if there is a good explanation, we send more people to prison and for longer than almost every other European country.

There is a prospect of some useful research being done. The reaction of the Government is very much in the category of the reaction of the noble Lord, Lord Henley: "Don't embarrass me with sound advice because I might be obliged to take it". That seems to be the only reaction.

I nostalgically looked back at a debate which occurred in October 1997 and read this from the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Williams:

    "We listen with care to the senior judges. We value their contribution. I do not put this in a partisan way, but it was a source of great disquiet and concern that, by the end of the previous Government's term, the senior judges were not able to feel that their voice was listened to with the decent regard to which they were entitled. It took the notable contribution of, among others, the late Lord Chief Justice to try to remedy that. No one who heard his contribution could fail to have been affected by it".--[Official Report, 23/10/97; col. 871.]
Plus ca change; plus c'est la meme chose. The Lord Chief Justice has recently set out in a long and learned speech that the mandatory life sentence for murder should no longer stand. We in this House have recently debated the proposition supported by the Home Affairs Committee that the time that a person spends in prison following a conviction for murder should not be determined by a politician in secret without any right of appeal. I do not think that the judiciary is being listened to any more by this Government than by the previous one.

It is an important amendment. If the Government are to reject the advantages which this amendment gives, let it be clearly on the record. I therefore seek the opinion of the House.

4.24 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 1) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 114; Not-Contents, 105.

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