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Sentencing (Consistency)

Volume 301: debated on Monday 24 November 1997

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The Government are committed to implementing an effective sentencing system and consistency in sentencing. I therefore intend to include provisions in the crime and disorder Bill to require the Court of Appeal to consider producing sentencing guidelines when appropriate cases come before it and to review existing guidelines. The provisions will establish a sentencing advisory panel which will offer advice to the Court of Appeal. There will be a statutory duty on the panel to consult those who represent interested bodies, such as victims and the police. Further details of those provisions are set out in a note which I am placing in the Library.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of my early-day motion calling for the reform of rape law? In the context of that and on behalf of the many victims of rape, their families and the support services, I should like to know whether reform of sentencing will include rape sentences. Has my right hon. Friend any plans to reform the Crown Prosecution Service, which is causing many problems for victims and the police force? Can there be a prohibition on the circulation in prisons of the sexual history of victims, because that is causing distress to all concerned and is a completely disgusting practice?

There are already sentencing guidelines. It is one area in which they already exist, following a decision by the Court of Appeal in the Billam case. The problem in rape cases is not so much the sentencing practice of the courts but of securing effective convictions. We are greatly concerned about the way in which women victims and other witnesses in rape cases can sometimes be subjected to the most appalling cross-examination by defendants. For that reason, the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) has announced that we have established a full review of those practices and of whether laws of evidence ought to be changed. We hope to announce the results of that review very quickly. That will deal with the issue of whether a victim's previous sexual history should be adducible in evidence to the extent to which it is today.

My hon. Friend asked also about the reform of the Crown Prosecution Service. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General announced in May our determination to press ahead with major reforms of the CPS with the appointment of chief crown prosecutors for each of the police force areas in England and Wales— there are 42—and by establishing a full inquiry into other aspects of the CPS under Sir Iain Glidewell.

Is the Home Secretary aware that mandatory minimum sentences of three years for third-time burglars are popular with the public? May I therefore ask him when and how he proposes to implement that sentencing change?

Our position is exactly that of the previous Government. They willed the end, but failed to will the means. It was made absolutely clear in chapter 13 of the White Paper on sentencing, as it was on Royal Assent at the end of March this year, that decisions on implementing that part of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 depended on resources for which the previous Government had not made provision.

Does the Home Secretary agree that sentences should reflect not only the nature of the crime, but the means and conditions of the offender? For example, in any two motoring cases, one offender might be rich and the other poor and to give them exactly the same sentence would be unfair. Should not the Home Secretary and the courts take into account not only, as I have said, the offender and the crime, but the particular social and economic conditions in that region?

Courts have to take into account a range of factors in coming to a decision on sentence, but the most important factor is the gravity of the crime and the degree of harm or damage caused to the victim. I understand what my hon. Friend says, but sentencing should be capable of greater categorisation and greater use of science. The means of offenders should, of course, be taken into account, but I remain concerned that, when living standards have risen in the past 10 years and unemployment has fallen, the use of the fine has dramatically fallen—half as many fines are issued today as were issued 10 years ago. There is no good reason for that.

While I welcome the Secretary of State's announcements about sentencing, does he recognise that sentencing policy is only as effective as the prison and probation system to which it directs people, and that an overpressed Prison Service cannot work miracles or provide effective rehabilitation? In sentencing, should we not bear in mind what is faced by prison officers in their daily work, not least Friday's 19-hour ordeal involving a prison officer in my constituency at Castington? Will the Secretary of State pay tribute to the courage of those involved in bringing that to an end?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of what happened at Castington, where a prison officer was taken hostage. I know a good deal about that circumstance. I join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the great courage of that prison officer in enduring that hostage situation, and to the skill and professionalism of the other prison officers in bringing the hostage situation to a satisfactory and peaceful conclusion, without making any. concessions to the prisoners concerned.

On the right hon. Gentleman's wider question about prison and probation, of course we have to ensure that all punishment systems work effectively. That is one of many reasons why we are conducting a review of whether the Prison Service and the probation service could and should work much more closely.