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.