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Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. In truth, are the new sentencing guidelines in the interests of protecting the public and rehabilitating criminals? Surely they are more a repercussion of failing prison facilities, a lack of prison resources and the financial costs of custodial sentences. What evidence is there that imposing community-based sentences will decrease the number of ex-prisoners who reoffend? What extra resources are being made available to those prisons that suffer from unbearable overcrowding and where conditions of imprisonment are degenerating?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the noble Baroness has misunderstood the purposes of a sentencing guidelines council. It was proposed by Mr Halliday in his report, which was a detailed consideration of sentencing across the board. He said that it was an appropriate step to take to ensure consistency in relation to sentencing. The noble Baroness is also wrong to view the matter on the basis of a community sentence versus a custodial sentence. We require the right sentence for an offence and if there is a serious case that demands custody, custody will be imposed. We should focus on the measures that reduce re-offending.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, will the Minister give an undertaking that the new sentencing council will be as far removed from political influence as possible? As the Minister knows, the Conservative Party called for its make-up to be parliamentarian. Can the Minister assure the House that that will not be the case?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, we have made it clear that when the sentencing guidelines council produces draft guidelines there should be a formal process of consultation with Parliament. We believe that that is right because we believe that there should be parliamentary input into the production of guidelines. We have made it absolutely clear that the sentencing guidelines council will produce the guidelines and we believe that that is the appropriate way to deal with the matter.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, will my noble and learned friend give an indication of the Government's thinking on the future size of the prison population? I was tempted to ask whether the Government have a target, but I have made the question easier by asking for the Government's thinking.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, we have made it clear that the courts must decide the appropriate sentence by reference to the facts of the case and the facts of the offender. They must not determine what sentence to give by reference to resource issues. As to the size of the prison population in the future, it is neither wise nor
Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, to keep fine defaulters out of prison, will the Government consider re-introducing unit fines related to ability to pay? They were abolished by Mr Kenneth Clarke when he was Home Secretary. That would have the happy consequence of avoiding some of the risible fines such as that imposed upon the Solicitor-General recently for a serious speeding offence.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, it would be wrong of me to comment on an individual case. As regards unit fines, the noble Lord will remember that there were some difficulties in relation to them that led to a large fine being imposed for a minor offence. Ability to pay already plays a part in determining what a fine should be. Currently there may be cases in which fines are not awarded but perhaps should be awarded instead of a low-level community penalty. We have no plans to re-introduce unit fines.
The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, while I agree with the Minister that sentencing guidelines cannot be instantaneous responses to every movement in prison numbers, does he agree that there is pressure upon him and the Government to appear to be tough with offenders, which could lead the public to believe that only by increasing prison numbers can one show that such toughness is being pursued? Therefore, is it important that there should be a sustained programme of public education to demonstrate that within a community sentence the Probation Service can do excellent work in confronting offenders with the meaning of their crimes and in causing them to reflect imaginatively on what they have done, which can be not only as rehabilitative as prison but also as punishing?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the Probation Service carries out excellent work and many community sentences are extremely helpful in seeking to reduce re-offending. However, I return to the starting point that the penalty to be imposed by the courts must be the most appropriate for the crime and the offender. We should not view the matter on the basis of community sentences versus custody, but on the basis of the appropriate sentence for the crime.
Lord Ackner: My Lords, will the sentencing guidelines council consult the judiciary before it produces the guidelines? How will the council fit in with the existing statutory organisation on the same subject?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, under the current Bill the sentencing guidelines council will be made up exclusively of sentencers, which means the senior judiciary, Crown Court judges and magistrates; it will be chaired by the Lord Chief Justice; and it will obtain advice from the sentencing advisory panel
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that the current sentencing policy is equitable in respect of women? Recently there has been an extraordinary rise in the number of women in prison. Many people suggest that they are sent to prison for crimes which, if committed by men, would not result in a prison sentence.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the number of women in custody has certainly risen, but the proportion of women in prison is much smaller than the proportion of men in prison. I do not believe that there is necessarily much evidence to suggest that they are being sent to prison because they are women, which is the implication of the question. As the right reverend Prelate said, the number of people in prison generally has risen over the past two years and that relates to women as well.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that currently we are in the worst of all worlds with the highest per capita level of imprisonment in Europe, apart from Turkey? Does he also agreethis is my pointthat in prisons such a grossly inadequate amount of time and resources are devoted, particularly in the case of young prisoners, to education and training? Typically there are only two or three hours of education a day.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, on the first point, we are in the middle range of countries in Europe as regards the number of people who go to prison in relation to the number of cases brought to justice. The differing rates between countries have as much to do with the number of cases brought to justice as they do to the size of the population generally. On the second point, the strides made by the Prison Service over the past few years, under the leadership of Martin Narey, have been considerable. The number of prisoners who receive educational programmes has increased significantly. We need to do much more, but noble Lords should not underestimate the extent of the progress that has been made.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Filkin): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:
'Aviation security measures remain at an enhanced level following the attacks on September 11th and the government keeps these measures under constant review. From time to time additional protective steps are being taken, and will continue to be taken as the situation demands'.
'where threats are specific, we seek to thwart them. Where they are general, we seek to analyse them, and take whatever response we believe to be necessary to ensure the protection of the public'.
"But I do not believe that it is responsible to provide a running public commentary from the Dispatch Box on every end and turnany more than previous governments did over 30 years when facing the threat from the IRA.
"As with those governments, our view is that we must do nothing to undermine the work of the police and security services. We have to make fine judgments which must ensure the safety of sources of information. The terrorists must not be able to assess what we know and how we know it.
"We must give the public the information they need to protect themselves and others. That is what we have done. But we must also avoid frightening people unnecessarily or causing the kind of economic and social damage that does the work of the terrorists for them. The public must be alert but not alarmed.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, which is a little short on information and a touch dismissive of genuine concerns. We fully support the action taken by the Government this week and we wish to praise the work of the members of the emergency services and other agencies who risk their lives in order to keep us all safe. That includes the intelligence gatherers and their organisations, whose job it is to keep one step ahead of the terrorist.
People are understandably concerned at the images they have witnessed on television and in the newspapers. That is why it is essential that the Government keep people as fully informed as possible about the current situation, consistent always with the sensitivity of the information.
I agree with the Home Secretary that information to the public should be designed to alert awareness but not to alarm. It is entirely understandable that detailed security sensitive information that would either play into the hands of the terrorist or put lives at risk should not be made available. However, it is possible for governments to make public statements, especially to Parliament, that fall short of these concerns and set the context for the level of threat which will enable as near everyday life to continue without undue alarm.
The words of the right honourable John Reid were extremely unhelpful and alarming in three respects. Here was a highly respected member of the Government and a Privy Counsellor speaking to the world media, which tended to give the message perceived authority. Secondly, Parliament was denied an opportunity to hear a formal statement on the recent security threat until a PNQ was tabled in another place. Thirdly, to what extent was Dr Reid accurate? That question certainly resides in the minds of those who saw and heard it.
My other concern, which is highlighted by the Statement and by the current security alert, is the state of emergency planning. We are expecting a draft emergency planning Bill. Where is it? Ministers promised that a leaflet was being prepared for delivery to every home in the country, offering advice on what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. Where is it?
There is no coherent central control. The National Audit Office report, Facing the challengeNHS Emergency Planning in England, published in November, revealed that the NHS is ill prepared to cope with terror attacks or disasters. Dr James Robertson, who drew up the report, warned that an incident with 500 or more casualties would "seriously challenge" the NHS. One in four major hospitals and one in three ambulance services are "not well prepared". What is being done in response to that NAO report?
Furthermore, a new report, Risk: Improving government's capability to handle risk and uncertainty, published by the Prime Minister's own Strategy Unit on 20th November, found that the Government have a "fragmented approach" to dealing with emergency situations. It said that Ministers need to be,
In July 2002, the Defence Select Committee published a report which found there to be "real deficiencies" in the Government's preparations for a possible terrorist attack at home. Even the chairman, Bruce George MP, said:
The Prime Minister is in overall charge of intelligence and security matters. The Home Secretary is responsible for the Security Service. The Foreign Secretary is responsible for the Secret Intelligence Service and the Defence Secretary is responsible for the Defence Intelligence Service. There is also a ministerial committee on the security services.