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Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I support this amendment. I must admit that I am a little disappointed to see that the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, is no longer in his place. When summing up his amendment, he chided me a little by saying that it was difficult to know which way we voted on these Benches. I have to sayand I will ensure that I put today's Hansard in front of him as I regard him very highly as a colleague from different Benchesthat anyone who has read my Second Reading speech or any of my speeches in Committee will see that I have not resiled one iota from any pledge or commitment that I have given throughout our discussions on the Bill, nor will I do so in future.
The Minister will not be surprised at my support for this amendment, although in being consistent with what I have said before, my reasons for supporting the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, are rather different from those that he adduced in his own defence on this amendment. When we debated issues of sentencing in Committee, my noble friend Lord Hunt made it clearat cols. 1042 to 1045 of the Official Report of 15th October 2003that we are very concerned that
So much of this part on sentencing from the Government is a matter of smoke and mirrors. They are trying to give to the newspapersI shall not name any in particularthe headline, "Look what tough guys we are in increasing overall maximum sentences and trying to deal seriously with serious crimes". On the other hand, what they are really doing by so many of the provisions in this part is to reduce the time that people spend in prison. There may be very good reasons for doing that, and the Government have brought forward some innovative proposals which we have welcomed for custody plus, the subject of Amendment No. 202. The difficulty is that we will have a system in place before we know what it will cost and when it will be rolled out.
So, for all the reasons that my noble friend Lord Hunt adduced in Committeeit would be wrong for me to reproduce all of them todaywe think that it is right for the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, to table this amendment and to be concerned about this section before there is a national roll-out. I therefore support the noble Lord.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I say to both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that I understand the reasons why they have retabled Amendments Nos. 202 and 203. They seek to ensure that the proposed increase in magistrates' sentencing powers will not be implemented in advance of the new sentence of custody plus, which I know has for some time been an issue of concern to noble Lords. However, as I said in Committee, due to the fact that sentencing reforms will be introduced in phases over several years, both to allow the system to absorb the measures gradually without too much disruption and to enable the correctional services to reach the capacity necessary to deliver the reforms effectively, it seems likely that the increase in magistrates' sentencing powers mayI cannot put it any higher than thattake place in advance of the implementation of sentences of custody plus. That is because we want to accrue the anticipated benefits to be derived from the changes to allocation procedure as soon as possible and for magistrates' courts to retain more cases for trial.
We do not believe that the changes to magistrates' sentencing powers will lead to an increase in the prison population as there is no evidence to show that magistrates sentence more severely as compared to the Crown Court. Like all courts under the new framework, magistrates will be bound by a set of principles which stipulate that custody must only be imposed when the offence is so serious as to merit it, and then only for the shortest time commensurate with the seriousness of the offence. They will of course be guided in their application of these principles by sentencing guidelines to be issued by the new council.
Many of the provisions, such as those concerning the conditions attaching to cautions and the Crown Prosecution Service being able to charge, will greatly improve the efficiency of the system. We hope that they will also enable us more effectively to address the needs of victims and witnesses and, equally important, the needs of defendants, enabling them to be successfully rehabilitated so that they do not continue to be a nuisance, to put it at its lowest, to the communities in which they live.
Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for the explanation that she has offered. Only yesterday we discussed the need for consistency in sentencing. We are not objecting to the principle of the Government's proposals. We are simply asking them please not to bring this section into force before the national roll-out of the custody plus order. Obviously the Government have some difficulty here. I do not believe that the probation service is currently equipped to deal with matters such as release on licence and supervision. There is a danger that it will not be possible to apply the provisions across the country with the necessary consistency. It is right and proper to say that the section should be implemented only when custody plus is rolled out nationally. In the light of our differences on this particular matter, I should certainly like to test the opinion of the House.
Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.