Sentencing Act 2020 (Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Powers) (Amendment) Regulations 2023 - Motion to Regret

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:06 pm on 16 May 2023.

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Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General 8:06, 16 May 2023

My Lords, I am sorry to hear that the magistrates were upset by the introduction of this change.

I was articled as a solicitor in the office of the clerk to the magistrates of the Ruabon Bench in north-east Wales. The chairman of the Bench was Lord Maelor, formerly TW Jones, the Labour MP for Merioneth. He had gone down the pit at the age of 14 for 12 shillings a week and later served time in Wormwood Scrubs and Dartmoor as a conscientious objector, which is an unusual beginning for the chairman of the Magistrate’s Bench. He is noted for being the first and perhaps the last noble Lord to burst into song in the middle of a speech in this Chamber. Once when Mormon missionaries called at his terrace house in Rhosllanerchrugog and asked, “Is the Lord within?”, his wife replied, “No, he’s just gone for his cigarettes.”

To me, TW was the essence of a good magistrate. He was totally involved in the community, sometimes uncomfortably so. If a miscreant came from Rhos, his home village, he would not rest until he had identified his father, his mother, his chapel and his home. I cut my teeth in prosecuting, in front of that Bench, those who had trespassed in pursuit of conies or, worse, poached a pheasant on local estates.

I have always valued the commitment and dedication of lay magistrates and their desire to do justice, whatever the clerk may advise them about the law. I know that they regard imprisonment as a last resort. I must also pay tribute to their work in family courts. Friends of mine who have been or are magistrates have found that area of law to be most rewarding.

What the magistracy has gained, therefore, is not just acceptance but trust in dealing with the 95% of criminal cases which come before magistrates. I have less trust in the motivation of the Ministry of Justice, which is promoting a now traditional Conservative U-turn in policy in the record time of 19 months. So far as I am aware, this is not based on research into the outcomes of the policy announced by Dominic Raab. His expressed purpose in January 2022 was to reduce the backlog of Crown Court cases by 1,700 either-way cases—a reduction of 2% to 3% of what was then a backlog of 60,000 cases and is now said to be 61,000.

I struggle to find any reason in the Explanatory Memorandum for the reversal of the policy. For me, it explains nothing. It says

“we are currently experiencing downstream pressures in the criminal justice system as, for example, manifested in Operation Safeguard and it is important that the government ensures a cohesive cross-system response to this growing pressure. Whilst increased MSPs is not the only factor behind this pressure and the data on the impact of MSPs is still limited, it is safest to temporarily reduce MSPs to 6 months so that the Crown Court retains power over decisions in respect of longer sentences”.

I do not know what that means. What are “downstream pressures”? What are the other terms that are used in that particular context? I would be grateful if the Minister could address those problems.

Your Lordships might observe that my iPad has gone blank, so I am a little bit lost at this stage. Suffice it to say that we need some justification—some research —to find out what has happened in the last 19 months. Why is the policy now being reversed? Is it simply that magistrates are sentencing for too long a period, or what? What the ministry needs to bear in mind is that they may be passing sentences of between six and 12 months —the short sentences, which, unhappily, do not resolve the problems of the individual. There is no way in which he can be rehabilitated in that time; nor do those problems get dealt with. I therefore look forward to an explanation from the Minister, and I apologise that my script has disappeared.