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Magistrates’ Sentencing Powers

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 5th February 2013.

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Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering 11:30 am, 5th February 2013

If he will consider increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers from a maximum of six months to a maximum of 12 months for the purpose of making greater use of magistrates’ courts.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice

We are considering a number of ways to make the best use of magistrates’ courts, including the option of increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers. Our priority in the short term, however, is to extend supervision to short-sentenced prisoners to ensure they receive supervision on release to help them stop offending.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Kettering is fortunate to have an excellent bench of magistrates and the whole nation should be grateful for the tremendous unpaid work carried out by 24,000 magistrates up and down the country. Is the Minister aware that £40 million could be saved in the criminal justice system were he to undertake this simple revision of magistrates’ powers? Justice would be better, cheaper, quicker and more local as a result.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice

I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s high regard for magistrates both in Kettering and around the country. They are indeed volunteers who do a very good job. I am aware of the Magistrates Association’s proposals and the costings and savings that have been suggested. Those proposals bear scrutiny, because there will be second-order effects such as potentially more people in prison and more defendants electing to have a Crown court trial. As I said, the main thing to do is to ensure that people do not reoffend, which is why we have concentrated on extending supervision to short-sentence offenders.

Photo of Graham Jones Graham Jones Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons)

Does the Minister accept that that puts pressure on jury service? A constituent of mine—an elderly 69-year-old lady who is not ill but slightly infirm—has been asked to do her third stint of jury service, and she has to take three buses to get to court. Is there anything the Minister can do about pensioners who have been asked numerous times to do jury service, are not capable of doing it, and do not want to do it?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice

I am slightly confused about why the hon. Gentleman is asking that question in relation to magistrates courts, which do not have juries. As the question tabled by my hon. Friend Mr Hollobone might well have the effect of more cases being heard in Crown courts, there would be more demand for juries. Jurors such as the constituent of Graham Jones would be more in demand, so I am not entirely sure that his question is in accordance with the original question.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Full Member)

I declare an interest, as my wife is a magistrate. Occasionally, she comes home in tears of frustration, because she and her colleagues have not been given the powers to enable them to do the job in the way in which they wish to do it. Will my right hon. Friend seriously consider extending sentencing powers so that they can take some of the waiting and the queues out of justice in future?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice

I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that the queues, as he put it, in Crown courts in particular are coming down. We will consider the proposal from the Magistrates Association and others to increase the maximum sentencing length, but that has to be considered along with many other reforms that are needed to improve the process of justice throughout the criminal justice system.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice)

I think that that sounded like a no to extending magistrates’ powers. In addition, a third of indictable offences of violence were dealt with by issuing cautions last year, rather than their coming to court. While the cautioning of violent and dangerous criminals is being dealt with outside court, minor offences are being sent to the Crown court. Does that not look incompetent, even by this Government’s standards? What does the Minister have against magistrates, and why is he treating them with contempt?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice

That is the most absurd interpretation of what I have just said—that I was considering the proposal originally made by my hon. Friend Mr Hollobone. May I tell Mr Slaughter, given his way with the facts, that the use of cautions has come down considerably since the Government of whom he was a supporter were in power?