HC Deb 30 April 1986 vol 96 cc983-9
Mr. Giles Shaw

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 8, after 'threaten', insert 'unlawful'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendments Nos. 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 20 and 21.

Mr. Shaw

The amendments flow from undertakings we gave in Committee to look further at the definition of violence in clause 8. Two criticisms were made of the definition—first, that it was wrong to refer to "violence justified by law", which appears in clause 8(2) and, secondly, that the definition of violence in clause 8(3) was rather cumbersome. We have moved to discharge our obligation fully under the first head. Under the second head, despite my best endeavours to find a more elegant phraseology, we have not been able to satisfy the recommendation. I hope that the House will regard the changes that we have made as suitable.

Mr. Cash

I believe, as I have done for a long time, that, to deal with violence during a riot, we need a provision analogous to section 24 of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1978, which deals with dispersal when requested by a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary whose rank is not below that of chief inspector. However, in this context I state specifically that I would not expect the military to be involved, as they are in Northern Ireland. We face a potentially serious situation. Plastic bullets and so on may be used and innocent children may get caught up in a riot.

If a power of dispersal were made available which enabled people to take responsibility upon themselves to disperse—when a warning had been given, or when the police knew the framework within which they were operating when an incident appeared riotous—the public would have greater safeguards than they do at present. That power would provide an opportunity for a person to take a moment to reflect on the position and would provide a cooling-down period.

I hope that, when the Bill reaches another place, those matters will be taken on board. There are serious deficiencies in the law which will become apparent sooner or later, such as when an innocent person gets caught up in a riot but could have avoided it if a warning system were available, during the night or during the day, to allow him to get off the streets before the police moved in.

I received a lengthy letter from the Prime Minister on this point. I understand that some chief constables have reservations about it. The matter is by no means as clear-cut as has been thought. Some chief constables would favour such a provision and others would not. I should be grateful if the matter could be given further consideration as the Bill proceeds. I believe that the Riot Act 1714, which was repealed about 10 years ago, should have been replaced by a provision along the lines suggested.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

I thank the Minister of State, Home Office for fulfilling the undertakings he gave in Standing Committee.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 2, in page 1, line 11, after `using', insert 'unlawful'.

No. 3, in page 2, line 2, after 'threaten' insert `unlawful'.—[Mr. Giles Shaw.]

Mr. Alex Carlile

I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 2, line 9, leave out 'life' and insert '7 years'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments:

No. 8, in clause 2, page 2, line 22, leave out '5' and insert '3'.

No. 11 in clause 3, page 3, line 4, leave out '3' and insert '2'.

Mr. Carlile

I did not have the advantage of serving on the Committee—a pleasure I missed with some disappointment—but I did follow its proceedings with awe, if not with total admiration. I know that the matters which I am about to raise were discussed then to some extent, so I propose to be brief.

The offence of riot provided for in clause 1 is subject to a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, or a fine, or both. When the Bill's proposals were first mooted by the Government, we were told that it was intended to provide a scale of offences dealing with public order—a scale of decreasing seriousness, starting with riot, moving on to violent disorder, which was the next offence down, affray, and so on. One can understand the good sense of introducing a scale of offences to deal with a problem, but one would expect, reasonably and logically, a corresponding scale of sentences to deal with those offences. One would expect that the maximum sentence for the most serious offence would be the highest, that the sentence for the second most serious offence would be lower but in proportion, and so on.

The Bill provides for a maximum sentence of imprisonment for life for the offence of riot. There is an enormous drop to imprisonment for five years for violent disorder and for three years for affray. The relationship between the maximum sentence for riot and the maximum sentence for violent disorder—offences which may arise on the same set of facts—is distant indeed.

I recognise that we have already, at least in part, an independent Crown prosecution service and that within a few months the whole of England and Wales will be covered by an independent prosecution service. Hopefully, we can count on the good sense of the Crown prosecution service not to prosecute people for riot when they have not done something terribly serious. On the other hand, despite the good work that was done in Committee and particularly the concessions which the Government have been prepared to make on the definition of "violence", in respect of the definition of riot one is left with the possibility—this was canvassed widely in Committee—of relatively trivial behaviour falling within the offence of riot. In my view—it is also the view of many others—it is important that maximum sentences are proportionate to the conduct which is described in the offence.

If a riot takes place, and if a group of people acting either separately or together commit serious offences of personal violence against others, they can be charged with substantive offences of violence. We are used to heavy sentences, indeed life sentences, being available for offences including murder, rape, robbery, arson with intent to endanger life, and causing grievous bodily harm with intent.

If people are to be subject to a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, they should be charged with a specific offence of personal violence which might justify a sentence of life imprisonment. Riot, as defined by the Bill, could not strictly be described as an inchoate offence, but it is an unspecific offence. I suspect that juries, being members of the public and knowing perhaps that the maximum sentence for riot is life imprisonment, would be extremely reluctant to convict people of such an unspecific offence as riot.

Will the Government consider whether it might be right to introduce a much lower maximum sentence than life imprisonment for the offence of riot? I believe that few judges would be tempted in any circumstances to pass a sentence of more than seven years imprisonment for an offence of riot. A seven-year sentence would be a proper maximum.

7 pm

Mr. Spencer

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman have evidence that juries have been loth to convict at common law for the offences of affray, unlawful assembly and riot where the maximum sentence is life imprisonment?

Mr. Carlile

The three offences which the hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned are ancient common law offences. They were developed by the common law over the centuries to deal with the changing exigencies of life. Juries on the whole have little knowledge of maximum sentences, especially for offences the origins of which are found deep in history. This offence of riot has been very much in the public gaze in recent months—indeed, in the past couple of years. I believe that someone on the jury will be bound to know what the maximum sentence is.

The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Spencer) knows that sometimes a little knowledge can be very dangerous, especially with juries. I fear for the efficacy of this offence before juries if the maximum sentence of life is retained.

Surely seven years is a perfectly proper and realistic maximum for this type of offence. If we are to have realistic maxima as a general principle, let us start with new offences which we lay down in Parliament. If in so doing we reduce the maximum sentence for riot from life to the right level of seven years, we still will not have the right sort of scale if we leave five years as the maximum for violent disorder and three years as the maximum for affray. A much more realistic scale which would meet the requirements of sentencing and what the judge has to do in court would be provided if the maximum sentence were three years for violent disorder and two years for affray.

I urge upon the Minister and the Government an important principle which I believe the judges share and in which the Government too should believe. Generally today, the sentence passed by the judge often bears little resemblance to the sentence to be served by the defendant. We should use the Bill as part of our journey along the road to a much more realistic and common-sense policy on sentencing, under which we should introduce maxima and judges should pass sentences which bear a much closer relationship to the reality of what happens to the prisoner after he walks down the step from the dock. I therefore urge the Minister to accept these amendments as reflecting a realistic and common sense view.

Sir Eldon Griffiths

A good deal of the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) was persuasive. My difficulty is that, on convicting a person, the only choice for the court is life imprisonment or a fine. That is what clause 1(6) says.

Mr. Alex Carlile

It is not really for me to correct the hon. Gentleman. It is, in fact, a maximum of life.

Mr. Giles Shaw

Anything up to life.

Sir Eldon Griffiths

That is not what the Bill says. I am glad to hear that confirmation from my hon. Friend the Minister. Despite the fact that clause 1(6) states liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for life or a fine or both the word "liable" presumably covers the gradations.

I shall make only one other comment because I suspect that when the Bill goes before another place some of the judges will weigh in on this matter. My hon. Friend is conscious of that. Does it not follow that, if a court concludes that a life sentence is appropriate, at least 12 people will be liable to be given that sentence? The definition of riot is that 12 people must have been involved. No doubt a court could start off with a life sentence for the most serious rioter and go down through the gradations. However, I think that their lordships may well consider that point.

I do not share the view of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery that the jury would be less liable to convict if the maximum sentence was life. For all that, bearing in mind our experience over the years of the other place, it might be a good idea for my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that our amendments are not overturned in the other place.

Mr. Spencer

We now see the limp wrist of the alliance drooping pathetically in the breeze of public misgiving about public disorder. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) suggested that the maximum sentence for the new offence of violent disorder should be three years. That proposal is totally out of touch with the real world. In practical terms, any judge approaching the task of sentencing a person who commits that offence would have to regard the maximum as two years. It is rare that a judge is driven to conclude that the case with which he is dealing is the worst one possible to imagine and therefore justifies the maximum sentence.

As for affray, the proposal is even more absurd A maximum of two years is proposed, which, in practical politics, would give rise to a maximum sentence of about 18 months. Recently, we have had a number of cases of affray in which the sentences passed by the courts have been measured at between six and eight years. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery should be ashamed of himself—

Mr. Alex Carlile


Mr. Spencer

—for putting his name to the amendment.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

I endorse the comments of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Spencer). Again we see the alliance being soft on law and order. We must reject the amendment. If the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) has any argument about scale, he should argue that the sentence for violent disorder should be seven years and the sentence for affray five years.

What about juries who are afraid to convict a person for riot because a life sentence may be passed? There is no respectable academic evidence that juries have ever been afraid to convict in such cases, except when the death penalty was the result. In the multitudinous offences in the English system in which life imprisonment is the maximum sentence, no one has ever claimed that such a sentence has deterred juries from carrying out their duty. That argument does not hold water.

It is an insult to juries to suggest that they will somehow evade their responsibility because the maximum sentence for riot is life imprisonment. That suggestion is an insult also to the judges who examine the involvement of the accused, consider the degree of fault under the charge of riot referred to in clause 1 and set appropriate sentences. The purpose of a maximum sentence of life imprisonment is to give the judge the necessary flexibility to reflect, as he sees fit, on the degree of culpability of the person who breeches the law. It also reflects the feelings of horror and opprobrium attached to this offence by the general public. The maximum sentence should stay.

If the hon. and learned Gentleman has an argument, it is that the alternative to five years' imprisonment for violent disorder should be seven years and for affray it should be three years. The matter has been fully discussed in Committee, and I am sure that the public will join with Government Members in recognising that public order offences must be dealt with firmly and that judges should have the option to impose lengthy sentences of imprisonment. I oppose this silly amendment.

Mr. Giles Shaw

As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) has reminded the House, this matter was fully discussed in Committee. I remind the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) that we spent a lot of time debating the matter. The Law Commission recommended 10 years as the maximum sentence for riot, and in the White Paper published in May the Government reflected the Law Commission's view.

As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, a life sentence was passed at the Old Bailey which suggested that the 10-year maximum might not be sufficient for the worst cases. That case is now the subject of an appeal which is to be heard on 19 May, and the Government think it right to keep the position open until the appeal is heard. We shall, of course, study with care any judgment by the Court of Appeal and we will also listen carefully to the views expressed in Parliament. I note the views of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Spencer) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West. I hope the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery will not divide the House on his amendment because we still have an open mind and a decision will depend on the Court of Appeal judgment.

On the other two amendments, the Law Commission recommended maximum sentences for violent disorder and affray of five and three years respectively, and those are the maxima in clauses 2 and 3 of the Bill. The invitation that the hon. and learned Gentleman makes to us to reduce those is not an invitation that I could ask the House to accept because I know the views of my hon. Friends on the matter.

In its working paper the Law Commission originally suggested 10 years for affray and five years for unlawful assembly. The sentences recommended in its final report are a considerable reduction on the working paper proposals. I must remind the hon. and learned Gentleman that we are dealing with major public order offences of great gravity. They are offences that give rise to anxiety and it is right that in the Bill there should be a significant tariff of sentences available so that the courts may offer the public the protection that they deserve.

Mr. Kaufman

I am sorry that the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) was not with us in Standing Committee. He knows that we debated these matters at length and that the amendment that he has moved follows the spirit of the arguments put forward by me and by my hon. Friends. I would certainly not wish the Bill to reach the statute book with a life sentence for the offence of riot, especially the offence of riot as it is defined in this Bill. I might as well say it now, although I will say it later, that when this Minister of State makes a statement in good faith it is just that and I certainly accept it in that spirit.

In Standing Committee the Minister said that it was necessary from the point of view of the Government not to alter the Bill at this stage in the light of the sentence to which he referred. That was taken by us as meaning that once that matter—now very close—was out of the way, the Government would make a change. My hope and expectation is that when the Bill goes to the House of Lords an amendment will be moved from our Benches and I hope from the Government Benches to deal with this matter. I cannot say that I am happy to leave it like that, but I am content to do so in this case because the Government have got themselves on a hook.

I concur with the general drift of the speech by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery. We said the same thing during the debates in the Standing Committee, that we regard this as unique and not something to be repeated in any circumstances. Statutory sentences must be decided by Parliament for judges to follow, rather than decided by judges for Parliament to follow.

Mr. Alex Carlile

I am grateful to the Minister for dealing in a serious way with what was intended to be, and is, a serious matter. The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Spencer) and his junior thought this to be a matter upon which they could indulge in a little by-electioneering. That comes ill from two hon. Members, one of whom is an hon. and learned Member, from a party which has seen crime increase out of all recognition during its period of office; who cannot even keep the prisons in order, including prisons in the constituency, to my knowledge, of at least one of those hon. Members; and which cannot present the people of our towns and villages with a policeman on foot walking up and down the streets as part of their community. I could continue at some length to deal with the matter in the vein that they adopted. However, I shall not do that because I realise the importance of staying in order during this part of the debate.

7.15 pm

I share with the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) the understanding that the Minister of State says what he means and means what he says. I see a chink of light, in that this matter may be reconsidered in another place, especially after the case to which the Minister referred has been decided.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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