Orders of the Day — Drugs (Sentencing and Commission of Inquiry) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:21 am on 25th February 2005.

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Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) 11:21 am, 25th February 2005

I join other hon. Members in congratulating Mr. Evans on raising this important subject in the Chamber. The Government are determined to deal effectively with the menace that drugs cause in our community.

Mr. Forth asked why people were, or were not, here this morning. It seems to me that the Bill's provisions are largely dealt with by existing legislation or can be dealt with in other ways, so hon. Members might be absent because, like me, they do not think that the Bill would necessarily move us forward. However, the discussion and unanimity of concern among Members about the harm caused by drugs and our determination to tackle that harm might help us to make progress.

Let me explain why the proposals in the Bill are unnecessary and would not be effective. At first sight, the mandatory sentencing provisions might seem superficially attractive, but I am afraid that consideration shows them to be flawed and redundant. Section 110 of Powers of the Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 already requires a court to impose a custodial sentence of at least seven years where a person is convicted of a class A drug trafficking offence—including the offence of supply of a class A drug—that was committed after 30 September 1997. The date is important because of the principle of not imposing a retroactive penalty. If we believe that sentencing provisions have a deterrent effect, it is important that we do not create retroactive penalties.

If, at the time the offence was committed, under the existing Act, the offender was aged 18 or over and had been convicted in the United Kingdom of two other class A drug trafficking offences, one of which was committed after he had been convicted of the other, the court may impose another sentence—that is, one of less than seven years—if it is of the opinion that there are particular circumstances that relate to any of the offences or to the offender that would make it unjust to apply a custodial sentence of at least seven years in all circumstances.

The provisions in clauses 1 and 2 are inappropriate because they remove the discretion of the courts to impose less than the mandatory minimum sentence for a third section 4(3) offence. We believe that the courts must be given discretion to allow for particular mitigating circumstances in those cases where a seven-year sentence might not be appropriate. Examples include cases where there has been coercion or intimidation, where addicts are dealing very small amounts to fund their habit, or where schoolchildren are passing on drugs to their friends. In such circumstances, it is important that while Parliament sets a clear framework, we allow, where mitigating circumstances absolutely exist in a particular case, the judiciary to take those into account.