HC Deb 29 June 1993 vol 227 cc892-8

'.—(1) Pursuant to sections 3(1) or 7(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 the Crown Court shall seek guidance from the Probation Service as to the minimum amount of time necessary in order to ensure that the report meets the standards set down in the National Standards for the preparation of pre-sentence reports published by the Secretary of State for the Home Department in accordance with section 3(5)(b) of that Act.

(2) The Crown Court may, with the agreement of prosecution, defence and the Probation Service rule that the circumstances of a particular offender and a particular offence or group of offences are such that no report is required in order to fulfill the interests of justice.'.—[Mr. Michael.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Michael

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

We now come to a point that is a development of an issue that we discussed only a few minutes ago. The Minister referred to courts having all the information that they needed before them to take a decision. I have always believed strongly in the need to take fast decisions and in the need, wherever possible, for the same court to take the decision. If the court has listened to the circumstances, there is a better chance that it will take the right decision, because it knows the circumstances of the offence and has received reports. That is not the point at issue.

There is a difference between the magistrates courts and the higher courts. In the Crown court, it is far more likely that, if there is an adjournment, the same judge will be able to preside. He will therefore have his own notes and memory of the case. That is frequently not the case in the magistrates courts. The problem is that there now seems to be a pressure for same-day reports in the Crown court where problems can arise and where serious issues have to be gone into. We are concerned about the fastest possible service for the courts consistent with the fullest possible information for the courts. I hope that I can take it for granted that the Minister and I agree on those being the two objectives for which we have to strive.

I now come to the background to our approach in the new clause. The Criminal Justice Act 1991 requires courts to obtain pre-sentence reports in all cases serious enough for a community penalty or imprisonment, except indictment-only cases in which the Crown court deems it unnecessary to obtain a report. To facilitate that requirement, the probation service undertook pilot trials in the preparation of a faster report-writing service to the Crown court. A statement of preferred practice was drawn up between the Home Office and the probation service with the approval of the Crown court judiciary.

The statement establishes that the probation service will assess in every case how quickly it will be possible to prepare a pre-sentence report in accordance with national standards for the preparation of pre-sentence reports, and that it will seek to write each report as expeditiously as possible". The point of speed is there again. The statement also establishes that the time required for preparation will vary considerably from case to case. and that in appropriate cases only this may be later the same day". I encourage the idea that, wherever possible, the report is written the same day, but it must be acknowledged that that is not always possible.

In June this year, the Home Office probation inspectorate produced the first HMIP inspection of implementation of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. The report records that the use of the provision for expedited reports has been slow to date. It also records that there has been no expression of dissatisfaction with the arrangements by Crown court judges. Nevertheless, on 17 June, apparently in response to the report, the Home Office issued CPO letter 33 of 1993 in the name of the Home Secretary, requiring the probation service to ensure the provision of a same-day report in every case that the judge remands into custody.

The Minister will recognise that there is an immediate apparent contradiction. There is the recognition in the Department's own guidance that only in some cases can reports properly be prepared in the day, and the requirement that they shall always be prepared in the day in the Crown court.

It appears that the letter to the chief probation officers is a response to different pressure from that which is being expressed—that is, pressure from the judiciary to repeal that part of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 which requires automatic pre-sentence reports. Judges would prefer to return to their former discretion in deciding when to invite the preparation of pre-sentence reports. The trouble is that that is a dangerous outcome. It appears that the pressure on the probation service resulted in the offer of the same-day report service which, frankly, cannot be made to work if it is to be consistent with the idea of national standards which the Minister will want to pursue as vigorously as in the past year.

There is a danger, therefore, that we shall be drawn into a conflict of requirements, which might have a disadvantageous effect on practice in the probation service and the standard of reports on which the courts have to take a decision. What is required are arrangements which will ensure that the statement of preferred practice to meet the national standards which the Home Office is pursuing can be pursued and that those arrangements are correctly in place.

That is one aspect of the new clause before us. I ask the Minister to acknowledge that it is a serious point, and I make it in the belief that it conflicts in no way with Government policy or the principles that he seeks to adopt. However, there is a danger of requirements being placed which will in practice undermine one or more of the requirements that the Minister is pursuing.

The proposal in the new clause that the probation service will be consulted about the minimum time required to prepare a report in accordance with national standards would consolidate the arrangements in the statement of preferred practice in legislation. That is necessary because of the fear that the Home Office will ignore the statement in its new instruction to prepare same-day reports in all cases. We need to protect the flexibility that is necessary to ensure that the national standards are achieved.

The need for flexibility in time arises form the great variation in the nature and complexity of the cases before the courts. Some cases cannot be dealt with quickly. I have mentioned a number of examples with which the Minister will have sympathy—cases in which there is child abuse, physical, emotional or sexual; drug or alcohol abuse; homelessness; mental illness; and many offences involving young people. In such cases, the issues involving longer time may need referrals to specialist agencies or hospitals, or liaison with social services departments may be necessary for confidential information to be read which could not be released prior to a conviction. Those serious issues would be overridden by a same-day system becoming necessary and universal.

I hope, therefore, that the Minister accepts that it would be impossible to sustain such a system 100 per cent. because of meeting demands, staff shortages, illness and annual leave, even if the problems that I have outlined are not present. Clearly, such problems are present, and it would be bad, dangerous and in contradiction of the Minister's stated principle that the courts should have the fullest and most accurate information available to them when taking decisions if that were the case. I hope that the Minister accepts our view in support of the new clause.

The second aspect is simple and straightforward—that is, to permit judges, with the agreement of defence counsel, prosecution counsel and the probation service, to sentence without a pre-sentence report. This matter generally arises not in the magistrates court but in the Crown court. The new clause seeks to return some discretion to the judiciary in determining when it is necessary to have reports in triable either-way cases.

The step forward to the automatic preparation of reports in the 1991 Act was important, with its assumption that a community sentence might be appropriate in all those cases. It is important to retain that presumption. However, when there is no doubt about the imposition of a sentence other than a community disposal, it seems only helpful and sensible for all concerned, as well as cost-effective, to return discretion to the sentencer. If the sentencer believes that there is no need for a report, and if defence counsel, prosecution counsel and the probation service, which would prepare the report, all agree, it would seem a mere bureaucratic quibble to say that a report must nevertheless be prepared.

I hope that the Minister will agree that what we have proposed in the new clause pursues his aim, but in a way which will ensure that there is not a clash of interest in the court and that there is not preparation of a report when in the minds of everyone involved a report is not necessary.

8.15 pm
Mr. Maclean

The new clause will make important changes to the circumstances in which pre-sentence reports are obtained. It may assist the House if I briefly summarise where we are now and why we got here.

The range of circumstances in which a pre-sentence report must be considered before sentence is passed was extended and rationalised by the 1991 Act. Parliament approved those changes on the basis that they would ensure that, in the case of more serious offences, there would always be an objective and independent report available to the court, irrespective of factors such as the timing of the plea or whether the trial had been contested. It was felt that that would be in the interests of consistent justice.

It was recognised that the requirements in the Act would give the probation service additional work, but the Government concluded that the additional resources would be more than justified by the improvement to the sentencing process brought about by a consistent supply of reports in accordance with defined national standards. It was also recognised that the requirements in the Act had the potential to inject a new element of delay into the sentencing process. For that reason, arrangements were made throughout the country for probation services, in discussion with the courts, to provide facilities for reports to be written quickly and on the same day in appropriate circumstances.

The recent report by Her Majesty's chief inspector of probation on the operation of the Act, which was published earlier this month, found that on the whole the quality of reports was good but that not enough use was being made of the facilities for fast reports that are now in place.

Bearing in mind the costs and problems of unnecessary delays—I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) on this point—we have now asked the probation service to guarantee a pre-sentence report on the day of conviction in all Crown court cases where the alternative would be a custodial remand. That request was made to avoid unnecessary delays at the Crown court, which are costly and undesirable for many reasons, including their effects on the trial process as a whole and on individual defendants.

Mr. Michael

For the sake of clarity, I make it clear that I agree with the Minister up to this point. The danger of the undertaking of every case being same day causes the problem. Up to that point, there is no dispute between us. The problem is whether the requirement that all cases shall be same day, especially the list of cases that I gave, might bring about a danger of the court not having full and adequate information available. That is the crux of the problem.

Mr. Maclean

I shall come to that point. The evidence of Her Majesty's chief inspector of probation is that there is no necessary trade-off between speed and quality. Although the same-day target is stretching for the probation service, our judgment is that such a target is proper in those cases where a remand in custody would otherwise be necessary. Probation services will need to adjust their priorities as necessary to meet the target. In other cases where time is not of the same essence, the courts may well wish to look to the probation service for guidance about how long is needed for a report, but I do not see that statutory provision of the sort envisaged in the new clause needs to be made for that.

Mr. Michael

I should like to ask the Minister about the use of the word "target". Surely the difference between a target and a requirement is crucial to the debate. I agree with the Minister about establishing a target and exerting pressure to ensure that a report is produced on the same day as appearance in court. He would also be right to say that delay does not necessarily improve the quality of reports. There are cases, however, involving complex evidence where it would be extremely dangerous to set not just a target but a requirement for a same-day PSR.

Mr. Maclean

I do not want to have a discussion on semantics. Let me make it clear, however, that the target is same-day PSRs. We have requested the probation service to meet that target. We would like to require it to do that, but I am not suggesting that that requirement should be set in statute.

The chief inspector of probation believes that that target is a reasonable one and, over the next few months, I will monitor progress carefully to judge whether that is true. Probation officers will be given a chance to see whether they can meet that target. I, too, will consider carefully whether they can. I shall also listen to what the judiciary has to say about the operation of that target.

I assure the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth that it is not our intention to place speed at a premium over quality. The evidence from the inspection report suggests that the two can go together. If it emerges on the day, however, that further inquiries are needed, perhaps as the result of an offender's medical condition or because more detail is necessary, it will be open to the court to ask for further inquiries to be made. We expect the probation officer to report, on the day, to say how that assessment should be completed.

It may be helpful if I tell the House that we are reviewing the national standards that cover all the main aspects of the work of the probation services, including PSRs. It will obviously be necessary to monitor carefully how the new guidance works in practice.

I shall bear in mind what the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth has said when I consider the PSR provisions of the 1991 Act, but I am not persuaded that the new clause strikes the right balance. I am willing to reflect, however, on the points raised about its second subsection. I will also reflect on what practitioners, including the judiciary, think about it.

Although the provisions requiring a written PSR—without exception and across a defined range of cases—are reasoned, I do not rule out changes if we conclude that they are justified. A judgment must be made, as ever, on the balance between consistency and discretion. The new clause raises difficulties by making a decision on whether a report is needed turn on the consent of the defence or the probation officer.

One of the strengths of the PSR in comparison with the old social inquiry report is that the PSR is clearly perceived and valued by sentencers as an objective, independent report. I foresee a bit of difficulty in a provision that gives discretion with the one hand and takes it away with the other.

Given that we are monitoring the national standards and that I am happy to return to the matter in future legislation should we discover in the next few months that the PSRs are not working as hon. Members would want, I hope that the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth will withdraw his new clause.

Mr. Michael

The Minister's reply has been helpful. It is important to decide whether the objective of same-day reporting should be considered as a target, a request, a strong request or a requirement. To consider that objective as a target at which to aim would be welcome, but it would be a mistake if it was insisted upon to the detriment of the quality of the report. That the Minister has undertaken to monitor the PSRs, however, goes a long way towards meeting my concerns.

Will the hon. Gentleman agree to ensure that that monitoring will be careful? Does he accept that the criteria for and parameters and method of recording that monitoring should be agreed in advance? That would ensure that everyone understood the way in which the information was interpreted.

Will the Minister consult with those involved, including, obviously, the judiciary and those in the probation service, on the criteria to be used so that we are all clear, in advance, about the judgments that will be made? If the methodology of the monitoring is understood by all concerned, I cannot but be satisfied with the Minister's undertaking.

Mr. Maclean

We would want to ensure that those whom we are monitoring understand exactly what is being monitored. In case I did not make it absolutely clear, I confirm that the requirement in table 93 is not that every report should be prepared on the same day, but that same-day reports should be guaranteed in all cases that would otherwise involve custodial remand.

Mr. Michael

I welcome that clarification from the Minister, which is helpful. In view of that reassurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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