Clause 25. — (Suspended Sentences of Impisonment.)

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

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Photo of Miss Alice Bacon Miss Alice Bacon , Leeds South East 12:00 am, 27th April 1967

I beg to move Amendment No. 31, in page 18, line 36, to leave out: 'subject to the next following subsection'.

Photo of Sir Eric Fletcher Sir Eric Fletcher , Islington East

It would be for the convenience of the House if, with this Amendment, we discuss Amendment No. 32, in page 18, line 39, leave out from beginning to end of line 20 on page 19 and insert:

'convicted of an offence punishable by any Court with a sentence of more than three months imprisonment'.

In line 17, leave out subsection (4).

And Amendments Nos. 33, 34 and 35.

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

These Amendments are designed to meet two criticisms of the mandatory suspended sentence provisions which were made in Committee. First, there was criticism in Committee of subsection (3,b), under which the Home Secretary is empowered to extend the mandatory provisions. It was suggested by hon. Members opposite that this power was too wide and that the Home Secretary ought not to be given a blank cheque. The right hon. and learned Members for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) and Warwick and Leamington (Sir J. Hobson) asked that the power should be limited in the Bill.

Secondly, there was criticism of the fact that the mandatory provisions would apply to a man who had received any number of suspended sentences, providing that he did not commit his offences while actually subject to a suspended sentence.

Amendments Nos. 32 to 35 are consequential.

The effect of the main Amendment is to make two changes of substance. First, an offender will be outside the initial operation of the mandatory provisions if he has been given a suspended sentence at any time before the current offence. Under the Bill as it stands, the offender would be within the mandatory provisions if he had previously been given a suspended sentence but was no longer subject to it at the time of the new offence.

Secondly, the Home Secretary's power to extend the mandatory provisions is restricted. Under the new subsection (4), the Home Secretary will be able to extend the mandatory provisions only to cover offenders who had not been in prison or borstal or subject to a suspended sentence within a specified number of years.

It will be seen that these Amendments meet the main criticisms which were made in Committee.

Photo of Mr Mark Carlisle Mr Mark Carlisle , Runcorn

The right hon. Lady says that the Government Amendments meet two of the criticisms which were raised in Committee, and no one will deny that. Obviously, the Home Office has made a concession as regards the power of the Home Secretary to extend these provisions and it has met the point as regards a person previously given a suspended sentence. But, with respect, the right hon. Lady has overlooked the fundamental objection which was raised in Committee.

The fundamental objection is that what the Government propose is an unnecessary interference with the discretion of magistrates in passing sentences for particular crimes. I understand that I cannot ask formally to move our Amendment to Amendment No. 32 but I shall speak to it. This is the Amendment in the name of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone and others of my right hon. and hon. Friends, to make paragraph (e) read: unless—…(e) the offender had at any time before the commission of the offence been convicted of an offence punishable by any court with a sentence of more than three months' imprisonment". The House will understand the purpose of this Amendment. As it stands at present, the Government's proposals would prevent a court, except in certain specific circumstances, from ever sending someone to prison for less than six months if he had not previously been to prison. The purpose of our Amendment is to limit that not to those who have not previously been to prison but to those who have not previously been convicted. We accept that the Government are right to lay down powers which would prevent a court sending a first offender to prison when the sentence is less than six months, but the court should have full discretion, when people appear before it who have previously been before the courts, although not actually sent to prison, to pass the sentence which it believes right in view of the offence with which the person is charged.

There are people who appear before the magistrates on several occasions. Having been put on probation, having been given a conditional discharge, or having been fined, they come before the court again. In its wisdom, the court, be it the assize court, quarter sessions or the magistrates' court, may decide that the time has come when, to put it bluntly, such a person must be punished for what he has done, to teach him the lesson that he must not commit crimes in this way. In the court's view, the only answer now is to send him to prison, yet, under the Bill as drafted, apart from the Amendment dealing with suspended sentence, the court still cannot send him to prison.

The vast majority of offences are tried in the magistrates' courts, and now, under the provisions of the Bill, a magistrates' court, except in certain circumstances, will never be able to send anyone to prison who has not been committed to prison before.

I supported the whole idea of suspended sentences in Committee, and I reiterate that support tonight. I welcome these proposals, and appreciate all the objections to short-term sentences of imprisonment. Like the right hon. Lady, I believe that far too many are imposed. I believe that they have little reformative value, that they disrupt the individual's life by removing him temporarily from society, and that they lead to the present overcrowding of prisons. Of the 44,000 receptions into prison each year—I think that that was the figure given by the Home Secretary—22,000 are for periods of less than six months.

But the real objection to short sentences, perhaps, does not concern the person who goes to prison for the first time but the repeated short sentence given to the recidivist, which is of little value and clogs up our prisons. We are right to discourage courts from sending people to prison for short sentences, and from sending to prison at all people who have not been there before; undoubtedly the main deterrent to prison is the fear of the unknown, and by sending a person to prison one removes that fear.

One must ask whether it is right so to tie the hands of the courts that they can never impose a short term of imprisonment on a person who has not previously been to prison. I believe that we are right in curtailing in that way the courts' powers concerning first offenders. I think that I am right in saying that over 80 per cent. of them never appear before courts again. One knows that they will not appear whatever is done to them, and if that is so it is better to deal with them in a way which does not mean removing their liberty, with all the disruptive effects that that has, unless, of course, the offence is of such gravity that it clearly demands a substantial sentence.

One must also remember that a large proportion of people who go to prison for the first time never return there. The right hon. Lady has the figures, but I am sure that the proportion is well over 50 per cent. and it is probably nearer 80 per cent. I believe that that is so whether those people go to prison for a short or long period.

I am happy to say that I have no firsthand knowledge of this, but I have heard it said that if one has not previously been in prison it is the first three months that are the worst. Therefore, the effect of a short sentence of imprisonment on someone who has not previously been to prison is likely to be similar to that of a longer term in keeping him away from crime in the future.

It seems to me that if the stage has come when a person should be sent to prison there is no real harm in sending him for a short term. I believe that one of the effects of the Clause as it stands, and even with the Amendment moved by the right hon. Lady, is that it will lead to far more people being committed to quarter sessions for sentence. Magistrates will say that they think that a defendant should go to prison and that three months would be enough, but they are not allowed to impose such a sentence. They will send him to quarter sessions, where it will be left to the recorder to decide whether he will give the defendant nine months instead.

If I am right in thinking that most people who go to prison do not go back, and if it is the punishment that deters them, there is no point in putting into statutory provisions a Clause that requires that the sentence should be of nine months rather than three, if three months is adequate to achieve the purpose one wants. I believe very strongly that the mandatory provisions of the Clause should be limited to first offenders.

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Ordered,That the Proceedings on the Criminal Justice Bill may be entered upon and proceeded with at this day's Sitting at any hour, though opposed.—[Mr. Walter Harrison.]

Question again proposed, That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mr Mark Carlisle Mr Mark Carlisle , Runcorn

I was saying that the mandatory powers of the Clause should be limited to preventing the courts from sentencing first offenders to prison for less than six months, rather than people who have been to prison before.

The Home Office cannot deny that as it stands the Clause is wholly opposed by the Magistrates' Association and by the chairmen of quarter sessions. I believe that it is opposed by the justices' clerks and a very strong and excellent memorandum was written against it by the Manchester City Magistrate supported by the Liverpool City Magistrate. They all feel that this is an unnecessary interference with their right to decide to sentence in a particular case. I have always believed that the duty and the rights of Parliament in this matter are to lay down the maximum and minimum sentences, but that it is for the courts to decide the sentence within those two boundaries.

The right hon. Lady cannot say that the Home Office is wholly opposed to short-term sentences, because the very exceptions which she has laid down permit them in certain cases. What she has overlooked is that it is nowhere as near as effective to say that an assault case can be sent to prison while a larceny case cannot be, because that is to ignore all the various degrees and differences and inferences of every case. This is where the court and not the Home Office ought to judge, and I very much hope that our Amendment will have the support of the House and that we shall divide on it if it does not, because it is a matter of importance.

Photo of Mr David Renton Mr David Renton , Huntingdonshire

I support everything my hon. Friend the Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) has said. The right hon. Lady claimed rather too much when she said that the Government Amendments met most of the points which we had made in Committee. In Committee, there was a division of opinion on both sides as to whether suspended sentences were a good thing. We all agreed that short sentences were not a good thing, and the difference between us was on the extent to which we should fetter the magistrates' discretion as regards suspended sentences and those cases in which short sentences should be allowed.

Although I support the Opposition Amendment to the Amendment—indeed, I have put my name to it—I want especially to refer to my Amendment to leave out subsection (4). There is a slight technical difficulty and I hope that I shall be able to clarify the position sufficiently to show that I have good and, I hope, helpful intentions in putting forward this Amendment. If the Opposition Amendment is carried, subsection (4) will become completely unnecessary, which is my main reason for my Amendment. But even if the Opposition Amendment were not accepted or carried, subsection (4) would have to be left out as a consequential Amendment to my Amendment to line 14, which I now hope to explain.

In Government Amendment No. 32 it will be seen that the Home Secretary is taking power to prescribe the period of years as being a period of not less than three years which will be the time within which an offence has been committed for which the offender had…been sentenced to, or served any part of a sentence of, imprisonment or borstal training previously passed for another offence… We are dealing not only with the powers of the court to sentence people, but also with the liberty of the subject. Matters dealing with the liberty of the subject should be written specifically into an Act of Parliament, not left to be inserted at some later stage by Ministerial Order, although even that may be subject to Parliamentary control. I have, therefore, suggested that we should decide this matter in a reasonable manner here and now, by leaving out in line 14 of Amendment No. 32, the words "at any time", and to make up our minds about this matter and say that "at any time" should mean within a period of five years.

If we do this, subsection (4) would become unnecessary. I realise that I am in the slight technical difficulty that my first Amendment would be quite unnecessary if the principle Opposition Amendment is accepted, because mine would be in conflict with it. I accept that. What I am really proposing is an alternative. The argument put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Runcorn, is very strong, and I hope that it will commend itself to the right hon. Lady.

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

I will deal, first, with the Amendment referred to by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton). As he said, it is an alternative to the main Opposition Amendment, and it is in conflict, in some respects, with it. The right hon. and learned Gentleman's Amendment would have two effects. The mandatory provision would apply immediately the Clause came into force to offenders who had been out of prison, and who had not been subject to a suspended sentence for five years. Secondly, there would be no power to reduce the five-year period to three years. The main effect of these Amendments would be to drastically extend the immediate scope of the mandatory provisions.

While the Government want the mandatory provisions to have a significant effect, they have thought it right to proceed in stages and to observe their operation in the cases in subsection (3) as it stands before extending them. It seems preferable to err, if at all, on the side of caution, to see how the mandatory provisions operate in practice before extending them. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman says, he would be widening the scope of the mandatory provisions, rather than limiting them, as is the case with the main Opposition Amendment.

As to the Amendment moved by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) there is quite a division of opinion between the Amendment which I have moved and that Amendment. The whole purpose of Clause 25 is to reduce the number of short prison sentences. They clog the prison system and do little good to the offender. What possible good can it do to a man, particularly for the offences which have been listed, to give him a short sentence of about three months?

The hon. Member for Runcorn said that three months might be enough in some cases and that many people went into prison for the first time but never again. That may be so. But I wonder —it is Bible to measure this precisely—how many people go into prison for the first time for short sentences, get used to prison life, meet people who have a bad effect on them and who possibly, because they have been in prison for a short time, go back subsequently.

The effect of the Amendment would be to make the mandatory suspended sen- tence provisions apply to offenders who had not previously been convicted of an offence punishable with more than three months' imprisonment rather than, according to the Clause as drafted, the offender who had not previously been sentenced to imprisonment or borstal training. The Amendment would significantly reduce the impact which the Clause is designed to make on the problem of short sentences. In 1964, 3,232 male first offenders were received into prison with sentences of six months or less. About 2,640 would have had to have their sentences suspended under Clause 25, under the mandatory provisions.

I believe that a short sentence blunts the deterrent impact of imprisonment by accustoming the offender to prison. An offender who has not been to prison or borstal is in precisely this category and may well be at the crossroads of his criminal career. Either he stops now or he is likely to become a recidivist. If at this stage a short sentence is given, any deterrent effect which the idea of prison might have on him is frittered away in a single sentence.

I appreciate and understand the point about a magistrates' court not being able to give a sentence of more than six months' imprisonment. But in 1964, of the 5,900 offenders who had short sentences which would have had to be suspended under Clause 25(3), at least 4,300 could have been given more than six months for the offence for which they were convicted.

If the offence were serious enough to warrant imprisonment, in almost all cases it would be serious enough to send on to a higher court for a longer sentence than six months. I therefore believe that if we accept the Amendment it will strike at the very heart of the Clause. The only way significantly to cut down the number of short prison sentences is to adopt the mandatory provisions proposed in the Amendment which I moved.

I hope that the Opposition's Amendment will be resisted. If it is not, we shall have many short prison sentences, which we are trying to get rid of by Clause 25.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: No. 32, in page 18, line 39, leave out from beginning to end of line 20 on page 19 and insert: 'unless—

  1. (a) the act or any of the acts constituting that offence consisted of an assault on or threat of violence to another person, or of having or possessing a firearm, an imitation firearm, an explosive, or an offensive weapon or of indecent conduct with or towards a person under the age of sixteen years;
  2. (b) that offence is one in respect of which a probation order or order for conditional discharge was originally made or the offender was subject to such an order at the time of committing that offence;
  3. (c) on the occasion on which sentence is passed for that offence, the court passes or proposes to pass a sentence of immediate imprisonment on the offender for another offence which the court is not required to suspend;
  4. (d) the offender is serving, or has since the commission of the offence served, a sentence of imprisonment or borstal training previously passed for another offence; or
  5. (e) the offender had at any time before the commission of the offence been sentenced to, or served any Dart of a sentence of, imprisonment or borstal training previously passed for another offence or been subject to a suspended sentence.
(4) The Secretary of State may by order provide that paragraph (e) of the last foregoing subsection shall have effect in any case prescribed by the order as if the reference to any time were a reference to any time during a period so prescribed (being a period of not less than three years); and an order under this subsection may make different provision for different cases.'—[Miss Bacon.]

No. 33, in page 19, line 25, leave out from 'order' to 'this' and insert: 'made by the Secretary of State under'.

No. 34, in line 26, leave out 'thereunder' and insert 'so made'.

No. 35, in line 27, leave out from 'be' to 'unless' in line 28 and insert 'so made'.—[Miss Bacon.]