Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme — [Mr Peter Dowd in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:28 am on 25th May 2021.

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[Mr Peter Dowd in the Chair]

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Labour, Bootle 2:30 pm, 25th May 2021

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practices in order to support the new hybrid arrangements, and timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall, and Members are expected to remain for the entire debate. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I would also like to remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.

Photo of Gareth Johnson Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford 2:31 pm, 25th May 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the scope of the Unduly Lenient Sentence scheme.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. The unduly lenient sentencing scheme has been in existence since 1989. It was brought in as a result of woefully inadequate sentences imposed by some judges, to the horror of many members of the public. This included, of course, the so-called Ealing vicarage case, in which an offence of rape was treated less seriously than an offence of burglary. Things had to change, and I am pleased to say that they did.

Having spent 20 years working in the criminal justice system myself, I am very aware of the fact that judges generally get things right, but they are human, and mistakes happen. It is right that the defence can appeal sentences that are too harsh, and it must therefore be right that the prosecution can appeal sentences that they feel are wrong too.

There is a blanket right for the defence to appeal against sentences in the magistrates courts, and a right to appeal against sentences imposed in the higher courts. That is right, and that is fair, yet the prosecution has very limited rights to appeal against sentences that are too lenient. It is in this respect that the scales of justice in this country do not balance.

I pay tribute to the fact that the Government have extended the scope of this scheme more than any other. In 2017, 2018 and 2019, the scheme was extended, so we have ensured that many victims of some of the worst crimes can see the sentences in their cases increased to a fair level. The scales of justice are levelling up, but they are not there yet. I hope during this debate to make constructive suggestions about how we can build on that good progress, and how we can continue. While I have raised the issue of unduly lenient sentences in this place several times before, I was prompted to do so again by a particularly harrowing case affecting one of my constituents.

Gemma Robinson from Dartford was attacked in 2019 by her partner, Joseph Falconer, in the most despicable manner. He had previously assaulted her and was subject to a restraining order, but had tricked or cajoled his way both back into her life and into her home. This young lady was described as the life and soul of any party, yet she was mercilessly beaten by Falconer until her eye socket was fractured and her tooth punched through her lip. She was then spat on by him before he left the house and, in the final insult, he completely cleared her bank accounts.

He was, I am pleased to say, arrested and charged with section 18 GBH, an offence that is covered under the unduly lenient sentencing scheme. The matter went to trial, with Mr Falconer having pleaded not guilty. However, Gemma Robinson, feeling unable to face him in court, took her own life—an event that devastated her family. Subsequently, Joseph Falconer was, quite astonishingly, offered a less serious charge under section 20 of Offences against the Person Act 1861—an offence of malicious wounding. This is an offence that is not covered by the unduly lenient sentencing scheme and he pleaded guilty to that charge. Despite being described by the judge in court as a “dangerous, jealous and controlling man”, he was given just three and a half years imprisonment. Gemma’s family understandably felt that this was insufficient and they contacted my office. Only at that stage were they made aware by my office that there was no power to appeal, as malicious wounding under section 20 of Offences against the Person Act 1861 is not covered under the scheme. Incredibly, had Joseph Falconer been charged with coercive behaviour under the harassment legislation, the scheme would have applied.

Gemma Robinson’s family feel totally let down by the system and they are not alone. There are many instances of people applying for a sentence to be reviewed under the scheme only to be told it is an offence that is not covered. In fact, around a third of the applications are not covered by the scheme and the largest number of offences that are applied and are not under the scheme are actually under section 20 for malicious wounding and also for assault occasioning actual bodily harm. There are many quite vicious and violent assaults taking place in this country for which an unduly lenient sentence is imposed. Yet nothing can be done about it by the victims or by anybody else.

Sadly, the injustices do not stop there. There is a strict 28-day time limit on applications to challenge sentences. I fully understand why we need some certainty and why there is a need for time limits, but there is an arbitrary time limit in this particular case and it needs looking at again. Many rules can be avoided in criminal law if exceptional circumstances apply. That should apply to this time limit too. If there are exceptional circumstances, judges, at their discretion, can enable an appeal under the unduly lenient sentencing scheme to take place. Currently, that is not the case. The criminal justice system is littered with examples of how injustices occur when courts have their discretion removed. The 28-day time limit on unduly lenient sentences is yet another example of where the courts do not have any discretion and, therefore, injustices occur.

A judge, for example, can withhold the publicising of a conviction and sentence if it would impact on another trial. Yet even when that happens, as it did in a rape case in Newcastle that was highlighted in this place by my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning, the judge has no discretion to change or alter in any way the 28-day time limit. An offence is published after 28 days have elapsed, but people then cannot do anything about it. That really needs to be looked at again, because the defence can apply for time limits to be waived when lodging appeals, and so should the prosecution.

The unduly lenient sentencing scheme applies only to the Crown courts. A youth court, for example, when hearing very serious cases such as rape cannot be subject to the scheme. That has caused injustice in more than one case, so we need to look at attaching the scheme to types of offences only and not to the venue where the case was heard. The whole scheme, when we think about it, was brought in after a rape case was mishandled. Yet today, rape cases can be mishandled and unduly lenient sentences imposed without the prosecution or the victim being able to do anything about it. We need either to include rape cases in the youth court within the scheme or to remove the ability of the youth court to hear such cases.

The unduly lenient sentencing scheme is about fairness and balancing the scales of justice so that we give one side the same rights as the other in a court of law. By and large, in the most serious matters the scheme achieves that, but glaring anomalies prevent that in cases such as that of Gemma Robinson, my constituent, and far too many others. Great strides have been taken to widen the scheme, but we must ensure that the widening of the scheme is a continuing process, not simply an event.

The criminal justice system exists to protect the victims of crime, and it does so through fairness and balance. It is therefore imperative that we continue to widen the scheme, and thereby continue to protect the victims of crime.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 2:40 pm, 25th May 2021

I congratulate Gareth Johnson on setting the scene. I apologise in advance to you, Mr Dowd, to the hon. Gentleman and to the Minister for having to leave: I have a meeting at short notice with the Nigerian ambassador to discuss some issues that I have concern about.

Thank you for inviting me to speak, Mr Dowd. This is an issue that I feel strongly about. Most of the issues that I speak about in Parliament come out of my office: they are things that I am made aware of by constituents and so on. I want to speak about that, if I can. This is a very difficult matter, as the hon. Gentleman outlined. The fact is that what one person sees as justice is not the same as another person’s justice, although I perhaps have a very simplified view. That is why we have the law and legislation to set out sentences, and why we say that Lady Justice is blind, although some of the things that I will refer to are a blindness in the justice system.

I have sat in many a constituency surgery with the families of victims of assault, who have begged me to intervene in the sentencing of the perpetrator. When we know what that person did to their family member, we have to restrain our emotions and control ourselves, and that is sometimes difficult. When the people who assaulted their loved ones are given nothing of a sentence, they seek to find the broken pieces of the victim and hold them together with love. They know that in six months’ time, due to good behaviour, the perpetrator will be out on the streets again. It really nyarks me, to use an Ulster Scotsism; more than that, it angers me. I have outlined the procedure for sentencing in written evidence to the Attorney General, knowing that the likelihood of an increased sentence is slim to none.

When I get home, I will be writing a letter about a case that I read about in the provincial papers on the way over this morning. I am not going to mention any names, because the person is a paedophile who carried out awful, horrendous abuse of a young child. He got approximately 10 years in prison. He is back out again, and guess what he did when he got out? He did the same thing again to another wee defenceless child. I really feel that the law of the land needs to be incredibly strong when it comes to convicted paedophiles with a pedigree that will never change. My letter will ask for that person to serve all his living life in jail and never to be let out again. It is important that the law protects people from the actions that such people carry out.

I believe that a court or a judge should be able to increase sentences in certain circumstances, and I believe that we must broaden those circumstances. I will never forget reading of a lady whose daughter had been left severely disabled after a car accident caused by drunk driving. She discussed how her daughter had lost her future, and the whole family had lost theirs as a result. It does not just affect one person; it affects the whole family, and that should be taken into account in a court sentence as well. The driver was sentenced and released because he was a first-time offender. He then went on to kill someone in his next driving spree. Two families have been destroyed, but the second may have been saved had the judge known that he could extend the sentence. That option was not available or taken up.

I am someone who believes that people can change. I am a great believer in that position; I have always said that people can change. I live in a Province and represent a constituency—Strangford—where people have changed after their past, and we have to accept that people change. I am also a Christian and I believe that people can change their lives—I believe that, for I am a changed person from what I was many years ago, because of my religious belief and faith. I believe in second chances and I believe in rehabilitation. However, I also believe that there are consequences that have a price to be paid.

The Library briefing succinctly sets out the statistics on unduly lenient sentences. A parliamentary question to and response from the Solicitor General on 17 November last year noted that the number of sentences considered by the Attorney General’s office more than doubled between 2010 and 2016, from 342 to 837. The Attorney General in 2016, Jeremy Wright, said that the 837 referrals received by his office in 2016 represented a 17% increase from the previous year.

In June 2018, the Minister said that 2,347 people had applied for sentences to be reviewed in the last 12 months, and a total of 1,040 sentences had been referred to his office for consideration as unduly lenient. I probably made 20 of those personally, looking for sentences to be reviewed in many cases, whether it be criminal violence against people, unduly lenient sentences or the cases of those involved in horrific animal abuse; those are the things that I am concerned about.

In 2018, the then Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam, referred a fifth of all eligible cases to the Court of Appeal. Of these, 73% were found to be unduly lenient. So there was a change—a quite significant change. That indicates to me that there is a need for flexibility, so that courts can hand out stronger sentences.

In 2016, 190 cases were referred to the Court of Appeal and in 141 of those cases the Court of Appeal increased the sentence. Again, that tells a story. In 2015, the Attorney General’s Office considered 713 requests, of which 136 were referred to the Court of Appeal as being potentially unduly lenient, with the Court of Appeal agreeing to increase the original sentence in 102 cases. In 2014, the Law Officers considered 469 cases and referred 128 offenders to the Court of Appeal. Of those offenders, 86% had their sentences increased.

I am not a statistician by any means, but the reason I quote those figures is that it is important that we look at the referrals for unduly lenient sentences and see that the courts have increased the sentences in the majority of cases.

I believe we must trust our judges with wider powers and that we must do so in law. That is why I support my colleague and I have to say my friend, the hon. Member for Dartford, in what he is proposing today. I am quite sure that those who speak after me will reflect that opinion as well.

Speaking as someone who has been in tears with constituents in my office over sentencing issues, I know that this is a very tough issue to deal with. I know the Minister is a very understanding and compassionate Minister, and that he will be able to reflect in his speech on our request, as individuals, regarding this matter. However, we can and I believe we must make changes, to ensure that victims of crime are protected and that real rehabilitation of offenders can take place.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North 2:48 pm, 25th May 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Gareth Johnson on securing this incredibly important debate on an issue that is very emotional for the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. The Minister has heard me time and again talking about it, whether it be chuntering in the voting Lobby or in meetings, or talking to him personally about my views on what we should do with some of the most violent criminals and offenders in our country. Personally, I have a policy of, “Lock them up, throw away the key and forget about them,” but I appreciate that we live in a society where perhaps that is not always going to be the case.

However, I will raise one particular case in my constituency, which happened very recently and is extremely high profile. It is a very sad story of how women in particular in this country are the victims of some of the most horrific crimes. I am here to talk about Kimberley Deakin, a 29-year-old who lived in Burslem. She was brutally attacked and murdered by a scumbag, whose name is Lewis Crofts, in a cold and calculated manner, to the point where this young lady, dying on her doorstep, had to call for a neighbour to come and save her child—a very young child, not far off the age of my own daughter. The hurt and pain that this case has caused the local community is palpable. It was such a brutal and premeditated attack, and the murderer showed absolutely no remorse. In fact, he only changed his plea to guilty three days before going to court. When he was arrested at Stafford services, having just bought another bottle of vodka and some cigarettes, he said:

“I have done what I have done. It is as simple as that”.

The attitude of that individual!

The judge did take a very stern view of what had happened, and handed down a life sentence with a minimum of 16 years 9 months inside, but I am sorry: the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke do not believe that 16 years 9 months, no matter how long that might be, is enough—life should mean life. We are left baffled. When a crime as calculated, as cold, as chilling as that has taken place, there should never be an ounce of an idea that this person can ever see and smell freedom again.

While I appreciate that that case is one of many that will bring about much deeper legal contemplation over sentencing, probably by people far more educated than I on this issue, it is a really important issue to raise. The attack has left behind a broken family, mother and father, uncle, friends, families and Ava, the daughter, who sadly will no longer grow up knowing her mother. I know that across the House, we as Members sadly come across this type of case far too often in our constituencies, in our local newspapers and in the correspondence that we receive. I wanted to be here to speak up for Kimberley, her family and friends. When I saw Natalie Neale, a friend of Kimberley, she said that no amount of time would be suitable for this scumbag in order to pay back what he had taken.

This wretch has robbed a child of her mother and cut short a young life. The idea even of his being released at the age of 50 horrifies and mortifies me. I appreciate that this is an individual case, and I give full praise to the current and previous Attorney Generals, who have always encouraged Members of this House from all parties to write to them if they feel that an unduly lenient sentence has been passed. I will certainly be making those representations to the Attorney General. There will always be a hole in the heart of Kimberley’s families and friends. Their lives have been ripped apart, but the man who caused that could potentially be free to walk if, obviously, a probationary board felt he was able to.

In my opinion, this Government should go further and do more on unduly lenient sentences. When people hear a judge issue a sentence of even five, 10, 15 years or life, they want to see that time served. I appreciate that there are technicalities of good behaviour, and that certain things may be handed down in a sentence that prisoners can work towards, such as education, or therapy for an alcohol or drug addiction, but unfortunately it baffles constituents when they see five years end up being two, or 10 years end up being five. They want to see justice served.

I know that this Minister is incredibly patient when he listens to colleagues such as me ranting and chuntering from the Back Benches on this type of stuff and I know how seriously he takes every type of case that is brought forward. I want to use this opportunity to say to Kimberley’s loved ones that they have an ally in me and in the Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke community. As for Lewis Crofts, the longer he is locked up, the longer that we never see that man walk on the streets. I hope he spends the rest of his life in prison until he passes, because as far as I am concerned, he forfeited his right to be a citizen of this country—he forfeited his rights in full—when he decided to take away the life of a young woman and steal a child from growing up with her mother.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:53 pm, 25th May 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd, and to follow Jonathan Gullis. I pay tribute to Gareth Johnson for securing this important debate. The unduly lenient sentence scheme could be seen as a positive scheme that victims and their families can engage with to challenge weak sentences that are handed down by courts. However, the sad fact is that the scheme is unknown to the majority of the British public. In the 32 years since the scheme was launched, the number of cases referred to the Attorney General’s office for review is negligible.

I have a constituent, Johnny Wood, whose sister Jackie Wileman was tragically killed by a gang of four men who were joyriding a stolen HGV around Barnsley. They had 100 convictions between them. In this case, the law on dangerous driving limited the sentences given. After much campaigning the sentences have, thankfully, now been changed and will soon be life imprisonment. It was too late for Jackie’s family, but I hope that the change will help many more in the future. Dangerous driving is one of the crimes most referred to when people engage with the scheme.

There are too many tragic examples across all sorts of different crimes. Take the example of Josh Hanson, a 21-year-old from Kingsbury, who was murdered at a bar while on a night out. His killer, Shane O’Brien, walked up to him, pulled out a Stanley knife and sliced his neck and chest. Josh and O’Brien did not know each other beforehand, and had spoken for only seconds before the attack. O’Brien went on the run for more than three years and was on the Met police, Europol and Interpol most-wanted lists, before he was caught and jailed for a minimum of 26 years in October 2019.

Josh’s mother Tracey only found out that she could appeal against O’Brien’s sentence on the last day that she was able to lodge an application—the 28th day. She lodged her complaint at 5.5 pm and was rejected by the Attorney General’s office, due to the firm deadline of 5 pm and the application’s being sent out of office hours. Tracey has since campaigned for reform to the unduly lenient sentence scheme, asking that the 28-day time limit be flexible in certain circumstances, and that the scheme be mentioned in judges’ sentencing remarks.

I am aware that the revised victims’ code came into force last month, and that it includes a requirement for the witness care unit to inform victims about the scheme promptly when sentencing takes place. Assigning responsibility to the witness care unit is not a definitive solution, as it engages only with victims who are witnesses in the court case. Will the Minister consider placing a statutory duty on the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that the scheme is more widely known about and available to victims?

Will the Minister also look to introduce flexibility around the time limit beyond 28 days in certain circumstances, such as where there is a failure of the responsible agency to inform the victim of the right to apply under the scheme, or where it is not reasonably practical for the application to be made in time? Families are denied the right to challenge simply because they are not aware that the scheme exists.

Photo of Ellie Reeves Ellie Reeves Shadow Solicitor General 2:56 pm, 25th May 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank Gareth Johnson for securing the debate. I apologise for being a few minutes late; I was responding to an urgent question in the Chamber on rape prosecutions. I meant no disrespect to the importance of this debate.

The unduly lenient sentence scheme has helped many pursue justice. It is open to anyone to access and challenge a sentence that they consider unduly lenient. It is an extremely important and welcome mechanism. The scope of the scheme was last expanded in 2019, to include 14 more offences, including child sexual offences, harassment offences, stalking and the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship. Those were good and necessary reforms, but it is clear that there is still more to do to ensure that just sentences are reached.

A number of important contributions have been made to today’s debate highlighting the limitations of the scheme. The hon. Member for Dartford mentioned the tragic case of his constituent Gemma Robinson, who was beaten mercilessly and took her own life before the case reached trial. Her partner was sentenced to just three and half years, after being charged under section 20 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which is not covered by the scheme, thus clearly highlighting some of the limitations.

Jonathan Gullis, whose constituent was brutally murdered on her doorstep, expressed his concern that her murderer could be released by the time he is 50. Jim Shannon mentioned his constituent who was left severely disabled after being hit by a drunk driver, who then received a lenient sentence. Following on from that, my hon. Friend Stephanie Peacock raised the case of her constituent, Jackie, who was killed by a dangerous driver. Because the unduly lenient sentence scheme did not apply to that sort of case, there was no redress for her family. My hon. Friend has campaigned tirelessly to increase sentences for death by dangerous driving offences, and that law will now change.

The case of Ruth Williams also highlights the limitations of the scheme. Ruth’s husband Anthony Williams strangled her to death during the first lockdown. In February at Swansea Crown court, Mr Williams was found not guilty of murder but admitted to manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility, and was sentenced to five years in prison. Had the victim been another member of the public, it is highly likely that Mr Williams’s sentence would have been more severe. The fact that this domestic homicide has received such a comparatively lenient sentence seems to indicate that if the victim is a wife, as opposed to a random member of the public, then the perpetrator is deserving of a discounted sentence. I wrote to the Attorney General calling for that case to be referred under the unduly lenient sentence scheme, and indeed it was. In April, however, the court of appeal ruled that the sentence was not unduly lenient, highlighting that the ULS scheme does not always work if the sentencing guidelines do not allow for it.

We need much more robust sentencing for some crimes to resolve that, especially in cases of violence against women and girls. For example, the number of female homicide victims in England and Wales is at its highest since 2006, almost half of those being domestic homicides. Cases such as the horrific murders of Ellie Gould and Poppy Devey highlight the inadequate sentence lengths for some of the worst crimes. After stabbing Ellie Gould multiple times, her killer was sentenced to just 12 and a half years in prison. Labour has put forward an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, calling for a review into the effectiveness of current legislation in sentencing policy. If the Government do not accept the amendment, then Labour in government will commission a review to look at increasing sentences for domestic homicide, and reducing the gap in sentence length between domestic homicide and other homicides. The review will also examine the effectiveness of sentencing more broadly for domestic abuse.

Further to that, there is currently no statutory minimum sentence for rape—only a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. In 2020 alone, nine cases of rape were referred to the Attorney General’s office through the ULS scheme that had initial sentences of imprisonment ranging from two years to four years and 10 months. Two of those cases were for the rape of a child under 13, and one was for the rape of a child under 16. Despite that, not one of the nine cases was referred by the Attorney General to the Court of Appeal. Labour would end lenient sentences for rape by introducing a new statutory minimum sentence of seven years, better reflecting the seriousness of the crime. Does the Minister agree with those proposals?

Our laws must send a strong signal that violence against women and girls will not be tolerated, but under this Government we have yet to see tough action on that. We believe it is time for judges to be able to hand out enhanced sentences and increased punishments to those who commit crimes on the basis of their prejudice against women. Our recently published green paper, “Ending Violence Against Women and Girls”, outlines those measures.

I shall now discuss some of the procedural issues around the unduly lenient sentence scheme. As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East said, there is currently a strict and absolute 28-day time limit from the point of sentencing within which an application under the scheme may be made. Offenders, meanwhile, may appeal their sentence outside the 28-day timeframe in certain circumstances, so there is not parity between the two. The previous Attorney General made it clear that the 28-day timeframe was absolute, yet we desperately need flexibility around it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East highlighted the case of Josh Hanson, who was just 21, murdered in a bar while on a night out. The killer walked up to him, pulled out a knife and sliced his neck and chest. He went on the run for three years before finally being caught and given a minimum sentence of 26 years. No agency ever made contact with his mother, Tracey Hanson, and she was not told that she could appeal the sentence under the scheme. It was only when she approached London’s Victims’ Commissioner on the 28th day after sentencing that she was made aware of the scheme. She urgently submitted her application to the Attorney General’s office on that 28th day as soon as she had notice of the scheme, but her application was rejected for being outside court hours. At the time there was not even a mention of office hours or court hours in the victims code or on the Government’s website.

Tracey has campaigned to reform the scheme ever since, and has been asking for flexibility around the 28-day time limit in certain circumstances, and for the scheme to be specifically referenced in judges’ sentencing remarks. Those are wholly sensible requests. Will the Government agree to them? Although the revised victims code will include a requirement for the witness care unit to inform victims of the scheme, it just does not go far enough. They only engage with victims who are witnesses in court, and the requirement does not apply to all victims, including those who are bereaved family members. In Josh Hanson’s case, for example, the duty to notify his mother Tracey would not have applied, because she was not a witness in the case. Nevertheless, clearly she had an interest as the mother of her son, who had been killed. I therefore ask the Government to put a statutory duty on the CPS to ensure that victims and their families are informed of the existence of the scheme, irrespective of whether they are witnesses to the case. I also call on the Minister to look at extending the time period beyond 28 days in certain circumstances—for example, where there has been a failure of the responsible agency to inform the victim of their right to apply, or where there are extenuating circumstances that mean the application simply could not be made in time.

If we are to have true confidence in sentencing decisions and the scope of the ULS, we need tougher sentences for some crimes. We need flexibility around the 28-day time limit, and we need to give the Crown Prosecution Service statutory responsibility for informing the victim and their family members about their rights of appeal. None of that is outside the scope of what an effective Government could bring about, and I hope that, following this important debate, we will see action in this area.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 3:05 pm, 25th May 2021

What a genuine pleasure it is to see you in the Chair, Mr Dowd. I think I speak on behalf of the whole House when I say how pleased we are to see you there.

I commend my hon. Friend Gareth Johnson for securing a debate on this important topic, and for the force, candour and articulacy that he has brought to this important area—not just today, but for many years. I pay warm tribute to him, particularly for the way that he raised the case of his constituent Gemma Robinson, who was brutally attacked by Joseph Falconer. My hon. Friend read out the sentencing remarks by the judge, who referred to this gratuitous attack and to “jealous and controlling” behaviour. I hope Gemma’s family will know that the shame of those remarks will haunt, and should haunt, Joseph Falconer for the rest of his days. That cowardly and appalling attack is one that we condemn in this House, and that my hon. Friend has drawn to the attention of the House with admirable clarity and eloquence. I thank other hon. Members, too, for raising with great force and conviction their constituents’ concerns about victims who have suffered so grievously,

Let me turn to the specific matter that we are considering today—the unduly lenient sentence scheme. As all hon. Members have said, it is a valuable part of our criminal justice system. It was introduced in 1989, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford rightly stated. It has allowed prosecutors, victims of crime and, indeed, members of the public to ask Law Officers to consider referring a sentence imposed by the Crown court to the Court of Appeal for review, and to do so where the sentence is felt to be unduly lenient. If a sentence is referred by Law Officers under the scheme, the Court of Appeal will then review the sentence and may decide that it should be increased. I realise that we all well understand that.

It is important to note—this is a point that Jim Shannon underscored—that in the vast majority of cases, sentencing judges get it right. Day in, day out they deal with a range of cases that vary in complexity and severity, and I take the opportunity to commend them for their work. Thousands and thousands of cases are dealt with by the Crown court, and a similar number of sentences imposed. Overwhelmingly, the judges get it right.

I pay tribute to the Sentencing Council—I will refer to it in a moment in a little more detail—for its excellent work in developing sentencing guidelines that have provided judges with valuable guidance on deciding appropriate and proportionate sentences. The guidelines are also of assistance to Crown prosecutors who might be speaking to victims who may be interested to know how a case might end up, in terms of the sentence, and to advocates speaking to their clients, because certainty and clarity are an important part of a criminal justice system that does justice to victims.

It is important that the sentencing process is made more consistent, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford, who has a distinguished career and practice in this area, well understands. The introduction of the sentencing code last year has helped to enhance the transparency of the sentencing process by bringing together the procedural provisions that courts need to rely on when sentencing offenders and structuring them in an order that follows the chronology of a sentencing hearing. Frankly, the previous system was extremely complicated, and there were an awful lot of opportunities for sentencing judges with the best of intelligence to fall into error. The sentencing code has helped to improve that. However, on the rare occasion when there may have been a gross error in a sentencing decision, the scheme ensures that justice is served, helping to boost confidence in the sentencing process.

Turning now to a few more specifics, the scheme applies to a wide range of the more serious offences dealt with by the Crown court. This includes all indictable-only offences, in other words, those cases that must be tried before judge and jury, and it covers offences such as murder, manslaughter, rape and robbery. I pause to mention that because where hon. Members have referred to specific cases involving murder, those cases are, of course, within the scheme. I will turn in a moment to issues about time limits, and so on, but it is important to note that murder, manslaughter, rape and robbery are all within the scheme. It goes beyond that to certain offences that are triable either way, mainly related to terrorism, violent physical or sexual assaults and drug-related crime. In preparing for this, I wrote down a number of offences that it covers—it is a very long list, and I will not read them all out.

To pick up on the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford made, I do want to set out in a little detail the extent to which the scheme was expanded over recent years. The Government have taken the opportunity to extend the scope of the scheme so that it covers more offences. In August 2017, additional offences included: failing to disclose information about an act of terrorism; fundraising contrary to the Terrorism Act 2000; use of funds in connection with terrorism; money laundering; and weapons training. We extended the scheme to 19 terror-related offences, and to a further nine terror-related offences in January 2018, such as tipping off a terrorist and not complying with a restriction after returning to the UK.

In November 2019, we extended the scheme to 14 more offences, including stalking; harassment involving violence; the possession of indecent images of children; controlling and coercive behaviour; abuse of position of trust in sexual offences; and possession of indecent images. Including these offences in the scheme has helped to ensure that perpetrators of these horrific crimes receive sentences that match the seriousness of their offending behaviour.

The Government continue to keep the scope of the scheme under review and will carefully consider any proposals to extend the scheme to cover more offences. However, as the hon. Member for Strangford correctly indicated, the number of cases that have been referred under the scheme has gone up quite considerably over recent years.

I must stress that the decision to extend the scheme is not a straightforward one, because it is very important—not just to defendants, but also to victims and everyone else—that there is finality in sentencing. The general rule is that a person should expect to serve the sentence a judge has imposed upon them. It should also be recognised that Parliament, in creating the scheme, intended for it to be an exceptional power.

In addition, this scheme has to be set within the wider context in which it sits. The Government have brought forward a wider package of legislative measures in recent years to ensure that the punishment that offenders receive reflects the severity of their crime. To pick up the points that Ellie Reeves quite rightly made when she was talking about violence against women, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on what is now criminal which was not 10 years ago.

Forget the ULS scheme; first of all we must ensure that it is an offence. More than 10 years ago, it was not an offence to carry out upskirting. It was not an offence to exert coercive control. It was not an offence to stalk. It was not an offence to send revenge porn or threaten to do so. It was not a specific offence to take part in non-fatal strangulation. It was not a specific offence to assault an emergency worker. There is an enormous amount that has changed over recent years to ensure that people who do commit crime can be punished for it. I could add plenty of others, such as causing death by careless driving. That is the first point.

The second point is that over the past 10 years, there has been a significant increase in sentencing to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. There are longer sentences for stalking, desecrating war memorials, and animal welfare crimes. It used to be the case, as recently as 15 years ago, that although someone would get a life sentence, the minimum period that they would serve before being eligible for parole was normally 15 years. Now, if a knife is used in the crime, it is a starting point of 25 years, and if a firearm is used, the starting point is 30 years. It is important to stress that there is not automatic release at the end of that period; that is the earliest point at which they are eligible for parole. So we have more offences and longer sentences.

Defendants are also required to spend longer in custody. We enacted the sentences for offenders of particular concern provision, ending automatic release for terrorism and child sex offenders, and ensuring that convicted terrorists spend a minimum of two thirds of their term behind bars before being considered for release by the Parole Board. We have taken action to ensure that offenders sentenced for serious sexual and violent offences spend longer in custody. Last year, we delivered the Release of Prisoners (Alteration of Relevant Proportion of Sentence) Order 2020, which ended automatic release from custody at the halfway point for offenders given a standard determinate sentence of seven years or more for a serious violence or sexual offence that carries a maximum penalty of life.

The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge raised the issue of rape. It is important to note that under these provisions, if the individual is sentenced to seven years or more, they will now serve much longer. Although I genuinely welcome her points on this—we all want to see robust sentences in respect of those who attack women, and particularly for sex crimes—we have had to address a situation brought about by section 244 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, whereby people who committed that kind of crime would be released at the halfway point. It is a really important step to maintain confidence in the criminal justice system by ensuring that people are not automatically released at the halfway point. That was the situation that we inherited, and that is the situation we have changed.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Does the Minister agree that there should be a minimum sentence for rape?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

We would happily look at a minimum sentence for rape. There are minimum sentences for firearms and third-strike burglary. Respectfully, it would sound more credible if we had had support on that issue on Second Reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to provide longer sentences for those who commit these appalling crimes. I do not question for a second the commitment across this House to ensuring that those who commit appalling offences serve their time, but there are ways we can do it, and it requires everyone to step up and vote for it.

To deliver on our manifesto commitments to make punishments tougher for the most serious offenders and end automatic halfway release from prison for serious crimes, we recently introduced the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to Parliament. Measures in the Bill would ensure that serious sexual and violent offenders who receive a standard determinate sentence of four years or more serve two thirds of their sentence in custody, aligning their release point with serious violent and sexual offenders sentenced to seven years or more.

To recap: more offences, longer sentences, longer in custody. But we have gone further, because we have longer licence periods as well. We have brought in a wider range of terrorism offences within the scope of the extended determinate sentence. No longer is it the case that someone is released on licence until the end of their sentence. In certain cases, that licence period will be extended so that they know that if they transgress again, offend against the public, betray innocents, betray trust or destroy lives, they can expect to be punished again.

The victims code has rightly been referred to. The Government are taking action to ensure that victims are supported at every stage of the criminal justice system. The new victims code came into force on 1 April, and it sets out 12 key rights for all victims of crime. I respectfully urge right hon. and hon. Members to have a look at it if they ever get a moment. It is the culmination of two years of extensive work, including wide stakeholder engagement with victims and victims groups to ensure we have a clear and comprehensive framework for victims’ rights. Stephanie Peacock made an important point about the awareness of this, and she is right to do so. Awareness is critically important, so let me take the opportunity in this place to emphasise that right 9 is the right to be given information about the outcome of the case and any appeals. Right 9.4 says:

“If you think the sentence given to the offender is far too low”— that’s the heading—

“For some (but not all) cases sentenced in the Crown Court you can ask the Attorney General to refer the sentence to the Court of Appeal to reconsider it. This can only be done if the Attorney General thinks that the sentence was not just lenient but ‘unduly lenient’, such that the sentencing judge made a gross error or imposed a sentence outside the range of sentences reasonably available in the circumstances of the case.”

It goes on, but I will not read the whole thing out. We all have a duty to amplify and publicise that, and I take my opportunity to do so today.

Later this year, we will consult on the detail of the victims Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech, which will enshrine those 12 key rights in law and hold agencies accountable for delivering those rights to victims, with a view to their publishing a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. The draft Bill will set expectations for the standard and availability of victim support. Let me say also, because it was an important point, that the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge picked up in her powerful remarks what can be the context for appalling crimes such as murder, namely, gateway offences of domestic abuse and so on.

We are investing record amounts in support for victims: more than £300 million this year, including £27 million to recruit 700 independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic violence advisers, in an increase of more than 40%. That is important because we want to ensure that women—it is usually women, frankly—who are the victims of domestic abuse have the opportunity and support to go out and support the prosecution that leads to that individual being taken out of circulation, if that is the will of the court and the proportionate and appropriate sentence. That means that the individual does not go on to commit further appalling crimes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford referred to his specific constituent’s case, the dreadful case of Joseph Falconer. He and other hon. and right hon. Members made the point about time limits. It is important to note that in the circumstances that he referred to—where, say, a judge has imposed a contempt of court order and reporting restrictions because to report on the case might lead to a miscarriage of justice elsewhere—the CPS automatically sends to the Attorney General’s office a summary of that case and it is then reviewed. So that takes place as a matter of course to deal with precisely that point. When it comes to deferred sentence, the clock only starts ticking on the date the substantive sentence takes effect. Those are two aspects that I hope provide my hon. Friend with some comfort.

I accept, however, that there is a wider issue about ticking clocks. We have to weigh up the balance of our criminal justice system and recognise, as a matter of conscience, that where an individual has been convicted, punished and disgraced at the hands of the state, they need to know the maximum extent of his punishment, save in truly exceptional circumstances. There are cases, of course, when even if he is given a long sentence—tough—he is going to get a longer one because that is what the Court of Appeal says. None the less, in the majority of cases, it is important that when that person stands up and is told what his sentence is he has a sense that that is the sentence he is going to get.

The other important point is for victims as well. Those people who have built themselves up to this moment, to the sentencing hearing, which can be a moment of great distress, want to know that that is it. A sigh of relief; this is over. We need to weigh that in the balance to ensure that there is a measure of finality.

My hon. Friend made an excellent point about the youth court and he talked in particular about the issue of rape and the extent to which that could somehow be taken outside the unduly lenient scheme. He made a powerful point about that. It is important to note that for those very rare cases that are dealt with in the youth court because, for the sake of argument, the offender is aged 13, for example, if the court decides, having learned about the offending, that it is so serious that the maximum penalty of two years with a detention and training order is insufficient, they do now have power—I have checked—to commit that to the Crown court. It was previously under section 53 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, but that has been superseded by the sentencing code legislation.

Let me close by saying that if people are to have confidence in the criminal justice system, it is critical not only that people are convicted for the wrongs that they have done but that they are required to serve a sentence that reflects the indignation, anger and upset that we feel as a society on their behalf. Sentences are longer, and more offences have been created. People are serving longer in custody, and there is the opportunity for longer licence periods as well. We are extending the unduly lenient system to ensure that justice can be done, and of course we will continue to keep the matter under review. As we do so, we will have the remarks made by right hon. and hon. Members in this House firmly in mind.

Photo of Gareth Johnson Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford 3:24 pm, 25th May 2021

I thank the Minister for his response and for some of the reassurances that he gave us. I welcome the expansion of the scheme that has taken place, and I also welcome the fact that this is by and large a non-party political issue. Members of different parties have different approaches to the criminal justice system, but ultimately we all want to see fairness prevail, and I am pleased to see that.

We owe it to the victims of crime to make changes to this scheme. We owe it to Gemma Robinson, Kimberley, Jackie, Josh and Ruth, and the thousands of other people who have inadvertently been wronged by the criminal justice system. The 28-days issue is one that I would implore the Minister to look at again, because as I said in my speech, I believe that when there is a lack of discretion from the court in exceptional circumstances, injustice can occur. He was right to point out that we want certainty for both the victim and the offender. At the moment, there is certainty for the offender, but there is less certainty for the victim, because people can appeal out of time in some exceptional circumstances. That should also apply to the victims of crime.

Let’s face it, if we were creating a criminal justice system today, we would not create one like this. There is no way that we would say that the defence can appeal against anything but the prosecution cannot. That is simply not how anyone would create a system that rightly prides itself on balance and fairness. As far as the unduly lenient sentence scheme is concerned, we do not yet have that, so I would ask that this process, which has rightly been pursued by the Ministry, continues to look at what other offences can be brought into the scope of the scheme, so that we can have equality of arms and ensure that justice prevails, which is, after all, what we all seek to achieve.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the scope of the Unduly Lenient Sentence scheme.

Sitting suspended.