HC Deb 20 February 1991 vol 186 cc341-50

'(1) That the minimum sentence for any offender convicted under—

  1. (a) Section 37 Schedule 2 part 1 to the Sexual Offences Act 1956 shall be 10 years.
  2. (b) Sections 16, 17, 18 and 20 of the Firearms Act 1968 and section 10 of the Theft Act 1968 shall be seven years.
  3. (c) Section 8 of the Theft Act 1968 shall be five years.
  4. (d) Section 18 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 shall be five years.
  5. (e) Section 9 of the Theft Act 1968 shall be four years.
  6. (f) Section 47 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 shall be three years.
  7. (g) Section 7 of the Theft Act 1968 shall be two years.

(2) That the minimum sentences laid down in (e) (f) and (g) shall not necessarily apply to first or second conviction.

(3) That the minimum sentences defined in this section shall apply to section 4(i)(b) of the Criminal Attempts Act 198 1.'—[Mr. Janman.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Janman

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

Before I speak in support of the new clause, I shall define what it means. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will understand that the wording of the new clause, although it does not say much to the layman, is required in order for it to be included in your selection.

8.15 pm

The new clause states that, for some offences, we should start to introduce in Great Britain the concept of minimum sentences. The crimes referred to under subsection (1) include: (a) rape; (b) serious firearms offences involving the intent to use that firearm to injure or conduct criminal activities or while trespassing and for aggravated burglary; (c) robbery; (d) grievous bodily harm; (e) burglary; (f) assault; and (g) theft. Subsection (3) applies the same minimum sentences (a) to (g) to attempts to commit the same offences.

I shall make the case for the concept of minimum sentences, although I admit that the individual sentences that I have proposed for different crimes are merely my subjective opinion and reflect only my opinion and my mood when I sat down and drafted the new clause. I do not think that I was in a particularly harsh mood when I did so. I admit that the minimum sentences that I have proposed may riot be perfect and are subjective. The reason for introducing the new clause is that we must now enter uncharted waters in our attempts to satisfy the public that the House is serious about doing something about the ever-increasing wave of crime enveloping this country.

I shall take the liberty of giving examples of crimes of which I have been at the receiving end in the past six months. At the beginning of last September my then wife-to-be had her house burgled. In the same autumn my stepson, as he is now—a 15-year-old schoolboy—and his friend were held up at knife-point by a gang of six black youths. The purpose of the mugging was to take my stepson's jacket away, which was successfully accomplished.

When I arrived at the car park at the port of Newhaven on the night before new year's eve at the end of last year, I found that my car had two front wheels missing. To cut a long story short, the wheels were retrieved. Exactly a month to the day after that incident, the front passenger window of my car was smashed. An attempt had been made to take the phone out of my car. The attempt was unsuccessful, but a considerable amount of damage was caused.

For one family unit, which we became after 29 September last year, to be on the receiving end of four serious—not petty—incidents of criminal activity in less than six months is either a remarkable coincidence or time is catching up with me and I am now suffering because I have not been on the receiving end of much criminal activity for the other 33 years of my life. Perhaps the number of incidents reflects the current state of the nation with regard to law and order and the amount of crime that seriously and adversely affects the daily lives of millions of citizens every year.

Thankfully, the public understand that, however weak the Government are, the Opposition would be, and have consistently been, weaker when in government—I shall make my remarks in that context. We must now, almost out of a sense of frustration, take action that we may not have considered taking before—as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) said on new clause I. We should do so not just out of a sense of frustration, but out of a sense of duty because all reasonable avenues and options must be considered.

I know—we touched on the subject when we debated new clause 1—that not only Opposition Members but Conservative Members have always taken the view that Parliament should not interfere with the flexibility of the judiciary. That view is well entrenched in the minds of many colleagues, but perhaps many of them have not taken time to reconsider or reflect on it as circumstances have changed and the crime rate has increased during our lifetime. However, they should reflect on it. Of course, Parliament interferes with the flexibility of the courts in many ways, the most obvious of which is that the House almost always sets a maximum sentence. If someone is given a term of life imprisonment, life itself is the parameter beyond which the court cannot stray, but for many other crimes the House has told courts that they cannot exceed certain sentences. Therefore, it is quite logical for the House to set minimum parameters for the courts as well.

Sir John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

The whole House will have the greatest sympathy with my hon. Friend and his family for the misfortunes that have befallen them. His example of criminality perhaps serves to illustrate how we should redouble our efforts in the analysis and prevention of crime rather than on sentencing the minority of offenders who are apprehended. My hon. Friend's point about interfering with the judiciary is crucial. It is not a question of interfering with the judiciary; it is a question of practicality. My hon. Friend may know that there have been attempts in previous generations to impose minimum sentences with which the courts would have to comply. The result in the jury trial cases to which my hon. Friend refers has been that juries have been confronted by the necessity of deciding, on occasions, whether to convict or to acquit, and they have acquitted if convicting meant that a minimum sentence would have to be imposed. I hope that my hon. Friend will deal with that problem.

Mr. Janman

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's remarks. Of course, we cannot rely on a single panacea to solve the problem of ever-increasing crime. I agree that we should carefully consider how efficiently the considerable resources that we now give to the police are used. Conservative Members tend sometimes to shower praise on our thin blue line a little over-enthusiastically instead of applying to it the critical eye that we apply to all our other nationalised industries. We need to examine how efficiently the police are managed, how they use their resources and how good they are at delivering the results that we expect.

I do not toss aside lightly my hon. Friend's other point, which would involve the House in giving more consideration to how to implement minimum sentences in certain circumstances and for certain offences. Earlier I said that, because my new clause covers several different offences, the suggested minimum sentences may not be practical. Some of them may be too harsh and might exacerbate the problem mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler). Nevertheless, I want to initiate a debate on the idea of minimum sentencing. If we ever adopted the practice there would be many bridges to cross and difficulties to deal with. This House represents the British people and it is our job to identify what is happening in the country and what people think about ever-increasing crime. So it is up to the House, not the unelected judiciary, to decide the broad parameters of sentencing policy.

At some point we must seriously consider having a stab at solving this problem, so that if people carry out certain types of crime they will know that they face a minimum punishment. At present many people commit crimes without the vaguest idea of what may happen to them, and if they had a slightly more accurate view of the punishment that awaited them, some would stop committing crimes.

I have already admitted that some of the minimum sentences that I have suggested may be too harsh—although some of my colleagues may think them too lenient—but the new clause is an attempt to outline my general philosophy. It includes crimes of a fairly serious nature such as assault, burglary and theft, and I have said that I do not think that minimum sentences should necessarily be imposed for first or second convictions. For this middle category of crimes I would not want to deny courts the choice between imposing a severe sentence on and doing nothing to first or second offenders. That part of my new clause, at least, acknowledges the genuine concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North.

My right hon. Friend the Minister and I have spoken privately about this subject and I believe that he understands my position. We can argue about what minimum sentences should be. If we impose them, other changes in the law may have to be made. If, for instance, my minimum sentence for rape became law we should need to change the law so that it could differentiate between premeditated and unpremeditated rape. I want a minimum sentence only for premeditated rape—for cases in which it is clear that the accused was not led on or did not misunderstand where the evening was leading. However, if someone jumps out from behind a wall and attacks and rapes a woman whom he has never seen before, motivated only by a wish to inflict great physical harm on her and to rape her against her will, I would have no compunction about legislating to impose a minimum sentence on the offender in question. Whether it should be 10 years or less is a matter for argument.

Neither the House nor the Government can afford to push aside anything that might help in the fight against crime. We need to start re-examining some of our past assumptions. If crime continues to rise, the House will have to set, for some cases, minimum parameters within which the judiciary will have to act.

Mr. Maclennan

The House certainly sympathises with the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman) because of the disturbing experience of crime to which he and his family have been subjected. However, I regret that he saw fit to begin his remarks by suggesting that there were profound party differences about how to respond to crime, and that it could be assumed that the response of Opposition parties would be weaker. That kind of partisan attack does nothing to strengthen the response of Parliament to the acute problem to which he has drawn attention. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have different views, and within the hon. Member's own party there are different views on minimum sentences.

8.30 pm
Mr. Janman

The only reason that I gave examples of what had happened to me and to my family was to show what is happening to others, not just to ask for sympathy, although I am grateful to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) for extending it to me.

The point that I tried to make about the difference between the Government side of the House and the Opposition side was not about minimum sentences as such; I understand that many Government Members would not agree with me on that. If we look at the Divisions on the Criminal Justice Bill 1988, however, and at the Divisions when we are asked to renew the Prevention of Terrorism (Northern Ireland) Act every two years, we will see the facts. However much I may feel that my own party is not strong enough on law and order, it is consistently and immeasurably stronger than the parties on the Opposition Benches.

Mr. Maclennan

The test of measures that purport to deal with crime is not whether they are weak or strong but whether they are effective or ineffective. The hon. Member for Thurrock has not addressed that at all in promoting his amendment.

There is another issue of principle that we cannot allow to be elided in this debate—the extent to which we want to usurp the judgment of those faced with crimes in the courts about the circumstances of the particular cases before them. Any one of the offences mentioned in the amendment covers a wide range of circumstances, and the gravity of those offences can vary considerably from case to case. It is not something that the House is in a position to judge.

The hon. Member is quite right to say that the House should be concerned both about sentencing and about appropriate sentences; but we cannot foresee the circumstances facing individual judges in individual cases, so it is inappropriate to establish minimum sentences, which to some extent pre-empt the power of the courts to take account of circumstances which may mitigate the offence.

The hon. Member for Thurrock spoke of the House's willingness to accept a maximum sentence, and sought to equate maximum and minimum; but when one sets a maximum, one is limiting the power of the court to deprive individuals of their liberty, and it is proper for the House to seek to do that. It is not at all analogous with the circumstances in which one does precisely the reverse. The House is rightly concerned about the freedom of the subject, and wants to ensure that judges do not overstep the mark.

Measures have been taken by the Government to enable the Attorney-General to seek to reverse too lenient sentences. I have some reservations about the wisdom of that course of action, but I am prepared to wait and see how it operates. It is a rather dangerous step to allow the Court of Appeal to review a sentence without having heard all the evidence before the original sentencer, and this latest move may prove to be a mistake; but I am at least prepared to give it a chance. Nevertheless, I do not believe that the hon. Member for Thurrock has made out a case for departing from the very long established practice of the criminal justice system in not having minimum sentences.

This approach to the amendment of our substantive law on crime shows what is wrong with our ability as a legislature to deal in a rational and coherent way with the framework of our criminal law. Too often we respond to public disquiet about a particular crime by suggesting that the penalty be increased or a new offence introduced, and we do it in isolation from the whole fabric of the criminal law. That is not the right way to proceed.

The Law Commission has produced a draft codification of the criminal law which seeks to relate offences to one another in degree of gravity. If we were to take the hon. Member's objective seriously, which we should, the proper way to proceed would be for the House to take evidence on the proposed codification and to set up a pre-legislative committee to go through the details carefully, measuring the evidence for each offence. What we should not do is bring our subjective judgment to bear on particular offences, as the hon. Member for Thurrock has done, and then trade one off against the other, within the narrow scope of a limited number of offences.

I realise that the hon. Member simply wished to raise the principle of minimum sentences, but his clause goes further and provides a degree of particularity; one is bound to take it at its face value. I welcome the opportunity that he has given us to discuss the matter. It should not go by without comment from anyone on the Opposition side of the House, because Conservative Back Benchers may sometimes reflect thinking that later emerges down the line from the Government Front Bench, and it would be extremely unfortunate if thinking along the lines expressed by the hon. Member for Thurrock tonight were to emerge as the official line of the Conservative party or of the Government.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

I hope that the Government will consider seriously the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman), which he presented in a balanced and effective way. I want them to ask themselves whether it would help to curb crime if people had a clearer idea of what was likely to happen to them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock spoke at great length about his experience. I will mention what happened to me last night. I had a discussion with a young lady who had had no payment from income support for over two weeks. Because she had no money, she explained to me, she had unfortunately had to steal things from shops. The reason for the non-appearance of the money was purely administrative: the payments had been sent to her previous address as the office had not got the new one. What interested me, however, was what she said: I don't suppose they could do anything to me in these circumstances. The Minister may think that this is just a casual case. He has very kindly said that he will ask young people what they think would happen to them if they committed a crime; if he does, he will be rather surprised. At a youth club at which I spoke, the general view was that nothing happened on the first offence and that on the second offence one was likely to be promoted on to one of "those funny schemes". The Minister may think that that is nonsense, but a lot of people think this.

What is the argument against having a civic sentence? We heard it with great clarity from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence), who said that judges' discretion would be interfered with. It is silly to try to make a principle out of this because, as my hon. and learned Friend said, there is already interference. He explained that there were some tables that gave the courts general guidance as to the most appropriate sentence from which they could depart in special circumstances.

Secondly, the Government have taken upon themselves the power to appeal against sentences that they believe are too lenient. That is interference in future cases. Therefore, there is a case for doing something—anything—to give the potential offender clear guidance on what is likely to happen to him. I am sure that if we had such a system, there would be less crime.

As I said when we debated new clause 1, the only evidence that we have is that on capital punishment, which shows overwhelmingly that when we had that deterrent it curbed not only murder but crimes involving the use of firearms. Since the abolition of capital punishment, there have been dramatic changes. There is the great unanswered question about why general crime doubled and murder did not increase while we still had capital punishment. I hope that the Government will think about that.

A fair point has been made about cases where the circumstances are special—for example, when the person who had committed the crime had good reason for doing so, and we should be sympathetic to him. Would not it be possible to have standard sentencing, but to allow the judge to depart from that standard in cases with special circumstances, on the understanding that his determination could be subject to an appeal to a higher court? That escape clause would allow judges some discretion.

The purpose of the new clause is not to put more people in prison for longer but to stop crime. I hope that the Minister will appreciate that an important principle is involved. The arguments against this are not as clear as people think. It is time that we had an experiment, bearing in mind the fact that the only evidence shows that our only mandatory sentence was effective and curbed crime.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

I was provoked into speaking by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman), who moved his new clause clearly and succinctly. He said that all his dreams of dealing with law and order in manifestos and party political pamphlets over 10 or 15 years had not become reality. Instead, the crime rate had continued to rise. That ruined his argument that the Labour party was bad on law and order while the Conservative party was good. Whatever else, the crime rate does not show that. It is no respecter of political parties.

In economic circles, the argument is that the Bank of England should be independent because the politicians do not get economic analysis right, so if we extend that argument, it would be better to leave it to somebody else to decide on crime because the politicians have not been good on law and order. It would be as well for the hon. Gentleman to get the facts right, because that would be a help in dealing with the crime rate.

I do not know what it is like in Essex, but the people who suffer from the breakdown of law and order are those who live in inner cities—in areas such as the one that I represent—and who vote for my party and for me. The crimes that take place in Mayfair are different from those that take place in the inner cities. However, there is undoubtedly a problem.

The hon. Member for Thurrock claimed that the Labour party opposed the Northern Ireland prevention of terrorism Act. I was in at the beginning of that Act, when the police were against it. I am in favour of legislation to deal with terrorism—I have to be because it has been part of my being for the past 20 years. That does not mean that I would not vote against, for example, the reintroduction of internment. However, that vote would not mean that I was in favour of terrorism. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion that one party is better on law and order than the other will do nothing to prevent crime.

8.45 pm

I do not believe that the judiciary is always right. Therefore, I cannot say that it would be wrong to interfere with sentencing. In recent years, I have been involved too much in dealing with miscarriages of justice. Sentencing is often wrong. There must be changes in the methods of collection of evidence by the police, in forensic procedures and in court procedures, and a better method of appeal than that to the Court of Appeal with so-called new evidence.

Although in principle I do not disapprove of interfering with sentencing, I believe that if there is to be an independent judiciary, these are matters that it should decide. We should not be led by the hon. Member for Thurrock, who believes that all is lost and that all his dreams about dealing with law and order have failed, so we must limit the powers of the judiciary. He was wrong in the first instance in believing that he had got the answer and he is wrong to believe that his new clause, which interferes with the powers of the judiciary, is the answer.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

I do not often disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman), but as a practising member of the Bar for many years, I feel that judicial judgment is vital in many cases. Many hon. Members will agree that one cannot set minimum sentences even for serious offences because inevitably in some cases it will be necessary to be lenient. For example, the new clause says: That the minimum sentence for any offender convicted under … Section 18 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 shall be five years. I have dealt with many cases of violence where the intention to commit grievous bodily harm was proved but the offence would not automatically attract five years.

The big problem with minimum sentences is that discretion will be ratcheted up. The most minor offence will attract the most lenient sentence with the consequent difficulty that, above that, sentences become longer. It will not necessarily mean that the case will be dealt with justly and that is likely to lead to miscarriage of justice.

Mr. Janman

I am disappointed that, almost uniquely, my hon. Friend does not agree with me. I believe right—my hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong, because I am not a lawyer—that in some cases there are already minimum sentences. For example, certain categories of murder, of a child or of a police officer, or one involving weapons, attract a minimum sentence, laid down by the Home Secretary, of at least 20 years. The point that I was putting across earlier, which my hon. Friend is rather exaggerating, is that I do not wish to wipe out at a stroke, or even to inflict severe wounding on, the freedom of the courts and judicial flexibililty. I am simply saying that if we are serious about halting crime and providing a real deterrent we may have to have a reduction in that flexibility, albeit a minor one.

Mr. Hind

I appreciate what my hon. Friend says.

I want to take up a point made by the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees). I have not lost so much confidence in the judiciary that I feel that we need to impose this upon it. Judges look at each case on its merits. They assess the probation reports and decide from their experience what the sentence should be. The proposed new clause goes too far and is an unnecessary interference with judicial discretion and the independence of the courts. I urge the House to reject it.

Mr. Sheerman

We oppose the new clause because it goes much too far. As I said many times in Committee, the Bill is a three-part measure. Part of it we agree with; the intentions of another part are good, although the ways of carrying out those intentions are not so good; the other third we oppose root and branch. The proposed new clause runs counter to all the proposals for a more progressive criminal justice system. I do not understand how the Government could accept it.

It is always a pleasure to hear the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) on these issues. Like him, I am pragmatic about the judiciary. Sometimes the judiciary gets it wrong and sometimes it gets it right. I do not have an ideological view about the judiciary. We have the right to criticise it and to change the law where necessary. In this case I agree with the hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) that a change is unnecessary. The new clause would run counter to the progressive parts of the Bill. Therefore, we hope that the motion will not be pressed to a vote.

Mr. John Patten

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman) has stirred up an interesting debate. I think that he expected the debate to be short, as did other hon. Members, but he has lured a distinguished former Home Secretary and others into speaking. I congratulate him on that.

The whole purpose of the Bill is to try to ensure that those who are convicted get their just deserts. That phrase is in the White Paper—alas, misspelt, but it is there. It is a phrase which I used in an article which, to show my broad-mindedness, I published in The Guardian this morning—perhaps it also showed the broad-mindedness of The Guardian in publishing an article by a Tory Minister. I am happy to say that The Guardian spelt "deserts" properly throughout.

I share the concern of my hon. Friends the Members for Thurrock and for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) and of others, expressed so fiercely in Committee, for victims and the importance of sending a clear signal to those who would commit serious and violent offences of the sort which concern my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock so much.

As I explained when we debated new clause 1, it is right that the courts should have much discretion if they are to be able to continue to sentence justly in exceptional cases. On that I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind). Undoubtedly cases will arise where there are strong mitigating factors and it would be wrong to penalise the offender heavily, if at all. If minimum sentences were set so low as to make allowance for such cases, it would render them meaningless and would give a false impression to the public. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock does not want to render sentences meaningless any more than does my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor). Both want sentences to be meaningful, as is clear from their proposed new clause.

If minimum sentences were set too high—the judgment of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock has led him to the high end of the range—it could result in juries acquitting more guilty men and women to avoid excessive punishment. That is always one thing that worries me about minimum sentences. More serious offenders are being sentenced to much longer periods in gaol, and I welcome that, but the Government think it right to retain discretion at the lower end.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock will be aware, the basis of that approach is that Parliament sets the maximum sentences and courts have discretion within the maximum. Of course, there are occasions when it is judged by the courts themselves that they have got sentences wrong. That is why the Criminal Justice Act 1988, in which my hon. Friend was involved, gave a new power to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General to refer back to the Court of Appeal sentences which were allegedly over-lenient. He has clone that on 24 occasions, and on 20 occasions the Court of Appeal has increased the sentences. That has been a substantial guide to judges in the lower courts.

I hope that the use of the new power will go some way to allay my hon. Friend's concern. None the less, he has raised interesting and important points. He referred to sentencing practice in other western European countries. While I cannot advise the House to accept the new clause—I hope that my hon. Friend, on reflection, will consider withdrawing it—I think that it is important to collect more information about the effects of minimum sentences in other countries so that we can examine, in a way which neither he nor I have been able to today, the case for minimum sentences.

With that undertaking, which I am happy to give to my hon. Friend, I hope that he will on consideration think it right to seek leave to withdraw the new clause.

Mr. Janman


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Does the hon. Gentleman have the leave of the House to speak again?

Mr. Janman

We have had an interesting debate. I should like to make one or two comments on the speech of the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees). I am complimented by the fact that he has taken time to listen to the debate and to react to what I said.

I think that what the right hon. Gentleman said strengthens my case. He was right when he talked about whether we should have an independent Bank of England. He implied that over a 30 to 40-year period both parties in government have been unable to sustain not an overtight, but a disciplined monetary policy, although there are fine examples over a short period where that did not happen, such as in 1969 when the Labour Government had a balanced budget. It is interesting to note that some categories of crime are plateauing out, given the effects of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, but on crime, too, neither party when in government has been able to change the trend, just as, with fine exceptions, they have been unable to have a disciplined monetary approach.

This is the crux of my case. Every hon. Member, irrespective of his party, must observe the ever-increasing crime rate, which affects the very people whom the right hon. Gentleman cites. My constituency was once described—not by me—as "an inner-city area with trees". Most of the crime, which tends to be burglary and theft, takes place in the most municipalised areas, which are also the poorest areas—people robbing their neighbours down the road. In my view, that increases the need to take the matter seriously.

I understand my right hon. Friend the Minister's position, and I am pleased to hear that he intends to investigate whether instances of minimum sentencing occur abroad, and whether they have a positive effect on the crime rate. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to