HL Deb 04 February 1986 vol 470 cc1009-11

2.56 p.m.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will consider the need for further guidance to magistrates' courts in regard to the imposition of custodial sentences on offenders in view of the wide differences in sentencing practice.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Glenarthur)

My Lords, sentencing in particular cases must remain a matter for the court, subject to the defendant's right of appeal. Fresh guidance on courts' powers and on the sentencing principles set out by the Court of Appeal will be given in the new edition of The Sentence of the Court due to be published later this month, a copy of which will be sent to every magistrate.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for responding so positively and promptly to the suggestion contained in my Question. However, does he not agree that the disparities in the use of custody, particularly as between certain urban and neighbouring magistrates' courts, are so serious as to reflect adversely on the quality of British justice? In those circumstances, would it not be a very useful and desirable step to improve liaison between magistrates' courts? Will his right honourable friend consider offering that advice high on the agenda of the guidance that he proposes to issue?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I accept that there are a variety of results. Consistency of approach in sentencing is something to be aimed for, but that will not necessarily produce uniformity of results. Magistrates must be free to reflect their knowledge of local concerns and problems. That is a major virtue of a locally-based system.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the first part of his original Answer was the statement of an important constitutional principle, and that the Government's adherence to it is to be welcomed? As my noble friend has indicated, disparity in sentences often flows from disparity locally, in different parts of the country, in the nature of crime and the amount of crime.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend is right. I must stress also that Ministers have often reaffirmed that the Government favour the use of non-custodial sentences wherever possible. We have done so in addressing magistrates, for example. We also foster the exchange of sentencing information among magistrates. But quite properly, and as I said earlier, the role of the Government must be to advise and encourage rather than to direct.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the discrepancies between courts in one part of the country and another are so great that they could not possibly be accounted for by demographic or regional factors? In view of that experience, will the Minister take steps to ensure that when the Court of Appeal sends that valuable document The Sentence of the Court to all magistrates later this year it is properly absorbed by all magistrates and that magistrates have taken on board the contents of that document and have put them into practice in imposing sentences in their own courts?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am sure that the magistrates' courts will absorb the advice that is contained in that document. The analysis that led to the Question in the first place deals with sentencing for all indictable offences, which is much too large a category from which to draw clear conclusions about sentencing practice. As I indicated earlier, total uniformity is not the aim.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether his is aware that very many of the maladjusted, the mentally disturbed, and some young people with physical handicaps, are coming into custody? Does the Home Office regret doing away with approved schools?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, with respect I think that that supplementary question goes very wide of the original Question on the Order Paper.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the many thousands of magistrates who operate in the magistrates' courts throughout the country treat every single case individually? Is he aware that every case is completely different although to the outsider who is not in court it may seem that cases are the same? The background to every case is different and that is perhaps why to the outsider it seems that there are differences in sentencing.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I think she has put her finger on a most important point.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that there is a very general consensus now, certainly in the Home Office and certainly among members of the All-Party Penal Affairs Group, that community-based methods of dealing with young persons are far more successful than the use of the blunt instrument of custody? Nevertheless, the number of custody orders is now running at the horrific rate of 30,000 a year. Is the Minister seriously concerned about that and, if so, will he consider leaking these figures to his noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor in order to galvanise him to educate the magistracy? After all, they are doing their work in the public domain.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I have already indicated that we take steps wherever possible in addressing magistrates, and so on, to reaffirm the use of non-custodial sentences. The first part of the noble Lord's supplementary question goes rather wider than the subject of custodial sentences.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that we should perhaps consider the criteria arising out of the welcome decisions of the Court of Appeal and that these criteria should be incorporated into future legislation?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I note my noble friend's remarks.

Lord Elystan-Morgan

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that despite very high standards set by magistrates throughout the country, as rightly mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, the range of divergence in a sample of over 600 petty sessional divisions—from 6.2 per cent. of young males sent to custody at the lowest to 29.4 per cent. at the highest—is such as to cause some disquiet? Has the Home Office applied its mind to the reasons why two localities, roughly comparable in socio-economic terms, should have such a wide divergence?

Having said that, will the Minister accept the general welcome to the new publication of The Sentence of the Court, which is of excellent assistance? The last edition is, I believe, dated 1978 and it has been of very considerable help to all concerned with the administration of justice.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, of course the Home Office studies figures such as the noble Lord produced and I am glad that he welcomes the new publication. However, as I indicated, the analysis which produced the figures to which he refers deals with sentencing for all indictable offences, so it goes rather wider than the narrow area we are considering.