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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:44 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat 12:44 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, may I say what considerable pleasure it is for me and those around me to see the noble Lord, Lord McNally, put his hands on the Dispatch Box and to discover that in becoming a Minister he has not lost his wit and good humour? We congratulate him most sincerely.

I start with a quotation:

"Liberals will switch the emphasis in combating crime to prevention and rehabilitation. We will expand the police force and the probation service, improve pay and conditions to attract high quality recruits. To reduce the prison population, we will make greater use of alternatives to imprisonment; extend experiments in prison reform and remand procedure; improve after-care service, and appoint independent inspectors to visit prisons and investigate complaints".

Wait a minute, we already have independent inspectors: the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and his successor Dame Anne Owers. I am quoting from the 1964 Liberal manifesto for the very first election that I contested as a Liberal in West Flint against Mr Nigel Birch, and the principles that we enunciated in those days are just as relevant today.

In 2009, 65 per cent of Britain's prison population were serving sentences of less than 12 months' duration. Many of them were illiterate, a quarter were addicted to drugs or alcohol, and half were suffering from some form of mental illness. The system today is designed in such a way as to make it easier to commit another offence rather than to break the habit of a lifetime. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, referred to the tariff on mandatory sentences for murder. An immediate task for the new Justice Ministers in this Government is, in the name of fairness, to tackle the shame and disgrace of indeterminate sentences. I quote one of the conclusions of the thematic review by the inspectorates of prisons and probation in March this year:

"The current situation is not sustainable. IPP prisoners now constitute around one in fifteen of the total prison population. As of December 2009, only 75 IPP prisoners had been released and stayed out, while there were around 70 newly sentenced IPP prisoners every month entering prison. Of the 5,788 IPP prisoners in custody, 2,393 had passed their tariff date, i.e. the period announced by the judge as the due punishment for the offence".

The report called for a policy review at ministerial level and said that,

"these numbers far exceed the capacity of the probation service and the prison system ... and the Parole Board".

I recently defended a man of 58 years of age who was sentenced to an IPP for manslaughter with a tariff of nine years. "It is", he said, "a life sentence. I will never come out". He will never come out because of the way in which the system is organised today. These sentences have done immeasurable damage both to those imprisoned and to their relatives. It is Kafkaesque; despite trying to do everything that is asked of them, there is no way out.

The second task that I put to Justice Ministers is to review the effectiveness of the system of civil orders-ASBOs-that were adopted by the previous Government in an attempt to control behaviour. A report by the Metropolitan Police that was published on 13 May-a fortnight ago-shows that in London there are currently 1,261 ASBOs, and, in 2009, 1,127 arrests were recorded for their breach. These ASBOs do not work. Although trumpeted by the previous Government, there are no violent offender orders, although the Metropolitan Police have applied for one this year: the first in the United Kingdom. There is one risk of sexual harm order and one foreign travel order in the London area. The court charges £200 fees for sitting, and legal costs are considerable, but no overall cost has been calculated.

The feature of these orders is that they may be obtained under civil procedures, which include proof on a balance of probabilities that is based on hearsay evidence, which is usually no more than the report of an investigating police officer. Breach of the order is a criminal offence. Two youths may go into a pub. One is doing nothing wrong. The other is committing a criminal offence because he is in breach of a condition on his ASBO. These orders are a fundamental breach of the principles of fairness on which criminal law is based. Will the Ministers please consider whether they work and are effective? If not, let us get rid of the whole apparatus.

Similar considerations apply to dispersal orders under the 2001 Act. In 2007, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported:

"Dispersal orders convey stark messages about the status of young people in society and the way they are regarded by adults. They can reinforce a view of young people as a risk to others, obscuring the extent to which they are understood as at risk".

That is another feature at which I would like the noble Lord to look.

The third task-here I come to a matter raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, naturally enough as he was my tutor-is to reconsider the age of criminal responsibility, which was highlighted this week at the Old Bailey. The proposal to reduce that age to 10 years was put forward by the party opposite in the Crime and Disorder Bill. On 9 March 1998, an amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord McNally-the Minister today-was moved in his absence by my noble friend Lord Goodhart. All the usual suspects, including me, spoke in support of the amendment. But the most compelling contribution was this:

"What worries me is not what the intention was in the drafting of the Bill, but that the effect of this part of it plays to a social attitude which wants to pile all the blame onto the shoulders of the young child who is in court; that it fails to accept the collective social responsibility for the situation in which the child finds itself. The child may come from an environment of appalling schools, appalling housing; media which plays to sensationalism and violence and parents who had no chance to develop their sense of responsible parenthood in their education, upbringing and environment".-[Hansard, 19/3/98; col. 833.]

Everyone will recognise the tone and the passion of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and I am privileged to be speaking from the place where he normally, in the past 13 years, has addressed this House. I have also warned my noble friend Lord McNally that this is where the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, used to speak.

This is an opportunity for the Minister to put forward the amendment that was put then:

"Where a child aged 10 or over is accused of an offence, it shall be a defence for him to show on the balance of probabilities that he did not know his action was seriously wrong".

I invite him to return to his own amendment and to put it forward.

I should like to say a brief word on Wales, since the noble Lord, Lord Livsey of Talgarth, cannot be here today. The Queen's Speech promises to implement the recommendations of the Calman commission in Scotland, which gives them £200 million. Wales is seeking fairness-the implementation of the Holtham commission report on funding by the reform of the Barnett formula. We in Wales are being short-changed to the extent of £300 million per year on the basis of actual needs. The previous Government talked about it and did nothing. I look forward to an assurance from the Minister today that this Government are committed to equality as between the devolved nations.

In my adoption speech in that 1964 campaign, as reported in the Rhyl Journal, I called for a Parliament for Wales, proportional representation and the abolition of the hereditary principle in the House of Lords. We are nearly there.