[1st Allocated Day]

Part of Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:09 pm on 15th March 2021.

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Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee 7:09 pm, 15th March 2021

This is a significant and large Bill, and it warrants serious scrutiny. It therefore deserves better attention, I submit, than some of the hyperbole that has regrettably been thrown at it in the course of the earlier speeches of this debate. It is reasonable to examine a Bill carefully as it goes through Committee. I have scarcely ever known a Bill that is not improved by careful examination from the time when it is brought in. To vote against the Bill tomorrow does not seem to me to be a mark of a responsible Opposition, and it is regrettable that Labour and the Scottish National party have gone down that route, particularly when they can see that there is much to agree with. Many organisations in the criminal justice sphere including NACRO, the Centre for Justice organisation, the Magistrates Association and others have welcomed measures in the Bill.

We need a sense of proportion about these matters. For example, the reforms to public order legislation certainly need careful consideration, but changes to the law around public nuisance were recommended by the Law Commission as long ago as 2015. This measure puts that law on a statutory basis, as the Law Commission recommended, but uses, perfectly understandably, terms and phrases from the old common law arrangements, which are well understood and well defined by case law in the courts. The idea, therefore, that the Law Commission is somehow part of some authoritarian plot seems to me to be risible, and better arguments can be made than that.

Being near the M25, my constituency has unfortunately had repeated unauthorised incursions into both publicly owned and privately owned playing fields, sports grounds and others. Proportionality and fairness also mean that there should be swifter and better recompense than the current situation permits for those communities that see much-valued community assets put out of use by unauthorised encampments.

On the sentencing elements of the Bill, sentencing is always a difficult matter, both in individual cases and in terms of policy. It requires a careful balance. Overall, the Justice Secretary and his team who worked on this part of the Bill have got it right. It is right that we strengthen provision to protect the public from the most serious criminals, but it is also right that we give greater attention to the need to rehabilitate. Basically, many of those who end up in the criminal justice system and, indeed, in prison have chaotic lifestyles, sometimes mental health issues, educational issues, social problems and, frequently, weakness and stupidity. Getting those people out of a never-ending cycle of reoffending, as the White Paper says, on which this part of the Bill is based, is not just in their interests, but, overwhelmingly, in the interests of the public, too. I welcome the provisions to give a more agile and sophisticated suite of alternatives to custody. It is important that alternatives to custody are credible to the public, because sentencing has to be credible, but also that they do not waste time in comparatively short prison sentences where little rehabilitative work can be done, and which are hugely expensive. They have their place in just limited instances. Those changes, therefore, are very welcome.

Changes to the provisions regarding spent convictions are very important for rehabilitation. The Justice Committee has called for that in previous reports. Recognising a distinct approach to sentencing of younger offenders is, again, something that our Committee has repeatedly called for, and I welcome that, too. Equally, raising the threshold for remanding children into custody is very welcome and I would have thought overwhelmingly supported.

There is much to support in this Bill, including the provision for charities to set up secure schools, a much better improvement on our current provision. I very much hope that this Bill will get its Second Reading and that we can then examine the provisions in detail. The final thing that we have to be honest about is that justice does not come cheap. If we are to make these important and radical changes to sentencing policy, we must invest in them. If we are to have alternatives to custody, we must invest properly in those alternatives. They will bring both a social and an economic benefit in the long run, but we have to be honest and spell that out at the beginning.