HC Deb 21 April 1993 vol 223 cc322-4 3.32 pm
Mr. Mike O'Brien (Warwickshire, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend sections 1 and 29 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 to enable the Courts to take account of relevant factors when dealing with custodial sentences and related matters. My Bill will give the House an opportunity to amend key defects in the 1991 Act. Since it came into force last year, that Act has allowed criminals who ought to have gone to prison to get away with it. It has unacceptably restricted the ability of the courts to imprison persistent offenders.

Yesterday, the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) introduced a Bill which also deals with these matters. My Bill differs from his in several ways. Before I outline those differences, I should like to compliment the hon. Gentleman on his impressive and eloquent speech, which clearly identified the issues that I wish to address. I associate myself with many of the arguments that he so ably put before the House. I differ from the hon. Gentleman, in that I do not seek a return to the position that existed before October of last year. Rather, my aim is to amend the Act to strike a new balance within the framework of the legislation.

The Government introduced the Criminal Justice Act with some important and still valid aims. They just sought to achieve those aims in the wrong way. My Bill would give the courts wider discretion, without returning to the defects that the Act sought to remedy.

The second difference is that the Bill is fully drafted and, after considerable discussion and consultation, has the endorsement of those on the Labour Front Bench. I can offer the Government the Labour party's co-operation in speedily implementing my Bill should they decide to take that opportunity.

I am putting the Bill forward now because, like the hon. Member for Canterbury, I believe that there is a need for urgency in amending the Criminal Justice Act. The Home Secretary said recently, before the Home Affairs Select Committee, that he was reluctant to amend the Act until a year had passed since it came into force. I do not feel that he has yet grasped the urgency of the need to deal with the matter. I hope that the fact that, in two days, two Bills have been introduced, by hon. Members on each side of the House, dealing with the same issue will emphasise the importance with which the House regards the need to amend the Act.

I call on the Government to provide legislative time to respond to the demand, from both sides of the House, for urgent action. That is why my Bill has been introduced so close on the heels of the debate last week on criminal justice, which saw repeated calls for the issues to be tackled.

That is why the opportunity has been taken to focus two Bills on the same subject, on consecutive days, albeit from different points of view. It is an attempt to put pressure on the Home Secretary to act. He must understand that Conservative and Labour Members are not prepared to wait until October for a year to pass, while criminals are released when they should be behind bars, and then claim more victims. He must treat the matter with the priority that it deserves.

Sections 1(2) (a) and 29 of the Criminal Justice Act are the offending sections that must be amended. Under section 1(2) (a), in deciding whether to send a criminal to prison, the court can consider only two of the offences before it. The defendant may have more offences before the court. He may be a shoplifter or a social security fraudster who has committed a large number of offences over a substantial period, and admits so.

There may be 20, 30 or 50 offences to be taken into consideration yet, as happened recently at Reading, the court can take a decision based only on two offences. That is ridiculous. The decision whether to send someone to prison will be different if it is based on two offences than it would be if it were based on a large array of offences, and that factor must be contained within new legislation. My Bill would amend section 1(2) (a) to allow the court to look at all the offences before it in deciding whether to imprison.

The other offending section, section 29, deals with the length of the sentence to be imposed. It prevents the court from taking into account a previous criminal record, except in particular circumstances.

Although the Labour party believes that we need to be tough on crime and the causes of crime, we are not seeking to join the "hang 'em and flog 'em" brigade. We just want to see defendants get justice in the courts and our constituents protected.

Therefore, let me concede that the Minister who was responsible for section 29, the right hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten), then a Home Office Minister and now the Secretary of State for Education, introduced that section to deal with a real inadequacy in the law before the Criminal Justice Act was passed, and he had some support for that from the Labour party.

It was then possible for the courts to sentence offenders not for the offence before the court but for their previous convictions. In a case in 1988, that resulted in a thief who had stolen fish worth £12 getting three and a half years. That was wrong, as Lord Justice Stocker said at the time. It was right that that sentence should be cut.

That fault had to be tackled but, unfortunately, the Act sought to do so by hamstringing the courts with a series of complex hurdles before they could imprison anyone. It was the wrong approach to the issue.

The right approach was to allow all the relevant previous convictions to be considered within the context of the seriousness of the offence. That is what my amendment will do. It is a workable solution to the problems of the Act, which will allow courts to imprison but not to imprison unjustly. It will give the courts more discretion than the present section 29, without the defects of the old rule. It will allow the courts to protect the public by sending to prison those who should go to prison.

The Lord Chief Justice has called sections 1 and 29 misconceived motions. Judges who appeared before the Select Committee on Home Affairs, of which I am a member, began their evidence by demanding that these provisions should be changed. Only the other day, a judge told me that the effect of the provisions was to turn many courts and their decisions into a shambles.

The House will be aware that 30 magistrates have resigned in protest. Police officers and lawyers have denounced the new law in the most forceful terms. It is frustrating for police officers, and for the public, to see criminals arrested and brought before the courts, only to find that the courts are forced to do no more than fine them. The courts release them due to the Criminal Justice Act. The Act has more regard for inmates of overcrowded prisons than it has for the victims of crime on council housing estates, for example.

I know that many Conservative Members were elected in the belief that a Conservative Government would be tougher on crime. I suspect that it must be galling for them that Labour can criticise the Cabinet for presiding over a doubling of crime, and for passing the most liberal piece of legislation on crime in the form of a Criminal Justice Act. The credibility of the Government's policy on law and order is at stake.

As an Opposition Member, it gives me no great pleasure to say that the Government are weak on law and order—well, perhaps a little pleasure. I know that it is the people who are the victims of this weakness. My constituents, for example, are the victims of increasing burglaries, car thefts and vandalism—crimes which are sometimes committed by criminals who were saved from prison by the Criminal Justice Act.

The Home Secretary has said that he will revisit the Act. He gives no date and we cannot afford to spare him the time, during which criminals who deserve to go to prison will be protected from prison. This is a time for urgent action, not prevarication. While the Home Secretary consults, debates, prevaricates and waits, victims of crime will suffer. As I have said, the Bill could be enacted quickly. It is designed to protect the victims of criminals, criminals who should have been sent to prison within the terms of the Criminal Justice Act, but were not. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Mike O'Brien, Mr. Stephen Byers, Mr. Chris Mullin, Mrs. Barbara Roche, Mr. Gerald Bermingham, Mr. Alan Meale, Mr. Jimmy Boyce and Mr. Paddy Tipping.