HC Deb 21 April 1998 vol 310 cc585-6
8. Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)

What proposals he has to achieve consistency in sentencing in the criminal courts. [37621]

The Minister for Home Affairs and Devolution, Scottish Office (Mr. Henry McLeish)

Sentencing is a matter for the courts. We have just published sentencing profiles for the Scottish courts in order to make sentencing information more widely available and to assist in consistency in sentencing practice.

Mr. Browne

My hon. Friend will be aware that, even during the years of Tory obsession with prison building and longer prison sentences, there was one glaring inconsistency in sentencing—the disproportionate use of custody by the sheriffs in Kilmarnock sheriff court. However, since 1995—and thanks to the work of the social work department of East Ayrshire council—the sheriffs have been persuaded to make greater use of non-custodial sentences. My hon. Friend will be aware also that social work services and the criminal justice system are 100 per cent. funded by the Scottish Office, and that this year's allocation of grant—despite a national increase broadly in line with inflation—represents a 7.2 per cent. decrease for East Ayrshire council. In considering East Ayrshire council's submissions to him about that allocation, will my hon. Friend take into account the need to reinforce that trend in sentencing at Kilmarnock sheriff court?

Mr. McLeish

I welcome my hon. Friend's comments, and I would like to put on record our appreciation of the work being done by East Ayrshire council's criminal justice and social work department. We need to find not uniformity, but consistency, in sentencing throughout Scotland. That is why my hon. Friend is absolutely right to emphasise non-custodial sentencing. We are endeavouring to do a great deal more than the previous Government in relation to that matter. We have provided £2.5 million for criminal justice and social work services this year, and I sincerely hope that we will be able to invest even more over the coming months.

In the Crime and Disorder Bill, the Government propose new measures to ensure that a wide variety of options is available to courts throughout the country. We have supervised attendance orders; we are about to embark on a pilot electronic tagging scheme; and we have community service sentences. We must make sure that dangerous prisoners are locked up in prisons but, on the other hand, we must make sure that we are using alternatives to custody as far as we can. They are cost-effective and they work, and we need a better balance. Our prison population of 6,300 is high, and overcrowding can lead to the undermining of our attempts to rehabilitate and provide other positive services in prisons.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Why does not the hon. Gentleman understand that, in abandoning plans for honesty in sentencing, and in failing to abolish automatic early release from prison, the Government are displaying not toughness on crime but serial wimpishness? [Interruption.]

Mr. McLeish

I shall not reflect on my hon. Friends' comments in response to the hon. Gentleman's question, but I will say that he is simply wrong. One cannot pretend to be pursuing a tough policy on law and order merely by sending more and more people to prison, regardless of the consequences. The point about abandoning parole is sheer nonsense, as the Opposition know—they will have to realise that the Government are moving forward with a progressive policy, under which people will be put behind bars when necessary but non-custodial alternatives will be sought for others.

Ms Sandra Osborne (Ayr)

Can my hon. Friend offer an explanation for the dramatic increase in lock-up rates at Cornton Vale in recent months? Does he agree that sheriffs should consider alternatives to custody rather than continuing to lock up vulnerable women?

Mr. McLeish

My hon. Friend is right to express her concern about Cornton Vale—we, too, are concerned about the rising prison population there. We shall publish a report very soon, which will go some way to tackle the outstanding difficulties. As my hon. Friend suggested, we want to invest in alternatives to custody, which seems a sensible way forward not only for the people involved but for our prisons.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)

I welcome that answer, but does the Minister recognise that, to achieve equality of sentencing, we first have to catch the criminals? As has been said, morale is crucial to the effectiveness of the police force, so will he assure the House that he will give all the necessary support to Grampian police board to ensure the early appointment of a new chief constable? Will he assure us, too, that that chief constable will receive the resources and back-up to restore morale so that we can take advantage of the existence of a good-quality police force in that area?

Mr. McLeish

I entirely share the hon. Gentleman's sentiments. We hope that the new chief constable will be in place as soon as possible, which will be a tremendous boost to the force. Morale and public confidence are vital, and, in the aftermath of recent events, we hope to work in partnership to secure those objectives.

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