HC Deb 04 November 1986 vol 103 cc818-20

Lords amendments: No. 1, in page 2, line 9, leave out "life" and insert a term not exceeding 10 years".

4.16 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

As hon. Members will know, 10 years was the maximum sentence recommended for riot by the Law Commission. The Government accepted that recommendation in the White Paper. We did so in the knowledge that the recommendation was in line with current sentencing practice, but last November a sentence of life imprisonment was handed down to a football hooligan for riot. That sentence was taken to appeal. The Government thought it right to preserve the position pending the appeal. Therefore, the maximum sentence of life was laid down in the Bill. The Court of Appeal has stated its views. The Government listened to the views expressed by the Opposition and in the other place. We have always approached this matter with an open mind. We therefore accept the amendment from the other place, and I commend it to the House.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) on assuming the office of Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department. We worked with him— or against him, if he cares to look at it that way — during the record sittings in Committee on the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill. Although we had our differences, we came to have considerable regard for him. We welcome him to his present position. We hope that he will maintain in his present position all the views on Home Office legislation that he expressed from below the Gangway. That can only lead to a massive improvement in the Government's legislation.

We are glad that the Government accepted this amendment in the House of Lords, and we support it in this place. We regard it as a possible noxious absurdity that sentence legislation should be effected by a sentence handed down by the courts. It is for Parliament to set sentences and for the courts to administer them, not the other way around.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

I join the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) in congratulating the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) on his ministerial appointment. I, too, am glad that the Government accept that the sentence for the offence of riot should be limited to a maximum of 10 years. This raises an issue of importance and principle—maximum sentences—which has been debated many times in many places. In this small part of the legislation the Government have accepted the principle that the maximum sentence should be a realistic maximum related to the conduct of the offence. I hope that the Government will recognise the need to make other maximum sentences a realistic reflection of the worst manifestation of the offence envisaged, rather than continue the practice whereby maximum sentences are enacted at an unrealistically high level.

Mr. Warren Hawksley (The Wrekin)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) on his promotion. I remember his strictures to be brief when he was a Whip and we dared to speak in Committee.

On Second Reading I commended the sentence of life imprisonment imposed by Judge Michael Argyle on the Chelsea football fan. In Committee I spoke in favour of retaining the sentence of life imprisonment. At that stage the Minister said that he would wait to see what happened on appeal before deciding whether to accept an amendment tabled by the Opposition.

I am concerned with whether the sentence of life imprisonment for riot, which was imposed last year by a judge, should he retained. When that sentence was announced many people were surprised and shocked, but I believe that the public at large thought that it was fair. They believed that it was necessary as a deterrent to ensure that similar acts did not take place. If I remember correctly, even the official Opposition were quiet in their condemnation. Public support for the sentence was almost uniform. It is wrong for the Conservative Government, who believe in law and order, and who have been elected twice on a strong law and order policy, to reduce a sentence which a judge felt was appropriate as recently as last year.

I shall not divide the House on the amendment, but I would support any hon. Member who felt inclined to do so because I believe that this is a sentence which should be available and which the House proposes unwisely to reduce.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

I support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Hawksley) about the reduction from life imprisonment to 10 years as the sentence for riot. I believe that the culpability and participation of some people involved in incidents such as the Handsworth riots, in which sections of the town were burnt down, people died and extensive looting occurred, are such that they merit a sentence longer than 10 years.

On Second Reading I had to declare an interest because I was involved in defending the man who was subsequently described as the "fat man" in the Chelsea riot case. Having read the papers, I fully support the view of the Court of Appeal in that case that the sentence of life imprisonment was longer than was merited on the facts. But there are situations in which the sentence of life imprisonment for the offence of riot is appropriate. I shall not divide the House because of my views, but I lay down a marker: there may come a time in the not too distant future when we shall regret the decision to reduce the sentence to 10 years. To a large extent we are devaluing the sentences imposed on those who commit other offences described in the Bill. There will be a temptation when charges are laid in serious cases for judges to impose lesser sentences rather than consider them as more serious offences. Perhaps in years to come we shall look back at this debate and live to regret our decision.

Question put and agreed to.

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