HC Deb 23 July 1963 vol 681 cc1329-32

For the removal of doubt if is hereby declared that it is competent for any Scottish court to defer sentence after conviction for a period and on such conditions as the court may determine.—[Mr. Ross.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Ross

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

It was during the discussions of the Scottish Advisory Council on the Treatment of Offenders on the use of short sentences of imprisonment by the courts that this matter cropped up. The purpose and concern of the Council was that far too many people were being sent to prison in Scotland where it was felt that there were more adequate and effective ways of dealing with them from the point of view of the protection of the public and the reformation of the people themselves.

It was felt that if we could keep people out of prison the chances were that their development into hardened prisoners and persons of criminal tendencies would decline. It was discovered that there was resort in Scotland to a way of dealing with people who had been charged and found guilty which was quite unique to Scotland. Certain Scottish courts have regarded persons as suitable for deferred sentence without making an order. The period may be as much as a year and at the end of that period the court decides in the light of the offender's conduct during that time whether to admonish the offender, whether to discharge him, and even to discharge him absolutely.

This has been found to be invaluable. It was in Standing Committee that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Gorbals (Mrs. Cullen) drew attention to the desirability of using this procedure as much as possible. It was discovered that although this practice has gone on in Scottish courts there is doubt whether or not it is a competent way of dealing with a convicted person. A recommendation made in paragraph 49 of the Council's Report on the Use of Short Sentences of Imprisonment by the Courts says: We recommend that, if there are no compelling considerations to the contrary, a provision should be enacted removing any doubt about the power of the court to defer sentence for a discretionary period. The Government took no notice of that.

There may be good reasons why, but obviously the Council's attention has been drawn to it and there is a question of doubt. We should have that cleared up and it is desirable that we should draw the attention of the courts to the existence of this practice, to which no exception has been taken and to which I hope the Government will say no exception could be taken. I hope they will also say that there should be greater resort to it It was for this reason that we tabled the new Clause. I hope that the Government will see their way to accept it or, failing acceptance, will give us very cogent reasons why it is not necessary to accept it. The last thing we want is for the Government to say something which will inhibit Scottish courts doing something they have hitherto done to the advantage of people coming before them, and a practice which has been recognised by the Scottish Council for the Treatment of Offenders and one which it is desirable should be copied by others.

7.15 p.m.

Lady Tweedsmuir

As the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) has rightly said this practice of a deferred sentence is in use fairly generally throughout Scotland. I understand that in the main it is applied to juvenile and adolescent offenders. There is some dispute, as the hon. Member rightly said, about the legality of the deferred sentence because it has never been tested on appeal in Scotland. Therefore, when the hon. Member tabled the new Clause I read it with considerable care. It seemed to me that the new Clause was intended for the removal of doubt, and, that being so, the hon. Member perhaps will be glad to hear that I shall be very glad to accept it.

I think that I ought to add a few words about S.A.C.T.O. because it was that Council which considered this matter and the hon. Member referred to paragraph 49 of its Report in which it said: …we are disposed to think that the deferred sentence may occasionally be a suitable alternative to an immediate short sentence of imprisonment…We recommend that, if there are no compelling considerations to the contrary, a provision should be enacted removing any doubt… I should like to describe the practice to those hon. Members who do not know of it. An offender may be convicted of a comparatively minor offence, such as theft, and may appear to the court to have repented of the theft. The court may feel that his prosecution and conviction has resulted in his having learned a lesson by the mere fact of his appearing before the court and that no punishment is necessary in the interest of justice. The court may defer sentence to six months or nine months hence. It then takes into account, as well as it can be aware of it, the offender's behavior during the intervening period and may decide that no punishment is necessary in the end. As the Clause removes doubt on the practice existing in Scotland, I repeat that I am glad to accept it.

Mrs. Alice Cullen (Glasgow, Gorbals)

I am very pleased that the noble Lady has accepted the new Clause. If she had not done so I would have had a great deal to say about it. As a magistrate I have used the deferred sentence procedure on many occasions and thus saved a child from going to prison or an approved school and kept him at home where he ought to be, thereby providing a lesson for the parents as well as the child.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.