HC Deb 29 March 1979 vol 965 cc601-3
2. Mr. Mayhew

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he expects to complete his review of the factors affecting the implementation of section 47 of the Criminal Law Act 1977—partial suspension of sentences.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Brynmor John)

We have the matter under continuing review, but I do not think that the hard-pressed prison system can yet accept either the extra work that implementation might involve or the risk that larger numbers might be committed by the courts.

Mr. Mayhew

Does the hon. Gentleman recall saying on Report during the passage of the Criminal Law Bill 1977 that it was better to have such a provision on the statute book than to miss the boat? Does he agree that the partially suspended sentence, which the section provides and which he introduced on Report, represents the best practical means of reducing overcrowding in the prisons while preserving the ability of the courts to pass sentences that mark the severity of the offence?

Mr. John

That is right, and that is why the provision is on the statute book. The hon. and learned Gentleman should be aware that the climate has been changed somewhat by the Conservative Party's insistence upon short, sharp sentences. The fear exists in the prison service that far from partially suspended sentences being used instead of prison sentences they will be used to give the short, sharp shock that many people are looking for. We know that it was not really meant seriously, but some outside the House take the Conservative Party seriously.

Mr. Edward Lyons

Is my hon. Friend aware that I have always opposed the section? I did so before it was enacted. It will have the effect of increasing the prison population at a time when there is no room in the prisons. Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that there is a body of opinion that says that the section is thoroughly retrogressive, acts against good penal practice and should never be implemented?

Mr. John

That depends upon the way in which it is used. If it is used instead of fully custodial sentences, I believe that it will be a progressive measure. It is precisely the fear that my hon. and learned Friend articulates that has caused us to pause and to consider whether, in the present state and size of the prison population, it would place unacceptable burdens upon the prison service.

Mr. Edward Gardner

Contrary to what the hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons) has said, did not the hon. Gentleman concede in Committee during the passage of the Criminal Law Act 1977 that the recommendation would reduce the prison population? Does he agree that it is one of the most certain ways of dealing with the present crisis in the prisons caused by over-population?

Mr. John

No. Part of my speech was to the effect that it was my hope and intention that the courts would use the section in such a way as to reduce the prison population but that I could not guarantee that that would be so. At present the prison authorities are worried lest there should be an increase in sentences to give people a taste of imprisonment, thereby increasing the prison population.

Several Hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker

We shall have to move a little quicker now.