HC Deb 15 April 1993 vol 222 cc937-8
4. Mr. Nigel Evans

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what representations he has had from magistrates about the workings of the Criminal Justice Act 1991.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Michael Jack)

The representations I have received from magistrates about the Act have covered concerns about the unit fines scheme and matters relating to sentencing under section 29.

Mr. Nigel Evans

Is my hon. Friend aware that many magistrates in my constituency will be delighted by the assurances given in the House yesterday by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary that he is prepared to look at the workings and non-workings of the Criminal Justice Act 1991—particularly in relation to unit fining, which appears to be fine in principle but in practice is working more as a punishment for wealth than one for crime?

Some courts are not able to look at the whole career of a particular criminal before passing sentence. It seems that the system is working to protect the very people we are trying to clobber—the persistent offenders. Will my hon. Friend give an assurance that he will look urgently at the possibility of removing the magistrates from the handcuffs that they are currently wearing, so that we can put the handcuffs on the people who deserve to have them put on—the persistent offenders?

Mr. Jack

My hon. Friend articulates the feeling of many of our hon. Friends about the Criminal Justice Act 1991. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary made it clear at the Dispatch Box yesterday that he intends—and he has my full support—to look hard at some of the problems with unit fines and also at section 29. However, may I say to my hon. Friend, with the same vigour as he put his point to me, that I hope that he will ask magistrates to look carefully at the flexibility that already exists under the unit fines scheme, which enables magistrates to meet their criticisms of the present system.

Mr. Canavan

Have there been any complaints about the criminal justice system breaking down after the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) about the failure of the privatised prisoner escort service? After the fiasco of the so-called Group 4 security system, will the Minister admit that the privatisation experiment has been a failure, or does he intend to tell us that it is all part of the Government's plan to reduce the prison population?

Mr. Jack

Hearing questions like that is like watching the dinosaurs come back to life. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. As my right hon. and learned Friend said, the fact that prisoners escape is not a new phenomenon, but the dialogue of the deaf opposite did not listen to that salient point. Only now, when a new company running a new and complex service takes over those responsibilities, for which there is a very good reason, do the Opposition take any interest. I ask the hon. Gentleman to watch developments.

Sir Anthony Grant

Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that we got the principle of unit fines and previous convictions fundamentally and absolutely wrong? Is it possible that we got it wrong because at that time hon. Members on both sides of the House were obsessed with the change of Prime Minister?

Mr. Jack

My hon. Friend brings his own particular analysis to bear on how we got ourselves into this particular situation. The Criminal Justice Act had a long run-in, during which people could have contributed to the debate. There was a consultation document in 1988, a White Paper and a long parliamentary debate. Eventually, the House agreed the measure which came before it. It is important now to concentrate on the positive side and on our assurance that we are looking both at section 29 and at unit fines and that, if necessary, changes will be made.