My Lords, the House is fortunate in having my colleague and noble friend Lord Ponsonby, and with some reason because he has sat for many years on the magistrates’ courts and has enormous experience of their functioning. We are also lucky to have the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, whose memory stretches back—I dare not ask him how many years—to his early days when embarking upon a career at the Bar, and to a certain magistrate whom he much respected in Wales. We are fortunate, too, to have the noble Baroness, Lady Sater, who is behind the Minister, and who also clearly has much experience as a magistrate, although I think she has ceased to be one.
In my experience, and this goes a long way back, magistrates are on the whole sensible people—after all, having been magistrates for 10, 15 or 20 years, they have become very experienced—and are not great senders to prison. Magistrates are actually reluctant to send people to prison, particularly for the reason that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, presented. It does not do much good to have somebody in prison for three or six months to set a kind of an example. It does not work, or did not in my experience, for the normal kind of criminal offences involving theft and violence. But it was quite good for motoring offences, because it set a rather good example to all motorists. If the driver of a motor car who is otherwise without conviction misbehaves really badly in driving their car—these are normally citizens who have not had previous convictions —and they are sentenced to prison for a short time, that is a very big shock.
The central issue has been rightly raised by my noble friend Lord Ponsonby and by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas. There should be proper research on the figures to see whether the basis of this is right, because magistrates across the board do not have a record of imprisoning the people who appear in front of them. It seems to me that to change the sentencing policy down from 12 months, which is only a moderate period, to six months is complete nonsense. Magistrates should have that freedom. All that happens is that the appeals go up—in my day—from the magistrates’ sessions to quarter sessions, and, for many years now, to the Crown Court. One of the things that magistrates were able to do—I am sure this remains the position—was that, if they considered that they did not have sufficient powers to sentence the offender for a period of more than 12 months, they could send the case to the higher court and it could be dealt with there.
In summary, we are very spoilt by the presence of those who have experience in magistrates’ courts in this House. There should be proper research and I welcome all of those suggestions.