HC Deb 16 December 1992 vol 216 cc449-60

?(1) After section 228 of the 1975 Act (which provides for appeal by a person convicted on indictment) there shall be inserted the following section—

228A. Where a person has been convicted on indictment, the Lord Advocate may appeal against the sentence passed on conviction—

  1. (a) if it appears to the Lord Advocate that the sentence is unduly lenient; or
  2. (b) on a point of law.".

(2) In section 442 of that Act (Which provides for appeal in summary proceedings)—

  1. (a) in subsection (1), after paragraph (b) there shall be inserted the following paragraph.
  2. "(c) the prosecutor in such proceedings may, in any class of case specified by order by the Secretary of State under this paragraph, so appeal against the sentence passed on such conviction if it appears to the prosecutor that the sentence is unduly lenient."; and
  3. (b) after subsection (2) there shall be added the following subsection—

"(3) The power of the Secretary of State to make an order under paragraph (c) of subsection (1) above shall be exercisable by statutory instrument; and any order so made shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.".?.—[Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendments Nos. 17, 18, 19 and 24.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I pay tribute to the particular interest taken in this matter by my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) and the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall), both of whom tabled amendments or new clauses on it. Their concerns have been refined in the new clause and, with the amendments, it seeks to meet the undertaking that I gave in Committee. I also believe that it meets the views expressed by those hon. Gentlemen.

I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr has submitted a petition on this matter and I trust that the outcome of today's debate will meet in full his concerns and those of other hon. Members.

The amendments are numerous, and in most cases make technical changes to the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975 to ensure that an appellant may not only be a convicted person, but may also include the Lord Advocate. The main provision of interest is the proposal to insert into section 228 of the 1975 Act a new power to enable the Lord Advocate to initiate an appeal in solemn proceedings against a sentence which he considers to be unduly lenient, or to appeal on a point of law. The new clause provides that the Lord Advocate has four weeks from the date of sentence to initiate such an appeal. The four-week period will ensure that appropriate cases are not lost for lack of time, and that there is no pressure to lodge appeals about which there has been less than full consideration simply to ensure that the time limit is observed.

As announced in Committee, the new Crown right of appeal will operate for solemn procedure on commencement of the relevant provisions. An order-making power is proposed to bring in the Crown right of appeal for selected categories of summary proceedings. The necessary consequential amendments to part II of the 1975 Act are also made.

I should draw to the House's attention the proposed replacement of section 452A(2). This provision is intended to clarify the powers of the High Court in determining stated case sentence appeals under summary procedure. I believe that the power of a Crown right of appeal against unduly lenient sentences is to be welcomed. It redresses the balance. At present, a convicted person may appeal against any sentence, but the Crown has no opportunity to do so where that sentence appears manifestly lenient. I must stress that my noble and learned Friend the Lord Advocate envisages that the power will be used very sparingly. It is not a power to involve the Crown in the sentencing practice of the court; that will remain the preserve of the judges. What it does is provide an opportunity to enable the court, through the appeal mechanism, to revisit that sentence where it appears to have been inappropriately light.

I commend new clause 4 and the related amendments to the House.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I thank the Minister for his opening remarks, and in particular for his appreciation of the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall).

I wonder whether the Minister has had an opportunity to read the Scottish Office central research unit paper entitled "Sexual History and Sexual Character Evidence in Scottish Sexual Offence Trials". It makes extremely interesting reading, and is highly relevant to what we are discussing. There is clear evidence that in too many cases judges are not enforcing the 1986 legislation on unfair questioning of complainants in rape and sexual offence trials. If that is so, it is not surprising that some judges also fail to treat such cases with the severity that they deserve.

Like my party, I have never been a hanger, beater or flogger, but that does not mean that my hon. Friends and I agree with sentences for serious crimes so light as to amount to no more than a tap on the wrist. A Scottish judge gaoled for two years a man who had pushed a girl to the ground, stripped her and raped her. The judge said that it had not been a violent rape. The same judge admonished and freed a sex attacker who had admitted a reduced charge of indecent assault. He regarded the assault as "minor". A man who had killed his wife and month-old son was admonished and freed.

Does the Minister agree that aging male judges often seem to take sexual assaults against women less seriously than the rest of us? In the English courts, it is possible for such light sentences to be reversed; we want a similar arrangement in Scotland. Scandalously light sentences have also been passed in the English courts for equally serious crimes. Only recently, a judge in an English court told a rapist that he had shown concern and consideration because he had worn a contraceptive. Another fined a business man £2,000 after he picked up a hitch-hiker, drove her to a deserted road and raped her. A man who abused his 12-year-old stepdaughter was give two years' probation, with the sympathetic comment that his wife's pregnancy had caused problems for a healthy young husband. I could go on, but I think that I have probably made my point.

Many of us think that such sentences betray an attitude —which is not shared by the rest of society—that such crimes are not too serious. The judge who sentenced the Ealing vicarage rapists to three years and five years shortly afterwards sentenced a pickpocket to three years. Most of us question the common sense of anyone who can equate rape with pickpocketing. I recently had my purse stolen on the London underground. I was annoyed, of course, but not seriously upset. Women who have suffered sexual assaults such as I have described have had their lives adversely affected for many years. Does the Minister agree that there is a case for giving judges who need it some awareness of the values of the society that they so abysmally fail to represent?

I hope that my points will be taken up and that the new clause will be agreed. If some judges are out of touch with society, it is important that society should take the opportunity to reverse such ridiculously light sentences.

Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr)

I warmly welcome new clause 4 and thank the Minister for his kind words in opening.

New clause 4 is based on the public perception that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) described. Sometimes the courts display inconsistency, lack of logic and a failure to match the seriousness of the crime with the sentence. That is what new clause 4 addresses.

In Committee, I referred to the Samuel Merry case in Ayr, about which I introduced a petition. A young man died, yet one defendant was given a nine-month sentence and another a four-month sentence. My constituents could not see the sense of that. In Committee, I said that the new clause offers advantages for the relatives of the victim and for those who have been sentenced, because in reviewing such sentences the facts of the case may become more known to the public, which may increase their understanding. Although there are two sides, my concern is for the victims and the public, who look to the law for protection.

I am advised that in Scotland it takes an average of 14 convictions before someone ends up in gaol. In the Scottish Grand Committee yesterday, the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) spoke of an epidemic of crime.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

I am surprised by the statistic that the hon. Gentleman has just quoted. It would help me and perhaps other hon. Members if he could give the source of that statistical information.

Mr. Gallie

I am happy to do so: the governor of Shotts prison.

In the Scottish Grand Committee yesterday, the hon. Member for Fife, Central referred to an epidemic of crime in Scotland, and called for increased police resources. My argument is that a senseless circle is operating. If the courts do not back up the police when they get convictions, there is something wrong with the system. New clause 4 will deal with that issue and, once again, I thank the Minister.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

The governor of Shotts prison possesses many qualities and doubtless holds his position because he understands the prison service and how to deal with prisoners but, as far as I am aware, he has not previously been prayed in aid as a source of statistical information on which one can rely better to inform the debate. The information offered to the House should not stand between us and proper consideration of the new clause.

The new clause is a substantial departure in principle from what has been the law of Scotland since time immemorial. It is noticeable that the English Members who found Scottish Question Time such an attractive opportunity to make points about the government of Scotland are conspicuous by their absence when we come to discuss an issue which goes to the very heart of the Scottish legal system and which represents a substantial departure in principle from what has previously been our law.

Mr. Gallie

I draw the hon. and learned Gentleman's attention to the fact that many Scottish Members who attempted to ask questions, and did so, are also absent now. There are now three hon. Members on the Labour Benches, one on the Liberal Bench and none on that of the Scottish National party.

Mr. Campbell

We can accept those statistics as rather more reliable than those emanating from the governor of Shotts prison. It is worth noting the apparent lack of application to a matter of such substantial principle in this unitary Parliament, about which we are so often told.

In support of the new clause, it has been said that sentences have sometimes been passed which are apparently inappropriate to the gravity of the crime. That is unquestionably true. It will always be true under a system of sentencing in which there is no fixed tariff and where there is a substantial degree of judicial discretion. On the basis of more than 20 years practice in the criminal courts, where I prosecuted and defended, I happen to believe that the maintenance of that judicial discretion is a very important part of our legal system. The new clause will trench on that.

I shall not oppose the new clause, but it is right that the House should pass it into law only with some account being taken of the fact that it is a substantial departure from what we have known.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

I bow to the hon. and learned Gentleman as we all respect his experience in the courts and of the legal system. I am delighted that he will not vote against the new clause, but I should have thought that, as a lawyer, he would always be happy for the opportunity to have a second look at anything because errors occur in human activities. That is as true on the Bench as anywhere else. As I understand it, the new clause will provide an opportunity—nothing more—to appeal. Surely that is a good thing.

Mr. Campbell

It would introduce rather more than that. If the hon. Gentleman read the terms, he would learn that the Lord Advocate has to be satisfied that the sentence which has been passed is "'unduly lenient". Therefore, it is not a question of a second look but of the Lord Advocate saying to the High Court of Justiciary that in his judgment, as the principal Law Officer of the Crown in Scotland, a sentence previously passed is unduly lenient. That is not a second look but—in essence or practice—a recommendation from the Lord Advocate that one sentence should be replaced by another.

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That argument is offered in the context that in Scotland we are somehow guilty of imposing lenient sentences. The truth is that the sentences imposed in the United Kingdom are generally much more severe than in any of the neighbouring European countries, and in Scotland, sentences are generally more severe than those in England and Wales. One need only have regard to the view which the High Court of Judiciary has consistently taken on the possession of drugs and, in particular, on possession with intent to supply, to be satisfied that in Scotland the notion that sentences are regularly inadequate or unduly lenient is unfounded.

The Minister said that the new clause was not an effort on the part of the Crown to influence the judiciary, but one must bear in mind the fact that, if the Lord Advocate were, in the exercise of his judgment, frequently to try to take advantage of the terms of the new clause, there would be a risk that that would be seen as undue influence on the judiciary.

It is important to remember that, although the Lord Advocate is a Law Officer, he is also a member of the Government and, as such, it is not impossible for him to find himself under considerable political pressure. I have no doubt whatsoever of the integrity or robust independence of the present Lord Advocate, whom I know well, but the ancient office of Lord Advocate has not always been as well served as it is by its present incumbent. The House should recognise the risk, under the new clause, of a Lord Advocate finding himself under pressure from political sources within the Government of which he is a member to refer particular cases over a period of time in such a way that the judiciary might feel that they were being influenced as had not previously happened in Scotland.

I accept that the broad swathe of opinion is in favour of the new clause, and I shall certainly not oppose its passing into law. However, it should not be passed into law as a reflection of a desirable opportunity for a form of revenge for those who feel that sentences imposed for crimes against them should be increased.

On a more practical point, the Minister said that the Lord Advocate must exercise his right, which the clause confers on him, within four weeks of the passing of a sentence. That is a curious provision. As I understand section 231(1) of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975, the person who is the subject of the sentence has only 14 days in which to mark an appeal if he regards the sentence as excessive. It is curious that the Lord Advocate needs 28 days, whereas the person on whom a sentence is passed is given only 14 days.

One must also remember that the person on whom the sentence is passed will almost invariably be engaged in a transaction with the legal aid authorities as to whether he may be admitted to the legal aid scheme. I hope that the Minister will explain why it is necessary for the Lord Advocate to be given such an extended period, for the fundamental reason that when a sentence is passed on a person, that person is entitled to know as soon as is reasonably practicable—even if the new clause were passed—that that is the sentence which he or she will be required to serve. I submit that any extended period which gives rise to uncertainty is wholly unfair and unreasonable. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us why the Lord Advocate will require 28 days.

From my own experience as an advocate-depute in the High Court, I believe that it will be instantly clear to those representing the Crown whether a particular case falls into the category embraced by new clause 4. There is no reason for an extended period.

The new clause gives a substantial power to the Lord Advocate. It is a power which, if exercised with responsibility, will be unlikely to cause injustice but which, if exercised irresponsibly, could cause grave injustice. For that reason, it is right that the House should pause for a moment to consider the implications of what we are being asked to do, and not merely rubber-stamp it as a means of assuaging public opinion.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale)

As the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) has said, it is difficult to argue against the sentiments of the new clause. I agree with him when he advises that we should stand back and consider what powers we are giving. Powers are fine when used for the right reasons, but when powers are used for the wrong reasons and when political influences are brought to bear on decision making, the whole process of the administration of the law is brought into disrepute.

I refer briefly to clause 3 to make my point. I am concerned when pressure is brought to bear on judges, and I am equally concerned about the powers given to the Secretary of State. The Minister may argue that the Secretary of State already has those powers. I refer to one power that has been used to the detriment of the administration of law in Scotland.

I refer to the case of a killing that happened in Larkhall almost 10 years ago. A family were convicted for art and part. A young man pleaded guilty to using a knife and to causing the death of a policeman. The father and the daughter were subsequently found guilty of that murder. I refer to Hugh Murray junior, who admitted to the murder, to his father, Hugh Murray senior, and to his sister, Mrs. Margaret Smith.

As a result of a statement made in the House by the then Secretary of State, Lord Younger, anyone convicted of killing a policeman would serve a minimum sentence of 20 years' imprisonment. That has caused some confusion, to say the least, about what is in the process of happening to those three convicted persons. As I said on Second Reading, everyone involved with her in the prison service, everyone who has met her and everyone who has seen her has said that Mrs. Margaret Smith is an ideal prisoner. She was convicted of murder because she was present when her brother committed murder. She has been up for parole and a recommendation from the parole board is lying on the Secretary of State's desk. I raise the matter because I see the Secretary of State in his place. If justice is to be served, that young woman should be released as soon as possible. I hope that that will be the case.

Surely the House cannot be comfortable about allowing a Minister literally to make law on the hoof by making a policy decision that will be left to those who succeed him. I do not oppose the spirit of the new clause, but I take the opportunity to say that we should consider carefully when we empower people. I am sure that politicians are honourable men and women, but powers given to Ministers may be misused at some future date. For that reason, we should be careful. I do not oppose the new clause, but I advise some further consideration of what it means.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

The new clause provides an opportunity for an appeal by the Lord Advocate in certain cases in which he thinks it appropriate. The provision is analogous to provisions introduced in the law of other jurisdictions in the United Kingdom in recent years, which have operated on a number of occasions. In that sense, I regard it as relatively uncontroversial.

When appeals are made, every opportunity should be taken to ensure that there is a fair and just result. In the context of appeals, I ask the Minister to turn his mind to the question of ensuring full disclosure of relevant material for appeals. I do not want to go into the details of the case with which I am concerned at the moment. I have written to the Secretary of State and to others in connection with it, and the Minister may be aware of it.

It was brought to my attention that there seems to be a serious omission in legislation whereby information that is vital to the prosecution on appeal has not been disclosed and the police in Scotland seem to be reluctant to disclose it. I speak rather hesitantly as an outsider in these matters. However, from this case, it seems as if there is a gap. We want a fair and proper result on appeal. I draw the Minister's attention to that so that he can consider whether it is appropriate in the context of the new clause, of the Bill or of other circumstances, and so that we can ensure that there is full and complete disclosure when appropriate.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I shall answer a number of points raised in the debate. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) mentioned different sentences being given in rape cases. There is more consistency now than there was in past years and judges are more aware of sentencing patterns. They are published and that has been a matter for public comment. Only occasionally are there cases about which there is serious and substantial complaint. I welcome the hon. Lady's support for the new clause.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) also welcomed the new clause strongly, believing that the punishment should fit the crime. I repeat that complaints about cases are not frequent.

The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) raised the question of the length of the right to appeal. The hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware that in solemn proceedings, the convicted person has to submit an appeal within two weeks of the date of sentence. That period can be extended on application to the High Court. Under the provisions, the time limit for the Crown cannot be so extended. The different time limits are proposed to allow the Crown sufficient time for considered reflection on whether to initiate an appeal on the ground of undue leniency, having regard both to the general level of sentence for the type of case and to the individual circumstances of the case.

The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East also asked whether the Crown should become involved in sentencing. The function of the Crown is not to contend for a particular sentence, but exceptionally to bring to the attention of the Appeal Court sentences that appear to be unusually lenient. The matter of the appropriate sentence is entirely one for the judiciary and the Crown will continue to have no involvement in it at trial stage.

The hon. Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) raised the case of the murder of a police sergeant. The present debate is not about particular cases. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has discussed the matter with my noble and learned Friend the Minister of State and that he has promised to let him know the outcome of the review in progress. I cannot, therefore, take the matter further this afternoon.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) raised another matter. I shall look into it and I draw it to the attention of my noble and learned Friend the Minister of State. I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives a full reply. I cannot give him full details this afternoon as I am not familiar with them, but I shall ensure that he gets a full reply as soon as possible.

I shall now deal with the issue of political influences on the Lord Advocate in deciding to appeal.

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In the prosecution of crime, the Lord Advocate must act in the public interest. He must also apply the test of undue leniency purely in the public interest. In appealing, he would only be placing the issue once again before the court, the role of which, as at present, will be to determine the appeal by affirming or amending the sentence.

The Law Officers act independently, which is absolutely right. They do not have to give reasons as to why they do or do not appeal or prosecute. The Lord Advocate has made it clear that he envisages that the power will be used sparingly.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I apologise to the Minister and other hon. Members for my late appearance, but assure them that I was attending a meeting of the Select Committee on European Legislation.

Mr. Bill Walker

That is very important.

Dr. Godman

It is indeed.

New clause 4(1) states: 228A. Where a person has been convicted on indictment, the Lord Advocate may appeal against the sentence passed on conviction— (a) if it appears to the Lord Advocate that the sentence is unduly lenient; How is such a matter brought to the attention of the Lord Advocate? It appears worrying that some over-lenient sentences have been imposed on those who have inflicted violence on women in rape cases. Many such rape case proceedings are disfigured by a judge allowing the defence counsel to trawl through a woman's sexual history. It seems that such trawling may persuade a judge to impose a lenient sentence. How are such matters brought to the attention of the Lord Advocate?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

A variety of sources, such as the hon. Gentleman, lawyers or the press, could draw the matter to the attention of the Lord Advocate, who has said that he would use the power very sparingly. However, it is a significant change in the law of Scotland, which will give the public greater confidence in the judiciary and the legal system.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

Would it not be appropriate for a report to be sent by the prosecutor of the case to the Lord Advocate as a matter of routine? The report, to be drawn up at an early stage, would give the opinion of the prosecutor—an advocate-depute in the High Court or representative of the procurator fiscal service in a lower court. That would be the procedure, and I am not sure that it would require to be put into legislation. There should certainly be some routine procedure—the idea that the matters can somehow be brought to the attention of the Lord Advocate because of the way in which they are dealt with in a newspaper or because of the outrage felt by Members of Parliament, seems wholly inappropriate in relation to a power that is, as the Minister has concluded, of such significance.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I understand that, in the normal course of affairs, the procurator fiscal will draw the matter to the attention of the Lord Advocate in the first instance. The Lord Advocate may make inquiries of a fiscal in some cases, but the normal procedure will quite rightly be, as has been suggested, a matter for the fiscal. The Lord Advocate and the Law Officers should not be unnecessarily influenced by other sources, and I am sure that they will not.

New clause 4 is highly desirable and I strongly commend it to the House. It redresses the imbalance whereby the convicted person has a right of appeal and the Crown does not. It will ensure that formal procedure exists so that the Appeal Court can re-examine a sentence which, in the view of the Lord Advocate, is unduly lenient. It marks a constructive development in Scottish criminal procedure.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

The Scottish Conservative manifesto for the 1992 general election stated: We will give the Crown a right of appeal against sentences which arc too lenient". The Opposition tabled the amendment to that effect. This is the first and last occasion when we shall ensure that the Government stick by their manifesto pledges.

Mr. Gallie

I tabled a new clause which was worded differently from that tabled by the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall). The changes to it were made for specific reasons, but it was a Conservative clause that was accepted.

Mr. McFall

I think that the hon. Gentleman is trying to say that he had a hand in the amendment, and I would not argue with that.

I was talking of the equity between the accused's right of appeal and the Crown's right of appeal so that the accused and the prosecutor receive equal treatment. As has been mentioned, such a system exists in England and Wales. Sections 35 and 36 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 allows the Attorney-General or the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland to refer a case, so we have an idea how such legislation operates.

In a written answer to a question that I asked on 20 February 1992, the then Attorney-General, now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said: Since February 1989, when this part of the Criminal Justice Act came into force, I have sought the leave of the Court of Appeal to refer 69 cases, including five from Northern Ireland, in which the sentence passed appeared to be unduly lenient. Of these, in 36 cases the sentence was increased, seven cases were withdrawn by me, in a further 10 cases the sentence was not changed, in one case the sentence was lowered".—[Official Report, 20 February 1992; Vol. 204, c. 225.] The legislation allows the courts to increase and, if necessary, reduce the sentence. It is to be welcomed in that it corrects erratic sentencing.

I take the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), but the legislation already operates. In my constituency, parents whose children have been killed in road accidents come to me and, as a layman, it seems to me that the sentences passed on those responsible for the deaths are very lenient. If people can see that the case has been referred, it could help some of them to come to terms with their grief. I say that from the experience of talking to a number of constituents about the subject.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) mentioned cases involving women. I still think that the sentencing in such cases is often erratic. I refer the Minister to the research undertaken by Pat Carlen over the years—"Women's Imprisonment: Study in Social Control". She asked a representative sample of the Scottish judiciary for their comments. In 1992, the judiciary still say of women appearing before them, "If she is a good mother, we don't want to take her away; if she is not a good mother, it doesn't matter." Attitudes like that must change, but they still exist.

It is with the intention of changing such attitudes and ensuring equity of treatment both to the accused and the prosecutor that we have tabled amendment No. 1 and shall support the new clause.

Dr. Godman

I have some sympathy with the wording of section 228A(a) in new clause 4, which refers to the fact that the Lord Advocate may believe that a sentence is "unduly lenient". Such sentences are occasionally passed, especially when people are convicted of violent criminal acts.

On the whole, our judges in Scotland are not quite so eccentrically lenient in such cases as many judges south of the boarder. It is not so very long ago that, in a case arising from the appalling rape of a woman, an English judge said that we all know as men that when a woman says no she does not always mean no. If the new clause gives women and others concerned about over-lenient sentencing in rape cases a measure of comfort, it should command the support of all hon. Members.

I am concerned about the way in which complainers in rape cases are dealt with in our courtrooms. In such cases, women should be given the same kind of protection that we have agreed should be afforded to child witnesses and child complainers in sexual abuse and child abuse cases. A woman who has been subjected to rape and who then has to face the ordeal of recounting her experiences in the courtroom is in many respects as vulnerable psychologically as a young child who has been subjected to abuse.

Mr. Gallie

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Goodman

Those who seek to protect the interests of such vulnerable persons will to some extent be heartened by the wording of the new clause in respect of unduly lenient sentencing. Now I shall be lenient with the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie).

Mr. Gallie

I identify with virtually everything that the hon. Gentleman has said, but I put it to him that the difference between my new clause and the new clause tabled by the Opposition was that I proposed to take out the words on a point of law". Had those words been left in, the hon. Gentleman's point would not have been met.

Dr. Goodman

That was a most interesting intervention.

Mr. Hood

It is Christmas.

Dr. Goodman

As my hon. Friend says, it is Christmas, but just at this moment I am not feeling very Christmassy as I still have all my cards to sign. Moreover, if the hon. Member for Ayr cares to examine the new clause, he will find that the phrase on a point of law is still there.

As I said in Committee, those who are proceeded against and found guilty of heinous acts of violence must suffer condign punishment. That must be especially true in relation to rape cases. I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East that a memorandum should be published giving guidance on how the Lord Advocate's eye can be caught in cases of unduly lenient sentencing. I give the proposal—especially as it affects women complainers, many of whom have to watch the perpetrators of sexual violence receive unduly lenient sentences—a cautious welcome.

Mr. Hood

The hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) will remember intervening on my Second Reading speech to support my case on over-lenient sentencing and to give an example of his own. I had occasion to write to the Lord Advocate drawing his attention to the decision by a sheriff in a Lanarkshire court to impose a three-month prison sentence on a man found guilty of breaking into a pensioner couple's home with two colleagues wearing ski masks, of robbing the pensioners and hitting them over the head with a hammer. A week or so ago, I received a letter from the Lord Advocate saying that he took my point but could not interfere with the decision and judgment of a sheriff.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that, when I complained to the Lord Advocate, he was not prepared to do anything about it even though he shared my view? I would sack a sheriff who behaved in such a way.

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Dr. Godman

I believe that it is extremely difficult to bring about the dismissal of a sheriff for his or her eccentric sentencing practices, but I agree with my hon. Friend and recall the case to which he referred.

I said earlier that our judges are less eccentrically lenient than some south of the border, but some of our sheriffs behave in a weird way when sentencing miscreants who have perpetrated violent crimes. That is especially true in drink-driving cases. Some sheriffs are appallingly over-indulgent to those whom they sentence for such crimes. If someone runs down someone else in his or her car when under the influence of alcohol or drugs, that person should, on conviction, receive a hefty punishment. Some of our sheriffs need people like us to bring that home to them.

Presumably, on the basis of what the Minister said a few moments ago, if we, as members of the public and Members of Parliament, are concerned about an unduly lenient conviction, we shall be able to write to the Lord Advocate and bring the matter to his attention. Presumably, we shall also be able to tell him to do something about it—to review the case. That is why I thought that the suggestion made by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North East that some form of guidance should be issued on these matters was a good one.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that hon. Members should be prevented from writing to the Lord Advocate as a matter of public concern, which they are perfectly entitled to do at present.

Dr. Godman

The Minister is absolutely right, and I have always received courteous and expeditious responses from the holders of that august office, but the response that my hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) received, however courteous, was at best extremely unhelpful. If the new clause is accepted, presumably my hon. Friend or anyone else can expect to receive a different kind of response—the Lord Advocate may be inclined to be more positive in such a case. I remember the case to which my hon. Friend referred and I thought that an appallingly lenient sentence was imposed on the mindless thugs responsible. People who perpetrate violent crimes must be told plainly that they will not receive unduly lenient sentences when convicted.

I shall be pleased to see the provision included in the Bill. Given than I am much more modest that the hon. Member for Ayr, if the hon. Gentleman deserves the credit for the new clause, I shall give him the credit so that he can put his name in whatever the journal is called. It is a useful measure.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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