HC Deb 03 April 1996 vol 275 cc389-404 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement about crime and sentencing. I am today publishing a White Paper entitled "Protecting the Public", which sets out the Government's comprehensive strategy to tackle crime. That strategy is designed to ensure that everything possible is done to prevent crime; the police have the powers and resources that they need to catch criminals; the innocent are acquitted but the guilty convicted; and criminals are properly punished.

There is clear evidence that that strategy is working. Last week, I announced that recorded crime has fallen for the past three years in succession. That has happened only twice before this century. In 1995, there were 468,000 fewer crimes committed than in 1992—the largest ever continuous fall in the number of annually recorded crimes.

I pay tribute to the police—and all the local communities with which they work in partnership—for that achievement. But crime is still far too high and there is more to be done. That is why I announced a series of radical new sentencing proposals last October in Blackpool, which have one simple aim: to protect the public from dangerous and persistent criminals.

The first proposal relates to honesty in sentencing. At present, offenders sentenced to less than four years in prison can expect to be released after serving just half their sentence. Those sentenced to four years or more can expect to be released after serving between half and two thirds of their sentence. Automatic early release from prison enrages victims and undermines public confidence in the criminal justice system. I therefore propose to abolish it.

Under our proposals, there would be no more automatic early release. Prisoners who co-operated and behaved well would be able to earn up to 20 per cent. off their sentence. That will ensure that sentences actually served are much more closely matched to those handed out by the courts. In addition, it will give prisoners a strong incentive to behave properly in prison. On release, all prisoners serving 12 months or more would be supervised by the Probation Service for a period equivalent to 15 per cent. of their original prison sentence. The courts would be expected to take full account of those changes in the sentences that they pass.

Secondly, I refer to persistent serious sexual and violent offenders. The maximum penalty for crimes such as rape and attempted murder is life imprisonment. The advantage of the life sentence is that the offender will be released if and only if the Parole Board is satisfied that it is safe to do so. But serious sexual or violent offenders rarely get life—even if they offend again. In 1994, 217 offenders were convicted of a second or subsequent serious violent or sexual offence. All could have received a life sentence—but only 10 did.

Offenders who do not receive a life sentence have to be released from prison after serving two thirds of their sentence, even if everyone working with them knows that they are likely to commit another serious crime on some innocent member of the public. The sad reality is that many of them do.

In 1994, around 40 serious violent or sexual crimes were committed by offenders who had already been convicted of a second such offence. I believe that that is indefensible. I therefore propose that anyone aged 18 or over who is convicted of a serious sexual or violent offence for a second time should be sentenced to life imprisonment.

In these indeterminate life sentence cases, the trial judge, not Ministers, would set the tariff—the minimum period to be served for retribution and deterrence. Once the tariff had been served, the Parole Board would decide whether it was safe to release the offenders or not. If the Parole Board decided that they still posed a danger to the public, they would remain in prison. Those considered safe would be released on life licence and subject to recall to prison at any time during the rest of their lives.

Thirdly, I refer to drug dealers. Drug dealers are a scourge on society. They prey on the young and the innocent and wreck people's lives and, because addicts often resort to crime to finance their habits, they wreck the livelihoods of others. Dealers in hard drugs such as heroin, Ecstasy and cocaine usually receive prison sentences but, in many cases, those prison sentences are not long enough for those who persistently commit that very serious crime.

A recent sample showed that the average sentence for a third conviction of dealing in hard drugs was just over four years, and those offenders are automatically released after serving only two and a half years. We need to send a strong and clear signal that persistent dealing in hard drugs is not something we are prepared to tolerate. I therefore propose that anyone aged 18 or over who is convicted on three separate occasions of dealing in class A drugs should receive a minimum sentence of seven years in prison.

Next is burglary. All burglary is disruptive and costly, but domestic burglary is particularly distressing for victims who lose their treasured personal possessions and feel that the sanctity of their home has been violated. I believe that persistent domestic burglars deserve long prison sentences, yet they rarely get them.

A sample of domestic burglars convicted in the Crown courts in 1993 and 1994 showed that the average prison sentence for a first-time offender was 16.2 months. Even after three or more convictions it was only 18.9 months, and after seven or more convictions it was barely higher, at 19.4 months—and offenders actually serve just over half that. Indeed, 28 per cent. of offenders with seven or more convictions for domestic burglary in the Crown courts were not sent to prison at all. In the magistrates courts, that figure was even higher, at 61 per cent.

I simply do not believe that that gives the public the protection they deserve. Those sentences do not deter career burglars for whom the occasional short stretch in prison has become an acceptable occupational hazard. That is why I propose a minimum sentence of three years for anyone aged 18 or over convicted of domestic burglary for a third time.

In addition, I hope that the courts will use to the full their new powers to seize burglars' assets. The prospect of long prison sentences, coupled with loss of their possessions, will, I have no doubt, deter many burglars altogether. Others will not be deterred, but at least communities will get a lengthy break from their criminal activities.

Five thousand more policemen to help catch burglars; new vigorous police tactics designed to take the offensive to the burglar; long sentences for persistent burglars; and the prospect of their own property being seized—those are my proposals to take on the burglar as has never been done before. I have no doubt that they will be warmly supported by the public.

I accept that there may very occasionally be cases where it would not be reasonable for the court to impose the minimum sentence. I therefore propose that the courts should have the discretion not to impose it in genuinely exceptional circumstances.

Let me summarise my proposals. Automatic early release from prison will be ended; anyone convicted of a second serious sexual or violent crime will receive a life sentence; and persistent domestic burglars will receive mandatory minimum prison sentences of three years, and those dealing in hard drugs seven years. Those are deliberately tough sentences, designed to deal with serious, persistent and wholly unacceptable offending by individual criminals. I accept that they are likely to lead to an increase in the prison population: the necessary prison places will need to be built, and that will require extra resources. I believe, however, that we simply cannot afford not to take such action.

I intend to phase in the measures. The provision to deal with second-time serious sexual and violent offenders and drug dealers will be implemented as soon as possible after Royal Assent to the Bill. I intend to implement the provisions to deal with persistent burglars and honesty in sentencing two years later, as new prison places become available. I also intend to consult fully on the proposals contained in the White Paper, and I shall carefully consider the points that are made. Having done that, I propose to introduce a Bill giving effect to my proposals in the next Session of Parliament.

The first duty of Government is to maintain law and order—to protect people's freedom to walk safely in their streets and sleep safely in their homes. We have taken action to ensure that the balance in our criminal justice system favours the law-abiding public, not the criminal. The police have revolutionised the way in which they fight crime, targeting known and persistent criminals with impressive results, and the public are increasingly playing their part through neighbourhood watch, street watch and the special constabulary.

My proposals are intended to protect the public from those who persistently commit offences that cause particular public concern—serious violent or sexual offences, drug dealing and domestic burglary. They will ensure that, once caught and convicted, persistent and dangerous criminals are properly punished. The proposals are tough, and they should be: they are needed to protect the public and build a safer Britain. I commend them to the House.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

I thank the Home Secretary for his courtesy in allowing me time to read the White Paper.

When he referred to the recent figures for recorded crime, the Home Secretary might have mentioned that in the past six months the level of recorded crime has begun to rise, and that in the past year the number of robberies has increased by 14 per cent. Two thirds of the White Paper contains a useful summary of measures already taken and announced by the Government over the past three years; it is very disappointing that it contains no proposals to improve the operation of the youth justice system, which is unquestionably one of the weakest parts of our present criminal justice arrangements.

The Home Secretary has made much of the current lack of consistency and progression in sentencing, and he is right. Does he agree that chance plays far too great a role in sentencing today, as I pointed out in a paper that I published last week? How can anyone explain to the public that the chance of receiving a custodial sentence in a magistrates court can vary from one case in six in Staffordshire Moorlands court to one in 66 in a similar court in Berkshire?

Is it not deeply disturbing, especially to the victims of crime, that—according to figures that the Secretary of State has given me—the average prison sentence imposed on burglars remains the same, at 15 months, whether it is for a first, second or third offence? Is it not bizarre that the average sentence imposed on a third-time drug dealer—30 months—is two months shorter than the average 32-month sentence imposed on a first-time dealer?

Does the Home Secretary accept that, in large part, the lack of consistency and progression arises from the Criminal Justice Act 1991, for which he voted? That Act also cut the maximum sentence for theft and non-domestic burglary by a third. Is it not the case that, just five years ago, the Government decided to resist proposals from my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) to bring about greater consistency in sentencing?

The Secretary of State recently complained that the current sentencing system makes a farce and mockery of the Courts". Would he not be more convincing, however, if he recognised that that "farce and mockery" is almost entirely of his Government's making and a result of their failure in the past 17 years?

On the issue of consistency and progression, does the Home Secretary accept that his proposals deal directly with only a limited number of offences? Therefore, does not consideration need to be given to our proposals for the Court of Appeal to have a duty to issue sentencing guidelines, after public consultation, in respect of all the most common or most serious offences?

We support the principle of the Secretary of State's proposal on the way in which court sentences should be explained to the public and to victims—so-called honesty in sentencing. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the proposal is not of itself intended to increase the overall prison sentence served? Will the ending of parole mean that there is no longer any assessment of risk before many long-term prisoners on determinate sentences are released?

My colleagues and I also support the principle that repeat rapists and similar offenders should receive indeterminate, reviewable sentences. We believe that there would be advantage in having a formally different regime from lifers for those offenders, as I think the White Paper accepts, but there needs to be further discussion on the matter.

To illustrate why we support the proposal, may I draw to the Secretary of State's attention a case to which the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), has already been alerted by one of my hon. Friends? In that case, a former spouse sexually assaulted his 11-year-old daughter and was gaoled for three years. On his release, he went almost immediately and raped one of his family's neighbours. He received a 12-year sentence. He is due to be released in June.

I understand from my hon. Friend that the police and the Prison Service are convinced that, on his release, the man will commit further offences against those people or others. So great is the danger that one of the families is having to be rehoused. I think that all hon. Members will acknowledge that that is intolerable. Reviewable, indeterminate sentences, proposed 21 years ago by the Butler committee, are needed and are strongly supported by us. Will the Secretary of State say, however, whether he thinks that the final decision might be made on application in open court and not necessarily by the Parole Board?

I refer to the Secretary of State's minimum sentence proposals. We do not argue with his purpose, which is to ensure that there is far greater certainty—for victims and offenders alike—that people who persistently burgle or deal in hard drugs receive appropriate tough, deterrent prison sentences. There are considerable doubts, however, about whether the Secretary of State's method will achieve his purpose.

The fact that, in the past 17 years, every previous Conservative Home Secretary has resisted inflexible minimum sentences may not persuade the current Secretary of State, but what has he to say of someone of whom he normally takes great notice, the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence), who is Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs? On 20 February 1991, he said: I do not like minimum sentences. They reduce the discretion of the courts, and all who practise in or know anything about the courts realise that human life spans an enormous width and that there are many degrees of blameworthiness. Governments have resisted the idea of going down this slippery slope because if one case is allowed as an exception it becomes difficult to refuse other cases".—[Official Report, 20 February 1991; Vol. 186, c. 311-12.] That was exactly the Home Secretary's position just 16 months ago, when the House was told by his Minister of State that, in the Secretary of State's view, The courts should be left to determine appropriate sentences in individual cases."—111[Official Report, 3 November 1994; Vol. 248, c. 1336]

What does the Secretary of State say to one of the many objections raised by previous Home Office Ministers, that inflexible minimum sentences could result in juries acquitting more guilty men and women to avoid excessive punishment."—[Official Report, 20 February 1991; Vol. 186, c. 349.]— the view put in 1991 by the right hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten) when he was Minister of State, Home Office?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman—we congratulate him on this—has come a long way since his party conference speech. Exceptions to minimum sentences were not mentioned anywhere in that conference speech, but they are now. They certainly will be necessary to avoid injustice, but what guidance will be given to avoid inconsistency and injustice?

I think that the whole House knows that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has cut the Secretary of State's budget for each of the next three years. Will the Secretary of State therefore confirm that that is the main reason why his principal proposals cannot begin to take effect until late 1999, and will not take full effect until 17 years after that? Will he therefore confirm that, after 17 years of this Administration, the public are expected to wait for many more years before they receive the protection that they unquestionably need?

After 17 years and 10 criminal justice Bills, public confidence in the criminal justice system has never been lower. The Secretary of State must acknowledge that these proposals represent a rejection of almost everything that the Conservative party has done on sentencing during the past 17 years. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that public confidence has collapsed not just because of inconsistency and lack of progression in sentencing?

Does the Secretary of State not understand that public confidence has also plummeted because, while crime overall in the past 17 years has doubled, burglary has increased by 150 per cent., rape has quadrupled and robbery has risen fivefold, convictions for all those offences are now far lower than they were in 1979? Does he accept that this much-heralded White Paper does nothing to tackle those problems?

Mr. Howard

As is so often the case with the hon. Gentleman, he huffs and he puffs and we are left wondering what his attitude to our proposals actually is. We thought that he might tell us just this once whether he was in favour of these proposals and whether he would support them. He made much of the need for greater consistency in sentencing but, as is so often the case with the hon. Gentleman and his party, he espouses the ends but denies the means. The way to obtain consistency in sentencing in the most serious of cases is to introduce precisely the proposals that are contained in the White Paper. We are still waiting to know whether the hon. Gentleman is in favour of the mandatory sentences.

Let me take the poignant case to which the hon. Gentleman referred in the course of his observations. He referred to what I think all hon. Members would regard as a dreadful case—a case of a man who, having committed an indecent assault and a rape, is now about to be released when everybody knows that he is likely to commit another offence.

Mr. Straw

I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's proposals on that.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman says that he agrees with my proposals on that, but only 10 days ago he issued a policy document that set out a quite different proposal.

Mr. Straw


Mr. Howard

Let me remind the hon. Gentleman. He has a short memory. He has already forgotten the contents of the proposal that he put out 10 days ago.

Ten days ago, the hon. Gentleman said that there should be a presumption in favour of an indeterminate sentence. A presumption in favour of an indeterminate sentence is a far cry from an automatic sentence with exceptions only for genuine, very special, exceptional circumstances. If the hon. Gentleman cannot tell the difference between those two, he simply does not know what he is talking about. It was a very different proposal indeed.

We still do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is in favour of the minimum sentences for persistent burglars or for persistent dealers in hard drugs. Those are at the core of my proposals to protect the public from the activities of such serious offenders. The hon. Gentleman now seems to wish to give the impression from a sedentary position that, for the most part at any rate, he agrees with the proposals. Let me remind him of not only what he said 10 days ago when he issued his policy document, but what he said about my proposals immediately after my speech at Blackpool.

On that occasion, he dismissed my proposals as ill thought through and ill considered. The hon. Gentleman and his Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), described my proposals as "daft". Either they are daft or the Labour party agrees with them. It ought to make up its mind which it is. The truth is that, as usual, the Labour party is at sixes and sevens. It does not know what to say or what to do.

The proposals will give the public the protection that they deserve, and it is about time the Labour party made its position clear.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I seem to have been listening to a debate rather than a statement, questions and answers. I insist that from now on questions are put directly to the Home Secretary briskly, and I am sure that they will be responded to in that spirit.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the proposals that he has outlined this afternoon will be welcomed in Harborough? Does he further accept that the concept of the minimum sentence is not foreign to our law and that the introduction of further proposals on minimum sentences should be widely welcomed by the courts and those who wish to benefit from the protection of the courts?

Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider the introduction of sentences with both a minimum and a maximum, so that the well-behaved prisoner knows that he can serve the minimum, but the badly behaved prisoner who does not recognise his criminal behaviour may have to serve the maximum?

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his support. My proposal achieves what he suggested in the second part of his question in a rather more effective way, by making it clear that a maximum of 20 per cent. remission can be earned by good behaviour. We make it clear to prisoners exactly what the consequences of good and bad behaviour will be. So I think that my proposal achieves the objective that my hon. and learned Friend desires.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for allowing me to see the proposals earlier in the day. Now that we know that the shadow Home Secretary can be described as "Howard lite in a new blue can", will the Home Secretary tell those of us who are genuinely opposed to the substance of his proposals why it has taken 17 years for his burglar alarm to go off? Why does he not spend between £400 million and £1 billion on something useful, such as preventing crime before it occurs, instead of on locking up people who could have been prevented from committing crime after it occurs? Does he really believe that it is in the public interest to request, as he does in the White Paper, that judges pass not longer but shorter sentences?

Where does the right hon. and learned Gentleman get his evidence for the claim in the conclusions of the White Paper that there will be a reduction of 20 per cent. in an element of the prison population as a result of the proposals? If, as he says, it will take four years to bring the proposals on stream, why did he not introduce them four years ago? If he says that sentences that are too short are being passed, why has not the Attorney-General appealed against more of the sentences passed in serious cases?

Finally, will the Home Secretary tell us why he believes that it is right to impose minimum sentences of seven years' imprisonment on small-time heroin addicts for sharing out drugs among themselves on three occasions? They need the treatment that the Government are not providing rather than these absurd, populist proposals.

Mr. Howard

I congratulate the hon. and learned Gentleman. He has at least made the position of his party absolutely clear. He has made it crystal clear that his party is opposed to the proposals. We look forward to continuing the debate on the proposals with members and representatives of his party up and down the country. We shall particularly draw the people's attention to the way in which he dismisses those who traffic in hard drugs—those who are convicted for a third time of trafficking in hard drugs.

Mr. Carlile

Answer the question.

Mr. Howard

I am answering the hon. and learned Gentleman's question. I am explaining to him, if he will listen for a moment, what would happen if those who cause such desperate damage to others were dealt with in the way that he proposes. He referred to small-time traffickers in drugs.

Mr. Carlile

No—small-time heroin addicts.

Mr. Howard

These proposals are designed to deal with traffickers in hard drugs. It took only one Ecstasy tablet to kill Leah Betts and other victims of hard drugs. The hon. and learned Gentleman will, on reflection, be truly and deeply ashamed of the attitude that he has espoused.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that he is doing precisely what the British people want, and that the only people who will oppose his measures are the friends of the lawless? The lawful will want the action that he has announced. Will he confirm that there will be absolute rigour and consistency in sentencing and that the force of the law will fall with equal weight on all criminals found guilty, whether in the north, the south, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland?

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. I am sure that his assessment of the public mood is correct. These proposals are brought forward not simply for that reason, but because they represent a careful and precisely targeted response to the worst crimes that afflict the public and will achieve greater protection for the public, which has to be our overriding priority. The protection of the public must be paramount. That is why the proposals have been brought forward.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

Will more prisoners serve longer in prison as a result of the proposals? If so, where will the funds come from, to make that possible? Will the Home Secretary tell the people of Birmingham and the west midlands what the measures will do to counter theft, robbery and car crime, which are still rising?

Mr. Howard

I certainly expect the proposals for persistent burglars and dealers in hard drugs to lead to longer sentences and to their spending longer in prison. The same would apply to those who had automatic life sentences passed upon them for second serious sexual or violent offences.

The outcome is less clear in relation to the honesty in sentencing proposals. Their purpose is to enable the public to see clearly the effect of the sentence that is passed so that they are not cheated, as so many people feel at present, by nominal sentences of 10 years that turn out to be actual sentences of five years. That is not through any fault of the judges, but is the result of measures that have been passed by Parliament over many years. That will be the net effect of the proposals on the length of sentences served.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

I am sure that the public will welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's proposals, even if the Liberal party does not. It has been said that those who commit serious sexual or violent crimes for a second time and who can expect open-ended sentences will have the inhibition not to harm or even kill their victims removed from them. What steps does he intend to take to differentiate between the indeterminate sentences that will be passed on such a criminal as opposed to those who kill?

Mr. Howard

I can indeed answer my hon. Friend's point. Most people who have just committed a rape are unlikely to be behaving or thinking rationally. They are unlikely to draw the inference that he suggests could be drawn from the fate that might await them. If they were to be rational, they would know that they would serve longer in prison as a consequence of any further criminal act that they might be tempted to commit.

The position under my life sentence proposal is that the judge would decide how long would be served for retribution and deterrence. He would decide that the prisoner should serve five years, for example, and then there would be an assessment of risk, after which, if it was safe to release the prisoner, he would be released. If someone murdered after having committed a rape, the tariff imposed by the judge would be very much longer even than that which would be imposed in a case of rape.

Ms Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen)

Could the Home Secretary explain why prison works? In the last six months of last year, as prison numbers rose, so too did recorded crime. Does he expect the proposals to result in a reduction in recorded crime?

Mr. Howard

We have seen a reduction in crime for the past three calendar years—only the third time that that has happened this century. That coincided with a significant increase in the prison population of about 25 per cent.

Most people readily recognise that, given that a relatively small number of persistent offenders commit a disproportionately large number of crimes, as will be confirmed by any police officer, if those persistent offenders are effectively targeted, brought to justice, convicted and imprisoned, it is not at all surprising that crime comes down. That has been happening, and it has played an important part in the reduction in recorded crime in the past three years.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

May I point out that we ought to be looking not merely at the crimes that my right hon. and learned Friend counts, but, for example, at the reduction in drink-driving, which has saved 1,000 lives a year and has probably reduced serious offences by about a million a week? Changing the culture is important.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept my congratulations on the honesty in sentencing proposals, which are important to the public? Can he make it plain that, if there are to be life sentences for the worst murders, one of the penalties for those convicted is that they will be in gaol for life, while those who will not be a danger to society might be released earlier?

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and agree with everything he said— I can do so without qualification. I pay tribute to the work he did while he was at the Department of Transport to reduce the number of drink-driving offences. Perhaps he will agree that one of the factors that played a part in that reduction was the availability of minimum mandatory sentences in that context. The fact that someone was certain to lose his or her driving licence if convicted of an offence while drink-driving played a significant part in the reduction in the number of those offences.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Home Secretary aware that most people outside this place and many in here—certainly on Opposition Benches—reckon that the White Paper is just a blatant piece of electioneering? Is he aware of the reality in constituencies such as mine? Seventeen years ago, the doors of most of the houses in the pit villages would have been open at night. After 17 years, they are locked up tightly some two and three times over, and they are kicked in at 2 and 3 o'clock in the morning.

My constituents do not need the Home Secretary saying that crime is going down—they know the opposite is true. The social fabric is breaking down. The Government should not come here after 17 years and try to kid on the electorate that they have some answers to the problems. The truth is that mass unemployment and other social matters need to be dealt with urgently. This Home Secretary got elected to set the people free, and the prisoners got out.

Mr. Howard

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on the fact that recorded crime in Derbyshire, which was rising for many years before 1979, fell last year. I hope that he will join me in paying tribute to the Derbyshire police for their part in achieving that result. On reflection, I hope that he will be able to support the proposals to help ensure that that trend continues.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

The British public fully understand that crime is caused by criminals. Is it not the case that the proposals in the statement will mean that criminals will be removed from circulation for far longer and then the British people can sleep better in their beds, including in Derbyshire?

Mr. Howard

I entirely agree. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand if I associate Kent with Derbyshire in the context of his question. We have to take a range of measures across the board, of which longer sentences of imprisonment are only one aspect, to achieve a concerted attack on crime, which is what the people want.

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey)

Will the Home Secretary explain how minimum sentences and maximum sentences are meant to act as a reasonable deterrent when, after 17 years of Conservative Government, the conviction rates are plummeting?

Mr. Howard

We need to improve conviction rates as well—and that is precisely what the police are doing. That is why it is important that the police use new methods of tackling crime, which they are doing to great effect; that is why it is important that we have more police officers, and we shall provide 5,000 extra police over the next three years; that is why it is important that we change the law to make it less easy for guilty men to walk free from the court, which we have done, despite the opposition of the Labour party; and that is why we intend to tackle these measures across the board, as I have indicated this afternoon.

Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that ordinary citizens, including my constituents, will warmly welcome the measures that he has introduced today as bold and decisive? Does he agree that people are fed up with seeing criminals released early after inadequate sentences, and then seeing them commit the same or similar crimes again?

Mr. Howard

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. We know that the feelings that he has expressed are widely held, and I believe that they are also soundly based. By introducing these targeted and focused measures, we shall be able to make a significant impact on the crimes that cause our constituents the greatest distress.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

The prisons budget is to be cut by 13 per cent. in the next three years. What will happen now under the new provisions? What are the estimates of the extra expenditure that is needed for prison purposes? Will this mean that the 13 per cent. figure will disappear?

Mr. Howard

No, the 13 per cent. figure is part of a drive to achieve improved efficiency in the Prison Service, as we are endeavouring to do across our public services. Some of the private prisons have shown that it is possible to provide effective services at a lower cost in our prisons. Of course, the extra prison places that will be required as a consequence of the proposals will have to be paid for—we do not shrink from that. If the hon. Gentleman looks at paragraph 13.8 of the White Paper, he will find that all the details are set out there.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that I served as a lay magistrate for 12 years before entering the House? Therefore, I understand very well the need for those involved in sentencing to have a degree of flexibility, to ensure that the punishment not only fits the crime but fits the criminal and the circumstances of the offence.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that sentences must also take into account public attitudes to all specific offences? A number of judges and magistrates have failed to do that, which has produced the current state of affairs and the need for the White Paper, which we warmly welcome.

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend's experience adds particular power and credibility to the point that he made. I am extremely grateful to him for his support. I think that his analysis will command widespread support.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Home Secretary's White Paper deals specifically with England and Wales. Will he be consulting the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Northern Ireland? During last night's debate, we discovered that people move around much more and that we have a problem in transferring prisoners because of different sentencing patterns between the two jurisdictions. Is the Minister in a position to give some direction to the Director of Public Prosecutions or to the Crown Prosecution Service, which may have a problem in bringing forward cases for trial in the courts, which ultimately demoralises the police who apprehend the criminals?

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that my responsibilities extend only to England and Wales. My right hon. Friends who have responsibility for Scotland and Northern Ireland have been closely involved in the preparation of the proposals, but I cannot answer for Scotland or for Northern Ireland.

Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that while there will undoubtedly be a great deal of support for the fact that violent recidivists will be taken out of circulation for a longer period, there is another advantage in what he has announced this afternoon? With an ending of automatic remission and the introduction of indeterminate sentences, there will be a far greater incentive to the convicted person to co-operate with the prison authorities in his own rehabilitation.

Mr. Howard

I agree with my hon. Friend; that is a very important part of these proposals. As he will know, we have introduced a new regime of structured incentives for good behaviour and penalties for bad behaviour in our prisons, and I believe that the proposals will reinforce the effect of those measures in encouraging good behaviour in our prisons.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

The Home Secretary recognises that rape is a very serious crime indeed. Why is it, then, that although recorded cases of rape have quadrupled since 1980, there have been fewer convictions than there were 16 years previously?

Mr. Howard

The hon. Lady raises a pertinent question, to which I do not think that anyone knows the answer. It is very important that we reviewed our criminal justice system to ensure that the imbalance that had grown over the years, which had come to favour the criminal at the expense of the victim, was remedied. We have taken substantial measures to remedy that imbalance, notwithstanding the opposition of the Labour party, and I believe that, in time, those measures will achieve the object that I believe the hon. Lady and I share.

Mr. David Faber (Westbury)

Did my right hon. and learned Friend see a poll published this week which claimed that 87 per cent. of the population believe that the judges have lost touch? Could not the same be said of the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile), because presumably his only remaining ambition is to join their ranks? Given the disgraceful outburst that he made this afternoon, showing his complete lack of knowledge of drug abuse, should not the slogan of the Liberal Democrat party now be, "What's a little smack among friends?"

Mr. Howard

I very much agree with my hon. Friend, and especially in relation to his slogan, with perhaps one exception. It is not entirely fair to say of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) that he has lost touch; he was never in touch.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South)

The Home Secretary must know by now that the British public will realise that it is an admission of failure for a Government to legislate constantly on crime, even to the extent of repealing their own recent legislation. Will he please draw an elementary philosophical distinction between doing something about crime, in the sense of achievement, and always to be doing something about crime, in the sense of fiddling with the system—or perhaps I should say fiddling the system? It is time that we adopted a wider spectrum of approaches to the causes, prevention and detection of crime, as well as merely constantly chasing the dragon, like a legislative junkie.

Mr. Howard

If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my statement, he would know that I advance a comprehensive approach, which ascribes importance to preventing crime and such measures. We recently set up the new Crime Prevention Agency precisely and specifically to deal with that aspect of the problem.

I believe that it is essential to keep these matters under review so that we can learn from experience, and so that we can see what is working and what is not and constantly improve our approach. I believe that that is the task of Government; I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman takes such a radically different view.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)

May I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on having the vision and guts to resist vested interests and on recognising that justice is there to serve the interests not of courts or judges, but of the people? Does he recognise that when the White Paper becomes law, people in Lichfield will sleep easier in their beds?

Mr. Howard

I very much hope that the proposals will play a part in helping people not only in Lichfield, but throughout the country, to sleep more safely in their homes, to walk more safely in their streets and to live in a safer Britain. That is the object of the proposals.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Is not the statement a fitting obituary for a rotten and morally bankrupt Government who, in the past 17 years, have created a tidal wave of crime, poverty and deprivation? Do not minimum sentences show that the Government have lost confidence in courts, judges and juries setting suitable punishments for crimes? Is it not also the case, as the Tory Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee said some time ago, that successive Governments have resisted minimum sentences because they represent a slippery slope?

Mr. Howard

As I have said, one must be prepared to keep the matters under review, to learn from experience and to improve the system. As to obituaries, I think that I am correct in saying that the hon. Gentleman does not intend to stand again at the next election. Therefore, his question may be taken as his political obituary.

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

I refer my right hon. and learned Friend to a statement made today by the Police Federation, in which it said: We do not agree with the chorus of criticism from the judges. They should acknowledge their own responsibility for the current situation and they should not try to frustrate the will of Parliament". Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is time to put an end not to 17 years of Tory rule, but to 30 years of failure on the part of the judges to use the powers that Parliament has given them to protect the public?

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I welcome the support of the Police Federation. When I assess the views of those who have commented about my proposals in the past—and who no doubt will do so again in the future—I believe that it is extremely important to pay particular attention to those who are at the sharp end and who have the difficult task of dealing with dangerous criminals on our behalf day in, day out and night in, night out. I pay particular attention to the views of the police when I consider those matters.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

Will the Home Secretary confirm the accuracy of press reports that the Home Office is predicting a rise of 10,000 to 12,000 in the prison population? Are those figures based on the assumption that his proposals will lead to a 20 per cent. drop in offending? If that is so, upon what evidence does he base that assumption, as I have yet to see any evidence that tougher sentencing reduces offending—or on whether tougher sentencing is right or wrong as a means of punishment? If he has made those assumptions and they prove incorrect, the prison system will become so overcrowded as to be unmanageable.

Mr. Howard

It is true that my proposals are expected to lead to an increase in the prison population, and the details are set out in the White Paper. It is true also that we have made an estimate of the deterrent effect of sentencing along those lines, and it is the best estimate that we can make. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to see studies that have shown that greater certainty as well as severity in sentencing is likely to have a deterrent effect, I refer him to the studies by Beyleveld in 1980, Lewis in 1986 and Burnett in 1992—all of which support that proposition.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South)

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that I have campaigned for a number of years—both during my time in criminal law practice at the Bar and during my four years in this place—for precisely the sort of measures that he has introduced this afternoon. The victims of crime will particularly welcome the removal of automatic remission of sentences. The victims of crime and the general public want the sentence that is passed by the courts to be the sentence that is served.

Unless the Labour party supports each and every one of my right hon. and learned Friend's proposals, the people will know that it is soft on crime and soft on the causes of crime. They know also that the remarks of the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile)—who talked about being soft on drug offenders—may be treated with nothing but contempt.

Mr. Howard

I agree with my hon. Friend. I suspect that we may have to wait a little longer to hear the Labour party's definitive position. However, there is no doubt about the position of the Liberal Democrats, which I believe will be of great interest to people up and down the country.

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

Given his responses, how can the Home Secretary claim that his statement is comprehensive? Where are the proposals to prevent and cut crime? Where are the plans to catch criminals? That is what he promised us in the first paragraph of his statement. He has presided over the chaos that has seen only one crime in 50 punished by a court. Why does not the Home Secretary propose action, as we have, to get a grip on youth crime and to nip it in the bud instead of allowing it to drift until it is too late?

In his statement, the Home Secretary said that the average sentence for a third conviction of dealing in hard drugs is four years, with automatic release after two and a half years. What will the average be after his proposals are implemented, and from what date will his standard apply?

Finally, on honesty in sentencing, the White Paper states: The Government does not expect these proposals to result in a general increase in the period of time offenders serve in prison. Will the Home Secretary acknowledge that statement?

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman mentioned helping to bring people to justice and reducing crime. He will remember that when we introduced proposals on bail, in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, his party sought to undermine those proposals.

Mr. Michael

Answer the question.

Mr. Howard

I am answering the hon. Gentleman's question. When we introduced measures to change the right to silence in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 so that more guilty people would be convicted, his party opposed those proposals root and branch. So it is no use the hon. Gentleman asking where the proposals are, because they are now on the statute book, despite opposition from his party.

On the last two questions the hon. Gentleman raised, the answers are as follows. As is clear, a third-time offender for the offence of trafficking in hard drugs will serve a minimum sentence of seven years. That will be an honest sentence. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman what the average will be, but the minimum sentence will be seven years.

On honest sentencing, we have always made the position clear. The purpose of the honest sentencing proposal is to end a state of affairs in which the public are misled into believing that the nominal sentence passed by the court is the sentence served, when in truth the relationship between the two is very different. I want the public to know that the sentence passed by the court is the sentence served, and that is the purpose of the honest sentencing proposal.

I look forward in due course to a clear statement from the Labour party about its position on the proposals. On its response, we may be able to reach a considered judgment about the significance that we can attach to the rhetoric of which it is so fond.

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