HC Deb 14 November 2000 vol 356 cc888-91

Lords amendment: No. 73, in page 21, line 7, after ("orders)") insert ("whenever made")

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.—[Mr. Boateng.]

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 74 and 75.

Mr. Hawkins

I do not wish to detain the House long, hut there are one or two points that I should like to make.

I appreciate that the Minister has moved the Lords amendment formally, but Members will appreciate that the official Opposition were hoping that the amendments that we tabled in time, but have not been selected for debate, would be able to be discussed. We were seeking to draw attention to our consistent concern, which we have raised on several occasions—in the House on Second Reading and in Committee, and again in another place in Committee and on Report—about the way in which the Government have sought to rename the orders, which could damage the standing of such orders in the courts and the way in which the public perceive them.

We felt that there was considerable importance in sticking to names that had been hallowed by usage, and that members of the public were very familiar with the terms "probation order" and "community service order". We also reckoned that we were quite clearly supported in that belief by the majority of those who are at the sharp end of the business. The point was repeatedly made that the National Association of Probation Officers was very supportive of the official Opposition's stance, which could be summarised as, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it".

We felt that there was no reason to rename the orders. We particularly felt that there was a concern that, as in another section of the Bill, the new names could bring the law into disrepute, especially because of the acronyms that would result from a community rehabilitation and punishment order. One does not have to be a genius to see how, even if punishment and rehabilitation were switched around, young criminals would be referring to the orders. We had much support on that in Committee, including from Labour Members who expressed the same concerns as those expressed by people at the sharp end.

I do not want to rehearse all the arguments at this stage in the Bill's passage. However, we were hoping very much that, even at this late stage, the Government might be persuaded to agree that no commencement order for the provision should be made until completion of the current review into the operation of sentencing powers under the Criminal Justice Act 1991. The Government have commissioned that review and analysis of how this sphere of law will operate, and we thought that it was only logical not to put the cart before the horse. We were supported in that stance by the Liberal Democrats, both in Committee and, I think, in another place.

It was for that reason that we tabled our two amendments, both of which were called amendment (a). We were very sad that, although they had been tabled in time, neither of them were selected for debate. Nevertheless, although the Minister has moved this group only formally, we should like him to respond to our continuing concern—which was shared by Lords on all sides of the other House. We also recognise that there are continuing concerns among the professional bodies.

We do not think that the Government have made a sufficiently convincing case to change names that have been in the law for many years and that—as I know from my own professional experience—are perfectly familiar to all those who are involved with the courts. Everyone knows exactly what a community service order and a probation order are. The same argument can be made in relation to other spheres of the law that we debated earlier.

There is significance in titles and in using things that are familiar. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) said, unless Ministers can present a compelling reason for change, it is necessary not to change. We do not think that Ministers have ever made a convincing case on this matter. Moreover, not only the official Opposition and Liberal Democrat Members object to the change. If the National Association of Probation Officers does not think that the Government have it right, surely Ministers should be persuaded to think again. They were not so persuaded in Committee or in another place, but we hope that, even at this very late stage, they might change their minds.

Even when a Bill is enacted, it is still for the Government to decide when to implement its various provisions. We hope very much that Ministers will decide to think again about this provision. They have agreed to think again about some of their own legislation in other spheres of the law and not to implement various provisions. After all the debates, at the very last minute they were persuaded that perhaps they did need to think again.

Mr. Boateng

We are unlikely to be persuaded, even by the rather interesting alliance between the hon. Gentleman and the National Association of Probation Officers. We noticed that alliance in Committee where, time and again, he would refer to NAPO briefings. However, I was not persuaded then, and I am not persuaded now. We are seeking to make the names of all the orders as stated, regardless of the date that they are imposed. We do not want there to be the possibility of any confusion about non-existent differences between the names.

The Opposition have become strangely attached to the rather arcane existing titles of community orders. They conveniently seem to have forgotten that the Home Affairs Committee Report on "Alternatives to Prison Sentences"—published in September 1998—concluded that the language used for community sentences was often misleading. The Committee said that the term "community service" carried with it inappropriate connotations of voluntary activity and recommended the alternative name of "community work order". We believe that the names of orders ought to reflect their content and purpose, hence our desire to change them in clauses 38 to 40. We further believe that it is right to change the names as soon as convenient.

Mr. Hawkins

I am surprised that even after all our debates, the Minister can still refer to the existing titles as arcane, as a number of Labour Back Benchers tried—as we did—to persuade him that there was no need to change. The existing names are familiar to all involved with the courts. It is not a simply a matter of an alliance between the official Opposition and the National Association of Probation Officers. All of the professional bodies at the sharp end think that there is no benefit in confusing everybody with new names.

Mr. Boateng

I hear and respect that view, but I hear, respect and agree with the all-party Home Affairs Committee, which has a different view. That is the nature of dialectic; there is an exchange of views, a thesis, an antithesis—[Interruption.] I see the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) getting very excited at the prospect of such a debate. We hear the arguments, but remain unconvinced—despite the forceful advocacy of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). It is right to change the names as soon as convenient. We see no reason to await the results of the sentencing review which is, in any case, not a creature of statute. That review, which will report next year, is looking in much broader terms. Our need is to deal with the immediate situation and to enable community sentences to be better understood.

We see no reason to put in any restriction on commencement. I understand what has been a good argument, but the time has come to move on.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos 74 and 75 agreed to.

Forward to