HL Deb 27 October 1987 vol 489 cc498-527

House again in Committee.

Clause 40 [Increase in maximum term of imprisonment for cruelty to children and young persons]:

Lord Monson moved Amendment No. 60: Page 24, line 36, leave out ("ten") and insert ("seven").

The noble Lord said: I think we can all agree on two points. First, in this amendment we are not talking essentially about physical cruelty to children or sexual abuse of children. These crimes can be dealt with adequately, if the prosecuting authorities so choose, by existing laws governing assault, wounding, actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm, manslaughter, indecent assault, rape and incest. What is essentially being covered is mental cruelty and mental bullying, neglect and what the NSPCC calls "failure to thrive", which I understand to mean starvation or semi-starvation. According to the NSPCC, this unhappy and shameful behaviour constitutes 10 to 12½ per cent. of all nationally recorded child cruelty. Because it is often difficult to prove compared with physical abuse, its actual incidence may well be higher.

The second point on which we can all agree is that, although the gravity of these non-violent offences varies enormously, the existing maximum sentence is undoubtedly too low. The question is: by how much? The Government propose quintupling the existing maximum sentence, which is an amazingly sharp jump by any standards. If the level they now propose is the right one, it surely must imply that successive governments over the past 50 years have been extraordinarily negligent—which is, of course, a possibility.

I do not suppose that mental cruelty and abuse has increased in recent years. Indeed, it is quite possibly lower today than it was 50, 100 or 150 years ago, if one thinks of the accounts one has read of famous people's childhoods. So we are left with, first, neglect and, secondly, starvation or semi-starvation. I wonder whether the noble Earl can tell us if these latter crimes have indeed increased sharply in recent years. If so, is this due to hard drugs, to soft drugs, to alcohol? Is it due to the instant gratification ethos, allegedly inspired by the late Dr. Spock? Is it due to the rising divorce rate? Is it due to the growing prevalence of so-called common law marriages, in which one partner has no actual kinship or emotional kinship with a child? Or, alternatively, is it because a high proportion of the parents and step-parents who behave in this way are people of extremely low IQ or are positively mentally retarded? If the latter is the case, one wonders whether 10 years spent in a conventional prison is the right punishment for people so mentally backward. Only when we have the answer to those questions shall we be able to judge whether the new maximum sentence—which was proposed at very short notice by the standards of most criminal law revision—is indeed the right one. I beg to move.

The Earl of Caithness

Cruelty to children is, as the Committee recognises, an evil crime. I certainly cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Monson, that 10 years is too harsh a maximum penalty. I understand that there are in fact few cases of cruelty to children which do not involve serious assault and so merit a charge of a more serious offence. However, such cases do exist, where there has been prolonged neglect of a very serious kind, or ill-treatment which while not actually involving serious physical assault is nonetheless very bad. Locking the child up for long periods in an extremely confined space may be an example. We must ensure that the courts have adequate sentencing powers to deal with those few cases. This was highlighted earlier this year by Mr. Justice Steyn in the case of Kimberley Carlisle, when he criticised the maximum penalty of two years as inadequate for cases in which cruelty was the only charge. We are talking about cases in which the offender is accused of, wilfully assaulting, in-treating, neglecting, abandoning or exposing a child in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury". A maximum sentence of 10 years puts this on a par with the penalty for maliciously administering poison so as to endanger life—I do not think that is unreasonable. I hope that on consideration the noble Lord, Lord Monson, will not press his amendment.

The noble Lord asked me why we had moved from what he considered to be a low figure of two years up to 10 years. I hope that I have covered that in my answer. We are dealing with a few cases but cases that, although few, are very serious and deserve a penalty of 10 years.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

Having heard that explanation from the Minister, I am bound to say that I agree that 10 years is not an excessive maximum, which is what we are talking about, for the gravest type of case. It really is a sad feature of our times, although these horrors may have happened before, that the public eye at any rate is more frequently drawn now to these abominations against our beloved children than has certainly been the case in my somewhat prolonged life. Therefore it is right that action should be taken.

The noble Lord, Lord Monson, is not an unsympathetic and inhuman creature, as I very well know, but in his submissions he did not deal with the allegation of the increase of the incidence of this kind of crime. Neither did the Minister. I wonder whether we can receive any further guidance on that lest the public become concerned that we may be moving towards excessive severity.

On the face of it the incidence appears to have increased, judging by the reports one sees of what goes on in the courts from month to month. It is, after all, a period when there can be no excuse for this kind of cruelty. Nobody can condone it because of difficult domestic conditions, hard though those may be. We are moving from ordinary neglect, perhaps due to lack of resources, to positive neglect and starvation or semi-starvation. We shall be ill judged if in this generation we do not take the most serious view of cruelty to our children of the kind that has been described. I support what is proposed in the Bill; namely, raising that maximum sentence to 10 years.

8.45 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

I regret to say to the noble and learned Lord that I do not have at my fingertips the figures that could answer the question that he asked me. I hope that he will accept that I shall write to him and to the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and that I shall of course place a copy in the Library. That may be the best way of dealing with that particular matter.

Lord Monson

I am grateful to the Minister for what he says about writing to me, and I look forward to that. He asserted that a 10-year maximum imprisonment for non-violent cruelty is not one whit too long: I am sure that he agrees that violent cruelty is already covered by other statutes. However, the Minister has not been able to explain, if that is the case, why the Government who, after all, have been in power now for over eight years have left it at one-fifth of that level all that time.

Nevertheless my amendment was essentially a probing one. It has elicited a bit of information and I hope it will elicit some more. Therefore I do not intend to take it any further. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Earl of Caithness moved Amendment No. 61:

Page 24, line 36, at end insert— ((2) Nothing in subsection (1) above shall effect the punishment for an offence committed before this section comes into force.").

The noble Earl said: This amendment simply ensures that the enhanced maximum sentence of 10 years will not apply to offences committed before this section comes into force which will be two months after the Act receives Royal Assent. I beg to move.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

That is obviously a fair provision and I am glad that the Minister has made that announcement.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 40, as amended, agreed to.

The Earl of Caithness moved Amendment No. 62: After Clause 40, insert the following new clause:

("Increase of maximum term of imprisonment on summary

conviction of offences under prevention of Crime Act 1953

and maximum fine for offences under Restriction of

Offensive Weapons Act 1959.

.—(1) In section 1(1)(a) of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 "six months" shall be substituted for "three months".

(2).The maximum tine that may be imposed for an offence under section 1 of the Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959 shall be a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.

(3).This section shall not have effect in relation to anything done before it comes into force.").

The noble Earl said: In moving Amendment No. 62, it may be convenient if I speak also to the related Amendment No. 277.

This new clause effects an increase in the maximum penalties for offences under two Acts which deal with the possession and sale of offensive weapons respectively. Currently the Prevention of Crime Act provides on summary conviction for a maximum penalty of imprisonment of three months and/or a fine of up to £2,000 for possession of an offensive weapon. It is usual for offences which are triable either way, as this one is, to attract a maximum term of imprisonment of six months in the magistrates' courts. This amendment makes that increase and will obviate the need for a magistrate to commit to the Crown Court for sentence any offender whom he believes deserves a sentence of more than three months' imprisonment. I think the Committee will agree that any potential saving for the Crown Court is to be welcomed. While this is essentially a tidying-up exercise, the increase is entirely consistent with the Government's view that carriers of offensive weapons need to be cracked down on, and this amendment is entirely consistent with the package of measures we shall be discussing when we come to Amendments Nos. 226 to 229.

The maximum fine in the Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959, which outlaws the manufacture and sale of flick knives and gravity knives, is currently set at level 4 on the standard scale, currently £1,000. The increase to level 5, currently £2,000, we believe is justified by the seriousness of the offence and brings it into line with the penalty for the similar offence of the sale of other specified offensive weapons which we shall be asking your Lordships to approve later during the passage of the Bill. I beg to move.

On Question. amendment agreed to.

Clause 41 [Corruption]:

On Question, Whether Clause 41 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Monson

Time and time again we have heard of the horrors and dangers of prison overcrowding and we have been warned of the absolute necessity of reducing the prison population in this country. But here in this clause the Government propose to raise the maximum prison sentence by a factor of no less than three and one half. Undoubtedly people convicted of the offence in question have been very naughty. Yet what is the point of sending wholly non-violent, mainly middle-aged men to prison for several years at enormous cost to the taxpayer and imposing ever greater strains upon the prison system in the process? Much less wasteful alternatives are available.

I do not for a moment argue that a custodial sentence may not be, arid usually is, appropriate for such a crime. Surely the right answer is a massive fine equal to two, three or four times any gains which may have been illicitly made, combined with a short, sharp prison sentence—with the accent upon short and sharp—or combined with a slightly longer prison sentence, only part of which is suspended. If in some way a community service order could be incorporated within the sentence, that would be particularly fitting for this offence. I was interested to see on the tape an hour ago that the Home Secretary was urging the much greater use of community service orders as an alternative to prison. I look forward to hearing the views of the Committee on the point.

The Earl of Caithness

The Committee will know that Clause 41 increases from two to seven years the maximum prison term for the two main statutory offences of corruption. At present the maximum term is seven years only where the offence involves a public contract. The clause also provides for offences committed under the Public Bodies Corrupt Practices Act 1889 to be triable either way.

Those provisions give effect to the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Standards of Conduct in Public Life, chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Salmon. It considered that offences not involving public contracts could be equally as serious as those which did involve public contracts. The disparity in maximum sentences was highlighted in the first of the Operation Countryman cases in 1982. The Recorder of the City of London complained in passing sentences on two of those involved that two years was the maximum he could impose, notwithstanding that the Salmon Commission proposed in 1976 that the maximum should be standardised at seven years.

The Criminal Justice Bill provides a legislative opportunity to effect the increase recommended and I hope that in view of this explanation the noble Lord, Lord Monson, will not press his opposition to the clause.

The noble Lord mentioned prison numbers. That is something which is in my mind every day. However, I think that notwithstanding that the clause might increase the numbers of people in prison, it is fair and equitable that a sentence should be seven years in order to keep it in line with equivalent sentences. Concerning the point about community service orders, which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has again encouraged magistrates to use, that is a slightly wider area than this point.

Lord Monson

I appreciate the somewhat technical explanation given by the noble Earl. But he has said nothing about the suggestion of combining massive fines with short, sharp prison sentences. That still seems to me to be the answer for crimes which do not cause pain or suffering to individuals. This applies not only to this particular offence but also to many others. Of course bribery and corruption are thoroughly undesirable practices which should be strongly discouraged. But as I am making what is, in a literal sense, an after dinner speech, I cannot resist pointing out that governments of all political complexions practise electoral bribery as a matter of course. Taxes are invariably cut in the year preceding a general election; government contracts are awarded to firms with factories located in marginal constituencies and so on. This occurs not only in the United Kingdom but also in France, the United States, West Germany and elsewhere. Indeed, the entire common agricultural policy could be said to be one gigantic exercise in electoral bribery.

Governments may, and I am sure will, deny indignantly that their actions may have any affinity with common or garden bribery. They will claim that pecuniary advantage—the spoils of office—is the very last thing that they have in mind, and that all they are concerned with is the good of the country, which will certainly go to the dogs if the other lot comes to power. Whether the proverbial man from Mars would endorse that fine distinction, one cannot be sure. But having made my point, I shall leave it at that.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

I wonder whether the noble Earl has any evidence of the incidence of corruption. I see that the answer is no. It would illuminate our discussions if henceforth, when measures of this kind are brought before us, the Committee could know the extent of the mischief and the nature of the increased incidence, if any. Subject to that, I do not oppose the clause.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

I share the views of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones. If we are invited to increase maximum sentences, I think we should have information of that sort. I am sure the Minister will supply it before the Report stage.

The Earl of Caithness

I stand guilty. I apologise to the Committee and I shall rectify the situation as soon as possible.

Clause 41 agreed to.

Clause 42 [Increase in penalty for insider dealing]:

On Question, Whether Clause 42 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Monson

I start by saying that my noble and learned friend Lord Wilberforce entirely supports my opposition to the clause. Most of us thought that the clause would be considered yesterday. Alas, that was not to be, and my noble and learned friend unfortuantely has other commitments this evening.

There are a number of reasons for opposing the clause. The first is that a more appropriate and efficient sentence would be, as in the case of the last offence we were discussing, a massive fine combined with a short. sharp, non-suspended custodial sentence.

The second reason is rather more complex. People in the City who are both highly respected and highly respectable—the two are not always synonymous—claim that insider dealing is a victimless crime. Although I cannot go along with them on that, I think it is fair to say that no single individual stands to lose very much as a result of insider trading. Indeed, the outsider may actually gain should he happen to be buying at a moment when the insider buys or selling at the moment the insider sells.

The third reason is that the whole issue is riddled with grey areas. If somebody picks up his telephone, gets a crossed line, as happens more and more often since the privatisation of British Telecom, and hears that such and such a company is about to produce disastrous results and rushes to sell his stock, is he then an inside trader? One supposes he must be. Should he really he liable for seven years' imprisonment in consequence of that overheard conversation?

Another grey area is the dealing by directors in shares of their own company. As a perennial outsider as far as public companies are concerned, I am always annoyed to read that directors of companies in which I hold shares have sold at the peak, just before poor results are to be announced, or bought just before unexpectedly good results are announced. Yet it seems that directors always manage to produce some legitimate reason for doing so.

The fourth reason is that the Government have only themselves to blame for the prevalence of insider trading. Despite protestations made over the years, short-term capital gains continue to be taxed at a maximum of 30 per cent.; earned income and partnership income is taxed up to 60 per cent: and long-term gains on assets acquired prior to 31st March 1982 can be taxed at well over 100 per cent. in real terms, because of the obstinate refusal of the Government to index the gains on assets acquired before that date. It is almost as if the Government had set out deliberately to encourage short-term speculation and to discourage plodding, long-term investment. I am sure that that is not what the Government actually intend. But it is an inevitable product of their fiscal policy. It is worth noting that capital gains tax was originally conceived to deal purely with short-term capital gains.

The fifth reason is one, I understand, which particularly exercises my noble and learned friend Lord Wilberforce. It is that the Government have not been prepared to wait and see whether the existing legislation works. Until two years ago, insider trading was not a crime at all. Instead, it was a disciplinary offence within most City firms. Those who, unlike myself, are in a position to know claim that since insider trading became a criminal offence action to clear out wrongdoers has become much more difficult, chiefly because of the much more positively hard and fast evidence required for a successful criminal conviction.

Raising the length of sentence will not help matters in this respect. The existing law has only been in effect for two years and three months: it is far too early to evaluate its effects. Why this sudden rush to change things? One cannot help suspecting that transient—and I emphasise the word "transient"—media hysteria may have pushed the Government into an almost panic decision. Most other changes in criminal law take years to be brought about. Insider trading is the "anti-flavour" of the month, as it were, the wormwood of the week.

Fair enough. But it is not a proper basis, in my submission, for legislation. Let us wait another year or two to see how the 1985 law, as it stands, works before deciding whether it is right to change it.

9 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

Insider dealing can be a major financial crime akin to issuing misleading statements about investments, or manipulating the market, as specified in Section 47 of the Financial Services Act 1986. The maximum term of imprisonment on conviction on indictment for these offences is seven years and the Government believe that the maximum term of imprisonment for the worst cases of insider dealing should be the same. That is the answer to the noble Lord, Lord Monson, as to why we have done it. It is important that we show overseas governments the seriousness with which the United Kingdom regards insider dealing. It is a practice which more of them are beginning to regard as a crime which should be eradicated from the world's financial markets through international co-operation and by adequate powers for investigation and sentencing at home.

That is why the earlier Bill was amended with all-party support in another place, to increase the maximum penalty to seven years. Raising the penalty also means that under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act insider dealing becomes an arrestable offence. The powers may not always be needed but the clear signal is given that those crimes are not placed in any protected category and that those who commit them will face the full force of law and the full powers of the police. From some statistics I can tell the Committee that the total number of prosecutions since 1980 on insider dealing is eight. On corruption, in 1985 40 people were sentenced under the two Acts compared with 76 in 1983. Of those, 19 were given immediate custody and 13 suspended prison sentences.

Notwithstanding those figures, I think it is right that the maximum—and as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, said, we are talking about the maximum—should be increased. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Monson, will no longer pursue his opposition to this clause.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

Once more I venture to support the noble Earl on this matter. This is an insidious crime which can be very damaging to the reputation of our commercial society. I think that what is proposed is not excessive for the severest and the most pernicious cases. It is a maximum penalty and that must be borne in mind.

Lord Monson

The Minister has pointed out that under the clause as it has been drafted, the crime of insider dealing becomes an arrestable offence. I think that is the strongest leg of his argument, with respect. The normal practice, surely, is to see how an existing law works out before changing it. This law has only been in effect since 1st July 1985 and it is far too early to see.

It is curious though perhaps not totally without precedent to alter a maximum penalty by such a large factor within such a short space of time before evaluating the working of the existing law. Nor has the Minister, I fear, dealt with the points made by experts on the subject. I am certainly not an expert, but the experts point out that before insider trading became a criminal offence far more people were brought to book and sacked because of the more lax rules of evidence required for such a course. In a sense, the criminalisation of this offence is making it harder to detect.

However, in view of the rather surprising lack of support for my views, or even contributions to the debate, I shall obviously not pursue the matter any further.

Clause 42 agreed to.

Lord Harris of Greenwich moved Amendment No. 63: After Clause 42, insert the following new clause:

("Reduced penalties tar burglary and theft.

(1) The following section shall be substituted for section 7 of the Theft Act 19687. A person guilty of theft shall on conviction on indictment be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding seven years.

(2) The following subsection shall he substituted for section 9(4) of the Theft Act 1968ߞ (4) A person guilty of burglary shall on conviction on indictment he liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years.".").

The noble Lord said: In moving the amendment, I should perhaps begin with an apology for not having been here for the last 24 hours or more. Although I had some amendments down in my name, as a result of a bereavement in my family I had to leave London for that period.

The amendment I am moving is unlike some of the propositions we have been asked to agree to in this Bill. We have been cheerfully agreeing to increase the maximum sentences for a number of crimes. some of them serious crimes and some where no doubt the argument is substantial for increasing the sentence. But it is a little ironic that we are spending our time increasing maximum sentences and at the same time complaining about the substantial increase in the size of the prison population.

This new clause which I am moving on behalf of the All-Party Penal Affairs Group would have the effect of reducing the maximum penalty for burglary from 14 years to 10 years and the maximum penalty for theft from 10 years to seven years. My first argument for this amendment rests on the exploding numbers in our prison system. I do not know the present figure. It has hovered between 48,500 and 50,000, and it has gone over 50,000. Earlier this month up to 1,300 prisoners were kept in police cells because there are in fact no spaces in remand prisons for unconvicted prisoners. Therefore, that in itself is a reason why this amendment deserves serious consideration.

Secondly, to a very substantial extent it more than balances some of the significant increases in the maximum terms of imprisonment which we have agreed to over the past four or five years. Thirdly, there is an additional argument. It was, I believe, six years ago that the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee said in its report on the prison service: Should the efforts now being made by the Home Secretary and other parties to change the direction of sentencing policy fail to bear fruit within a reasonably short time, we believe that Parliament should grasp the nettle and further limit the maximum length of sentences by statutory means".

That was six years ago and since then prison numbers have risen by several thousand.

There are of course two ways in which we can affect numbers in prisons. First, we can provide where it is appropriate for the early release under supervision of more prisoners; secondly, we can by legislation reduce maximum penalties in appropriate cases. No one can, I believe, underestimate the relevance of the issue we are discussing tonight in terms of the numbers convicted of such offences and held in our prisons. On any day no fewer than 9,000 prisoners—no less than a quarter of the entire sentenced population—are in prison because they have been sentenced for offences of burglary. A further 7,500— one-fifth of the sentenced population—are there because they have been convicted of theft. We are therefore discussing tonight offences which approach half of the entire sentenced prison population.

It may be said that that is true, but most sentences passed for these offences are well below the maximum. Thus, it may be argued, a reduction in maximum sentences will have remarkably little effect. I do not accept that argument. I believe that were Parliament to indicate that the maximum sentences for these non-violent offences should be significantly reduced it could well be reflected in the length of some sentences both for burglary and for theft. Given the very high proportion of people in prison having been convicted of these offences the effect on prison numbers could be substantial.

If sentences in the categories I have discussed were to be reduced by an average of just one month, allowing of course for remission and for parole, it is estimated that the average daily prison population would be reduced by about 2,000. Such a reduction in our prison population would immediately empty every police cell in this country and there would be a balance left over. On that basis there is a substantial argument and I look forward to hearing what the noble Earl has to say. I beg to move.

Lord Hylton

Having spoken earlier today and having urged that we need to make a serious effort to reduce our total prison population, I am bound to support this amendment. It is true to say that our sentences in this country are on average longer than those in most of Western Europe. Therefore, this is a small step in the right direction.

Lord Hunt

I rise to support the amendment. I believe it is true that every committee which has reported on the penal system during the past 10 years—we have the Advisory Council on the Penal System in 1977, the May inquiry in 1979 and the Home Office Research Study No. 35—has pointed out that longer sentences are no more effective as deterrents on individual offenders than are shorter ones and that much would be gained and nothing lost by scaling down the tariff of prison sentences. Would the necessary legislation bring this about? That is a key point in this amendment. As my noble friend has pointed out, we are talking here about offences against property; not against the person and not corruption or fraud.

That contention for shorter prison sentences has had the support of the Magistrates' Association, the Justices' Clerks' Society, the All-Party Penal Affairs Group, the prison governors' branch of the Civil and Public Services Association, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, the Prison Reform Trust—I could go onߞand every voluntary body which is expert and involved in penal reform. In its 1985 report The Sentence of the Court, the Home Office supported that view.

We are talking about the maximum sentence laid down in the Theft Act. For those who favour longer sentences being imposed on individuals guilty of that category of offence, as a general deterrence to others, I shall quote the 1972 report of the Advisory Council on the Penal System on the length of prison sentences. It stated: Evidence about the effectiveness of general deterrence is regrettably scant. Research findings are difficult to interpret and are inconclusive. No further evidence in support of the theory of general deterrence has been adduced to my knowledge within the past 10 years. Despite all the reports and authoritative opinions, no legislative action has been taken to bring about a general lowering of prison sentences. No government appear to be willing to risk offending public opinion or, dare I say it, arousing the fury of the media—the clamour of the popular press—by what could be mistakenly interpreted as a soft attitude towards crime.

The Bill is surely an opportunity which we should not miss to move in the general direction current in many other countries in Europe and urged by so many people who are knowledgeable about crime and penal policy. The lowering of maximum penalties is a necessary step to set the tone, and to set this movement in train.

9.15 p.m.

Lord Silkin of Dulwich

I wish to say a few words in support of the amendment. The argument about the number of people in prison has been raised and supported by several noble Lords. There is no need to dwell upon it. I agree with what has been said. But in addition I support the amendment on other grounds, in particular that of consistency.

As far as one can, one tries to ensure that sentences for different types of offences are consistent with one another. No doubt that was in the mind of the Home Secretary when he included in the Bill the series of amendments with which we have just been dealing. It is interesting to look at those changes in the law in relation to this amendment.

In Clause 39, we have the penalty of life imprisonment for the possession of firearms. That is understandable in the context of the harm that could be done by that offence. In Clause 40, we now have a penalty of 10 years' imprisonment for cruelty to children which falls short of physical cruelty. That is a serious offence and one finds a penalty of that nature, which is above the penalty for theft, understandable. In Clause 41, we come down to seven years' imprisonment for corruption and for insider dealing.

To try to achieve consistency, we must compare the offences with which we are now dealing with those offences. I should have thought that a simple offence of theft is much more in line with the offence of corruption and insider dealing than with cruelty to children. Equally although burglary must necessarily attract a higher penalty than simple theft, because it involves entry into someone else's building, it should not be so much beyond the 10 years for cruelty to children as to put it in a much higher category. It seems to me therefore that the levels which are set out in this amendment are entirely in conformity with those which the Government have put forward for other offences in this Bill. I should have hoped that the Government would see the logic of that and agree to accept it.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

Before the noble Earl replies I should like to support what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Silkin, has just said and to remind the noble Earl that it was no lesser a person than the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, who said in a notable debate earlier that consistency with regard to sentencing is the name of the game. I strongly support what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Silkin, has just said.

In addition to that, I remind the noble Earl of the Home Secretary's own words in January this year. Of course it is important to punish violent offenders, but he said that it serves no useful purpose to send more people to prison than need to be there, or for longer than necessary.

The Earl of Caithness

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for raising this matter. This Bill makes a number of changes in maximum penalties for offences which, thankfully, are committed relatively rarely, and it is no bad thing to look critically at the maximum for two of the most common offences.

Perhaps I may deal with these in the order in which they arise in the noble Lord's new clause. Apart from minor motoring offences, theft is the most common offence of all. Each year, over 300,000 people are found guilty of or cautioned for theft or handling stolen goods. It ranges widely in seriousness. As we noted when debating the new clause tabled by my noble friend Lord Elton, some thefts are very minor indeed. The fine is by far the most commonly used penalty for theft, and the courts have recourse to an immediate custodial sentence in little more than 10 per cent. of the cases which come before them; rather less if one takes account of cautions.

However, some thefts are much more serious in character. They may involve very large amounts of money or priceless property, or they may have been perpetrated in a highly organised or particularly distasteful manner. It is, I think, important to bear in mind that the maximum penalty should be sufficiently severe to enable the courts to deal adequately with the worst imaginable case. Sentences of more than seven years for theft are extremely rare, but they are occasionally imposed.

For that reason, I am afraid that I cannot support the noble Lord's amendment, although I sympathise with his reasons for bringing it forward. It is also argued that a lower maximum penalty might encourage the courts to impose custody less frequently and for shorter periods. One cannot of course be sure about this, but I rather doubt if that would necessarily be the case. Imprisonment is, as I have said, used in only a small minority of cases, and the terms normally imposed are very much less than the 10-year maximum.

The Court of Appeal has given guidance to the courts to the effect that for offences such as theft, where an immediate custodial sentence is necessary it should be as short as possible. The Government strongly support that view. The prisons ought not to be used for minor offenders who can be dealt with in other ways, and we are anxious to encourage the fullest use of alternatives to custody. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary commented further on that this evening in another situation. But the courts must have the option of longer periods of imprisonment to deal with the more serious offenders, and given the wide range of behaviour covered by the offence of theft, some of these—though not many—will be thieves.

Burglary is, generally speaking, a significantly more serious offence, because—particularly when it takes place in a private residence—it can be so invasive and damaging to the victim. Again, as with theft, the courts in practice resort very rarely to the most severe custodial sanctions, although custody as such is used more frequently. Of the 70,000 people convicted of burglary in 1985, some 24,000 received an immediate custodial sentence.

Again, I can understand the thinking behind the noble Lord's amendment and I am bound to look carefully at any proposal which is argued to hold out the possibility of easing the pressure on the prison population. But, again, I rather doubt if that would be the effect. Perhaps more important, the fear of burglary—particularly among the elderly, and the harm that does to the victim, lasting long beyond the time of the offence itself is so great that I believe that if we in Parliament appeared to downgrade its significance the public would be rightly dismayed.

I therefore cannot encourage the noble Lord to expect government support, though in view of what has been said and the unanimity of what has been said in support of the amendment of the noble Lord, I will draw it to the attention of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and my honourable friend Mr. Patten.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

The noble Earl will not be totally astonished to hear that that, in the view of many of us, was a profoundly unsatisfactory reply. Of course it is right to say that there is a fear among the general public concerning people who burgle their houses and people who steal. That of course is true. The question is not whether there is fear and justifiable fear but whether sentences as long as these—which the noble Earl argues are very rarely utilised—should be kept on the statute book. He says two things. First, in relation to theft, the language he used, if I took a correct note of it, was that courts must have the option for longer sentences. But what is inherently right about the existing 14-year and 10-year sentences respectively? With great respect, he has not argued that. Neither has he dealt with the points made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Silkin.

I do not propose to prolong this discussion. but if we were to take these arguments seriously and accept the view that courts must very nearly have an unlimited discretion in these matters, we should be seeking a maximum of life imprisonment for nearly every offence in our criminal law, which would be manifestly absurd.

The noble Earl has said—I fear I have used the phrase myself once or twice in this Chamber—that he will report the matters which have been raised to his right honourable friend the Home Secretary. I very much hope he will do that. I believe the Government deserve the support of the Committee in terms of dealing with an exceptionally difficult situation in our prisons, but they will not receive totally uninhibited support from the Committee if they neglect to listen when there has been nearly a unanimous expression of opinion in this Chamber. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 43 [Repeal of s. 134 of Magistrates Courts Act 1980]:

On Question, Whether Clause 43 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Hylton

The noble Earl when replying to the last amendment mentioned the seriousness of burglary from private residences. I am sure we all agree with him on that. He went on to speak of the possible harm to elderly occupiers of houses and flats. There again no one would dissent. But I should like to ask the Government to consider at leisure whether the penalties for burglary of industrial, commercial, non-residential premises, could be reduced, even while keeping at their present level the penalties for burglary of private dwellings.

The Earl of Caithness

I should he happy to consider what the noble Lord said.

Clause 43 agreed to.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich moved Amendment No. 64: After Clause 43, insert the following new clause:

("Holding of prisoners sentenced to penal establishments

—(1) Subject to subsection (2) below, where a person is in the custody of a constable whose duty it is to take him to a prison, remand centre, youth custody centre or detention centre in which his detention is authorised by law, the person may not instead lawfully be detained overnight in the custody of a constable.

(2) The Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument provide that subsection (1) above shall not have effect in an area specified in the order for a period not exceeding twelve months.

(3) No order under subsection (2) above shall be made unless a draft has been laid before Parliament and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.").

The noble Lord said: This amendment is designed to deal with the situation in which police cells are being used on a routine basis to hold remand and, in some cases, convicted prisoners. It lays down that the Home Office can use such accommodation only when Parliament has given its consent by means of affirmative resolutions passed by both Houses of Parliament.

Let me say at the outset that the whole question of remanding people to the custody of the police is a relatively new problem. As far as I am aware (though no doubt the noble Earl will be able to correct me if I am wrong) it was used for the first time on a significant scale when the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, was Home Secretary. There was then serious industrial unrest in a number of prison department establishments and he took the view that the police should be asked to hold a number of prisoners. I believe that he was absolutely right to make that request and it was absolutely right for the police to offer their wholehearted co-operation, as of course they did.

This amendment would enable police cells to be used in an emergency of that character in the future. But what we are discussing tonight is not an emergency. We are discussing the routine use of police cells when there is not, thankfully, as I think the noble Earl will probably be in a position to confirm, a major industrial relations crisis. Some of us have seen with pleasure what has appeared on the tape this evening about the position at Wandsworth. I had intended to say one or two mildly controversial things about that but the problem appears to have been removed, which I think we all welcome, and there is thus not, as I understand it, an immediate industrial relations crisis.

Let me therefore set out the views of one quite important witness. I refer to the previous Home Secretary Mr. Leon Brittan. To avoid the accusation that I have taken anything he said out of context I will, if I may, quote in full this passage of his article in The Times of 4th January 1984. This is what Mr. Brittan said after a period in which a significant number of Home Office prisoners, if I may so describe them, had been kept in police custody: I have repeatedly said that the practice is highly undesirable. Police cells were not built to hold such prisoners. Their use causes hardship both to the prisoners and to their visitors, especially lawyers. Valuable police resources are tied down. That is why I decided last July that the practice should cease and set the end of 1983 as a target for bringing it to an end…The position will certainly be tricky for a few months to come. I cannot exclude the possibility of using police cells again if exceptional circumstances arise. I am confident, however, that once the immediate period ahead of us is over, our more long-term policies will begin to have effect. Our prison-building programme, the reduction of the minimum qualifying period for parole, the other measures designed to divert some offenders from custody; all of these factors should ensure that the routine use of police cells for prison overflow remains a thing of the past".

That is what the then Home Secretary, writing with all the authority of that office, wrote at the beginning of 1984. Within 24 hours the prisoners were back in police custody all over again and have been there with a few fluctuations—probably over the Christmas and New Year periods—ever since.

The numbers have fluctuated. Between March and December last year the numbers in police cells ranged from 51, in the week ending 22nd March, to 282 in the week ending 13th December. Since then the numbers have risen very substantially indeed. We have to take note of this factor as well. Despite the relatively small number of women as a proportion of the total prison population of England and Wales, in some weeks very nearly half the people kept in police cells have been women prisoners. Many of these women will not be convicted of any offence; and of those who are, many will not be sentenced to a period of imprisonment.

Yet these unconvicted women—and of course men as well—are being kept in cells which are intended to be used for perhaps an hour or so before a court appearance, or at worst overnight. But they are being kept there now not one night, not two nights, but sometimes for weeks on end. As Mrs. Ursula Richey, a magistrate and member of the Board of Visitors of Holloway Prison, has said, in conditions of sensory deprivation from the outside world".

This is a deeply disquieting situation. We are worried, and when I say "we" I mean two groups of people: first, many members of this Chamber, from all parts, and I believe also the police service who do not want to see themselves becoming a second prison service. The anxiety of the police has now reached such proportions that in one or two cases they have invited in the press and television in order to see the deplorable conditions in which they are being forced to hold remand prisoners. There is of course the other consequence so far as the police are concerned that sometimes hundreds of police officers are being taken off the streets to be used as part-time jailers.

Then there is the other problem, the position of trying to construct a criminal defence when in fact a solicitor finds that his client, who will be appearing before the courts in London, has been taken in some cases—my noble friend Lord Hutchinson told me in one case to Bodmin—as far away as Cleveland and Durham. Sometimes lawyers find, despite all the help they get—which is sometimes considerable—from the prison department great difficulty in finding out where they are in the first instance. They find that sometimes there are so many solicitors phoning up to try to find out where their clients are, and in which particular police station they are being kept, that it takes about two days, I am told by an official of the Law Society, to succeed in getting through to find out where that prisoner may be held.

We cannot possibly go on like this. There is no point in the Government saying, as they have said on a number of previous occasions, that they very much regret and deplore this situation. We have heard that for the last four years. It is now time that we got some definitive assurances as to what in fact is going to be done to deal with what has become a truly scandalous situation. I beg to move.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

I rise to support this amendment. The parliamentary all-party group has reported upon the use of police cells for prisoners who have been sentenced or remanded to penal establishments. It is indeed a disturbing report. One of the purposes of this new clause is to require the Home Secretary to obtain annual parliamentary approval for the holding in police cells of such prisoners.

The practice of the use of police cells has been a cause of continuing concern not only to us in the House but to the police, the prison and probation services, the magistracy, the justices' clerks and the legal profession. The problem has been especially acute in London. As the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, has said, the majority of those concerned are remand prisoners who have not yet been found guilty by the courts. They may well be acquitted or at least dealt with in some non-custodial fashion. This is the grave feature of the matter. The all-party group report is to the effect that such prisoners are held in cells designed to hold people for only a few hours with facilities for exercise, washing, bathing and visits which are frequently entirely inadequate. The police do their best to make the conditions better but the report rightly states that it is quite wrong that the police should be asked to act as prison officers holding prisoners in premises that are quite unsuitable for the purpose.

In December 1982, six members of the Parliamentary All-Party Penal Affairs Group visited prisoners held overnight in cells in the Lambeth police garage and Camberwell Court. A report on the visit prepared by the, if I may say so, admirable clerk to the group, Mr. Paul Cavadino, read: The conditions in the cells underneath Camberwell Court are by far the worst in which I have ever seen prisoners held in this country. Two prisoners are held in a cell which seemed to me little more than half the size of a Victorian-built prison cell. One sleeps on a mattress placed on a bench along one wall while the other sleeps on a mattress on the floor. They are kept in these tiny cells for over 23 hours out of every 24, being allowed out in groups for half an hour's association in a room along the corridor if police manpower allows. There is no daylight anywhere on this floor and all the light is artificial". About five years later Aileen Ballantyne reported in the Guardian of 24th January 1987, conditions for women held in the cells under the South Western magistrates' court in Battersea in very similar terms. I shall not anguish the House with further detail of that matter.

As long ago as 1983 the then Home Secretary, the right honourable Leon Brittan, faced with mounting concern about the practice, announced in a Written Answer in another place that he would eliminate the use of police cells by the end of the year. He said: The use of police and court cells to hold prisoners is one of the most worrying day to day problems in the penal system. Prisoners held by the police cannot get all the facilities to which they would be entitled in prison, and they represent a burden that the police should not be expected to bear". He then said that subject to unforeseen circumstances he would hope to see the use of cells for this purpose eliminated by the end of the year. There was a brief improvement at the end of 1983 but, as the noble Lord has said, between March and December 1986 the average number of prisoners held each night in police cells ranged from 51 in the week ending 22nd March to 282 in the week ending 13th December. Further statistics are then set out. Many of the prisoners are women. The highest number of female prisoners in police cells during the year was 134 on the night of 9th December. This year the total number has risen as high as 953 on 9th October and 1,372 on 19th October.

These conditions are appalling and must not be allowed to continue. They impose an intolerable burden on the police and a far greater burden and punishment upon those who are kept in such conditions, many of whom, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has said, will not be subjected to prison conditions in the event of conviction. Therefore it is hoped by this requirement in the new clause that annual parliamentary approval should be obtained by the Home Secretary that at least Parliament will have some control over that appalling situation.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

Perhaps I may just add that I hope the Minister will not refer to the POA situation in the prisons as being the cause of this scandal. That is merely an addition to the problem. As the Committee has heard, this situation has existed for the past four years. It is to the main, basic problem that this amendment is directed. The POA business simply added to it and is totally irrelevant to the basic problem. If there are industrial disputes in the prison, as the Committee has heard, subsection (2) gives the Minister power to deal with them by coming to Parliament.

I hope also that the Minister will not object to the form of the amendment. We already dealt with that when we discussed statutory minimum standards and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ryder, whom I am glad to see in her place, said, it helps to have a target. That is vital. One has a target in other legislation. It is worth legislating that, "No person should go to prison for a first offence unless", and, "No person under a certain age should be remanded to prison unless". That kind of legislation lays down the policy. It remains a target. It is an attack on the routine state of mind and the routine use of cells, which once it starts develops into a routine and normal situation.

If such a situation exists in legislation then it has to he dealt with on a day-to-day basis and one has to come to Parliament and explain why there is a scandal. Perhaps I may say that this is one of the greatest scandals of today on the social side of policy in this country.

The Earl of Caithness

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, has directed our attention toward a subject which has given Home Office Ministers much cause for concern. Over the last 12 months I can personally vouch for that. I fully appreciate and indeed I share the concerns expressed so eloquently this evening. I accept that conditions in police cells are frequently quite unsuitable, although I should add that the police do their best to provide whatever facilities they can. I accept that there are far too many prisoners presently held in police cells and that the need to hold a number of them in police stations far from their home may cause difficulty and hardship.

I accept that holding prisoners in that way causes difficulties for the police and sometimes for the courts. In short, I agree that we should put an end to the present situation in which so many prisoners are held in police cells and we must transfer them into prisons, where they should be.

I am sure that all Members of the Committee would like to join me in thanking the police for all they have done in this situation. The recent situation has been exacerbated and we have had a large number of prisoners in police cells, but I think that the police have done a wonderful job. Certainly in my position I am extremely grateful for the effort that they have made and the co-operation that they give the Prison Department.

The question before us is how this practice could and should he achieved. As I shall explain shortly to the Committee, I do not believe that this amendment is the right way to go about it. Before I do so, perhaps I should explain why we find ourselves in this situation. The causes are twofold. First, this year our prisons have experienced unprecedented levels of overcrowding. Before the Home Secretary took action through the remission rules to reduce the number by some 3,000, there were 51,000 people in prison this summer. They were held in accommodation designed for only about 42,000. The local prisons and remand centres which would normally house those held in police cells were the most overcrowded of all.

Our prison building programme, on which I commented earlier in today's proceedings, on present expectations will answer that problem in the longer term. What we are doing immediately is to take imaginative measures to provide more places of the kind that we need within the existing prison estate. That is the first reason for the current situation, but it is by no means the most significant.

Last Friday in the South-East, the area most affected, 1,142 prisoners were held in police cells. At the same time about 1,000 places at a few prisons in the South-East were denied to us by industrial action by the Prison Officers' Association. As the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, has observed, the position is now more encouraging. We have heard this evening that industrial action at Wandsworth has been temporarily suspended. However, I wish to say to the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, that, following my right honourable friend's announcement in July, we were on course to reduce the number in police cells to zero. We had reduced it from 700 to 200. Had it not been for industrial action, I have no doubt that with our plans we would have reduced the number to zero. I hope that we shall shortly see numbers in police cells reducing dramatically as the prisons involved begin to operate at capacity once again.

The point I now wish to make is that neither of these factors—overcrowding or industrial action—would in any way be affected by this new clause, for the new clause does nothing to remedy the underlying causes but goes straight to the symptoms. The amendment begins by saying in effect, "Never mind why prisoners are held in police cells or what would happen if they were not. Let's just make it unlawful to do so and that will end the mischief". The amendment then goes on, presumably recognising that there might well be circumstances where there is nothing for it but to tolerate the mischief, to allow the Home Secretary to seek the specific approval of Parliament to hold prisoners in police cells in specified areas for a limited period.

What would be achieved by that? Would Parliament deny the Home Secretary such authority if the only alternative to holding prisoners in police custody was not to hold them at all, to let them go free? That is the choice we face at present. At best the new clause would remove an element of much needed flexibility and introduce delay at a point where delay can least be tolerated. At worst it would seriously inhibit the rule of law with courts having to release persons whom they wished to commit to custody, because there were no places available in prison.

There are other reasons besides overcrowding or industrial action why prisoners may finish up in police cells. When courts are at some distance from a local prison it may simply not be practicable or even in the interests of the prisoner to convey him to the prison late at night after a late court sitting. It might he even more difficult in hazardous weather conditions. In such circumstances it may he in the interests of all concerned to hold the prisoner overnight at a police station. The new clause would put an end to that in practice.

Nobody wants to see prisoners held in police cells, least of all the prison service. They are used only when there is no realistic alternative. Without them, however, the prison service would be wholly unable to respond to some of the situations with which it is faced from time to time. In that sense the proposed new clause would not be helpful.

Indeed, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, reminded us that those held in police cells are most usually those remanded in custody, those innocent until proven guilty. That merely supports the point that I was making on Amendment No. 53. This matter has horrified me as I have grown to understand a little more of the job.

I fully understand that the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, was not able to be present in the Chamber, but I direct his attention to our discussion on Amendment No. 53 where I hope that he will find some encouraging words. I agree that it is totally unacceptable to have prisoners in police cells from Durham to Cornwall. I hope that the action we are taking, which I described earlier today and just now, will convince Members of the Committee of our total determination to eradicate this problem.

Lord Hylton

Some of the noble Earl's remarks could be considered to be sympathetic on this matter, but the upshot is disappointing. I was particularly surprised and disappointed that he did not mention anything about greater use of the Bail Act, and much more widespread, large-scale use of bail hostels, bearing in mind that they do not necessarily have to be owned and operated by the Government but can also be put into action by voluntary bodies. I invite him now to say something about both points.

Baroness Seear

May I support what the noble Lord has just said, particularly in relation to women held in police cells. I fully accept that the noble Earl the Minister is appalled by what is going on and wants to do what he can to make things better. But what have the Government done in the way of increasing hostel accommodation for holding women on bail? You can get houses; you can convert houses. I was visiting the Griffin Society's provision only the other day. It is true that it is for after-care, but it is the same principle. You can convert houses into bail hostels. There is totally inadequate provision both for holding women on bail under reasonable conditions and for after-care.

If you can stop the number of people who return to prison, and the number of women who return to prison, because they are unable to re-establish themselves in society after they come out, you will drastically cut the number of people in prison. How many proper after-care hostels do we have? There are a few voluntary societies nobly struggling to make some sort of provision, but it is a miserable drop in the ocean. Theirs is a noble effort. If only the Minister would throw his weight behind getting more bail hostels and more after-care hostels and would divert some of the money going into building prisons into providing housing under those conditions, then we would begin to see some progress. Will he tell us that he will at least try to look into this matter and attempt to do something about it?

The Earl of Caithness

The noble Lord. Lord Hylton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, have raised the very important point of bail hostels. I should like to commend the work with which the noble Baroness is associated. It is highly respected by the Home Office and, indeed, if I may call the association to which she referred a pressure group, it is a more powerful pressure group because of its experience in this field and not merely a paper pressure group.

Since 1980, we have increased by over 300 the number of places in bail hostels, and Clause 116 of the Bill empowers the courts, when granting bail on condition that the accused resides in a bail hostel, to include a requirement to observe the rules of the hostel. This will, we hope, make it easier to arrange placements in hostels which the courts can accept as a satisfactory basis for bail.

We have drawn to the attention of local benches with exceptionally high rates of remand to custody that the use of remands is unusually high and have asked them to consider the reasons. This is the beginning of what I mentioned on Amendment No. 53, which is the serious effort that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and I are making towards remands, more of which I hope to be able to tell your Lordships before too long. It would be wrong to inform the Committee before matters are completely finalised, but as soon as I have more encouraging news, which I am sure I shall be able to give, that will be the time to mention it.

10 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

I fear that the noble Earl has convinced remarkably few people by the answers he has given this evening. Indeed, were we to contrast the statements he has made with great sincerity on a number of previous occasions with statements made by his predecessor, who also expressed deep regret and deep alarm, we would see that three or four years later we are hearing exactly the same thing, except that the 40 or 50 have become 1,200 or 1.300. Where is it going to stop? I accept, of course, that there have been problems in London. I accept that immediately. The new clause provides for precisely that situation. I would never argue that the drafting of any new clause or any amendment is impeccable but it sets out a system whereby Parliament would be invited annually to give its authority to what everybody now accepts is wholly undesirable. That is what the Minister says, what Mr. Whitton says and, I am quite sure, what the present Home Secretary says. Everyone accepts that it is unsatisfactory. but are we going to do anything about it?

In answer to the anxieties which have been expressed the Minister said two things. He paid a warm and unqualified tribute to the police for the wonderful job that they have done. We all agree with those words, but I must tell him that many chief officers of police are becoming deeply angry about what they are being invited to do. The situation that they see arising is dealing not with temporary problems such as the odd prisoner who is going to be kept overnight because it is inconvenient to take him to prison. What they resent is the arrival of 20, 30, 40 or 50 prisoners in counties which are 150 miles from the Metropolitan Police district and having to take their own policemen off the streets in order to deal with that influx of remand prisoners. I do not overstate the case. There are many chief officers of police who are becoming deeply alarmed about what they are being asked to do.

I come to the Minister's second argument. He said that there was not much point in passing this amendment because were Parliament to be invited to pass this resolution, who in Parliament would vote against it? Who would vote against the Home Secretary having those powers? If I may say so, that is not quite as powerful an argument as the Minister seems to imagine, and for the following reason. Let us look at one other example of an annual resolution which has to be approved by both Houses of Parliament. It is a totally dissimilar matter. It is the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

It is easy to see that there are many obvious dissimilarities between the Prevention of Terrorism Act and this new clause; of course that is true. However, I speak as a person who was a Minister when this Bill went through Parliament in the first instance. The pressure which falls on the Home Office every year when these resolutions fall due to be debated is massive. Just consider how many inquiries have had to be instituted by Home Secretaries into what has been going on under the terms of the Prevention of Terrorism Act in order to reassure Parliament that everyone is behaving reasonably.

I believe that were there to be a requirement of this kind on the Home Office it would have the most remarkable effect in terms of concentrating minds in that department of state. Therefore I do not consider that that second leg of the argument is a very powerful one.

My noble friend Lady Seear raised the question, as I did previously, of women prisoners. It is deeply disturbing, as we both said, that such a high proportion of the prisoners now being kept in police custody are women. As I have indicated, that figure stands some weeks at nearly 50 per cent. I do not think that Parliament can just cheerfully let that go by year after year. As we know, many of those women have been remanded in custody because they are largely mentally disturbed people and the courts have frankly no idea what to do with them. That is why they are remanded in custody in such numbers. I can think of no circumstances where it is less appropriate to keep people in wholly unsuitable accommodation in police stations than in the case of mentally disturbed women. That view is echoed by many chief officers of police.

The Earl of Caithness

I am grateful to the noble Lord. I did not deal with that point and I apologise. I do not have the exact figures in the last 10 days or so because of the problems we have been facing. However, if memory serves me—and I shall write to the noble Lord if I am wrong—following what the Home Secretary announced in July, we reduced the number of women in police cells to zero. I think that the last time I looked, we had one woman on a very short-term basis, who was moved into prison. Therefore, the action that my right honourable friend took at that stage was highly effective. However, I could not agree more with the noble Lord when he says that the sitation we were in was very wrong.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

I welcome that and no doubt the noble Earl will be able to write and tell us the up-to-date situation. Certainly the situation I outlined obtained for a very long period of time and the figures I gave stated precisely the numbers of women involved.

I should like to say to the noble Earl that many of us are simply not prepared to allow the situation to go on much longer in this particular way. Obviously I will not press the matter tonight. However, I think that the Government will have to accept the fact that they will at some stage have to vote us down on this issue. No doubt they can arrange that. However, Ministers are going to have to accept full personal responsibility for what is going on. I think that we have accepted too tranquilly what has been going on. It is time for the Committee to become thoroughly bad-tempered about it.

Having said that, and having indicated that we will certainly come back at a later stage, I ask the leave of the Committee to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 44 [Suspended and partly suspended sentences on certain civilians in courts-martial and Standing Civilian Courts]:

The Earl of Caithness moved Amendment No. 65: Page 26, line 25, leave out subsection (5).

The noble Earl said: Amendment No. 65 simply seeks to remove the words no longer required. The definition in subsection (5) is now contained in Schedule 9. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 44, as amended, agreed to.

The Earl of Longford moved Amendment No. 66: After Clause 44, insert the following new clause:

("Parole Board to review life sentences after

ten years have been served.

The following subsection shall be inserted after section 61(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 1967(1A) Without prejudice to his earlier release under subsection (1) of this section, the Parole Board shall advise the Secretary of State on the release on licence of every person serving a sentence of imprisonment for life after he has served ten years of his sentence and thereafter at intervals not exceeding five years.".")

The noble Earl said: This is an issue to which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and I have attached great importance for a number of years. We are also speaking in line with suggestions and recommendations from the all-party penal affairs committee. It is an issue, in our view, of great importance and this is not the time of night to press it very far. I shall be asking leave to withdraw the amendment, having explained its nature and possibly getting some indication of the Government's attitude. However, I think it is something which the House as a whole should have a chance to study.

We are dealing here with life prisoners and with mental torture in some cases and mental distress in many cases, as compared with the physical distress which exists in overcrowded prisons. We are talking in this case of people who are left in prison for many years without hope. I think that they are denied hope unnecessarily.

There are many kinds of life prisoner. Noble Lords such as myself have visited them for any years. I believe that I am on visiting terms at the moment with about 10 such people, including one for rape, one for buggery and one for IRA offences. Whether one is in touch with such people or not, one is well aware that the conditions vary enormously. I think we are all aware that a high proportion of such people come out of prison in under 10 years. So we are not talking about that large section of the life prisoner population; we are talking about those who serve more than 10 years.

As to whether they ought to be given a chance to be considered, I would only submit that the provision of hope is the supreme advantage, the main glory of the whole parole philosophy. If you deny hope to long-term prisoners you are in my eyes committing a grievous sin. If I say to a man, or if one lets it be known, that he will be in prison for many, many years, in some cases for 20 years without even being considered, one is committing just that grievous sin.

We shall be told that the case is considered by the Home Office, but I am afraid I cannot consider that a dispassionate view, in spite of all my admiration for the Home Office and for its various ministerial leaders. The first opportunity that comes to a prisoner of being considered by a dispassionate body is when the local review committee considers the case, and it is likely that the governor is a member of that committee. Certainly one other member of the committee will have interviewed the prisoner. If he is considered there, he goes to a central committee, which of course has not seen him, thus pursuing a very odd form of judicial process and providing no reasons for its decisions. At any rate that is the present arrangement. I am very glad to think that the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, a very highly regarded former minister at the Home Office, is looking into the whole system. However, I am not going into that system tonight.

Your Lordships might think on the face of it that there is no possible argument against what I am suggesting, but there is one argument which must be touched on in my few remarks. The argument which has been and which will be brought forward on occasions is that it is raising false hopes if you say to a man for whom a judge has recommended 30 years' imprisonment that he should be considered after 10 years; you are leading him up the garden path and giving him the idea that perhaps he might be released after not much more than 10 years. Of course the train robbers, as I mentioned this afternoon, were given 30 years and they were released after not many more than 10 years.

If you are going to pay slavish attention to these recommendations of the judges, then you are in a very difficult position. But that is an issue which was raised this afternoon and no doubt we shall come back to it again and again, so I shall not pursue it further this evening.

Let us leave out the question of the judges and look at the matter from the point of view of the official attitude expressed on the only occasion when there was an opportunity for expression by the noble Lord, Lord Beaverbrook. I tried to let the noble Lord know that I would be referring to him, but this is an official ministerial statement, which I mentioned to noble Lords opposite, so I hope I am not doing anything wrong in quoting what was said by him. He was drafted in at rather short notice, I remember, to make a statement for the Government. This is what he said, speaking for the Government, in reply to a debate that I raised at the end of November last year: Secondly, in considering all the circumstances of cases involving life sentence prisoners the board"— that is, the parole board— is bound to take account, as it always has, of the requirements of retribution and deterrence, whatever its assessment of risk. In doing so, it will no doubt take account of any view expressed by the judiciary or by the Home Secretary, but it is certainly not bound by them, and in no sense is it resentencing such an offender". [Official Report, 4/11/86; col. 1091.] That is perhaps a matter of semantics, but here at any rate is a trial with all the considerations taken into account which would be taken into account at a trial, except that the prisoner is not seen by anybody, any members of the court, and they have no reasons to give to him afterwards.

That is how it was described by the Minister on the last occasion, but of course nothing is said there about public opinion. Yet we are led to conclude now that very serious attention will be paid to public opinion. Therefore I do not want to repeat what I said this afternoon about the tabloids, and I shall draw to a close in a moment. I would, however, like to submit that if we do not accept an amendment of this character, even though the drafting could be improved, we are saying to a prisoner, "After 10 years you have no chance at all of coming out, however well-behaved, however good your prospects. Therefore we are not going to be bothered to see you and we do not want to raise false hopes". That would be an utterly inhuman and revolting attitude. I cannot believe that the humane Minister opposite wishes to be connected with that. However, I intend to ask leave to withdraw the amendment because I believe that the House as a whole should have these arguments properly deployed before it.

10.15 p.m.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

I support this amendment, which bears directly on the policy which was instituted by Mr. Leon Brittan: a policy which in my humble opinion has done more harm to the prison system than any other single act by a Minister over the past decade. How it was possible overnight to lay down rules that life-sentence prisoners in certain categories of offender not because of the person but the category of the offence, should not have their sentence reviewed by anybody in authority for 17 years—that is, three years before the minimum time of 20 years—is completely inconceivable. To play cat and mouse with human beings simply for the purposes of political expediency is completely unforgivable.

This amendment deals with that inhuman situation which should never have happened at all. Knowing that the Minister is a man of humanity, as the noble Earl said, is it possible for him to continue in the office which he holds, leaving people for 17 years in prison with no hope and with nothing to look forward to, when we all know that the only hope for a long-term prisoner is the possibility of parole and the time when eventually he will come out?

I do not want to be too emotional about this matter, but the human condition involves emotion as well as reason. I suggest that the Minister, when dealing with such matters, must bear in mind emotion as well as reason. One need only consider a child growing up from one year to 17 years of age to have some concept of what it means to sit in prison for 17 years. To never have anyone visit at any stage to ask how you are getting on, how you are dealing with your sentence, what has been your behaviour, what is your family situation, and what matters have to be taken into account to see whether you should be eligible for parole, is an act of inhumanity which is difficult to describe. For those reasons, I support this amendment.

Baroness Ryder of Warsaw

From what I have heard this evening it seems that we have clearly concentrated our thoughts and our attentions upon the prisoner. That is only right and proper. However, we should also remind ourselves of the victims. What do we think of 17 years in regard to a person who has been murdered, or a person who has suffered distress which is quite beyond all comprehension or explanation?

I have had the privilege of visiting non-German prisoners in different prisons all over Europe. I do not wish to bore the Committee again, but I can only say that they comprise many different groups. First and foremost, there are people who commit such crimes that they should not be released into society. They do not belong in society. I am sorry, but I believe firmly and strongly about that. From all possible medical evidence it seems inevitable that they will commit further crimes.

Secondly, there are those who do not feel any sense of remorse. However, I do not suggest that we should not consider and counsel them. It is bad to generalise. I was not present earlier in the debate, when the Committee probably did not generalise. We should consider those people who have suffered from the offenders. Let us keep the matter non-party, as I am sure it is intended to be.

I plead for those people who have been so distressed that they will never recover. We do not have the severity and cruelty in our law that is seen in prisons in many other countries. There are double life sentences. People have no hope of even having one life sentence commuted. I thank the Committee for listening to me.

Lord Hylton

We should certainly consider the victims. I should like to pay tribute to the schemes devised by NACRO and other bodies for victim support. However, there is another consideration. In the case of life prisoners, we must think about their wives, relatives and families. If life sentences cannot he reviewed for many years, what incentive is there for the family to remain loyal to the prisoner? Very little, I think. On behalf of the families I appeal for careful consideration of this amendment, which I should like to support.

The Earl of Caithness

As the noble Earl, Lord Longford, knows, the sentences of all life sentence prisoners are kept under review by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. I know that he will say that is not enough for him, but it is a fact. The noble Earl would wish to go beyond that, and say that there should be a formal review by the Parole Board after the first 10 years of sentence if there has not been one earlier, and a further review at least every five years thereafter.

I am not persuaded that automatic reviews would serve any useful purpose. The present procedures ensure that cases are regularly considered and not lost sight of. Furthermore, there would be certain disadvantages. I cannot think that it is either fair or kind to raise hopes in a prisoner whose crime was so grave that he really cannot be seriously considered for release for very many years. A prisoner's case ought not to be reviewed until there is at least a realistic prospect that this might lead to a recommendation by the Parole Board that he should be released.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, talked about the provision of hope. A local review committee review involves reports being prepared on the prisoner by prison staff. He is told of his rights to make representations to the LRC. The probation service is asked to report on the home circumstances and to support a possible release plan. That may involve interviewing members of the prisoner's family, who will then have its expectations raised that the prisoner's release is imminent.

What can be more cruel than raising expectations in that way'? Where expectation has been raised, one can imagine the deep anguish caused to the prisoner's family when it discovers that he is not to be released, and in some cases may not be released for many years.

My experience comes from the letters that I have received when people have been turned down for parole. I am not talking about life-sentence prisoners particularly. After the three-month period that it takes for the LRC and the referral to the Parole Board, prisoners have their expectations raised. They anticipate that they are going to be released and, if the decision is unfavourable, I regularly get letters from the families saying how disappointing it is. It is a very difficult letter to have to write to say, "I am sorry. It is not a right, it is something that has to be considered by this independent body." We therefore have to think extremely carefully when we come to life sentence prisoners about raising the prospect of hope when there is no realistic chance of the Parole Board recommending a release.

There is also a danger that an unrealistically early review of a case involving a particularly serious crime would give rise to adverse publicity that could be of no advantage to anyone. The fact that a prisoner's case was to he reviewed would inevitably be interpreted to mean that the prisoner might soon he released and no amount of explanation or denial would remove that suspicion. One can imagine the reaction if it were thought that a person who had sadistically murdered a child was being considered for release after 10 years.

In every case where a formal review date is set for several years ahead, the Home Office will review the case on the basis of full reports from the prison at least every three years. Prison governors have been asked to report at any time any special circumstances or special progress made by a prisoner. In any event Ministers will review every case where a life sentence prisoner has been detained for 10 years. In practice therefore, and contrary to the impression given, cases are reviewed more frequently than the noble Earl proposes in his amendment but in a way which causes no distress to the prisoner or to the outside world. I believe that that is a very good system and I hope that the noble Earl will not press his amendment.

The Earl of Longford

All of us must congratulate the noble Earl on the gallantry with which he, not alone but almost alone, has sustained the burden of the arguments of the last two days. I see him there like Horatius standing on the bridge whence all but he have fled—though the noble Earl, Lord Arran, has not fled, so the noble Earl has at least one supporter— and I am bound to say that he looks more and more tired as this evening goes on. That is not unnatural. I should have "conked out" many years ago. I cannot expect fresh thinking; certainly we have not had it from him in these last few remarks.

As I said earlier, I shall be returning to this subject. I am very grateful to those who have supported this amendment. The noble Baroness, Lady Ryder, will forgive me if I say that, when listening to her, my mind wanders away from her speech and I think of her wonderful achievements. Those are what stay in my mind. On the subject of victims, in order to curry a little favour with her, as far as I can remember there have been only five main debates on victims begun in this Chamber and I have started four of them, including the introduction of a Bill. Perhaps she will therefore exonerate me on that front. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Earl of Arran

I beg to move that the House be now resumed.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

House adjourned at half past ten o'clock.