HC Deb 26 April 1967 vol 745 cc1677-80

(1) The Secretary of State may by rules make provision requiring that in any case to which the rules apply a court of any prescribed class shall before passing on any person a sentence to which the rules apply consider a social inquiry report, that is to say a report about h m and his circumstances, made by a probation officer or any other person authorised to do so by the rules.

(2) Rules under this section may apply to a sentence of imprisonment or detention of any class prescribed by the rules and may make different provision for different cases.

(3) In this section 'sentence of imprisonment or detention' means a sentence of imprisonment, borstal training or detention in a detention centre or a sentence of detention passed under section 53 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 (young offenders convicted of grave crimes.)—[Miss Bacon.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Miss Bacon

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

In Committee the right hon. and learned Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir J. Hobson) moved a new Clause to prohibit courts from passing a custodial sentence on a person who had not previously served, and was not serving, a sentence of imprisonment or borstal training unless the court had considered a probation officer's report.

On that occasion the Home Secretary expressed general sympathy with the object of the new Clause and undertook to have consultations with the National Association of Probation Officers to see what was practicable. In withdrawing his new Clause, the right hon. and learned Gentleman suggested that a regulatory power could be given to the Home Secretary to prescribe classes of persons on whom a report should be made so that the scheme could be extended by steps. The Government have come to the conclusion that it would be right to take power to require courts to obtain reports in certain circumstances before passing a custodial sentence.

The present arrangements for providing courts with reports in general work well and, in general, courts ensure that they are provided with the necessary information about an offender before passing sentence. This practice, although general, is not universal and in a small number of cases it happens that a court passes a custodial sentence without obtaining the reports necessary to enable it to form a proper judgment.

The Clause gives a wide rule-making power to the Home Secretary and it enables him to make provision for different kinds of sentence, for different classes of court and for different kinds of offender. The new requirement could thus be applied at first to a limited number of categories, and could be extended, if it seemed desirable, in the light of experience. Once the rule-making power exists, it might not, in fact, be necessary to exercise it because, with the power in reserve, the Home Secretary might be able to achieve the desired result by the issue of circulars to courts. This possibility will be borne in mind when the Bill becomes law. The National Association of Probation Officers has been consulted and is in favour of a provision on the lines of the new Clause.

Sir J. Hobson

I offer my thanks to the Government for the way in which this matter has been dealt with and express my pleasure at the fact that it has been possible to find a solution which the Government think is satisfactory and which is acceptable to the probation officers as well.

I am sure that it is principally in respect of magistrates' courts that it may be necessary in future to see that justices do not pass custodial sentences without having had a proper probation officer's report, apart from the police report. I realise that the capacity to provide these depends on an expansion of the probation service. The last thing that I wish to do is to place on that service a burden which it cannot bear and it is obvious that this provision must depend to some extent on an expansion of the probation service.

Without wishing to make life more difficult for the Home Secretary, I suggest that it might be desirable to add a provision in the Lords that failure to provide such a report should not be grounds for appeal. However, having thrown out that suggestion, I wish once more to express my gratitude to the Government.

Mr. Grieve

I did not appreciate, when my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir J. Hobson) raised this matter in Committee, how necessary a provision of this kind was. My experience was largely at quarter sessions and assizes, where I had never known in recent years custodial sentences, save in the most obvious cases, being pronounced without a social security report having been obtained. I gather from what my right hon. and learned Friend said that this may not always be the case in magistrates' courts. I therefore doubly welcome the new Clause because within the last fortnight I have had a glaring example in my constituency of how necessary it is that such reports should be obtained.

In the last fortnight in my constituency, before the Solihull Justices, a young man aged 19, David Whitehouse, was sentenced to three months' detention for being drunk and disorderly, without such a report having been obtained. It would not be right for me to comment on the nature of the sentence because it may be the subject of an appeal. However, the case attracted considerable attention in the Press—rightly so because the parents of this boy were not informed of what was happening. It was not until after the sentence had been passed and the boy had been taken away that they learned anything of what had happened to their son. It was in that connection that the case was brought to my notice.

I have not yet been in touch with the Home Secretary about this matter, because I am hoping for reports from the chief constable and the probation officer, who has already written to me. It appears plain that the reason why the parents learnt nothing about this case was because no social inquiry report was obtained. Had a report been obtained in this case—and I hear from the principal probation officer that it was not—then, in the normal course of events, a probation officer would have gone to the boy's home and made the necessary preliminary inquiries. Such inquiries were not made and one of the results was that something happened which I find absolutely shocking—this young man of 19, a minor in the eyes of the law, was sent away by the justices for three months without any inquiry having been made of his parents or of his background and without his parents being given the opportunity of going to court, as any decent parents would, and standing by their son.

It is fortuitous that this debate gives me an opportunity of raising this case. I raise it simply because it underlines the necessity for a provision of this kind and for that reason, I profoundly welcome it.

Question put and agreed to.

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