Amendment 104

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Report (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 12th January 2022.

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Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames:

Moved by Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames

104: After Clause 172, 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 Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, this amendment seeks the establishment of a royal commission to carry out a full review of criminal sentencing. The urgent need for such a review arises in particular because this Bill continues and worsens an alarming trend towards sending offenders to prison for ever-longer periods. These Benches have consistently argued that we need to reduce the prison population, not increase it. This country imprisons more people than any other in western Europe, without any evidence that there is more criminality here than elsewhere or that prison works.

As has been said repeatedly in our debates, we have seen our prison estate fall into disgraceful disrepair. Gross overcrowding is standard and, although the Government are committed to providing more new prison places, the increase in prisoner numbers to be expected from longer prison sentences threatens to use up all that extra space. In any case, the new space will not become available for some time. Meanwhile, the overcrowding and squalor get worse.

Understaffing means that prisoners are stuck in their overcrowded cells for very long periods, bored, fractious and angry without relief. Even though recruitment levels aim to increase staffing, it is by nowhere near enough to do more than relieve a little of the pressure, without improving the overall standards of welfare in our prisons. All this breeds violence, of which we have seen appalling levels over recent years. Lack of opportunities for education, work and recreation, attributable at least in part to the lack of staff to deliver them, has made all this worse, so there has been little progress on rehabilitation.

Against this background, the Bill will introduce minimum sentences, longer sentences and later release dates. All this will fuel sentence inflation because, unsurprisingly, sentences will seek to ensure some kind of fairness in comparisons between them across the board, causing them to rise generally. The Bill will have a far more far-reaching effect on sentences than even its draconian provisions suggest. Yet, in our consideration of the Bill to date, we have been unable to deflect the Government from this unswerving and one-sided course. There is little in the Bill about community sentences, rehabilitation, the role of the probation services, or keeping people out of the criminal justice system or altogether out of custody. That is why we need an overall review of sentencing: to consider the topics mentioned in proposed new subsection (2) in the amendment.

So far, I have concentrated on reducing the prison population and reducing violence and overcrowding in prisons, but the other topics crying out for review include: addressing the needs of young people and women in custody; reducing the effect of what is undoubtedly an in-built discrimination against people of minority-ethnic backgrounds within the criminal justice system; keeping people generally out of custody where possible; and refocusing custodial sentences on rehabilitation and reform, not just keeping prisoners locked away from the public to address the perceived threat they present. This is not least because, in fact, the threat they present on release is exacerbated by the appalling conditions in which we incarcerate them. In short, we need to redress the manifest and politically driven imbalance inherent in this legislation.

The Government’s position and their answer to our criticisms were expressed in Committee. I am grateful to the Minister for meeting me last Friday and for his comprehensive email to me last weekend, setting out the Government’s perspective on this and other matters. The Government maintain that their intention in the Bill is to introduce a range of measures aimed at the most serious and dangerous offenders. However, they maintain that this is offset by an intention to focus, at the other end of the spectrum, on community sentencing measures aimed at diverting low-level offenders away from crime, addressing issues of mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, and making more use of electronic monitoring or problem-solving approaches.

That would all be very welcome if it were delivered, and we do take heart from the reform of the probation services, or at least the reversal of the ill-fated Grayling measures, which did so much damage to them. However, frankly, we have heard it all before. Over many years we have been promised concentration on rehabilitation, more resources for the Prison Service and better conditions. Yet the response is this Bill, so our concern remains about the lack of balance.

The Government seem to be set on a course that will increase the prison population and sentence inflation without concentrating significantly on cutting reoffending through helping offenders to avoid crime, thereby achieving an overall reduction in the levels of crime and its huge social and economic costs for society. That is why we need an independent and serious royal commission on criminal sentencing. Such a commission would focus government and public attention on the great deal of real, hard evidence that there is about the ineffectiveness of long prison sentences, and the need for a new, rebalanced, humane and evidence-based approach to using the criminal justice system to cut reoffending through rehabilitation and reform. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee) 4:30 pm, 12th January 2022

I will speak briefly in support of this amendment. There are five reasons for my support.

First, the debates on this Bill have shown the enormous disparity of views that can be expressed about sentencing. We have ranged from restorative justice, which I warmly support, to long prison sentences. We need to look at it in whole and strategically.

Secondly, the Sentencing Code shows how complicated the system we have devised is. It needs simplification so that people can understand the system better.

Thirdly—and this is a point on which I have found Her Majesty’s Treasury more enlightened than many—are we getting value for money? I doubt whether the present system is delivering value for money.

Fourthly, a royal commission in itself is value for money. It is certainly far better value for money than management consultants, who are often deployed to look at these issues.

Finally, the time is right. I see no reason why we cannot take a comprehensive and strategic view of where we are going. I have expressed no views on what the outcome should be; I am interested solely in the mechanism of getting a strategic approach that simplifies sentencing and delivers value for money.

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I agree with all the arguments my noble friend brought forward for having an overall look at sentencing and how it operates, and how that needs to be done at arm’s length from government. I will simply add two questions to the list he created, which the noble and learned Lord just very helpfully added to.

The first question is: can we find a way in which society can assert its abhorrence at various kinds and levels of criminality that does not automatically increase the amount of time people spend in prison, or the amount of money we as a society spend on prison? Sentences are often used as ways of indicating, quite necessarily, that society will not stand for crimes of various kinds, but simply spending a lot of money keeping someone in prison, feeding them for the next decade or two, is not necessarily a cost-effective way to achieve that.

That leads me to my second point. Prison commands resources. It does so automatically. The impact statement for this Bill indicates that the Government anticipate that 300 more prison places will be required by the measures in the Bill, quite apart from all the other factors, leading us to spend more money on prisons. We have to ask: is that a good use of money for the purpose of preventing further crime?

Very interesting discussions took place in the US, particularly in Texas, in which the lead in changing the approach was taken by some of those on the Republican side, who said, “This is the taxpayer’s dollar, and it’s our responsibility to spend it efficiently and effectively.” In our country, it is our responsibility to spend the taxpayer’s pound efficiently and effectively to achieve the reductions in crime that taxpayers would like to see. Pouring money into more and more prison places is not demonstrably a way of achieving that objective, and we ought at least to look at how it might be done differently.

Photo of The Bishop of Gloucester The Bishop of Gloucester Bishop

My Lords, I fully support the amendment. Sometimes I feel a bit as if I am in “Groundhog Day” as we listen to things that are said again and again. When we first discussed the Bill in this House, many people far more learned than me commented on all the issues with the Bill and the fact that so much of it is piecemeal—that we are trying to put sticking plasters over things without looking at the issues holistically and without looking at evidence. So much of it seems to be a reaction—often to populist headlines, let us be honest. There is so much evidence that we are not looking at, and so much of what we are discussing is not backed up by the evidence.

For that reason, I warmly recommend taking a holistic look at what we are doing, why people end up in prison in the first place, what we are doing when we sentence people, what is going on in our prisons and what it means for when people come out through the gate. As has been said, even if people are utterly callous and care only about finance, what we are doing at the moment makes no financial sense whatsoever. I wholeheartedly applaud this amendment.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

My Lords, I also support the amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, has given us an opportunity to make things a lot better. During that quite irritable debate two days ago—I was irritable, anyway, and I think people got irritable with me—on this policing Bill, it struck me that we just should not have as many women in prison. Some of the things that women go to prison for are ridiculous. It costs a lot of money; it disrupts lives, especially for the women, their children and their support networks; and there is an opportunity cost when compared to the opportunities that we should be providing via rehabilitation and reintegration. Women go to prison for things like not paying their TV licence or their council tax, and that really should not happen. It is hugely disruptive, the cost of doing so exceeds the unpaid debt many times over, and lives are ruined.

For the vast majority of women in the criminal justice system, solutions within the community are much more appropriate. Community sentences could be designed to take account of women’s particular vulnerabilities and their domestic and childcare commitments. Existing women’s prisons should be replaced by suitable, geographically-dispersed, small multifunctional custodial centres. More supported accommodation should be provided for women on release in order to break the cycle of offending and custody. Prisoners should have improved access to meaningful activities, particularly real work, education and artistic and creative facilities. And, of course, all prisoners should be able to attain levels of literacy sufficient to allow them to function effectively in modern society.

That all seems so obvious, but it does not happen at the moment because this Government are obsessed with being “tough on crime”. What does that mean? If it means sending more and more people to prison then it is a very disruptive and damaging way of handling the problem of crime. A royal commission seems an incredibly sensible way forward just to rethink the way in which we handle prisons, prisoners, crime and, in particular, women in prison who really ought not to be there.

Photo of Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Chair, Sub-Committee on Lords' Conduct, Chair, Sub-Committee on Lords' Conduct

My Lords, I too support this proposal. The objectives set out in each of the paragraphs (a) to (h) of proposed subsection (2) of the amendment are plainly and urgently needed. It should not be necessary to establish a royal commission to focus on, pursue and achieve these objectives, but plainly it is necessary. These deficiencies have been identified, recognised and discussed for years but, as for getting anywhere in terms of achievement—on the contrary.

The main parties on both sides of the House, not least this Government, seem ever more intent on winning the law and order vote. Sentences are being increased; minimum and mandatory terms are being imposed. We now need the impetus, the force, of no less than a royal commission to start to recognise the intense problems of our whole penal system and to start to set the matter right.

Photo of Lord Macdonald of River Glaven Lord Macdonald of River Glaven Crossbench

My Lords, I do not regard the United Kingdom’s place at the top of the incarceration league table for western European countries as a badge of honour. It seems to me that this fact in itself calls for a broad strategic view of how sentencing is working in this country and why it is that we send so many more people to prison than other countries do.

One of the issues seems to be that criminal justice, particularly sentencing, has become a political football. A sort of auction has been going on between the main political parties over the last 20 years or so to discover who can present themselves as the toughest on this issue. I do not mean to minimise the effect of crime on victims or on society as a whole, but short sentences in particular are surely counterproductive. The best way to school a young man in crime and anti-social behaviour is to send him to prison for three or six months.

It seems to me that one of the great possible achievements of a royal commission would be to take some of the political sting out of this issue and to inject some rationality and even some science into it. I strongly support the amendment.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Labour

My Lords, may I ask the Minister a question? A few years ago, when I was a police and crime commissioner, it came across our desk a lot that it was government policy to have a royal commission on the criminal justice system. What has happened to that proposal? Is it still there? Is it still the Government’s hope to do that? If it was, I would be very much in support of it. If it is not, I very much support the amendment that the noble Lord, Lord Marks, has moved.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

My Lords, I have thought long and hard about this amendment, and I am still torn about it. The other evening, in that rather fractious discussion about trans prisoners in women’s prisons, the Minister rather took me up on my quotes from Twitter, as though I was using Twitter as hardcore evidence, which I was not. He made a valuable point, because he said that putting management and protection first was what was done, rather than following public opinion or what was on Twitter or anywhere else. I have some regard for that. In fact, I had made the same point to the Minister in relation to Harper’s law at the beginning of this Report stage, when I said that sentencing should not be a consequence of an outraged public reaction to something, a campaign or what have you. I would rather feel that sentencing was decided in the cold light of day, much more rationally, and so on. I worry about knee-jerk legislation.

I suppose I want to ask a couple of questions, of both the Minister and the mover of the amendment. Sentencing often seems subject to caricature on both sides. People are caricatured as bleeding-heart liberals who want everybody to be let out of prison, and anyone who is concerned about increasing sentencing is caricatured as “lock them up and throw away the key”. It seems to me that there needs to be some relationship between sentencing and the public and their views about it, but we do not want it to be arbitrary and reactive.

So, in that sense, I was very positive about the notion of a royal commission that could look at this in the round, take it away from the political world in some ways and allow, if you want, a more rational and considered public debate, as well as a commission looking at it in detail. That seemed to me to be a way forward.

But I was rather concerned by the way that the amendment was framed with a particular view of sentencing—one that I might well share, by the way, because I am at heart a bleeding-heart liberal myself—

Noble Lords:


Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

I know that some may be shocked. I actually worry a lot about prison reform, authoritarian tendencies and prison being used as an answer to all problems. There are a lot of draconian aspects of the Bill—the threat of jail for protesters, for example, which we are about to discuss—and all these things concern me.

However, I would not want a royal commission to be there to endorse what I or the movers of the amendment want. Therefore, a long list of things that are wrong with long sentences does not seem to be the basis of a royal commission—I would want it to look at sentencing without prejudice and bearing in mind public concerns about safety. It is absolutely the case that, despite my liberal qualms, there are times when people should probably be locked up for longer—but the prisons should then be reformed to make them more humane while you are in them for longer.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

Well, my Lords, I had never really thought of the noble Baroness as a bleeding-heart liberal, but we all come in different guises, depending upon the subject. I find myself very taken by many of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, and by many others who have long been learned in the law.

I spoke to my noble friend the Minister after what the noble Baroness referred to as the slightly fractious debate on Monday. Funnily enough, I said to him that I thought that a royal commission would be a good way—better than an amendment to a Bill—to look at the issue that we were discussing: women in prison. Of course, this provision in the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, could be incorporated.

On balance, I would favour a royal commission on the criminal justice system. I do not suppose that the noble Lord would be particularly opposed to that, rather than the specific amendment that he is moving today. But we need to look at these things because—coming back to a point made on Monday and today—we are failing in our criminal justice system because there is far too much recidivism and far too many lives are not amended and rehabilitated but further broken and eroded by spending time in prison. We have not got the balance right.

I have always been opposed to the simplistic view sometimes expressed, not by bleeding-heart liberals like the noble Baroness but by some on my own side: “Lock them up and keep them in.” That is no way to tackle things. So, although I would understand if, in responding to this debate, my noble friend the Minister said that he could not accept this amendment, I nevertheless strongly appeal to him on the Floor of the House, as I have privately, to consider very carefully the merits of a royal commission on the criminal justice system.

It can do no harm. We all remember Harold Wilson on royal commissions—they sit for years and take minutes—but that is not necessarily what royal commissions do. They can be given a timeframe or asked to report back within a certain period. If, by chance, my noble friend is not able to give the positive response I hope he might, we have many in your Lordships’ House who are indeed learned in the law, and this might be an ideal subject for one of the special committees that we set up each year in your Lordships’ House. It would have perhaps the most distinguished membership of any such committee ever established and I am sure it could make a powerful report, but I would still favour the royal commission approach. I hope that when my noble friend comes to respond, he will be able to give us some encouragement.

Photo of Lord Faulks Lord Faulks Non-affiliated

Before we hear from the Minister and the noble Lord for the Opposition, I shall simply add that of course the aims identified in this amendment are probably shared by everybody in your Lordships’ House but, ultimately, is it not for the Government of the day to decide on these things? I think we can probably predict what most royal commissions would recommend following the terms of reference reflecting this amendment. Ultimately, a Government have to decide whether in certain circumstances, as was the case in the Bill, there need to be mandatory sentences or the prison estate needs more money spent on it. These are matters for government. I will be interested to hear what the noble Lord for the Opposition says about this; during the course of the Bill, I do not think the Labour Party has opposed the increased mandatory sentences in various areas. That is a position it is entitled to take. A royal commission can recommend; a Government have to decide.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, we support this amendment and every element of what the noble Lord, Lord Marks, said when he was introducing it. It is about criminal sentencing. My noble friend Lord Bach raised the question of a royal commission on the criminal justice system as a whole, and I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response on that.

The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, correctly identified that in this Bill the Opposition have supported some measures that have led to increased sentences. In a sense, the heart of the problem is that the constant inflation of sentences is leading to the overarching problem we have now with overcrowding and squalor in our prisons and a lack of effectiveness in our out-of-court sentences. I understood that to be the main purpose of the royal commission.

I want to give a very simple example of my role as a magistrate sentencing, as I was yesterday, in a magistrates’ court in London. As a magistrate, I have powers to sentence up to six months’ custody for a single offence. When, on occasion, I do that, I simply do not know how long that person will spend in custody. When I first became a magistrate about 14 years ago, I used to say to the offender, “You will spend half your time in custody and then, at the discretion of the prison governor, you will get out”. I do not say that any more because I do not know whether it is true. Sometimes the offender will get out after one-quarter of their sentence, if there are particular reasons and it is a non-violent offence, and sometimes, if they commit relatively less serious offences while they are in prison, they may serve their whole term, so I simply do not say that any more when I am sentencing.

That is a very particular example; there are many examples within sentencing as a whole where any sentencer, including a magistrate, is asked to use fairly obscure phrases which are not simple to understand for the person being sentenced. There is a role for an overall look at this to try to have consistency in sentencing and the words used while sentencing. The noble Lord’s amendment goes further than that as it is looking at community sentences as well. There really is a strong need for an overarching view of criminal sentencing.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, this amendment, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, would require the Secretary of State to establish a royal commission to review and report on criminal sentencing. The amendment was tabled in Committee and I am glad to have the opportunity to further clarify the Government’s position on this matter.

First, let me pick up the direct question put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, which I think was echoed by my noble friend Lord Cormack and mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede. The 2019 Conservative manifesto did commit, as noted in Committee, to set up a royal commission on the criminal justice system. Work to set up that royal commission was slowed at the onset of the pandemic to focus on the very practical matter of ensuring that the criminal justice system could continue to operate—as it did, thanks to a lot of hard work by staff up and down the country—in a Covid-safe environment. As work on the commission was paused, officials were redeployed to other work and other roles in government.

Significant new programmes of work have now been stood up to support recovery and build back a better criminal justice system. That means that many of the areas the royal commission was due to look at are now being progressed more quickly, for example on efficiency and effectiveness of the system. That includes ensuring that all component parts of the extremely complex system—which we call the criminal justice system but is an amalgam of all sorts of systems—work together to deliver swifter justice for victims. As I said on the last group, on 9 December we announced our consultation on a new victims’ Bill to improve the level of service victims can expect from the criminal justice system. We remain committed to delivering our manifesto commitments. However, we think it is right to continue to pause the work on the royal commission on the criminal justice system while we focus on delivering these priorities over the coming months. We will then revisit what further role there is for the royal commission.

At the same time, let me clarify a point of confusion, which may have been behind the noble Lord’s question— I do not know. To be very clear, the amendment, as drafted, calls for a royal commission on criminal sentencing, not a royal commission on the criminal justice system. For the record and to make it very clear, when my noble and learned friend Lord Stewart of Dirleton previously responded and assured the Committee that a royal commission of this nature was unnecessary, it was the royal commission on criminal sentencing in the amendment that he was referring to. I see the noble Lord nodding and I am grateful; I did not want there to be any confusion on the point.

The sentencing White Paper published last year set out the Government’s proposals for reform to the sentencing and release framework. Work is under way on the non-legislative commitments made there; the legislative measures are being delivered by the Bill. I can assure the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, that we want to adopt a strategic approach here. We believe that the White Paper delivers that, but I am sure that the conversations on these points will continue. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beith, that the taxpayer’s pound is an important factor here. We want value for money in this and other areas of government. The rationale of the White Paper is to deliver a smarter, more targeted approach to sentencing. The most serious violent and sexual offenders should serve sentences that reflect the severity of their offending behaviour.

I say to the House in general, responding in particular to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, that it is crucial that the Government listen when there are issues on which the public feels strongly, and there are some offences that society finds particularly concerning and, indeed, offensive. At the same time, for lower-level crimes, we are making community sentences more effective, so they can offer an appropriate level of punishment and address the underlying drivers of offending. As part of that—to pick up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb—we do of course look at the particular issues facing women in prison. We have discussed that on a number of occasions, and I intend no discourtesy by not repeating now what I have said before. We have spoken, and we have focused as a Government, on the needs of women in prison and sentencing women to prison, particularly the primary carers issue, which we have discussed and debated.

The amendment as drafted specifies a number of areas that a royal commission on sentencing should make recommendations on. My noble and learned friend Lord Stewart gave assurances in Committee in regard to the programmes and reforms under way in relation to each of these areas, so I shall not repeat that now, but I assure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester that we look at evidence in this context. I can also assure the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, that we consider each of the matters set out in this amendment as part of our work. I certainly would not accept that we are engaged in any sort of auction, to use the word of the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven. However, I agree with him, as we have discussed in other debates on this Bill, that short sentences require very careful consideration indeed.

As my noble friend Lord Faulks mentioned, there is an important role here for government. This is not something that should just be outsourced to a royal commission. I draw a distinction between what I was talking about in the transgender debate, which was management of prisoners and conditions in prison, on the one hand, and sentencing policy on the other hand. They are two different things and, as I said earlier, it is absolutely right for the Government to take account of and listen to the concerns of the public on sentencing.

I should add that, since the debate in Committee, on 7 December, as I mentioned in the last group, we published our prison strategy White Paper, but I shall not repeat what I said then, as we have a lot of business to get through this evening.

Finally, to pick up on a point made by a number of contributors, on the transgender issue—and I do not want to go back to it, because I still bear the scars on my back and my front from that debate—as I said to my noble friend Lord Cormack privately, and am happy to repeat publicly, it is not the sort of commitment that I can give on my feet at the Dispatch Box. But what I can commit to is that I shall continue the conversation with him—and, indeed, with others in this House—on that very difficult issue, which I know raises passions across the House.

To come back to this amendment, I hope that the House is assured of the Government’s position on the matter, and I urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Labour 5:00 pm, 12th January 2022

My Lords, I have listened to the debate this afternoon with great pleasure, and I must say with growing agreement with what was said—until I heard the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, who said that sentencing should be a matter for the Government of the day. That is a very dangerous approach, because it means that sentencing becomes a reflection of the political pressures on the Government of the day. Somebody used the term “auction”. You would get competition between people who were seeking votes from the public in projecting themselves as being tough on crime, and the resulting sentencing guidelines—

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am sorry, but the Minister had already sat down. We can only take a question if it is very short.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, in those circumstances I think that it is for me to respond. I do not know whether the Minister wishes to respond to any question—although there has not really been a question.

Photo of Lord Faulks Lord Faulks Non-affiliated

My Lords, I believe this is in order, because I did not suggest for a moment that it was for the Government to send people to prison or to make up their mind. Ultimately, the policy that is reflected in this amendment is something that a Government would have to decide upon.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, at the end of this interesting debate, I say first that I am very grateful to all who have spoken and to the noble Lord the Minister for his careful response. Two things strike me: first, this amendment enjoys overwhelming support and, secondly, there has been a distinct theme to the contributions to the debate from noble Lords from all around the House, expressed perhaps by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, when he talked about a comprehensive and strategic approach. Others have talked about a holistic approach.

The aim has been to address the failures of the criminal sentencing system, as part of the criminal justice system, identified by, among others, the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Ponsonby. It is a rethink that is required—to use the expression of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. Another important matter was identified by two dissimilar figures in general approach. The noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, talked about taking the political sting out of issues arising on sentencing. This was put in a similar way by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley. I share the slight surprise of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, at being told that she was a bleeding-heart liberal, but I take the point.

I do not intend the royal commission that we have described in this amendment to prejudge the issues. What we are calling for overwhelmingly is an evidence-based approach to sentencing, rather than a politically based approach or one that simply responds to public opinion or the perception of public opinion. I completely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, that the question is not one where the Government are excluded from making decisions. The point about the royal commission is, as he put it, that the royal commission recommends and the Government then act on those recommendations. What distinguishes a royal commission, I suggest, is that its recommendations are widely seen by the public, the Government and the Opposition as authoritative. It is that quality of being authoritative that I believe gives the royal commission its weight.

It is a question not of outsourcing the decision-making process but of setting up a process to advise and direct the future. This Bill does none of that. It contains sentencing in its Short Title, yet it is piecemeal and bitty and lacks a philosophy. The Minister set out a philosophy that is two-sided, but only one of those sides is reflected in the Bill. We believe that a royal commission would address that, which is why I would like to see this amendment agreed. That said, however, what the noble Lord has said about the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice as a whole is of some encouragement, because I take criminal justice to include criminal sentencing. I hope I see him nod in agreement with that. I am waiting—he is not going to commit to the terms of reference, but it seems to me that that offers some hope for the future.

I am concerned about the use of the word “paused”. It should not be paused; it is urgent. If the Government take anything from this debate, I hope they will take the feeling around the House that this is an urgent matter requiring urgent attention and will revisit it. That said, and in the confidence that they will approach it in that way and that the royal commission will proceed, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 104 withdrawn.