Moved by Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
71: Clause 102, page 88, line 20, leave out “there are exceptional” and insert “such a sentence would be contrary to the interests of justice having regard to”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment, along with Lord Marks’ amendment to page 88, line 23, would remove the requirement for the circumstances to be exceptional before a judge was empowered to decline to impose the minimum sentence (for offences of threatening with weapon or bladed article) and would entitle the judge to do so where in the circumstances the judge concluded that such a sentence would be contrary to the interests of justice.
My Lords, of the amendments in this group, Amendments 71 to 78, to which I speak now, replicate the amendments I spoke to in Committee, which were also in my name and the name of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, whom I thank for adding his support to them. Noble Lords will remember that in Committee we had significant and powerful support across the Chamber, including from noble and learned Lords and two former Lord Chief Justices, among them the noble and learned Lords, Lord Thomas and Lord Judge.
These amendments raise an important point of principle concerning judicial discretion. The proposed provisions in Clause 102 impose mandatory minimum sentences and permit judges to depart from those mandatory minima only in “exceptional circumstances”. That amounts to a serious attack on judicial discretion in sentencing and is likely in many cases to give rise to significant injustice. That is true for all four of the minimum sentences proposed: six months in custody for adults threatening with a weapon or bladed article, and four months for 16 and 17 year-olds; seven years for a third class A drug trafficking offence; three years for a third domestic burglary; and six months, or four months for 16 and 17 year-olds, for a repeat offence of carrying an offensive weapon or possessing a bladed or pointed article in a public place or on educational premises.
I am grateful to the Minister for considering our arguments on this topic and for meeting me to discuss them. However, my understanding is that he is likely to maintain the position he took in Committee. He is likely to argue that the judge’s power to depart from the minimum sentences if they find they are exceptional circumstances allows a judge some latitude. Yet he maintains the position that “exceptional circumstances” is a phrase well known to the law as a threshold and should not be changed.
The reality is that the phrase “exceptional circumstances” allows a judge very limited latitude indeed. It is true that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, with his long experience as a magistrate, has said that magistrates’ courts are in the habit of treating the requirement for “exceptional circumstances” with a degree of flexibility. Perhaps that is true of exceptional hardship in relation to disqualifying people for acquiring 12 points on their driving licences. However, the reality is that, properly applied and precisely because this is a threshold phrase well known to the law, as the Minister says, the requirement for exceptional circumstances is far more rigid and far stricter than that experience of magistrates’ courts would imply. Courts have regularly held the phrase to mean that the circumstances must be completely out of the ordinary for exceptional circumstances to be found. Indeed, it is patently obvious that that is the reasoning behind the proposed provisions in Clause 102. The Government are concerned to ensure that more severe custodial sentences are imposed in the cases to which these minima would apply.
Our amendments, on the other hand, would allow for judicial discretion to depart from the minimum sentences where the judge decides that it would be contrary to the interests of justice to impose such a minimum sentence, having regard to circumstances relating to the offence or the offender. Under our amendments, the prescribed minimum sentences would remain the default position—the default sentences—but judges would have the power to depart from them if they thought that the minimum sentences would be unjust. We believe that if only the Government could trust the judges to apply the law and to do what the interests of justice require in particular cases, they would simply accept these amendments.
The Minister has argued, and I suspect will argue again, that Parliament has the power to legislate for more severe sentences and that judges are obliged to sentence in accordance with the legislation that Parliament passes. That, of course, is a truism. However, I expect he will go further. If and in so far as he goes further and argues that if Parliament passes legislation requiring a particular sentence for a particular offence that is somehow by definition a just sentence, there we part company. Legislatures here and across the world can and do pass unjust laws. In many cases these minimum sentences would not offend against a judge’s sense of justice, but there will be many cases where they do so offend. If they are offensive to judges and to reasonable people’s sense of justice, I suggest that they are probably unjust, whether or not they are sanctioned by statute.
Take the case of an inadequate young man, whether before or after he turns 18, who gives into peer pressure to carry a knife and repeats the offence, or who does so out of genuine fear of gang members, combined with a misplaced belief that carrying a knife might protect him. Or take the case of a drug addict, hopelessly incapable of either giving up drugs or funding his habit, who commits burglary repeatedly and then comes before the court for a third or fourth time at a time when there is at last some hope of his rehabilitation and treatment. Such circumstances in the world of criminal justice are commonplace, but to find them “exceptional” judges would be put in the position of having to act in breach of their judicial oath. That does not mean that the sentences would not be unjust.
To put judges in that position is as wrong as it is invidious. It would weaken the confidence and pride of judges in their position and their work, and the confidence of the public in the judicial system. It might also adversely impact on the ability of prosecutors to obtain convictions. Permitting judges to depart from these minimum sentences where it would be just to do so would also promote rehabilitation and reform where that is, or might be, achievable. Mandatory minimum sentences would do none of that.
I also support Amendment 82A, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and my noble friend Lord German, which would introduce restrictions on sentences of six months or less. We on these Benches would go further and introduce a positive presumption against such short sentences, which, on all the evidence, do nothing to reduce reoffending—rather, they do the contrary—or to cut crime. I will leave it to the two noble Lords to set out the case for this amendment more fully. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Marks. On previous occasions, and indeed in Committee, I expressed my real anxiety about mandatory minimum sentences, particularly in the context of this group of amendments. I share the noble Lord’s view that a mandatory minimum sentence of this kind is capable of doing very considerable injustice.
I appreciate my noble friend the Minister’s view about exceptional circumstances, which he has explained before. I recognise that there is an ability on the part of the judge in exceptional circumstances to disapply the minimum sentence, but I share the noble Lord’s view that the concept of “exceptional circumstances” means something way out of the ordinary—exceptional. That means that the proviso, in my view, will be seldom applied.
The amendment moved by the noble Lord goes much further than that and, in my interpretation of it, imports the concept of fairness and justice. I agree with him. Because that is my interpretation of the amendment —namely, that we are introducing the concept of fairness and justice as a means of disapplying the minimum mandatory sentence—I shall support the amendment if the noble Lord seeks the opinion of this House.
My Lords, I have added my name to the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, and I agree with everything that he said and, indeed, what has been said by the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham. There is no doubt that there is a real difference, both in principle and in practice, between exceptional circumstances and what is required in the interests of justice. It seems to me that, whether or not the circumstances are exceptional, it is essential that the court has a power not to impose a sentence that the judge believes to be contrary in the circumstances of the particular case to the interests of justice.
I am surprised and disappointed to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Marks, that a Minister of Justice, particularly one as wise and fair as the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, should resist an amendment that confers power on the courts to avoid imposing a sentence that the judge believes would be contrary to the interests of justice. How can that possibly be right? If we are to have more minimum sentences—and I share the concerns as to whether we should—it is absolutely essential that the judge has a discretion to impose a sentence that he or she thinks is in the interests of justice.
I have had the opportunity on a number of occasions, sitting as a recorder, to pass sentence in cases where, in one case after another, advocates have suggested that I take an exceptional course—and sometimes I have been persuaded to take an exceptional course. It seems to me that the word “exceptional” provides an opportunity for a judge in the interests of justice to depart from the minimum sentence. But this is a decision taken by the Government in response to a particular set of offences, and the general public would perhaps agree with that policy; it requires judges to think long and hard before deciding that there are exceptional circumstances. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Marks, suggested that there may be many cases where they consider it in the interests of justice not to pass a minimum sentence. It seems to me that that is a question of policy that the Government have identified and, although naturally I favour as much judicial discretion as possible, it seems to me a policy decision that they are entitled to take.
I do not want to re-enter an old argument but, in Committee, I was almost embarrassed when the Minister pointed out that I was completely wrong about mandatory minimum sentences. Not being a lawyer, I thought that I had made some sort of legal error, but apparently not. Clause 102 will lead to gross injustice for anyone who is convicted of these offences, except in exceptional circumstances. That is revealed by the very clever wording of the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, which contrasts those exceptional circumstances with a much preferable
“contrary to the interests of justice”.
These amendments bring justice into play rather than pure, unmetered punishment. I and my noble friend will be supporting the amendments.
The deterrent effect of these minimum sentences would still be in play, but there would also be the freedom that, when justice requires, a person is not given one of these mandatory sentences—so the Government can still hold their “tough on crime” stance and even call this “crime fortnight” while justice is still served—although it would be good if they could admit their own crimes sometimes.
My Lords, I will say a few words in support of Amendment 82A dealing with short custodial sentences. The value of this amendment is that it places greater emphasis on alternative disposals, which fits in with what I thought was the Government’s policy of trying to rehabilitate offenders. Sending people to prison for a short period is counter- productive. One knows what happens in prisons. To send people for a short sentence is wasteful of public money. If there is an alternative to a custodial sentence, then it should be adopted. The proposal made in this amendment has a great deal behind it.
As for the other issues, speaking as a former judge I tend to support what the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, has said. If I was faced with the choice of words, I would find it easier to work with the Government’s wording than the wording proposed in the amendments.
My Lords, I agree with much of what has been said. On Amendment 82A I reiterate what has been said, and I hope will be said later, about primary carers. We know the damage short sentences do to families. We also know that close to half of those leaving custody go on to reoffend within a year of their release, but two-thirds of those sentenced to less than 12 months go on to reoffend.
This is not pie in the sky; if we look at Germany, which performs better on virtually every metric including reoffending, they imprison a far smaller proportion of the population and sentencers have to make two assessments before sentencing. First, they have to show that a community sentence is inappropriate and, secondly, they have to say that a short sentence will suit the need better. I commend Amendment 82A.
My Lords, I have added my name to Amendment 82A. I apologise to the House for being a few moments late into the Chamber; my little legs would not carry me fast enough from committee to Chamber.
Amendment 82A amplifies the debate we had on short sentences in Committee. It does not seek to ban short sentences but sets out to reduce the use of custody for less serious offences for which there are better options within the community. The argument made in Committee, that there are already guidelines and the Sentencing Code to guard against the overuse of short sentences, is disproven by the way in which the matter does not arise in sentencing at the moment.
The current arrangements—the ones the Minister spoke of in Committee—appear to be robust in theory because imprisonment is already reserved for serious offences and custody is already described as a last resort. As principles, these sound restrictive but have not proven to be so in practice. The current arrangements regarding the custody threshold are an unsatisfactory test because they can be interpreted as permissive when an offender has experienced all other possible forms of sentence even though their latest offence is not that serious. The problem with this is that it magnifies the roundabout, which is short sentences without any opportunity for rehabilitation, being outside for a very short period, reoffending and coming back through the system yet again.
This Bill creates a strange ladder of offences because, if you add in the additional features of the community sentences, which is detention in people’s homes, then that increases the features of the system in this first part of the ladder. The ladder then has a rung which has a much shorter stage to the position of imprisonment. We could say that the position after this Bill will be that the first part of the community sentences has much more amplification of the measures that can be used to deal with the sorts of crimes we have been talking about.
The amendment is designed to build a consensus around the use of custody, aligning the evidence of better outcomes with a choice of sentence. It also aligns with the Government’s position. In the 2020 White Paper from the Ministry of Justice, A Smarter Approach to Sentencing, the Government said:
“While short custodial sentences may punish those who receive them, they often fail to rehabilitate the offender or stop reoffending. Evidence suggests that community sentences, in certain circumstances, are more effective in reducing reoffending than short custodial sentences.”
This is the Government’s position, as outlined in 2020. This amendment makes reforms based on the length of sentence, by clarifying the principles for opposing imprisonment. For this reason, I commend it to the Minister. It would help reduce reoffending. It would help people rehabilitate. It would remove the great problem, as expressed by the Government, that short sentences punish those who receive them but fail to rehabilitate the offender or to stop reoffending.
My Lords, I will speak very briefly to this group of amendments. In particular, I support Amendment 82A in the names of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby and the noble Lord, Lord German. I declare my interest as a trustee and vice-chair of the Prison Reform Trust.
In Committee, I tried to make the arguments, both social and economic, against the use of short custodial sentences and in favour of robust community sentences, where appropriate. I will not repeat those arguments this afternoon. Suffice it to say that, in 2020, over 40,000 people were sent to prison, the majority of whom had committed a non-violent offence. Almost half were sentenced to serve six months or fewer.
As many voluntary and charitable organisations have pointed out, and as we have just heard, short prison sentences have proven less effective than community sentences at reducing reoffending. Short-term prison sentences have a particularly harmful effect on women, who often have primary care responsibilities. We will debate that later today. In 2020, the National Audit Office estimated that the annual cost per prison place was £44,640, whereas for a community sentence it was, on average, £4,305.
I support the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord German. I have two quick examples which show why Amendment 82A is totally in line with the Government’s own recent policy statements. First, the Ministry of Justice’s Female Offender Strategy clearly states:
“We will support a greater proportion of women to serve their sentence in the community successfully and reduce the numbers serving short custodial sentences by … Ensuring that courts have better and more comprehensive information about female offenders to inform sentencing decisions”.
The Government support community sentences. As a committed member of the Minister’s Advisory Board on Female Offenders, I fully endorse this strategy. I believe it is totally consistent with Amendment 82A.
Secondly, there is the Government’s recently published From Harm to Hope: A 10-Year Drugs Plan to Cut Crime and Save Lives. They have committed £780 million to this programme, £120 million of which will be used to increase the number of offenders and ex-offenders engaged in the treatment they need to turn their lives around. The plan goes on to say that this enhanced spending on drug treatment and recovery will also drive down crime by cutting levels of drug-related offending.
I agree, and I believe these programmes will be successful if they are clearly linked to community sentences, not short-term prison sentences. Such community sentences, with treatment requirements—whether for drugs, alcohol, mental health conditions or a combination of all those requirements—properly funded and overseen by the reconstituted National Probation Service, will give the judiciary the confidence to administer them, as opposed to the expensive and futile experience of a short prison sentence.
I therefore believe that recent government policy announcements are totally in line with our proposals in Amendment 82A, and I feel sure that the Minister will give a very positive response to the proposal.
My Lords, I have no objection to short prison sentences per se. The problem I have is that our current prison system is so hopelessly ineffective at rehabilitation. That is why in Committee I tabled my Amendment 241, a proposal for drastic reform. I am grateful for the response I got from the Committee, and indeed from my noble friend the Minister, and that is why I saw no need to table it on Report.
My Lords, I will speak first to Amendment 82A, to which I put my name, together with the noble Lord, Lord German. It specifies that short periods in custody should not be an inevitable response to someone with a history of relatively minor offending and that sentencers should be required to state the reasons for giving a prison sentence up to and including six months.
A coalition of views has been expressed in support of the amendment. We have, if she does not mind being described in this way, a campaigning right reverend Prelate who consistently talks about short prison sentences, particularly as they affect women, and my noble friend Lord Bradley with his expertise in this area regarding harmful effects on women in particular but also people with mental health problems. I also include myself in the coalition, because I regularly sentence short sentences.
The point I have made in these debates before is that, while the reoffending rate is indeed as bad as the right reverend Prelate said—there are high reoffending rates—in my experience as a sentencer, I sentence short sentences only when a community sentence has failed. I literally cannot remember a time when I have sentenced a short custodial sentence where there have not been—sometimes multiple—failures of community sentences. When I sentence, I am comparing a 100% failure rate for the community sentences of the people in front of me with the 60% failure rate of those who come out of short custodial sentences and reoffend within a year, so I am making a very unfortunate calculation when I give short custodial sentences.
Nevertheless, the noble Lord, Lord German, made absolutely the right point. We are trying to help the Government realise their own policy. The Government acknowledge what I have just said regarding the inevitability, sometimes, of short custodial sentences. The real answer is to come up with a robust, community-based approach that works and that sentencers have some level of belief in. I look forward to the Minister’s response to Amendment 82A.
I turn to the other amendments in the group. As I said in Committee, the Labour Party will abstain—with reluctance—if the noble Lord, Lord Marks, chooses to move his amendments to a vote. The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, was essentially the point the Minister will make, which is that what we are seeing here is the Government’s response to a particular set of offence types and that it is a policy decision on behalf of the Government, which they are entitled to take and which they see as a response to public demand. Frankly, I am not comfortable with the position I am taking on this, but the view of the Opposition is that we will abstain if the noble Lord, Lord Marks, decides to move his amendments to a vote.
My Lords, this group of amendments broadly covers topics related to custodial sentences. We debated them at some length in Committee. The Government have listened carefully to the arguments put forward by noble Lords in support of these amendments. In particular, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, and others for discussing them with me. However, the Government remain unpersuaded that these amendments are necessary. I will briefly explain the reasons why and will begin with Amendments 71 to 78 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Marks.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, reminded us, we had a lengthy debate in Committee on Clause 102 and minimum sentences. For the avoidance of any doubt, this clause does not introduce any new minimum sentences or new offences. Rather, it seeks to ensure that courts depart from imposing the minimum sentence only in exceptional circumstances. We are making sure that in these cases, where a minimum sentence applies, the criteria by which the courts can depart from the minimum sentence are consistent and are set out.
The amendments use the term
“contrary to the interests of justice”.
This term is not itself unusual, indeed at Section 59 of the Sentencing Code courts are directed to follow the relevant sentencing guidelines unless
“satisfied that it would be contrary to the interests of justice to do so”.
However, as the noble Lord, Lord Marks, accepts, these amendments would create a new and different test in respect of which a court can depart from imposing a minimum sentence when sentencing for these specific offences. The noble Lord’s amendment could be seen, as I think he tacitly accepted, as creating a lower threshold at which the courts may depart from imposing the minimum sentence, whereas the Government intend to raise and clarify the threshold.
As I explained in Committee, the necessity for this measure is supported by the data. In 2020, approximately half of all adults convicted for a third-time domestic burglary offence received less than the minimum sentence, even after taking account of the early guilty plea. We should not forget that minimum sentences are, in the main, for repeat offences which have a large community impact.
I know that concerns have been raised that Clause 102 may lead the courts to impose the minimum sentence in situations that they regard as unjust, because they cannot find the circumstances to fall within the ambit of “exceptional circumstances”. Concerns have also been raised that what constitutes “exceptional” might be treated as being subjective, leading to inconsistent application.
I can, I hope, reassure the House that courts are well accustomed to determining whether there are exceptional circumstances. There is a body of case law relating to the minimum sentence for certain offences involving firearms which already applies unless there are exceptional circumstances. This provision aligns the minimum sentence provisions with that test. Without wishing to turn Report stage into a seminar, in R v Nancarrow—the reference is 2019, EWCA Crim 470; old habits die hard—the Court of Appeal established a number of relevant principles, including that circumstances are exceptional if the imposition of the minimum sentence would be arbitrary and disproportionate. The court should also take a holistic approach and consider whether the collective impact of all the relevant circumstances makes the case exceptional. Therefore, judicial discretion for the court to consider fully the facts of the case and decide on the appropriate sentence in light of the statutory regime is retained in this measure.
I respectfully disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Marks, that this is an attack on judicial discretion. It is not a case of the Government not trusting judges; indeed, we have minimum sentences. The noble Lord is not suggesting that we should not have any minimum sentences, so the issue between us is not whether a judge has full discretion or no discretion—I am not advocating no discretion; the noble Lord is not advocating full discretion—but the ambit of that judicial discretion. I suggest that that is a matter of policy and therefore properly a matter for Parliament.
So, although I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, for his generous adjectives, which I hope to retain despite our disagreement on this issue, I would say that this matter is properly one for Parliament because it is a question of setting out the ambit of judicial discretion. In our system, sentencing is a mixture of parliamentary legislation and judicial application. I therefore agree with the description given by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks: Parliament can properly decide what the ambit is of departing from a minimum sentence, as a matter of policy.
We must distinguish carefully between whether it is wise, which is a point we can make about any legislation, and whether it is proper. When the point is put against me that this is an attack on judicial discretion and a case of not trusting judges, I hear it as a matter of policy and constitutional propriety first and a matter of wisdom second. So far, I have addressed the point on constitutional propriety. My noble and learned friend is right to say that Parliament can do what it likes; my point is that, here, Parliament is doing what is constitutionally proper as well. As to whether it is wise, I set that out earlier.
In these circumstances, it is proper to endorse the exceptional circumstances test. A system in which 50% of people are not being given the minimum sentence is, I suggest, one in which something is going seriously wrong. Although I pay great respect to anything said my noble and learned friend, the point put briefly but clearly and firmly by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, ought to carry serious weight with the House.
The Minister mentioned a Court of Appeal authority on this matter. Can he confirm whether that authority suggests that, if a judge in an individual case believes it would be contrary to the interests of justice to impose the minimum sentence, that is a strong indication that there are exceptional circumstances?
As we found in Committee, it is very tempting for Ministers to start parsing or glossing the term “exceptional circumstances”, and I hope the noble Lord will forgive me if I do not do so. That phrase has been used in statute and considered at the very highest level by the judiciary. The application of statute is properly a matter for the judiciary. In these circumstances, it is not helpful for a Minister on his feet to start parsing or glossing what has been said by the Court of Appeal. With genuine respect, I will leave that matter there and leave it for the Court of Appeal to explain what “exceptional circumstances” means. However, I repeat that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, said in terms that he found that test not a difficult one to apply—indeed, he found it an easier and more straightforward test to apply than the interests of justice.
Amendment 82A, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, with the support of the noble Lord, Lord German, would require a court imposing a custodial sentence of six months or less to state its reasons for being satisfied that neither a fine nor a community sentence could be justified.
The noble Lord, Lord German, reminded us of the Government’s position set out in 2020, which, of course, I stand totally by. There are plainly issues of rehabilitation and reoffending when it comes to short sentences, and that is why, as I explained in Committee, provisions in the Sentencing Code already ensure that custody should be a last resort in all cases, and for the shortest term possible. Even where the custodial threshold is met, courts retain discretion to impose non-custodial sentences after taking into account wider considerations. The code also places a duty on the court to explain its reasons for passing any sentence, and this can include an explanation of the factors the court has taken into account in making its sentencing decision.
This amendment also sets out a series of principles for courts to have regard to when imposing a custodial sentence of six months or less. For the most part, these are included in the independent Sentencing Council’s Imposition of Community and Custodial Sentences guidelines. As courts are already under a statutory duty to follow any sentencing guidelines relevant to the offender’s case, the Government do not consider it necessary to put these principles on a statutory footing.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, said, if an alternative sentence to custody can properly be handed down, it should be. While I do not propose again to gloss the sentencing guidelines, I respectfully agree that that is a useful summary of them. Again, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, said with his own experience, it is often only when community sentences have failed that a custodial sentence is handed down. That, again, is in accordance with the approach set out in the sentencing guidelines.
Of course, I listened very carefully to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, with whom I have had discussions on this and other issues, and by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester—I was going to say the “campaigning” Bishop of Gloucester, but I will leave out the adjective, although she might like it. I hope that they will each be satisfied with—and certainly understand—what I have said and the reasons for the Government’s position on these amendments. For the reasons that I have set out, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am very grateful for the support that I have had for my Amendments 71 to 78 from Members of the House and for all the contributions to this important debate. I am also grateful to the Minister for his response. However, when one analyses it, what he was saying about discretion cannot survive a proper reading of what is meant by “exceptional circumstances”. Certainly, it is the case that authorities have analysed exceptional circumstances, including the Court of Appeal authority of Nancarrow that he mentioned.
Nevertheless, the nub of it is that “exceptional circumstances” means circumstances that are very unusual, and what the Minister did not address was my point that there are many situations which in general experience are commonplace, and the circumstances are common- place, but where it would nevertheless be unjust—contrary both to the judges and to any normal sense of justice—to impose the minimum sentence. Because the circumstances are not exceptional, the judge would be bound to impose that sentence.
In answer to the points of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, of course it is the case that judges are daily addressed on the basis that they should take an exceptional course of leniency, and it is not surprising that, as a recorder, he has been asked to take that course many times. However, that does not mean that he has been asked to find that circumstances are exceptional. It is interesting that the test for the sentencing guidelines and departing from them is “contrary to the interests of justice”, and not a requirement that there should be exceptional circumstances.
On the matter of policy, I respectfully suggest that the answer to the Minister’s point was comprehensively expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier. He used the word “wise”. It may be that the Government are entitled to legislate in this way, but is it wise? The Minister said that there was a difference between “wise” and “constitutionally proper”. The point I am making is simply that, although it may be a matter of policy in the sense that the Government can have the policy and can legislate—as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, said, Parliament can do what it likes—the question is: is it bad policy? We say that it is bad policy because it forces judges to do what they would not otherwise do, having regard to the interests of justice.
In respect of the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, of course it is right that it may be easier to apply a test of exceptional circumstances, because the authorities are so clear, but the point about the interests of justice, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, picked up in Committee, is that sentencing decisions are difficult.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. My point is that I would be drawn into arguments with myself about policy in deciding whether to do what Parliament has asked me to do. I am afraid that, as a judge, the constitutional position is that I have to accept what Parliament has laid down. I do not like minimum sentences; they are a very blunt instrument, and I can think of cases where I would not want to be driven down that road. But that is not my position as a judge. I have to follow what Parliament has said, but I have leeway with the phrase which has been inserted in the Bill. That is my point.
My Lords, I understand that point. It is very rare that I disagree with the noble and learned Lord, but it is still the fact that what Parliament decides, judges must implement. If they decide that there is an exceptional circumstances test, that is far more limiting than an interests of justice test. That is my point and I will close on it—except to say that the default position under my amendment is to accept minimum sentences and simply to allow the judges to depart from those sentences where it is just to do so, having regard to all the circumstances. I do not believe that there has been any answer presented to that central position, on which I therefore wish to test the opinion of the House.
Ayes 90, Noes 159.