Amendment 292P

Part of Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (11th Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 24th November 2021.

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Photo of Lord German Lord German Liberal Democrat 7:00 pm, 24th November 2021

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.