HC Deb 05 March 1987 vol 111 cc1018-9
4. Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what representations he has received seeking legislation to impose minimum sentences for certain crimes; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Hurd

I have received such representations from some hon. Members and members of the public, but we believe that minimum sentences would hinder the courts' ability to take account of the widely varying circumstances of particular cases.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the depth of public concern about the present statistics for England and Wales for 1985, which show that the average sentence served in prison by people guilty of murder is 10 years, by those guilty of manslaughter 21 months, by those guilty of rape 20 months, and those guilty of wounding five months? How can we convince the general public that we really intend to crack down on the perpetrators of these terrible crimes if the sentences given in court are reduced to such minimal periods in prison?

Mr. Hurd

My hon. Friend will know that there is a lot going on in the direction which he seeks. He will know that this Parliament has increased the maximum sentences available to courts for a range of violent offences such as attempted rape and now, in the Criminal Justice Bill, the possession of firearms for the purpose of crime. He will know the system of guideline judgments and he may well have seen the figures that have recently been published, which show how the sentences for rape have increased since the Lord Chief Justice gave his guidelines in the Billam sentences.

My hon. Friend will know what we are doing in clause 29 of the Criminal Justice Bill to deal with the dangers of allegedly over-lenient sentences, He will also know that I am continuing the system announced by my predecessor under which parole is not normally granted for violent offenders who are serving more than five years, and that the most serious murderers will expect to serve at least 20 years.

We have a range of measures which distinguish between the violent offenders, to whom my hon. Friend rightly draws attention, and less violent offenders who choke up our prisons and for whom non-custodial sentences would sometimes be better.

Mr. Ron Brown

Since Saunders and Co. of Guinness fame make the Great Train Robbers look like petty thieves, will the Home Secretary ensure that the real crooks—the financial crooks—get a minimum of 30 years in gaol, or is this too sensitive a subject for the Tory party? Do the Government protect their own kind?

Mr. Hurd

One of the distinguishing features of the Government's programme is the attention that we have paid to serious fraud. If the hon. Gentleman had been a member of the Committee considering the Criminal Justice Bill, he would have seen how we have pressed forward stricter measures and how they have been greeted tepidly, and sometimes with resistance, by the Opposition Front Bench.

Mr. Cormack

Is my right hon. Friend aware that people in Britain are worried about violent crime and that we want mandatory minimum sentences for some of the more revolting crimes?

Mr. Hurd

I know that there is a feeling to that effect, but I ask my hon. Friend to consider that, if Parliament set about trying to work out minimum sentences which would apply in all cases, however much there were mitigating circumstances, we would either turn up a figure which was so low — because it would have to take account of every conceivable mitigating circumstances—that our constituents would think we had gone dotty, or we would pitch on a higher figure, which would mean that people would start to be acquitted when there were mitigating circumstances even though they had committed a serious offence. I do not think that we want either of those things to happen.

Mr. Kaufman

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that senior police officers, when questioned about what is the most effective deterrent to crime, do not talk about sentencing but about the certainty of being caught? They have told me that again and again, and as recently as last weekend. That being so, when will the Government take action to increase the clear-up rate from its record low level of 35 per cent. to which it has sunk by 17 per cent. since the Government came to office? What is the use to talking about sentences when, under the Tory Government, two out of three criminals get away with their crime?

Mr. Hurd

The right hon. Gentleman has failed to notice that the question is about violent crime. He will be glad to hear because he does not seem to know — [Interruption.] My hon. Friend's supplementary was about violent crime, and the clear-up rates are much higher for crimes of violence. They are 73 per cent. for violence and 72 per cent. for sexual offences, and in all the circumstances those are reasonable achievements by the police.