HC Deb 20 July 1993 vol 229 cc198-200 3.41 pm
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to increase the maximum sentence of detention in a young offenders' institution for 15, 16 and 17 year olds from 12 months to two years; and for connected purposes. I believe that this is a necessary Bill, which would bring about substantial improvements in the sentencing powers of the courts. Let me make it clear at the outset that I do not intend, by means of this Bill, to undermine the value of non-custodial sentences, or of short periods in custody. The Government have brought about substantial improvements in non-custodial sentences by means of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. I believe, however, that for the most serious types of offence—those which qualify for custody under the Criminal Justice Act—a higher maximum sentence should be made available.

Let me outline the present position. Since 1982, for 15 and 16-year-old young offenders, the sentence of dentention in a young offenders institution has been restricted to 12 months. Since the passing of the Criminal Justice Act, the restriction to 12 months' detention has been extended to 17-year-olds, too.

There is one exception, however: the powers of the court under section 53 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. Under that section, the courts can impose a longer sentence of detention for the offence of murder or, under section 53(2), for very grave offences that carry a sentence of 14 years imprisonment or more on conviction —on indictment in the case of an adult.

The framework for sentencing young offenders in the 15, 16 and 17-year-old age group is not adequate. May I illustrate its inadequacy by referring to one aspect of criminal activity which, all too often these days, involves young offenders. I refer to offences involving motor vehicles, which can often cause great hardship and misery to our constituents, and which certainly need to be dealt with firmly by the courts.

The present levels of sentencing available to the courts are inadequate for those offences. It is impossible for the courts to impose a sentence of more than 12 months' detention for offences involving motor vehicles. In response to this serious problem, the Government rightly introduced the offence of aggravated vehicle-taking. That was a very desirable measure. It increased the sentence for that offence to a maximum of two years. But for 15, 16 and 17-year-olds, who are also often involved in that type of offence, the maximum sentence remains stuck at 12 months.

I can do no better than refer to the words of the Lord Chief Justice in considering this position when hearing the appeal of a 17-year-old against a sentence of 15 months' detention imposed under the law prior to the Criminal Justice Act 1991. The Lord Chief Justice's view—I pray in aid his words—was this: The appellant's driving was appallingly dangerous; it was a bad case. As the law stood when the appellant was sentenced, the sentence of 15 months' detention in a young offender institution could not be regarded as excessive. The Criminal Justice Act 1991 had since changed the law, so that the maximum sentence of detention in a young offender institution for a youth aged 17 was now 12 months. It was a remarkable situation that within one year Parliament had passed an Act seemingly directed at punishing young offenders who commit this kind of offence, and then in another Act cut down the powers of the Court to administer the sort of punishment that that Act envisaged. Although Criminal Justice Act 1991 did not apply to the case before the court, since the court was laying down guidance for the future, the Court felt constrained by the fact that under the 1991 Act, the maximum sentence would have been 12 months' detention in a young offender institution. In those circumstances, the sentence would be reduced to 12 months' detention. The situation is even worse than that in connection with other serious offences involving motor vehicles. A 12-month restriction applies to offences of dangerous driving and, even in the case of causing death by dangerous driving, the maximum sentence that the courts can impose on 15 to 17-year-olds is 12 months.

That is always a terrible type of offence, and the Government were absolutely right to raise the maximum sentence for adults from five to 10 years in the Criminal Justice Bill at present passing through Parliament. But for 15 to 17-year-olds, that sentence remains stuck at 12 months maximum. Furthermore, that sentence may often be reduced for a plea of guilty, and in any case an offender actually serves only half the sentence in custody. So six months maximum is spent in custody for that type of offence.

That is simply not adequate. I would not go to any one of my constituents, let alone the family of a victim, and seek to justify such a sentence—nor, I think, would any other hon. Member.

That is one illustration of the point that I seek to make, but I believe that there are others, and that the overall effect of this 12-month restriction is to leave the courts with an inadequate sentence framework for 15, 16 and l7-year-olds. It is time that, for the most serious offences and persistent offenders in that age group, a longer sentence was available.

I believe that the public will support this measure. They believe that, for serious and experienced young criminals —unhappily, there are some—the kid gloves need to come off, longer sentences than those at present available need to be passed by the courts, and the courts must be given those powers.

I strongly support all the other measures that the Government have suggested to improve the sentencing framework: the increases in maximum sentences for particular offences, the improvements to the Criminal Justice Act 1991, and the proposals for a sentence of secure training for 12 to 15-year-olds. I note that the maximum sentence under that proposal is two years.

There needs to be a longer sentence of two years for 15, 16 and 17-year-olds who commit serious offences, in order that the courts may have the appropriate powers to give punishments that fit the crime and have the necessary deterrent effect.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. James Clappison, Mr. Julian Brazier, Mr. David Lidington, Mr. John Sykes, Mr. Christopher Gill, Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Mrs. Marion Roe, Mrs. Teresa Gorman, Mr. Barry Legg, Mr. Richard Page and Mr. Andrew Robathan.