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Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord is right. Several cases are currently going through an appeals process, but it has always been the case that the British Government would not want to return people to a country where conditions like this prevail.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, will the Minister join me in recognising that in the present crisis, the leaders of the churches in Zimbabwe have come together in a quite new way to express a moral lead and a spiritual voice on behalf of the Zimbabwean people? When riot police begin to break up prayer meetings of the Mothers’ Union, you realise that a dictatorship has discovered where real power actually lies. As well as the solidarity and prayer so notably led by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, I wonder whether there are other ways in which the international community could enhance the resolution of the leadership of the churches in Zimbabwe in the present crisis.

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate might be able to suggest ways in which that could be done. We all applaud the stand of the churches in Zimbabwe, as we do its civil society more broadly. If this situation is resolved, it will be because the churches, civil society and ordinary Zimbabweans have acted with tremendous courage, as have the rest of the southern African civil society and religious community.

Lord Acton: My Lords, following my noble friend’s comments on SADC observers, is it British policy to back as strongly as possible the diplomatic efforts of the more positive SADC countries?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, what has got lost in this is that a growing group of SADC countries is playing a real leadership role. The leaders of Tanzania, Botswana, Zambia and other countries are all pressing for a resolution of the situation in the same direction as I think the House would wish to see.

Taxation: Inheritance Tax

3.30 pm

Baroness Deech asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Government have no plans to alter the inheritance tax rules for cohabiting and dependent close family members. The inheritance tax spouse relief is long-standing and reflects the formal legal obligations that marriage and civil partnership relationships necessarily entail.

Baroness Deech: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Does he recall that the unfairness of giving inheritance tax breaks only to those in a sexual

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relationship, regardless of need, was recognised by Jacqui Smith, then the relevant Minister in the other House, who said that this issue needed to be addressed at the appropriate time? Will the Minister now consider doing justice to elderly sisters who live together and to children who care for elderly parents in the same house by allowing, through legislation, for the inheritance tax to be deferred until the death of the second resident, thereby doing justice and probably saving the state a great deal of money?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, this issue has been the subject of intensive debate as the two sisters Burden took their case to the European Court of Human Rights for adjudication. The adjudication was in favour of the Government. That is against a background where the line has to be drawn somewhere and, at the present time, a clear line is drawn in terms of spouses, either of marriage or of civil partnerships. The noble Baroness is inviting the Government to extend that line and consider other cases. Wherever the line is drawn there will be difficulties, and there would be costs to the Exchequer if the exemptions were extended. It should be recognised that only 4 per cent of estates in Britain pay inheritance tax.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, will my noble friend develop the proposal suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and publicise it? It is not to exempt elderly sisters, middle-aged women looking after elderly parents and cohabiting couples but to ensure that the death duties payable on the first death are rolled over so that they are not necessarily paid until the second death, thus allowing the elderly sister, for example, to remain in the home until her death?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I recognise the constructive position which my noble friend has adopted on this matter. The Inland Revenue is not in the business of dispossessing people of their homes. That has not yet happened because the two sisters are, happily, alive and well. When such a case occurs, the Inland Revenue takes due care to ensure that the payments are staggered over a period in order that someone should not be dispossessed of the home they may have lived in for a long time. The present practice encompasses exactly the position identified by my noble friend, but that is different from changing the law on inheritance.

Lord Newby: My Lords, does the Minister accept that while the current situation may be clear, it is also seen by many people to be extremely mean-spirited? Could the Government make an assessment of the costs of making the changes suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech? I suspect that, in the overall context of government and tax expenditure, they would be very modest.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, they certainly would not be huge. As I have indicated, inheritance tax is not paid by 96 per cent of estates at present, so we are not talking about a massive loss to the Revenue—I freely admit that. We are, however, dealing with where the legal position should be drawn. I wanted to indicate to the noble Lord, in reply to my noble friend, that

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HMRC works sympathetically in cases such as the one that has been identified by the two sisters. No one is contemplating one of them losing her place in the home if the other dies. That will not happen.

Lord Tugendhat: My Lords, when the noble Lord leaves the Chamber, will he reconsider his rather lugubrious negativism on this issue? As the civil partnerships arrangements show, society moves on and so do Governments. Recognition of different ways of living and different circumstances are taken into account. Although we are talking about a small number of people, there is a genuine issue of hardship here. The issue raised by the two noble Baronesses about the benefit to society of the sort of change envisaged by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, ought also to be taken into account. Perhaps he could think again.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for the invitation to think positively. He will appreciate that although society might move on, the law moves on only when the Government overcome forthright opposition to changes in this area. It is not as if the issue of civil partnerships has not been contested in the past by others in the House.

It is clear what the categories are under the present law with regard to inheritance, but it becomes much more difficult the moment we move from that situation to additional categories. We could easily say that two sisters living together could easily be defined as being within the law, but it is not difficult to see how other very difficult cases could arise on the other side of any line that we draw. The significance of the line that exists at present is that it is based on the law of the mutual relationship of spouses and cohabiting partners and their legal obligations to each other.

Lord Alli: My Lords, does the Minister—

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, we are out of time.


Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, with the leave of the House, my noble friend Lord West of Spithead will repeat a Statement entitled “Cannabis” after consideration of the Commons amendments and reasons on the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill.

Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill

3.38 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, I beg to move that the Commons amendments be now considered.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

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commons amendments AND REASONS

[The page and line references are to Bill 16 as first printed for the Lords.]

Motion A “189A Power to suspend the operation of section 189(1A) and (1B)“(ca) an order under section 196(4) or (5),”.”

Lord Bach: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on its Amendments Nos. 9, 301 and 327, to which the Commons have disagreed, and do agree to Amendments Nos. 9A, 301A and 327A proposed by the Commons to the words restored to the Bill.

The other place has voted by a majority of 282 to 216 to reject your Lordships’ amendments to remove Clause 10 of the Bill, but in a spirit of compromise the other place has agreed an amendment that would enable the abolition of suspended sentences for

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summary-only offences itself to be suspended and, if appropriate, reactivated. Such a suspension or reactivation would be given effect by an order subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.

When this House last debated this provision, on Report, noble Lords on the Benches opposite and on the Cross Benches seemed to believe that Clause 10 would have the opposite effect to that anticipated by Her Majesty’s Government. This is not the occasion to set out again our case in full. I say briefly that it is our firm contention that the evidence since the introduction of suspended sentence orders in April 2005 points clearly to their being used in the case of relatively low-level offences not as an alternative to custody but as an alternative to community sentences.

In the other place yesterday, the honourable David Howarth, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, made an interesting and well argued speech on this issue. He pointed out that the increase in the use of suspended sentence orders was even bigger for each-way and indictable offences, both in magistrates’ courts and the Crown Court, than for summary offences. Those indictable, each-way suspended sentence orders were available before 5 April 2005, when Section 189 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 came into force, but the post-2003 Act suspended sentence order is different from the pre-2003 order. For a start, such an order can be awarded even if no exceptional circumstances exist. Moreover, a supervisory community element can be included in it. It can be for an offence that would not demand up to 12 months’ imprisonment.

The honourable Member of Parliament demonstrated that there is a real problem both for indictable, each-way offences and for summary-only offences. Our Bill deals not with the whole problem—let me be frank about that—but only with the summary offences part of it. The figures show clearly that the prison population is not falling commensurately with the huge increase in suspended sentence orders. The only explanation can be that courts, both Crown and magistrates’, are imposing suspended sentence orders, which must mean that the prison tariff has been reached, whereas previously they would have awarded community sentences and, in some cases, even fines.

Perhaps I may deal with the figures. For summary-only offences, between 2004 and 2006, the number of suspended sentence orders went up from 700 to 12,700 and, between 2005 and 2006, they went up from 4,100 to the same figure of 12,700. In percentage terms, the increase in the immediate custodial rate for summary-only offences was marginally down, from 2.1 per cent to 1.9 per cent between 2004 and 2006 and from 2 per cent to 1.9 per cent between 2005 and 2006. But the rate of suspended sentence orders went up from 0.1 per cent to 1.1 per cent between 2004 and 2006 and from 0.3 per cent to 1.1 per cent between 2005 and 2006. Those figures tell a clear story.

Let us look at two summary offences. With the offence of common assault—the summary offence only—in 2004, 1 per cent of defendants were given a suspended sentence. In 2006, 8 per cent were given such a sentence. Between those years, the numbers of those who got community sentences and those who went to prison remained stable. Fines fell by 5 per cent and conditional discharges fell by 5 per cent.

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Let us look at those same years and the offence of drinking and driving. In 2004, less than 1 per cent of defendants got a suspended sentence while, by 2006, 3 per cent had suspended sentences. Numbers serving community service between those two years for that offence had fallen by 4 per cent; custody had also fallen, but by 1 per cent only. Fines and conditional discharges both remained stable. That would suggest that with summary offences there has been an enormous increase in suspended sentences but a very marginal decrease in those sentenced to immediate custody.

3.45 pm

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, is the Minister telling the House that the Government dismissed this explanation for what he describes—namely, that courts, given this additional power, consider that to use it would better meet the justice of each individual case?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I shall come on to the tariff in due course. Mr Howarth, whom I have quoted, also talked in his speech about this point. I fear that what happens is that, because a suspended sentence order is available for those who have committed summary offences, that is seen as being an option to take rather than the imposition of a community sentence on the defendant. The problem that then arises is that there is a breach of a suspended sentence and, almost as night follows day, the defendant is brought back and receives what it was promised that he would receive if he committed another offence—an immediate period of imprisonment. I am sure that all courts are doing absolutely their best in the context, within the rules that are set for them, to pass the appropriate sentence in each case, but I fear that sometimes suspended sentence orders are given when the tariff for imprisonment has not been reached.

I shall just make the point again that it is true that there is increased use of suspended sentence orders by magistrates dealing with triable either-way offences; the same applies to the Crown Court. In all cases, some of them must have been drawn from community orders. As I say, drops in immediate custody are not commensurate. In the Crown Court, with indictable offences between 2005 and 2006, suspended sentence orders have increased by 10 percentage points. Immediate custody has fallen by 3 percentage points.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, can the Minister explain why we are dealing with magistrates’ courts alone if there has been such an increase in the Crown Court? One point made by Mr Howarth, to whom the Minister referred, was that there is an imbalance, which should be dealt with comprehensively rather than simply in relation to the magistrates’ courts, as the Government propose in this case.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I shall deal with the imbalance in a moment and suggest that it is not quite as much an imbalance as the honourable Member thought. I have already said that to deal with this whole problem we would have to deal with each-way and indictable

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offences, too. This Bill deals only with summary offences, which are the real problem—or the greater part of the problem—in this case.

In the Crown Court, with indictable offences between 2005 and 2006, suspended sentence orders have increased by 10 per cent. Immediate custody has fallen by 3 per cent. This compares to what happens with summary offences in the magistrates’ courts. For summary offences in the magistrates’ courts alone, there is a slight drop in the immediate custody rate, from 2.2 per cent to 1.9 per cent. However, the rate, as I have mentioned, shows a much greater increase, from 0.3 per cent to 1.1 per cent. Although the phenomenon of suspended sentence orders being drawn from the former community sentence population is not just confined to summary offences, we believe that the situation relating to summary-only offences is more concerning.

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