Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme

– in the House of Commons at 9:30 pm on 5th October 2020.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Morris.)

Photo of Lee Anderson Lee Anderson Conservative, Ashfield 9:58 pm, 5th October 2020

I am grateful for the opportunity to open this Adjournment debate on an issue that is of great importance to my constituents. We have a brilliant judicial system in our country—it is the envy of the world—and we get it right most of the time. However, sometimes we get it wrong when it comes to sentencing. The good news is that we have the unduly lenient sentence scheme, a highly successful scheme that allows sentences for certain offences that are unduly lenient to be referred to the Attorney General and, subsequently, the Court of Appeal, to hopefully get the sentences of some of the worst criminals in our society increased.

It is right that the most serious offenders, including those who have committed violent and sexual offences, should spend more time in prison to match the severity of their crimes. The Prime Minister has been clear that the Government he leads will strengthen public confidence in the criminal justice system, and on behalf of the residents of Ashfield and Eastwood, I will support legislation designed to achieve that.

Legislation was recently introduced in Parliament to abolish automatic halfway release for serious offenders who receive standard fixed-term sentences of seven years or more. That includes those found guilty of rape, manslaughter or grievous bodily harm with intent. Instead, a new requirement to serve two thirds of a sentence in prison was introduced, with the existing strict licence conditions on release continuing. That action means that around 2,000 serious offenders will spend longer in custody, keeping the public safe—and rightly so.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

With the permission of my hon. Friend, which I sought in advance, Madam Deputy Speaker, I wonder whether he agrees with me that the Government also need to tackle the vexatious liberal bourgeois lawyers who try to get the thugs, villains and crooks that he describes—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Morris.)

Photo of Lee Anderson Lee Anderson Conservative, Ashfield 10:00 pm, 5th October 2020

I welcome the fact that this Government want to go further as part of their determination to protect the public from serious offenders.

The Government have published a sentencing White Paper, which represents the largest reform to sentencing for almost 20 years. Victims will have the power to query sentences for a wider range of crimes, as the scheme has been extended to cover 14 new offences, including stalking, harassment, child sex abuse and other sex offences.

The priority of Government is the safety and security of their citizens. However, the system of sentencing in England and Wales does not always command the confidence of the public. Public protection is a key principle of sentencing, yet all too often we see cases of offending where serious sexual and violent offenders are not receiving sentences that reflect the severity of their crimes.

The passing of correct sentencing is crucial, and based on the right legislation and procedure, it will bring increased public confidence. However, despite the Government’s extension of the scheme in recent years, which has been strongly welcomed in Ashfield and Eastwood, my constituents are still concerned that not enough crimes are included on the scheme’s eligibility list. The extension of the scheme will keep offenders who pose a risk to the public off the streets for longer and help restore public confidence that robust sentences are executed in a way that better reflects the gravity of the crimes committed.

In previous years, we have seen the scheme work well and become increasingly popular. In November 2017, the Solicitor General noted that the number of sentences considered by the Attorney General’s office had more than doubled between 2010 and 2016, from 342 to 837. The Attorney General said that the 833 referrals received by his office in 2016 were a 17% increase from the previous year.

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there are strict deadlines for the unduly lenient sentence scheme, which sometimes mean that a victim or member of a victim’s family who wishes to challenge a sentence is unable to do so because they have not received proper advice? I have the case of Tracey Hanson, whose son Josh Hanson was brutally murdered. She applied in the 28 days but was past the office-hours deadline, so she was not able to challenge the sentence. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a need for better advice for victims beforehand so that they can challenge sentences properly and be aware of their rights?

Photo of Lee Anderson Lee Anderson Conservative, Ashfield

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I totally agree that more advice should be readily available for the victims of these horrid crimes.

The scheme has seen many recent successes, including in relation to a 28-year-old male from Leeds who was found guilty of rape in 2019. This abhorrent individual was originally sentenced to 14 years and six months’ imprisonment. After the sentence was reviewed as too lenient, it was altered to 18 years, with an extended licence of eight years—that is an extra four years for this vile criminal to reflect on his wicked crime and four more years that he is off our streets.

My constituents in Ashfield and Eastwood are delighted with results such as that, particularly when they see first hand the effectiveness of the scheme in reviewing sentences closer to home. Eighteen-year-old Edi Gomes of Nottinghamshire was convicted of a city centre stabbing and originally sentenced at Nottingham Crown court in May 2019 to 240 hours of unpaid worked. Most of the time, our justice system gets things completely right, but the example of Gomes shows that there are cases that need to be reviewed. He got 240 hours of unpaid work, but a violent offence as serious as wounding with intent and possessing a bladed article warrants a custodial sentence.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Conservative, Warrington South

My hon. Friend is making some powerful points. Does he agree that it is not just about the sentence but about the charges in the first place? It is critical that the Crown Prosecution Service matches the right crime with the right charges. For example, the CPS often prefers to charge an assault at a lower level, which means it is likely to be dealt with in a magistrates court and result in a lower sentence, because in the opinions of some in the CPS there is more likely to be a conviction as a result. The cases therefore never get to the Crown Court, where they really need to be.

Photo of Lee Anderson Lee Anderson Conservative, Ashfield

My hon. Friend is quite right: sometimes it is the easy option to put a case through a magistrates court rather than a Crown court. I completely agree, and I want our judiciary system to take the harder option in future to ensure that such vile crimes are put through the Crown court and result in the maximum sentence possible.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

My hon. Friend is one of the soundest voices in this House who entered in 2019. He is a true champion for the now “blue wall”, as it is dubbed. In Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, we had an example of a young man who was brutally stabbed, along with a cyclist who was passing by. The young man who stabbed them received only a three-year sentence with the promise of an 18-month release. My hon. Friend referred to a case in his area where knife crime was not being handled seriously. Does he agree that, if we are to tackle the scourge of knife crime, the sentence must fit the crime?

Photo of Lee Anderson Lee Anderson Conservative, Ashfield

I completely agree once again that the sentence must fit the crime. The unduly lenient sentence scheme is tailored for such incidents, and I hope that it has been referred to the Attorney General.

Edi Gomes in Nottinghamshire was sentenced to 240 hours of unpaid work and was then back out on the streets. That is not justice for the victim, and it sends out the wrong message to the public and our police. I was therefore delighted to hear that the case was referred to the Attorney General, whose office agreed that the case should be referred to the Court of Appeal under the scheme, which ruled that his previous non-custodial sentence was too lenient and that he should be locked up. Following the review, Gomes was sentenced to 18 months in custody.

To have a long-term impact on reducing knife crime, it is essential that the police, the justice system and communities take a stand together. The custodial sentencing decision sends the right message to those who carry and use knives in Nottinghamshire and across the country. The scheme sends a message to the general public that the Government will do whatever it takes to ensure that the people who commit these offences face the full consequences of their actions.

My constituents were further encouraged by the effectiveness of the scheme when, in 2018, two Nottinghamshire drug dealers were jailed over the importation of more than £65 million-worth of cocaine and heroin and handed 16-year custodial sentences. More than 142 kilos of drugs were seized at the helm of the two men, and with their sentences ruled too lenient they each received an extra three years on top of their original sentences. Those men deserve nothing less than 19 years’ imprisonment.

I appeal to the Attorney General to consider extending the scheme to ensure that all crimes where someone has died are eligible for review. Although death by dangerous driving is covered by the unduly lenient sentence scheme, death by careless driving is not. It is my belief that if a crime involves a death, that should be a triggering factor in deciding whether it is serious enough to be reviewed.

There has been some success with the scheme in terms of sexual offences, with the recent example of school bus driver Robert Woolner, who took photos of young girls leaving his bus and was found guilty of attempting to arrange a child sex offence. He will now be imprisoned for longer after his sentence was reviewed under the scheme. Woolner was arrested after he was caught communicating and discussing oral sex with a person whom he thought was a 13-year-old boy. The boy was in fact an undercover police officer, and the offender was arrested in the place where they had arranged to meet. Police then found extreme pornographic content on Woolner’s phone, as well as three videos made during his employment as a school bus driver showing under the skirts of schoolgirls as they left the school bus.

On 17 July, Woolner was originally sentenced at St Albans Crown Court to 12 months’ imprisonment for attempting to arrange or facilitate a child sex offence, possessing extreme pornographic images and multiple counts of recording an image under clothing. Following the Solicitor General’s intervention, the Court of Appeal increased his sentence to two years and six months’ imprisonment. An individual such as Robert Woolner, who is evidently extremely dangerous, shows us exactly why this scheme is necessary.

The Government must continue to work to fulfil our manifesto commitments to bring in tougher sentences. A more efficient approach to sentencing will grow confidence in the criminal justice system’s ability to deal effectively with the worst offenders and protect citizens. No one should feel unsafe walking our streets, so I look to the Minister with great optimism and belief that this Government will take the approach I have outlined and seriously consider extending the unduly lenient sentence scheme to cover more sentences. Thank you so much, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the chance, on behalf of the people of Ashfield and Eastwood, to put this debate to this House.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Before I bring in the Minister, I just wanted to explain that when the Adjournment debate starts before 10 o’clock, we have to move the motion again. That is why I had to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I hope I did not put him off his stride—it does not sound as though I did.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis The Solicitor-General 10:11 pm, 5th October 2020

I commend my hon. Friend Lee Anderson for a powerful speech on behalf of his constituents and for securing this debate on this important topic. It says a good deal about him that his chosen topic has secured the attendance of so many of our hon. Friends and hon. Members for this Adjournment debate.

I join my hon. Friend in recognising, as he did in his opening comments, our brilliant judiciary. They are rightly renowned the world over for their intellectual brilliance and integrity. I also agree with him about the importance of the unduly lenient sentence scheme. It is a vital feature of our criminal justice system that the Court of Appeal has the ability, and has had for some 30 years, to intervene in the small but important number of cases where sentencing judges get it wrong. Since its introduction more than 30 years ago, the scheme has allowed prosecutors, victims, family members and the general public—in fact, anyone at all— to seek a review by the Law Officers, which means by myself or by the Attorney General, of sentences in the most serious cases that they consider to be unduly lenient.

We have some 80,000 criminal cases in this country per annum, and I wish to be clear that in the vast majority of them—more than 99%—sentencing judges get it right. However, the ULS scheme remains an important safety mechanism to rectify errors in sentencing and to ensure that justice is done in individual cases. As I have said, the number of sentences found to be unduly lenient continues to be a very small proportion, but the number of cases considered by my office has grown significantly, In 2010, 342 sentences were considered by my office, whereas in 2019 that had increased to 577. The Law Officers referred 93 cases to the Court of Appeal, which led to a sentence increase in 63 of those cases.

As my hon. Friend knows, this Government are fully committed to ensuring that justice is done for victims of crime, and the ULS scheme is an important part of that. He proposes an extension of the scheme to cover more sexual offences and crimes where someone has died. Of course, these are clearly serious offences and they are often traumatising crimes for victims and their families, and it is right that they deserve serious and careful consideration by the criminal justice system. He specifically mentioned that the offence of causing death by careless driving is not within the scheme. Two key principles apply to sentencing: the harm caused by a crime and the culpability. In terms of harm, that offence involves the most serious consequence—a death. I want to reassure my hon. Friend that I recognise this, and it is not something we take lightly at all. In terms of culpability, there is an important distinction between dangerous and careless driving, and the sentencing regime reflects that. Sometimes the consequences of a collision may be entirely disproportionate to the culpability of the offender. A relatively minor action by a driver or a single moment of inattention may have horrendous and tragic consequences. That, of course, does not change the fact that the consequences of these cases are dire and devastating for families.

The intention of the ULS scheme is that it is reserved for the most serious cases. That being said, the remit of any extension to the ULS scheme lies with the Ministry of Justice, and the scheme has been extended in recent times. It now covers all cases that are triable only in the Crown court. As well as other serious offences, it covers murder, manslaughter, rape, child sex offences, drug dealing, racially and religiously aggravated crimes, arson, criminal damage and terrorism offences.

Following manifesto commitments by this Government and a further commitment in the 2018 victims strategy, in November 2019 the Government extended the scheme to 14 further offences including stalking, harassment, coercive and controlling behaviour and additional child sexual offences, particularly those involving indecent images of children and abusing a position of trust with a child. I am sure that my hon. Friend and Members across the House will agree that including those horrific and critically damaging offences in the scheme was an important step to take. Those abhorrent crimes carry a distressing and long-lasting impact, and it is our duty to hold perpetrators of the most horrific and serious offences to account.

We have successfully referred cases under the extended scheme to the Court of Appeal. I have done so, including in person. That includes the particularly horrific case of Haitch Macklin, who was sentenced to 20 months’ imprisonment for offences of making indecent images of children. That case involved no fewer than 2,196 indecent photographs and videos in which young children were horrifically abused. I referred the case to the Court of Appeal, and the sentence was increased from 20 months’ imprisonment to four years’ imprisonment.

Every case referred to my office that falls within the scheme is carefully considered by either myself or the Attorney General, and I take great pride in the scheme and the justice that it delivers to victims and their families. I personally present cases in court wherever I can. I presented the reference in the case of Joshua Dalgarno. Dalgarno was an offender who met his former partner on a dating website. He inflicted a range of domestic abuse on her between June and September 2019. The offending comprised a number of violent attacks, obsessive and controlling contact by telephone, controlling the contact the victim had with others, monitoring her telephone and social media contact with others and taking her car. The abuse even continued after the offender’s arrest. Having been released on bail, he threatened the victim and her sister on another occasion, and he had a history of violent offending against his former partners. The offender was originally given a community sentence for an offence of controlling and coercive behaviour. The Court of Appeal agreed with my submission that the sentence was unduly lenient and increased it to three years’ imprisonment.

It is vital that, in cases such as these, abusers are truly brought to justice and victims and the public are afforded protection against further abuse. That is why the ULS scheme is so essential, to ensure that perpetrators of the most serious crimes who inflict violence and psychological abuse on their victims are held accountable.

As well as correcting sentencing errors, the ULS scheme contributes to clarifying the law, recently in the area of so-called one-punch manslaughter and in cases in which offenders believe that they are arranging sexual contact with a child but are in fact speaking with undercover police officers—we are seeing a fair few such cases. The Court of Appeal agreed with my submissions in the cases of Barney Coyle and Michael Taiwo. Those horrific but unconnected cases involved the all too often seen scenario in which, sadly, a punch thrown in the heat of the moment resulted in the death of another human being. The ULS references for both cases led the Court of Appeal to clarify that, notwithstanding that an offender may not intend to kill, the culpability of the offender means that such offences can be of such seriousness that judges need to sentence within the higher categories of the sentencing guidelines.

The cases of Kyle Edwards and Michael Dawson involved the offenders arranging or facilitating the commission of child sex offences. Both offenders believed that they were speaking with children; however, they were speaking with undercover police officers. I referred both cases on the basis that I concluded that the sentences were unduly lenient in and of themselves, but it was also clear that the application of sentencing law in the area could benefit from clarification. Notwithstanding that the offences do not actually involve a real child, sentences must sometimes—in fact, always—look at the culpability of the offender, too: what did they intend to do if they met the child? The Court of Appeal agreed with that submission and further emphasised the appropriate approach to sentencing in these cases.

I will touch briefly on public awareness. My hon. Friend is right that awareness of the scheme is vital. We receive a volume of referrals from victims and the wider public that indicate that they are aware in principle, but I know that we can do more. The Ministry of Justice is in the process of revising the victims code to address its complexity and give victims more clarity on their rights. My hon. Friend also referred to the sentencing White Paper; as he correctly stated, the priority of any Government is the safety and security of their citizens. It is also the Government’s role to provide the right sentencing framework for judges to follow. The ULS scheme is, of course, focused on how judges apply the law and the Sentencing Council guidelines as they stand; it is Parliament that decides the legal framework in which they operate.

My hon. Friend is right that the system of sentencing in England and Wales sometimes does not command the confidence of the general public at large. That is why I am grateful to him for the opportunity this evening to highlight not only the ULS scheme, which I believe commands the confidence of the public, but the measures that the Government and the Ministry of Justice will take to tackle sentencing on a wider scale. The Government will legislate on the measures in the sentencing White Paper in the near future. That legislation will include measures targeted at certain serious violent and sexual offenders so that they will serve two thirds of their sentence in custody, rather than being released automatically at the halfway point.

In conclusion, I am immensely proud of my involvement with the unduly lenient sentencing scheme and the justice that it brings for victims of some of the most horrific crimes. We can only refer cases that appear to us as Law Officers to be unduly lenient, but we will, and do, take the utmost care in that assessment. We frequently receive positive feedback from victims and their families where sentences of offenders are increased; I must say that it can be quite moving when we receive letters and the like from those who have been bereaved, for example, and who are grateful that the case has been reviewed by the Law Officers and referred to the Court of Appeal. However, the scheme is kept under constant review, and I understand that a case may be made that further individual offences or categories of cases merit inclusion.

It is important that there is finality in sentencing for both victims and defendants. Parliament intended this to be an exceptional power, and it is important that any extension is considered carefully. I assure my hon. Friend that I will continue to carefully review every sentence referred to my office that is within the scheme. The Attorney General and I will listen to any representations made regarding extending and improving the scheme.

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Home Office)

On the point about improving the scheme, the Solicitor General mentioned awareness as an issue. He also mentioned the victims code coming up soon, but can he enlighten me as to whether he envisages there being greater awareness for victims and their families of the existence of the scheme? Many of them are not aware and do not know about it, so they cannot bring cases to his attention.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis The Solicitor-General

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point. He is right, and we are doing everything we can to make the existence of the scheme more generally known by victims and their families. We are in liaison with the Crown Prosecution Service about how that is done. The victims code should help in that regard. We are seeing a major increase in the number of cases being referred to me and the Attorney General, so the scheme is clearly getting through to a certain extent, but there is more to be done.

In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield for raising the ULS scheme on behalf of his constituents, whom he powerfully and ably represents. I hope I have reassured him that we as Law Officers take very seriously our role in the scheme. I am pleased to be able to highlight some of the recent successes we have had, which have led to violent and sexual offenders being given sentences they deserve and helped to bring about justice for their victims.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.