HC Deb 20 April 1993 vol 223 cc189-91 3.46 pm
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to restore to the courts the power to take full account of a criminal's previous convictions, sentence and response thereto in determining sentences. In a recent case in London a man was convicted by magistrates of his fifth offence of driving while disqualified and he was, rightly, sent to prison for six months. When the Court of Appeal quashed the sentence, one of the judges sadly remarked: The Act"— the Criminal Justice Act 1991may not make sense but it has to be obeyed. Similarly, in a recent case in Surrey, a burglar who had just completed a four-year prison sentence for burglary came before the court for four further offences. On examining the Act, the court found that the only sentence that could be imposed was a 75-hour community service order.

As a result of such cases, some hon. Members may feel that the Act is not working well and requires some modification. That is not my view. I take the view that it is wrong in principle to interfere with the right of the courts to take account of previous offences.

The problem to which I have been referring relates to section 29 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. Less well known is section 1(2), which provides: the court shall not pass a custodial offence on the offender unless it is of the opinion— (a) that the offence, or the combination of the offence and one other offence associated with it"— in other words, the court can look at only two offences before it was so serious that only such a sentence can be justified for the offence; or (b) where the offence is a violent or sexual offence… In Winchester recently, a Department of Social Security fraud case involved a man who had stolen more than £20,000. Because each week's payment was considered a separate offence, in deciding whether the man should go to prison, the court could only take into account two weeks' fraud involving a relatively small sum, which resulted in a small fine.

The difficulty originated in two perverse Court of Appeal rulings—the first in 1981—that, because a person could be sentenced only once for any one offence, it followed that previous offences could not be regarded as aggravating features of a crime except in the limited sense of diminishing mitigating factors. That doctrine is so completely daft that it could have been devised only by exceptionally clever people. Nevertheless, it found its way into section 29 of the 1991 Act, and the House passed that portion of the legislation with virtually no objection, except from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence)—though there were many debates and several votes on other parts of the Bill.

It is a serious matter that the courts cannot take account of previous offences or of more than two offences in a particular hatch. The interplay of those two sets of provisions magnifies the problem. If a man is given a community service order and fails while under it to be a good citizen, committing a crime every night, because he agreed to honour the order, he cannot be taken back to court and be told, "You are not observing the order properly because you are continuing to commit crimes." He cannot be sent to prison for the original offence.

Section 29 of the 1991 Act does not usually allow the court, in sentencing the offender for any subsequent crimes, to take account of the fact that the individual was continually breaching the order by committing those crimes. In other words, it is now virtually impossible to send a person to prison for most crimes against property.

Recently, the Lord Chief Justice said: However forward thinking the penologists, criminologists and bureaucrats in Government Departments may be, their views should not be allowed to prevail so as to impose a sentencing regime which is incomprehensible or unacceptable to right-thinking people. If that happens, there will be a real risk of aggrieved parties taking the law into their own hands. That view has been backed by the Magistrates Association, a number of chief constables, and the Police Federation.

At a time of great obsession with a small number of wrongful convictions—and, sadly, that obsession seems to have extended to the Royal Commission on criminal justice—my constituents are far more worried about the large number of criminals who are getting off without a conviction or with a derisory sentence. Today, only 3 per cent. of recorded crime results in a court conviction. As the result of the two provisions of the 1991 Act in question, in most cases, if no violence is involved, it is no longer possible to send the offender to prison.

The Lord Chief Justice's warning is already reaching fruition. In Canterbury high street, a group of vigilantes broke into a squat that was a notorious centre of crime and, in a violent incident, burnt out the squatters. In a village in my constituency, a known burglar who had committed a string of burglaries against elderly people but who had to be released each time by the court was beaten up in broad daylight.

In the celebrated Taylor-Owen case, a jury of 12 people unanimously endorsed a serious crime by finding Mr. Owen not guilty. The House will remember that Mr. Owen took a shotgun to Mr. Taylor, who had run down and killed Mr. Owen's 14-year-old son. The jury was comprised of local people who were familiar with the activities of the Taylor family, and in effect they endorsed a serious crime of retaliation by finding Mr. Owen not guilty, not just of attempted murder but even of possessing a firearm, which was an offence to which Mr. Owen had confessed. [Laughter.] It would be funny if it were not so tragic.

The truth is that offences against property, particularly burglaries, strike at the very heart of family and community. To those of us who live in comfortable middle-class areas, a burglary simply means a hassle with the insurance company in most cases; to a poor family who cannot afford insurance and may have been burgled five or six times, it can mean the destruction of their way of life. They may stop going out in the evening because they do not want to leave their houses unattended.

If the law is not seen to address this vital need—if it is not seen to be preventing crimes against property—the ugly fact is that people will take the law into their own hands. It is utterly pointless for us to wring our hands and condemn them for doing so. We shall see a growth in the ugly vigilante retaliation that is a feature of American society.

Let me end where I began. I should like two modifications to be made to the Criminal Justice Act 1991—much of which I support; it contains some sensible provisions relating to violent crime. First, I should like to strike out section 29 so that courts can take full account of previous offences. Secondly, I should like to modify the wording of section 1(2)(a) so that a court with a batch of offences before it can look at them all together, not just at two of them.

I ask hon. Members on both sides of the House to vote for the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Julian Brazier, Mr. Andrew Rowe, Mr. Edward Garnier, Mr. David Tredinnick, Mr. Roger Gale, Mr. Graham Riddick, Mr. Ian Taylor, Mr. Bob Dunn, Mr. Keith Mans, Mr. John Marshall, Mr. Michael Brown and Mr. John Sykes.