Clause 67 - Assistance by defendant: reduction in sentence

Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 13th January 2005.

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) 11:00 am, 13th January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 167, in clause 67, page 37, line 31, after 'agreement', insert

'made with a specified prosecutor'.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 168 to 171.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

The amendments ensure that the written agreements referred to in clauses 67 and 68 can only be between a specified prosecutor and the defendant. That has always been our intention, as we set out in the White Paper. The clauses do not specify with whom the defendant can enter into an agreement, and I hope that the Committee will recognise that the amendments clarify the position. Specifically, they   provide that the written agreements will be between the defendant and any prosecutor specified in clause 65.

Amendment No. 169 removes the reference to custodial sentences and ensures that the court should be able to undertake a review of any sentence imposed by the Crown court.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 168, in clause 67, page 38, line 34, at end insert—

'(9) An agreement with a specified prosecutor may provide for assistance to be given to that prosecutor or to any other prosecutor.

(10) References to a specified prosecutor must be construed in accordance with section 65.'.—[Caroline Flint.]

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I rise on an point of clarification. We fully support the formalisation through written undertakings of plea bargaining and turning Queen's evidence. However, subsection (2) says:

''the court may taken into account the extent and nature of the assistance given or offered.''

I note the use of the word ''may'', which presumably means that the court could ignore the written plea bargain agreement if it so wished. Might not that create a problem? Could not the offender turn round and ask why he should take the risk of turning Queen's evidence if the court may turn round and say that it will take no notice of the agreement? In fact, could not the offender say, ''I won't sing unless I get immunity under section 65''? A bizarre situation could then arise. It would be in the public interest for the offender to take a lesser sentence and at least go away for some time, but, in the event, he might get immunity because of the lack of certainty.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

We believe that it is appropriate and important for the judge to have some oversight. We are talking about situations in which people have committed a crime and been charged with it. If the judge accepts the Queen's evidence, it is appropriate that he is able to take it into account when determining the reduced sentence, as he will have had oversight over the whole hearing into the offence with which the person was charged.

Someone who agrees to give evidence under the provisions will not be offered a deal stating how much will be taken off their sentence; that will be determined at the end of the trial process. Obviously, if they plead guilty, the process will be pretty quick, but we do not want to be seen to wheel and deal on reducing the sentence before that point, and we feel that the judge's involvement is an important safeguard to that end.

Sentencing in this country is a matter for judges. That is why we have not gone down the route, as other jurisdictions have, of giving prosecutors such powers when they are trying to get people involved in proceedings. We cannot force judges to take assistance into account in all instances, because it is important that they hear the case and understand the nature of the offences in which a person has been involved. Normally, a judge will do so, and the   defendant can appeal the sentence if he believes that a relevant factor, such as Queen's evidence, has been ignored.

We are trying to make Queen's evidence much more transparent and accountable, and therefore much more used. In this country less than 1 per cent. of relevant cases involve Queen's evidence, whereas the figure is around 15 per cent. in Australia. However, we are mindful of the fact that we are talking about people who have committed offences to which they will, in most cases, have pleaded guilty. The judge must have the authority and power to deal with that as he sees fit at the time.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I do not disagree with the Minister, but point out that, as things stand, deals can be done. The reason why they have not been working is the lack of certainty that attaches to them. Addressing that is part of the purpose of the provisions in the Bill. Do the Government intend there to be a procedural agreement among the judges, so that in a certain situation they would act in a certain way, with the intention of giving more certainty and therefore a better chance that the provisions will work?

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

I think that the fact that we are putting Queen's evidence on a statutory footing gives it far more certainty than the existing arrangements. I find it difficult to answer the hon. Gentleman's question now, however. He seems to be asking me to describe the circumstances in which a judge would not agree to an exchange involving Queen's evidence and a reduction in sentence for an offence to which an individual has presumably pleaded guilty. I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with more detail, and to copy the letter to other members of the Committee.

What we propose is a great improvement. There will be guidance to provide a framework and to give better security for the people whom we are trying to engage in providing information. However, when we are talking about people who have committed criminal offences, there is no such thing as done deal.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 67, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.