HC Deb 25 February 1991 vol 186 cc748-54

Amendment made: No. 102, in line 6, after 'financial,', insert 'and other'.—[ Mr. John Patten.]

Order for Third Reading read.

10.20 pm
Mr. John Patten

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Criminal Justice Bill has been improved in an excellent Committee stage to which hon. Members on both sides have contributed-I refer in particular to the official Opposition and the absent hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) on behalf of the third parties. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office and I are very grateful to those who served on the Committee for the way in which they improved the Bill.

I have only four points to make. First, the Bill has brought about a number of widely welcomed fundamental changes that have appealed to both sides of the House. For example, some radical and long overdue reforms to the parole system have been received with universal plaudits.

Secondly, the Bill has also seen the breaking in to the world of penal affairs and the criminal justice system a greater measure of involvement by the private sector than this country has ever seen before. The measure of the help that the private sector can bring, alongside the voluntary sector to court security duties and in the running of private remand centres, will help this country and its penal system.

Thirdly, the Bill marks a signal attempt on behalf of Her Majesty's Government in the fight against crime, on this occasion looking not at trying to bolt the door after the penal or criminal horse has escaped but at trying to deal with issues at the root. That is why we have placed so much attention in the Bill on parental responsibility and on trying to improve parental responsibility to stop young people growing crooked and contributing to crime when they are older.

At the same time, we have also wanted, through adopting the radical proposals of the Pigot committee in respect of child witnesses, to make quite sure that more guilty child abusers are brought to book and put in prison. Our changes in the parole system will mean that they will stay in prison for a considerably longer period than they have hitherto.

Fourthly, the Bill has made the most radical changes to the sentencing framework of the criminal justice system that this century has seen. The ability that the Bill confers on sentencers to ensure that those who commit serious, violent and sexual crimes receive punishment commensurate with those crimes—normally meaning that they will be sentenced to considerably longer periods than they get now and that they will stay in gaol for considerably longer periods—is balanced by a similar series of provisions that enable much greater punishment in the community to occur so that minor, less serious and non-violent criminals are punished outside our prisons.

It is peculiarly apposite that we are making these changes on the day on which Lord Justice Woolf's excellent report was published. That fundamental change to the sentencing structure will underlie developments in the criminal justice system, not just in this decade or in the first decade of the next century. It will be the fundamental underpinning of the criminal justice system well into the next century. No Bill is immortal, but this Bill will make a fundamental change to the way in which we do things. I commend it to the House.

10.25 pm
Mr. Sheerman

It has been a long process. This Bill was the major Bill in the Gracious Speech, and we spent many hours debating it in Committee. As the Minister said, this is an important day. The day on which Third Reading took place will be looked back on as a historic day for the criminal justice system.

We discussed the hallmark of this Bill in Committee. When the Government went along with the independent authorities that had been asked to consider particular problems—I refer to the Prior report and to the Carlisle report—and when they introduced into the Bill the distillation of such wisdom, they produced important and encouraging provisions.

Thanks to a little help from the Opposition in tidying up bits and pieces here and there and in nudging the Government here and there, the Bill is not too bad in parts. However, other parts of the Bill are not based on such a sound pragmatic framework but are more concerned with the ideological claptrap of a Thatcherite society. Nowadays, even that term is out of date. We look with dismay at the provisions dealing with parental responsibility and privatisation.

The Woolf report, which we discussed this afternoon, is uppermost in our minds. There is an inevitable contradiction between those provisions and what the Woolf report said, which we believe is the basis for a bright future for the criminal justice system—certainly the penal side of the system. Historians will look back on this day as the day on which there was a possibility of change in our penal system. Unfortunately, that change will not occur because of the Third Reading of this Bill. People will remember this as the day of the Woolf report and not the day of Third Reading.

For those of us who wanted a more thorough reform of our penal system, it has been a sad day. The Government have prevented us at every twist and turn from debating and amending the Bill. First, they deliberately constrained the debate by giving the Bill its long title, because they knew that the Woolf report was on its way. To some extent, we believe that the Government have delayed the Woolf report coming to the House because they did not want the embarrassment of it arriving in time to allow a real opportunity to amend the Bill here.

What is wrong with the Bill is that it missed that opportunity. There was even pettiness last Wednesday on the first day of Report, when we were arguing for simple measures to get people out of prison, which is what we thought the Bill was about—and those measures are in Woolf. We must get out of prison those people who should not and need not be there, such as the mentally ill. We tabled an amendment in Committee and last Wednesday on Report to try to get out of the penal system the 20 per cent. of mentally ill people who should never have been placed in it. We tabled a simple amendment to ensure that a pyschiatric report would be available to a court when it was thought necessary.

Another issue on which we feel bitter is the imprisonment of fine defaulters. Opposition Members want to get away from the Dickensian world in which debtors are sent to prison—17,000 fine defaulters are sent to prison each year. They should not be clogging the system. That is against any supportable system of justice.

Throughout the passage of the Bill, the Opposition have attempted to criticise constructively those parts of the Bill that we support, while making quite clear our principled objections to the Bill's objectionable and doctrinaire proposals. We have attempted to improve the Bill with a range of new suggestions that would be of great benefit to the criminal justice system. We have succeeded in making the Government think again on several proposals.

I do not want to crow, but I shall list one or two. The definition of "serious harm" in clauses 1 and 2 has been greatly improved. The Government have at least started to see the importance of statutory obligations to tackle racism. They have improved on their initial blunder with regard to clause 25 and homosexual offences. But the Government have still not got those issues right, and we hope that there is still time to move. We shall be pressing for further changes in the other place.

We have succeeded also in persuading the Government to get rid of the five-day rule. There have been constructive changes to the section of the Pigot proposals to include, for example, child witnesses within the Bill's protections. The Government have got rid of the daft proposal to allow parents of 16-year-olds living at home and attending full-time education to be bound over. We can claim that all those are some minor successes that have been achieved not only by opposition, but by the fact that we have taken the Bill seriously and tried constructively to aid the Government when appropriate.

We shall continue to push these and many other issues in another place. In addition to the issues that I have already raised, we shall press the Government to accept our new clause to divert the mentally ill from prison. The treatment of the mentally ill is a blot on our present system. I hope that, in the light of the Woolf inquiry, the Government will come to see the wisdom of our proposals. We hope, too, that the Government, in the light of Woolf, will warm to our proposals to limit the number of fine defaulters who are committed to prison. We anticipate that, in another place, our new clauses to ensure that this country complies with the European Court of Human Rights' ruling on life-sentence prisoners and on the abolition of the mandatory life sentence for murder will meet with more favour. We shall continue to argue our case for a sentencing council, which we believe is at the heart of where the Government have got the Bill wrong.

We have objected to many of the proposals in the Bill from the outset. We regard curfews and electronic monitoring as dangerous gimmicks, which research has shown to be a farce. Then there are the proposals on fining and binding over parents. Glibly described as attempts to shore up parental responsibility, they do nothing of the sort. Populist and simplistic, they seem designed to tip the more vulnerable families in our community into breakdown.

Finally, there are the privatisation proposals. No Bill is complete without some reference to this dogmatic obsession. The Government are determined to plough on and, indeed extend this idea, despite the appalling record of the private security industry, and despite all the damage that it is doing to relationships with key personnel in the prison system. Privatisation is poisoning the atmosphere in the prison service, at a time when a responsible Government would ensure that they were pulling everyone behind them as they moved to the implementation of Woolf. Relationships with prison governors are at an all-time low, and relationships with prison officers are not good.

I hope that the Government will think again and allow some of the key proposals of the Woolf report to be incorporated in the Bill. When the Home Secretary introduced the Woolf report—all 800 pages of it, which we had had about an hour and a half to absorb—we pleaded with the Government, even at this late stage, to think again, with a view to incorporating some of that radically new philosophy into the Bill during its passage through another place.

Again I ask the Home Secretary, who is now on the Front Bench, and his team really to think through the issue. As we said earlier today, we see Woolf as a change of philosophy. If the Government accept it, they have markedly changed their stance. Let me refer to a point about which I pressed the Home Secretary. If the Government really accept Woolf, the simplistic approaches—building more prisons, and privatising a sector of the service—have been recognised for what they are. These were always false paths.

This Bill is good in parts, and it has been improved in parts. However, two important parts of it will do major damage to the criminal justice system and will be resented by magistrates and by those who work in the prison service. What we need is an all-party, more moderate approach. We hear that, these days, it is fashionable in Government circles to talk about a centrist role in policy terms.

At this late stage I ask the Home Secretary to come back to the centre of the political spectrum in terms of prison reform. If he draws back from the ideological realms of privatisation, the Opposition will extend the hand of co-operation. Let us together look at Woolf and decide not to take an ideological attitude to criminal justice and penal reform, but to adopt a pragmatic approach based on the facts. If the Government do that, the prospects for criminal justice in this country will be much brighter.

10.37 pm
Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

Unlike the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), I welcome this Bill in all its parts. It is a moderate but very dramatic and positive step forward, and I endorse what the Minister said in his moving Third Reading.

For the first time, provision is being made for a community sentence specifically capable of being used to reduce the use of imprisonment as a punishment for those who have alcohol or drug problems. Of all sentences of imprisonment for offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, 52 per cent. are for periods of less than 12 months, and 36 per cent. are for periods of less than six months. It is likely that the majority of people serving these short sentences are themselves drug users.

Within prison, although there have been efforts to provide a care system involving the prison medical service and the probation service, prisoners serving very short terms are rarely seen by either service. For the population of drug users, imprisonment is a temporary disruption of their drug use. They are ideal candidates for non-custodial sentences. So are those drug users convicted of non-drug offences, whose offending is linked to their drug use.

I hope that, even at this late stage, my right hon. Friends the Minister of State and the Home Secretary will think again about the suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Butler) and myself, and will consider whether those minor changes could be incorporated in the final version of the Bill, so that it might do a 100 per cent. job, as opposed to a 99.9 per cent. job, of improving the system in the way in which the Home Secretary and this House want to see it improved.

10.39 pm
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

I am sure that the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) will forgive me if I do not follow his points, although, like the Minister, I recognise the hon. Gentleman's long interest in this matter.

I am extremely sorry that I was in a meeting preparing for a Standing Committee tomorrow morning and thus unable to be in the Chamber when the House considered the provision allowing children to give evidence on video. As the Minister knows, like the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims), I have been interested in this matter for some time, and I am pleased that the Government have taken the view that they have, because a need clearly existed. However, it would be inappropriate for me merely to compliment the Government on one aspect of the Bill when other parts of it do not meet with my approval.

Before I entered the House in 1970, I was a school-master—probably an old-fashioned one, because I took the view that young people should behave themselves. I would not dissent if the Government took a similar view. However, if the Minister wants to reduce the level of crime, irresponsibility and disorder among young people, the Bill will not serve that purpose. They should ensure greater hope and more opportunities for young people.

I am delighted by the success of the South Yorkshire police, although I find it preposterous that the Home Office should tell us to employ 18 more police officers next year when the Department of the Environment then pursues policies which will cause us to lose 200. We have managed to secure a high level of detection, despite the fact that the vast majority of young people leaving school in my constituency see no economic opportunity of any real worth. I am amazed that the crime rate is not higher, in my area and in the country as a whole. The position will not improve until the Government pursue other policies, as well as those on criminal justice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) urged the Government to adopt a more pragmatic position and to reject the dogma of privatisation in the penal system. Like my hon. Friend, I am a practising politician, so I should like the Government to continue on this course because the vast majority of people will regard privatisation of our prison service as preposterous. I wonder how many of them will be talking about a convicts' co-operative. I wonder how many people, next time one of the millionaire fiddlers in the City of London is sent down for fraud, will ask whether he has gone into a private, five-star institution, perhaps financed by the Government under the business expansion scheme and thus offered at a 40 per cent. discount. [ Laughter.]

Conservative Members may laugh, but I remember taking part in the first debate on one of the early privatisations—that of Amersham International. Conservative Members said that the assets of the company were in the hands of the people who worked in the company. When I suggested that, if that was so, they should establish a co-operative, they mocked the suggestion—largely because they knew that they would make an enormous profit within 24 hours of the company being privatised. I wonder how many will laugh when they realise that the people now recognise that privatisation has become preposterous. Privatising prisons is a move that the vast majority of people, who retain a grasp of common sense, will regard as ridiculous.

10.44 pm
Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I am certain that the Minister did not expect me to let this Third Reading opportunity go by without mentioning the evidence of children and the Pigot report.

I am pleased with the progress that we have made on children giving evidence, but we have not yet got it right. I should like to put down a few markers. I cannot understand why, if a written transcript of a sick child's statement made before a magistrate is admissible in evidence under sections 42 and 43 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969, the Minister could not agree to add the words "and a video tape", especially as he considers that the provision already exists in the Criminal Justice Act 1988. I shall keep asking him that question until I am satisfied with his answer, which is far from the case now.

Children should have a right to a say on the use of screens and video links in our courts. I am not convinced that they will have that protection unless the right is written into the Bill. Our courts do not yet have sufficient understanding of the needs of young children to allow them to have such protection. Cases involving this are frequently brought to me, and I shall describe just one.

Some months ago, a lady telephoned me about her young daughter aged eight, who was giving evidence in Inverness high court. Scotland is supposed to be progressive about the needs of children. She said that, in court, the lawyers and the judge sat in their wigs and gowns and that her child spoke quietly about the disgusting things that the accused man did to her. She was expected to give all the details. There was no microphone. The lawyers shouted at her and the judge told her to speak up. The more they shouted at her, the quieter she spoke. In the end, the case was thrown out because the judge said that, as the court could not hear the evidence, it could not try the case. That is not justice for children. The courts have still to understand that young children must have special consideration because of the strain they are under.

I shall return, as will many of my hon. Friends here and in another place, to the case for a pre-trial hearing. I believe strongly that our court rooms are no places for small children. Until we remove their ordeal of having to appear in court, we will not have the law right. We have some way to go before the Government accept the full impact of the Pigot report. Many of my hon. Friends and I will continue to press for that.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.

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