HL Deb 21 May 1996 vol 572 cc730-2

2.53 p.m.

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will issue guidance intended to reduce to a minimum the imprisonment of women responsible for the care of young children and to encourage the use of non-custodial sentences.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, within the limits laid down by Parliament, it is for judges and magistrates to decide what sentence to impose. It would not be appropriate for the Government to give them any guidance on this. However, I know that judges and magistrates take account of the circumstances of the offender as well as the offence when considering the most appropriate sentence available to them. I am also aware that the Magistrates' Association is currently revising its guidance to magistrates on sentencing.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord is well known for his care for the interests of children. Does he agree that the number of women in prison in the last three or four years has risen twice as fast as the number of men and that approximately half the women have dependent children? Does that not indicate a real need for more guidance than is currently available to magistrates' and other courts?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am concerned about the issues which the noble Lord raised. My understanding is that the pattern of sentencing for women, to which the noble Lord referred, is related to the nature of the crimes in respect of which women are sentenced. I am told that between 1991 and 1995 the numbers of women sentenced for violence against the person, robbery and drug offences rose by 46 per cent., 128 per cent. and 41 per cent. respectively. So it is not surprising that there should be some, perhaps not immediately corresponding increase, but an increase in the sentences of imprisonment.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord confirm that in a recent case where a husband and wife had both been imprisoned because both had falsely claimed that she had been driving when he was the driver, the Court of Appeal, in quashing her prison sentence, emphasised that the courts are always reluctant to send the mother of young children to prison? Is the noble and learned Lord also aware that there is a disquieting number of cases throughout the country in which women who are responsible for the care of young children are being imprisoned because they are fine defaulters? That is happening to the great prejudice of the children. Will the noble and learned Lord take the opportunity of the Question to emphasise to the magistrates' courts that imprisonment must be regarded as a punishment of last resort and that responsibility for the care of young children is a major factor telling against a sentence of imprisonment?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, on the first matter, I confirm from my recollection what the noble Lord said about the case. On the second part of the question, it needs to be clear that imprisonment for fine default is in the nature of a last resort. The higher courts, the Divisional Court in particular, have emphasised the point to magistrates. That would be more appropriate than my doing so from this position. I do it, therefore, by reference to a quotation from the judgment in the Divisional Court of Lord Justice Simon Brown in the case of Cawley in November last year. It is not related particularly to women but generally to fine default. He said: Of course there are occasions when detention is called for when the defaulter is cocking a snook at the enforcement system and this ultimate sanction is necessary to underpin it. But it really must be a last resort".

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I accept what the noble and learned Lord said about the rise in serious offences among women, although he will agree that the numbers involved in the beginning were relatively small. However, perhaps I may press him further on fine defaulters. I believe he will confirm that quite a few cases of judicial review have set aside the decisions of magistrates' courts to send fine defaulters to prison. Given that prison costs £500 a week per person, and that many fine defaulters are inside for relatively tiny financial debts, could the noble and learned Lord consider any way in which he could draw the attention of magistrates' courts to the decisions of higher courts in many cases?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the decisions of the higher courts are brought to the attention of magistrates. The noble Baroness's point is made in the judgment of Lord Justice Simon Brown in the sentence following the passage which I have just read. He was dealing with a young person and he said: To send a young person into custody, sometimes following an offence not itself punishable by custody, with all that that involves, not only for the defaulter but in the way of prison overcrowding and public expense (cancellation of the fine apart) is no small thing". There, the Divisional Court expresses itself in a way that is much in accord with the question which the noble Baroness asked.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that many of us who have sat on the Bench for many, many years are most reluctant to send people to gaol, and it is done only as a last resort? Many of us on the Bench who give our time voluntarily realise the consequences and the cost involved. We do everything in our power to try to avoid people going to prison. It is only a last resort.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord expresses the sentiments of many magistrates who give their service voluntarily to this particular responsibility. There are over 30,000 of them up and down the country. Their service in this connection has to be taken note of. I believe that the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord are widely shared by the magistracy.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that when, for example, a woman on benefit who has a child is fined for having no television licence, the only way she can pay the fine is by starving her child, going out onto the street or bringing in a boyfriend. None of those methods contributes to her future and may lead to a charge in terms of the national health in the future. Will the Government try to introduce some method whereby those sorts of people are able to do piecework in order to earn money to pay off the fine rather than having to go out onto the street?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the question of non-payment of the television licence fee is certainly a difficult one. Perhaps the most practical way of dealing with it is to try to introduce some system of smaller payments spread over a year, instead of the present system, in the hope of avoiding the need for action on the basis of evasion. It is a very difficult problem. As noble Lords know, so far it has not been possible to have a person's television set turned off if that person has not paid the licence fee.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that the noble Baroness who spoke from the Liberal Democrat Benches is correct in saying that the increase in the number of sentenced women is due not only to an increase in the number of violent offences but to an increase in the readiness of courts to imprison non-violent female offenders? Given the overall damage to society when the mothers of young children are imprisoned, is that not a course that we should follow with the greatest reluctance?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the explanation for the rise in respect of sentence following on conviction is the one that I gave. The sentiment expressed by the noble Baroness is very much the same as that expressed earlier by the noble Lord. I am sure that these issues are in the minds of judges and magistrates when they come to sentence any particular case.