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Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:32 pm on 21st October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Dholakia Lord Dholakia Co-Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat Peers 4:32 pm, 21st October 2019

My Lords, I am delighted to respond to Her Majesty’s gracious Speech. Almost all the major Bills announced have been trailed from the time Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. I have no doubt that this announcement, disguised as the gracious Speech, will form the Conservative manifesto at the next election.

The Speech contains announcements which I welcome: for example, on bringing forward legislation on domestic violence and improving the treatment of victims of crime by the criminal justice system. Regrettably, however, these sensible measures have been overshadowed by the Government’s determination to project a macho, harsh image towards criminals by yet again increasing the severity of sentencing.

The problems in our prisons are well known and they have been debated many times in this House. This country has the highest rate of imprisonment in western Europe. There are 139 prisoners per 100,000 population in England and Wales, and 150 per 100,000 population in Scotland, compared with 104 per 100,000 in France and 77 in Germany. The severity of our sentencing has greatly increased. Last year, the average sentence for an indictable offence was 58 months—or just under five years. This is more than two years longer than the average sentence 12 years previously in 2006, when it was just under three years.

As a direct result of our high use of imprisonment, the state of many of our prisons is a national disgrace. In his annual report for 2018-19, the Chief Inspector of Prisons said that,

“far too many of our jails have been plagued by drugs, violence, appalling living conditions and a lack of access to meaningful rehabilitative activity”.

Prisoners and staff now feel less safe than they have at any point since records began. The number of deaths in prison has almost doubled in the past decade. Rates of self-harm by prisoners are the highest ever recorded. Assaults in prisons are also at the highest level ever recorded. The number of recorded sexual assaults in prison has quadrupled since 2012. Assaults on staff have tripled in the past five years.

Yet the Government now propose sentencing changes which will send even more people into already overcrowded and struggling prisons. They propose to increase the proportion of sentences to be served by violent and sexual offenders before they are released on licence from one half to two-thirds of their sentence. When those prisoners are released, the length of time for which they will then be supervised on licence will be less than it is now, despite the strong evidence that such supervision greatly reduces the likelihood of further offending.

It is perfectly obvious that the motivation behind that is to enable the Government to adopt a tough-looking stance in a forthcoming general election. When judges conclude that an offender is dangerous, they already have the power to pass an extended sentence. When they do so, the offender serves two-thirds of their sentence in custody, followed by an extended period of supervision in the community, so it is difficult to see what benefits the new proposals will have for public safety. The Government also propose to increase the minimum periods which life sentence prisoners must serve by changing the way in which tariffs are calculated and increasing the number of offences for which prisoners receive whole life tariffs.

These changes also do nothing to increase the safety of the public. Life sentence prisoners who have served their minimum term are released only after a careful review of their case by the Parole Board, which must be satisfied that their risk is minimal before they can be released on licence. The proportion of offenders released on parole who commit a further serious offence is less than 1%, so it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the changes are simply a grandstanding gesture. The result of that grandstanding will be felt on every landing in every prison in this country. It will be felt by prisoners and by hard-pressed prison staff, who are struggling to cope in an overstretched and underresourced prison system. What is the Government’s estimate of the increase in the prison population which will result from their proposals on sentencing?

These changes will do little, if anything, to reduce crime. International surveys, including a thorough international survey by our National Audit Office in 2012, have shown that there is no connection between the level of imprisonment in a country and its crime rate. Rates of crime depend on a wide range of factors in society, including rates of employment, the extent of drug and alcohol misuse, levels of family breakdown, income inequality, mental health provision and the way in which a society supports its most vulnerable and marginalised members. In comparison with those factors, sentencing has only a marginal effect.

The best way to combat crime would be a strategy to reduce the use of prison, increase the use of community sentences, which are less expensive and more effective, and increase the resources devoted to social measures which can prevent or reduce crime. It is regrettable that the Government have abandoned sensible proposals floated by previous Secretaries of State for Justice which could have offset some of the damage which will result from the new sentencing proposals.

Until recently, the Government were canvassing the idea of introducing a presumption against short sentences.