HC Deb 02 May 1958 vol 587 cc727-61

Order for Third Reading read.

11.22 a.m.

Mr. Victor Collins (Shoreditch and Finsbury)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This Bill has apparently occasioned so little adverse criticism that it comes to this stage with very little having been said about it, so that obviously it meets the wishes of hon. Members of this House. When, on 12th February, my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Sir G. Benson) obtained leave to bring in the Bill, he made reference to the spectacular effect of the Criminal Justice Act, 1948, which, he said, laid down that … before a court might send an adolescent to prison it must first examine and consider all alternative methods. The imposition of this duty on the court involved no limitation of its powers, but it has reduced by one-half the proportion of adolescents sent to prison. The Bill we are now discussing proposes that Section 17 of the Criminal Justice Act, 1948, shall also apply, where magistrates' courts are concerned, to adult first offenders. I am confident that it will be equally successful in reducing the number of men sent, in my view often unnecessarily, to prison.

My hon. Friend, who is not given to overstatement, declared on 12th February that … there can be no other deduction but that the courts were in the habit of passing sentences upon adolescents very careiessly."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th February, 1958; Vol. 582, c. 401.] In my view, the same strictures can be passed on some magistrates when dealing with adult first offenders, and one result of this is the gross and disgraceful overcrowding in the prisons, which has increased to such a degree as, in my view, to nullify to a considerable extent many of the attempts at reformation.

If we look at the figures, we find that in July, 1956, there were 21,000 prisoners in prisons and Borstal institutions, compared with about 11,000 pre-war. Today, less than two years later, the number has increased to 24,500, the highest figure ever recorded, and of this number, nearly 4,500 men are confined three to a cell, twice as many as a year ago. A very large number of them are locked in every evening after tea-time until next morning. We here, and people all over the country who are free, welcome a wonderful spring day like this, and gladly greet the warmer weather and sunshine, but to the men who have had to be locked up three in a small cell, it must seem to be a curse and not a blessing.

This subject has been debated in another place twice in the last twelve months, and has called forth very strong references and comments from noble Lords of a different party. One, Lord Huntingdon, referred to— A disgrace to any country that calls itself civilised Another said that it was— degrading and almost a disgrace to this country. Yet another noble Lord said: A very large part of our prison population consists of men who ought never to have been sent there. He might have added that many who have been properly sent to prison are sent there for far longer periods than can reasonably be justified.

There is no early prospect of increased accommodation. Even the prison at Hull, the first prison to be built this century, brings no relief because it has to be used as a Borstal institution. The only real hope of an improvement in this dreadful state of affairs is to reduce the number of men sent to prison.

The Home Secretary's Advisory Council, which was asked to devise alternatives to some of the short terms of imprisonment imposed by the courts, recommended amongst other things that the courts should be enabled to attach the wages of maintenance defaulters. That Bill has already passed us now, and if it becomes law it will reduce the prison intake of new prisoners by more than 3,000 men a year. The Advisory Council also recommended that Section 17 of the Criminal Justice Act, 1948, should be extended to adult first offenders, and my hon. Friend has therefore performed an invaluable public service in introducing this Bill, which I hope will shortly receive the approval of the House.

In my view, he has also very wisely added to the Advisory Council's recommendations the provision that Section 107 (3) of the Magistrates' Courts Act, 1952, shall apply to adult first offenders. This is a most salutary provision and will go a long way to iron out the grave inequalities which exist in the sentences passed in different courts for similar offences. All of us have been shocked at times to note in different courts the wide and sometimes savage disparity in the sentences which have been passed for apparently similar offences.

When this Bill becomes an Act, a magistrate will be compelled to say exactly why he feels obliged to send a first offender to prison, and I believe that this requirement will give pause to a great many. I myself was in a not exactly parallel position, but one which is relevant for the purpose of comparison, when I had an example of the effectiveness of such a requirement when I was Chairman of the Mental Health Committee of a Regional Hospital Board, and, as such, was responsible for some 17,000 patients, many of them mentally deficient.

I found that while some medical superintendents pursued an enlightened course regarding discharges from orders, others seemed to keep the mentally deficient patients working on licence for ever. After one particularly distressing case, I made it a rule throughout the six counties that, when a patient had successfully completed two years on licence, the superintendent must state in writing his reasons for declining to recommend a discharge from order That rule had a very remarkable effect on the numbers who were so recommended for discharge from order. My hon. Friend's Bill will have a remarkable effect on some magistrates; not, of course, on the majority, but on those in whom a change of attitude is so badly needed. It is utterly wrong that, for similar offences, the question of whether a man receives probation or imprisonment should be entirely dependent upon the court or magistrate before whom he appears.

Comparatively speaking, there is very little stigma attached to probation. A man on probation usually has no difficulty in keeping his job, or, perhaps, in getting another. The situation is com- pletely different when a first offender is sent to prison. Usually his job goes, and it is much harder for him to get another when he is released. His earnings stop. His family has to go on National Assistance. He may even have to move to another area. There is also the mental anguish and all sorts of consequences to the prisoner's innocent relatives, his wife and his family.

If, of course, the crime is such that prison is the only possible sentence, it must be so, and the Bill will not interfere in any way with that or lessen the magistrate's powers in this respect. But, before he sends a man to prison, the magistrate should ask and answer the question, "What good will it do to send this man to prison, and what good will it do for society?" There are particular classes of first offender for whom it seems that a prison sentence is more or less automatic. Their crimes, of course, must be punished. This applies to people in responsible positions, for example, employees of the Post Office who pilfer mail or steal. When they are apprehended, as far as my experience goes, they are always sent to prison, because they are regarded as holding a position of trust which they have betrayed. There can be no question, of course, that they must leave their employment. They can no longer continue in a position of trust for which they have shown themselves unworthy. But it seems that offenders of that kind ought not automatically to be sent to prison.

One such man rang me up only last week. A first offender, a postal worker, he had been sentenced to twelve months imprisonment. I was rather surprised to find him telephoning me, for I knew that he had not yet completed his sentence. He was from the open gaol at Fafield and had been given a week's leave to come home, he with his family, and also, perhaps, try to make preliminary arrangements about getting another job. We had quite a long conversation about this job, and he asked me, as I could not recommend him a situation immediately, to write to the governor if I heard of anything within the next few weeks—his sentence does not expire until July—and the governor would be very pleased to arrange for him to come to London and interview the prospective employer.

I am very glad that such arrangements exist. It is most encouraging. But there we have a first offender automatically, as it were, sent to prison and then sent almost immediately to a special prison with special arrangements for his rehabilitation and return to society. I wonder whether it would not be infinitely better, in the first place, to say that prison for that man is not the place. There must be some other means. The magistrate should be called upon to asy why he insists that prison is the only thing in cases like that.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, who, in a recent debate in the other place, said: I do not know how many cases 'there are of people who are sent to prison automatically because they have committed an offence and because prison at the moment is the appropriate method of dealing with them. He went on to say that, in respect of a particular type of offence, a man has to serve not less than three months and not more than twelve years and, therefore, he has got to serve that sentence which is inflicted upon him. The noble Lord went on: But, if we apply this precept of whether prison can have a reformative effect, … I am sure we could find other ways of dealing with such cases. We could use more frequently the methods of absolute discharge or conditional discharge. That is permissible today; it is part of our system. Yet there is not enough being done in that direction and in the direction of the more frequent use of parole."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 23rd April, 1958, Vol. 208, c. 977–8.] I entirely support those words. They would have a very useful effect if they were applied, and this Bill, when it becomes an Act, will enable those principles to be applied more frequently; in fact, it will require them to be. Without increasing crime or adversely affecting the course of justice, the Bill will reduce our prison population and will further the course of rehabilitating those who must still be sent to prison. I believe that it will bring greater equality in the treatment of first offenders. Above all, it will save many thousands of innocent people from the stigma of associating with a husband, father or brother who has served a prison sentence. I warmly commend the Bill to the House.

11.26 a.m.

Mr. Montgomery Hyde (Belfast, North)

I beg to second the Motion.

I am glad to have this opportunity of saying a few words in support of the Bill, particularly as my name appears on the back of it as one of its sponsors. It is not a sensational or spectacular piece of penal reform, but it supplements the Criminal Justice Act, 1948, and the Magistrates' Courts Act, 1952, in a useful particular, by putting the adult first offender on the same footing as the adolescent first offender when sentence is being determined by the magistrates' court.

It seems highly desirable that, before passing sentence on an adult first offender, the bench should consider whether there is an appropriate method of dealing with the offender other than imprisonment. If there is no such alternative method, then the reasons for passing the sentence of imprisonment should be set out in the warrant of committal and specified in the register. As the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Sir G. Benson) said when he introduced the Bill, this will mean that, in future, magistrates will have to think twice before sending an adult first offender to prison. In the past, they have often thought only once and, sometimes, they have not thought at all.

Any Measure is useful which has the effect of reducing the number of actual and potential inmates of our prisons. Last November, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary addressed the Howard League for Penal Reform at its annual meeting. I remember the emphasis which he placed on the state of the prisons, which he described as grossly overcrowded. At that time, just six months ago, there were, according to my right hon. Friend, 3,000 prisoners sleeping three in a cell. As we have heard this morning from the hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Collins), that figure has increased to 4,400.

In my opinion, this Bill should reduce at least by half the average number of adult first offenders who are sentenced to imprisonment by the magistrates' courts every year. The hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury referred to alternatives, particularly the use of absolute and conditional discharge. I would add to that the extension of the use of attendance centres and, also, that I hope to see established and extended a parole system similar to that which has been and is being operated with success in the United States of America and various European countries.

The House should be grateful to the hon. Member for Chesterfield for introducing the Bill. We should be grateful, too, to the Government for finding time to assist its passage through the House and to debate it today on Third Reading. I think that we owe a debt to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for the interest which he and his Department have shown in the Bill, an interest which has gone so far as to assist in its drafting and preparation.

I should like to make one final point. For reasons which we all appreciate, the Bill does not extend to Northern Ireland, because the administration of justice is a matter which falls within the jurisdiction of the Parliament and Government of Northern Ireland. However, I hope I am not out of order in expressing the hope that the Minister of Home Affairs in Northern Ireland will take note of these proceedings and will introduce a similar Measure in the Parliament of Northern Ireland.

11.43 a.m.

Mr. Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

I should also like to join with the hon. Members who have congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Sir G. Benson) on having introduced this Measure. I do not entirely agree with the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Hyde) in his statement that this is not a spectacular Bill. I think that it is. I think that it is extremely important, and every step that is taken in viewing penalties that are imposed for crimes by an entirely different standard from that which prevailed years ago is, in a sense, a spectacular move ahead.

It is perfectly true that the idea of the probation of offenders has been in existence for many years, and it is also true that a large number of magistrates and others who have the administration of justice in their hands pay due attention to the importance of ensuring that only those offenders who cannot otherwise be dealt with properly are sent to prison for the first time.

On the other hand, we have to face the fact that those who sit in courts daily are, in spite of themselves, apt to become used to the atmosphere of the court and to regard as somewhat commonplace the sending of people to prison. There is no doubt—and I have seen it for myself—that for many years magistrates with the best intentions in the world and of the highest integrity and deep human understanding, through being engaged every day in dealing with cases, are apt to regard penalties imposed in a less severe light than the individual who comes into the court for the first time. I have said in the House before that even a light sentence, such as a small fine, is sometimes very severely felt, from the psychological standpoint, by the person upon whom the penalty is placed.

Today, we are dealing with the question of sending offenders to prison, and I think that the courts, wherever they may be, should think very long before imposing a prison sentence for the first time. I think that when they have to consider whether they should send a person to prison for the first time it is of the highest importance that the responsibility should be made clear to them that, in spite of the fact that they may have been dealing with matters of a similar kind for years they are holding in their hands the destiny not only of that individual, but of his family and everybody concerned with him.

We know that years ago the poet Crabbe wrote about the shades of the prison house beginning to close upon the growing being.

Mr. James MacColl (Widnes)

Was it not Wordsworth?

Mr. Janner

I am sorry; I thought it was Crabbe. Anyhow, it was a member of the same romantic school who used that phrase. I think that it applies today as much as it applied then.

The domestic surroundings of an individual has a considerable amount to do, in many cases, with the crime that he commits, and it is so important that the whole of his background and surroundings should be thoroughly investigated by experienced social workers as well as by the policeman dealing with the case. I am not casting any reflection upon the police. In the majority of cases the police do their very best to be as fair as they possibly can in describing the life that has been led by the individual and what were the consequences leading to his position.

However, the probation service is a special social service. In my view, it is one of the most important services for the community today. We have had a debate recently about the probation service, and the Minister knows that there is considerable feeling about the necessity of having a properly and fully filled probation service to cope with the situations that arise. We all know the respect that is held for this service. It is important that a first offender should have the circumstances in which he is living and the circumstances in which he has been brought up fully investigated by such an officer before a final decision is made. A chance should be given, wherever possible, to an individual to rehabilitate himself with the assistance of the probation service. Our courts fully appreciate the value of the probation service. For instance, at the recent Leicester quarter sessions 13 offenders were placed on probation, five of whom were of no fixed abode or were destitute.

In dealing with this matter, we must first consider the principle. The principle is definite: that if possible, no man or woman who cannot possibly be otherwise dealt with should be sent to prison. I do not know whether a prison sentence is not more difficult for an adult to bear than for an adolescent. An adult who, throughout life, has conducted himself in a way which has not brought him into prison perhaps, is deserving of as much, if not more, sympathetic consideration. It is difficult to weigh up the respective positions. There is certainly no question of priorities in this respect.

The approach to the case of every first offender should be considered as that of a social case and not as of somebody upon whom an extreme penalty must be imposed. Once a person goes into prison the stigma remains with him for the rest of his life. It is true that 80 per cent. of first offenders, including those who go to prison, never again appear in the courts, but that is not the point. The fact is that in the life of the individual, especially a person of sensitive mind, a prison sentence stands out in such a way that it may very well cause distress far in excess of the punishment that his crime deserves.

The Bill should not be regarded merely as of importance in helping to meet the criticism that our prisons are full. If a crime justifies imprisonment and if there is such a vast amount of crime that, in consequence, the prisons are full, I and everybody else would condemn the fact that the prisons were not sufficient to provide proper and humane accommodation for those who are convicted; but that really is not an argument which should be advanced strongly for the Bill.

The probation service itself is not at present sufficient to cope with all the cases that should be referred to it, but that is a matter for the Home Office to deal with in another way. The position is serious, not only in Leicester in particular, but throughout the country in general. I have discussed this matter with our senior probation officer, Mr. Fogg, who finds the situation very serious because of the lack of sufficient personnel. But that is not an argument for saying that a person should not be placed on probation in the first place. It is an argument for saying that to cope with the situation that will arise when the Bill becomes law the Home Office must ensure that the service is extended and that people are fully trained for the probation service.

We are dealing with the lives, the mental condition and the happiness of a vast number of people: the offender himself, those around him and those whose names and characters are involved—for example, the offender's husband or wife and children. All of these are included in the consideration that we must give to this problem today.

I give the Bill my unqualified support. I am sure that most, if not all, hon. Members, on both sides, will feel the same and will be grateful to those who considered it advisable and took the opportunity to introduce it.

11.55 a.m.

Mr. James Dance (Bromsgrove)

At first sight, there is a lot to commend itself in the Bill. Most of us are loath to send a first offender to jail, with the stigma which that naturally implies. We all tend to be lenient to first offenders. Before expressing full support for the Bill, however, one must look into it a little more deeply.

If a first offender is treated leniently, it must be made quite clear to him that any subsequent offence will be punished and punished harshly. That deterrent is important. If one's child behaves badly, the first time we catch him out we can be lenient, but we must make it quite clear that if the incident is repeated he will be punished and punished harshly. It is important to bear this in mind.

What is a first offender? Is he, for example, a member of a gang which has for some time been committing offences against society in general? I suppose it can be said that a person is a first offender if he has not been previously in court, but one should consider whether a boy or youth who comes before the court and who is known and proved to have been a member of a gang, of which nowadays there are so many, should, in fact, be treated as a first offender. It is likely that he has committed many offences, some of which may be more serious than the one with which he is charged.

Clause 1 contains the words: unless the court is of opinion that no other method of dealing with him is appropriate". What other methods are envisaged by the sponsors of the Bill? Do they, for example, wish to bring back corporal punishment? If so, I support the Bill to the full, because I believe that a good caning might easily do away with the necessity of fining a person or even of sending him to jail. If that is envisaged, I believe that the Bill will do a great deal of good.

Frequently, a young person who is fined does not pay the fine himself; it is paid by his parents. They are the people who suffer and the offender gets virtually no punishment. A good caning, however, might do him a power of good. I am not one of those who believes that corporal punishment brings out the brute in people. I do not believe it embitters a person. When I was at school—and I deserved it every time—I had my fair share of beatings, but they certainly did not make me sour or turn me against human nature.

Let us make quite certain that these first offenders are really first offenders and not people who have been members of gangs. Secondly, let us give a little hit of corporal punishment and stop them going to jail and stop them committing these crimes again.

11.59 a.m.

Major W. Hicks Beach (Cheltenham)

I am glad to have an opportunity to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Dance) and to congratulate him on what he said about the reintroduction of corporal punishment. He has taken the words out of my mouth. One of the few points which I intended to make was that although I am in favour of the Bill, I did not give it my approval without some doubts, because I feel that we are getting too sentimental about crime.

Although I am a practising solicitor, I do not practise very much in the criminal courts, and it might perhaps be said that I can make a more practical approach to the problem than those who do work in that branch of the law. In my opinion, we are getting too sentimental about punishing criminals. What has convinced me that on the whole the Bill is right is my investigation into the Criminal Justice Act, 1948, which was agreed by both sides of the House and which, by and large, has worked extremely well. Section 17 of the Act is invoked by the Bill. In view of the fact that the Act has not been quoted today, I will read Section 17 (1), which says: A court of summary jurisdiction shall not impose imprisonment on a person under seventeen years of age; and a court of assize or quarter sessions shall not impose imprisonment on a person under fifteen years of age. Subsection (2) reads: No court shall impose imprisonment on a person under twenty-one years of age unless the court is of opinion that no other method of dealing with him is appropriate; and for, the purpose of determining whether any other method of dealing with any such person is appropriate the court shall obtain and consider information about the circumstances, and shall take into account any information before the court which is relevant to his character and his physical and mental condition. That is an extremely sensible way of approaching the question of first offenders. As I understand the Bill, all that it does is to extend Section 17 to persons over 21. It is for that reason alone that I came down on the side of the Bill, and not for the reason that there should be any reduction in penalties at present. It is common ground to both sides of the House that every possible step should be taken to stop sending first offenders to prison, but I feel it most important that the courts concerned should be left with complete discretion.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Renton)

It should be made absolutely clear that the Bill does not alter the powers of the court in any way at all. It merely places a new duty on the court.

Major Hicks Beach

I am sorry if I did not make that clear. I entirely agree, and I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his intervention. All I was seeking to say was that I believe that the time has come when the principle laid down in the 1948 Act, with which I agree, should be extended to people over 21. That is the crux of the Bill.

I do not want to be on record, however, as having said that I am in any way in favour of diminishing penalties. I believe that this increase in juvenile delinquency and in crime all over the country can be dealt with only in a firm and determined way by the Government. As I indicated earlier, I am certainly in favour of the restoration of some measure of corporal punishment, but only for crimes of violence. That would be a great deterrent and would prevent a great deal of the hooliganism which is going on today. It would also deal in certain cases with what have come to be known as crimes by Teddy boys. I think the problem of these Teddy boys is one which we must face.

I welcome the Bill, which extends the 1948 Act, which I believe is an extremely good Act. It will undoubtedly mean that between 2,000 and 3,000 fewer people will be in prison. Nevertheless, in my humble view as a solicitor, we must not become too sentimental in dealing with criminalism and these thugs who are today doing a great deal of harm to peaceful people in the country.

12.5 p.m.

Sir Thomas Moore (Ayr)

I am sorry if I appear to be throwing a spanner in the works, but I must confess that I am somewhat unhappy about the Bill. While I admit the admirable intentions and the superficially persuasive arguments used by the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Sir G. Benson) in moving the Second Reading of the Bill, I am still unhappy about it, and I will try, shortly, to explain why.

It is undoubtedly true that our prison population will be substantially reduced if we pass the Bill, but there are other factors to be considered which might well tip the balance of argument against the Bill. Of course, the Home Office want to reduce the prison population, but are their reasons not somewhat materialistic? There would be fewer prisons to build, fewer prisons to reconstruct, fewer warders to provide, fewer prison visitors to escort, less clothing, less food and less cost generally.

These reasons do the Home Office no discredit, and they are perfectly natural, but I wonder whether the Home Office and the promoters of the Bill have fully considered the other side of this problem—the damage which these changes in the law may do to the ordinary law-abiding sections of the community who seek only to pursue their normal daily duties and vocations without let or hindrance and unmolested by violent interruption.

I am sure that we are all painfully aware of the increase in juvenile delinquency and in crimes of violence by juveniles generally. Every day we read about fresh cases and fresh victims as we open the daily Press. I cannot help thinking that the Bill, if passed, will tend to increase such crimes. I give the sponsors every credit for their intention, but, whatever they say, the Bill will undoubtedly lessen punishment and, therefore, lessen the deterrent against crime. Many of us are already gravely disturbed at the lenient sentences which have been passed by many magistrates' courts on first offenders and the frequency of fines—and only nominal fines at that. Under the Bill they need not be adequately punished even if they refuse to pay those trivial fines. My experience, such as it was, in the seventeen happy years I spent in the Army, was that if one meted out substantial punishment for the first offence, it had an enormous effect against repetition. I greatly fear that the Bill will lead to an even greater contempt of the magistrates' courts by the young offenders.

Mr. Janner

Is not the hon. Member confusing the matter? Does not the major portion of the Bill extend the provisions to people over 21?

Sir T. Moore

I quite understand that.

I remember one case recently in which there was obvious contempt by the offender against the court itself. It was reported in the Press, only a few weeks ago. It was of a youth who had a cigarette in his mouth and a grin on his face and who listened casually to the whole of the hearing of the charge against him, which was one of violence, theft and general thuggery.

Why did he take such little interest in the case? Because he had no respect for the court, or for the penalties which it might impose on him. He said to himself: "Am I not a first offender? What can they do to me which will be of any consequence?" The same youth was stated to be earning £8 or £9 a week, keeping much of it himself, because good money was going into the house. He did not have to subscribe much to the general upkeep of his family. Under the Bill he need not even worry about paying the trivial fine of a few shillings which may be imposed on him.

Candidly, I am anxious. I wish the Bill well, but I am doubtful of it, although I do not wish to oppose its Third Reading. I hope that the Home Office, which will have to administer the Bill, will keep a watchful eye on its operations. I suggest, further, that the Home Secretary should issue a special directive to magistrates' courts, warning them of its dangers and calling for more serious punishment for those who are taking their first step on the criminal road.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

Did the hon. Gentleman really mean "directive"?

Sir T. Moore

The right hon. Gentleman knows better than I do the correct terms to apply to these matters. I merely wish that the Home Office should take whatever appropriate step there is to indicate to magistrates that, first, there should be a general average of penalties throughout the country conforming to one another and, secondly, that in the opinion of the Home Office more suitable penalties might well be imposed.

Like the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Dance), and, to a greater extent, like Mr. Justice Hilbery and many other justices and magistrates' courts, I regret that corporal punishment is not still available for young and not so young thugs. However, we shall have to wait until the Government take a more realistic concept of their duties to the public generally and a more sympathetic thought for the victims of violence and less for those who so wantonly inflict it.

12.12 p.m.

Lieut.-Commander S. L. C. Maydon (Wells)

While I do not intend to oppose this Bill I, too, have some grave misgivings. I have an ugly suspicion that this is a case of manipulating justice to meet expediency. Great play has been made of the overcrowding of our prisons. We are all well aware of the desperate state of some of those establishments, but I am not so sure that this in itself is a good reason, if only one, for bringing forward a Measure of this nature.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Chesterfield (Sir G. Benson), in asking leave to introduce the Bill, made great play of the results of research made nearly a quarter of a century ago in the United States of America. Perhaps that is relevant to the situation here but, on the other hand, America is a very different place from Britain. The standards of behaviour and morality there are rather different from our own. People are far too fond of talking about our cousins across the Atlantic and forget that a large proportion of the population in the United States has no relationship to Anglo-Saxon stock.

Mr. Collins

Will the hon. and gallant Gentleman allow me to interrupt, since he has alluded to my hon. Friend's remarks and has indicated that the research was confined to America? My hon. Friend also said that in France there is what is known as a suspended sentence and that they have a success rate of 80 per cent. In England there is massive evidence to show that 80 per cent. is the minimum success rate and it is the same rate all the time.

Lieut.-Commander Maydon

Yes, I was coming to the point of the 80 per cent. success rate, which I do not dispute.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Chesterfield has been fair in using this statistic to prove his case, but there is another aspect. It is not only the effect of imprisonment upon an offender which may convert him from being a potential criminal to being just a single lapse offender. That, I agree, is always present but, apart from that, to me just as important, and probably more, is the effect that these sentences have upon potential offenders, people who have not yet become even first offenders but who have spent their early lives in circumstances where sufficient attention has not been paid to their welfare and who subsequently have been skating on very thin ice on the very edge of the law.

We have to think of those types, also, when we are considering a Measure of this kind. In the Bill, magistrates are enjoined to consider most carefully, and to state, that there is no appropriate alternative. There are probably only two major alternatives, fine or probation.

When my hon. and learned Friend the Joint Under-Secretary speaks in the debate; I would like him to give statistics if he can, or, at any rate, to refer to the degree of defaulting in the paying of fines. Does he know how much variation there is in default? Has the Home Office a sufficient number of probation officers to cope with the extra work which this Bill will undoubtedly involve? If I can be satisfied on those two points, my misgivings may be reduced. Although, as I have said, I have no intention of opposing the Third Reading of the Bill, I am not altogether certain that the result will be all that is hoped for.

12.18 p.m.

Mr. Richard Body (Billericay)

May I also be allowed to add my gratitude and congratulations to the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Sir G. Benson) on bringing this Bill so far? I support the Measure and I feel bound to disagree with some of the misgivings expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore) and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wells (Lieut.-Commander Maydon).

The hon. Baronet said that he was unhappy about the Bill and joined hands with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach) in speaking of the sentiment behind it. As I see it, there is nothing sentimental about the Bill, nothing sloppy, no suggestion that first offenders should be dealt with more leniently than hitherto. It does not affect the powers of the magistrates' courts in any shape or form.

All that the Bill does is simply to direct magistrates to their powers and to underline their duties about what they ought to do and what they can do. As we all know, magistrates already have power to place first offenders on probation, and the Bill will simply mean that before sending a first offender to prison—even if he is over 21—magistrates will have to ask themselves whether he ought to be placed on probation.

I cannot understand the objection of my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr and his reference to juvenile delinquency, and so forth. The Bill is hardly concerned with juvenile delinquents. It is concerned with those over 21. Whether those who are not over 21, or not over a certain age, should receive corporal punishment, is another matter. I am all for juvenile offenders being given a little bit of stick, but I would rather that they were given a little bit of stick outside a police station than dragged through all the rigmarole of the juvenile court and allowed to become accustomed to court procedure. There has never been so much work in juvenile courts as in recent years, but that is a matter far removed from the Bill, and perhaps I had better turn to the main purposes of the Bill and to my reasons for wholeheartedly supporting it

I was about to speak of the John Gordon school of thought, but I do not know whether I should include my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr in that. That is the school which pinpoints contradictions between decisions given in various magistrates' courts. It is very easy to quote one case from one magistrates' court and to compare it with a decision in a similar case in another court some miles away, carefully selecting the facts of each case and then drawing a distinction between the two sentences passed. Like all these allegations, there is some grain of truth in the belief that there are discrepancies.

There is no doubt that there are certain magistrates who very often make up their minds about sentences in a fit of anger. Having heard of an outrage, of an act of violence, they do not wait to hear whether there was some good reason for it. It may may be that the defendant was not represented and did not have his case fully presented to the magistrates. Such magistrates sometimes make up their minds quickly and decide at once to send a man to prison, without giving the matter further thought.

There are courts like that, and those of us who go around the lower criminal courts come across such cases where that sort of thing happens. The Bill will have a cooling-down effect on some magistrates and will remind them of their duty to have second thought about placing an offender on probation instead of sending him to prison.

That brings me to a possible loophole. The Bill does nothing to prevent magistrates remanding an offender in custody, for, say, a week, far a probation report. That will have the effect of committing him to prison for such a time. Whether there are any magistrates who would abuse the Bill in such a way, I do not know, and that may not, in fact, be a loophole.

The other possible defect in the Bill is that it requires a magistrates' court to consider probation before imposing a prison sentence on an offender who has failed to pay a fine. That could mean a second hearing. At the first hearing the offender would be fined and, if he subsequently failed to pay the fine in the requisite time, he would have to be brought back and the matter reconsidered.

If that is the case, I hope that a second adjourned hearing would not be necessary and that the court could consider probation at the time of imposing the fine so that it could tell the offender when it imposed the fine that it had considered probation if he did not pay the fine and was satisfied, for reasons which it would state, that the alternative to paying the fine was imprisonment. Subject to those possible defects, I have no complaint against the Bill and I support it wholeheartedly.

The hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner) spoke of the probation service as a special social service. I repeat what I have told the House before, that the probation service is the Cinderella of the social services and that not enough people, especially those in high places, recognise its value. The Bill will be one more step towards the recognition of the probation service as a very useful and helpful service, not only in reducing and preventing crime, but also in the other work which it is able to do.

There is no doubt that the Bill will be largely unnecessary in the vast majority of magistrates' courts. It will be largely unnecessary in the very small courts to which only one probation officer is attached and in those large magistrates' courts to which ten or more probation officers may be attached. It tends to be in those two extremes where the probation service is most used.

The work of the probation service is largely dependent on the ability and personality of the officers concerned. In a very small court, where there is only one probation officer, he is very well known to all concerned and may be as well known to the magistrates as is the clerk to the justices. If he is a man of ability, who has achieved results, he is almost invariably given far more work than would otherwise be the case if he were attached to one of the slightly larger courts where the probation officers are not regarded as they are in the smaller courts where they are better known.

Likewise, in the larger courts at the other extreme, where there are ten or more probation officers, the Bill will be largely unnecessary because the principal probation officer in such a court is generally a person of very great ability and personality who is able to put across the value of his work. In those courts, probation officers nearly always have referred to them more offenders than would otherwise be the case.

Subject to those points, I support the Bill and hope that it will have the support of the whole House and be placed on the Statute Book.

12.30 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

A Bill of this kind presents many hon. Members with a dilemma because, at a time when crime is so prevalent, there is a natural reluctance to take any step which might seem to encourage the attitude that everyone is allowed one offence before he is dealt with seriously.

From that point of view, I approach the Bill with considerable suspicion. The community has to approach crime from many directions, but primarily, perhaps, from that of self-preservation. Our main interest must always be the diminution of crime in the interests of the non-criminal community and in order that men should enjoy the fruits of their labours and live in peace and unmolested. It is primarily with that attitude that I approach the Bill.

At present, we have in our prisons the most gross overcrowding. It is difficult to be up-to-date with the figures, but I believe there are twice as many people sleeping three in a cell in our prisons now as about a year ago. That situation is getting worse, not better. I ask myself, in those circumstances, what improving effect a prison sentence is likely to have on those subjected to it. In the case of serious and repeated offences, it is quite plain that the community has no choice but to send a man to prison, but when dealing with a man who has been convicted for the first time, one has to weigh up the balance of advantage in sending him to prison or keeping him out of prison.

I do not know whether it was during the period of office of the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), but some years ago there was instituted the idea of a short, sharp sentence. I think that was quite a proper thing to try, but my belief is that, at any rate in present prison conditions, it is not succeeding. It would be wisest, wherever possible, to keep a first offender out of prison rather than to make him a man who has been to prison. There is a tremendous difference. Once a man has been to prison he is never quite the same; he is always rather more likely to commit another criminal offence.

Therefore, if one can save him from becoming that sort of person without creating in the community the wrong attitude to committing the first crime, I think that it is something we ought to try. I do not believe that anyone can be dogmatic about the effect of any of the changes we make in the criminal law. Not enough is known about the relation between crime and punishment, or whether those inferences are constant or change rapidly in certain conditions. All one can do is to consider whether a particular experiment should be made at a particular time.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Body) said, the attitude of most magistrates towards this Bill will not make a difference, but there will be cases where it will make a difference. I have said some rather critical things about the matrimonial jurisdiction of magistrates' courts, and even sometimes about their jurisdiction in motoring cases, but I think that in the ordinary criminal case the magistrates' courts proceed, not only with great care—I am sure they always do that—but also with considerable skill in applying very sensible humanity in their decisions.

I think, however, that the odd occasion arises—certainly my experience has suggested it—where a prison sentence is given to a first offender for reasons which are not very clear. If we pass this Bill into law this question, by Statute, will be brought directly to the attention of the bench on every such occasion. Magistrates will not say, "This is really a bad thing. There has been a lot of it in the district lately. We shall pass a prison sentence." They will ask, "Is there any other way of dealing satisfactorily with this man other than by a prison sentence?".

That is all the Bill can do, but I think that in present conditions, more especially in the gross overcrowding of prisons we are experiencing, this is a wise and reasonable experiment to make, and I hope that the Bill will pass into law.

12.35 p.m.

Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)

I regret if any of my remarks have been already made by hon. Members during my short absence from the House in keeping a previously arranged appointment. I rise to give the Bill very qualified support. I do not give it active opposition, because I do not think it goes very far. I object to it because of the implied criticism of magistrates and magistrates courts which I do not think is justified.

The implication arises from the fact that it is suggested that magistrates have been too free in sending first offenders to prison. I do not agree. Whether it is a stipendiary magistrate or a bench of magistrates which is concerned, very great care is taken in each case in deciding all the facts, and very often a probation officer's report is obtained before any action is taken. I would remind the House that the powers of the courts and of magistrates and others in dealing with different types of punishment have been very considerably curtailed in recent years, particularly under the 1948 Act. Except for probation or discharge, in practice, when dealing with persons over 21, magistrates can only impose imprisonment or a fine. If a first offender comes before magistrates and they are to be told that it is impracticable to send that person to prison, the law will be brought into disrepute.

I would remind the House that the criminal law does not only affect criminals. Criminals are not a problem of social welfare but are those persons who have committed offences, very often serious ones, against the State or individual. Over the centuries we have said, as all civilised countries have said, to the person who suffers at the hands of the criminal, "Do not take vengeance against the person who offends you, leave it to us. If you catch a burglar red handed, do not hit him on the head but hand him over to the police and the courts will deal with him." If the courts are going to make themselves—I will not say ridiculous—if they are to have the reputation of being unduly weak by merely saying to a prisoner, "You are a social problem, we shall put you on probation and not punish you", people will take the law into their own hands and there will not then be a deterrent effect.

The question of sending people to prison very often has seriously to be considered. All I would say to magistrates is that all this Bill does is to provide that they must state their reasons for sending a first offender to prison. There is no prohibition and no restriction on their powers to do so. All they have to do is to state their reasons. I have not the slightest doubt that in every case they have their reasons, and all they will now have to do will be to state them in public. Because the Bill goes no further than that, I give it my support, but I am not going to say that I give it unqualified support.

I take this course also for the reason, as the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Sir G. Benson) realises, that many Amendments were put down to the Bill in Committee. It would be quite improper for me to refer to the discussions which have taken place, but I have reason to believe that those Amendments have been noticed by the sponsor of the Bill. I would draw his attention to that particularly because they were put down by me and a number of other hon. Members with the idea of improving the Bill and improving practice under the Bill when it becomes an Act; not in any way in a critical or destructive sense. I cer- tainly would like the hon. Member to tell the House, not now but when he speaks later, exactly what action he proposes on what I and other considered would be improvements in the Bill.

Mr. Speaker

I am in some difficulty, because the matters to which the hon. and learned Gentleman is referring are not in the Bill, and that is the limit to which the hon. and learned Gentleman can go.

Mr. Doughty

I am hoping that they will be in the Bill, Mr. Speaker. One of the arguments in support of the Bill is that people will henceforth not be sent to prison in such large numbers because the prisons are not able to receive them. That is an argument for improving the prisons rather than for declining to send people there altogether. Let us not turn loose upon the public people who ought to be sent to the institutions intended to receive them. I have visited one or two of these establishments, in an official capacity, of course, and I can tell the House that it is high time those institutions were rebuilt. I do not use the phrase "brought up to date," because many of them are in such a condition that modernisation is impossible.

We have heard that three men sleep in a cell. There should be no objection to that per se—in a barrack room many more men than three can sleep—provided that the cell is fit to take three men. The complaint should not be that three men are sleeping in a cell but that the cells at present are not fit to take more than one prisoner. I press upon the Home Secretary the vital necessity of rebuilding most of——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Home Secretary cannot follow the advice of the hon. and learned Gentleman by means of the Bill, because there is nothing in the Bill about the reconstruction of prisons. Although the general argument can be alluded to that the effect of the Bill will be to keep people out of prison, we cannot have a speech on prison conditions on the Third Reading of the Bill.

Mr. Doughty

I was going a little too far, Mr. Speaker, and I apologise. Other hon. Members have referred to conditions inside prisons and I was carrying on those observations. Perhaps you will allow me to say that conditions in one of the institutions of the United States ought to be brought to the notice of the Home Secretary and that I propose to do so by sending him a full, illustrated description of the place as a suggestion of what we might do in this country.

I think I have now concluded everything I wished to say, both in order and out of order. I hope I have also said a word in support of the magistrates who have been enforcing the law up to date. I hope that the Bill will reduce prison populations but will not bring criminals into the position of persons with whom we ought in every case to sympathise and say, "Please go away and not do it again." Restrictions are being placed on the course of the law and we ought not to go very much further in that direction.

12.44 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Renton)

During the past seventy minutes we have listened to ten speeches, all of which have been very interesting. I wish to make it clear on behalf of the Government that we welcome the Bill, as did nearly all hon. Members who spoke.

The Bill covers a narrow point but, as the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner) said, it is important. It is one of several steps of penal reform being taken by Parliament and the Home Office this year. We are most grateful to the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Sir G. Benson) for the initiative he took in following up this recommendation of the Advisory Council on the Treatment of Offenders.

The Bill is designed to eliminate unnecessary short terms of imprisonment for adult offenders only. Several hon. Members gave the impression that the Bill would be suitable for dealing with young offenders, but these are already covered in a similar way in Section 17 of the Criminal Justice Act, 1948, now replaced in part by Section 107 of the Magistrates' Courts Act, 1952. It may interest hon. Members to know that the effect of Section 17 of the Criminal Justice Act, 1948, was that the number of young offenders sent to prison by magistrates' courts fell by 60 per cent. when the courts were obliged to give reasons before sending young offenders to prison.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) suggested that the Bill was not very flattering to magistrates; but I disagree with him entirely. We have lay magistrates, and they have never taken it amiss when Parliament has given them guidance by altering the law. That is what we are doing. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore) suggested that it was for the Home Office to give guidance to magistrates how they should do their job, but that is not the case. The most that the Home Office has done, and that only rarely, is to invite the attention of magistrates to a new Act passed by Parliament. It is now well known among magistrates that there is the Advisory Council for the Treatment of Offenders which makes recommendations from time to time. The magistrates are entitled to consider those recommendations, but they are not bound by them. From time to time, no doubt, those recommendations prove helpful to them.

There are six reasons why the Bill should be useful. The first was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) when he posed the question of the improving effect of prison; in other words, we should not send people to prison unless it is likely to have some useful effect. In the minds of many people, many of them old-fashioned people, punishment is an end in itself; but if we are to have people in prison to be punished, we are wasting the time that they spend in prison and wasting public money in keepng them there unless we use that time and money in making them into better people. Therefore we have to consider, when we think of magistrates' powers of sending people to prison, whether the short sentences which the magistrates can only award are likely to provide that opportunity for reform to which my hon. Friend referred. Let us consider that position.

Normally, the upper limit of the jurisdiction of magistrates is six months. If they are trying people on the same occasion for two or more indictable offences, they can send them to prison for a total of twelve months. But, as hon. Members who are familiar with the practice of the courts know, that does not happen very often. Six months is the normal maximum, and with remission that will generally become four months actually served. But there are many occasions when the magistrates sentence persons to much less than the maximum.

We are faced with the fact that many people are serving sentences varying from two to three weeks, or a month, to six months, and we are advised by the Prison Commissioners that periods of that kind are of very little value for reformative training. Therefore, if as a result of the Bill fewer adults are sent to prison for short sentences, we shall not be missing opportunities of reformative training which we ought to be taking. If we can cease to clutter up the prisons with people whom we have little opportunity of reforming, those in prison will have a much better opportunity of being reformed and the staff who have to train and look after them will have a better opportunity of reforming them.

The second point in favour of the Bill was touched upon by the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West. He pointed to the fact that when a man goes to prison for the first time it not only involves the loss of his job and the comfort of his home but also places upon him the stigma of prison. Further, it involves the risk that he will not get his job back, because a very high proportion of jobs in society today are jobs of trust. Although a great deal of fine work is being done in the after-care of prisoners, prevention is better than cure, and if we can avoid that stigma arising in the first place so much the better.

The third reason for commending the Bill goes back, in my opinion, to the original Probation of Offenders Act. 1907. That Act—if I may be allowed to refer to it in passing—was based upon the assumption that for first offenders, at any rate, prison was not normally likely to be the best method of treatment. It is difficult to say whether those who passed that Act now feel that their hopes have been realised, but we know that several thousand first offenders are still being sent to prison each year.

At least two hon. Members have asked me about the probation service. It is true that if the Bill is passed a somewhat increased burden is likely to be placed upon that service, which is already heavily strained. The position of the service was fairly fully discussed in two debates before Easter, to both of which I replied, and I would refer the House to what was said in those debates. I can say now, however, as I said then, that we are attempting to strengthen the service, and have hopes of doing so. I certainly do not think that we ought to refrain from passing a wise Measure of this kind because of any difficulties which the probation service may temporarily be experiencing. In any event, the difficulties of the service are not universal. They tend to be patchy. I repeat that the third reason in favour of the Bill is that it is in line with a movement which was started back in 1907 in order to deal with first offenders, on the assumption that prison was not normally the best method of treatment for them.

My fourth reason is that it costs £6 11s. a week of the taxpayers' money to keep a man in prison, and that cost should be avoided if possible.

Fifthly, as hon. Members have mentioned, there is very serious overcrowding in prisons. The hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Collins), who opened the debate very helpfully, mentioned a figure of between 4,000 and 5,000 men sleeping three in a cell. The figure is changing every day. The last figure that I heard was 4,300.

Mr. Collins

The Minister must have misheard me. I gave a figure of 4,500. The nearest actual figure that I have is 4,389, but I refrained from quoting that because it was increasing, and I thought that a round figure was better.

Mr. Renton

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for pointing that out.

When Mr. Speaker was in the Chair I was sorely tempted to plead with him to allow my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East to pursue his interesting line about prison con, but I obviously cannot do that, although I can say that this and other Measures, including the Maintenance Orders Bill, will have the effect of easing the problem of overcrowding to some extent. It is impossible to say exactly how many people will be kept out of prison in years to come as a result of the Bill. Nobody could give an intelligent estimate, and I am not going to be so rash as to try to do so, but I hope I can say that it will not be an insubstantial number.

My last reason is that the cost to the community of unnecessary imprisonment is increased by the delay which overcrowding in prisons imposes upon prison reform generally. It may be thought that the Bill will not make a very great contribution to the solving of this problem, but anything that we can do to lessen overcrowding and to get into prison the people whom we really ought to have there—the more serious criminals whom we must try to reform—will be to the good. It is impossible to say how far the Bill will go in that direction, but if it goes any distance it must be helpful.

Those are six fairly strong reasons for commending the Bill to the House. In the course of the debate hon. Members have mentioned various points which I shall endeavour to answer, to any extent that I have not already done so. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Hyde) mentioned the possibility of extending the parole system, and I will bear that in mind. It was pointed out to him that the Bill does not apply to Northern Ireland—and perhaps it would be appropriate to point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr that it does not apply to Scotland either.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach) asked me—as it seemed to me, by implication—what had been the effect of the similar provision, applying to those under 21 years of age, in Section 17 of the 1948 Act. I mentioned earlier that the number of people committed had fallen by 60 per cent.

Mr. Roderic Bowen (Cardigan)

Do those figures apply only to what has happened in magistrates' courts?

Mr. Renton

Yes, that is so. We are speaking here in the context of magistrates' courts only and the figures have been given in that context.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr said that present fines were too trivial. He should console himself with the thought that in a case where the magistrates, but for this Bill, might have sent somebody to prison and now decide to fine him instead, the fine is likely to be not trivial bat substantial.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wells (Lieut.-Commander Maydon) asked me what degree of defaulting there is in the payment of fines. I am glad to be able to tell him that the number of fines not collected is infinitesimal. Over half-a-million people are fined each year for offences of various kinds and very many fewer than 1 per cent. of them default to the extent that the fines have to be written off. I have dealt with the point about whether we have enough probation officers. There is one other matter which I should mention and which, rather to my surprise, has not yet been fully developed. I understand, Mr. Speaker, that the hon. Member for Chesterfield hopes to catch your eye in a moment, and I hope that he will be good enough to explain this point to the House. The Bill at present applies to imprisonment even in default of payment of fines, but it is quite inappropriate that it should do so. Administratively it is unnecessary that it should do so, and I believe that it would be placing an undue burden on magistrates if they had to go through the palaver, every time they committed someone to prison for defaulting on a fine, of explaining their reasons for doing so. Those reasons would be obvious. Indeed, there would be only one reason—that the fine had not been paid and there was no other sanction except imprisonment.

I understand that the references in the Bill to such a procedure are likely to be struck out when the Bill reaches another place and that the hon. Member for Chesterfield will arrange for noble Lords in another place to move suitable Amendments. That should be made clear, however, because the Bill may well have caused some confusion by containing that reference.

I am afraid that I have spoken at much greater length than have other hon. Members, who have spoken with such commendable brevity and clarity today, but I hope that it has at least been of some use to have the Government point of view fully developed.

1.5 p.m.

Sir George Benson (Chesterfield)

May I deal, first, with the point about fines which the Joint Under-Secretary of State has just raised. I will certainly arrange for the reference to fines to be deleted. The purpose of the Bill is to make magistrates think twice, and if there is default in payment of a fine, they have to think not only twice but three times, because I understand that they have to consider the question of means before they impose imprisonment. It is a work of supererogation to include fines within the ambit of the Bill.

The case which has been put against the Bill is, broadly, that if one reduces the weight of legal penalties one reduces the deterrent effect of the law and this may lead to an increase in crime. I am afraid that the relationship between the maintenance of the law and the imposition of penalties is by no means as simple a relationship as that. Legal sanctions are only one of the many factors which lead people to live normal and law-abiding lives. I can say quite categorically that the severity of penalties and the rate of crime do not vary inversely, as so many hon. Members opposite seem to assume.

Many claims have been made that severe penalties have reduced crime. One of the most common claims—and it has been mentioned today—concerns the supposed efficacy of flogging and birching. Why that arises so frequently I do not know. We had a Departmental Committee's Report on the subject, in 1937, which showed that the whole structure of assumption which had been based on the idea that flogging was an effective punishment had no basis of fact whatsoever. There was not a shred of evidence that the severity of flogging or birching was any more effective than any normal punishment.

Claims have also been made not only for the general efficacy of heavy punishments, but that the incidence of a particular offence has been reduced by a sharp increase in penalties for that offence. Such claims have been made by high legal authorities, but when we look into the facts we find that they are utterly baseless. It is only too easy to suggest cause and effect when the real cause of diminution in a particular crime is generally something entirely different from the fact that there have been increased penalties.

Hon. Members opposite have referred to the increase in juvenile delinquency and the increase in crime. Since when? Since when is this increase supposed to have taken place? There has been a general increase in crime among all ages throughout the country since 1939, but if we take 1948 as a basis we find that there has not been an increase in juvenile delinquency and there has not been an increase in crime. There has been a decrease.

Mr. Bowen

There has been an increase in crimes of violence in the age range 17 to 21.

Sir G. Benson

I was about to mention the age group in which a decrease had not taken place—the 17 to 21 age group. This happens to be the age group which was affected by Section 17 of the Criminal Justice Act, but if hon. Members look at the criminal statistics they will find that that increase in crime did not take place until 1956, eight years after Section 17 came into operation. Section 17, which cut the total imprisonment of adolescents by half, and in the case of the magistrates' courts by 60 per cent., had no effect whatever on the volume of juvenile delinquency in the age group 17 to 21. It was not until 1956, eight years afterwards, that there was an increase, and that is the only age group in which an increase has taken place. It is ridiculous to pretend that Section 17 was the cause of an increase eight years after it had been introduced.

Mr. Bowen

I never suggested that.

Sir G. Benson

I was merely pointing out that the casual reference to an increase in juvenile delinquency and an increase in crime is to an increase which does not apply to post-war years. If hon. Members want to find a datum line from which there has been an increase, they must go back to 1938.

Mr. Philip Bell

I appreciate the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but if it be true that we have to disregard the weight of punishment, logically we ought to say that whatever the crime is, the reformatory period should be eighteen months—that that gives enough time for reform—and than, whether it be attempted murder or larceny, nobody should be punished for more than eighteen months.

Sir G. Benson

I do not know how to reform anybody, and I strongly suspect that nobody else knows either.

Mr. Bell

Why have different punishments?

Sir G. Benson

Under this very small Bill I cannot go into the whole question of our penal system. I could argue with the hon. and learned Gentleman outside the House with pleasure but it would be out of order here. I could not give any satisfactory answer to the fundamental question why people cease to become criminals. All we know is that the very large number of claims that are made that the severe penalties are more efficacious than the minor penalties cannot be substantiated either by statistics or by any other form of analysis.

Reference has been made to the effect of the Bill on the number of prison sentences. About 4,850 first offenders are sent to prison every year. How many are sent by magistrates' courts and how many by the upper courts we cannot find out from criminal statistics, but I think it is a fair assumption that if we say that 4,000 are sent by magistrates' courts we shall not be very far out, because that represents roughly the proportion of sentences imposed by the magistrates' courts and the higher courts.

If—and it is an "if"—the effect of the Bill were the same as the effect of Section 17, that would make a reduction in the number of sentences on adult first offenders of 2,000 per annum. But I do not want anybody to have the idea that that reduction of 2,000 per annum will have any appreciable effect upon the prison population. Do not forget that, to begin with, the Bill applies only to magistrates' courts and the maximum sentence that they can pass is six months. The probability is that in so far as the Bill has any influence upon the magistrates, it will be the shorter sentences which are affected and not the longer sentences.

I should feel very happy if I thought the effect of the Bill upon the prison system was the equivalent of presenting the Prison Commissioners with another 150 cells. If one looks at the distribution of the prison population it is astonishing how small a proportion of the cells are occupied by prisoners serving sentences of under three months' duration. The Bill is not based on a hope that it will make any contribution worth mentioning to the overcrowding of our prisons.

What effect will the Bill have? Reference has been made to the possibility that it will reduce the deterrent effect of the law. On the assumption that it will affect 2,000 cases, what does that mean? About 330,000 criminal cases a year are dealt with by our courts. The whole of those 330,000 have got to go through the magistrates' courts. There are about 1,000 magistrates' courts, so that if the Bill were to have the effect which I hope it might, of reducing prison sentences by 2,000 cases a year, it would mean, on an average, that for each magistrates' court two people per annum would not be sent to prison who are sent to prison at present.

Does anybody suggest that that will have an impact on the public mind and reduce the deterrent effect of the law? If we put it in proportion, one realises what little effect it possibly can have. In fact, it is so small that any effect upon public opinion is bound to be lost.

I think that the main advantage of the Bill is that this House will be giving guidance to magistrates' courts. Somebody referred to the wisdom of magistrates. Frankly, I do not know where the evidence is for that statement. If one looks at the sentencing policy of the 1,000 magistrates' courts, the only conclusion that one can draw is that there is no policy, that the whole position is completely chaotic. Every court is a law unto itself, and the more guidance that we can give to the courts the better—if we know how to give guidance, and that has not been proved.

Let us take the spread of sentences. Let us consider the Bootle magistrates' court. Bootle is a rather slummy area in the great conurbation of Liverpool. Over the past six years the average percentage of cases sent to prison is 8 per cent. per annum, and in one year it has been down to as low as 5 per cent. Look at the other end of the scale. Take Bournemouth, for example. Over the last six years, of the adult male indictable cases, 40 per cent. were sent to prison; Eastbourne has sent 42 per cent. to prison; Worcester has sent 44 per cent. to prison, as compared with 8 per cent. in Bootle.

Clearly, there is a fundamentally different attitude between these courts. It may well be that Eastbourne, Worcester and Bournemouth are infested by dangerous criminals. On the other hand, it may well be that they are infested by dangerous magistrates. I do not know. One thing is quite clear, and that is that there is no sentencing policy among magistrates. Let us admit that we are profoundly ignorant—not merely magistrates, but all of us, including those who have given years of study to this matter—of the way to deal with delinquents. At present, it is based very largely on guesswork and hope.

During the last five years a small section devoted to research has been growing up in the Home Office. It is growing rapidly and I am convinced that from that research section and from the work that I know is going on, in five or six years' time we shall have a flood of detailed and positive information which will greatly facilitate not merely the sentencing policy of the courts, but the Home Office handling of criminals.

It is in that direction that we must hope for a more intelligent and wiser handling of this problem. At present, this trivial Bill—because it is trivial when set in the context of the whole problem of crime—may do something, not so much in what it achieves, but in pointing out the need for an advance and further progress in this very complex matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.