New clause

Orders of the Day — Police Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 9:11 pm on 19th March 1997.

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Lords amendment: No. 1, before clause 1, to insert the following new clause—Conditions relating to mandatory and minimum custodial sentences—

(".—(1) This section has effect for the purposes of setting out the basis on which the court shall carry out its sentencing functions under this Part.

(2) Under section 1 below, when determining whether it would be appropriate not to impose a life sentence the court shall have regard to the circumstances relating to either of the offences or to the offender.

(3) Under sections 2 and 3 below, when determing whether it would be appropriate not to impose a custodial sentence of at least seven years under subsection 2(2) or, as the case may be, of at least three years under subsection 3(2) the court shall have regard to the specific circumstances which—

(a) relate to any of the offences or to the offender; and

(b) would make the prescribed custodial sentence unjust in all the circumstances.")

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department 9:17 pm, 19th March 1997

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 4 to 7.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department

These amendments all relate to the circumstances in which the court should have discretion to set aside the mandatory sentences prescribed by clauses 2, 3 and 4. These are of course the automatic life sentence for second serious violent or sex offences, and mandatory minimum prison sentences for persistent burglars and drug dealers. The Bill, as passed by the House with a majority of more than 200, provided that, where the stringent qualifying conditions are satisfied, the court must impose the mandatory penalty unless it considers that there are exceptional circumstances that justify not doing so.

The amendments that were carried, against the Government's advice, in another place retain the exceptional circumstances test in relation to the automatic life sentence but substitute a different test in relation to the mandatory minimum penalties in clauses 3 and 4. The new test provides that the court must impose the mandatory minimum penalty unless it considers that there are specific circumstances which relate either to the offences or to the offender, and which will make the prescribed custodial sentence unjust in all the circumstances.

I, my noble Friend Lady Blatch and the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), have explained the Government's view on this matter many times during the Bill's passage. We accept that there may be exceptional cases for which a mandatory penalty would be unjust or inappropriate, and that the court needs to have discretion to set aside the mandatory penalty in such cases.

At the same time, the whole purpose and point of mandatory minimum sentences is to ensure that persistent burglars and drug dealers know that they can expect a stiff minimum penalty if they continue to offend. Mandatory penalties would have the salutary effect that we expect and intend them to have only if offenders knew that they would be imposed as a matter of course in the generality of cases.

This will not now happen. The Lords amendments drive a coach and horses through the provisions of the Bill that deal with burglars and drug dealers.

In Committee, Plaid Cymru, supported by the Liberal Democrats, proposed a very similar amendment—but the Labour party abstained. The moment the Bill left the spotlight and went to another place, however, Labour did a U-turn. Its spokesman in the other House proposed this amendment himself. Opposition Members sometimes pretend that these are minor amendments, designed to clarify, which will have little effect. Not so. Indeed, the Master of the Rolls has said, of a form of words which was virtually identical: We shall be back to the present position". He is right. There would seem to be a difference of opinion about that between the two Liberal Democrats in the Chamber. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) appears to be nodding in agreement with the Master of the Rolls; the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) shakes his head in disagreement. On this occasion the Master of the Rolls is undoubtedly right—

Photo of Mr Alex Carlile Mr Alex Carlile , Montgomery

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the Bill will still contain mandatory sentences, and that the courts will have to go through a quite different sentencing exercise in order to reach a sentence that is not of the mandatory period? Does he therefore agree that the Master of the Rolls was somewhat overstating the case when he said that we will return to the present position?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department

No, I do not agree. The hon. and learned Gentleman is right to say that a different process would have to be undergone in order to reach, in the Master of the Rolls' words, "the present position" again; but that— a return to the present position—would be the effect of the amendments.

The Lords amendment would allow the present pattern of sentencing broadly to continue. A first-time burglar gets an average 16.2 months. A third-time burglar gets an average 18.9; and a seventh-time burglar gets an average 19.4 months. Almost 30 per cent. of burglars convicted for a seventh time in the Crown court are not sent to prison at all.

Is it any wonder that career burglars treat a sentence of this kind as a minor occupational hazard? I want to change the terms of trade against the career burglar. I want the career burglar to take up an alternative career.

Opposition Members say that they changed the Bill because they did not want to be unfair to burglars and drug dealers. I want to be fair to their victims—that is the difference between the Conservative party and the Opposition parties.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

If I heard him correctly, the Secretary of State has just said that Opposition Members have said that they do not wish to be unfair to burglars and drug dealers. When did any Opposition Member say that?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department

The hon. Gentleman should read the debates held in another place. He will find that the thrust of the arguments behind the amendment showed the extraordinary lengths to which he and his hon. Friends would go to ensure that there was no possibility of a third-time burglar getting a minimum mandatory sentence under any circumstance in which that just might not be entirely in accordance with the wishes of the judge in the case. That is the effect of the amendment which the hon. Gentleman and his party supported in the other place.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

The Secretary of State has not answered my question. He made a serious allegation that Labour Members believe that such sentences would be unfair to burglars and drug dealers. Will he give one example of a Labour Front-Bench Member making such an assertion?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I said that that is the effect of all the arguments that were used—

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department

No. That is the effect of all the arguments used in another place in support of the amendment.

There is a fundamental difference on this matter between the Conservative party and the Opposition. The Opposition are both soft on crime and soft on criminals. They always have been and they always will be. I wish to take this opportunity to make it clear that we shall amend the Bill to reverse the change as soon as possible after the election. The Opposition cannot and will not give the same pledge. That is the message that we shall take to the country in this general election: on law and order, as on every other issue, people can be sure only with the Conservatives.

We have accepted the amendments simply to get the rest of the Bill on to the statute book.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael , Cardiff South and Penarth

It will be voted down by Conservative Back Benchers.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department

The hon. Gentleman, from a sedentary position, makes a preposterous allegation.

The Labour party pretends that it supports much of the Bill but its spokesman in another place, as he always does, gave the game away late last night. Unfortunately for him and his party, Hansard was still present, alert as ever, to record his words. The noble Lord said: I would rather not have the Bill at all. He went on to say: The issues which the Bill raises will involve considerable heart searching after the election. I still do not know whether that will be done in statutory form, but something will have to be done about the provisions of this Bill. That threat cannot be left unchallenged. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) repeatedly said that he would not tell the country what his attitude was to the Bill until he saw its final shape. Its shape is now there for all to see. It is time for the hon. Gentleman to come clean. Does he support the Bill? Does he agree with his noble Friend, who said that he would rather not have the Bill at all? Does he endorse his noble Friend's call that something will have to be done about the Bill after the election? Does he endorse the praise that his noble Friend heaped on the Liberal Democrats? Does he agree with him that the Liberal-Democrat party has maintained its principle of civil libertarianism … in a relentless way"?—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 March 1997; Vol. 579, c. 885.] The hon. Gentleman must answer those questions—and answer them tonight.

The Bill, which provides automatic life sentences of imprisonment for repeat rapists and other serious sexual or violent offenders, honesty in sentencing so that no one can be released after five years when he or she has been sentenced to 10, and the principle of minimum mandatory sentences, constitutes the most radical step change in criminal justice this century. For the time being, for the reasons that I have given, I beg to move that the House accepts the Lords amendments.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

We have just been treated to a foretaste of the technique that the Secretary of State intends to employ during the election. He makes assertions with no factual base and, when challenged, he shamelessly tries to wriggle out of the claim that he has just made by changing the words that he used. The Secretary of State laughs about this serious matter; no doubt he will laugh all the way to his Government's defeat in six weeks' time. It is a serious matter to stand at the Dispatch Box and charge Labour Front-Bench Members and Liberal Democrats with saying that it is unfair to gaol drug dealers and domestic burglars for three and seven years and, when challenged on that, to be unable to produce a single reference to justify it. To my knowledge, no such speech has ever been made. When the Secretary of State realised his error, he did not even apologise, but simply wriggled out of it by saying, "Oh well, it is the effect."

Photo of Mr Roy Beggs Mr Roy Beggs , East Antrim

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment.

We had another example of that technique this morning on the radio when, in an increasingly hysterical interview, the Secretary of State said that the Opposition parties had sympathy for career burglars and dealers in hard drugs. The right hon. and learned Gentleman smirks about that. Every time he makes such ludicrous statements on the radio, all that happens is that more and more people have confidence in the Labour party's policies on law and order, not in his party's policies.

The simple truth is that the Government have been soft on burglars and drug dealers over the past 18 years. If the Secretary of State wants to judge on the record, not on the rhetoric, burglary has rocketed since 1979. It has more than doubled. At the same time, there has been a threefold increase in the chance of a burglar getting away with his appalling crimes—getting off scot free. In 1979, one in 11 burglars were caught and convicted. Last year, the number had fallen to an appalling one in 33.

Illegal drugs now pervade and disfigure our society in a way that was unthinkable two decades ago. In the first five years of the present Prime Minister's Administration, the number of drug addicts notified to the Home Office more than doubled, from 18,000 in 1990 to over 37,000 in 1995.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department 9:30 pm, 19th March 1997

If the hon. Gentleman and his party are so keen to get burglars, drug dealers and other criminals convicted, why did they oppose the changes to the right to silence, which have led to a reduction of almost a half in the number of suspects refusing to answer questions put by the police and an increase in the number of guilty men convicted in the courts of this land every day of the year? Why did the hon. Gentleman's party oppose that change?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

Yet again, the Secretary of State is trying to rewrite the record. We proposed what the royal commission recommended—[Interruption.] He now says that it did not go far enough. That is a different point from his claim that we wholly opposed what the Government were seeking to do.

Let the Secretary of State remember what happened. The royal commission recommended that inferences from the exercise of the right to silence ought to be adducible by the trial judge to the jury, in particular circumstances. We tabled amendments to put that into practice. The Secretary of State put forward a proposal that went further. At the time, those two were voted on. I made it clear to him in correspondence about six months ago that we are happy for the current law to remain.

As for the right hon. and learned Gentleman's claim that the number of suspects refusing to answer has declined by a half, that is accurate in one sense, but it is worth remembering that it is a percentage of a percentage. The proportion who are now willing to answer has increased from 75 per cent. to about 85 per cent. I am happy that that has happened, but it is a rather different figure from the one that the Secretary of State implied.

Photo of Mr Roy Beggs Mr Roy Beggs , East Antrim

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Secretary of State should make it clear when he refers to the Opposition parties that the Ulster Unionists would not wish to be associated with any effort not to impose the maximum sentences on repeat burglars, rapists and drug dealers?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

Of course I accept what the hon. Gentleman says.

I mentioned the fact that the number of drug addicts had doubled in the five years between 1990 and 1995. Where there is such drug addiction, there is inevitably much more crime, not just in the drug dealing itself, but in theft, burglary, robbery and all kinds of dishonesty to obtain the cash to feed the drug habit.

For all the Home Secretary's ridiculous, absurd bluster and his thrashing around to blame anyone and everyone for the rise in crime but the Government who have presided over it, he knows that the Government have been soft on burglars and drug dealers, as they have been on crime overall.

The Bill is an admission of 18 years of failure, for it fundamentally reverses the sentencing policy of 16 of those 18 years and turns on its head the Criminal Justice Act 1991, for which the right hon. and learned Gentleman voted. That Act, as he knows, sought not to increase the length of prison sentences, but to cut them. It sought to prevent the courts from taking into account the character or the previous criminal record of defendants. That Act introduced the badly worded unit fine system, which almost brought the magistrates courts to their knees.

The Secretary of State voted for the lot. He now has the audacity, however, to claim that others are soft on crime. He complains about inconsistency in sentencing, yet in 1990 he voted against Labour's proposals to secure more consistency. He did so on the ground that what we said would interfere with judicial independence. He talked about the dead hand of conformity and argued that we would end up with the experience of the United States.

Reverses of policy have taken place on each of the 34 criminal justice Bills introduced over the past 18 years and during the passage of other Bills. The policy behind the Bill before us in respect of minimum sentences and much else has been characterised by one botch after another, one U-turn after another.

What exceptions should there be to prescribed minimum sentences for repeat burglars and-drug dealers? That is the issue before the House. When the Secretary of State made his speech at the 1995 Conservative party conference, his message was at least clear: If you don't want the time, don't do the crime. There were to be no exceptions of any sort. No exceptions were mentioned in any part of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's speech that October. It is—[Interruption.] The right hon. and learned Gentleman shakes his head, but we can call for a copy of his speech. There were to be no exceptions. The word "exceptions" was never mentioned. No synonym was ever mentioned and there were no mentions of exceptions in the explanations added in the notes to editors, which are always a feature of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's speeches to party conferences. The message was clear and unequivocal. As I said, there were to be no exceptions. Three convictions for burglary meant three years and three drug dealing convictions meant seven years.

Two months later, there was the first signal of a U-turn. The Law Society's Gazette was told in December 1995 by the Secretary of State that there might have to be exceptions. When the White Paper appeared in November last year, there was a reference to variations from the minimum in "genuinely exceptional cases". When the Bill was published in November, the wording had changed again. We were told through the Bill that there could be a lesser sentence in "exceptional circumstances".

Two people were probably responsible for the Secretary of State's U-turns. First, I suggest, was the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence), who in 1991 warned the House about the problems of minimum sentences. He described them as a "slippery slope". He argued that if one case is allowed as an exception, it becomes difficult to resist others. The hon. and learned Gentleman made it clear that exceptions there would have to be because, as he explained, there are many degrees of blameworthiness.

I suggest that the second influence on the Secretary of State in his U-turns on exceptional circumstances was the Lord Chancellor. Lord Mackay has made no secret of his unhappiness with the way in which the sentencing policy outlined in the Bill was originally proposed, nor his unhappiness with the Secretary of State himself.

Lord Mackay gave a revealing interview in The Times on 5 November, which appeared on page 8. Having admitted in the interview that he had balked at the idea of minimum sentences, he said of the exceptional circumstances wording that he had ensured that that phrase was included

so judges could escape what they saw as a restriction on their ability to match punishment and crime. He added: I think it"— the phrase— enables them"— the judges— to deal justly with particular cases. No one doubts the good faith of the Lord Chancellor. The problem is that the more the Bill has been examined in this place and the other place, the more it has become clear that its wording would not enable judges to deal justly with particular cases, as the Lord Chancellor said.

This is not a matter of speculation. Indeed, it is one of the few issues on which both Ministers and senior members of the judiciary are at present agreed. The Minister of State, for example, quoted with approval the view of the Lord Chief Justice that the relevant phrase will be construed narrowly. The Lord Chief Justice has led his colleagues in arguing that the wording will produce injustice.

In its abstract sense, injustice would not have been the only consequence of the Government's wording. There would have been personal, concrete injustice for any near-mentally defective individuals, whom not even Ministers in their quieter moments believed should have been locked up for three years, but who, on the tiny examples that we have been given by the Secretary of State, could easily have been, on three individual convictions.

There would have been even worse injustice to victims and their communities as, with the wording proposed by the Secretary of State, many more guilty criminals would have walked free from court.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

The Secretary of State shakes his head, but it is not us but the Government who say that. Exactly that was said by the Government in their 1990 White Paper.

The point was rubbed in by the right hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten) when, as Minister of State, Home Office, he said that minimum sentences could result in juries acquitting more guilty men and women to avoid excessive punishment. That is always one thing that worries me about minimum sentences."—[Official Report, 20 February 1991; Vol. 186, c. 349.] In response to that point, the hon. and learned Member for Burton said quite correctly that proper exceptions would have to be written into the Bill.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department

As, in general, juries do not know whether the defendant before them has previous convictions, they would not know whether a minimum mandatory sentence would apply in their case, so the hon. Gentleman's point completely falls.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I know that the Secretary of State had a very distinguished career at the planning Bar, but even from my—

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I was going to answer from my limited experience at the criminal Bar, and the much greater experience of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) at the criminal Bar. The Secretary of State does not live in the real world. In such circumstances, of course the character of the defendant would be given. Juries are not foolish or stupid. Perhaps the Secretary of State will explain why he, as a member of the Government, assented to the 1990 White Paper, which claimed categorically that minimum sentences could result in juries acquitting more guilty men and women to avoid excessive punishment. Why did the Government put that forward in 1990?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I have tried to explain to the hon. Gentleman, but he seems bereft of understanding this evening. There is a difference between the proposition identified in the White Paper, which deals with minimum sentences in general, and the very specific targeted proposals in the Bill that provide for minimum sentences for repeat offenders, for third-time burglars and for third-time traffickers in hard drugs. It would be a very bold counsel for the defendant who would automatically put before the jury the character of the defendant in those circumstances. That is the difference between the two.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

But in any circumstance, one could arrive only at a situation where guilty men walked free as a result of the prospect of an automatic minimum sentence, if that was put in by the defence; and the Government of which the Secretary of State is a member clearly had that in mind when they asserted that absolute minimum sentences could result in juries acquitting more guilty men and women to avoid excessive punishment.

Photo of Mr Alex Carlile Mr Alex Carlile , Montgomery

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, these days, it is far more common for defence counsel to include their client's character in order to be able to bring out all the other advantageous facts for the defence that can flow only from the character going in, and that juries these days are very fair about defendants whose character is put in? That is the experience of all of us who practise in the criminal courts. There is potential in the provisions for the totting up to be used by skilful counsel as a way of securing sympathy from the jury that would not be available currently. That, I suggest to the hon. Gentleman, is the real world in which those of us who practise as criminal barristers operate.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman. Of course that is the real world, and that it is why there has to be proper provision for exceptions.

Without any regard for the facts of our amendment, the Secretary of State bleats that it would drive a coach and horses through the Bill. We have heard that phrase time and again, and it is increasingly less convincing. It will do nothing of the kind, as Ministers in the other place made clear. We heard that nonsense just now from the Secretary of State, but in the other place the Government Chief Whip, Lord Strathclyde, said categorically that the Bill, as amended by the House of Lords, provides for automatic life sentences for serious violent and sexual offences; establishes the principle of mandatory minimum sentences for persistent drug offenders and domestic burglars". Baroness Blatch added on Third Reading that the Bill addresses some very serious concerns in the community about violent offences, dealing in Class A drugs and persistent burglaries."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 March 1997; Vol. 579, c. 838, 891.] We agree with those sentiments. Much as they try, the Government cannot have it both ways.

Our amendment would give life to the intention of the Lord Chancellor to enable judges, within a framework of minimum sentences, to deal justly with particular cases. That was the phrase that the Lord Chancellor used. Why cannot the Government see that, or do they want the courts to deal unjustly with particular cases? Do they want to betray the interests of victims, as guilty people walk free from courts?

Our amendment has been carefully worded, and contrary to the claims of the Secretary of State, is very different in character and effect from that moved by the Liberal Democrats here and in the other place.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department 9:45 pm, 19th March 1997

The hon. Gentleman seems to be coming to the end of his remarks. Before he sits down, I remind him of the undertaking that he gave to the House before the Bill left for the other place that, when it was in its final shape, he would tell the House and the country of his attitude to it. We look forward to his answering that question, and the other specific questions that I put to him on whether he agrees with the remarks made last night about the Bill by his noble Friend, Lord Mcintosh of Haringey.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

Of course, I shall deal with our approach to the Bill. But as I was saying, our amendment is carefully worded, and is different in character and effect from that moved by the Liberal Democrats here and in the other place. There would be a clear presumption in favour of the minimum sentence. That was accepted when the debate on this amendment was held in the other place. The discretion of the court, which the Secretary of State has accepted in principle, would be properly defined to avoid injustice and the betrayal of victims that would follow from his wording.

In addition, there would be the added safeguard that in every case the Attorney-General would be able to appeal any sentence that he felt made undue use of the limited discretion being given to the court. If we are in government, we intend to make use of that discretion. I do not believe for a moment that 40 per cent. or 50 per cent. of cases that would otherwise trigger minimum sentences would result in an exercise by the courts of discretion. That was never the intention of this place or the other place. If that were to happen, it would obviously have to be looked at again by the House and by the Government.

In the other place, the amendment was supported not only by their Lordships on the Opposition Benches, but by 29 Conservative peers, including the noble Lord, Lord Hailsham, the former Conservative Lord Chancellor. The Secretary of State should consider that the next time he accuses anyone who supports the amendment of being soft on burglars and soft on drug dealers. Is he suggesting that that long list of distinguished former Law Officers, Lord Chancellors and other Ministers of the Crown in Conservative Administrations in the past 18 years are soft on crime, soft on drug dealers and soft on burglars? I hope that in the next six weeks he will seek to elevate the debate above such insults not only to us—we can take those—but to members of his own party.

The other place having made its decision on the amendment, the proper constitutional way would have been for this House to debate and vote on it in the usual way. It is for this elected House to make final decisions on all such matters. That is what I agreed with the Secretary of State, and what the Labour Front Bench in the other place voted on yesterday. I regret that that has not happened. In many respects, however, the other place did the Home Secretary a favour yesterday. The Home Secretary knows that there was substantial support for our amendment, on his own side in the House of Commons as well as in the other place. He knows that, had the amendment been subject to a vote here, he would have been in great danger of being defeated by his hon. Friends.

I have made it clear throughout proceedings on the Bill, and I make it clear now, that we support automatic life sentences for repeat rapists and other serious sexual and violent offenders, as laid down in the Bill. We support the principle of minimum sentences of three and seven years respectively for thrice-convicted burglars and drug dealers, and, under the amendment, the practice as well. If such arrangements are to achieve their end, however, they must work justly and efficiently. The amendments that we have tabled will help that process.

The Government go into this election with a worse record on crime than any Government since the war, and a worse record than any other major industrialised country. A former Home Office Minister, the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), told The Guardian on 1 August last year: The Labour Party is outflanking us on law and order and there is a serious danger of the Conservative Party at all levels losing the plot". The Home Secretary has certainly lost the plot on law and order. Under his party, crime has rocketed, victims have suffered and communities have been disfigured by crime.

The sooner the present Government are swept from office, the sooner we can again have measures to make our communities safe again.

Photo of Mr Alex Carlile Mr Alex Carlile , Montgomery

In my last gasp in the House, I make no apology for reviving—and, indeed, speaking from the heart of—the Liberal credentials that made me a Liberal and a member of the Liberal Democrat party.

When we hear the Labour party talk of being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, and when we hear the Home Secretary say, If you don't want the time, don't do the crime, we are not hearing policies or proposals; we are just hearing slogans. It really is time that both the present Government and the party that may well form the next Government got to grips with an issue that has been driven home to them time and again.

The issue has been driven home by, in particular, the likes of Lord Bingham, our present Lord Chief Justice; Lord Taylor, his immediate predecessor; Lord Woolf, the Master of the Rolls; and Lord Donaldson, the previous Master of the Rolls—no socialist he—that the basis for making new laws in relation to criminal justice policy is worthless unless it is founded on principles of justice.

When the Bill left the House of Commons after Third Reading, the Labour party was doing a sort of soft shoe shuffle around the issues. It was not sure whether it was for or against the new provisions, or somewhere in between. In the House of Lords, it was Liberal Democrat peers who started the debate that has led to the amendment that the House of Commons will accept tonight—and I am proud of that, too.

What was the basis of the argument advanced by the Liberal Democrat peers? It was purely that the law should be just and should continue to be administered by judges, and that the House of Commons should not tell judges how to exercise their discretion in matters that go to the very root of judicial discretion.

The Labour party, of course, could not adopt the Liberal Democrat amendments in the other place; apparently, it would have been undignified for it to do so. It therefore created its own amendment, and that is what is contained in the amendments that we are debating now.

Yesterday, we were in a very odd position. It is clear that it took the Liberal Democrats to force the circumstances in which we now find ourselves, in which the House will accept a Labour amendment that was passed in the House of Lords, because the Labour party is not sure whether it really wanted its amendment— which was passed by the Lords—to be passed in the House of Commons. What a strange situation that is. However, things often move in a mysterious way and here we are.

What are we left with? For the Home Secretary to say that his particular prejudices being defeated results in a coach and horses being driven through the Bill is very unconvincing. He has a distinguished past as an expert in town and country planning law—I am told that there was none better—but he has shown his inexperience time and again in the understanding of what happens in criminal courts.

One is bound to ask oneself: what does one have to do to a Home Secretary such as this if he will not listen to the Lord Chief Justice, the previous Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls, the previous Master of the Rolls, the former Lord Chancellor and the right hon. Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd), who was a Minister of State in the Home Office and who single-handedly won the argument on Second Reading on the Bill? What does it take to persuade the Home Secretary that the basis for changing criminal justice policy must be to produce just results?

I am disappointed that we have not gone a stage further than the amendments. They contain the apparently unacceptable proposition that someone should not receive a mandatory minimum sentence for burglary or the possession of class A drugs if it would be unjust for him to receive such a sentence for the possession of class A drugs or burglary, so the Government want sentences to be passed that are unjust. That is the only conclusion that one can draw, and it is a most extraordinary one.

Photo of Mr Alex Carlile Mr Alex Carlile , Montgomery

By definition, as my hon. Friend says.

We can view with great satisfaction the outcome of the negotiations. There will be minimum mandatory sentences. The Home Secretary should recognise that we for one have moved some way towards his position in accepting that there should be new presumptions in sentencing policy. Today, when the judge sentences for a third burglary or a third class A drugs offence, he takes what he considers to be the appropriate sentence, having regard to the leading cases that are in the standard books on sentencing. He then tinkers one way or the other with those standard sentences.

When the Bill enters into law, the position will be completely different. It will be presumed that the minimum mandatory sentence should be passed, but, if the judge goes through a different thought process from today's sentencing procedures and decides that it would be unjust to pass such a sentence, he will pass another sentence. What on earth can be wrong with that? It considers the victims of crime, it ensures that the criminal receives the proper sentence, and it is a sensible process. It is extraordinary to be told that that drives a coach and horses through the Bill.

We Liberal Democrats were not as successful as we would have wished to be in relation to mandatory life sentences. Yesterday in the other place, Lord Bingham, the Lord Chief Justice, in a moving and eloquent speech, pointed out that the passing of a sentence of life imprisonment is a solemn and formidable occasion. The person who is sentenced forfeits not only the time that he spends in prison, but the rest of his life, to the state. In certain circumstances, the state can recall him to prison, even if he does not commit a criminal offence.

I have been in court, probably on more occasions than the Home Secretary, when life sentences have been passed. Unfortunately, not a small number of them have been on people whom I have defended unsuccessfully, and I am delighted to say that a fair number have been on people whom I have prosecuted successfully. It is a solemn occasion, and not something to be trifled with.

It is extremely important that, when a life sentence is passed and the judge makes the prisoner forfeit the rest of his life to the state, even after that prisoner is released, if he is to be, there should be a clear understanding that there is a system of real justice embracing that solemn process. There is no more solemn process in the courts than the passing of a life sentence.

I would therefore have liked to see the same amendment made in relation to mandatory life sentences as in relation to burglary and class A drugs offences. None the less, we have agreed to go a little bit of the way with the Home Secretary, by means of subsection (3) of the new clause to be inserted by Lords amendment No. 1.

In life sentence cases, there will be an even stronger presumption that there should be an automatic life sentence. A case in which that will not happen will have to be very exceptional. To describe that as driving a coach and horses through the Bill passes understanding. I am afraid that it is another of the Home Secretary's slogans.

In sum, we, the Liberal Democrats, are pleased to have been the instrument of justice—for that is what we have been, when the Labour party was reluctant to play that part, and when the Home Secretary could not see it when it stared him in the face.

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

It being Ten o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question required to be put at that hour by Order [this day].