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 McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 9:31 pm, 20th March 2012

My Lords, a concern expressed by some noble Lords in Committee seemed to be that the new mandatory life sentence would be pointless-a word that the noble and learned Lord used several times-because courts will not have to apply it if it would be unjust to do so. It is right to say that the court will retain a discretion not to impose the new mandatory life sentence when the particular circumstances of the offence or the offender would make it unjust to do so. But that is very far indeed from meaning that the sentence is pointless. Save for murder, all mandatory sentence requirements on the statute book contain an exception of this kind. It is done so that mandatory sentence requirements will be compatible with human rights, and to prevent arbitrary sentencing, which cannot take any account of specific and individual circumstances. It is clearly not a permission or excuse for the court to do away with the mandatory sentence requirement. We expect that in the majority of cases the exception will not be engaged at all.

Last summer we made a commitment to introduce a tougher determinate sentencing regime to replace IPPs. A key element of that regime is mandatory life sentences for the most serious repeat offenders. The mandatory sentence requirement in Clause 117 will ensure that the worst repeat sexual and violent offenders receive a life sentence.

Amendment 157 would remove Clause 134, a new knife offence, from the Bill. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, argued in Committee that the two new offences in Clause 134 are adequately covered by existing legislation and that, therefore, there is no reason for creating them. It is true that unlawful possession of a knife or offensive weapon is already a serious criminal offence which carries a maximum custodial sentence of four years. The intention of Clause 134 is to strengthen this existing legislative framework by targeting behaviour that amounts to more than simple possession but does not go so far as resulting in injury to the victim. The new offence will complement the existing offences of possession, which deal with those who carry offensive weapons or bladed or pointed articles in public places or schools without lawful authority, or reasonable excuse or good reason. It will do so by targeting behaviour that goes beyond possession, specifically targeting instances where an individual brandishes a knife or weapon, threatening another and placing them at immediate risk of serious physical harm. We want to send a strong message that this type of behaviour will not be tolerated. The minimum sentence attached to the new offence drives home the point that this kind of behaviour is extremely serious, even if it does not carry through into causing actual physical harm. Indeed, threatening people and placing them in fear of serious physical harm is serious enough that people should expect to face custody if they act in this way.

I know that the noble and learned Lord is particularly concerned about the minimum sentence for 16 and 17 year-olds contained in the new offences. I understand his concern, but in the other place my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor made it clear at Third Reading that the Government had listened carefully to the arguments made in support of extending a minimum custodial sentence to all those under 18. The Government had then decided, on balance, that it would be appropriate to extend the minimum sentence to the narrower group of 16 and 17 year-olds who commit these offences. The Government have not made the decision to create these offences lightly, but consider it appropriate to have minimum sentences set out in legislation when a particular offence demands a firm and unequivocal response.

The Government cannot accept this amendment. To do so would undermine the strong message sent by this clause. We need this to complement the much wider range of initiatives we have in place to address problems posed by people who unlawfully carry or use knives in our communities. We believe that, in respect of 16 and 17 year-olds, Clause 134 strikes the right balance. I urge the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment, and that this clause and Clause 134 should remain in the Bill.