HL Deb 20 May 1991 vol 529 cc9-35

2.59 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill he now further considered on Report.

Moved, That the Bill be further considered on Report.—(Earl Ferrers.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Clause 24 [Court's duty on passing sentence of life imprisonment]:

The Earl of Longford had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 57.

Page 18. line 13, leave out from ("life") to end of line 15.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I moved this amendment at the previous stage of the Bill. I put it down again on the ground that the clause as it stands is unintelligible. The House may be happy with that. have asked a good many noble Lords whether any of them can make any sense of it. No one has been able to explain to me what the clause means. For most purposes it can be treated as unintelligible. However, we have more important matters than issues of semantics to deal with today. I do not wish to waste time on the matter if the House wants an unintelligible clause to go into the Bill. I shall therefore not move the amendment.

[Amendment No. 57 not moved.]

Clause 25 [Alteration of certain penalties]:

Earl Ferrers moved Amendment No. 57A:

Page 19, line 6, at end insert: ("(5) The power saved by subsection (I) of section 70 of the Criminal Justice Act 1982 (vagrancy offences) shall not include, in the case of an offence mentioned in paragraph (b) (i) of I hat subsection (sleeping rough), power to impose a fine which exceeds level 1 on the standard scale.").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, Amendment No. 57A proposes a reduction in the maximum penalty that ,:an be imposed for an offence of sleeping rough under Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 from the existing level 3 fine to level 1. This means that the maximum fine that can be imposed for this offence under the Bill's provisions will be two units; that is a maximum of just £8 for the poorest offender up to a maximum of £200 for the wealthiest offender. With this amendment it is correct to consider at the same time Amendment No. 60.

Your Lordships will remember that we had a very full discussion of the vagrancy offences during Committee. Several noble Lords questioned whether it was right for the criminal law to provide for any punishment for those who beg or sleep on the streets. There is no dispute that the problems of homelessness go beyond the scope of the criminal law or indeed the criminal justice system. The Government recognise this and a great deal is being done on the practical side to help the homeless.

Last year a special programme of resources was enhanced to provide subsidised accommodation for single homeless projects in London. Some £96 million has been made available over three years to finance emergency direct access shelters and more longer term accommodation. Voluntary organisations are receiving a further £6.5 million to enable them to offer advice and help to the homeless and potentially homeless. That brings to over £100 million the extra resources being made available over three years, not taking into account the substantial allocations to local authorities and housing associations to enable them to help house the homeless. Taking practical steps of this kind is, I believe, the right way to tackle this problem. But, as I said in Committee, the Government do not agree that changes to the nature of offences under the Vagrancy Act, as was proposed in that debate and as is proposed in Amendment No. 60, which is before us again today, should also be part of the solution.

I do understand the anxieties that have been expressed and we have given some further thought to this matter. What we have done, in view of the worries expressed by noble Lords at earlier stages of the Bill, is to look again at the penalties that are available for vagrancy offences. In general, we think that these are about right. However, there is, I think, an argument for looking again at the maximum penalty for the particular offence of sleeping rough.

As I explained in Committee, it is extremely rare for anyone to come before the courts for sleeping rough. No doubt this reflects the fact that no offence is committed where the person had no alternative but to sleep rough. Recent sentencing practice also shows that, where such offences are brought to court, the courts do not use the full scope of their present sentencing powers, which allow for a fine of up to £400 for this offence. In 1989, there were in fact only 16 convictions for sleeping rough throughout the country. The average fine was less than £50. I do not think it would be right to take away from the courts altogether the option of fining for this offence, as Amendment No. 60 proposes. It is for the courts to decide, in the light of all the circumstances of the case, what the right penalty is for the particular offence before them. I do, however, think that in the light of sentencing practice a lower maximum fine is appropriate.

The new amendment in my name suggests a maximum penalty of a level 1 fine. That fine is more in line with the sentencing practices of the courts. I hope your Lordships will agree with me that reducing the penalty for sleeping rough to level 1 is both helpful and sensible. I beg to move.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, I do not know what to make of this amendment. It was tabled only last Thursday and it was supplementary to the Marshalled List. That was the first time that I saw it. It has the effect of pre-empting half of the amendment which is in my name, that of the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, and others. It would be more effective if the noble Earl reserved this amendment for Third Reading because otherwise it will spoil and cramp the debate on Amendment No. 60, which has been tabled for a considerable time. I should not like that to happen. I wonder whether the noble Earl will consider withdrawing the amendment at this stage so that Amendment No. 60, which has been tabled for a great many days, can be debated without the prejudice of this amendment. Will the noble Earl consider doing that?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I had hoped that the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, would not consider that this amendment was prejudicial to his own. The two amendments are on the same subject. We consider it convenient to have the debate on the subject taken together and, if it is required, a vote can be taken separately on each amendment. It will be a pity to have two separate debates on what is principally the same subject.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords. I do not wish to have two separate debates. I wish to have one debate on Amendment No. 60, which omits a fine altogether for both categories of offence. Amendment No. 57A pre-empts Amendment No. 60 by retaining a fine for sleeping rough. If the noble Earl is not disposed to do that then I have no alternative but to agree to continue to debate this amendment, but to ask the House to reject it so that my amendment can be considered as a whole.

This subject has been before the House for a considerable period of time. The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, introduced, and saw through the House without amendment, a Private Member's Bill to repeal the Vagrancy Act altogether. That has the approval of the House. However, the Bill has made no progress in the House of Commons. This amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill is to take into account the objections which the noble Earl raised to the Private Member's Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Stallard. That objective is embodied in Amendment No. 60.

There are two limbs to the proposal. The first is concerned with begging and the second with sleeping rough. The second limb and its consideration is prejudiced by Amendment No. 57A. Everyone who spoke at Committee stage except the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, agreed that it is inappropriate to fine those who sleep rough. It is inappropriate to fine beggars except the professional beggar. It is that provision which is embodied in Amendment No. 60. However, the Government have an amendment which does not get rid of the fine for sleeping rough. It reduces it from level 2 to level 1 of the scale. That is not enough. We have in this country something that has been the liberty the subject for anyone to do who cannot find anywhere to sleep: to sleep out in the open; to sleep under a hedge in the country; to sleep in the car on the street. It is inappropriate for anyone who does not have enough money to be harried by the police and asked to move on; or, if he will not move on, to be taken inside and brought up before the magistrates and subjected to a fine. The Vagrancy Acts are really very old indeed and are out of date. They should have been abolished long ago. The more offensive provisions were repealed long ago, and all that remains is a residue. However, the residue is not necessary. I am told that the reason why the use of these Acts has been suddenly revived is because the police require the powers in order to move on both beggars and those who are sleeping rough.

It is not necessary for the police to resort to the Vagrancy Acts for that purpose. I have been provided with an extensive schedule of other powers which can and should be used by the police. It is not necessary to resort to the Vagrancy Acts. The fact is that powers that are both at common law and in statutes are enough in themselves for keeping the highway clear of obstruction just to name one power, without resort to the Vagrancy Acts.

It is not merely a matter of powers; it is a matter of attitude: attitude to beggars and attitude to those who are sleeping rough. These are people who need help rather than harassment. It is totally inappropriate to impose fines except regarding those beggars who are a real nuisance, who persistently beg and who do so for gain and not for the support of themselves, their wives or their children. It is preferable that these people who are reduced so low as to beg or to sleep rough should be helped and given assistance rather than punished. That is an attitude which has been endorsed, I would say, by the Prime Minister. Before Christmas the Prime Minister made arrangements— or sought to make arrangements— for those in this unfortunate condition to be helped to find homes and food rather than to be swept off the street by the Vagrancy Acts.

Many of these people are young. Perhaps they have come from broken homes or one-parent homes, and they have nowhere to go. They may be so poor that they cannot afford to pay the rents in London, or other capital cities to which they have come; or they are psychiatrically disordered. It is appalling to think that psychiatrically disordered people are gaoled and subjected to fines and other such things when what they need is care in a hospital. It is a change of attitude that is needed, so that these people are helped and not harassed. They should not be fined or threatened with a fine.

The noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, who spoke in Committee on this matter, is unfortunately not able to be here today because he is out of the country. He described his Government as being "humane, just and decent". That is why he confidently expected the Government to agree at that stage to what is now Amendment No. 60. He much regrets that he is not able to be here to ask the Government to do the same at this stage today. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, on the Government Benches, hopes to speak in his place. We have support from the Labour Party and certainly from the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, who initiated this matter in this House, and we also have support from the Cross-Benches.

As I have said before, we have made an exception for the aggressive beggar. There need be no fear that the beggar who is begging for money will not be the subject of the rigour of the law as it now applies. However, the other categories of beggar should be subjected to help; and help will perhaps come in the form of a probation order or a conditional discharge.

Last Tuesday at Question Time the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, said, there are already too many criminal offences on the statute book.— [Official Report. 14/5/91; col. 1472.] I agree with him. Let us give effect to the expression of the opinion of the noble and learned Lord by agreeing to Amendment No. 60, when we reach it, with a convincing majority. However, in order to be able to vote in its entirety on Amendment No. 60, I ask whether the noble Earl will withdraw this amendment; other wise I shall ask the House to reject it.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I accept— and I suppose all your Lordships would accept— that people who sleep rough, or who are disordered, need help and not harassment. However, surely there ought to be, nonetheless, some power of request to move on, and some sanction. For my part, I reject the suggestion that I am not humane, just or decent, to prefer Amendment No. 57A, which reduces the fine and seems to be reasonable and appropriate in the circumstances.

Amendment No. 60 is open to the objection that it forecloses on the discretion of the magistrates— a discretion which is sensibly exercised. It is also open to the objection that it is designed to keep professional beggars off the streets. Good heavens! What is a professional beggar? It is better left to the discretion of the magistrates, who are used to dealing with these situations, and who deal with them very well. I suggest reducing the fine; and, on balance, I support the government amendment.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, and I endorse everything he said. I hope that I shall not have to repeat what we have said on the Vagrancy Acts on three or four occasions in recent months.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, said that there must be some powers available for the police. There are ample powers for the police to use for that purpose. The police only have to prove that a person is obstructing the highway or creating a nuisance. There are ample statutes available for that purpose. However, the 1824 Act, which does not even give them the powers to move on for that purpose, is being used to threaten and intimidate people that if they do not move on, then under the Act of 1824, they will be prosecuted and possibly imprisoned for non-payment of fines. The Act is being used to tidy up tourist areas at certain times of the year. It is totally inadequate for that purpose.

If the purpose is to stop people from obstructing the highway, there are about 18 different statutes covering the offences of professional begging, causing annoyance on the pavement, of deception and so on, and resisting arrest. I could quote from them if there were time. All those offences are covered by other statutes.

Those who are involved with the problem at street level are puzzled. They do not understand why the Government insist on retaining the provisions of the Vagrancy Act 1824 to hound very many people who would far rather be in proper accommodation. They are not all professional beggars who can be dealt with anyway under existing statutes. A number of people find themselves in these unfortunate circumstances. They do not want to be on the streets for any longer than they have to be. They do not want to be there in the first place. They are being harried. In some cases they get a criminal record for non-payment of fines. They do not have the money to pay the fine. That makes their situation much worse. They then cannot be interviewed for a job. Who wants to interview someone with a criminal record? Who will give someone with a criminal record a room, digs or lodgings?

This only exacerbates the situation. In addition, all kinds of other things can happen on the streets as a result of such a tidying up process. It is counter-productive. There are already provisions on the statute book to deal with the other offences. This ancient law should have been shifted long ago. If necessary some of the other laws could have been tightened up.

On Friday I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, and other noble Lords arguing for the removal of a whole number of statutes, most of them affecting the Isle of Man but some affecting this country, which have been on the statute book for a shorter period than this Act. Why are we so keen to keep this power? The police say to people that if they do not move on they can be arrested and charged under the Vagrancy Act 1824. That is not true. The Act does not give the police that power but they can threaten the use of it in that way, and they do. It is easier to do so. The police do not then have to arrest such people for causing a nuisance, take them to court and prove that they were causing a nuisance. It is not always the case that sitting or sleeping on the pavement can be proved to be a nuisance. That is more trouble for the police.

The Vagrancy Act seems to make things easier. In England we always look for the easy solution. But that is not a solution. We are dealing with real people— young people, elderly people and people who have been discharged from psychiatric hospital, who are in between moves and who have nowhere to go in the meantime. They are begging or sleeping rough for their own subsistence. These are not professional beggars. We agree with everything that has been said about professional beggars: they can be dealt with in other ways. We are dealing here with a different population. We do not need this Act. What we need is help. We should repeal the Act as it affects these people and then provide help to fight the problems of homelessness and of cardboard city by insisting on alternative proposals.

I am glad to say that the Secretary of State for the Environment is moving in the direction of trying to provide permanent assistance. We welcome that, and we shall support and co-operate with every move he makes. However, we should not make matters worse for him and for us. We need a free hand in trying to carry on with the proper task, which is to ensure that no one need sleep rough. If people do, then something is wrong and they can be dealt with under other provisions.

I hope that it will not be necessary to go into all the arguments although I am happy to do so. I hope that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, will withdraw the amendment. It is an unnecessary complication. I have not had a chance to discuss and consider all the implications of the amendment but it seems to suggest, "Let us deal with that one. That will shut them up. If necessary we shall vote and knock them down on that one. Then we can always say that we moved a little". We do not deal properly with legislation— piecemeal legislation is another English problem— when the answer is staring us in the face. The 1824 Act is outdated. It is obsolete and counter-productive. Other Acts can be used to cover any offence which noble Lords care to mention. Such offences will be covered by other statutes. We should clear out this obscene and obsolete Act. Let us get on with the job of helping to cure the problems that exist on the streets. We shall then be doing a good job for everyone involved.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, noble Lords will recall that I am advised by the National Schizophrenia Fellowship. There is a strong mental illness factor in this whole affair. My concern is that Amendment No. 60, although I sympathise greatly with the reasons that led to it being drafted, is of little help to the hundreds of mentally ill people who are wandering abroad on the streets of London and other cities and lodging in buildings or in the open air. The responsible Minister has recently said that 25 to 30 per cent. of single homeless men are mentally ill. Although most are not vagrants, many who are suffer from serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia. A psychiatrist running one of the London court assessment schemes, about which we heard much during discussion of Clause 3, said that in a sample of 80 consecutive cases referred to him, nearly half were living on the streets.

The only provision in the new clause— Amendment No. 60— which would do anything for such people, apart from keeping them out of prison, is to make them the subject of a probation order which could include a requirement as to residence and as to treatment for a mental condition. A probation order, however, must be accepted by the person concerned. In the case of the mentally ill, it may not be accepted, however sensible such a course may appear to other people. I suggest that the courts should have the powers proposed in the Criminal Procedure (Insanity and Unfitness to Plead) Bill which comes before your Lordships for Second Reading tomorrow.

I do not see that Amendment No. 57A helps the mentally ill but I do not believe that it harms them. I would not object to it as such, although I would object to Amendment No. 60 for the reasons I have given. It would be helpful to me if my noble friend the Minister can say whether he is sympathetic to the Criminal Procedure (Insanity and Unfitness to Plead) Bill. That is where the solution to the problem of mentally ill vagrants lies. I hope therefore that Amendment No. 60 will not be pressed and that we shall concentrate instead on the Bill when it comes before the House tomorrow.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I thought I heard him say that Amendment No. 60, apart from perhaps keeping people out of prison, does nothing. But is that not what we are about? That is what I am about. I do not want to hide them in prison. I want to know that they are there and then help them. We should be directing them to properly assisted hostels where they can be looked after with care and counselling. We cannot do that if we put them in prison. We want to keep them out of prison. We want to offer them an alternative to prison. We can do that only if we get rid of this Act and stop people using it. We can direct our attention to constructive suggestions.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, this is another complicated problem. Some schizophrenics have been known to want to go to prison. They are thrown out of hospital; they do not like the digs they are put into; and they want to go to prison. I know of a case in the Isle of Wight of a schizophrenic who threw a brick through an old lady's window specifically so that he could spend Christmas in prison where he knew he would be looked after. The matter is more complicated for the mentally ill than I think Amendment No. 60 faces up to. That is the problem. If the amendment had done so, that would be a different matter. It is not the principle of Amendment No. 60 that I do not like; it is the actual wording in terms of its inadequacy for the mentally ill.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, when we talk of people who are sleeping rough— skippering— on the streets, we are talking of people who do not want to be there. The overwhelming majority of the people who are sleeping rough are totally inadequate. The great majority come out of institutions where they have been cared for. They come out of care— the youngsters— out of the army, out of prison and out of mental institutions. They do not have the faintest idea how to cope. They finish up on the streets. They are there because the hostels have been closed down. Thirty years ago there were four times as many hostel places in London as there are now. They have been closed. That is why people are spending their days in day centres and their nights skippering.

Those are the people about whom we are talking. They are people who need help. Many of them are alcoholics; indeed sometimes that is the cause, and sometimes it is the effect. But I find it astonishing that we should be considering punishing such people for sleeping rough. Moreover, as regards the tiny minority who are not inadequates— the ones who are work shy and those who could not care less— it is pointless to talk in term of punishing them. They may certainly need a push from behind. They may need advice or need to be tackled for doing things, apart from sleeping rough, which they should not be doing. However, to punish people just for sleeping rough, "skippering, seems to me to be utterly nonsensical and unacceptable.

Frankly, sleeping rough is a punishment in itself, for the reasons which I have already given. Moreover, if there people are fined and cannot pay, they will then go to prison. The noble Lord who has just spoken reminded us that many of these people, historically, have sought the refuge of prison, especially in the cold weather. But they cannot even get into Brixton these days because the prison will not take them.

Begging is a different matter. In this connection one has sheep and one has goats. I put it to your Lordships that both these issues, different as they are— that is, sleeping rough on the one hand and begging on the other— are better dealt with by Amendment No. 60. The noble Earl has consistently, and rightly, argued that, it is not true to infer ... that those who beg are necessarily genuinely needy or homeless".— [Official Report, 11/12/90; col. 490.] I accept that fact. However, I am sure that the noble Earl will also accept that some of these people are in that category and in genuine need and homeless. I share his lack of sympathy for those people who beg as a preferable alternative to taking up work. Those people should be dealt with and sorted out— that is, so far as they can be dealt with and identified. I do not dissent from that view. That is what Amendment No. 60 seeks to do.

Begging in itself is not heinous or distasteful, but it can be accompanied by activities which make it unacceptable and therefore something which ought to be dealt with either by way of advice or, if it is accompanied by threats, by more stringent means. That is what the amendment would do.

I believe, first, that to punish people simply because they are found at the back of warehouse or sleeping over a grille in the road cannot be right; and, secondly, that there are means of sorting out the beggars of different categories. That could be done better by way of Amendment No. 60 than by the way suggested in the Government's amendment.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, I should like shortly to express my support for the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, as regards Amendment No. 60. It is exceedingly disappointing that on this occasion the noble Earl has not returned with a better amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Alexander, and others like myself who as young men practised in the courts referred to the unpleasantness of having to appear to prosecute people under an Act dating back to 1824. That Act was passed in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars to deal with people who were called "rogues and vagabonds". Its aim was to clear the streets. It is unbelievable that, in this era of civilisation, one should still use the criminal law to deal with social problems.

When the matter was last raised, the noble Earl said that we cannot, give those who beg in the streets the special privilege of immunity from a fine".— [Official Report, 18/4/91; col. 1635.] He told the Chamber that there had only been 16 such convictions in the whole of England and Wales in 1989. Yet, despite this fact, the Government fight on to maintain this particular criminal offence. It is almost unbelievable.

After a great deal of pressure, the Government gave prostitutes the special privilege of not being imprisoned. It took a long time to get them to agree to that provision. Those of us who supported that legislation received the same opposition: what of the persistent offender? The police must have the final power to threaten imprisonment so as to stop what is becoming an increasing social nuisance. Why should decent people suffer from being accosted in the streets? We are now considering the question of beggars, who are in exactly the same situation. The proposals before us are not offering privileges; they suggest that we do not use parts of the criminal law to deal with social problems.

Surely the time has come to remove the criminal law from this sphere. The amendment does not go as far as that; it simply says that there should not be a power in the courts to fine these people. By the evidence of 16 cases in one year, it is perfectly clear that the magistrates agree. It will be nice to hear from the noble Earl whether the Magistrates' Association and the police want such powers at this time in history.

On the last occasion, the noble Earl created two new classes of rogues and vagabonds to join the unlicensed pedlars, the riotous prostitutes, the dishonest fortune tellers, the incorrigible rogues and all the other vagabonds covered in this legislation. He referred to what he described as the "recalcitrant rough sleeper" and the "determined beggar". He told us that one such person even had the temerity to work in an abattoir and yet sleep every night— one would have thought rather appropriately— in the Bull Ring. As I said, surely the time has come to reconsider the matter. Can the noble Earl drag himself out of the 19th century and into the 20th century? This is really not the time to introduce further categories.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, I support the amendment. However, I would not support it if there was adequate accommodation in the country for such people. When I look back I have to think of the number of Rowton houses and Salvation Army hostels which have closed. That means that there is not enough accommodation for those who need it. Therefore, many people are forced to sleep rough.

I wonder what we would have done with W. H. Davies, who wrote The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp. Would we really have brought him before the court? I shall not speak further because all the arguments have been well rehearsed. I am speaking on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Alexander, who apologises for his absence.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I support these amendments, especially Amendment No. 60. I should like to begin by saying a few words to the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone. It is true that the amendment does not help schizophrenics. But, with the greatest respect, it is not an amendment which deals with the treatment of those people. The object of the exercise is to remove certain penalties which schizophrenics and other people might be subject to at present; the amendment does not attempt to deal with the problem of how one treats these people in what the Government somewhat laughably call "care in the community". The amendment deals with an entirely different category. It is possible that the noble Lord is expecting too much from an amendment which is designed to remove penalties rather than produce solutions. I see that the noble Lord wishes to intervene. I am happy for him to do so.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, many of those people are schizophrenic or suffering from other forms of mental illness. I believe that many people will agree that Amendment No. 60 would do them more harm than good.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I find that difficult to accept. Amendment No. 57A does nothing for schizophrenics. I do not see how leaving on the statute book criminal offences, which may have an ancient lineage but which seem irrelevant to a modern society, helps schizophrenics or anyone else.

Secondly, perhaps I may deal with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. He said that we still need the offence. Perhaps I can read the offences already covered by other statutes: causing, permitting or encouraging a child to beg under Section 4 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933; blocking the highway (a common law nuisance); obtaining donations under false pretences (Section 15 of the Theft Act 1968); being on enclosed premises for an unlawful purpose (contrary to common law)— the owner is entitled to use reasonable force to eject a trespasser— and failure to leave residential premises after being asked (Section 7 of the Criminal Law Act); using violence to secure entry into any premises (Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977); being on premises for an unlawful purpose, such as theft, assault, unlawful damage or burglary (Section 9 of the Theft Act 1968); aggravated burglary (Section 10 of the Theft Act 1968); and resisting arrest by a constable under Section 38 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, quite apart from Section 51 of the Police Act 1964 or the Criminal Justice Act 1982.

There are also the public order offences such as using threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour under Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986. And so it goes on. It is an offence wrongfully, without lawful authority, to act with a view to compelling any person to do that which he has a legal right to abstain from doing— that is, giving money — and to use violence or to intimidate any person; to persistently follow such person about; to watch or beset such person's house or place of work or place where such person happens to be, or the approaches thereto under the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875; to willfully obstruct the free passage of the highway (the Highways Act 1980); or to make an unwarranted demand with menaces with a view to personal gain or loss to another (Section 14 of the Theft Act 1968). And so it goes on. It is an offence to obtain property by deception, which will encompass feigning poverty to obtain money, under Section 14 of the Theft Act 1968. Finally, it is an offence for a person not at his place of abode to have in his possession any article for use in the course or in connection with cheat that— will include dressing in shabby clothes to feign poverty to obtain money by begging— under Section 25 of the Theft Act 1968.

I say that to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, whose acquaintance with Archbold is longer than mine and as great as mine. With all those offences already on the statute book, do we need these minor irritations of the Vagrancy Act? We suggest that we do not. They do not seem to be used or to have much effect or purpose. I hope that the House will accept Amendment No. 60.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, has put his finger on the point. At one moment, he asks whether we need the offences because they are not used and are not of any use, while other noble Lords complain that the measures are draconian. The two arguments do not add up. I find it usually depressing when dealing with the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington. He said that it was disappointing not to have a better amendment from the Government. I have listened at Second Reading, in Committee and on other occasions to the anxieties your Lordships have expressed on these matters. I believed that we had gone some modest way towards helping noble Lords. However, the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, pockets the amendment I have offered and then says like a child, "More, please".

I explained in Committee why I could not accept the new clause which was then proposed. I understand and share your Lordships' concerns about the homeless, but I believe the right way to tackle the problem is by taking practical steps to ensure that the homeless have access to help and advice and that steps are taken to provide more and better accommodation. That is what we are doing.

We have heard today a good deal about why we do not need offences such as begging or sleeping rough. We cannot avoid the fact that at present there is no option but the Vagrancy Act where the mischief is merely begging. The Government believe that it would be wrong to remove the Vagrancy Act power from the police. It allows them to act against beggars in response to genuine and well-founded complaints from members of the public. The police view, which has been publicly given, is that if begging goes unchecked it could lead to no-go areas for the public and to more serious crime. Beggars can commit the offences mentioned by noble Lords, but begging as such is not an ingredient of any of them. For example, a beggar may cause alarm and distress sufficient to warrant a charge under the Public Order Act, but it is the alarm and distress which must be proved and not the begging.

The noble Lord, Lord Henderson, suggests that beggars are always poor and in need of help. I came up against one such the other day who asked me for money. I said that I would not give him any, whereupon I was pushed in the back. He called me an "adjectival judge". The adjective began with a letter in the forepart of the alphabet. He was wrong as to the adjective and to the noun. He had requested something from someone who emerged from the same premises about a minute before me and obtained some money. Having attacked me, he went off and attacked two other sets of people and obtained money from them When a police car fortuitously came round the corner, he got out of the light and ducked towards the ground. The noble Lord, Lord Henderson, may say that he was a poor chap who was begging only to support himself. There would be real difficulties in requiring the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the offender was not begging for money to support himself, as the clause puts it, before the court would have the power to impose a fine.

The effect would be to kill off the offence. We do not believe that we should do that. While I accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, and others, that if there is a case of genuine begging, that case should be met, that is to disregard the fact that there are people who are persecuted— for want of a better word— by beggars, and that is unacceptable.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, perhaps the Minister will allow me to intervene. We intend to prevent that happening by subsection (1) (b). He must have been a brave beggar who attacked the Minister who is such a formidable person and who seems to attract beggars and intruders into his house. We have sought to deal with such an offence. If the Minister does not believe that the subsection is sufficient, perhaps he will beef it up a bit at the next stage of the Bill. What he has said does not invalidate our amendment one whit.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, of course it does. First, the beggar was not especially brave, because he pushed me in the back, and that was not difficult to do. Secondly, the new clause provides: before imposing a fine on such an offender&the court must be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the offender was not begging for money on which to support himself'. A court would find it difficult to prove that that was the case. The noble Lord then says that young people need help and that it is terrible that people should beg and sleep rough when they need help. I agree with him.

I wonder whether the noble Lord has ever looked at the figures. In 1988 there were only eight prosecutions for begging, and in 1989 only two. That is not a considerable drain on the resources. The figures are for young people under the age of 17. There were no prosecutions in 1988 for people sleeping rough. In 1989, only one person under the age of 17 was prosecuted for sleeping rough.

The argument of the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, becomes rather thin when he says, "We don't want this kind of prosecution of people who need help". Prosecutions for sleeping rough are extremely rare, but there is a last resort power to direct to nearby shelters those who persist in sleeping on the pavement, without necessarily prosecuting them.

It is not, as the noble Lord, Lord Murray of Epping Forest, said, an offence on its own. It is an oversimplification to say that the 1824 Act punishes people for sleeping rough. Since 1935, when the Act was amended, the offence of sleeping rough is not committed unless the person spurns an alternative. That is very important. According to the Act, the alternative must be free and accessible.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, I do not understand the noble Earl's statistics. I have in my hand figures which are not officially available for 1989 but which were obtained from four of the 14 inner London magistrates' courts. They show that in 1989 a total of 1,396 people were prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act 1824. The number of people prosecuted is considerable and is not just two or three as the noble Earl suggested.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I do not know how many more times the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, wishes to interrupt me. We normally speak only once at Report stage, and he has interrupted me three times. I shall try to deal with the problem. He gave the figure of 1,396 people prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act but that figure refers to indecent exposure. The total number of prosecutions in 1989 under the Vagrancy Act was 3,482, most of which were for indecent exposure.

We then come to the point of whether the criminal law should be employed for the purpose of moving people. We could debate that matter at length. It is not unprecedented and not necessarily against the public interest to ensure that those who sleep on the streets, and who have spurned alternative accommodation, should be asked to move on because it distresses many people.

The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, said that these people need help and that there should be an alternative to prosecution. The noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, in his usual dramatic way, said that he wanted to drag me out of the 19th century and the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. His remarks are always spicy. It is of great concern to many people and, some would say, a reflection on our society that people sleep on the streets. They also sleep in shop entrances and in parks. Some may have nowhere else to go. Some do so because they have insufficient funds, and others because that is how they wish to live. We must address those points.

The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, says that there is a need for alternative assistance so perhaps I may tell your Lordships what the Government are doing. Last year we announced a special programme of resources to provide additional hostel, long-term, move-on accommodation for single homeless people in London. An increase of £81 million over the next two years is being provided to help the single homeless; f6i million is provided to voluntary organisations who offer the homeless, and potentially homeless, advice and practical help. That brings to over £100 million the amount which is made available over three years to deal with the problem.

Over 1,000 new spaces in hostels and long-term accommodation are being provided for the people of London sleeping rough under the single homeless initiative. All are of a good standard so that people will want to use them. Housing associations provide 900 places in shared and self-contained flats and houses to which people in hostels may move in the next few months, with substantially more to follow. That should help to ease the blockage in the existing hostel accommodation.

The Departments of the Environment and of Health have arranged to open up a number of buildings on an emergency basis. At the height of the cold weather spell in February, 700 extra places were made available in London for people who would otherwise have slept rough in the middle of the winter. A substantial number are still available. The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, said that more assistance is necessary, and that is exactly what the Government are giving.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, I also said that I welcomed all the assistance that had been made available. I happily applauded the Minister now responsible— Sir George Young— who is doing a good job in this respect. However, we know that London and the big cities continually attract a moving population and that there is a constant difficulty. While I am on my feet—

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, we are at Report stage and it is right for any noble Lord to ask a question. However, to make a little speech seems to me contrary to the rules of the House. I rather think that the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, is making an extra speech.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, I accept the stricture from the noble Lord. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, gave the example of the beggar who pushed him in the back, but is he aware that that man commits other offences and one ought not to use the 1824 Vagrancy Act? I would not use that Act if somebody belted me in the back and asked me for money. There are obviously other statutes that can be used to deal with a man who constantly pursues and hits someone, asking for money.

Is the noble Earl aware that the central point remains that, apart from everything else, it is a waste of public funds to prosecute someone under this Act? He said that there were so few that it hardly mattered. Is he aware that, having said that there are so few, it is hardly worth using the Act to deal with them?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I return to the point I made at the beginning. One moment the noble Lord says that this is a terrible Act and that we should dispense with it; the next moment he says that as it is such a stupid little Act what is the point of keeping it. I have tried to explain to your Lordships that there are occasions when it is necessary. The 1824 Act does not give a power to the police to move people on but it provides a power under which the police can direct those sleeping rough to alternative accommodation.

The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, said that in the case I mentioned, the person could have been prosecuted under some other Act than the Vagrancy Act. I dare say he could have been but he was not prosecuted under any Act. I was trying to point out at the beginning that begging can be an offence to the public. The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, shakes his head but all I can say is that he should live in the real world. It can be an offence when people beg. If the offence is committed because people are impecunious, then resources are available for them. If the offence becomes persistent inconvenience then the police require a power to deal with it.

I have tried to accommodate your Lordships in what was said at Second Reading, at the Committee stage and thereafter by producing an amendment which makes the offence of sleeping rough less serious. I hope that your Lordships will agree with that and not with Amendment No. 60, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, because the requirements of the 1824 Act are still necessary.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

4 p.m.

Lord Mancroft moved Amendment No. 58:

Page 19, line 6, at end insert: ("(5) Notwithstanding section 2(3) above the court shall not pass a custodial sentence solely for an offence under section 5(2) or section 19 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1991 as it applies in the case of proceedings for an offence under section 5(2) in relation to substances and products named and defined in Schedule 2, Parts II and III of that Act.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the original purpose of this amendment at Committee stage was to fulfil the wishes of the Government as outlined in their White Paper and in the Bill. Those people who are prosecuted and convicted of misusing drugs should not go to prison. Under the Bill they still can go to prison. The amendment which I brought forward in Committee was to ensure that that should no longer happen since we decided that in a civilised society people with this affliction should not be punished for it but helped. A Department of Health survey showed that 70 per cent. of injecting drug addicts had already been in prison. That proves pretty conclusively that it does not do them much good to go to prison. The problem is that only 10 per cent. of misusers at any one time are in contact with authorities which may be able to help them. The courts are useful in that they can direct these people— as the Government intend — to the agencies which can help them.

Only 1,821 out of the 32,033 people who were prosecuted or cautioned in 1989 were sent to prison. One of the reasons for that is the enormous inconsistency that exists in the way the police deal with these people. Many of them are cautioned and some of them are prosecuted for one offence or another. However, very few of those who are prosecuted and convicted are sent to prison. There is an enormous inconsistency in the way the police behave in different areas. In Liverpool, for instance, misusers are cautioned but are never prosecuted. It seems that people are not sent to prison for the severity of the offence they have committed, but according to where they live. In Wiltshire and Surrey 2 per cent. of these people are sent to prison, whereas in the metropolitan area of London it is 4 per cent. In Manchester it is 17 per cent. and, as I have said, in Liverpool none of them is sent to prison.

In Committee my noble friend Lord Ferrers gave two reasons for opposing my amendment. I felt that the first was rather a strange reason. He maintained that many of those who are convicted of possessing drugs have been supplying drugs or conspiring to supply drugs or have intended to supply them. He said that because it was difficult for the police to obtain a conviction, many of those who had not been convicted of supplying drugs but had been convicted of possession would still go to prison. If they were not found guilty of supplying drugs, we must assume they did not do that.

It seems to me wholly unsatisfactory that these people should be sent to prison for possessing drugs when the real reason why such a sentence is being imposed is that the court thinks they were supplying drugs but cannot prove that. That seems to me wholly illogical and most unsatisfactory. If people supply drugs, or in tend or conspire to supply drugs, they should be convicted and sent to prison. However, if they have only been convicted of possession, they are guilty only of possession. As such, they must be given the appropriate sentence for people convicted of possession. As my noble friend implied, it is not appropriate for those people to go to prison.

The second reason which my noble friend gave was that the courts would need the ultimate sanction of imprisonment. In Committee, at col. 1612 of the Official Report on 18th April, he stated: I accept the fact that in many cases such offences are not serious and that the offender has possession of the drugs simply for his own use or that of his friends. In such circumstances, a custodial sentence may well be inappropriate ... If my noble friend's amendment were to be accepted, a person might be in possession of a quantity of heroin or cocaine, or both, but could not be sent to prison unless it were possible to prove an intent to supply".

In a later intervention at col. 1612 he stated: If the offence was not very great, or if the person actually needed some kind of restorative treatment, the courts might decide to order such treatment. However, if my noble friend's amendment were to be accepted, it would mean that those who had drugs of a very strong nature could, nevertheless, not receive a custodial sentence&In my view it is also appropriate that those in possession of strong drugs should on occasion be sentenced to terms of imprisonment".

I accepted, although I did not necessarily agree with, my noble friend's view. Therefore I changed my amendment. The amendment before us today excludes those in' possession of Class A drugs— what used to be referred to as hard drugs, such as heroin and cocaine — but includes those drugs which are regarded as less serious and which used to be called soft drugs; namely, those in Classes B and C of the Misuse of Drugs Act. I have gone as far as is possible to meet the requirements that my noble friend set in Committee. I have met the reasons that my noble friend gave for not being able to accept my amendment at that stage. The amendment before us today corrects the current differentials in sentencing, which at present are extremely unfair and therefore not used in many courts up and down the country. Currently whether or not one is sent to prison depends on where one lives.

My amendment leaves stronger penalties— as my noble friend demanded— for those in possession of stronger and more dangerous drugs. It makes statutory the Government's intention not to send drug addicts to prison. It clears the air and it allows magistrates and judges in the higher courts to make decisions knowing the Government's intention. My amendment fulfils my noble friend's conditions and I hope the House will accept it. I beg to move.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, a principal argument against this amendment would probably be that in the public perception it would be seen as being soft on drugs. The public perception is a faint and fickle abstraction. It is here today and gone tomorrow. We must balance that danger against the very real benefit that the amendment would bring in reducing the prison population and in targeting the appropriate penalty for those who commit offences solely under Sections 5(2) and 19.

The whole spirit of this Bill, and certainly the spirit of this part of the Bill, is to divert people from custody and, where appropriate, to treatment in the community. This new subsection would enable those people found to be in possession of small amounts of what used to be called soft drugs to receive help and treatment for their drug problem in the community. It has been abundantly proved that prison does not constitute treatment in itself for such people. In some cases quite the contrary is true. Some offenders find that their problems are exacerbated in custody. While a period of imprisonment is a forced cessation of drug taking, someone with a drug problem will probably be unable while in prison to receive the kind of help and guidance that he needs. There will be no one to consider why such a person has a drug problem.

This modest amendment is in no way an attempt at legislation, or decriminalisation by the back door, nor should it be seen as the thin end of any wedge. It is an attempt to ensure that an opportunity is afforded to offer treatment in the community for those people who repeatedly find themselves before the courts on a charge of unlawful possession of a controlled drug, and who are in danger of imprisonment. The provisions of the amendment would allow for a far more appropriate treatment and would ensure that those drug users who are unaware of specialist help agencies can avail themselves of help. We know that ignorance of the law is no excuse, but ignorance of the cure and of the help that is available is as innocent as it is widespread.

Problem drug users are not vicious villains for the most part nor violent people who are as dangerous as a pit bull terrier. Usually they are weak, inadequate people. Such a person will almost inevitably carry illegal drugs to sustain a drug habit. He or she will not usually be someone who carries an illegal drug for personal or financial gain. We are not talking about pushers but people who have a problem with their own drug use. It is that kind of person whom we wish to see receive a non-custodial sentence. We would rather such a person received a sentence in the community which gives him an opportunity to get to grips with his drug problem. Although we must not overlook the necessity of punishment for an offence, we must also remember that the possibility of cure is better than no possibility of cure.

I offer the House a figure which noble Lords may have heard before but would do well to consider again. The Government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs estimates that probably only 10 per cent. of problem drug users are in touch with specialist help agencies in the United Kingdom. In the Netherlands that figure is estimated at 70 per cent. Surely anything that we can do during the passage of this Bill, without danger to society, to raise that dismal figure of one in ten is an opportunity that we should not miss.

This modest amendment would ensure that those who are arrested but who show interest in and enthusiasm for doing something themselves to stop their misuse of drugs can be diverted to the specialist help agencies.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, we debated an earlier version of my noble friend's amendment in Committee. He was kind enough to say that he has amended it in the way suggested in the amendment he has put down today. He has met one of my objections to the earlier version by restricting it to Class B and C drugs. This amendment would not prevent the courts imposing a custodial sentence for possession of a Class A drug such as heroin.

However, the Government remain strongly opposed to the amendment. We must put it in the context of the threat which the traffic and misuse of drugs pose to the welfare of this country as a whole. Home Office figures published earlier this month show that drug misuse led to almost 1,200 deaths in 1989; and while the most dangerous drugs are in Class A, it would be a grave mistake to underestimate the harm done by the drugs in Class B and C with which this amendment deals. These drugs can cause physical and mental damage; they can also draw users into circles where the more dangerous drugs are available. Therefore, they are thoroughly undesirable. We need the sanctions of the criminal law, together with the resources of preventive education and treatment, if we are to make progress against this problem. We need to ensure that even if those at risk know or care little of the health dangers of drug misuse they will at least bear in mind the possible legal penalties. The kind of creeping decriminalisation which the amendment represents can only— in its effect, though not its intention— encourage more people to experiment with drugs.

My noble friend Lord Mancroft referred to regional discrepancies in the use of imprisonment for drug offences. One of the main purposes of the restrictions on the use of custody in Clauses 1 to 3 of the Bill is to ensure that courts in all parts of the country will apply the same criteria. That should produce greater consistency in the use of custody both for drug offences and for other types of offence.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, said that drug users should have the opportunity for treatment. I quite agree. For most of those who are convicted of possession, a community penalty with a requirement for treatment will often be correct. However, for a minority of cases I do not believe that we can rule out the possibility that the offence is serious enough to require a custodial sentence.

Perhaps I can persuade my noble friend that the Bill as it stands takes a fair and balanced approach to this matter. The Bill makes it clear that an offence must be serious if it is to attract a custodial sentence. Plainly, many offences of possession of Class B and C drugs will not be considered serious by the courts. Indeed, increasing numbers of such cases are being dealt with by cautions, and the Government welcome that trend. But we cannot say with confidence that there will be no cases of possession so serious as to deserve a prison sentence. Imagine the case of a schoolteacher who uses cannabis in the company of his pupils, or a pilot or a driver of a coach who is responsible for the safety of dozens of people who stows drugs away in the cabin for his personal use. I should be most unwilling to see the courts deprived of the power to imprison such people in those circumstances, and I hope very much that my noble friend will consider that his amendment is best withdrawn.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Mancroft

My Lords, before my noble friend made his last few comments I was going to ask him whether he could outline the terribly serious offence of possession that would lead to possible imprisonment. In fact in his last comments he outlined two: one was the schoolteacher who had drugs in school and the second was the bus driver. The bus driver would be charged with driving under the influence of drugs, which is rightly a criminal offence. But I see that there may be a problem in the case of the schoolteacher. I do not know what she would be charged, with, apart from possession of drugs. She might he charged with trying to influence a minor or something of that nature. I am sure that in their contracts schoolteachers are not encouraged to bring drugs into school.

In all of my noble friend's remarks I did not hear anything with which I did not agree or any point that I did not make. Yes, of course, the sanction of the law should be available. Of course the intervention of the courts plays an important role. I do not suggest for one single solitary moment that the drugs should be either legalised or decriminalised. I said as much at Committee stage. I do not believe that that would be at all a good idea. The sole purpose of the amendment is to ensure that those people do not go to prison.

In his winding-up remarks on behalf of the Government my noble friend agreed with me. He said that the only people who should go to prison were those who were guilty of the more serious offences. Apart from the case of his schoolteacher I cannot think of any more serious offence. Anyone who possesses a large quantity of drugs is automatically charged with supply, intent to supply or conspiracy to supply. Anyone who has any quantity whatever of the more dangerous Class A drugs falls outside my amendment. As such, my amendment covers every point which my noble friend made. I cannot see why he cannot accept it.

I am not sure whether it is out of order at this stage, but perhaps I may ask him a question before I finally decide what to do with the amendment. What offences would be so serious that a person could not be charged with a more serious offence but would need to go to prison if found guilty? If my noble friend can help me with that point that would assist me to make up my mind.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord who has just spoken—

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am a little apprehensive about interrupting because the interventions of the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, on this Bill are always peculiarly helpful. However, there is a convention which says that noble Lords do not normally participate after the Minister, albeit one of my lowly calibre, has intervened.

Oh, dear, this is peculiarly embarrassing. My noble friend asked me to make an intervention. I can do so only with the approval of your Lordships. I should be quite happy if you would forgo the approval in this case.

I cannot give my noble friend chapter and verse of every conceivable occasion on which a person would go to prison. I rest on the observation that I made upon his amendment. I do not believe that we can say with confidence that there will be no cases of possession so serious as to require a prison sentence. My noble friend's amendment would remove that option. I believe that that would be a bad thing.

Lord Mancroft

My Lords—

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I do not want to bring everyone— including myself— to order from all sides of the House. However, my noble friend has responded on his amendment; he invited me to comment and I did so. I believe that it would be in order if he were to leave it at that.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, with great respect to the Minister— who is of very high calibre— perhaps I may say that it must be right that where a question is asked of a Minister and the Minister, by leave of the House, has intervened and replied, the person who asked the question can continue with his speech.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that is entirely right. I stand corrected and I apologise both to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, and to my noble friend if I inadvertently truncated his remarks. I thought that they had come to an end.

Lord Mancroft

My Lords, the only remark that my noble friend truncated is, I commend the amendment to the House.

On Question, amendment negatived.

Lord Hylton moved Amendment No. 59:

After Clause 25, insert the following new clause: ("Amendment of Criminal Justice Act 1961 to facilitate the transfer of prisoners .In section 26(4) of the Criminal Justice Act 1961 for the words "his sentence shall be treated" there shall he substituted the words "his sentence may be treated".").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of the amendment is clearly stated in the marginal note. I explained it at some length in Committee. I shall not go over the same ground again save to say that we are talking about some 50 to 60 prisoners from Northern Ireland now in English prisons. Some are serving life sentences. In this case the rules for release are discretionary in both jurisdictions. Others are serving fixed sentences and it is with them that the amendment is principally concerned.

In both categories the families suffer exceptional hardship because of the long distances and the high cost of travelling and lodging when visiting. I emphasise again the humane purpose of the English Prison Rule 31 (1) which is in my view being disregarded.

The matter has a long history. I first took a delegation from your Lordships' House to see the noble Lord, Lord Elton, who was then responsible for prisons, in 1982. On 6th November 1990 the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, wrote to me saying that, between June 1989 and November 1990, five requests for transfer to Northern Ireland had been refused on the grounds that it would be inappropriate for the applicants to benefit from the more generous terms of remission available in Northern Ireland. Since then, there has been the High Court case concerning Mr. John McComb's transfer and there may well be other cases.

On 16th January this year I saw Mrs. Rumbold, the present Minister responsible for prisons. She wrote to me on 28th March. Her letter said: I shall be considering with my colleagues in Northern Ireland and Scotland what steps we might take to alleviate the very real problems faced by inmates and their families in maintaining their links".

That was mentioned again by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, in his reply to me on 18th April. I must therefore ask today: what is the result of that consideration? Is it completed and, if not, when will it be?

There are so many things that could be done to help this small group of people and, in so doing, help to break the continuity of violence and terrorism from one generation to the next. The Home Office could abandon its purely political opposition and allow transfers to go ahead. Failing that, the full costs of travel and lodging could be repaid to the families, not only to those on income support but also to those in employment. Another approach would be to allow each prisoner, say, three or four temporary transfers per year to Northern Ireland to receive accumulated visits. Of course, the costs of either method would be high, but we are talking only of a few dozen people.

As things stand, Her Majesty's Government are in breach of United Nations principles on imprisonment and of the spirit of the European Convention on the Repatriation of Prisoners which we have ratified. The Government are being taken to the European Court of Human Rights on this matter. They are disregarding the intention of the prison rules and of Lord Justice Woolf's recommendations in his report. That is a wholly unsatisfactory position. I hope that the noble Earl will be able to tell us today what improvements the Government have in mind. There have been some 15 or more years in which to consider the matter. I beg to move.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, I put my name down to the amendment partly because of my earlier connection with the affairs of Northern Ireland and partly because of my experience when I was chairman of the Parole Board and witnessed the hardship inflicted on families fathers, mothers, wives, children and dependants— of Northern Ireland prisoners convicted in English courts and confined in prisons on the mainland. It need hardly be said that it is no part of our system of justice that the dependants of criminals, no matter how heinous their offences, should be made to suffer as a result of the crimes committed by those persons, particularly when the innocence of the dependants is not in question. In the case of small children, how could that be?

As the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said, confinement in English prisons amounts to punishment of the dependants. As he said, the journeys are long and arduous. I have seen families arriving at prisons— for instance, on the Isle of Wight— in a state of exhaustion and nervous tension, as if arriving in a strange land. It is no answer to the problem to suggest that young mothers who wish to be accompanied by their small children should leave them behind. That is merely another form of punishment as it deprives the children of seeing their father and vice-versa.

That is why it is important whenever the public interest does not point to the contrary that is the significance of the word "may" in the amendment— to transfer Northern Ireland prisoners to prisons in their own country and to give statutory authority to the difference in jurisdiction as between serving in prisons in Northern Ireland and serving in prisons in England and Wales. As your Lordships know, the differences between the practice in Northern Ireland of releasing the prisoner half way through his sentence with no parole system in place, and the practice elsewhere in Britain of hitherto releasing at two-thirds of the sentence served in prison, with eligibility for parole at any time after one third of the sentence has been served, will be altered by the conditions embodied in the Bill. Prisoners serving long sentences of seven years and more will have to serve half their sentences in prison and may then be considered for parole. I feel sure that prisoners domiciled in the Province but serving sentences in England would gladly give up their eligibility for parole— the prospects for which are in any case likely to be minimal in the case of IRA prisoners— in return for regular, frequent and more relaxed contacts with their families.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, I wish to support the amendment and make three points. First, those of us who have worked in, and had a great deal to do with, prisons know that prisoners who are in touch with their families and who receive regular visits are far easier to handle because they are far happier people. The prison staff are therefore affected as well as their fellow prisoners. Even if the families of prisoners from Ireland can visit, they do so very rarely and, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said, they are usually in a state of collapse. If the men were in Ireland, they could be visited frequently.

Secondly, with regard to the relationship between prisoners and their children to which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, referred, it is important that the children see their fathers even if they are in prison in order to maintain a relationship. Thirdly, from the point of view of rehabilitation, when the man comes out of prison, it is far easier for him to be rehabilitated if he has maintained contact with his family.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester

My Lords, I too should like to support the amendment. A humane prison system should certainly include provision for the visiting of prisoners by families coming from a distance. If transfer will make that easier, I hope that the Government will accept the amendment.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, we debated a similar amendment in Committee. Perhaps I may say straightaway that I fully understand the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and of your Lordships about the transfer of prisoners from England and Wales to Northern Ireland. However, I still have some serious difficulties with the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. That arises from the prospect of mixing two distinct systems and sets of powers. The early release arrangements in Northern Ireland are different from those that apply in England and Wales. There would be difficulties if, for example. a life sentence prisoner whose tariff had been imposed in this country was transferred to Northern Ireland and his detention was in all other respects a matter for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

I have considerable sympathy with your Lordships' concerns about this matter. I accept that the current arrangements sometimes create difficulties for the families of prisoners who have to travel a long way to visit. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, knows that we are considering further what can be done. He asked me whether that consideration had been completed. All I can say at the moment is that we hope to conclude our consultations very shortly. As soon as they are concluded, I will write to the noble Lord. Lord Hylton, with the results of that consultation. I hope your Lordships will understand that this is a problem to which we are addressing ourselves as best we can because we realise the difficulties which the present situation causes.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all speakers who have supported the amendment. I am sorry that the noble Earl expressed anxieties on the technical aspects. I hope very much that the Government's consideration will be completed before we reach Third Reading of this Bill. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment now and reserve the right to return to it at Third Reading.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Henderson of Brompton moved Amendment No. 60:

After Clause 25, insert the following new clause: ("Alteration of certain penalties under the Vagrancy Act 1824

.— (1) (a) Where a person has been convicted by a court of placing himself or herself in any public place, street, highway, court or passage to beg or gather alms under section 3 or 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 as amended, then he or she shall be liable only to:

  1. (i) a fine not exceeding level 1 on the standard scale, or
  2. (ii) a conditional discharge, or
  3. (iii) an absolute discharge, or
  4. (iv) a probation order.

(b) before imposing a fine on such an offender as is mentioned in paragraph (a) the court must be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the offender was not begging for money on which to support himself or herself.

(2) Where a person has been convicted by a court of wandering abroad, or lodging in any barn or outhouse or in any deserted or unoccupied building or in the open air or under a tent, or in any cart or waggon and not giving a good account of himself or herself contrary to sections 3 and 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 as amended, he or she shall be liable only to—

(aa) a fine not exceeding level 1 on the standard scale, or

  1. (a) a conditional discharge, or
  2. (b) an absolute discharge, or
  3. (c) be made the subject of a probation order.

(3) Section 5 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 as amended is repealed.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I formally move Amendment No. 60. It is necessary to move the amendment in an amended form so that it does not conflict with the decision which the House has already taken on Amendment No. 57. A new paragraph to be inserted in subsection (2), before paragraph (a), states: (aa) a fine not exceeding level 1 on the standard scale, or".

As we have debated this subject on Amendment No. 57, it must be for the convenience of the House that I move the amendment formally. I hope noble Lords will agree to that procedure. I beg to move.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, for putting down his manuscript amendment. It permits consideration of a proposal which otherwise would not have been possible. We had a fairly full debate on Amendment No. 57A. I do not think there is anything more of substance I can say other than to hope that your Lordships will not agree to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Henderson.

4.33 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 60) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 77; Not-Contents, 129.

Division No. 1
Addington,L. Cledwyn of Penrhos, L.
Airedale, L. Cocks of Hartcliffe, L.
Allenby of Megiddo, V. Craigavon, V.
Annan, L. Darcy (de Knayth), B.
Ardwick, L. David, B.
Aylestone, L. Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L.
Bancroft, L. Dormand of Easington, L.
Blackstone, B. Ennals, L.
Blake, L. Faithfull, B.
Boston of Faversham, L. Fisher of Rednal, B.
Bridges, L. Foot, L.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Gallacher, L.
Carter, L. Gladwyn, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Mishcon, L.
Greenhill of Harrow, L. Morris of Castle Morris. L.
Grey, E. Morris of Kenwood, L.
Hampton, L. Nicol. B.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Peston, L.
Hatch of Lusby, L. Phillips, B.
Henderson of Brompton, L. [Teller.] Pitt of Hampstead, L.
Hollis of Heigham, B. Prys-Davies, L.
Hughes, L. Richard, L.
Hunt, L. Rochester, L.
Hutchinson of Lullington, L. Seear, B.
Hylton, L. Serota, B.
Jenkins of Putney, L. Stallard, L. [Teller.]
John-Mackie, L. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Kearton, L. Strabolgi, L.
Kilbracken, L. Taylor of Blackburn. L.
Lawrence, L. Taylor of Gryfe, L.
Listowel, E. Tenby, V.
Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B. Tordoff, L.
Longford, E. Turner of Camden, B.
Lovell-Davis, L. Underhill, L.
McIntosh of Haringey, L. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Manchester, Bp. Walston, L.
Mason of Barnsley, L. White, B.
Mayhew, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
Winchilsea and Nottingham, E.
Ailesbury, M. Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L.
Aldington, L. Halsbury, E.
Alexander of Tunis, E. Harmar-Nicholls, L.
Allerton, L. Havers, L.
Ampthill, L. Henley, L.
Arran, E. Hives, L.
Astor, V. Hood, V.
Auckland, L. Hooper, B.
Beaverbrook, L. Howe, E.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Hylton-Foster, B.
Bellwin, L. Ironside, L.
Beloff, L. Jenkin of Roding, L.
Belstead, L. Johnston of Rockport, L.
Bessborough, E. Joseph, L.
Birdwood, L. Killearn, L.
Blatch, B. Kinloss, Ly.
Blyth, L. Kitchener, E.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Knollys, V.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Lauderdale, E.
Brigstocke, B. Lloyd-George of Dwyfor, E.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Long, V.
Butterworth, L. Lucas of Chilworth, L.
Caithness, E. Lyell, L.
Campbell of Alloway, L. McColl of Dulwich, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Mackay of Clashfern, L.
Carnock, L. Macpherson of Drumochter, L.
Cavendish of Furness, L. Mancroft, L.
Cawley, L. Manton, L.
Chelmer, L. Margadale, L.
Clanwilliam, E. Marsh, L.
Coleraine, L. Merrivale, L.
Constantine of Stanmore, L. Mersey, V.
Cork and Orrery, E. Middleton, L.
Cottesloe, L. Milverton, L.
Cullen of Ashbourne, L. Monk Bretton, L.
Cumberlege, B. Mottistone, L.
Davidson, V. [Teller.] Mountevans, L.
Denham, L. [Teller.] Munster, E.
Donegall, M. Murton of Lindisfarne, L.
Dudley, E. Nathan, L.
Eccles of Moulton, B. Nelson, E.
Elles, B. Norfolk, D.
Elliot of Harwood, B. Norrie, L.
Erne, E. Nugent of Guildford, L.
Ferrers, E. Onslow, E.
Fraser of Carmyllie, L. Orkney, E.
Fraser of Kilmorack, L. Orr-Ewing, L.
Gardner of Parkes, B. Platt of Writtle, B.
Glenarthur, L. Plummer of St. Marylebone, L.
Gridley, L. Porritt, L.
Grimston of Westbury, L.
Pym, L. Strathmore and Kinghorne, E.
Rankeillour, L. Strathspey, L.
Reay, L. Terrington, L.
Renton, L. Teviot, L.
Renwick, L. Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Rippon of Hexham, L. Trefgarne, L.
Rochdale, V. Trumpington, B.
Rodney, L. Ullswater, V.
Shrewsbury, E. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Skelmersdale, L. Waddington, L.
Slim, V. Wade of Chorlton, L.
Strange, B. Whitelaw, V.
Strathcarron, L. Wise, L.
Strathclyde, L. Young, B.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.