Report (5th Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 9:31 pm on 20th March 2012.

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Photo of Lord Lloyd of Berwick Lord Lloyd of Berwick Chair, Ecclesiastical Committee (Joint Committee) 9:31 pm, 20th March 2012

As the House will remember, Clause 117 provides that if a person has been convicted of a listed offence for which he has been sentenced to 10 years or more and then commits a further offence for which he might expect at least a 10-year sentence in prison, then he "must" be sentenced to life imprisonment unless it would be unjust to do so.

I described this clause in Committee as being pointless and indeed it is, but I now suggest that it is worse than pointless. In Committee, the Minister described the clause as introducing a new mandatory life sentence, and he placed particular emphasis on "mandatory" to show, no doubt, that the Government in this respect are being tough on crime. But a mandatory sentence is one that the court is obliged to pass, like the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment for murder. This clause is quite different from that.

Despite the use of "must", the clause recognises that the judge will in fact pass the sentence which, in the particular circumstances, he believes to be the just sentence. That is exactly what judges always do when sentencing. Why then do the Government persist in calling it a mandatory sentence? It cannot surely be in order to create some sort of presumption that a life sentence should be passed. How would the judge begin to know what weight to give to such a presumption? Calling it a mandatory life sentence and the use of "must" in the light of the judge's ability to pass the sentence he believes to be just is simply a contradiction in terms. To create contradictions in terms in all legislation is a mistake, particularly in legislation of a criminal kind which has to be interpreted by the courts. What the clause could have said was that the court "may" pass a life sentence in these circumstances. That would at least serve some purpose because it would cover those rare cases where the second offence does not carry with it a life sentence as its maximum. As it is, the clause is not only pointless for the reasons I have gone into but it is also ambiguous.

I have one other point. Do we want to create more life sentences? I look round to see if the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, is here and I do not thinks she is, so I will make the points which I know she would have made. She quoted what are on any view some very surprising figures that we have in England and Wales 7,663 persons serving life sentences. The figures, which have been provided by the Council of Europe, show that, whereas we have 12 lifers for 100,000 members of the population, for France the proportion is 0.85 per cent, for Germany it is 2.4 per cent, for the Netherlands it is 0.14 per cent, and for Sweden it is just over 1 per cent. The conclusion from these figures is inevitable. We have far too many prisoners serving life sentences when a long determinate sentence would do just as well. As for deterrence, it is very fanciful to suppose that a prisoner having served 10 years already would be deterred by the prospect of a life sentence rather than a long deterrent sentence and decide thereafter to go straight.

As for Amendment 157, we have a new Clause 134 which creates an offence of threatening with a knife. It too carries a mandatory sentence and, as such, suffers from all the defects which I have already mentioned in the earlier debate. It is even more pointless for the reason that we already have an offence of carrying a knife in a public place under the Criminal Justice Act 1988. It carries a maximum sentence of four years. In 2003 the Court of Appeal issued guidelines in which it said that if the knife was used to threaten, then the sentence should be towards the upper end of the scale. What, then, can be the purpose of now creating a new offence of threatening with a knife, carrying the same maximum sentence of four years? Clause 134 is exactly covered by the existing legislation. Its only purpose I can see is, as I have said before, to give the impression that the Government are doing something about knife crime. If they think that, then they deceive themselves. The only way to do anything about knife crime, as I mentioned in Committee, is to do what has been done in Glasgow and that is to get in among the gangs who use these knives. There, knife crime has been reduced by an astonishing 82 per cent. That is the way to reduce knife crime, not cluttering up the statute book with unnecessary provisions such as this. I beg to move.