HC Deb 20 November 1996 vol 285 cc970-3
8. Mr. Clifton-Brown

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement about the introduction of more severe non-custodial penalties for convicted offenders.[3466]

Mr. Michael Forsyth

We have made it possible for community service orders to be longer and tougher, and we shall introduce electronic tagging, subject to the House approving the necessary legislation.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the latter point. Has he noted the inconsistency between Labour's Front-Bench Scottish spokesmen, who oppose these proposals, and its senior Front-Bench spokesmen south of the border, who purport to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime?

Mr. Forsyth

I have noticed a certain inconsistency, which I assume is due to the length of the line of communication from Islington. It is extraordinary that the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) should suggest that the Labour party wants to decide the bedtime of the nation's children, while the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) continues to oppose our proposals for electronic tagging, which is a useful way of dealing with football hooligans and others who cause disturbances on the streets of our towns and cities, especially on weekends and Friday evenings.

Mr. Galbraith

Why does the Secretary of State always talk tough on crime but act so weakly on handgun control? Why has he left a glaring loophole through which people can retain ownership of .22 handguns? Does he not realise that the people of Scotland are outraged? That is unfinished business and the next Labour Government will legislate to abolish all handguns.

Mr. Forsyth

I do not think that there is going to be another Labour Government. If there is, they will presumably be better at getting their people to turn up than the Labour Opposition have been. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not want to mislead the House, but people will not be able to have handguns of any calibre outside registered gun clubs. I have made it absolutely clear that the toughest standards of security will be applied. The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) was among those who voted for the handgun ban, but only weeks before the vote he assured his constituents that Labour's policy was to allow people to continue to use handguns in clubs. It is impossible not to conclude that Labour has sought to exploit the issue for party political purposes. I think that that is disgraceful.

Mr. Waterson

Does my right hon. Friend agree that tougher sentences, whether custodial or non-custodial, are overwhelmingly popular with the law-abiding public and that the only people who are out of step on the issue are Opposition Members and a few misguided senior judges?

Mr. Forsyth

I would never criticise the judges. It is for the judges to implement the law and to exercise their judgment in doing so in the courts; it is for Parliament to decide what the law should be. I observe only that on every measure, and perhaps most spectacularly on our proposals to allow a right of appeal by the Crown against lenient sentences imposed by judges, the Opposition have voted against the interests of those who want the country to be seen to be tough on crime and to give the judges the powers that they need to ensure that the punishment fits the crime.

Mr. Davidson

Does the Minister accept that it is not only the toughness, but the certainty, of the sentence that acts as a deterrent? Is he, like me, concerned about delays between the date of an individual being charged by the police and the date on which he or she is to appear in court? Delay undermines the system's credibility if people who are known to have been caught and charged by the police are free to continue offending until they appear in court. Will the Secretary of State publish the figures for delays between charging and sentencing? Will he undertake to do something about those delays?

Mr. Forsyth

I agree with the hon. Gentleman: there are unacceptable delays in the system. The legal aid system partly encourages delay, which is one reason why we want to reform it. The hon. Gentleman is right to mention the importance of the punishment being administered as soon as possible and to say that people who have committed serious crimes should not be allowed to be released into the community. We have been concerned about bail. I shall certainly consider the hon. Gentleman's suggestion about publishing the length of the delays. I got into some trouble with, and encountered opposition from, the hon. Gentleman's colleagues when I said that we would publish the sentencing practices of the sheriff courts—there are inexplicable and wide variations between them. The hon. Gentleman pinpoints a matter that causes considerable concern in communities the length and breadth of Scotland.

Mr. George Robertson

We are prepared to consider and assist on non-custodial penalties in the Scottish legal system where they are appropriate. The Government's reputation and credibility on law and order was seriously damaged on Monday night when they politicised the handgun issue with a whipped vote in the House. Has the Secretary of State read in today's paper the comments of the dean of the Faculty of Advocates—Scotland's top QC—who says that, in the general fight against crime in Scotland, a total ban on handguns is appropriate and necessary? There is still time to reconsider the Firearms (Amendment) Bill before it becomes the law of the land. Is it not possible for the Government to try to rescue their reputation by allowing Conservative Members to follow their judgment and conscience rather than the diktat of the Whips Office?

Mr. Forsyth

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Cabinet reached a view on handguns that went way beyond Lord Cullen's recommendations and what Opposition parties were saying prior to knowing the Government's views. If I believed that a ban on handguns was the right policy for my party—I understand that that is the hon. Gentleman's position—I would do everything possible to ensure that there was a whipped vote to achieve that end. The hon. Gentleman could not even get his colleagues into the Lobby to support his party's policy. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's colleagues were in the Lobby supporting a policy that went way beyond what the hon. Gentleman was prepared to describe as his policy until he knew what the Government were going to do.