Clause 23. — (Punishment of Persistent Offenders.)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th April 1967.

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Photo of Mr Mark Carlisle Mr Mark Carlisle , Runcorn 12:00 am, 27th April 1967

I beg to move Amendment No. 77, in page 16, line 10, after 'conduct', to insert 'the gravity of the offence'.

I hope that the Minister of State's reply to the Amendment, in view of what happened in Committee, will please us. The Clause deals with the power to impose an extended sentence rather than preventive detention for anyone who commits an offence for which the maximum sentence is more than two years' imprisonment. The court may impose an extended sentence if it believes that it is expedient because of the accused's previous conduct and the likelihood of his committing further offences.

What concerns me is that this wording is in danger of catching just the people whom we do not want to catch. The old lag who has committed many petty crimes is the sort of person who is likely to have the type of previous conduct referred to in the Clause and likely by his background, to commit further offences, but is surely not the sort of person who should get the extended sentence of perhaps several year's imprisonment.

The Amendment would include among the things which the court much consider before giving an extended sentence the gravity of the offence. In many cases under the previous rules, people were sentenced to preventive detention because they had bad records, although the offence then being dealt with was comparatively minor. The Minister of State referred to such a case, that of the person who was given preventive detention for stealing a raincoat—a sentence which was reduced by the Court of Criminal Appeal.

The Clause increases the danger of a person being given an extended sentence because of his previous conduct and despite the gravity of the offence with which he is charged. The Clause should apply where it is justified by the gravity of the offence. The Minister of State undertook in Committee to consider this again. She objected to the word "nature" in our original Amendment, saying that it was ambiguous, but agreed that the gravity of the offence should be considered by the court. She suggested that it was unnecessary, as she believed that it was covered by the term "previous conduct" of the accused.

I do not believe that this is so. "Previous conduct" in criminal courts has acquired a meaning over the years of conduct previous to the offence with which a man is charged. One says to a police officer giving antecedents, "Am I not right in saying that he has an excellent previous conduct?" This would exclude the offence with which the man was charged and relate only to previous cases. The likelihood of committing further offences relates to the previous conduct. If we are taking the power to give a longer sentence than normal for that offence the gravity of the offence with which a man is charged ought also to be considered.

If it is not immodest to say so, the Amendment is an admirable improvement, in that it brings the court's attention to the third point which is necessary before giving an extended sentence. I hope that the Minister of State will accept it.

Photo of Mr Percy Grieve Mr Percy Grieve , Solihull

I support the Amendment, which was moved so cogently by my hon. Friend the Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle), and earnestly plead with the Government to give it their consideration and approval. I wish to develop the reasoning of my hon. Friend and to refer to the previous procedure of preventive detention.

When the new form of preventive detention came in with the Criminal Justice Act, 1948, we thought that here was going to be a means of protecting society against the persistent and serious wrongdoer. But what happened? We found, in one case after another, that the person who was receiving preventive detention—that is, sentences of upwards of seven years to begin with, and, later, of eight years; and sometimes more—was frequently not the serious offender, the enemy of society, but the compulsive thief; the type of man who, as soon as he came out of prison, could not resist stealing the first bicycle he saw.

One has seen many men of that type before the courts. One can look through the records to see the type of life they have led. So often the record reads, "Bicycle stealing, probation; bicycle stealing; more probation; bicycle stealing, borstal; bicycle stealing; a few months' imprisonment; bicycle stealing, a little longer in prison ". So it goes on and there is no rhyme or reason for the activities of these people. The same story applies to milk bottle stealing. Some people cannot see a bottle of milk without wanting to run off with it.

9.30 p.m.

Ten year's imprisonment or preventive detention for such people is so out of proportion to the gravity of the crime that it has brought the whole system of pre- ventive detention, as it has been applied by the courts, into discredit. Rightly, in my view, public opinion has been shocked at some of these wretched old lags spending far more of their lives in prison than out of it. Time after time this type of criminal has been sent down for eight years or more for stealing yet another bottle of milk from a doorstep. Unless the saving provision—which is what the words the gravity of the offence represent—is in the Clause, this state of affairs will continue.

The Amendment would refer the court to the gravity of the crime and, unless it is accepted, precisely the same cycle of events as happened in the past will occur in relation to the new powers which the Bill is giving to courts for dealing with persistent offenders. If the Amendment is not accepted these new powers will be brought into discredit, just as the preventive detention system is falling into desuetude and out of favour with the public because it is not being used to protect the public against the people from whom they should be protected. Unless we have this saving provision the courts will continue to throw up their hands, as it were, when someone who has again stolen a bottle of milk appears before them, and wonder what to do with him. For these reasons I plead with the Government to reconsider their attitude and allow the saving words the gravity of the offence to be inserted.

Photo of Miss Alice Bacon Miss Alice Bacon , Leeds South East

I thoroughly agree with everything stated by the hon. Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) and the hon. and learned Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve) and I have every sympathy with what they wish to do. I appreciate that they want the Amendment to have a restrictive effect on the imposition of extended sentences and to ensure that even where the offender is a confirmed recidivist, the court does not pass an extended sentence out of all proportion to the current offence.

One of the criticisms of the earlier operation of preventive detention was that the sentence was often imposed for very trivial offences, such as those mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Solihull. The Government hope that the extended sentence powers will not be used in a similar way. As the hon. Member for Runcorn explained, the Amendment moved in Committee was designed to insert the words the nature of the offence". The wording now suggested is the gravity of the offence". I agree that the latest phrase is better than the earlier one and I assure the House that we have tried hard, between Committee and now, to find a form of words which would do precisely what the hon. Member for Runcorn wishes to achieve by the Amendment. However, we still feel that, by adding words about the nature of the offence, we may be adding to the factors which may justify, rather than inhibit, an extended sentence being passed and that there might be the risk of the words leading to more, rather than less, extended sentences being given.

As I explained, we have tried to find a form of words which would be satisfactory and I assure hon. Gentlemen opposite that we, with our advisers, are still trying to find a form of words to cover this point. I promise that if we can find such words they will be inserted in the Bill at a later stage. Meanwhile, we fear that to insert the words proposed in the Amendment might mislead people into thinking that more extended sentences were desired. However, I assure the House that we are at one with hon. Gentlemen opposite in wishing to adopt the object which they have in mind.

Photo of Miss Irene Ward Miss Irene Ward , Tynemouth

I am sure that we very much appreciate what the right hon. Lady has said, but it strikes me—and I am a magistrate—as being most extraordinary that if she agrees with what has been put forward by my hon. Friend it should not have been possible between the Committee and Report stages for the Home Office, with all the advice on which it can draw, to find words that would put into the Bill a provision that everyone wants. If that is the case, I am filled with alarm.

When one thinks of some of the tremendous things that have been decided by the Government with regard to words or actions, or whatever it may be, it seems extraordinary that it has not been possible for the Department to find suitable words. I hope that the Minister of State will not only say that the Home Office will do its best, but will give a firm assurance that in another place the Government spokesman will see that words are inserted in the Bill which will have the desired effect.

Photo of Mr Mark Carlisle Mr Mark Carlisle , Runcorn

I can only echo what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) in expressing surprise that, in view of what the Minister of State has said, the Home Office has not been able to find alternative words. The right hon. Lady may think that I am being churlish if I say that I found her reply somewhat disappointing. This is the second time one has been told that the Department agrees with the proposal, but that the words are not suitable. I find it difficult to think of words other than the gravity of the offence", which would be more suitable to meet the point we all seek to make.

With respect, those in the Home Office who suggest that the use of the words in the Amendment would allow courts to give extended sentences in more cases than in fewer are wholly ignoring the fact that after the words "gravity of the offence" would be the word "and" rather than "or". I always understood that "or" was disjunctive and that if one was obliged to consider the previous conduct, the gravity or the likelihood of repetition, on any of those three bases one would be entitled to pass an extended sentence, which is how the right hon. Lady argued against the Amendment.

If the word "and" appeared, I understood that, in the normal use of English, one had to consider previous conduct, the gravity of the offence and the likelihood of committing further offences—in other words, one had to consider all three, which is the point that I know the right hon. Lady and all of us want to establish.

I can only implore the Minister of State to see that something will be done grammatically before the Bill is debated in another place to put in the provision that all those who have spoken on this debate would like to see inserted.

Photo of Miss Alice Bacon Miss Alice Bacon , Leeds South East

I consider this to be a very important matter. Even before I was at the Home Office I had made many speeches about the practice of giving very lengthy P.D. sentences to those who have committed only very minor offences. I quite sincerely want to put the Clause right. In fairness, I would say to the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) who has not been present for a great many of these debates, that the advisers in our Department have done a very good job in meeting many of the points raised by hon. Members opposite who were on the Committee. If, in this one instance, they have not been able to get a form of words, it is not for want of trying. But I assure the House that we will go on trying to find the answer before the next stage of the Bill.

Photo of Mr Mark Carlisle Mr Mark Carlisle , Runcorn

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.