HL Deb 13 February 2003 vol 644 cc816-9

3.19 p.m.

Baroness Buscombe

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the new sentencing guidelines are a response to the growing problem of overcrowding in prisons.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the proposed sentencing guidelines council is not a response to prison population pressures; it is a response to the Halliday report on the sentencing framework that emphasised the importance of clear and accessible sentencing guidelines. In the Criminal Justice Bill we have introduced provisions for a new sentencing guidelines council that will create guidelines across a wide range of issues that are relevant to sentencing. The council will aim to produce a more robust and comprehensive set of guidelines for all courts, enabling them to approach cases from a common starting point. Courts will be obliged to take the guidelines into account when deciding a sentence and to give reasons for departing from them.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. In truth, are the new sentencing guidelines in the interests of protecting the public and rehabilitating criminals? Surely they are more a repercussion of failing prison facilities, a lack of prison resources and the financial costs of custodial sentences. What evidence is there that imposing community-based sentences will decrease the number of ex-prisoners who reoffend? What extra resources are being made available to those prisons that suffer from unbearable overcrowding and where conditions of imprisonment are degenerating?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the noble Baroness has misunderstood the purposes of a sentencing guidelines council. It was proposed by Mr Halliday in his report, which was a detailed consideration of sentencing across the board. He said that it was an appropriate step to take to ensure consistency in relation to sentencing. The noble Baroness is also wrong to view the matter on the basis of a community sentence versus a custodial sentence. We require the right sentence for an offence and if there is a serious case that demands custody, custody will be imposed. We should focus on the measures that reduce re-offending.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, will the Minister give an undertaking that the new sentencing council will be as far removed from political influence as possible? As the Minister knows, the Conservative Party called for its make-up to be parliamentarian. Can the Minister assure the House that that will not be the case?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, we have made it clear that when the sentencing guidelines council produces draft guidelines there should be a formal process of consultation with Parliament. We believe that that is right because we believe that there should be parliamentary input into the production of guidelines. We have made it absolutely clear that the sentencing guidelines council will produce the guidelines and we believe that that is the appropriate way to deal with the matter.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, will my noble and learned friend give an indication of the Government's thinking on the future size of the prison population? I was tempted to ask whether the Government have a target, but I have made the question easier by asking for the Government's thinking.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, we have made it clear that the courts must decide the appropriate sentence by reference to the facts of the case and the facts of the offender. They must not determine what sentence to give by reference to resource issues. As to the size of the prison population in the future, it is neither wise nor right to say what we expect it to be, particularly because we intend to bring more cases to justice and that inevitably will have an effect on increasing the prison population.

Lord Maclennan of Bogart

My Lords, to keep fine defaulters out of prison, will the Government consider re-introducing unit fines related to ability to pay? They were abolished by Mr Kenneth Clarke when he was Home Secretary. That would have the happy consequence of avoiding some of the risible fines such as that imposed upon the Solicitor-General recently for a serious speeding offence.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, it would be wrong of me to comment on an individual case. As regards unit fines, the noble Lord will remember that there were some difficulties in relation to them that led to a large fine being imposed for a minor offence. Ability to pay already plays a part in determining what a fine should be. Currently there may be cases in which fines are not awarded but perhaps should be awarded instead of a low-level community penalty. We have no plans to re-introduce unit fines.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester

My Lords, while I agree with the Minister that sentencing guidelines cannot be instantaneous responses to every movement in prison numbers, does he agree that there is pressure upon him and the Government to appear to be tough with offenders, which could lead the public to believe that only by increasing prison numbers can one show that such toughness is being pursued? Therefore, is it important that there should be a sustained programme of public education to demonstrate that within a community sentence the Probation Service can do excellent work in confronting offenders with the meaning of their crimes and in causing them to reflect imaginatively on what they have done, which can be not only as rehabilitative as prison but also as punishing?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the Probation Service carries out excellent work and many community sentences are extremely helpful in seeking to reduce re-offending. However, I return to the starting point that the penalty to be imposed by the courts must be the most appropriate for the crime and the offender. We should not view the matter on the basis of community sentences versus custody, but on the basis of the appropriate sentence for the crime.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, will the sentencing guidelines council consult the judiciary before it produces the guidelines? How will the council fit in with the existing statutory organisation on the same subject?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, under the current Bill the sentencing guidelines council will be made up exclusively of sentencers, which means the senior judiciary, Crown Court judges and magistrates; it will be chaired by the Lord Chief Justice; and it will obtain advice from the sentencing advisory panel which is the body referred to by the noble and learned Lord. In the course of the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice Bill in another place we indicated that we shall consider whether the sentencing guidelines council should have other members in addition to sentencers. The answer is that at the moment it will be made up exclusively of sentencers, but it will certainly have many sentencers on it.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that the current sentencing policy is equitable in respect of women? Recently there has been an extraordinary rise in the number of women in prison. Many people suggest that they are sent to prison for crimes which, if committed by men, would not result in a prison sentence.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the number of women in custody has certainly risen, but the proportion of women in prison is much smaller than the proportion of men in prison. I do not believe that there is necessarily much evidence to suggest that they are being sent to prison because they are women, which is the implication of the question. As the right reverend Prelate said, the number of people in prison generally has risen over the past two years and that relates to women as well.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that currently we are in the worst of all worlds with the highest per capita level of imprisonment in Europe, apart from Turkey? Does he also agree—this is my point—that in prisons such a grossly inadequate amount of time and resources are devoted, particularly in the case of young prisoners, to education and training? Typically there are only two or three hours of education a day.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, on the first point, we are in the middle range of countries in Europe as regards the number of people who go to prison in relation to the number of cases brought to justice. The differing rates between countries have as much to do with the number of cases brought to justice as they do to the size of the population generally. On the second point, the strides made by the Prison Service over the past few years, under the leadership of Martin Narey, have been considerable. The number of prisoners who receive educational programmes has increased significantly. We need to do much more, but noble Lords should not underestimate the extent of the progress that has been made.