With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 151, in clause 25, page 27, line 7, leave out subsections (4) to (8).
No. 204, in clause 25, page 27, line 7, leave out subsection (4).
No. 205, in clause 25, page 27, line 10, leave out ‘must’ and insert ‘may’.
No. 206, in clause 25, page 27, line 11, leave out ‘exceptional’.
No. 207, in clause 25, page 27, line 17, leave out ‘must’ and insert ‘may’.
No. 208, in clause 25, page 27, line 19, leave out ‘exceptional’.
No. 209, in clause 25, page 27, line 25, leave out ‘must’ and insert ‘may’.
No. 210, in clause 25, page 27, line 26, leave out ‘exceptional’.
No. 211, in clause 25, page 27, line 33, leave out ‘must’ and insert ‘may’.
No. 212, in clause 25, page 27, line 35, leave out ‘exceptional’.
No. 213, in clause 25, page 27, line 41, leave out ‘must’ and insert ‘may’.
No. 214, in clause 25, page 27, line 43, leave out ‘exceptional’.
Government new clause 19—Minimum sentence for certain firearms offences.
“imprisonment for a term not exceeding 4 years” to “not exceeding 10 years”. The amendment tests the Government’s will involving the differential value that they place between murder by gun and murder by knife. There is more equality between those two dangerous weapons than the sentencing reflects. I wanted to highlight that point, because the subsection mentions knives and bladed weapons, and in my constituency knife crime is as much an issue as gun crime. We should like to see the sentencing for knife crimes increased.
I wonder sometimes whether knife crime carries less weight because we are familiar with knives and they seem to be less serious and dangerous. I am sure that that is not the case and we must be tougher. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), asking the Home Secretary an oral question the other day, said:
“The Home Secretary knows that the current sentence for carrying a gun in public is seven years but the maximum sentence for doing the same with a knife is only two years. Given that both are weapons and can kill, will the Home Secretary consider increasing the maximum sentence for carrying a knife as part of his proposals?”
The Home Secretary, to his credit, answered that he would
“be pleased to consider proposals to that effect when we debate the Bill that was mentioned in the Gracious Speech and examine specific measures.”
That is this Bill. The Home Secretary continued:
“A knife is not the same as a gun but the hon. Gentleman is entirely correct to say that we need to compare the two and ascertain whether they should be brought more in line.”—[Official Report, 23 May 2005; Vol. 434, c. 400.]
I support my hon. Friend’s question and I hope that the Government will address it, because they do not address it fully in the Bill.
Is the hon. Lady aware that there is some evidence, in east London certainly, that knife crime is supplanting gun crime? There is evidence that as the Government bear down on gun crime, young people are turning to knives precisely because the penalties are lower.
I was not aware of that statistic, but it does not surprise me that that would be the case. In my constituency knife crime appears to be rising, and it is widespread, possibly because of the relative ease of getting hold of a knife compared with getting hold of a gun.
Amendment No. 151 is about mandatory minimum sentences. Subsections (4) to (8) should be omitted. Mandatory minimum sentences prevent a court from taking full account of the individual circumstances of a case, which can result in disproportionate sentences in contravention of article 49(3) of the European Union charter of fundamental rights, which provides:
“The severity of penalties must not be disproportionate to the criminal offence.”
The ordinary principles of the sentencing regime can be distorted because five purposes are meant to be considered when sentences are laid down under section 142(2) of the Criminal Justice Act of 2003.
The removal of subsections (4) to (8) would contradict the hon. Lady’s suggestion that the period should be increased from four to 10 years, making the sentence for carrying knives tougher. We should consider a tougher sentence for those carrying firearms. As the Minister previously explained, gun crime has reduced since the Government introduced a minimum five-year sentence. In my constituency there is a firearm incident on average every 17 days. We should look to strengthen the Bill; removing the mandatory minimum sentence of five years would not strengthen it.
I take the hon. Lady’s point, but I am arguing about the distribution of justice. Seriousness, according to the Criminal Justice Act 2003, is determined by two main parameters: the culpability of the offender and the harm caused by the offence. The mandatory minimum sentence is presumably designed to echo the provision in section 51A of the Firearms Act 1968, which was inserted by the 2003 Act. The courts said that the
“purpose of the provision is to ensure that absent exceptional circumstances the courts will always impose deterrent sentences” and that the discretion of the court would be removed by the mandatory minimum sentencing. We remain concerned that the proportionality of sentencing may be subverted by the mandatory situation in each of the cases. Courts may be obliged to pass a minimum sentence.
Again, I must stress that that would make the Bill far more woolly, which I know that the Liberal Democrats are not used to being. The hon. Lady’s changes would make a gaping hole in the Bill, when we should be strengthening it.
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross stated previously that the five-year minimum sentence made him think twice about leaving a loaded gun in his car while his friend drove it away. By removing the mandatory minimum sentence, we will stop people thinking about the consequences of someone else carrying their firearm. We must strengthen the Bill, not weaken it, yet the hon. Lady is weakening the Bill.
Order. The hon. Lady should try to make her interventions brief. There is ample time in Committee for members who seek to catch my eye to make contributions. I would appreciate it if interventions were as brief as possible.
It is certainly not my intention to weaken the Bill, but I am concerned that a mandatory minimum sentence may deliver injustice. There is an attempt at equivalent seriousness, and as I understand it even a different firearms offence would not attract the same sentence. A very uneven playing field would be created while sending out an appropriate message to those who are the focus of the legislation.
No, that is not my intention. I am trying to understand whether the Government have thought through the distinctions that the provision might create. Even different firearms offences do not carry that mandatory minimum sentence, so the Bill would create an inequality in the law.
I am looking with some amusement at the face of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. He was obviously paying great attention to the hon. Lady’s contribution. Is what she is putting forward official Liberal party policy to weaken the Bill or is it a bit of freelance enterprise on her part?
I have made it perfectly clear that the intention is not to weaken the Bill. The intention is to sort out some of the inequalities or unevenness that might be created by the minimum mandatory sentence. Other firearms offences do not carry such a sentence.
Is this the Liberal party’s official position or is it a freelance move on the hon. Lady’s part? Judging from the hon. Gentleman’s face, her colleague clearly has some grave reservations.
I am aware of my colleague’s reservations, although the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) can see his face, whereas I cannot. This is a probing amendment to ascertain the Government’s view.
Is this official party policy? I recognise that the hon. Lady’s colleague has reservations. It was also quite amusing to see her face when he described the small arsenal that he keeps at home.
My experience of firearms is not so much limited as non-existent. I share with the Minister an understanding of alcohol that I do not have of firearms. I ask her to respond to my points.
The clause relates to the imposition of new-length mandatory sentences that relate to the crime of using someone to mind a weapon. Although it is obvious that sentences should be severe and certain enough to act as a deterrent, we have several reservations about the clause. First, there is no evidence to support the increases and no evidence to justify the imposition of mandatory sentences. The second reservation relates to the imposition of mandatory sentences themselves from a conceptual point of a view.
On amendment No. 299, from the Liberals, we see no evidential justification for increasing the sentence to 10 years. If we were talking about judicial discretion coming into play, we might have some more sympathy, but, on the basis of mandatory sentences, I am afraid that we will not support that amendment.
However, the position changes with Liberal amendment No. 151 and our amendments Nos. 204 to 214. We have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Lady has just been saying. The purpose of our amendments and amendment No. 151, which basically has the same effect, is to remove mandatory sentencing and leave room for judicial discretion. Our amendments do that by removing the word “must” and replacing it with “may” and by removing the word “exceptional” in line 11. I note also that new clause 19, which the Government recently produced—I have not had the opportunity of reviewing all the implications, because it cuts across other pieces of legislation—seems to extend the minimum sentences to a whole range of offences under firearms legislation. Although I applaud the Government’s intention in moving towards some kind of consistency in the legislation, that should not be done at the expense of justice. I shall explain why.
First, where is the evidence to show that the imposition of long mandatory sentences will have an effect on violent crime reduction? That is one of our concerns. I will not outline to the Committee the well-established arguments relating to mandatory sentences and judicial discretion. However, we must remain vigilant about mandatory custodial sentences where it is preferable to allow judges discretion. In the Bill, it must be prudent, and infinitely more desirable, to allow judges discretion in order to avoid the unintended ramifications that may arise. Mandatory minimum sentences can result in disproportionate sentences, which could be in contravention of article 49(3) of the EU charter of fundamental rights. That provides that the severity of penalties must not be disproportionate to the criminal offence. For starters, surely it is not intended that the mandatory minimum sentences should apply to children. I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm that that is the case.
The mandatory minimum of five years’ imprisonment in clause 25(4) seems to echo the provision in section 51A of the Firearms Act 1968, which was inserted by section 287 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Both those sections make provision for exceptional circumstances. In the recent case of Rehman, which concerned section 51A, it was held that exceptional circumstances existed if
“to impose five years’ imprisonment would result in an arbitrary and disproportionate sentence.”
The court said that the
“purpose of the provision is to ensure that absent exceptional circumstances the courts will always impose deterrent sentences”.
Despite that judgment, there remain concerns about the proportionality of sentencing under these provisions because the result might be, in cases where exceptional circumstances cannot be made out, sentences that would not otherwise be justified. It is notable that in the case of the second appellant in Rehman, whose mandatory minimum sentence was upheld, both the sentencing judge and the Court of Appeal expressed regret or reluctance at coming to the conclusion that there were no exceptional circumstances in his case. In the case of Jordan, Alleyne, and Redfern in 2004, the Court of Appeal said that cases of “exceptional circumstances” will be rare, and that they arise only where there are real exceptional circumstances.
That strict approach has been confirmed in a number of cases. In the case of Evans in 2005, the Court of Appeal decided that “real exceptional circumstances” had not arisen. The offender, a civilian station reception officer at Dagenham police station, had a considerable collection of guns and ammunition at his home and in the boot of his car. He was a gun enthusiast aged 55 who enjoyed shooting at a rifle range and had never been in trouble before. His gun club supplied a reference. Other referees spoke of him as a good neighbour, family man and citizen. There was also a psychological report that stated that the offender had a severe level of obsessive compulsive disorder and clinically significant levels of anxiety and depression. The Court of Appeal rejected the submission of “exceptional circumstances”. For those reasons, we propose to remove the word “exceptional” from clause 25.
The knock-on effects of this type of clause should also be borne in mind. Courts may be obliged to pass minimum sentences even though an offence of equivalent seriousness would not attract such a sentence. This clause imposes mandatory minimum sentences of five years and three years. In the case of Grainger in 1997—a manslaughter case, originally charged as murder—the victim started chanting football slogans of a team other than his, then obtained a knife and superficially stabbed himself in the chest. The offender then retrieved a kitchen knife and plunged it into the chest of the victim. The sentence given was three years’ imprisonment. Having killed someone with a knife, the offender received a sentence of only three years. How can it be fair, therefore, that for just giving someone the knife to carry he could get a mandatory minimum sentence of five years?
Again, in the case of Kitchener in 1999, the offender arrived home to discover a group of neighbours protesting about his dog and its continuous barking. The offender left his partner and children at a friend’s house, armed himself with a knife and returned home. A fight broke out in which the victim was stabbed and died. The sentence given in that case was five years’ imprisonment.
Another way of demonstrating that this clause could result in disproportionately long sentences is by comparing it to sentencing for death by dangerous driving. The guideline case—
Surely what the hon. Gentleman is demonstrating with his examples is that in the case of the deaths, the perpetrators received appallingly low sentences for the crimes that they committed. I would be with him if we were arguing that the sentences should be increased for those crimes. However, how can that be an argument for reducing the sentence for this offence?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, there is a vast difference between a judge giving long sentences having considered the circumstances of the case and of the victim, and our simply saying that there is a minimum sentence whatever the circumstances. For this crime, it seems inappropriate that the sentence should be mandatory. As I said, compare it with death by dangerous driving. The guideline case states that a sentence of 12 to 18 months is appropriate for an offence with no aggravating features, and a sentence of two to three years is appropriate for an intermediate level of culpability. That is for death by dangerous driving.
My point is that one can receive a lower sentence for killing someone by plunging a knife into them than by keeping a collector’s gun belonging to someone else in an unused state under a bed, if there are no exceptional circumstances. I maintain that it is not desirable to impose mandatory sentences that may further increase the prison population or operate contrary to the interests of justice—that is what this discussion is about.
I was saddened to hear the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. If this will be the future of the Conservative party—soft on crime—many people out there will not vote for its candidates in the next election.
The hon. Gentleman’s argument is hardly worth addressing. His dismissive attitude is, frankly, pathetic, but I ask him whether he can honestly say that a minimum sentence will be right for every set of circumstances.
My constituents and most people who are plagued by youths who use knives and sometimes cause death or major injury, or by gun crime such as that described earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, want tough sentencing. They want the courts to deal with such people. They do not want excuses, which is what the hon. Gentleman is making.
I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman by discussing the interests of justice, but I shall continue to do so.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the interests of justice. Will he accept that many people believe that the interests of justice are not served by the low sentences that he mentioned for death by dangerous driving? People write to me about that all the time.
The length of sentence for death by dangerous driving was increased, and I supported that increase. I am talking not about the length of sentence but about judicial discretion, which is something that this Government are intent on destroying.
I have no sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s argument. My constituency has a firearms-related incident every 17 days. The five-year minimum sentence has been working—there has been a reduction in gun crime—and the Bill addresses some of the anomalies that have come from it. We should build on the good work that the Labour Government have done in introducing the Bill. Rather than consider the arguments of the Opposition, perhaps we should consider increasing the minimum sentence from five years to 10. I want to be tougher on crime in my area and see it reduced further. Perhaps the Minister would give that some consideration.
It appears that I am in the happy position of being a moderate between two extremes, but there is nothing extreme about my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler). She takes the matter extremely seriously and has an excellent record of campaigning on these issues. She has contributed significantly to the reduction in gun crime in her area, and has been campaigning for an increase in the mandatory minimum sentence for some time. I hope that after my explanation she will understand why we have pitched the mandatory sentence at five years, but I understand that there are strong arguments and feelings that the sentence should be higher. I have no doubt that people will continue to campaign for that.
Let me deal first with the amendments about knives. We have genuinely tried to propose sentences that are proportionate to sentences for existing offences. The penalty for having a knife is a maximum of four years’ imprisonment. At the moment, the maximum penalty for possession of a knife or blade weapon in a public place without reasonable excuse is two years’ imprisonment. We have set the maximum for that offence for knives at the higher end of the scale.
Amendment No. 299 would increase that to 10 years’ imprisonment. That would be out of step with current sentencing policies and would be disproportionate. We must ensure that we position the penalty correctly, and I believe that we are probably right. I do not seek to minimise the effect of knife crime. Indeed, provisions later in the Bill will help strengthen the power to deal with knife crime. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) mentioned a dreadful case that happened a few days ago in his constituency of an elderly pensioner being stabbed to death. We have seen an increase in knife crime.
The courts have a range of sentences for grievous bodily harm, murder, manslaughter, assault occasioning actual bodily harm—whether with guns, knives or any other weapon. Many serious and violent crimes can bring a life sentence, and rightly so. We are talking about mandatory sentences for possession of dangerous weapons.
That brings me to amendment No. 204, which would remove the mandatory minimum sentence of five years where a prohibited firearm is involved. I cannot believe that the hon. Members for Hornsey and Wood Green and for Huntingdon should seek to remove the mandatory sentence. I am shocked. The hon. Lady spoke of justice. Justice is not for the offender only; many feel that the criminal justice system is weighted far too heavily in favour of the offender and that the victim is not at the heart of our criminal justice system. Many of our reforms ensure that victims and witnesses feel that the system is on their side.
Does my hon. Friend agree that when a Liberal focus leaflet is next put though letterboxes claiming that the Liberal Democrats are tough on crime locally, they should read what the hon. Lady said today?
I am sure that, as my hon. Friend says, many of our constituents will be fascinated to read the statements in Hansard and to discover the Liberal Democrat definition of justice. It is dangerous, in a democracy, that ordinary people should not have confidence in the criminal justice system. That is why we are so exercised to ensure that they see that it is on their side.
I still claim that we are tough on crime. I do not think that arguing for the criminal justice system to consider the circumstances of individual cases means that we are not tough on crime. We must not forget that if we create more crime, we will have to let people go free because our prisons will be full. Indeed, that is what the Home Secretary recently did. I am concerned that justice should be done. The Liberal Democrats are obviously tough on crime. [Laughter.]
Order. The hon. Lady should not allow herself to be unnecessarily provoked by any part of the Committee. She will have an opportunity to wind up when she may briefly allude to some of the questions that were put during the Minister’s and other contributions.
The hon. Lady spent a long time talking about human rights. It is important that we balance those rights correctly. We believe that there should be a minimum mandatory sentence. It is open to the courts in exceptional circumstances to depart from that minimum. In the vast majority of cases, however, a minimum sentence will be appropriate.
The hon. Member for Huntingdon asked what evidence we have that mandatory sentences are effective. Mandatory sentences for the offence were first imposed in January 2004. If he has seen the crime statistics released today, he will have seen that during the past year the number of incidents involving shotguns has decreased by 13 per cent., that the number of incidents involving handguns has decreased by 8 per cent., and that there has been an increase in the use of imitation weapons. That clearly shows that there is a trend, and that people are aware that if they are caught in possession of an illegal gun, they will go to jail for five years. That is an incredible incentive for people not to carry illegal guns. The message from the Government is simple, clear and direct: we take gun crime very seriously. Those caught in possession of an illegal gun will go to prison, and they should make no mistake about it. That is an important message to send out.
Will the Minister not at least concede that one problem with mandatory sentences is that juries are often less likely to convict? Although the standard of proof that has to be reached is technically the same in practice, juries will be reluctant reach a guilty verdict unless guilt is even more likely.
Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I have confidence in the good people who sit on juries, who are perfectly capable of reaching proper decisions. There is a mandatory sentence for possession of firearms, which is a good offence to prove because the simple fact that someone is in possession of a firearm is the offence. Therefore, people who might have been intimidated and who might not have wanted to come forward to give evidence do not have to. The policeman’s evidence that someone was in possession of a gun is sufficient for that offence to be proven, and that person will go to prison. Decent people have been intimidated—in many cases, by violent criminals and gangsters—but they no longer have to come forward to give evidence. That is therefore a very effective provision, and it is making a difference.
I should also tell the hon. Member for Huntingdon that fatal injuries have been reduced by 14 per cent., which means that 14 per cent. fewer people are being killed as a result of the use of guns. Some of that reduction is undoubtedly down to the fact that we have a mandatory minimum sentence, which sends out a message to the community.
I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman said that some of the sentences for possession of illegal weapons were disproportionately high. I do not think that five years in prison for carrying illegal weapons is a disproportionately high sentence when we have the problem of gun crime. We need to take tough measures, and that is exactly what we are going to do; we are not going to water down the measures in the Bill, which are absolutely appropriate when it comes to dealing with the problems that face our society.
New clause 19 addresses a problem that we recently encountered, which highlights some of the issues that we have just discussed. At present, the minimum sentence is for possession of a weapon; it is designed to deter such behaviour and it is working. However, in a recent case, someone was charged with a different offence. A person can be charged with possession with intent to injure, possession with intent to cause fear of violence, carrying a firearm with criminal intent and carrying a firearm in a public place. The advice to the Crown Prosecution Service is that someone should always be charged with possession, because that carries a minimum sentence. In addition, they can be charged with those other offences. In the case that I mentioned, however, the person was charged with one of the other offences and not with the strict possession offence, so the mandatory sentence was not open to the judge.
New clause 19 therefore makes the minimum mandatory sentence apply to those other offences as well. We will not then have a situation in which somebody who has a gun is charged with possession with intent to injure, but the mandatory sentence is not available because of a technicality—namely that it applies only to the simple possession offence. The new clause therefore ensures that the minimum sentence applies to that range of offences. I am sure that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green would object violently to the fact that we are providing for the minimum mandatory sentence in those circumstances, but I think that victims of gun crime will support us absolutely in making that extension.
I ask hon. Members to consider this matter carefully and not to press their amendments. Justice is important—justice for victims and witnesses, not just offenders.
I welcome what the Minister said about knife crime, and we are at one on that. I support victims being looked after by our justice system. I listened carefully to what she said about mandatory minimum sentences, but question whether it is message or reality. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.