The Committee will see that my two amendments are contradictory. That is deliberate, because I want to give the Minister a menu of options to discuss, although obviously I cannot move both amendments.
Sir Roger, I live in a strange world. When I was a youth the Conservative party was known as the party of law and order. Throughout my entire youth I faced challenges because the Conservative party stood up for strong action against criminals, and on policing and other matters; it caused my party some discomfort in those lean years. In fact, in the year you were elected, Sir Roger, I faced, in my constituency, what I can only call a slaughtering. One of the issues on which I was slaughtered was law and order.
I therefore find my position today strange. The Government propose under the clause to make a significant change in the relationship between shoplifters and the courts. Effectively, shoplifters who might face trial can be dealt with in the magistrates court under section 12 of the Magistrates’ Court Act 1980. That enables defendants in summary cases—as set out in the helpful explanatory notes—to plead guilty by post to shoplifting. That means that they will not have to get out of bed to appear in court. They will, potentially, be treated in the same way as for traffic penalty points. For the world at large shoplifting is being downgraded from an offence that leads to court to one for which, in summary cases, someone can plead guilty by post; such a person can avoid the indignity of appearing in court before a magistrate to face the consequences of serious actions.
I am surprised, because I thought the Conservative party was the party of law and order. It strikes me as being quite strange that we could downgrade shoplifting—shop theft, dare I call it?—to a situation whereby someone can sit at home, put their letter in the post and face the consequences. They will probably not go to prison because that would be a very severe option, but they will certainly have to pay a fine of some sort. Sadly, half the fines that are levied are not actually paid by the people who undertake the said shoplifting and are found guilty of it. Worse still, in this great party of law and order, the figure that my amendment would change sets potentially aggravated shoplifting offences at £200. The helpful explanatory notes say, on page 71, that
“where a person is charged with three counts of shoplifting having allegedly taken £80 worth of goods from three separate shops, the new procedure would not apply in that case as the aggregate sum exceeds the £200 threshold”.
I do not know what kind of shoplifting goes on in Thanet, but in north Wales, in Delyn constituency, and elsewhere in the country, most people who go shoplifting shoplift items of low value. They do not shoplift three aggregate £80 amounts of stuff. That is three Gucci bags and beyond. It is not what happens in most constituencies. [Interruption.] I confess that I am showing my lack of knowledge of Gucci bags.
Order. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that, first, we do not sell Gucci bags in Thanet and, secondly, I suspect that they cost rather more than eighty quid.
I suspect that I am showing my ignorance of Gucci bags, but the principle is that three shopliftings of £80 are usually a significant amount. Therefore, in my view—and it is only my view for the moment, but I will refer to others shortly—the £200 figure indicates a very high threshold for drawing the line whereby individuals go to court.
I want to test the Minister on a number of things. Does he think that the clause downgrades the crime of shop theft? Does he think it is fair and proper that people should be allowed to plead guilty by post, and not end up in the magistrates court? Does he think that the £200 threshold is appropriate, given the opportunities that people have to shoplift?
I have expressed my view, but I will, if I may, pray in aid the Association of Convenience Stores, which represents some 33,500 local shops across the country. If we go into a Co-op, a Spar, a Costcutter, a Nisa Retail or indeed thousands of independent shops, we are walking into an Association of Convenience Stores shop. I venture to suggest that every Member gathered here today has members of the association in their constituency. The association said that it does not support the principle of the proposal in clause 133, and nor does it support the £200 threshold that is being suggested by the Minister. In a briefing which all Members have had, the association said that:
“The impact or severity of shop theft should not be defined in monetary value. Setting a high threshold of £200 would codify discrimination against businesses selling groceries and other everyday goods (such as convenience stores) from high end fashion and electrical retailers. It will also downgrade the vast majority of offences, which are for goods of a lesser value than £200. The threshold should be dropped to £100, this would be closer to the median amount of value of goods stolen (£40)”.
The Committee will note the inconsistencies in the amendments, which use the figures of both £100 and £40, which is the median value of goods stolen. In due course, I want the Minister to justify to the Committee why £200. Why not £100, or £40? In my humble opinion, these are extremely serious issues.
I speak in support of the amendment. In Rotherham, we have many small independent shops and we have a scheme that allows many young people to get their first shop. The products in such shops are £20 or £30 tops. The £200 limit is out of reach for many small shopkeepers. We need to make it clear to small and start-up businesses that we are taking the crime seriously, because they are probably only taking home £100, so unless they think there will be a real sanction, we are just not standing up for them.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for intervening to support my case. We have so far been discussing small shops and the Association of Convenience Stores, but I suspect that Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and others will share that view, because nobody walks into a Tesco and takes out £200-worth of stuff in their pockets, even on one or two occasions. The majority of stolen items—this is theft—are of relatively low value. The median figure for shoplifted items is £40.
Retail crime is serious. It is a hidden serious issue. I will declare a potential interest. My first job after university—I am now in my third career—was in retail. I worked for the Co-op. Retail crime was a hidden major drag on the company’s performance, because leakage—we used that nice, friendly term—actually meant that the cost to us as shoppers increased. When items leaked—when things were stolen and disappeared through the door—the price of everything else in the shop was increased proportionately. The Home Office’s figure from around two years ago states that some £263 is added to the average family’s bills over the course a year because of the cost of leakage—theft as I prefer to call it.
I appreciate and accept that the Government are looking to save money by reducing court appearances and by speeding up the process, and I know that the Minister will say that. It sends a really bad signal, however, when the Minister proposes a measure that effectively means that people will be able to sit at home and send an application by post and not face the consequences of taking items valued up to £200. In fact, most people will be charged with shop theft of £40, £50 or £60-worth of items, which will fall under that threshold.
The cost of retail crime is some £1.6 billion a year. Not all of it is shoplifting. Some of it is good old-fashioned guns in faces—we will come on to intimidating burglary and robbery under the new clauses. Nevertheless, shop theft is a significant part of that £1.6 billion a year of leakage and theft from stores, which puts up the cost for others. We need to look at the signals the Government are sending. The Minister does not have to take my word for it or the word of the Association of Convenience Stores. I quote the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on Second Reading:
“I urge the Government to look again at clause 133 on low value shoplifting. Owners of small shops in particular will be concerned about what they will see as a downgrading in the way that thefts of a value of below £200 are treated.”—[Official Report, 10 June 2013; Vol. 564, c. 97.]
Unusually, I find myself making common cause with a Government Member against the Minister on this issue.
The Association of Convenience Stores has helpfully undertaken its annual survey of shop owners across the country. It asks several questions about optimism, sales performance, community activity and so on. One question is whether shopkeepers have been a victim of theft within the past 12 months. Let me give the Committee an idea of how common that crime is and why I hope the Minister will feel uncomfortable about his proposal—because of the signal it sends. In his region, the south-east, in response to the association’s survey, 79% of shop keepers said that they had experienced shop theft in the past 12 months. In the eastern region, represented in the Committee by the hon. Members for Norwich South and for North East Cambridgeshire, the figure is 77%—[Interruption.]. Yes, I am going to go through the list, dear Minister. I will go through it because it matters to shopkeepers. Please put on the record that the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane said, “You’re not going to go through the list, are you?” I am going to go through the list for him.
Just for the record, I did not say anything of the sort. I am more than happy for the right hon. Gentleman to read whatever list he wishes to read. I did not make that comment.
I think that Hansard will pick up the fact that the Minister said, “You’re not going to go through the list, are you?” In fact, I am going to go through the list.
For the Minister’s benefit, let me look at the south-west: 67% of shopkeepers in the south-west said that they were subject to retail theft last year. That is one of the lowest figures—perhaps that is why he is not too bothered about the issue. But I am; it is of extreme importance to people in the shopkeeper community as a whole.
In Yorkshire and Humber, which is the area that the hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham represents, 81% of shopkeepers said that they had experienced shop theft during the past 12 months. In the north-west, represented by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys and my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale, the figure was 82%. My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield is not in the room at the moment, but in the north-east the figure was 83%. In my own area of Wales, the figure was 73%.
It is a big issue for, on average, three quarters of all shopkeepers in the country, yet the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice is today bringing forward a proposal that says, “Send your invitation by post. Respond by post. Put it in the post. Plead guilty by post. Don’t face court”. That is not acceptable and I expect an explanation from him.
Amendment 113 would reduce the threshold to £100. In the 2006 study, the median amount of goods taken was £40 and only 23% of recorded incidents were of thefts of between £100 and £200. If we accepted the amendment, we would bring at least 75% of incidents within the threshold and help to give a bit more justice to people who are subject to that type of shop theft. As I said, the median figure is £40. That figure is worth examining, and I would welcome the Minister’s talking to the figures of £200, £100 and £40 accordingly.
Individuals have raised a number of issues, and I reserve the right to return to them shortly. Let me look first at the Hull Daily Mail, which reported a couple of weeks ago that since the new year food theft from shops in Hull city centre, Holderness road and Hessle road had risen by 40%. A local police officer said that “family budgets are tight” and food theft is on the increase—an issue we could debate.
In some cases, criminal gangs undertake significant theft from supermarkets and shops and then sell on those goods at discounted prices to people in poor areas. If individuals are offered, say, a jar of coffee for £1.50 instead of the £5 retail price, some people will take it, but the criminal has still made £1.50. Shop theft is on the increase in places such as Hull for those reasons. Police in Hull say that figures reveal that shoplifting in Hessle road alone rose by 50% in April compared with the same period last year. I could pick any city, but I picked Hull because it came to our attention. Donna Finn, the chairman of the Hessle road traders association said:
“It is really shocking to know how much it has gone up, but it is a sign of the times. Something has got to be done about it.”
The something she wants is not the Minister downgrading the offence of shoplifting so that individuals can respond by post.
The right hon. Gentleman has a great deal of experience—indeed he was a Minister in the Department with this area of responsibility. I genuinely do not know the answer to this question. Is shoplifting at the moment triable either way? If it is, and if there is a trial in the magistrates court, can a defendant not already plead guilty by post? If that is the position, is the right hon. Gentleman not making something of a mountain out of a molehill?
That is a slightly separate point. On that point, though, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Front Bench should explain what on earth will be achieved by allowing an individual to elect for the expense of a Crown court trial for low-value shoplifting? If the Government’s intention is to reduce the costs associated with obtaining conviction in such cases, he will probably agree that subsection (2) of proposed new clause 22A of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 is probably unnecessary.
I can only quote from the helpful explanatory notes, which say that the changes mean that
“they will be brought within the procedure in section 12 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 that enables defendants in summary cases to be given the opportunity to plead guilty by post.”
If that is not the case, then let the Minister say so, but the explanatory notes say that it is the case that a defendant may now do that by post. I do not wish to draw any one particular individual into this matter, but I have a note here about a well-known celebrity chef who found himself in the papers because he had been caught shoplifting and had appeared in court. Do we think that well-known celebrity chef, whose name I will not put on the record for the Committee, would not sit at home and think, “Well, actually, I will take my chances. I’ll post my letter back and hope that no one notices. I won’t appear in court, and I won’t, therefore, appear on the front page of the Daily Star or The Sun or theDaily Mail”?
There is a big issue to do with the ability of individuals to plead guilty by post. Whatever the current circumstances, the explanatory notes indicate the potential for more people to do that and, therefore, for more people to face less of what I hope would be the public humiliation of being caught undertaking theft from their neighbours and pushing up the food bills of those neighbours and their community by stealing from shops in the first place.
In a research note published only last year, Jacqueline Schneider from the department of criminology, university of Leicester, states:
“This research note forms part of a larger set of findings…that examined disposal patterns of stolen goods. Literature linking shop theft and burglary, as part of an overall criminal career”, is identified, and the note finds that shop theft plays an instrumental role in offending patterns of prolific burglars. The research shows that people who begin by shoplifting—once they get a taste for it, are not punished too hard and enjoy the thrill and steal of the chase—move on to prolific burglary. There is a link and an escalation, according to academic research. The Minister’s proposal to put into law the clause along with the figure of £200 will not help to reduce that level of shop theft or potential further criminality.
I feel strongly about the matter, as would any sensible individual. The right hon. Gentleman is sending out a strong signal to those with CCTV cameras, those who hold vigil at their shops to make sure that shop theft is reduced and those who work for their communities that the Government are not taking such matters as seriously as they were taken before. For the victims, such action will be a serious omission. I shall reserve judgment at the moment on the amounts of £100 or £40 under my amendments until I have heard the Minister’s response, because he must first justify the principle of the clause as well as the principle behind the sum of £200.
The reason why the right hon. Gentleman should not press either of his contradictory amendments is that he has completely misunderstood the effect of the clause. I share all that he said about the seriousness of shop theft—I shall not use the word “shoplifting”—and its effect on the individual offender as well as on the economic health of individual areas and small businesses. I want to explain that the effect of the amendments would be entirely perverse, in that they would be helpful to shop thieves.
I understand that the right hon. Gentleman has received a briefing, as I have, on the issue. The essential issue he has missed is that the clause will not result in cases of low-value shop theft being dealt with without being considered by a court. Such cases will continue to be prosecuted by courts. What is more, the effect of the reform in many cases will be to make prosecution more straightforward and, therefore, remove any perverse incentive to use an out-of-court disposal in cases that warrant prosecution in court.
The first effect of the change will mean that more shop thieves go to court. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman and those who run small or, indeed, large shops will welcome that. As for where the cases are heard, the clause is not intended to change the venue of shop-theft cases from the Crown court to a magistrates court. Magistrates courts already hear 77,000 such cases a year compared with 700 heard by the Crown court. Furthermore, the clause will not alter sentencing powers: low-value shop theft will be subject to the same maximum penalty of six months’ custody, as it is at present.
The clause will enable such cases to benefit from more efficient arrangements that are limited to summary-only offences. The procedure that enables defendants to plead guilty by post will be available, and the police will be able to make use in such cases of powers they already possess, whereby they can prosecute certain offences when they are uncontested. Apart from the fact that more people will be prosecuted in court rather than treated by out-of-court disposals, the second key point that I urge the right hon. Gentleman to consider is that the clause will speed up the prosecution in such cases and thus provide swifter justice for the victims—the retailers—on whose behalf he was purporting to speak. The provision will enable shop thieves to be dealt with in court faster than before.
The right hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that many people, particularly habitual shop thieves, take such action to feed a drug habit and the best thing that we can do for shops, as well as for those people, is to get them into the court system and, if necessary, into prison and on rehabilitation schemes so that we can treat the underlying symptom of the theft. That is the best way to protect the retailers.
Given what my right hon. Friend has just said, could he explain why we are retaining the possibility of Crown court trial at all for low-value shoplifting? If the clause is designed to ensure that these offences are prosecuted quickly and more efficiently and effectively, custodial sentences are given where necessary and appropriate punishment is doled out, why is not all shop theft below the value of £200 being made the subject of summary trial only?
My hon. and learned Friend will know better than I do the sensitivity of entirely removing the possibility of applying for jury trial in certain cases. As I say, in practical terms it is not an unnecessary clogging up of the court system given those figures of 770,000 against 700. For the vast majority of cases, the key point is that getting into court faster is a way of both punishing—providing swifter justice—and ensuring that what we need to do to and for the individual offender happens faster. I am sure it is a perverse effect that the right hon. Member for Delyn did not intend to introduce, but the effect of accepting either of his amendments would be to help the shop thieves. Any Member who is considering voting for these amendments will themselves be helping shop thieves stay out of court for longer and therefore stay out of jail for longer.
Could the Minister tell the Committee what consultation he undertook with the retail community, including the Association of Convenience Stores? My understanding was that the first it knew of the clause was when the Bill was published. If there is a misunderstanding—I am not saying there is, and I will certainly consider pressing these amendments—it could have been avoided by wide consultation with the people affected.
Since the Bill was published, with the association the right hon. Gentleman referred to and with the British Retail Consortium, which I notice he did not quote as it did not say what he said about this. Discussions have taken place. There does appear to be a genuine misunderstanding. What I seek to do today, for his benefit and for the benefit of the Committee, is to explain the practical effects of the amendments he has tabled, which would be perverse. They would help keep shop thieves out of court and therefore out of jail for longer. As many of them are, as we know, feeding a drug habit, the effect would plainly be to increase the amount of crime in shops in this country. I cannot believe that he wants to do that.
The amendments would reduce the number of cases in which these arrangements could be used by reducing the level of the threshold. The right hon. Gentleman asked a quite reasonable question about this. The value set out in the clause is not arbitrary: it is based on detailed research that was done in 2006 for the Sentencing Advisory Panel, which shows that a £200 threshold captures 90% of all shop theft cases heard in magistrates courts. Setting the threshold at £100 would catch 77% of cases, and as £40 was the median value of goods involved in shop theft cases, a threshold at that level would include only 50% of cases. Excluding cases because the item stolen was worth more than £40 or £100 would have no effect at all on where they were tried or on the sentence that could be given.
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that it does not follow from the clause that we expect all cases of low-value shop theft to be dealt with by post and prosecuted by the police in the defendant’s absence. That is not the intention. For prolific shoplifters, it may well be appropriate for them to be charged and bailed to appear in court, to be dealt with in person. That would be particularly suitable for cases where a custodial sentence is in prospect.
It is difficult to predict future behaviour in that way. It is for the prosecutors and the police to decide. If it is a prolific offender who has committed many offences and who is therefore likely to receive a custodial sentence, it will be appropriate for them to be charged and bailed to appear in court. There will clearly be changes. As I said, the main thing we want to do is ensure that anyone who commits this serious and common offence gets into the system as fast as possible, so that justice can be delivered more quickly than in the past. I know that it is a cliché, but like many truisms it is a truism because it is true: justice delayed is justice denied. I seek to speed up justice for both the victims and the perpetrators of this particular crime.
Appearance in court will still be entirely possible under the new provisions. It is a matter for guidance, which we will develop in due course. I hope that I have persuaded the right hon. Gentleman that his amendments are unnecessary.
I rise merely because I am a little confused. Being a bear of very little brain, I am anxious to have my confusion resolved before we conclude our deliberations on the amendments. At the moment, as I understand from what the Minister has told the Committee, the offence of low-value shoplifting is triable either way: that is, it can be tried in the magistrates court or, on the election of the defendant, in the Crown court. If the clause becomes law, the offence will be triable summarily only, but an adult defendant may elect trial in the Crown court.
The current position is that an adult defendant can elect trial in the Crown court—in 700 cases a year, they apparently do so—but the Minister says that, after the clause is passed, an adult defendant will be able to elect trial in the Crown court. I am confused about what the purpose of the clause is, given that there seems to be no difference between those two scenarios.
The purpose of the clause is not to change the very small proportion of cases that are heard in court every year. The purpose of the clause is to speed up justice for the 77,000, not the 700 about whom my hon. and learned Friend is concerned. The effect will be that they will therefore be heard in court and be sentenced faster. That is the purpose. It does not alter the powers or the sentences; it means that the magistrates courts will be able to organise themselves more efficiently so that justice is delivered more quickly.
I really do not understand. At the moment, if someone is charged with an offence, they have an appearance in the magistrates court, at which they can either elect trial summarily in the magistrates court or trial in the Crown court. Under the Bill, that person will still receive some form of complaint from the magistrates court through the post. Yes, of course they will be able to plead guilty if they want the case tried summarily, but they can do so at the moment, and if they want it tried in the Crown court, it can be tried in the Crown court. Where is the saving in time? It is the practicalities that I am interested in, and I would like the Minister to explain.
For those who plead guilty at the moment, there is still a hearing, which occupies all the time that happens. The clause will give the courts the chance to hear the case by post, without a full hearing, which will cause a significant improvement in the speed and efficiency by which magistrates courts dispense justice.
I get a sense that the position is a bit confused. The Minister has not yet satisfied me about the lack of merit in either of my options. Will the Minister reflect on it slightly more? So far, he has admitted that no consultation took place on clause 133 before the Bill was published on 9 May 2013. No consultation took place with any retailer before that date about the clause’s contents. I know that, because retailers have said to me that no consultation took place with them before 9 May 2013, when this was published.
I presume that the Association of Convenience Stores is therefore wrong in its assertion that the provision will downgrade shoplifting—that to have a £200 threshold is a bad proposal. I presume that the hon. Member for Witham in her speech on Second Reading is also wrong in her understanding of the situation. I presume that a group of retailers that I met not one week after this was published, who expressed concern about the lack of clarity and consultation, and the impact of the proposal, are all wrong.
The Minister has an opportunity to explain himself, but I should like to test the will of the Committee on amendment 113. If I am proved wrong, no harm is done if the Minister votes it down. If we have that Division and £100 is inserted to replace £200, the Minister has the opportunity to reverse this at Report, or to reflect on today’s debate and to find some greater contact with the retailers to assure them by Report stage.
To answer one specific technical question that my hon. and learned Friend asked, about whether the section 12 procedure does not currently apply to shoplifting, the answer is yes. I hope that that clears up his issue. The right hon. Gentleman can press the amendment. As I have said, its practical effect would be to enable shop thieves to evade justice and punishment for longer. I cannot believe that he wants that to happen.
‘(d) the person accused has not received a Simple Caution, Conditional Caution or Penalty Notice for Disorder for a previous shoplifting offence.’.
I shall not revisit much of the arguments about the principle of shop theft again, but I want the Minister’s assessment of the issue of people who are persistent offenders on shoplifting and shop theft. Amendment 114 would add that clause 133 applied except where the person accused has not received a simple caution, conditional caution or penalty notice for disorder for a previous shoplifting offence. I am concerned about the potential downgrading of serious, persistent offences by shop thieves.
Does the Minister believe that clause 133 should apply if individuals are persistent offenders? My understanding from the Association of Convenience Stores and from my reading of the explanatory notes is that clause 133 ensures that we have a maximum penalty of six months custody, but also that low-value shoplifting will be brought within the procedure of section 12 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 that enables defendants in summary cases to be given the opportunity to plead guilty by post.
The central tenet of our discussion so far and of this amendment is that, yes, the penalties are still in place and yes, the penalties are still the same, but it might be worth considering whether someone who has persistently undertaken shop theft should be given the right to plead guilty by post. That is a perfectly legitimate debate to have, and I think that we should have it at this moment.
Let me give the Minister two examples. I picked these randomly. I simply looked at this week’s cases in court and I came across this case on the newswires. The report begins:
“TWO brothers have been jailed after a series of thefts from Huddersfield stores. Huddersfield magistrates sentenced” the two individuals—
“to 16 weeks in jail each when they appeared in court yesterday.”
The jailing is not the key point; I will come to the key point. The report says that one of the individuals entered a store
“and left the store without paying as his brother acted as lookout” and
“stole a further £100 worth of items from the same shop” the following day. He was caught by security staff and was involved in a tussle. He stole
“a quantity of cheese from the Coop store” on the same day.
“The pair pleaded guilty to all the charges” and, after they had pleaded guilty, the magistrates were told that the first individual had 31 previous convictions and his brother had 22 previous convictions, all for shoplifting.
The individuals in the case that I have cited went to jail, but let us say that the magistrates were considering the matter as a whole. Does the Minister think that it is practical and important that an individual with 31 previous convictions or 22 previous convictions should be allowed to plead guilty by post to the charges brought against them? I do not happen to think that that is a suitable way to treat persistent offenders, and—dare I say it?—the Association of Convenience Stores takes the same view as I have put to the Committee this morning.
The amendment would ensure that persistent offenders were exempt from the provisions of clause 133 and would not be able to plead guilty by post to these offences, as explained in the explanatory notes. I would welcome hearing the Minister’s view on this issue. It strikes me that we are sending completely the wrong signal on a major issue of criminal behaviour if we allow the provisions of clause 133 to apply to persistent offenders.
The right hon. Gentleman is very hung up on pleading guilty by post, but what difference does it actually make? Is not what actually matters that, if a crime has been committed and there is a guilty plea, it is punished appropriately? The mechanism by which the guilty plea is entered is neither here nor there.
There is a bit of a difference between us there. I happen to think, and this may be a bit old-fashioned—[Hon. Members: “No, never!”] Well, perhaps on these matters, I am old-fashioned. I am sure that many of my constituents would share my old-fashionedness on this issue.
Let us say that an individual has 22 previous convictions, as the individual did in the case that I have cited, and, while he is sitting at home, he gets a letter through the post saying, “You’ve been caught. We know you’ve stolen some cheese from the Co-op and you stole £100-worth of items from Boots the previous day, but despite your 22 convictions, stay in bed this morning. When the post comes, sign the form. Send it back. Plead guilty by post. Don’t put your suit on. Don’t go down to the courtroom. Don’t face that ordeal.” There is a difference of opinion between us about that.
Stephen Phillips rose—
I will certainly give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman, because he has tremendous experience in this field. Perhaps he will indicate that people feel less intimidated or less chastised if they turn up in person, rather than putting something in the letter box. Perhaps he will also explain why things happen in the way they do in Lincolnshire.
I am certainly not going to make that argument. However, if there have been 22 previous cautions or convictions, and this is the 23rd offence, there will, once the guilty plea has been entered, be a sentencing hearing at some point, and the suit will have to go on. The convicted defendant will then have to turn up in court to hear the magistrate’s sentencing remarks, and he will have to take the sentence handed down from the bench. The mechanism for pleading guilty comes before that, and it does not matter one jot what form it takes. Surely, if we can save money and deter shoplifting by making convictions more effective and speedier, the right hon. Gentleman should welcome that.
Let me extend the hand of friendship to the hon. and learned Gentleman: I accept in part his contention that people will ultimately end up before a sentencing hearing. I happen to think we are talking about a serious crime. I accept that if we downgrade it by saying, “Deliver a guilty plea by post,” there may be some savings. However, my contention, which is shared by those at the coal face, such as the Association of Convenience Stores, other retailers and a range of other bodies, as well as the hon. Member for Witham, is that the clause simply downgrades the seriousness and the impact of the crime; it says that the crime does not matter as much as it did before the clause was implemented.
The Minister is shaking his head vigorously, and I will give him an opportunity in a moment to state his case. However, that is my opinion and the opinion of many retailers who have lobbied us. I do not want to labour the point, but if the Minister and his officials had bothered to talk to retailers before clause 133 had appeared, he may have been able to assuage their fears by sending out the right signals; he could have told them that the clause was not about downgrading, but about trying to deal with the range of matters that have been brought before the Committee. However, that is not what retailers feel; they actually feel that the clause says shoplifting does not matter as much as it did before.
For that reason, the Minister has to explain why someone with 22 convictions could not even go down to the post box himself, but stay in bed drinking the bottle of vodka he pinched from the store the day before and send his partner down to the post box to post his guilty plea. He could then await the call to put his suit on and face his penalty in due course. That is the wrong signal to send to those who are committing a significant part of the £1.6 billion of shop theft that happens every year. I look forward to the Minister’s comments.
The amendment covers a lot of similar ground to previous provisions, so, like the right hon. Gentleman, I will not make all the same points again.
Let me start by picking up the right hon. Gentleman’s last point. The clause does not downgrade these offences in any way; anyone who is guilty will receive the same sentence. The deterrent effect is absolutely the sentence, not necessarily the individual hearing, although as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham correctly said, there would still be a sentencing hearing, which may be regarded as a deterrent. Surely, however, the way to deter people from committing this serious crime is to catch them, convict them and sentence them. The net effect of these reforms will be to make that process faster and, therefore, keep people out of the shop where they may steal the bottle of vodka. The right hon. Gentleman brought up the case of somebody who had committed 22 offences and who was sent to jail, and I suspect we all agree that that is exactly what should happen. The net effect of the changes is that that might happen some weeks or months earlier, so that person will not be out on the streets and able to steal vodka or whatever else he was doing.
Amendment 114 would exclude from the ambit of clause 133 any case in which the defendant had already received a caution, conditional caution or penalty notice for disorder in respect of shop theft. I am unclear why a case should be excluded from the scope of these provisions simply because the defendant had previously received a caution or other out-of-court disposal. As the Committee will know, some sort of out-of-court disposal, such as a caution, is not an unusual outcome for a first offence of shop theft. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, though obviously each case needs to be treated on its merits.
I am absolutely sure—and the right hon. Gentleman correctly made the case during his speech—that all offenders should not receive a succession of out-of-court disposals. I can happily reassure him that clause 133 does not have that result. It does not provide for cases to be dealt with out of court. It provides for more straightforward prosecutions and therefore its likely effect is that more cases will be heard in court, rather than through out-of-court disposals. It follows that, for defendants who have already received one or more out-of-court disposals, prosecution for low-value shop theft under the new clause would be the obvious next step and the desired outcome.
To require, as the amendment does, that such a prosecution must be for the either-way offence would be both counter-productive and somewhat pointless. It would be counter-productive because it makes it less straightforward to prosecute than it need be; and pointless because a person being prosecuted for the first time for offending at this level is very unlikely to receive custody, let alone more than six months, which is what would be caught by this amendment.
I suspect that we all agree that for repeat offenders, it may well be appropriate to charge them and bail them to appear in court to be dealt with in person. Such an approach is likely to be more suitable in cases where the person charged has previous convictions for shop theft, making a custodial sentence more likely. I am again happy to reassure the right hon. Gentleman that the clause does not preclude this. On that basis, I hope that he will not press his amendment.
The big difference between us today has been, in my view, the importance of shop theft and the approach that the Government take to the initial guilty plea. We had that debate previously and I still think that the threshold issue is important. We are having, in effect, the same debate now in relation to the importance of shop theft. My central concern is the one that I just shared with the hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham. The guilty plea should not be—as specified in the explanatory notes and in the effect of the legislation—by post. That is a simple, definitive test between us. We had that argument in the last set of clauses and I believe that the argument is equally valid in relation to persistent offenders.
If this was my view, the Minister could perhaps dismiss it lightly. This is the view of, among others, the Association of Convenience Stores, which represents 33,500 stores across the country. It has taken the view that the Minister’s proposal potentially downgrades the approach of courts to shop theft. I understand that he is trying to achieve a balance between speeding up the process and keeping people who steal off the streets, but it is being done in a way that has not taken the industry with it. It has not involved the industry in discussions and made it feel confident that the criminal justice system is working on its behalf to reduce shop theft as a whole.
For that reason, I am still of a mind to test the will of the Committee on this amendment. If I am proved to be mistaken in my judgment, then I will be the first to stand up at another time and another place and say that the Minister’s points were right. However, I want to test the Committee now and for the Minister to reflect on this outside the Committee with those who have a real interest in this matter, the people who ultimately pay for the crimes that are being committed.
If the Minister gives me an indication that he will still reflect on these matters and have a wider consultation, then whatever the outcome of the Division—although I suspect I know what it will be—there is still an opportunity pending the discussions in September. I again reach out the hand of friendship and tell him that we have joint objectives in reducing theft from shops and giving confidence in the criminal justice system. Those outside the Committee do not feel that such is the case, which is the view that I am reflecting in Committee and in pressing the amendment. Whatever the outcome of the Division, I hope that the Minister will reflect on that before Report in September or October.