I congratulate Vernon Coaker on his excellent speech and I associate myself with his sentiments. The Bill makes some welcome improvements to how the police and courts tackle threats to the public from offensive weapons. Given the violence and the deaths we are seeing now, it is vital that we act. I welcome some of the amendments, particularly those tabled by Labour colleagues, including new clauses 1 and 6. However, a number of details in this Bill would prove counterproductive in the fight against crime—things that are not based on evidence—so I have tabled a range of amendments. I will speak only briefly to some of them now, given the time available and that fact that other Members wish to get in.
Amendments 12 and 13 would in essence replace short-term prison sentences with community sentences. As the Bill stands, the new offence in clause 1 of selling corrosive products to under-18s is punishable by up to 51 weeks in prison. We are puzzled by this, because it directly contradicts Government policy as articulated at the Dispatch Box. The Secretary of State for Justice himself has said that short-term prison sentences do not work. He said that they should be used only “as a last resort.” Amendments 12 and 13 therefore appear to be in line with Government policy and would ensure that the offence set out in clause 1 is punishable by an effective community sentence and/or fine, instead of by an ineffective short-term prison sentence.
Amendment 14 would amend the welcome new offence of possession of corrosives by adding to clause 6 the words “with intent to cause injury”. I assume that the current wording is the result of a drafting error.
Finally, amendments 15 and 16 would remove mandatory prison sentences for a second offence of possession of corrosive substances. In other words, they would prevent this House from yet again trespassing on judicial discretion. I have never understood why Governments and colleagues think that they are capable of second-guessing the facts of a case that has not yet happened, or why this House should pretend that it makes any sense at all to bind the hands of judges, who see and hear the real facts of the case, are trained to assess the facts and are experienced in sentencing.
The House may remember when, back in 2014, a Conservative Back-Bench new clause was passed to create mandatory prison sentences for a second offence of possession of a knife. My party voted against that new clause on the principle that mandatory sentences tie judges’ hands, put more pressure on already overburdened prisons and mean that more people, especially young people, end up with ineffective short-term prison sentences. Regrettably, that new clause was passed, thanks to some Labour MPs supporting it, the Conservative Front-Bench team abstaining and Conservative Back Benchers voting for it.
To be fair, there were Labour MPs who voted with those of us who opposed the tying of judges’ hands. One Labour MP in particular made a fine speech, and said:
“There is a principle at stake here. There is a Sentencing Council and legislation on what is and is not a crime, but surely it must be for the courts to determine what is appropriate for the prisoner in front of them, rather than to have that laid down by statute.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 582, c. 1041-1042.]
That MP was Jeremy Corbyn, so I hope that the Labour Front-Bench team will support our amendments to get rid of mandatory prison sentences.
Back in 2014, when the House debated similar proposals in respect of knife crimes, the supporters of tying judges’ hands said that it would send a message to the people, and that that message would reduce knife crime. That was a rather odd argument, which seemed to assume that young people especially tuned into our proceedings with enthusiasm. It had no basis in fact at the time. We now have the benefit of seeing how four years of limiting judicial discretion over knife crime has worked—how the message that Parliament apparently sent was heard.