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New Clause 2 - Court of Appeal: Attorney General's power to refer unduly lenient sentences

Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 10th July 2003.

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'In section 35(3) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (c.33) (scope of Part IV) after paragraph (b)(ii) there is inserted—

''; or

(iii) for an offence under section 9 of the Theft Act 1968 (c.60) (burglary).''.'.—[Mr. Hawkins.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

When I tabled new clause 2, which stands in my name and those of my hon. Friends, and which I was pleased to find came within the scope of the Bill and was therefore selectable and selected, it struck me that the Bill provided an opportunity to put on the record an issue about which the Opposition feel strongly. As the Committee will know, the power for the courts to consider unduly lenient sentences on the Attorney-General's reference was introduced by the previous Conservative Government. The power has proved popular. Members of the public are always concerned if there is publicity about a court passing a sentence that seems very lenient. The power is not used often, but Ministers will probably confirm that it has been used appropriately, and the Government have confirmed on many occasions over the past six years that they regard it as useful. It is not one of the things for which the current Government criticise the previous Government. The Government have said on several occasions that they have found it useful, and will consider extending it.

I believe that I am right in saying that I have had responses from Ministers of other Departments at the Dispatch Box in the Chamber, to the effect that they were prepared to consider the extension of the power to the offence of burglary. They did not make a commitment to extend it, but to consider doing so. I do not expect the Minister to agree to the new clause, but I ask him to state that, as a new Minister, he will also consider the extension of that power in discussion with the new Lord Chancellor and with Ministers in the Home Office and other appropriate Departments.

It seems to me that the offence of burglary is one that is entirely appropriate for Attorney-General's references for unduly lenient sentences. We know that burglary is one of the most prevalent crimes, and if people who have committed burglaries are given lenient sentences, the public will quite rightly be concerned. I was disappointed that burglary was not included when the original power was created. My party was in Government at the time, but felt that we needed to restrict the power to see how it would work. I am therefore not asking for a massive change in Government policy, but am glad that I have had the opportunity to put the strong views of the Opposition on the matter. I will listen with interest to what the Minister has to say. I hope that he will accept that the Government should consider the matter.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I shall be extremely brief, Mr. O'Brien. I am pleased for the hon. Gentleman that his new clause was within the scope of the Bill and selectable because, as he said, it gave him the opportunity to raise an issue that he and many of his colleagues have raised in the past.

The proposed new clause underlines the fact that that matter will not be decided by the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which in turn confirms my strongly held view that the matter should not be decided by the Home Office. It should not be a matter for the Home Department. The fact that that Department still has significant responsibility for the way in which laws are framed, for sentencing policy and for a whole range of other judicial matters—or perhaps matters of justice—underlines the botched job that has been made of setting up the new Department. A proper department of justice would have responsibility for this area. Its Minister would be responsible for determining, with his colleagues, the way in which such matters were dealt with, and would have the opportunity to discuss with the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General how it would work in practice. That underlines the fact that we have a halfway house that is satisfactory to no one. I hope that discussions on the shape and form of the new Department will progress and that it will eventually have the appropriate range of powers in the field of justice.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

Without wanting to reopen discussions on the pros and cons of a justice department, I believe that the situation, as set out, is clear. New clause 2 gives us an opportunity to consider the matter in more detail. We all recognise the concerns that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath has raised in tabling the new clause. They relate to the potentially devastating long-term effects on the victims of burglary. Burglary is a very serious offence that can have a traumatic effect on victims. As a result, section 111 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 provided for the imposition of a minimum three-year sentence of imprisonment for third-time domestic burglary. That was a welcome step. Sentencing guidelines make it clear that, as a norm, burglary is the sort of offence that would attract a custodial sentence. Burglary continues to be regarded as a very serious offence, and sentencing policy reflects that.

The new clause, however, is neither necessary nor desirable. Should the Secretary of State feel that the ability of the Attorney-General to appeal against unduly lenient sentences in burglary cases needed to be extended in relation to those grave sentences already encompassed, the power to do that, by order, already exists under section 35(4) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. The power relates to the range of triable either way offences in relation to which unduly lenient sentences can be referred by the Attorney-General to the Court of Appeal. It would not be appropriate to make that change in primary legislation at this stage.

Moreover, appeals against sentences are more likely to take place in relation to burglaries that involve violence or other serious offences. Those burglaries are likely to be triable only on indictment and therefore can already be referred to the Court of Appeal by the Attorney-General if he considers that the sentence

is unduly lenient—for example in the case of aggravated burglary.

I can assure the Committee that, although there has already been much discussion and we have no reason to believe that the courts are imposing unduly lenient sentences for the offence as a norm, we will consider the matter further. I think that that was what the hon. Member for Surrey Heath was trying to find out. The Home Office is exploring the matter with the Attorney-General's office and the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

Wider considerations need to be taken into account. The Committee must recognise that if we want burglars to be sentenced appropriately in the first place, we must ensure that the courts are clear about what the Government and the country expect to see. Sentencing guidelines will assist with that. We must place our faith in those who issue sentences and the idea that they will get sentences right the first time. After all, they are the people who hear the full facts of a case and are best placed to make a judgment.

I invite the hon. Member for Surrey Heath to withdraw his new clause.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

The Minister's remarks are helpful in that he has confirmed that he and the relevant Departments will continue to reflect on the matter. It is not going to go away. I acknowledge what he said about the Government introducing mandatory minimum sentences for third-time burglars, but he is well aware that the public are concerned not just about the third-time burglar, but about the first-time burglar. Burglary is in a different category to other so-called triable either way offences. Concern is caused not just by burglaries that are associated with other violent crime, but by all burglaries. Burglary is an invasion of people's liberty. It is an exceptionally serious offence and we will continue to pursue the matter. Given that the Minister has been so helpful as to say that he will have further discussions in the light of our comments, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.