I have received a large number of letters expressing concerns about sentencing. I take those concerns extremely seriously. As my hon. Friend will know, proposals are currently before the House to enhance the ability of the courts to deal appropriately and effectively with those convicted of criminal offences.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the mounting public concern about children below the age of criminal responsibility who are none the less persistent and dangerous criminals? Often they are aided and abetted by social services, which enables them to get off scot free and to commit crimes again. Does my right hon. and learned Friend appreciate that, because of sentencing policy, these youngsters are acquiring a very dangerous disrespect for the criminal justice system? Will he, in his own words of a few moments ago, remedy the present situation without delay, for the help and protection of the public?
I certainly understand and sympathise with the point raised by my hon. Friend. It is possible for young children who are below the age of criminal knowledge to be brought before the courts now, if they are beyond parental control. The most important lesson that children can learn is the difference between right and wrong—a lesson which cannot be learnt too soon, in their homes and schools. I welcome the efforts of all those who are increasingly drawing attention to its importance.
Does the Home Secretary agree that, while it is critically important that we have a sentencing policy that both reflects the severity of the offence and punishes the wrongdoer, it is also important that we have a judicial system that does not inflict sentences on people who are patently innocent? I wrote to the Home Secretary some days ago requesting an urgent meeting to discuss the issues arising from the Court of Appeal judgment, a fortnight ago, in respect of my constituents Lisa and Michelle Taylor. When will the Home Secretary respond to my request for an urgent meeting, and when can we consider in full the damning indictments of the conduct of the Metropolitan police and certain sections of the press?
Of course it is true that we must have a system of criminal justice that both acquits the innocent and convicts the guilty. The hon. Gentleman's request is under consideration in my Department.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of a recent incident on the Weston estate in Macclesfield, where local responsible, sensible people unfortunately had to take the law into their own hands in dealing with a persistent young juvenile offender, who has appeared before the courts on many occasions but who has been released back into the community? Will my right hon. and learned Friend act to ensure that the courts of this land, which currently cannot impose adequate sentences on persistent juvenile offenders, have the power to do so in the very near future, in order to prevent people being forced—for their own defence and in their own interests—to take the law into their own hands?
I have made it abundantly clear that I am determined to make sure that the courts have the sentencing powers that they need to deal adequately and effectively with offenders. I am sure that my hon. Friend will acknowledge that we cannot allow people to take the law into their own hands. Members of the public can do a great deal to help the police without taking the law into their own hands. I am absolutely convinced that we will make progress in this area only if we can build an effective partnership between the public and the police, and if we do not leave the fight against crime entirely to the police. There is much that can be done short of people taking the law into their own hands. A part of that is making sure that the courts have adequate sentencing powers.
I heard it, Madam Speaker. I thought that it was an astonishing contribution from the hon. Gentleman, whose association with the Greater London council, which did so much harm to law enforcement, law and order and policing while it had some vestigial responsibility in this capital of ours, is well known and will not be forgotten, at least by anyone on this side of the House.
We are ensuring that courts have the powers they need to impose severe penalties for serious offences. The Criminal Justice Act 1991, which was mocked by the hon. Member for Warwickshire, North (Mr. O'Brien) a few moments ago—I hope that his constituents will know that he mocked it—gives the courts power to pass longer sentences on violent and sexual offenders in order to protect the public from serious harm.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend acknowledge that recent cases have proved that the Attorney-General needs the power to appeal against lenient sentences? He mentioned the opposition of hon. Gentlemen to that measure. Is he aware that the recent decision to extend to custody the sentence of a young man convicted of a serious sexual offence was greeted with enthusiasm by a number of hon. Gentlemen? Are we expecting a U-turn, or is this to be another matter to be "set aside" by hon. Gentlemen?
If the Opposition were remotely consistent in their approach, we might expect a U-turn, but all we have at the moment are parrot cries of enthusiasm when the Attorney-General exercises the powers to which the Opposition were persistently opposed and complete silence from the Labour party as to whether they now, belatedly and reluctantly, recognise that we were right to give the Attorney-General those powers. I thought that even today the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) might admit that he was wrong to oppose giving the Attorney-General those powers, but he sits there in silence, despite the fact to which my hon. Friend referred.
Does the Home Secretary accept, further to his answer, that, in the longer-term interests of society, what happens to sexual offenders while in prison is equally important? Can he explain, therefore, why, when 2,000 inmates are eligible for sexual offender treatment programmes, provision has been made for a mere 300?
I am very sorry that the hon. Lady did not respond to the invitation that I offered to her hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield a moment ago. Many people will have regretted the fact that she, too, chose to remain silent on that issue. On the question that she posed, that is a matter that I am prepared to look at. I am given to understand that the figures which the hon. Lady quoted are inaccurate, and I will look into their accuracy. I understand that we have a programme under way for dealing with the point which she raised, and we will pursue that.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there is a link between the spread of pornographic material and the growth in offences of rape and serious assault? Is he prepared to consider strengthening the law to prevent the spread of such material?
We certainly need to look at the law in this area. I have not yet reached any conclusions on that matter, but I will certainly take my hon. Friend's point into account.