HC Deb 25 February 1991 vol 186 cc678-80
Mrs. Rumbold

I beg to move amendment No. 19, in page 25, line 24 after 'provide', insert—

  1. '(a) that the references in section 27(5) above to four years shall be construed as references to such other period as may be specified in the order;
  2. (b)'.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

With this it will be convenient to consider Government amendment No. 20.

Mrs. Rumbold

These amendments give effect to an undertaking which we gave in Committee when we discussed clause 27. We were concerned about the threshold between the automatic and discretionary release scheme which is set at four years in the Bill by way of the definitions of long and short-term sentences. Some of my hon. Friends expressed concern about the four-year period. They were worried that some of the offences committed by people serving shorter periods might require us to have another look at this clause. In Committee we undertook to consider an amendment which would enable the Home Secretary to take a power to vary the threshold.

That threshold could be varied upwards or downwards in the light of the new scheme, but I do not anticipate that that will be necessary in the foreseeable future. My hon. Friends were right to ensure that we had the advantage of retaining flexibility when drawing up the new arrangments. The amendments will allow an adjustment in the important threshold if Parliament believes that that is necessary, and transitional arrangements could be made were Parliament of that mind.

5.30 pm
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

We are worried about Government amendment No. 19, although we have no quarrel with Government amendment No. 20.

Those of us who served on the Committee will remember that the amendments were a concession to the right of the Conservative party who succeeded in what can only be described as a mini-coup.

Section 27 is the key section in implementing the proposals for parole. One of the most positive features is that parole will be automatic for those serving less than four years, and that the discretionary scheme will apply only to those serving four years and more.

In Committee, we welcomed those parole proposals, although we tabled an amendment to ensure that those subject exactly to four years automatically gained parole. Our amendments were in line with what the Carlisle committee decided after much thought.

The Carlisle committee report is of historic importance, and it was considered immediately prior to our discussions on the Bill. We believe that it is crazy, having established a powerful committee to look at a particular problem, which considered that problem in great detail and with much expertise, for the Government then to muck around with the detail of that committee's recommendations.

The thrust of the Carlisle report will be ruined if we start to tinker with the four-year rule. I hope that the Government will not bend any further. We do not like amendment No. 19, and we should like them to have second thoughts about it. It would be far more sensible to keep to the Carlisle recommendations.

As ever, we are the reasonable Opposition—we oppose the amendments not on ideological grounds, but because the Carlisle committee issued a good report. If one tries to mix and match that report with other things, its overall effect will be spoiled.

The Carlisle committee stated: Our conclusion is that a four year sentence provides the most sensible threshold beyond which a selective parole system should operate … We have come to the conclusion that the two or three year threshold that many have suggested would be too low … First, for a selective scheme to be credible there must be sufficient time for new considerations to emerge … The shorter the period between sentence and review the more likely it is that the parole decision will be based on no more material than that available to the judge. Second, if the selection process is to be thorough and fair yet not excessively cumbersome and costly the number of cases must be kept to manageable proportions. We do not want to delay proceedings on this, and we shall not seek to divide the House, but we are unhappy that the amendments could give the Government the ability to tinker with the recommendations of an extremely good report.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for tabling the amendments. I am not entirely sure that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) got his facts right when he described me as on the right of the party.

I do not agree with what the hon. Member for Huddersfield said about has interpretations of the Carlisle recommendations. I support the amendments because the Bill is introducing something that is entirely new—an automatic, conditional release system. We hope that the courts will use that system in line with a greater certainty on sentencing. We do not know whether four years is the right cut-off point; only experience will show what works in practice.

It would be a mistake not to allow my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to vary the four-year rule either upwards or downwards. I would have great doubts about him varying that rule upwards, although there may be a case for varying it downwards. It would be a mistake to enact the Bill without that power to vary. On the basis of that consideration, I welcome the amendments, which I hope the House will support.

Mrs. Rumbold

It is clear that the Government regard the Carlisle recommendation of the four-year threshold as the right one. None the less, my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), supported in particular by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman) cited some significant figures that made the Government think that it would be right to include an order-making power that could be brought into play in the light of experience in those circumstances where we felt it would be better to have a threshold that was either higher or lower than the four years. For that reason, the Government tabled the amendments.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 20, in page 25, line 26, leave out 'specified in the order' and insert 'so specified.

(1A) An order under this section may make such transitional provisions as appear to the Secretary of State necessary or expedient in connection with any provision made by the order.'—[Mr. John Patten.]

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