Amendment 292P

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (11th Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 24th November 2021.

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Lord Thomas of Gresford:

Moved by Lord Thomas of Gresford

292P: After Clause 170, insert the following new Clause—“Royal Commission on criminal sentencing(1) Within six months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must establish a Royal Commission to carry out a full review of criminal sentencing.(2) In particular the Commission must make recommendations on—(a) how to reduce the prison population;(b) how to reduce violence and overcrowding in prisons;(c) addressing the particular needs of young people in custody;(d) addressing the particular needs of women in custody;(e) how to ensure that sentencing for offences is focussed upon reform and rehabilitation of offenders and reducing reoffending;(f) how to reduce the over-representation of people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds in prison; (g) the imposition and management of non-custodial sentences; and(h) the abolition of some mandatory or minimum prison sentences.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would establish a Royal Commission to review criminal sentencing.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General

My Lords, I move this amendment in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, who regrettably cannot be with us today. In the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2019 election, there was a promise to set up a royal commission on the criminal justice system within the first year of government. Of course, that did not happen; instead, we have this enormous Bill, which covers police, crime, sentencing and courts, with bells and whistles attached. It is a great pity that the Government did not carry out their manifesto promise, which might have produced much better and more targeted reforms.

Although the United Kingdom already locks upmore of its people, and for longer, than any other country in Europe, the direction of the Bill is to criminalise more activity and to lengthen sentences. Meanwhile, the state of our prisons gets worse and worse. There are too many prisoners, too few experienced staff, too many drugs and too much violence.

I illustrate the problem by referring once again in this House to Berwyn prison, some three miles from my home in Wrexham, north Wales. It is the largest prison in this country and the second largest in Europe. It opened in 2017: a modern, big prison to house 2,200 prisoners, although, despite overcrowding throughout the prison estate, the inability to recruit prison officers in north Wales means that no one has ever succeeded in filling it with more than 1,750. Some 80% of the prison staff in Berwyn prison have under two years’ experience in the Prison Service, and the pool of labour in north Wales has been exhausted. Although sold as a prison for Welsh offenders, 70% of the prisoners come from England and the purpose that was so trumpeted—rehabilitation—has been lost.

Dr Robert Jones of Cardiff University carried out a survey in 2020 and found that prisoner attacks in the previous year had jumped by 143% to 561 and assaults on prison staff were up 25% to 257. Over the same period, assaults in all UK jails had actually fallen by 8%. In Berwyn prison, there were 39 incidents per 100 inmates, compared with three in 100 in the open prison at Prescoed in Usk. On average, five weapon discoveries were made every week and there was an 84% increase in incidence of self-harm. All this is set alongside a continuing drug problem which caused the former police commissioner for north Wales, Mr Arfon Jones of Plaid Cymru, to call last February for prisoners to be given cannabis to tackle addiction and curb violence. The judges in the Crown Courts in north Wales have expressed their alarm at the number of prison officers who come before them for smuggling drugs.

A royal commission on sentencing is needed. In March of last year, the Government allocated £3 million for the royal commission on criminal justice in their manifesto, so the money is secured. While such a commission lacks statutory powers to summon witnesses and papers, it has prestige, which leads to change. I well remember the Kilbrandon royal commission, perhaps the last big one that we had. This was the Royal Commission on the Constitution, to which I gave evidence in 1973. Dr Gary Wilson of Liverpool John Moores University wrote of it, in 2017, to show its influence:

“Its report gave the first significant consideration to the case for devolution and advanced proposals which do not diverge radically in the most part from the devolution settlement eventually implemented in 1998.”

He said that it should be remembered

“for its importance in helping to get the ball rolling with the development of the devolution agenda in the 1970s which to some extent paved the way for the eventual successful introduction of Scottish and Welsh devolution”.

That is the effect of a royal commission: it calls for evidence from individuals and organisations, within and outside government, and produces a report. It is not tied to the policy of any political party. It may also undertake its own programme of research. The evidence is heard in public, and transcripts of oral and written evidence that it receives are published. Royal commissions address high-profile social concerns, issues that may be controversial or matters of national importance. They have been used, for example, to advance divorce law, police powers and procedures, the regulation of the press and even capital punishment.

Noble Lords will observe that Amendment 292P covers how to reduce the prison population and how to reduce violence and overcrowding in prisons; addresses the particular needs of young people and women in custody; seeks to find out how to ensure that sentencing for offences is focused on the reform and rehabilitation of offenders and on reducing reoffending—which we all talk about when we talk about penal policy but nothing happens; how to reduce the overrepresentation of people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds in prison; the imposition and management of non-custodial sentences; and, lastly, the abolition of some mandatory or minimum prison sentences.

On that last point, the sentence inflation in my professional life has been incredible. That inflation springs from Parliament and the way that this place works. When judges see sentences being doubled, they feel they have to respond and put up the sentences accordingly. However, I maintain that a long and objective look at how we deal with offenders, free of rhetoric and populism, is essential for the safety and security of the people of this country. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Advocate-General for Scotland 6:45 pm, 24th November 2021

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, for moving this amendment. I had not realised, until he mentioned it, his own critical role in the constitution of the UK as it is now through the evidence that he gave to the Kilbrandon royal commission, rightly described as important. Now we know where to look when we see problems in relation to the constitution.

I wholeheartedly agree with the underlying point that drives the way the noble Lord put his case. The criminal justice system is in a terrible mess. He described the position of the prison system, which is also a terrible mess and is not delivering on its aims, particularly to protect the public from crime and reoffending. However, it does not just go to imprisonment; the whole range of sentencing is now in a terrible mess. It goes even beyond that, to the way that the criminal justice system operates in terms of both its procedures and its effectiveness. Surely the time has come for a long hard look to be taken at the criminal justice system.

This is not remotely a criticism of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, because a royal commission is a worthwhile thing, but I can imagine no more profound exercise in futility than a royal commission promoted by your Lordships’ House, moved by the marvellous noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and the wonderful noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames. Can your Lordships imagine this Government —the Government who approximately an hour and a half ago wagged their finger at us and told us we had to finish the consideration of this Bill by the end of tonight, no matter what time it ended—listening to a royal commission’s proposal for an objective look at sentencing? My own judgment is that, sadly, although the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, makes a very powerful point, the same finger of this Government would be waved at the royal commission and no attention would be paid to it. I share the noble Lord’s feeling and analysis but I fear that, because of the nature of this Government, it would be a waste of time.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee)

May I add a more hopeful note? It has been wonderful to see this Government bring forward Professor Ormerod’s work on the Sentencing Code and bring it on to the statute book, and in this Bill—this is a good point—the code is being amended rather than there being any new proliferation of legislation. So one ought to say thank you for that.

However, the Sentencing Code shows the problem. I do not know how often the Minister looks at it but it is a fiendishly complicated set of sentences that we have accumulated over the years. Although we have seen a lot of criticism of the 2003 Act, I would say in its defence that an awful lot of thought was given to it. It may not have been quite right, and there was one area which has gone badly wrong. As I complimented one side, I now compliment the other: when we looked at the 2012 reforms to sentencing, a huge amount of thought went into that. A lot of sentences that were thought to be apposite were brought forward or modified, but at least there was some thinking.

We have now reached a stage where we need—on, I hope a nonpartisan basis—to think again. Is it too complicated? The answer must be yes. Have we got the sentencing regime right in terms of its outcomes and, equally importantly, its cost and whether the money can be spent better? There can be no better mechanism for that than a royal commission. I would hope that the initial thoughts of those who drafted the manifesto could be taken forward, at least in that respect. I would hope, though maybe I am being optimistic, that when it was all laid out what an awful state our sentencing regime is in, logic would prevail and we would see some reform. However, that is just an expression of hope by a person who is not a politician.

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I support the amendment. My support goes back to the time when I served as chairman of the Justice Committee in the House of Commons. I became utterly convinced that the absence of a coherent strategy or policy for the use of custody and other disposals was extremely damaging and distorted the use of resources in the criminal justice system to an amazing extent, leading to unsatisfactory outcomes in reducing reoffending and many other respects.

If I had not been so convinced, even during the passage of this Bill we have seen further examples of an incoherent approach to sentencing. In the course of the Bill, it was announced in the press, but by a Minister, that there would be a mandatory life sentence for the manslaughter of emergency workers. The Daily Mail reports today that that provision will be included in the Bill, although it is not clear to me how that can be accomplished—it is not even in the government amendments tabled for today—but that would be a very significant change.

We are also told that the Government intend to provide for an offence of the theft of a pet animal with a sentence of up to five years’ imprisonment. So you could get up to five years for stealing your neighbour’s cat by putting out a dish of milk and some bread because the cat seems a little underfed because your neighbours do not look after it as well as you think you would. It is absurd that we should get into that situation of sentence inflation—and there will be sentence inflation, as my noble friend referred to, because then you have arguments where legitimate organisations come to us and say, “There should be at least seven years for this offence because you get five years for stealing your neighbour’s cat.” That is how the parliamentary and political side of sentence inflation works. My noble friend has pointed to how it influences the judiciary as well, when minimum sentences cast—I was going to say “a shadow” but, rather, a particular colour of light on decisions about offences that fall short of the maximum sentence.

The reason I think a royal commission would be appropriate—notwithstanding the belief of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, that no one in government would take any notice of what it said, whoever had appointed it—is that there are different kinds of issue that need to be considered. Some are philosophical issues and issues of principle while others are practical, but they all affect sentencing and all lead to the misuse of custody, either in its extent or, in some cases, in its use at all, when other disposals could be more effective in preventing crime and dealing with offenders.

One reason we get in such a mess over sentencing is that sentencing to custody is used as the main sign of disapproval of criminal behaviour. This is independent of any argument about its potential deterrent effect, which is almost invariably exaggerated beyond any reality. People look to the length of the prison sentence that can be given for something as a way of setting out how much society disapproves of that thing. Society needs to have ways of showing its disapproval of things but using custody inappropriately and expensively is not necessarily a particularly good way of doing so. It has very serious and damaging consequences. A royal commission needs to look at the whole issue of how society communicates its disapproval and whether that has to be by length of custody, rather than by some other means. It is quite clear that the politics of this is that Ministers start to believe that if society wants to show how bad it thinks something is then they as Ministers must introduce longer prison sentences for it. They fall into the same trap themselves.

I now mention a different kind of problem—I am simply giving two examples in what will be a brief contribution to this debate. I have given an example of principle and philosophy, but the other issue that strikes me forcibly is that the use of custody is influenced by it being, in effect, the default option. If a court sentences someone to custody, a van will appear and take the sentenced person away, and a place will be found somewhere in the prison or youth custody system. If what the court considers to be a better alternative is available, then the court may have regard to it, but the court must establish that the alternative is indeed available in that locality and in a form that meets the needs of the offender and is likely to have the right influence on the offender, turning them away from their criminal behaviour.

The resourcing of the two systems is of course quite different. The sort of disposal that might turn someone away from crime without using custody depends on a series of local agencies. Attempts have been made in recent years—very welcome attempts—to bring these agencies together, so that they can plan together. But the resources for custody are quite separate; they come out of central government. That has unreasonably influenced in favour of the use of custody because it has an availability that does not apply to some of the alternative disposals.

There are philosophical and practical questions that need to be carefully considered outside the heated atmosphere of the Commons and the atmosphere in this place when we are reduced to debating these things in far too short a time. I strongly support my noble friend’s amendment; we have to move in this direction somehow, and soon.

Photo of Lord Berkeley of Knighton Lord Berkeley of Knighton Crossbench 7:00 pm, 24th November 2021

My Lords, I fear that I am going to venture still further on to the shores of Utopia. Having listened to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, and indeed earlier amendments, and recalling my days, many years ago, working in a hospital and then for the Koestler Trust—which takes art into prisons—I could not help thinking of how both in hospital and in prison, and for police officers, huge time is taken up dealing with people who should simply not be there. This has been said a lot, and it will go on being said.

My Utopian contribution to this debate is that, really, we need another agency to deal with people who are mentally ill, thus taking time off the work of the police, who are often tied up for hours trying to sort out what to do with somebody who is mentally ill. Think of the doctors and nurses in A&E who are constantly dealing with mentally ill people and people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and also of the prison officers who are trying to deal with similarly afflicted people. My feeling is that maybe, one day, it will happen. It probably is Utopian, but we need a third agency to take the stress off police officers, prison officers and those working in the National Health Service.

Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench

My Lords, I support Amendment 292P, so ably introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, bleakly pointed out, the history of royal commissions under this Government is not particularly promising, which will not give much hope to the mover.

In the 2019 Queen’s Speech, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, said, it was announced that there was to be a royal commission on the criminal justice system, towards the cost of which £3 million was made available. But it has yet to materialise, as the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, can testify, because I regularly ask questions about the discourtesy to Her Majesty the Queen of asking her to announce something that the Government had no intention of implementing, judging by their continued failure to announce either its terms of reference or the name of its chairman.

I say this in the certain knowledge that the Minister will ask for this amendment to be withdrawn, as different Ministers have throughout Committee on this Bill, notwithstanding the obvious degree of consensus throughout the House in favour of one amendment after another.

Photo of Lord German Lord German Liberal Democrat

My Lords, this has been an interesting debate, and it is so interesting to see such support around all parts of the House. I pay particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and his dogged determination to find out what happened to the royal commission that the Queen announced and that the Government have put on ice. We will talk about that perhaps a little later.

In thanking all those who have contributed, my only other comment goes to the nay-saying of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, whose argument is that there is no point in having it because we are fearful of the Government. I believe that politicians need to be strong, and I think that, in this instance, there is a case for us all together being strong in our determination. If we can do that then we can carry this forward.

The Bill does not simplify or streamline the process of sentencing. It adds to the piecemeal and confusing history of sentencing legislation—of which, perversely, the Government themselves are most critical—and guarantees the continuation of general sentence inflation, which has stretched our prison and probation services to the limit. Several of the proposals in this Bill have been inspired by exceptional individual cases, but law made on the basis of reacting to exceptional cases has contributed to the piecemeal approach to sentencing for many years. It is time to step back and rethink in a rational way. I suspect that, later this evening, we will be confronted with exceptional casework.

Over the last two decades, the nature of the prison population has changed considerably, precisely because Parliament has increased the severity of sentencing. The Prison Reform Trust estimates that sentencing changes alone have added around 16,000 people to the prison population since 2003. The Government’s own figures show that average sentence lengths are now over two years longer than they were in 2007. We are now faced with an increase in the prison population, giving rise to more self-harm, violence and overcrowding, and for an increase in family breakdown, which in turn affects prisoner mental health and the risk of increased reoffending. There are, of course, some good things in this Bill, but the pendulum has swung to the retributive side away from the rehabilitation side of our justice system. The balance between these two has been further eroded.

In practice, all Governments since 1990 have produced laws which seek to change the way in which we punish offenders. Being “tough on crime” has always been delivered but only rarely has being “tough on the causes of crime” been delivered. If this Bill does not achieve the balance between these two phrases, we certainly need a fresh look at what needs to be done. It is absolutely right to ask this question, one I think the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, was hinting at: how can the Sentencing Council be expected to advise on the right period for retribution between different categories of crime, when the punitive part of different sentences has changed so dramatically?

The Government have told us that the reason for this legislation is that current sentencing policy is complex, ineffectual, difficult to understand, insufficiently focused on public safety, and guilty of tying the discretion of judges. Those are all taken from government statements. I agree with these characterisations—so does the evidence stand up that this Bill will turn these factors round? Will it make sentencing simple, effective and easy to understand? Will it have a focus on public safety, and untie the hands of judges to increase their judicial discretion? If not—and I shall demonstrate why not in a moment—we most certainly need an independent inquiry into our sentencing policy. We need to understand the elements which would provide the legal and moral principles to underpin the sentencing regime.

Does this Bill meet the Government’s own ambitions? I hope the Minister will answer these questions. Does it reduce complexity? It is quite obvious to me from sitting through this Committee and seeing the Bill’s progress through this House that that is a big no—it has actually made it more complex, not less. Will it ensure effectiveness? The Bill dwells on public protection and reconviction; it does not dwell on whether sentencing policy can best deliver improvement in public protection and reconviction matters. That is the bit that is missing.

Will it make sentencing easier to understand? The additional complexity introduced by this Bill means that it will be less, not more, likely that this ambition will be met. Will it improve public safety? Longer sentences may do so, but the regime does little to ensure that the levels of reconviction are reduced.

The last test that it sets for itself is whether it is going to increase the judicial discretion of our judges. That is probably one of the most surprising ambitions that I have heard about this Bill. The Government are anxious to make one of the key aims of their policy to remove judicial discretion in relation to repeat offences. Added to this are the prescriptive sentences proposed in this Bill. Mandatory minimum sentences are a distortion to the sentencing process, as the Bar Council states, because they

“fetter a judge’s discretion to impose a sentence that is commensurate to the offence”.

Alongside that, of course, we need better data; the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, moved an amendment to get better data. We need to understand the effectiveness of rehabilitation activity, and to do that we need data—this in turn will have an effect on the sentences handed down by the courts. This is a key area for the proposed royal commission. It will also need to examine a policy of having a sentencing policy based on the evidence of danger and harm—for example, a crime/harm index of the kind used in Canada.

This amendment provides an opportunity for a detailed look at our whole sentencing policy, set apart from the political maelstrom so amply exampled by my noble friend Lord Beith, a maelstrom of which we are all a part. Set apart from us, it can make recommendations for a coherent policy underpinned by a sound philosophical base.

The Government will tell us that they already have a proposal for a royal commission but, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said, it has been put on ice. There are no terms of reference and, although it has appointed staff, they have been seconded to other duties, and there is no timescale for its reappearance. Given that we were only given 12 months for it to be announced, clearly we are out of time.

When this proposal was first announced, the then Lord Chief Justice said that the royal commission, as foreshadowed in the Conservative manifesto, was a royal commission into the criminal process, so it is not a general royal commission into the criminal justice system. Even if the Minister were to unfreeze today the Government’s proposed royal commission, it would not address in full the issues laid out by my noble friend Lord Thomas and outlined in this amendment. I look forward to some clarity on this matter when the Minister replies.

The last royal commission on the justice system, the Runciman commission, was established in 1991 and reported in 1993. Over the last 30 years, much has changed in the justice system. We need a root and branch review. This amendment puts the need for a deeper understanding of our sentencing policy, the factors which influence it and the consequences which result from it firmly back on the agenda, and I commend it.

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland 7:15 pm, 24th November 2021

My Lords, just at the very moment when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, was admonishing the Government for wagging their finger at this Committee of your Lordships’ House for seeking to impose upon it that it should finish this evening, a message popped up on my phone saying that there is to be no dinner break tonight. Lest that be taken as a sign of this Government’s authoritarian tendencies in action, I assure the Committee that I am told that that has been agreed via the usual channels.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, for introducing this interesting debate and all noble Lords for their contributions. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and the noble Lord, Lord German, addressed themselves to the fiendishly complex nature of sentencing. As is appreciated across the House, I think, the business of sentencing is in many respects a collaborative project, involving not only this Parliament but the Bench as well as the profession. On the topic of sentence inflation, referred to again by the noble Lord, Lord German, as well as by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, I have noted at least in the neighbouring jurisdiction that, as we monitor or study sentencing patterns, we see that, as some sentences over time appear to have extended, sentences in other areas appear to have diminished. I go back to the notion that it is not simply Parliament that sets these trends but the judges independently of Parliament—albeit I accept the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, that there must necessarily be some degree of influence on the Bench coming from this place and the devolved Administrations.

In his thoughtful contribution, the noble Lord, Lord Beith, described an incoherent approach, and made the point that there was too much emphasis on the retribution side of sentencing as opposed to the rehabilitative. In that regard, I note that the principles of sentencing as set out in statute are fivefold; as well as rehabilitation and the reduction of crime, they also include punishment, reparation and public protection.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, setting sail for Utopia, in a compassionate contribution, proposed or floated before your Lordships the possibility of an additional service dealing with the mentally ill, whose difficulties, problems and tortures are so often seen by the medical profession, hospital staff and the emergency services. I regret that I am not in a position to address that thoughtful contribution tonight. Perhaps a royal commission is needed.

A noble Lord:

Hear, hear!

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

The noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham and Lord German, also referred the Committee to the lack of progress on the royal commission on criminal justice. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, chided the Government for having been discourteous to Her Majesty by having her make in this place a commitment on behalf of the Government which the Government had no intention of fulfilling. As I understand it, with the onset of the Covid pandemic and with resources being limited, a decision was taken to slow the work in that regard. There certainly has been no departure from the manifesto commitment.

Photo of Lord German Lord German Liberal Democrat

In answer to a question—I cannot remember whether it was asked by me or by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham—I was told that all the staff who had been allocated to the royal commission had been reallocated to other duties. Rather than slowing it down, it has been stopped, surely.

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

The noble Lord makes a useful point. I did not have the fact, to which he referred your Lordships’ Committee, that all staff had been reallocated, but, as I do not have that fact, with the noble Lord’s leave, I will make inquiries and commit myself or my colleagues to write to him.

I commend the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, for his commitment in relation to these important and difficult issues, expressed today as they have been on many other occasions in the past, but I offer the Committee the assurance that the Government are already pursuing a range of programmes and reforms in these areas and therefore consider a royal commission unnecessary.

A sentencing White Paper published last year set out the Government’s proposals for reform of the sentencing and release framework. Work is under way on the non-legislative commitments made there, and legislative proposals are being delivered by the body of the Bill. The White Paper was clear that the most serious sexual and violent offenders should serve sentences that reflect the severity of their offending behaviour—that, of course, is nothing more than the object of all sentencing exercises.

In answer to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord German, about minimum sentences, we consider that there is room for minimum sentences in the overall statutory framework. I note that proposed new subsection (2)(h) acknowledges this, in that it seeks to review

“some mandatory or minimum prison sentences” but not the overall principle by which Parliament dictates that some sentences will be mandatory. Minimum sentences have a place in the sentencing framework, particularly to deal with persistent behaviour that blights communities. These sentences are not technically mandatory; they are a mandatory consideration that the court must make before passing a sentence, and it is important to note that the court retains the discretion to ensure that individual sentences are commensurate with the seriousness of the offence. Clearly, there are appellate procedures relating to sentences which do not adequately reflect the seriousness of the offence.

However, the White Paper also makes it clear that properly robust, effective and trusted community-based sentencing options are equally as vital to protecting the public and to supporting confidence across the system and are a way of breaking a cycle of reoffending, which often will lie with these community solutions. It sets out a number of community sentencing measures to support rehabilitation, and it is made clear that this was a fundamental aim of its more targeted approach to sentencing, diverting low-level offenders away from criminality, whether this be with treatment for mental health issues, drug or alcohol misuse, more effective use of electronic monitoring, or problem-solving approaches to address offending behaviour. This work will also be supported by our recent reform of probation services, bringing together the management of offenders of all levels of risk into one organisation and delivering a stronger, more stable probation system that will reduce reoffending, support victims of crime and help keep the public safe, while helping offenders make positive changes to their lives.

The royal commission that the amendment sets out would look to address the particular needs of young people and women in custody. I again recognise the noble Lord’s laudable intention with regard to these cohorts of offender, and I commend him for this. I reassure the Committee that we are already taking action to support these vulnerable offender groups.

The youth justice sentencing framework already makes it clear that custody should be used as a last resort for children, and measures in this Bill make more rigorous community sentences available with the intention that those sentencing should have more confidence to give community- rather than custody-based disposals, where appropriate. We are also continuing to reform youth custody so that children are safer and better able to lead positive, constructive lives on their release from the penal system.

The aims of our female offender strategy are to have fewer women coming into the criminal justice system and fewer women in custody, with more female offenders managed in the community and better conditions for those in custody supporting effective rehabilitation. Publication of the strategy was the start of a new and significant programme of work intended to deliver better outcomes for female offenders, and we are making good progress.

The noble Lord’s amendment also seeks to address the overrepresentation of ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system. The Government recognise that this is a deep-rooted issue and that the reasons behind these disparities in the representation of different ethnic groups in prison are complex. We have a broad programme, intended to draw together the wide discourse on disparities, such as the findings of the Lammy review, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report and the inspectorate’s race-thematic reports. We are clear that we wish address race disparity wherever it appears.

Finally, as to the state of prisons, illustrated by the noble Lord by reference to the Berwyn prison but intended generally, the royal commission proposed would also make recommendations to reduce the prison population, overcrowding and prison violence. In one of the largest prison-build programmes since the Victorian era, we are delivering an additional 20,000 prison places by the middle of this decade through the use of around £4 billion of funding. We will continue to monitor the need for prison places over the coming years to ensure that there is capacity to meet demand.

In relation to the important matter of prison violence, to which the noble Lord made reference, we have increased staffing levels in prisons and are improving how staff identify and manage the risk of violence. We will continue to deliver our £100 million investment in security to reduce crime in prison, seeking to clamp down on the weapons, drugs and phones that fuel prison violence.

In July, we also announced our intention to publish a prisons White Paper. It will set out our ambitions for prisons, considering information learned during the pandemic and setting out a longer-term vision for a prison system that fulfils its objectives of being safe and secure and cutting crime.

I regret that the specific matters of recruitment of prison staff to which the noble Lord referred are outwith my ability to answer at this stage. However, as with other noble Lords, if he will permit, I will have the relevant department write to him on the topic. I hope that the Committee is assured of the Government’s work and commitment on these areas. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General 7:30 pm, 24th November 2021

My Lords, I first acknowledge my place in devolution history. For the purposes of the footnote in that history, I should say that the place where I gave my evidence was, as I recall, the Grand Hotel on the front in Llandudno.

The noble and learned Lord asks whether they would listen. That is really the purpose of this amendment: a royal commission is and should be listened to. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, said, there must be thinking about sentencing—thought must be given to the policy that the Government are pursuing. I listened to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart, and I do not doubt that his Government are pursuing these various courses, policies and whatever he is talking about, but they are failing. He said that they are building capacity to meet demand, but who is demanding? I can tell him that people in north Wales are not demanding to go to the sort of prisons that exist, with their dreadful conditions.

As I understood it, the noble and learned Lord conceded the need for a royal commission to meet the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, on his utopian idea that there should be a separate agency for the mentally ill. We can pursue that idea in all sorts of ways.

My noble friend Lord Beith referred to the most recent offence to be created—stealing a cat, for which you get five years. But he got it wrong. It is not stealing, because you do not have to prove an intent permanently to deprive; all you have to do is show TWOC—taking away the cat without the consent of the owner. Do not give Tiddles from next door some milk without telling your neighbour, or you might get five years for it.

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat

I remind my noble friend that it is worse than that. All you have to do is induce the animal to accompany you.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General

All those people yearning for a cat now know where they stand with this Government.

I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. For decades we have listened to him in this House with great attention on all these subjects. He has been a beacon in the attempt to reform prisons, with his great knowledge in having been Chief Inspector of Prisons over that period. I am grateful for his support for this amendment.

My noble friend Lord German pointed to the way in which sentencing has inflated over the years. I know from personal experience—from the other side of the Bar, not in the dock—that that has happened and continues to happen.

The Minister said two contradictory things: that there is no departure from the manifesto commitment for a royal commission and that the Government are already pursuing these ideas, so a royal commission is unnecessary. It is still their manifesto commitment, but they think that it is unnecessary. With these ideas being pursued in some secret corner of Whitehall, are there public hearings? Is there a call for expert evidence? Is there a publication of the results? It is not the same thing as a royal commission at all; it is simply the Government squirrelling away in the background, trying to make the best they can of the resources they will put to it. What we need is this royal commission acting not for any political reason but trying to put a real problem right. I will return to this matter, while asking to withdraw the amendment, when we get to Report.

Amendment 292P withdrawn.