Sentencing Policy (Lord Chancellor's Speech)

Oral Answers to Questions — Employment – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd May 1972.

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Photo of Mr Clinton Davis Mr Clinton Davis , Hackney Central 12:00 am, 2nd May 1972

asked the Prime Minister if the public speech of the Lord Chancellor on the 15th April, 1972, at the Devon Magistrates' Association on the subject of sentencing policy represents Government policy.

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley

Sentencing policy is a matter for the courts; and my right hon. and noble Friend, who is, ex officio, President of the Magistrates' Association, was speaking not as a Minister but in his capacity as head of the judiciary.

Photo of Mr Clinton Davis Mr Clinton Davis , Hackney Central

Is the House to understand that the right hon. Gentleman is repudiating the argument of the Lord Chancellor? Is he aware that the argument was that excessive severity could be put right on appeal, whereas excessive leniency could not, and therefore was that not a recommendation that courts should impose more severe penalties? Is not this the most absurd advice that has been given by any Lord Chancellor on sentencing policy at any time? Does not the right hon. Gentleman recognise that it would be infinitely damaging to the reputation of courts if large numbers of appeals were successful as a result of taking literally the advice of the Lord Chancellor?

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley

If the hon. Gentleman comes to conclusions as fallacious as that, I am astonished that anybody should ask him for any advice at all. Anybody who has read the Lord Chancellor's speech in full cannot but come to the conclusion that it is an extremely balanced statement on a matter about which, as head of the judiciary, he is entitled to speak.

Perhaps I could draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to that part of the speech in which the Lord Chancellor said quite specifically: I do not wish to dissaude you from exercising and exhibiting the quality of mercy. Excessive severity is almost always counter productive in the administration of justice, since it excites sympathy where reprobation is desirable.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to read the speech in full.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler , Nottingham South

Is not the point that these remarks were directed at magistrates, and would not my right hon. Friend agree that the magistrate has an opportunity of heading off a criminal career, whereas an unduly lenient sentence may encourage, rather than deter, crime?

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley

It has been traditional that the Lord Chancellor of the day, in speaking to the Magistrates' Association, has always discussed the particular problems with which they were concerned.—[AN HON. MEMBER: "The right hon. Gentleman said that the Lord Chancellor was not speaking as Lord Chancellor."]—As Lord Chancellor, he is ex officio head of the judiciary, and as such he was speaking to the magistrates. This has traditionally been done by the Lord Chancellor, as head of the judiciary.

What he was doing on this occasion —and it was a long speech—was dealing with many of the problems with which magistrates are faced. In the course of his speech he dealt with sentencing, and he gave what I think most people would regard as a great deal of wise advice to magistrates on how to deal with this matter.

Photo of Mrs Shirley Williams Mrs Shirley Williams , Hitchin

While welcoming the fact that the Lord Chancellor was speaking ex officio—and Heaven help us if he had not been—may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to reflect on the fact that if it were his purpose for magistrates to give much more severe sentences—and there was a clear reference in that speech to more severe sentencing policy—the appeals court would be overwhelmed with appeals? In addition, one would doubt the Government's own commitment to the emphasis on appropriate sentencing, which is at the heart of the Criminal Justice Bill before the House, and not on excessive sentencing.

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley

If the hon. Lady reads the Lord Chancellor's speech in full she will see that the balance of the whole speech was exactly on this point and that on the question of appropriate sentencing he set out the arguments and said: Excessive severity is almost always counter productive ". He went on to the other question of appeal and said what would result if there were excessive leniency. In other words, he was saying to the magistrates." These are the problems which you face and these are the considerations which you should bear in mind."