HL Deb 18 March 1997 vol 579 cc838-41
Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, it may be appropriate if I make a further Statement and, in particular, refer to the progress of the Crime (Sentences) Bill.

The House has now been sitting for three hours on this Bill. The House has discussed only five of the 46 groups of amendments down for debate. There are a further 41 groups left to discuss. It has thus become clear that a determination exists in certain quarters in this House to prevent this Bill leaving the House before Prorogation.

I have discussed this situation with the Home Secretary. He has reached an agreement with the other parties that the Bill should return to the other place in its present state (including the Opposition amendments to Clauses 3 and 4) and with the remaining government amendments proposed to be made this evening. I should stress that the Government do not intend to overturn in the Commons the defeat suffered on this Bill.

The Government remain of the view that this situation is unsatisfactory, and we intend to reverse this as a matter of urgency after the general election. But in spite of the present unsatisfactory state of the Bill, the Bill nevertheless provides for automatic life sentences for serious violent and sexual offences; establishes the principle of mandatory minimum sentences for persistent drug offenders and domestic burglars; and provides for honesty in sentencing. It will therefore remain the most radical step-change in criminal justice policy this century.

I hope that the whole House will agree with me that this is a most satisfactory outcome and that this means that the usual channels are once again in step on this and other Bills. I hope that the House will also recognise that it is the will of all parties to secure all remaining stages of this Bill with expedition tonight.

I am pleased to say that a similar agreement has been reached in respect of the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill. A further announcement on that Bill will be made tomorrow.

Lord Richard

My Lords, perhaps I may congratulate the Government on at last seeing some sense in relation to the Bill. We on these Benches are delighted that our amendments will be accepted by the Home Secretary, and that the Bill will therefore remain broadly in the form in which it will leave the House. We believe that that is sensible. We believe that it is right. We also believe that it is the will of the House. I congratulate the Government and all the usual channels on coming to what is clearly an angelic rather than a satanic arrangement, which will no doubt enable the Bill now to proceed.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, I shall forbear from teasing the noble Lord, Lord Richard, on the fact that neither he nor the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, was responsible, but that on their behalf Mr. Jack Straw negotiated what was a totally inadequate agreement with which your Lordships were presented earlier today. I shall merely rejoice in the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. He said that the Government do not propose to overturn in another place the defeats which the Bill suffered in this House. That is a major undertaking which we welcome.

Noble Lords may know that it was our proposal on these Benches to pursue the Bill throughout the night. We have our squads coming back at 10.30 in order to do so, and very unusually, because we felt strongly about the matter, we proposed to vote against the Third Reading of the Bill. If, as a result, the Government had lost their business tomorrow and there had been further repercussions—I can see that the noble Viscount, Lord Long, has his watch. I have one too. I have a similar watch. Mine is a mere Swatch watch. His is probably a Rolex. Neither my Swatch watch nor the noble Viscount's Rolex will prevent me from finishing my few modest words.

On these Benches we all welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said. We shall attempt to facilitate further progress on the Bill. It will be appropriate for there to be some discussion on Third Reading, mainly, no doubt, to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, for the assistance she has given during the Bill's progress, but at the same time to make one or two passing remarks. Beyond that, we are glad to assist in the Bill's passage, although we think that it is a pretty awful Bill, even amended.

We on these Benches have put down an amendment to the Bill for tomorrow which corresponds to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, to whom I wish to pay tribute, because it was his amendment that the Government are prepared not to overturn in the other place. We have put down such an amendment, and I understand from what the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has said that it will be accepted in the course of tomorrow's debate.

Lord Hacking

My Lords, although anybody in any social gathering is unhappy about upsetting what is clearly thought by others to be a happy occasion, I have to say that I do not find this a happy occasion at all. I have not participated in the usual channels and what I still find before your Lordships is a Bill which in many features is highly unsatisfactory. In saying that your Lordships have, because of pressures outside your Lordships' House, acceded to agreeing to a Bill which remains deformed—I am sorry to use such strong language—in many of its parts, I am in no way critical of my noble friends on the Front Bench, let alone the Minister, as long as they do not intervene when I am trying to decide whether to move an amendment or to seek a Division.

However, this is an appalling Bill. We are allowing a Bill to go onto the statute book although it has caused concern not only throughout this House but outside the Chamber also, as I know from private conversations. The Bill has caused grave concern, yet we are still allowing it to go through in its tainted and deformed shape.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow

My Lords, as someone who has participated as a reasonably major critic of the Bill from this side of the House, perhaps I may say that I accept that what has now been said by the Chief Whip means that at least, to return to this afternoon's three scenarios, this is a compromise. It is not a compromise with which one is necessarily totally happy, but it is a compromise which one has to accept, in which at least the two major clauses which caused the greatest concern have been amended in a way that I believe will be acceptable to those of us on both sides of the House—and those who are not here—who have to try such cases.

I am slightly encouraged by the thought that Part II, in which I have a certain interest since I chaired the committee on the parole review which brought in that which is now being overturned, will in practice never be implemented, whoever wins the election. Therefore, on the basis that half a—I cannot think of the rest of the quotation—

Noble Lords

Half a loaf is better than nothing!

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow

My Lords, on the basis that half a loaf is better than nothing, I think that we have achieved something and I am therefore grateful to the Chief Whip for his comments.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, perhaps I may ask just a quick question because the Chief Whip did not come through with quite his usual clarity, but perhaps I am getting deaf. Am I correct in assuming that the government amendments will be moved fairly formally?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, perhaps I may respond briefly to my noble friend. The answer is yes, the government amendments will be moved and I am sure that they will be agreed because all the usual channels have already agreed them.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, I am, as I frequently confess to your Lordships, a child in these matters. I enjoy these debates because they bring one back to the Bar, except they are a great deal more courteous than one finds in court. I have the sneaking feeling that the whole of this is academic because whichever party succeeds at the election, I do not believe that it will do anything about the Bill at all because, if it did, the whole of our coast would be ringed round with prison ships.

Earl Russell

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle of Bucklow, has taken the words, and the bread, out of my mouth. He is, of course, quite right that half a loaf is better than no bread, but our problem has been to identify the quantity which constitutes that half loaf. We have made considerable progress on that, for which I warmly thank the Chief Whip. However, in respect for the sovereignty of Parliament, may I ask the Chief Whip to amend a single sentence of his statement? He said, "We will reverse this amendment after the next election". Could the Chief Whip amend that to read, "We will attempt to reverse the amendment after the election"?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate on my statement, and particularly to the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition and the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. I am delighted to have their acceptance that this is the best deal and that, in the words of my noble friend Lord Carlisle, half a loaf is better than none.

I understand the regrets of my noble friend Lord Hacking with regard to the arrangement that has been struck but, as he has heard, the House is united, (including if I understood him correctly, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner), that we should progress business as expeditiously as possible. I hope that when we reach my noble friend's amendments he will seek to move them, if he must, as briefly as possible.

Perhaps I may conclude with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, to whom I always bow down because of the constitutional advice that he brings to your Lordships' House. We will attempt to overturn this decision when we come back after the general election.